Scott Jensen file photo from 2006

In this May 2006, former Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen and his wife, Julie, walk out of a Dane County courtroom after he was sentenced to 15 months in prison for directing state staff to work on political campaigns. He ultimately did not serve time.

The Capital Times archives

Scott Jensen's is not a name with whom many Wisconsin Democrats want to be linked.

Even at the height of his career, when the Republican state representative from the Town of Brookfield was Assembly speaker and a top prospect to run for governor, Jensen was perceived as an assertive pol who an ambitious member of the other party didn't consort with.

It is therefore astounding that Jensen, who was brought down in 2006 after a scandal over the use of state employees on political campaigns, was a major player in Democratic primaries this year.

The group he now works for, the American Federation for Children, which supports the expansion of vouchers for private schools such as those used in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, worked aggressively on behalf of five state Democratic candidates who support school choice.

They put especial emphasis on protecting state Rep. Jason Fields, D-Milwaukee, a fourth-term legislator who has prominently supported voucher programs and has shied away from much of the confrontation with Gov. Scott Walker that has defined his party’s identity over the past 18 months. In fact, he did not sign the petition to recall Walker.

AFC spent at least $35,000 to make phone calls, send out mailers and conduct polls in support of Fields. That figure is more than six times greater than the total amount ($5,885) Fields’ campaign had raised as of July 30.

Ironically, the mailers AFC sent out for Fields touted his opposition to Walker, who AFC aggressively supported in the recall election.

“We employ a myriad of different strategies to figure out what’s important for the voters of the district,” explained Malcom Glenn, an AFC spokesman. “What we always keep in mind is the individual concerns of the constituency.”

On Tuesday, however, Fields was handily beaten by political newcomer Mandela Barnes, a 25-year-old community organizer who framed his candidacy as a progressive rebuke to Fields’ politics of compromise.

Similarly, AFC poured more than $16,000 to support Millie Coby, a primary opponent of state Rep. Sandy Pasch, D-Milwaukee, who moved -- as a result of redistricting -- into a newly drawn district that was majority African-American.

Much of Milwaukee’s black political establishment backed Coby, with figures such as state Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee, repeatedly arguing the Legislature needed to diversify. In fact, when another of Pasch’s opponents, Harriet Callier, dropped out of the race and endorsed Coby, she compared Pasch to Alabama’s former segregationist Gov. George Wallace.

Pasch, however, who was backed by a variety of progressive forces, including unions, prevailed in her new district with 61 percent of the vote.

AFC backed state Rep. Elizabeth Coggs, who lost her bid for the state Senate seat that her cousin, Spencer Coggs, is vacating, to Nikiya Harris.

It also picked the wrong political dynasty by backing Jason Fields’ younger brother Jarrett, who lost his bid for an open Assembly seat in Milwaukee to Evan Goyke, the son of former state Sen. Gary Goyke, who represented the Oshkosh area before becoming a top environmental lobbyist in Madison.

And in another open Milwaukee Assembly race, AFC-backed Tracey Dent lost to Latonya Johnson.

“All the Scott Jensen Democrats lost,” gleefully exclaimed one legislative staffer at a Democratic election party on Tuesday night.

Indeed, Jensen’s 0 for 5 tally in Democratic primaries perhaps suggests he should stick with the party he excelled in for so many years.

Scott Spector, the executive director of Wisconsin Progress, a group that worked to develop progressive candidates and challenge conservative Democrats, was elated with Tuesday’s results.

“Voters have rejected the misguided tactics of the Koch-funded American Federation for Children, and have instead elected true progressive champions for Milwaukee,” he said in a statement.

All 12 of the Wisconsin Progress-backed candidates prevailed, including Barnes, who unseated Fields, and Danny Riemer, another 25-year-old newbie who ousted Rep. Peggy Krusick, D-Milwaukee, a longtime conservative Democrat.

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Jack Craver is the Capital Times political reporter, focusing on elections, candidates and campaign finance.