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Leadership style central in Waukesha County district attorney race

Source: Wisconsin Watch

Leadership style central in Waukesha County district attorney race

The winner between the two Republicans will presumably be the county’s next top prosecutor, given that there are no other candidates in the race.

July 9, 2024 2:46 PM CDT

By: Jack Kelly / Wisconsin Watch

Two longtime prosecutors will face off in the Aug. 13 Republican primary for district attorney in Waukesha County — a race in which leadership style has emerged as a key distinction between the candidates.

The race, one of just four contested district attorney races in Wisconsin this year, pits Leslie Boese against Mike Thurston, two of current Waukesha County District Attorney Susan Opper’s top deputies.

Elected district attorneys are a county’s top prosecutor. They decide when an alleged criminal act should be prosecuted in the courts, giving them immense power and influence.

The winner between the two Republicans will presumably be the county’s next top prosecutor, given that there are no other candidates in the race. Both candidates, in terms of style, offer voters a distinct choice. 

Boese (pronounced Bay-Z, like Jay-Z, as she says) has worked in the Waukesha County DA’s office for 29 years. She has led the office’s drug unit for the past eight years and was Opper’s top lieutenant during the trial of Darrell Brooks, who killed six people and injured dozens of others when he drove his car through a Christmas parade in 2021. Boese, 58, is endorsed by Waukesha County Executive Paul Farrow, a longtime player in Wisconsin Republican politics.

Thurston has been a prosecutor for 17 years, working in the Atlanta area, Milwaukee County and, since December 2015, in Waukesha County. He oversees the office’s sensitive crimes unit, which focuses on prosecuting cases involving child abuse and neglect, sexual assault, domestic violence and human trafficking. Thurston, 44, is endorsed by Waukesha County Sheriff Eric Severson.

While both candidates vowed to focus on crime spilling over from Milwaukee County, additional staffing and ensuring any election-related crimes are prosecuted, they describe different leadership styles.

“I’m the head of the team, I’m the coach — I’m not the star player,” Boese told Wisconsin Watch of her approach if she’s elected. “If you don’t hear my name, that probably means things are going good. I’m making the right decisions. I’m putting the people in the right places. I’m supporting them the best that I can. I’m making sure that the players are being taught procedures and make good decisions. And that’s what the district attorney does.”

“Are there going to be cases that I’m going to be involved in? Absolutely,” she continued, noting that she loves being a prosecutor. But, Boese said, serving as district attorney is akin to being the head of a law firm, something that requires diligent behind-the-scenes work.

Thurston, meanwhile, said he wants to take a more hands-on approach and lead by example.

“There’s no question that being a DA is going to involve some bureaucratic or administrative roles,” Thurston told Wisconsin Watch, acknowledging that he would not be able to maintain the case load he currently has. “But you’re simply not going to get hungry trial attorneys, who are going to be able to address and confront the changes that (Waukesha County has) been seeing over time unless they’re inspired, unless they have confidence in their boss.”

“Do I intend to interact with each of my units? And try to inspire each of those units about how to be better? How to be stronger? How to be more aggressive? Absolutely, yes,” he continued. “Do I intend to just sit in meetings all day and be an administrative DA? No.”

With the primary now just weeks away, the two longtime colleagues have started to trade barbs.

Thurston told Wisconsin Watch that trials are the best measure of a prosecutor’s “aggressiveness and tenacity, and most importantly, experience.” He criticized Boese for not taking more cases to trial over the past decade, something he said he’s done about 80 times during that time period.

Boese beat back that claim in an interview. “I’m a proven trial attorney,” she said. “Do I think people are less likely to take my cases to trial because I’m a good trial attorney? I do believe that to be true.” She added that she tried more cases in the first half of her career than in the past decade because people have learned she’s a formidable prosecutor and defense attorneys don’t want to face her in a trial.

Boese said there are several other measures, like how often your cases are dismissed or amended from a felony to a misdemeanor, that are better measures of the quality of a prosecutor.

Thurston also chided Boese for keeping dozens of drug-related cases open without charging decisions. Boese sought to turn that around on Thurston, saying it shows he doesn’t understand how to handle drug cases. She often works with confidential informants “to go after the bigger fish,” she said, and charging certain informants could tip off others being investigated.

“He’s tried one type of case his entire career, which is sensitive crimes,” Boese said of Thurston. “I’ve done traffic, drugs, sensitive crimes, domestic violence, white collar crime. … He’s tried one type of case, and I think he just doesn’t even understand.”

Thurston agreed that prosecuting “crimes involving live victims is where my passion is. I’m deeply passionate about that.”

“But there’s also no question that by trying cases, you learn about the process and the mechanism for how to review a case, how to present a case, for how to be persuasive about a case, and that approach, that dynamic never changes,” Thurston said. 

He acknowledged that there are areas of criminal law he will need to learn more about, but said that the complexities of prosecuting sensitive crimes cases leaves him well equipped to do so.

Forward is a look at the week in Wisconsin government and politics from the Wisconsin Watch statehouse team.

This article first appeared on Wisconsin Watch and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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