Who is “Lobbying” For the Streetcar?
Money is being spent and wild rumors are flying. So what’s the truth?
Rumors are circulating regarding lobbying being done to push the streetcar and that in turn has generated some very funny stories by the Wisconsin Reporter that purport to tell us what’s going on in Milwaukee. There is certainly a story to be told, but not quite the ones offered by the Wisconsin Reporter.
The online publication writes infrequently about Milwaukee. It is one of 55 news sites covering state government in 39 states launched by conservatives: its funding can be traced back to the conservative Bradley Foundation and it also has financial and staffing ties to the Koch Brothers and the man who might be called the third Koch Brother, their longtime associate and Wisconsin Club for Growth leader Eric O’Keefe.
Two weeks ago, the Wisconsin Reporter did a story by M.D. Kittle on the “powerful special interests” promoting the Milwaukee streetcar whose “point man” is H. Carl Mueller, the PR man who runs Mueller Communications Inc. The publication quoted streetcar opponent Craig Peterson, who estimated the effort being led by Mueller could cost as much as $200,000.
“This isn’t a cabal, it’s a cottage industry for Carl Mueller,” Peterson fulminated. “The incestuous relationship among clients and the firm’s close contacts with City Hall has slammed the door on representative government. This is a marriage of first cousins.”
And Peterson is the head of Zigman Joseph Stephenson, a public relations and lobbying firm that has sometimes competed with Mueller for customers, which the story didn’t mention.
The story also claimed the civic leadership group, Greater Milwaukee Committee, is a “trolley supporter.” But Julia Taylor, the group’s president, says “We have not taken a formal position.” She says the group has members on both sides of the issue.
Just a week later, without running any corrections, the publication had a completely different story to tell, once again written by Kittle, some of it laughably false, including some howlers about me. It seems that Bruce Murphy is now almost as large a figure in the streetcar cabal as Carl Mueller. Or at least in this week’s story.
The article does get some things right. It reports that Kris Martinsek of Martinsek & Associates has been hired by the city for handling public information on the streetcar. True, except she is actually a subcontractor working for HNTB, which gets funding from the city. It says she’s been paid $173,000 but City Engineer Jeff Polenske, who oversees the streetcar effort for the city, says the correct figure is $183,000.
Martinsek did subcontract with the marketing company 2-Story to create the website, themilwaukeestreetcar.com, to spread the word about the project, but this cost more than the $15,000 figure in the story; Polenske says the website development and maintenance cost $25,000. Also left out of the story: Martinsek has also subcontracted with the P3 Development Group, a local consulting group.
The story reports that Jeff Bentoff and his Bentoff Communications serves as “centralized media point” for the streetcar project, according to Polenske and has so far received $77,000 under that contract. True, though Bentoff is actually working as a subcontractor for the Concord Group.
But let’s get to the juicy stuff about me. Kittle notes that a story proving a Koch Brothers-funded group was backing the anti-streetcar petition drive “was written by Bruce Murphy, editor of Urban Milwaukee, one of the biggest streetcar cheerleaders out there.”
The story offers no link to a pro-streetcar story by me, perhaps because in more than three decades as a journalist, I’ve never written a story either favoring or opposing a streetcar. Not one. I have edited stories on both sides of the issue for at least two different publications.
I am quite aware that my two partners at Urban Milwaukee, Jeramey Jannene and Dave Reid, are pro-streetcar, but I have purposely avoided taking a stand on the issue and have solely reported the politics on all sides of the issue.
Building its case against me, Kittle next reveals that “Murphy is buds with Milwaukee Journal Sentinel watchdog columnist Daniel Bice.” Seriously, buds? On the contrary, we’re not friends and have been bitter journalistic competitors at times. And what does Bice have to do with the streetcar, either pro or con? The story doesn’t say.
Kittle (who never checked any of this with me) also tells readers I’m “buds” with Bentoff. I have had a couple lunches with him over the years, but I’m a much better friend of streetcar opponent Craig Peterson, who partnered with me in creating Milwaukeeworld.com and handled the PR when I joined Urban Milwaukee as editor.
But enough about my meager social accomplishments. Let’s move on to Business Journal editor Mark Kass, whom Kittle says is “real good pals with” Bentoff, which I guess means way more friendly than a mere “bud.” The Business Journal, we’re told, “is another news outlet that has, according to critics, written fawning pieces on the streetcar.” Yes, so fawning that Kittle couldn’t provide a link to even one such story.
Getting back to Bentoff, we learn he has “powerful friends inside the public and private sectors.” No, Kittle doesn’t offer any examples because, you know, it sounds so much more ominous that way.
As for the city funding to HNTB, Martinsek, Bentoff and company, Polenske says 85 percent of it comes from federal funding for the streetcar and 15 percent from a city Tax Incremental Financing District. The federal guidelines stipulated that “During the final design and construction phases of the project, the City of Milwaukee will conduct additional public involvement activities, which may include: Periodic updates sent to the project’s mailing list and to property and business owners in the vicinity of the projects alignment; Meetings with citizen, neighborhood, environmental justice and business groups to discuss and receive comment on current or future design options; Updates to the project website;… Media releases, as appropriate.”
