Kelly campaign runs shot-for-shot remake of racist Willie Horton ad

By: - March 24, 2023 1:45 pm

This story has been updated with a comment from the Kelly campaign. 

Conservative former Supreme Court Justice Daniel Kelly’s campaign for a vacant seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court is running an ad on social media that is nearly a shot for shot remake of the “Willie Horton ad” run by supporters of former President George H.W. Bush during his 1988 presidential race against former Democratic Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis. 

The original ad was widely derided as racist for its use of Horton’s mugshot and conflation of Blackness with criminality. The ad attacks Dukakis for “soft-on-crime” policies because of his support for Massachusetts’ “weekend furlough” program, which allowed people in prison to leave for a day or more to go to work or home. While out of prison as part of this program, which began under a Republican governor, Horton — a convicted murderer — was able to escape and went on to sexually assault a woman and stab her fiance in a 1987 home invasion. 

The 1988 ad showed photos of Bush, Dukakis and Horton over a simple blue background while a narrator detailed the candidates’ views on the death penalty and Horton’s actions. The ad remains a symbol for the use of dog whistle racism as a tactic to scare white voters during political campaigns. 

On Tuesday, Kelly’s official Twitter account posted his campaign’s version of the ad, which shows pictures of Kelly and his liberal opponent, Milwaukee County Judge Janet Protasiewicz, over a simple blue background while a narrator details the sentence she delivered to Quantrell Bounds, a Thiensville man who sexually assaulted a 13-year-old girl and posted a video of the incident to Facebook. 

The ad, which includes a filter to make the video appear as if it’s playing on a VHS tape and match the period-specific look of the original, states that Protasiewicz “lets criminals off easy.” 

When asked about why the campaign recreated the infamous ad, Kelly campaign spokesperson Ben Voelkel did not give an answer, only saying Wisconsin voters needed to know about Protasiewicz’s sentencing record.

“The people of Wisconsin need to know the truth about Janet Protasiewicz’s soft-on-crime record and unreliable lack of judgement,” he said in an email.

In 2019, Bounds pleaded guilty to the offense and Protasiewicz issued a stayed sentence of five years imprisonment and five years extended supervision and imposed a sentence of five years probation — meaning that if he violated the terms of probation he would face the terms of the stayed sentence. 

The Kelly ad states that Protasiewicz could have imposed a sentence of 60 years imprisonment, however that sentence could have only been given if he’d been found guilty of the offense prosecutors initially charged him with, first-degree child sex assault. The charge Bounds eventually pleaded guilty to was third-degree sexual assault, which carries a maximum penalty of 10 years imprisonment. The charge was amended by prosecutors following negotiations between the district attorney’s office and Bounds’ public defender, online court records show. 


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Henry Redman
Henry Redman

Henry Redman is a staff reporter for the Wisconsin Examiner who focuses on covering Wisconsin's towns and rural areas. He previously covered crime and courts at the Daily Jefferson County Union. A lifelong Midwesterner, he was born in Cleveland, Ohio and graduated from Loyola University Chicago with a degree in journalism in May 2019.