Green Bay City Attorney Rachel Maes says she decided to run for Judge Kendall Kelley’s seat on the Brown County Circuit Court after frustrating experiences arguing a case in his courtroom.
In her campaign, she says if elected she’ll work to reduce the racial disparities in Wisconsin’s prisons, cut down a backlog in cases and improve access to Brown County’s drug and alcohol treatment courts. But in her effort to become one of the few openly transgender elected officials in Wisconsin and across the country, Maes is running against an incumbent who has hardly registered her campaign’s existence while rightwing groups in northeastern Wisconsin target her with transphobic attacks.
“I think he’s afraid of legitimizing my campaign, I think he’s afraid there may be a gaffe, to be perfectly honest, I don’t think he thinks I can win the election,” Maes says. “There are other groups making plenty of attacks against me but none of them are on the substantive issues. All that’s coming back at me is about being transgender.”
Maes’ campaign also coincides with anti-trans rhetoric and legislation which have gained momentum across the country as conservative groups use the rights of trans people as a political cudgel in the culture war.
In Wisconsin, Rep. Barbara Dittrich (R-Oconomwoc) has led the charge. The Assemblywoman is agitating on social media for anti-trans issues and has introduced legislation, co-sponsored by nearly 20 other Republican legislators, that would prevent transgender girls from participating in youth, high school and college sports in Wisconsin.
“Does this mean you are willing to ‘Follow the Science,’ & protect women who have shattered the glass ceiling in sports, [Gov. Tony Evers] or do you still want to hand their accomplishments over to biological males?” Dittrich wrote on Twitter in response to a post from Evers for Women’s History Month. “I REALLY don’t want to believe you’re sexist!”
Dittrich’s two bills mirror legislation that has been passed or introduced in dozens of Republican-held states across the country.
While much of the attention has been on transgender girls participating in sports with teammates and competitors who share their gender identity, other states have staked out even more aggressive positions.
This week, Arkansas became the first state in the country to ban gender-affirming medical care for trans children.
It’s in this context that Maes is vying for a seat on the Brown County bench and in this context she was targeted for harassment by N.E.W. Patriots, an off-shoot of the Wisconsin Conservative Coalition — which describes itself as a “non-partisan association of (3) Northeast Wisconsin conservative groups,” that “envision an educated, constitutional, and conservative electorate and culture in Wisconsin.”
The attacks, first reported by The NEWcomer, an independent newsletter covering politics and culture in northeast Wisconsin, came in emails sent to members of the group. The emails deadname — the practice of using the name a transgender person was assigned at birth but no longer embraces — Maes as the group endorses Kelley’s re-election.
“From a judicial race standpoint, gender is not a qualification to be a judge and it’s really disappointing that a judicial candidate has to be subjected to defamation and discrimination and being deadnamed and having talk radio hosts that rant for over nine minutes about their gender,” Maes says about the attacks. “That time, attention, energy is so much better spent engaging on the issues.”
Aside from the personal attacks Maes has faced, she says Kelley has hardly engaged in the campaign.
Kelley was appointed to the court in 2002 by Gov. Scott McCallum and re-elected in 2003, 2009 and 2015. The 2003 race was the only other time Kelley has faced a contested re-election.
A Wisconsin Examiner analysis of campaign donations in contested circuit court races across Wisconsin shows that Kelley is one of the best funded candidates across the state, receiving more donations of greater than $1,000 than any other candidate.
Kelley has raised more than $14,000 for his campaign while Maes — through mostly small dollar donations of less than $100 — has raised about $2,700. But, according to his most recent campaign filing, Kelley’s campaign owes $14,000 to a Republican-tied voter outreach firm based in Florida that has worked with Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
Maes says members of the community haven’t heard much from Kelley, she has more yard signs around the community and he hasn’t bought any ads. The domain name of Kelley’s campaign website wasn’t created until late January, online records show, and his Facebook page was inactive until March 21 — just more than two weeks before Election Day.
Maes’ campaign website and Facebook page were first created last July.
When the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin reached out to both candidates to answer questions for the organization’s voter guide, only Maes responded. Kelley did respond to questions from the Green Bay Press-Gazette in a candidate questionnaire published last week.
“It’s been a little frustrating having him distance himself from engaging in a conversation,” Maes says. “I’m out there engaging in the community and I don’t see that presence from my opponent.”
Maes says she sees an opportunity to serve her community in a role she’s qualified to hold and the campaigns should be about ways to improve the criminal justice system in Brown County.
“It’s important to talk about the issues and a vision going forward,” she says. “That dialogue has been one-sided so far. My focus is talking about the issues and my existence, my visibility, is perceived as a threat, an affront to some people. My gender is not up for debate, I don’t care how people view my gender, I’m capable, I’m qualified and I have the temperament to be an excellent judge.”
Kelley did not respond to a request for comment sent to his campaign email account.