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Plot thickens in Oconomowoc mayoral ballot mess

Empower Wisconsin | Feb. 17,  2020

By M.D. Kittle

MADISON — An Oconomowoc mayoral candidate is launching a write-in campaign after the Wisconsin Elections Commission ruled he did not obtain enough valid signatures to appear on the spring ballot.

The commission’s decision follows a messy political battle in which the Democratic Party of Waukesha and a big-shot liberal party attorney worked behind the scenes to politically take out conservative mayoral candidate Louis Kowieski.

And documents obtained by Empower Wisconsin show just how involved a high-ranking Dem official was in assisting another mayoral candidate, Robert Magnus, founder of the Wisconsin Equine Clinic & Hospital. 

In a 13-page response, Elections Commission staff rejected Kowieski’s appeal, contending that he had filed more than the 200 signatures on his nomination petition needed to make the ballot. In fact, commission administrator Meagan Wolfe wrote that Kowieski filed just 186 valid signatures, a dozen less than noted in the clerk’s final ruling earlier this month.

“Mr. Kowieski’s name shall not appear on the ballot at the 2020 Spring Primary or Spring Election,” Wolfe wrote.

Kowieski, Oconomowoc’s city council president known as a business-friendly conservative,  alleges City Clerk Diane Coenen abused her discretion and misapplied the law in removing his name from the election ballot. That left two candidates in the race.

As Empower Wisconsin has reported, Oconomowoc resident Tara Lynn Fox last month challenged signatures on Kowieski’s petition. Fox was assisted by the Waukesha County Democratic Party and represented by Milwaukee attorney Michael Maistelman, a Democrat who has served as lawyer for the Democratic Party of Wisconsin. Maistelman is embroiled in another local election controversy in Milwaukee County in which a county executive candidate, also bumped from the ballot, alleges that Maistelman, his former attorney, unethically worked for his opponent.

Coenen investigated the signatures and ultimately removed some, leaving Kowieski with 200 signatures on his nomination form — the minimum required to make it on to the ballot.

Fox then appealed to the Elections Commission. A staff attorney there apparently found Coenen miscounted the signatures, that there were only 198 included in the nomination papers. But instead of taking the matter to the commission to resolve, the attorney quietly called the clerk telling her she made a mistake.

Coenen released a one-sentence statement claiming that she messed up, and that she had seen the light from the Elections Commission. She was “persuaded.”

Kowieski charges the city clerk shouldn’t have struck as many signatures as she did. His complaint references state election law, which provides for a “presumption of validity” in nomination signatures.

Kowieski also alleges the clerk’s jurisdiction ended when Fox filed her complaint with the Elections Commission.

Commission staff struck 10 names that the clerk originally had accepted because the page did not include the “jurisdiction for which Mr. Kowieski was running for mayor.”

“Naming the jurisdiction for which a candidate is running for office, and for which the signers state they are a resident of is important to the nomination paper process — that is why the result of failing to include a piece of required information is harsh,” Wolfe wrote.

Coenen accepted the signatures on this page because “the City of Oconomowoc is clearly displayed in the upper left corner of the Nomination Papers.”

What can’t be dismissed is the Democratic Party’s interest in this little city’s mayoral race.

Empower Wisconsin has obtained documents showing Colleen Schulz, vice chair of the Waukesha County Democratic Party, appears to have signed off as circulator for Magnus’ nomination paper. Shulz and her husband, Steve, hosted a fundraiser for Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes at their Oconomowoc home in 2018. Steve Schulz also served as treasurer for Democrat Melissa Winker’s 2018 election campaign. Winker was defeated by Rep. Barb Dittrich (R-Oconomowoc).

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