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April 6 election means new faces in DPI post, appeals court, state Senate and state Assembly

The April 6 spring election results will mean a new state schools superintendent, two new appeals court judges and one new member each in the state Senate and the state Assembly.

And in Winnebago County, it will mean a new county executive for the first time in 16 years.

The only statewide race was for state schools superintendent. The election filled an open position because current Department of Public Instruction leader Carolyn Stanford Taylor didn’t run for a full term. Taylor completed the term of Tony Evers, who left DPI when he became governor in 2019 and appointed Taylor to take his place. Taylor’s term ends in early July.

State Superintendent-elect Jill Underly

Pecatonica School District Superintendent Jill Underly, backed by unions and the state Democratic Party, beat former Brown Deer School District Superintendent Deb Kerr, who was backed by pro-voucher forces.

Underly said she wants to make sure all schools reopen for in-person learning by the fall semester and pledged to improve math and literacy achievement gaps across the state.

“Wisconsin’s kids and public schools face significant challenges as we work to return to normal, get every student caught up and support their mental health and wellbeing in the aftermath of this pandemic and the enormous trauma and disruption that it’s caused for all of us,” she said.

But she said schools should still work to implement additional safety measures such as more social distancing and disinfecting surfaces like desks and doorknobs.

Underly also said she wants to put together a team of bipartisan DPI employees who represent the wide breadth of perspectives on how schools should work.

Kerr said she plans to continue to work to help improve education quality for kids despite losing the race because she wants to continue “opening up children’s minds to our incredible world.”

Former Brown Deer School District Superintendent Deb Kerr

“That’s been on pause for so many kids for so long, and I’m going to continue to fight and be an advocate for all the Wisconsinites,” Kerr said.

Underly enjoyed a significant financial advantage going into the election.

Since the Feb. 16 primary, pro-Underly groups had reported to the state Ethics Commission spending nearly $716,000 on independent expenditures. Meanwhile, the groups backing Kerr through independent expenditures had reported $209,000 since the primary.

On top of that, Underly had reported nearly $1.5 million in contributions through April 5, compared to just $169,059 for Kerr.

Kerr finished a narrow second to Underly in the seven-way Feb. 16 primary. But her campaign stumbled right out of the gate with a racially insensitive tweet she sent and then quickly deleted. Kerr’s original campaign manager, who had exclusively worked with Dem candidates and groups, also quit, saying he couldn’t provide the kind of direction she needed to have a shot at winning.

In other top races:

Muskego Judge Shelley Grogan, a conservative who got help from outside Republican groups, soundly beat Jeff Davis, appointed by Evers to the Waukesha-based 2nd District Court of Appeals in 2019.

Outagamie County Judge Gregory Gill beat Wausau attorney Rick Cveykus for an open seat on northern Wisconsin’s 3rd District Court of Appeals.

John Jagler, a Republican state representative from Watertown, was elected to succeed former Sen. Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, in the 13th Senate District after Fitzgerald was elected to Congress. Jagler beat Democrat Melissa Winker.

In the 89th Assembly District, GOP businessman Elijah Behnke, of Oconto, defeated Dem Karl Jaeger to succeed former state Rep. John Nygren; the Marinette Republican left office to become executive director of the Wisconsin Association of Health Plans. The wins by Jagler and Behnke will give Republicans a 21-12 majority in the Senate and 61-38 in the Assembly after they retained the GOP seats.

And in a big upset on the local level, Oshkosh restaurant owner Jon Doemel knocked off 16-year incumbent Mark Harris in the Winnebago County executive race. Doemel has been heavily involved in community groups, including the Chamber of Commerce, the Oshkosh Kids Foundation, Day by Day Warming shelter, and Heroes of Oshkosh, which he founded.

“I think it’s time that we have some real accountability at the county level,” Doemel told local media. “There are a lot of things that we need to change so we can actually help some of our people who are struggling.”