Right-wing Voucher Supporters Train Potential Political Candidates
American Federation for Children, MMAC and Democrats for Education Reform provide candidate training
That’s what former Republican Assembly speaker turned voucher school lobbyist Scott Jensen instructed potential candidates in a day-long training session on April 12.
Jensen was responding to a question posed about whether candidates should accept checks from a donor with a checkered past. Jensen advised that the potential public embarrassment was worth it. That donation could purchase ad time, flyers, whatever a candidate needed to push him- or herself across the finish line, Jensen said.
Oh the irony.
Voucher Candidate School
Jensen spoke to roughly 30 potential voucher candidates—and a few progressive ringers—at a training session sponsored by the pro-voucher, Washington D.C.-based American Federation for Children (AFC), the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce (MMAC) and Democrats for Education Reform (DFER).
Jensen said that AFC had been offering candidate training in Milwaukee for the past three years and also trains candidates around the country.
Billed as a bipartisan gathering, speakers included Jensen, former Sen. Lena Taylor staffer turned WNOV host Sherwin Hughes, MMAC lobbyist Steve Baas, Godfrey & Kahn attorney Jodi Jensen, AFC’s Brian Pleva, Sheree Dallas Branch of ABRAZO Multicultural Communications & Marketing, and Democratic campaign consultant Zak Williams.
Lobbyist Katy Venskus, of Rocketship Education, which will be opening its second charter school in Milwaukee in 2015, had been scheduled to speak but had to cancel.
Jensen spoke in her place about campaign financing, and gave as well his regularly scheduled talk on campaign strategy and messaging.
Jensen was once one of the most powerful men in Wisconsin. But he was charged in 2002 with misconduct in public office for allegedly using state resources and state workers to help Republican candidates in the 1998 and 2000 elections.
While other legislative leaders ensnared in the caucus scandal took plea agreements, Jensen headed to court.
In March 2006, the same month he resigned from office, Jensen was convicted of three felonies and a misdemeanor and was sentenced to 15 months in prison and 45 months of extended supervision and was banned from the Capitol for five years.
He served no time while he appealed his case. After much legal wrangling, his conviction was overturned and he was granted a new trial.
The Legislature, however, was there to bail him out. In 2007, the bill that created the nonpartisan Government Accountability Board included a requirement that elected officials must be tried in their home counties—in Jensen’s case, Waukesha County.
In 2010, the conservative state Supreme Court overturned two lower court decisions and ruled that Jensen’s new trial should be held in Waukesha County. Later that year, Jensen agreed to a plea deal with Republican Waukesha County District Attorney Brad Schimel—now running for attorney general—in which his felony charges were dismissed. He pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor count of misconduct in office and he was required to pay a $5,000 fine and reimburse the state $67,174 for legal fees.
Jensen Is Barred from Running for Office
That misdemeanor conviction bars Jensen from running for public office.
But that hasn’t deterred him from helping others run for office and be heavily involved in politics.
Almost immediately after settling his case, Jensen registered as a lobbyist for American Federation for Children in 2011. He also set up a consulting firm, Chartwell Strategic Advisors, and serves as a senior advisor to AFC.
American Federation for Children is sponsored by the DeVos family of Michigan, major backers of conservative causes around the country and big donors to Republican Gov. Scott Walker. AFC has a long history in Wisconsin elections at all levels and supports voucher candidates for office. According to an analysis by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, AFC has dumped an estimated $4.4 million on phony issue ads in Wisconsin elections since 2010. And the DeVos family gave Walker $250,000 during the recalls.
Last year, according to Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, American Federation for Children spent an estimated $45,000 to get Jessie Rodriguez elected as a Republican in Assembly District 69 in southern Milwaukee County. And it donated $30,000 in 2011 and in 2012 to the Oak Creek-based Hispanics for School Choice, a voucher advocacy group controlled by Rodriguez’ brother-in-law, Zeus, the president of St. Anthony School, and her husband, Aaron, a blogger.
John Doe Investigation Not Fully Discussed
In addition to American Federation for Children, Jensen also has been involved in the Jobs First Coalition, which has sponsored pro-Republican ads and materials since 2009. It spent an estimated $53,000 on the Rodriguez race last fall.
The Jobs First Coalition gave $445,000 to the Jensen-connected American Federation for Children in 2010 and 2011; it received $425,000 from the Wisconsin Club for Growth in 2011. It also sent money back to Wisconsin Club for Growth for issue advocacy.
Wisconsin Club for Growth is one of the two dozen groups that were subpoenaed as part of the John Doe 2 investigation into alleged illegal coordination between Walker’s campaign and independent special interest groups during the 2011 and 2012 elections.
Jensen discussed the Doe investigation in passing in his talk on campaign finance.
Jensen told the group that in general candidates can speak to independent groups but can’t develop strategy or messaging in coordination with them.
“Give them the same information you’d give anyone else,” Jensen said.
He instructed candidates not to talk to members of outside groups after an endorsement is made.
“Don’t get into conversations with them,” Jensen said. “Don’t let them say ‘You hinted.’”
That said, Jensen offered up tips for aspiring voucher candidates on how to talk about the issue, and attendees were provided with a binder full of information on how to file as a candidate, develop their campaign strategy, and use social media, earned media and direct mail to get their message across.
According to a Marquette University poll provided to attendees, 50.5% of those polled support the new statewide voucher program, while 44% oppose it. Republicans show 66% support, while only 42% of independents and 37% of Democrats statewide do.
American Federation for Children data showed that the highest support comes from low-income voters and younger voters, while those 45 and older oppose statewide vouchers because they attended quality public schools, he said. Jensen likened vouchers to marriage equality, in that younger people are more accepting of them while older voters show more resistance.
Jensen also claimed that the voucher movement “shows echoes of the civil rights movement” as he showed a photo of a voucher rally in Florida that featured African American leaders.
Jensen offered up a few winning messages for voucher candidates. The “we can’t wait” or “education is a civil right” themes received huge approval when AFC tested these statements in Louisiana.
Closer to home, upwards of 73% of those polled in Racine and Green Bay agreed with similar statements.
He cautioned that voucher opponents had strong messages too—“charter and choice schools steal resources from traditional public schools” and “charter and choice schools are not accountable” chief among them. He reminded the audience that AFC supported increased accountability in the loosely regulated system.
Jensen likened raising money to mowing the lawn—“it’s a chore, but you need to get it done.”
Jensen said that very few people donate to influence a candidate’s vote while in office.
“They donate because they know you,” Jensen said.
Tales from the Kleefisch Campaign
Jensen, who’s spent a lifetime in politics, recounted a smattering of anecdotes from his own campaigns and those he’s overseen as examples to the potential candidates. He explained that candidates needed to develop a theme with personal stories to illustrate it.
Jensen said that he ran Rebecca Kleefisch’s 2010 bid for lieutenant governor, where he helped her overcome her rookie mistakes—such as relying on too much data and policy—by focusing on positioning herself as a small businesswoman and outsider who knows how to create jobs.
“To the voter, if the candidate’s life experience rings true and they believe she cares, then her plan doesn’t really matter,” Jensen said.
Although Jensen bills himself as Kleefisch’s “senior strategist,” neither he nor Chartwell shows up on any of her campaign finance reports from 2010 or 2011.
Kleefisch’s campaign did not respond to the Shepherd’s request to clarify Jensen’s role in her campaign.
Jensen predicted that the outsider message would be a winning one this year, thanks to the anti-incumbent mood in Wisconsin and Washington, as well as the near-historic number of legislators who are deciding not to run this fall. He said that two more legislators would announce their retirements soon.