Kittle and Peterson, however, contend that all kinds of lobbying is going on. Kittle quotes alderman and streetcar opponent Tony Zielinski, who says that Martinsek twice told him to support it. Martinsek declined to discuss this, but it’s worth noting she lives in Bay View and is a constituent of Zielinski. We also learn that Bentoff has put up at least one tweet favoring the streetcar (more worrisome, I’d say, is his aggressive Twitter handle, “Jeffbomb”), and that a Facebook page created by Martinsek or her subcontractors has been “extolling the glorious potential of the proposed streetcar.”
Kittle does leave you thinking the city has skirted the boundaries a bit on lobbying. But the funny thing is that, as he works ever harder to show how everyone in Milwaukee is part of this cabal, including business people, civic groups, the media (including the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “perhaps the streetcar’s biggest cheerleader,” Kittle writes) and “powerful” people in government, it begins to look like the entire power structure in Milwaukee favors the streetcar.
Which leaves those poor, outnumbered anti-streetcar leaders Peterson and CRG Network organizers Chris Kliesmet and Orville Seymer — all suburbanites — and the paid staff of the Koch funded Americans for Prosperity, to battle those powerful forces. Kliesmet, who has long experience in mounting petition drives, originally said his group hoped to have 35,000 signatures from city residents opposing the streetcar by January 21. “The sentiment in the city is wildly against it,” he contended. But he later moved the deadline back to February 8th, and the group now says Peterson the new deadline is March 5, as BizTimes.com has reported.
That would be nearly a month after the Common Council takes its final vote on the streetcar next week (approval is expected) and nearly four years after the council first approved an earlier streetcar plan in July 2011. The courts, I suspect, will have to decide if Kliesmet and company have arrived a bit too late to rain on the parade.
Streetcar Renderings and Maps
Urban Milwaukee Streetcar Coverage
- Will Streetcar Help the Inner City? – Bruce Thompson – February 4th, 2015
- Millennials And The Streetcar – Bruce Thompson – January 27th, 2015
- Koch-Funded Group Backs Anti-Streetcar Drive – Bruce Murphy – January 20th, 2015
- Streetcar Backers Say They Have the Votes – Jeramey Jannene – January 20th, 2015
- Who is Funding the Anti-Streetcar Effort? – Bruce Murphy – January 20th, 2015
- Will Anti-Streetcar Referendum Succeed? – Bruce Murphy – January 9th, 2015
- The Story Behind the Streetcar Referendum – Michael Horne and Bruce Murphy – January 8th, 2015
- Council Delays Streetcar Until January – Jeramey Jannene – December 16th, 2014
- Committee Takes No Action on Streetcar – Jeramey Jannene – December 10th, 2014
- Committee Approves Milwaukee Streetcar – Jeramey Jannene – December 9th, 2014
- RACM Approves Tax Funding for Streetcar – Michael Horne – December 8th, 2014
- How to Sell the Streetcar – Michael Horne – November 28th, 2014
- Next Stops for the Streetcar – Michael Horne – November 24th, 2014
- Barrett Moving Forward with Streetcar – Jeramey Jannene – November 18th, 2014
- Who Will Be Streetcar Operator – Michael Horne – May 8th, 2014
- A Streetcar Named Cooperation? – Dave Reid – April 27th, 2014
- How a Streetcar Spurs Development – Angie Schmitt – November 3rd, 2013
- Streetcar Social – Michael Horne – September 12th, 2013
- Mayor Says Streetcar is a “Trojan Horse” – Michael Horne – April 17th, 2013
- Whoops, We Changed Our Mind – Dave Reid – September 27th, 2012
- Battle of the Bobs: Donovan vs Bauman Streetcar Press Conference – Jeramey Jannene – May 18th, 2012
- Important Hoan Bridge and Milwaukee Streetcar Meetings This Week – Dave Reid – November 14th, 2011
- Milwaukee Streetcar Passes Common Council – Jeramey Jannene – July 26th, 2011
- Keep the Milwaukee Streetcar Moving Forward – Jeramey Jannene – July 8th, 2011
- Milwaukee Streetcar at Apex – Jeramey Jannene – June 16th, 2011
- Milwaukee Streetcar Takes Key Step Forward – Jeramey Jannene – May 6th, 2010
- Milwaukee Streetcar Meeting This Thursday – Jeramey Jannene – October 5th, 2009
- Milwaukee Streetcar Routes Unveiled by Mayor Barrett – Jeramey Jannene – September 21st, 2009
- Milwaukee Streetcar Round-Up – Jeramey Jannene – April 19th, 2009
- Vote for your Favorite Milwaukee Streetcar Route – Jeramey Jannene – March 25th, 2009
- Design Your Own Streetcar Route – Jeramey Jannene – March 23rd, 2009
- Streetcars Coming to Milwaukee – Dave Reid – March 14th, 2009