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Bob Jambois, left, and Ismael Ozanne

When it comes to racial disparities, there’s only so much a district attorney can do. But at a candidate forum Monday at the Urban League, the issue was front and center.

In the first face-to-face appearance by the two candidates, District Attorney Ismael Ozanne and Assistant District Attorney Bob Jambois squared off in front of a diverse crowd of more than 150 people, taking questions from seven local leaders in the African-American community.

Moderator Floyd Rose, a longtime activist in the local civil justice movement, emphasized the importance of the upcoming election.

“I believe all of us in this room regard the position that you seek as probably one of the more important positions in the entire election process from now through the end of the year,” he said.

Citing vast racial disparities in the criminal justice system, he said it’s paramount for the DA to work with the black community.

“We know that you cannot do everything and wave a magic wand, but we do expect of you that you will stay connected with our community, you will try to acquire guidance from us,” he said.

The forum was the first of three prior to Tuesday’s primary, which will be decisive because both candidates are Democrats and there are no candidates from other parties in the race.

On Thursday, the candidates will meet in a forum sponsored by Isthmus, and on the same day meet for a Labor Temple forum.

The environment at Monday’s event appeared to favor Ozanne, the first African-American district attorney in the history of the state, who was appointed to the post in 2010 and ran unopposed in 2012.

Ozanne, 45, drew applause when pointing out the inherent racial injustices of the system, and implying that Jambois, a former Kenosha district attorney, would erase gains made in recent years.

“If I stood up here and told you that I wanted to take you back 10 years, you would laugh me out of town,” Ozanne said. “Yet Bob wants to take us back 10 years to Kenosha County. His promise to you is to prosecute more, have higher conviction rates … Our conviction rates are so high we need to start looking at things to do different. Because mass incarceration, which was what was happening back 10 years ago, did not make us safer.”

Jambois, 64, reiterated his campaign theme that Ozanne neglects the core function of his role because he doesn’t personally prosecute cases in court. And he portrayed the incumbent as an administrative disaster, calling the office, “mismanaged, dysfunctional, disorganized, demoralized.

“In addition to not trying any cases, not showing up in court, not fighting for you, he’s also not administering the office,” he said.

Jambois also blamed Ozanne for the departure of 20 of the office’s 28 prosecutors over the past two years.

Ozanne attributed the exodus to a number of prosecutors reaching retirement age, as well as low pay and crushing workloads

“When people leave our office, they get an increase in pay, $20,000 to $30,000, and less work,” he said. “I can’t compete with that.”

In addition, he said, there has been a general uptick in state employee retirements across the board since the enactment of Act 10, the Republican law that gutted collective bargaining for most public workers. Ozanne, who contended that Republicans violated the state’s open meetings law in passing the measure, contested it, losing in the state Supreme Court.

Jambois, who represented Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca in the same case, noted his own fight against Republican leaders as he represented protesters pro bono who were arrested and fined at the state Capitol. Those fines were eventually thrown out in court.

“We got 160 of those cases dismissed,” he said.

To counter attacks on his work ethic, which he called an example of implicit racial bias, Ozanne slapped a stack of papers on the table in front of him.

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“I don’t think Bob realized I was going to drop 397 pages of my calendar back to 2010, day one of when I started, along with card swipes that prove that I have barely taken a vacation in six years,” he said.

Jambois rejected the notion that his attacks were racially motivated, highlighting his and his wife’s experience as foster parents in Kenosha, taking in 25 children, the “vast majority” of whom were African-American, and adopting an African-American daughter.

“I attended African-American churches,” he said. “I worked with the African-American minister in our community who actually had kind of a prison and jail ministry.”

In addition, he said he served as vice chair of the local chapter of the NAACP.

“I worked with the community, and I worked with the people who were being most affected by the criminal justice system,” he said.

Asked about how to combat racial disparities in the criminal justice system, both candidates said that society needs to address the issue on the other end of the spectrum: education.

“Some of it starts with the fact that children of color are having a difficult time in our education system,” Jambois said. “We’ve got a disproportionate number of African-American children who are dropping out of school, a disproportionate number of African-American children who are placed in special education programs. I think what parents of children of color want are the same things that other parents want. They want their children to be treated fairly in the school system.”

Ozanne aimed his remarks at earlier child development.

"If we were really smart about reducing mass incarceration, about reducing racial disparities, we would fund birth to 3,” he said. “That’s not funding my office. That’s putting money so far in front of my office that I would never see it. But if we started funding birth to 3, 4K, those kids would take off in school, stay engaged, and we wouldn’t be talking about this.”

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Steven Elbow joined The Capital Times in 1999 and has covered law enforcement in addition to city, county and state government. He has also worked for the Portage Daily Register and has written for the Isthmus weekly newspaper in Madison.