It has been decades since there’s been a Democratic primary contest for Dane County district attorney, but come next Tuesday, Aug. 9, there’s not only a primary, but it will serve as the final say on who will be the county’s DA for the next four years.
Six-year incumbent DA Ismael Ozanne, a Democrat, is being challenged by one of his assistants, Bob Jambois, also a longtime Democrat, who along with other legal experience served as Kenosha County’s district attorney for 17 years. There are no Republicans or other candidates running for the office, so the winner of the Democratic primary will be the only candidate on the ballot in November.
Both men were appointed to state government by former Gov. James Doyle, a former Dane County DA himself. In 2008, Doyle tapped Ozanne, who at the time was a 10-year veteran assistant district attorney, to serve in a key position in the Department of Corrections and named Jambois the general counsel at the Department of Transportation. In 2010, Doyle appointed Ozanne Dane County DA.
Interestingly, in 2011 both men played roles involving Gov. Scott Walker’s infamous anti-union Act 10. As Dane County’s DA, Ozanne declined to prosecute the so-called “Solidarity Singers,” pointing out they were using their First Amendment rights to protest at the Capitol. And then when Walker’s administration engineered charges by the Republican attorney general, Jambois volunteered to represent the singers without charge. His efforts led to the dismissal of 160 citations. In the end, both Ozanne and Jambois were on the right side.
But where they differ is how the district attorney’s office ought to be run, and that difference has become contentious in the days leading up to next Tuesday’s election.
Jambois, who was hired as an assistant DA by Ozanne in early 2015, insists he was immediately appalled at how the office was being managed. He claims Ozanne presides over a “demoralized, dysfunctional and leaderless” office. He believes Ozanne doesn’t spend enough time in the courtroom, trying cases and serving as an example to his younger assistants, and claims that Ozanne doesn’t collaborate with Dane County’s judges on sentencing and procedural issues. And he points to the exit of 20 of 28 prosecutors in the past two years as proof of low office morale.
Ozanne bristles at the accusations. He has produced pages of documents of his work schedule, additionally pointing out that as a constitutional officer, a DA is on duty 24 hours a day, subject to middle-of-the-night calls and making prosecutorial decisions at any time of the day. On the issue of staff leaving the office, Ozanne points to retirements, low pay and too few prosecutors, which are factors outside his control.
His most convincing argument for re-election, though, is his view of the duties of the district attorney in today’s society, in particular in an increasingly urbanized county like Dane.
While Jambois opts for a district attorney who charges into court to set an example for his assistants, Ozanne is loath to get caught up in unpredictable court cases that would take time away from working with the community on criminal justice strategies to deal with everything from our shameful incarceration disparity between blacks and whites, to our failures in finding solutions to mental health and drug problems, to other issues that benefit from the DA’s leadership and participation.
Although he has personally prosecuted some high-profile cases, including a devastating child abuse case that lasted for five weeks, Ozanne has opted to leave much of the courtroom work to his deputy and assistants so he can be in the community collaborating on meshing the district attorney’s office with new initiatives like restorative justice, diversion programs, specialty courts, and the enactment of “no hit” zones to stem violent responses to disputes. He has organized classes and forums on how to recognize child abuse and expanded the office’s drug and opiate unit. In the long term, Ozanne's initiatives could significantly reform our criminal justice system for the better.
We have high regard for Bob Jambois and salute him for taking his concerns to the ballot box, but we’re even more impressed with Ismael Ozanne making the DA's office into a vital cog in our community's response to today's compelling problems in the criminal justice system.
We urge you to give Ozanne another four-term in the DA’s office.
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