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Who's Creating Walker's Playbook?

National and local right-wing groups want to weaken workers

Mar. 2, 2011
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If David Koch wasn't a household name in Wisconsin a week ago, he certainly is now.

Koch—or, rather, a Buffalo, N.Y.-based blogger posing as Koch—famously listened to Gov. Scott Walker ramble on for 20 minutes about his allegedly winning formula in Wisconsin. Kill unions. No deals, no negotiation, no compromise.

As most Wisconsinites now know, David Koch and his brother Charles are the multi-billionaire oil barons who fund a network of ultraconservative and libertarian groups and candidates that provide "grassroots" and political support for their corporate agenda.

The Koch brothers are part of a large and growing right-wing network of campaign funders, legislation writers and think-tank-backers who are trying to weaken American workers so that huge corporations like their own can increase their profits and skirt any kind of government regulations.

These ultraconservative groups are major campaign donors—Koch Industries was Walker's second-biggest donor ($43,000 directly) and spent more than $65,000 indirectly on independent ads in the Wisconsin governor's race—and active lobbyists who have their hands in everything from cable and phone deregulation legislation to clean energy opposition to Arizona's unusually punitive immigration law. All of their political activities are intended to boost their bottom line.

Gov. Walker is just one Republican politician who is in their pocket. But Wisconsin is a prize state in their ongoing war to increase profits at the expense of governmental institutions and workers' rights since Wisconsin has a proud common-sense, progressive tradition.

Koch Industries: Profiting From Propaganda

David and Charles Koch run Koch Industries, the largest privately held company in the country, with 70,000 employees and sales of $100 billion in 2008. While the company was built by their father on oil trading and refining, the brothers have expanded it to include coal mining, the paper company Georgia-Pacific, and household products such as Teflon.

Through the Koch Family Foundations, the brothers are very politically active in conservative and libertarian causes. The sons of a founding member of the ultraconservative John Birch Society, the brothers fund a network of think tanks and grassroots groups (that are anything but truly grassroots) that preach their gospel of low taxes, few regulations and global warming denial. Americans for Prosperity (AFP), the Cato Institute, Reason Magazine and the Heartland Institute are among the many front groups they fund.

Koch Industries also lobbies the government and has even hired more lobbyists and opened a new office just off the Capitol Square in Madison since Walker took office.

Walker's critics have warned that his budget repair bill's provision that state-owned power plants could be sold without competitive bidding was a special favor granted to Koch Industries. The political appointee who would oversee the sales is ex-Democratic state Sen. Jeff Plale, now the head of the Department of Administration's Division of State Facilities. Koch has denied interest in any Wisconsin power plants.

Although Koch Industries has been a leading opponent of federal health care reform, they have found a way to profit from it. One of the little-known provisions in the federal bill would help reduce employers' costs to cover the health care for early retirees, which is more expensive than health care for younger workers.

Shockingly, Koch Industries applied for the benefit and was approved.

Then again, conservative corporations in Wisconsin—such as Journal Communications, Marshall and Ilsley, Rockwell Automation and We Energies—have applied for this program and been approved as well.

Walker: The 'Original Tea Party'

In Wisconsin, the Koch brothers fund the state chapter of Americans for Prosperity and the MacIver Institute, a conservative "news" outlet. The Koch groups have whipped up opposition to last year's Clean Energy Jobs Act (which was killed by the Koch-friendly Plale when he was a state senator), Gov. Jim Doyle's budgets and, now, the right of public employee unions to unionize. AFP sponsored buses to a Feb. 19 counter-rally in Madison, but only managed to round up 2,000 supporters to the union backers' 70,000. On hand was AFP's president, Tim Phillips.

Walker has always been a darling of AFP. He has spoken at a number of their tea party rallies and has bragged about being the "original tea party in Wisconsin" for his promise to not raise taxes as Milwaukee County executive. But contrary to Walker's spin, property taxes rose 17% in Milwaukee County under his watch.

Koch Industries donated heavily to his campaign and in opposition to the Democratic candidate for governor, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.

So it was no surprise that Walker would take a call from "David Koch," his benefactor, during a time of crisis and infamy. In his conversation with "Koch," Walker sounded like a department head reporting to—and trying hard to impress—his boss.

Also unsurprising was Walker's request for "message" support in the future. Walker also wanted help shoring up support from moderate Republicans uneasy with Walker's radical policies.

After "Koch" asked Walker if there was anything he could do to help, Walker said: "The more groups that are encouraging people not just to show up, but to call lawmakers and tell them to hang firm with the governor, the better. Because the more they get that reassurance, the easier it is for them to vote yes."

After "Koch" agreed, Walker continued: "The other thing is more long term. That is the day after this, the coming days and weeks and months ahead, particularly in some of these more swing areas, a lot of these guys are going to need—they don't necessarily need ads for them, but they're going to need a message out reinforcing why this is a good thing to do for the economy and a good thing for the state. To the extent that that message is out over and over again, that's a good thing."

While Wisconsin Democracy Campaign Executive Director Mike McCabe felt the request was probably legal, former Wisconsin Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager took a more critical view of the exchange.

In an interview with John Nichols of The Nation, Lautenschlager said, "I think that the ethics violations are something the [state] Government Accountability Board [GAB] should look into because they are considerable. He is on tape talking with someone who he thinks is the funder of an independent political action committee to purchase advertising to benefit Republican legislators who are nervous about taking votes on legislation he sees as critical to his political success."

