What if they gave an election and hardly anyone knew about it?
That's the challenge facing the three contenders for Wisconsin Dist. 4 Court of Appeals in next Tuesday's primary, which will narrow the field to two candidates. Most voters haven't a clue there's an election - or even an office.
"Very few people in our state know of [the appellate court's] existence, and fewer still could name a single appellate court judge," noted one of the candidates, Richland County Circuit Court Judge Edward Leineweber, in a League of Women Voters candidate forum taped last week for Madison City Channel.
Agreed La Crosse Circuit Court Judge Ramona Gonzalez, a fellow contender, "Maybe [citizens in the district] don't even know the court exists."
It's not an insignificant job. The state's four district appellate courts - 16 judges in all, elected to six-year terms - are the final arbiters of most state court cases. Their unique role is to find and reverse error.
The third and locally best-known candidate is Brian Blanchard, Dane County district attorney. He distinguished himself at the forum by suggesting it may be okay to pick judges based on merit. Leineweber and Gonzalez championed leaving such decisions to voters who may not even know the court exists, an approach Blanchard also deemed viable.
Blanchard disagreed that judges for this court, which serves a 24-county area but is based in Madison, should come from throughout the district. Leineweber touted his rural credentials, and Gonzalez clucked about the court's "lack of geographical diversity."
The three candidates have raised comparable and notably modest amounts of campaign cash. Blanchard, with existing campaign funds, spent almost nothing and had $8,665 on hand through the end of last year. Leineweber raised $6,711 and spent all but $258. Gonzalez raised the most in 2009, $8,089, spending just under half of it.
Blanchard, 50, a former federal prosecutor and civil litigator, has been Dane County DA since 2000; his campaign mantra is "integrity, independence, knowledge of the law." His supporters include Kathleen Falk, Dave Cieslewicz and 15 of the county's 17 sitting judges.
Gonzalez, 53, born in the Dominican Republic, has been a circuit court judge for 15 years; she boasts not having any "hidden agendas." At the forum, she memorably lamented judicial races waged by ads that show "clanging" cell doors, the emblem of tough judges putting people away.
Leineweber, who'll turn 61 on Saturday, was an attorney in private practice, city attorney for Richland Center and district attorney for Richland County before ascending to the circuit court bench in 1997; his big issue is increasing the court's visibility, perhaps to where its existence is known. He may lean more to the right than his rivals, with a support base that includes former Supreme Court Justice Jon Wilcox.
Leinweber's website includes brief position statements on issues like increasing access to the courts. A counter shows that these have attracted only a few dozen hits. According to a state elections official, there are 984,077 registered voters in the 4th appellate court district.