May 15, 2011 6:36 p.m.
Waukesha - Kathy Nickolaus, the county clerk at the center of the state Supreme Court election controversy and the focus of an ongoing state elections investigation, has been described by colleagues and acquaintances as headstrong and insular, hardworking and independent.
She came to local public office, where constituents are the boss, from a staff job at the state Capitol, where partisan politics and loyalty to the party caucus fomented team warfare.
"I don't think she's ever gotten past that," said Pam Reeves, the Republican elected county treasurer two years before Nickolaus' arrival at the courthouse. "From the beginning she put up walls: 'You're not going to tell me what to do.' Then she put up more walls."
Co-workers say her go-it-alone isolation more than anything is what's gotten her into the current mess, evident now by the tedious ballot recount still under way in the county Administration Center cafeteria, days after every other county has finished its job.
And in a high-income, Republican-dominant county where officials tout its financial and service superiority, they say Nickolaus' failings this election have given the county a black eye under national glare.
Since her 2002 election, when a Republican primary challenge was her only contest, Nickolaus - who in addition to her full-time clerk job operates a bait shop and has moonlighted as a bartender - has been re-elected three times without opposition. Not only did she reject calls to resign because of the latest snafu, but she also says she intends to run again in November 2012.
Nickolaus, 51, has stumbled a few times since taking office in her duties as the county's chief election administrator, but none as badly as after the April election.
Nickolaus' biggest mistake - one that would later find her telling a clerk that she'd had the worst day of her life - was in releasing a final but unofficial election-night vote count that didn't include Brookfield's 14,315 votes.
Compounding the error - and leading her harshest critics to suggest vote tampering - was her failure to fess up immediately. Instead, she waited a day and a half before announcing at an evening news conference that she'd forgotten to save the votes in her database. She apologized several times for what she called human error.
The bombshell reversed what had appeared to be a 204-vote victory for challenger JoAnne Kloppenburg to a 7,316-vote victory for Justice David Prosser, a margin of less than a half-percent out of 1.5 million votes cast.
It ignited suspicion in the Kloppenburg camp, which requested the statewide recount at taxpayer expense and which filed a complaint seeking a special investigator to scrutinize Nickolaus.
"This was all unnecessary," said Patricia Madden., who was county clerk for 14 years before Nickolaus. She said Nickolaus' poor performance is "absolutely" to blame for the recount. Madden, a Republican, supported her deputy clerk, Kathy Karalewitz, in the 2002 Republican primary that Nickolaus won.
The fallout from Nickolaus' reporting error also prompted an investigation by the state's election watchdog, the Government Accountability Board. It initially affirmed the Waukesha County totals, but its staff plans to issue a more detailed investigative report on Nickolaus' operation in June.
Despite the high-profile blunder, Nickolaus has won support from many local and statewide clerks.
Brookfield Clerk Kristine Schmidt, who was irritated that she learned about the error involving her community during the televised news conference, nonetheless had a positive outlook.
"Truthfully, she's one of the clerks in the state of Wisconsin who really makes an effort for her municipal clerks," Schmidt said. "In general, she has made a lot of effort on our behalf to make sure we work together."
In emails to Nickolaus, a number of clerks expressed empathy for her election night error and offered encouragement.
Kevin Kennedy, executive director of the Government Accountability Board, declined to comment on Nickolaus' performance but did say she and her deputy are among the very few in the state and 500 nationally who are certified by the national training center for election officials. In 2004, she was also named to a 12-person Wisconsin Special Committee in Election Law Review that helped implement the federal Help America Vote Act of 2002.
Madden is not impressed.
"She takes great pride in the fact that she does all the teaching of municipal clerks on how to run elections," said Madden, who was assisting in the recount this week. "If you see all the mistakes being made here, either the teaching is not very good or no one is paying attention."
Citing basic problems - from the failure to have required election worker initials on ballots, to properly reconciling the number of voters with the number of ballots cast, to poorly sealed ballot bags - Madden said she was surprised at what she was seeing.
"It's not one municipality. It's all of them," she said, though noting that one village - Butler - did a perfect job.
Madden also said Nickolaus does not hold local clerks accountable when they make sloppy errors.
"They like her because they don't have to do anything," she said. "She does a lot of their work. In an election, it's obvious she's not making them accountable."
Nickolaus has repeatedly declined all requests for in-person or telephone interviews.