Walker's request for message help has prompted the national watchdog group Public Campaign Action Fund to send a letter to Dane County's district attorney and the state GAB requesting that they open investigations into the matter.

That said, AFP has spent a reported $400,000 on ads in support of Walker's budget repair bill and its president, Tim Phillips, has been singing the governor's praises, saying that Walker has "demonstrated resolute political courage."

Walker has dismissed the implications of his phone call, saying that nothing he said during the supposedly private conversation differs from what he's been saying in public.

ALEC: Corporate Lobbying Disguised as Legislation

Also intertwined in the Walker-boosting right-wing network is the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which brings together very conservative state lawmakers and powerful corporations to write model legislation that can be copied and introduced in state legislatures around the country. In 2009, 115 ALEC-written laws were passed in statehouses around the country.

Corporations pay huge membership dues to ALEC—ranging from $5,000 to $50,000—while legislators pay relatively small fees and enjoy all-expenses-paid private gatherings to discuss legislation. Sponsors include Koch Industries, American Express, Wal-Mart, Philip Morris, Pfizer, ExxonMobil, GlaxoSmithKline, State Farm Insurance, AT&T, Texaco and the National Rifle Association (NRA).

In private meetings, ALEC pairs one legislator and one representative of a corporation to write bills that can be replicated throughout the country to weaken government regulations and oversight and serve ALEC's corporate sponsors. In this way, ALEC whitewashes activities that would otherwise be determined to be lobbying.

ALEC's most infamous "success" was the passage of Senate Bill 1070 in Arizona, otherwise known as the anti-immigrant, racial-profiling "show us your papers" law. SB 1070 was written by Arizona legislator Russell Pearce with the help of the NRA and the Corrections Corporation of America, a private owner of prisons. Few noticed when the Republicans introduced the bill in the Wisconsin Legislature when Democrats were in control, but now that Republicans beholden to ALEC are in charge, look for it to return.

Make no mistake: ALEC is deeply interested in Wisconsin and has been for a number of years.

With the help of then-Sen. Jeff Plale—now a Walker political appointee—ALEC's Cable and Video Competition Act was passed in 2007, which deregulated cable services but has done nothing to lower cable bills. Its former legislator of the year, state Sen. Leah Vukmir of Wauwatosa, has written a slew of insurance-company-friendly bills that gut patient protections.

Recently, ALEC sent out congratulations to Walker when his tort-reform legislation was passed, since weakening consumer protections is one of the organization's top policy goals.

Not surprisingly, Republicans' attempt to turn Wisconsin into a right-to-work state—and thereby weakening unions in the private sector—was launched at an ALEC meeting in Washington, D.C., after the November election, according to remarks made by Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, a former state chair of ALEC. (That position is currently held by state Rep. Robin Vos of Caledonia, the co-chair of the budget-writing Joint Finance Committee, according to ALEC's website.)

ALEC is also cheering on Walker's attempt to bust public employee unions. Its fiscal policy director, Jonathan Williams, has said: "Wisconsin has become ground zero. What happens could serve as a domino, win or lose, in either direction."

Walker's Local Corporate Sponsors

Followers of Walker's career at the local level have no doubt noticed that he's been sponsored by a Milwaukee-centered right-wing network of think tanks, donors and fake grassroots groups.

Walker became Milwaukee County executive after a wave of voter outrage helped along by the recall-happy quasi-grassroots group Citizens for Responsible Government (CRG), which continued to support him in office by promoting his sham no-tax-increase budgets and attempts to privatize county services. Walker was so enamored of the CRG that he actually wanted to provide them with an official office in the courthouse. Not surprisingly, Walker lost that battle.

But the CRG has only been one cog in the Walker political machine. His career has been boosted by the Bradley Foundation, the deep-pocketed and deeply conservative nonprofit organization that has championed school vouchers, tax reform that favors the rich, and other right-wing causes in the state and nationally. It notoriously underwrote Charles Murray's race-baiting book The Bell Curve, which essentially argued that blacks were intellectually inferior to whites, and, through its funding of the American Enterprise Institute, supported the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

According to the most recent figures available, in 2009 the Bradley Foundation donated $20,000 to Americans for Prosperity to support its Wisconsin chapter, $1 million to the arch-conservative Federalist Society, $200,000 to the Cato Institute and $500,000 to the anti-organized-labor group Center for Union Facts, among other free-market organizations.

It also donated $1,475,000 to the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute (WPRI), a right-wing think tank chaired by James Klauser, a former Tommy Thompson administration official and senior vice president of We Energies. WPRI pushes school vouchers, voter ID, tort reform and lower corporate income taxes—pretty much the complete Walker legislative agenda. It also opposed high-speed rail—which Walker rejected before becoming governor—as well as federal health care reform.

The Bradley Foundation is led by Michael Grebe, who just happened to have co-chaired Walker's gubernatorial campaign.

The Bradley Foundation-funded WPRI also provides WTMJ-AM's Charlie Sykes with a steady moonlighting gig. The foundation also employs Sykes' third wife, Janet Riordan, as director of community programs. No wonder why Sykes has provided Walker with unfettered sympathetic coverage through the years.

And it's no wonder why Walker's agenda is being cheered on by a local and national network of right-wing organizations that want to destroy worker protections and provide private corporations with unfettered freedom.

Because of the state's long tradition of support for unions and workers' rights, Wisconsin truly is ground zero for their grand experiment.


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