After the election disputes heated up, Nickolaus reached out to County Board Chairman Jim Dwyer and Director of Administration Norm Cummings, both of whom have had public disagreements with Nickolaus over her unwillingness to cooperate on certain issues.
"We are here for one purpose, and that is to do the best job we can for the people of Waukesha County," Dwyer said. "Most of the time we're pretty much on the same page. For whatever reason, Kathy has always managed to stay outside the box. 'I can do it myself. I don't need anybody.' "
Nickolaus has shown resistance to recommended improvements to her dated election equipment, computer security and backups.
Nickolaus, who spent 13 years as a data analyst and computer specialist for state Assembly Republicans, has expertise in computers, but no one knows everything, Cummings said.
Nickolaus, who while working for the state prepared software to track political donations, was granted immunity from criminal prosecution in 2001 after she cooperated with the state government inquiry into misconduct and corruption in the legislative caucus system. Several legislators from both parties were eventually convicted in the scandal. She also later was cleared of any ethics violation tied to ordering voter lists for state lawmakers.
Allegations that she'd spent tax money for the lists and used them for her own county campaign were dismissed as baseless.
Cummings said, "My concern has always been that someone on the outside needs to know what's going on in the (computer) system," but she's been suspicious of his staff.
Cummings hopes relations improve, saying "I had a good discussion with her and I'm willing to wipe the slate clean."
Other elected officials, Register of Deeds Jim Behrend and retired Register Michael Hasslinger, both said they've had a positive working relationship with her.
Behrend called her a perfectionist who is "quite driven to do things."
"She's pretty dedicated," he said. "I will say she's somewhat proud of trying to do things right. This is upsetting her that she made this mistake."
None of the department-level managers who work with Nickolaus say they socialize with her or know her well personally. They said she does not routinely participate in department director meetings. Republican activists say she was visible in party functions only when she first ran for office and has rarely been involved since.
If hard work can be defined as doing three jobs, then the label would fit Nickolaus.
In addition to her full-time county clerk job, which pays $67,787 a year, Nickolaus has been a regular Saturday night bartender at the Union House restaurant in Genesee for several years. The owner said she resigned two weeks before the election but will fill in if needed.
Since 2009, she and her husband, Greg, have owned and operated Musky Mike's Bait & Tackle bait shop located at the couple's Wisconsin Ave. home on Florence Lake. They've been in the Okauchee area since 1986.
The couple "have been fishing since they could hold a cane pole," the bait shop's website reports. "Kathy loves bass fishing." However, Nickolaus said she never had the chance to go fishing last year.
They've organized regular Tuesday night bass fishing tournaments, and in March Kathy Nickolaus was the presenting speaker before the Okauchee Fishing Club on the subject of Muskie baits available in the shop.
The county official who's been helping Nickolaus navigate the negative fallout from her election reporting gaffe has been Ellen Nowak, chief of staff to County Executive Dan Vrakas, who as a Republican legislator encouraged Nickolaus to run for the job.
Nowak said Nickolaus expressed her appreciation for all the help navigating the negative publicity and recount preparations and said she regretted not being a "team player" with the county executive in the past.
Nowak described Nickolaus as dedicated and hardworking but in the past unwilling to ask for help.
"People here are so willing to help out," Nowak said. "Sometimes she just has blockers onto that. No one wants her to fail. We know it reflects on everyone."
Whether Nickolaus keeps reaching out to others with a new sense of team play or makes operational changes that improve the election process remains to be seen, several said.
"I give everybody the benefit of the doubt," Dwyer said. "There are certain wake-up calls, and if this wasn't a wake-up call, nothing ever was."
The high-profile vote reporting error in the state Supreme Court race isn't the only election problem that's happened under the watch of Waukesha County Clerk Kathy Nickolaus. Among past problems:
• In a 2005 Assembly seat race, someone in her office double-counted votes with the push of a wrong computer key, but it didn't affect the outcome.
• In a 2005 special election for county executive, sample ballots she submitted to area newspapers as legal notices showed the ballot marked for one of the candidates.
• In 2006, her office briefly showed the wrong candidate winning an Assembly seat after one municipality reversed columns of data.
• In 2007, the unofficial outcome of a very close school board race reported by the county clerk was later reversed because a few deciding votes cast on a touch-screen machine weren't included in the initial total.Wisconsin WaveWisconsin WaveWisconsin Wave