Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Is David Clarke “Sheriff Spends a Lot”?

Attack ads blast Clarke. Another targets “dysfunctional” Marina Dimitrijevic. Who’s buying all these nasty ads?

By - Aug 5th, 2014 01:25 pm
Sheriff David Clarke

Sheriff David Clarke

The front side of the attack mailer is headlined “Sheriff Spends-A-Lot David Clarke” and features what looks like his hand-written “To Do List” which includes: “Waste taxpayer money… Pay excessive overtime… Cut safety programs” and “Oppose gun safety laws,” all written in capital letters.

On the other side of this droll literature we are told that Sheriff Spends-A-Lot ran a $4.6 million deficit, spent money on flatscreen TVs, exercise equipment and radio ads and disbanded the anti-gang squad and gun violence task force. Among other sins.

While exaggerated for comic effect, the central idea here, that Clarke is anything but a fiscal conservative, is clearly true, as I’ve previously written. No county department has seen its budget grow more than the sheriff’s over the last 12 years.

The return address for the mailer is the Greater Wisconsin Committee, the liberal advocacy group that has done many ads over the years. The group is also spending $400,000 for anti-Clarke ads on Milwaukee TV and radio stations, according to, and these are hammering a similar message to the mailer. The ads began airing last Friday. According to Journal Sentinel columnist Dan Bice, “Greater Wisconsin has purchased nearly $70,000 worth of time each on WISN-TV (Channel 12) and WITI-TV (Channel 6) and more than $60,000 on WTMJ-TV (Channel 4) and $50,000 on WDJT-TV (Channel 58)… the TV spot is set to run 166 times on Channel 4… and 96 times on Channel 58.”

As with right-wing advocacy groups, Greater Wisconsin can run thinly- disguised campaign ads that don’t expressly tell you how to vote, but instead tell you to “call David Clarke” and complain, just a week before the election. And because it’s not “express advocacy,” Greater Wisconsin can accept anonymous donations.

Which of course raises the question, who is out to get Clarke? I asked Clarke’s frequent nemesis, Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele whether he paid for the ad and Abele declined to answer the question, which is a pretty revealing response. Given that Clarke runs as a Democrat while espousing far-right views and supporting all kinds of Republicans, many Democrats would have reason to target the Sheriff. But no one has been in conflict with him more often than Abele.

As to who created the ad, I immediately thought of long-time Democratic strategist Bill Christofferson, who ran Clarke’s first campaign in 2002, and quickly became disillusioned by his ever-more Republican views. Christofferson has been doing penance ever since, writing anti-Clarke blog posts among other things. Christofferson also spent years as the media buyer and strategist for Greater Wisconsin. Did he create these ads?

Via email, Christofferson told me he hasn’t done Greater Wisconsin’s media since 2006. But the group’s federal tax form for 2010 says he was paid $160,000 that year to handle their media (but nothing in 2011 and 2012). When asked about this, Christofferson said he came out of retirement in 2010 only as the group’s media buyer, but hasn’t written, edited or produced any ads for Greater Wisconsin since 2006.

Will the ads have any impact? Clarke has never faced strong opposition before, and these ads effectively evoke his increasingly cranky political style.  And they have come so late in the election that Clarke may have difficulty responding.

On the other hand, his opponent Chris Moews isn’t exactly a household word in Milwaukee. And conservative talkers Mark Belling and Charlie Sykes are urging, nay begging their Republican listeners to cross over into the Democratic primary to vote for Clarke. This could be a very close election.

Attack ad.

Attack ad.

Meanwhile, another droll mailer has targeted Marina Dimitrijevic and Jonathan Brostoff, two of the four candidates for the Milwaukee County Board, who are both pictured wearing joker outfits from a deck of cards. The header tells us that “Working with the dysfunctional Milwaukee County Board, they’ve both failed us time and time again.”

Dimitrijevic is a longtime board member and current board chair while Brostoff was merely a staffer. The equality suggested here is bizarre, all the more so since the mailer has only quotes from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel raising negative questions about Dimitrijevic and not one word about Brostoff.

The mailer is not some cheap knockoff so it required the support of someone with money. The return address is from a group called Forward Milwaukee County, whose registered agent in its state incorporation filing is Tom O’Day, a Republican who once worked for state Sen Alberta Darling (R–River Hills). The treasurer of Forward Milwaukee County is Joe Rice. Both O’Day and Rice are members of the North Shore Republicans executive committee.

Milwaukee County First ran ads supporting the reduction of county board members to part-time status, and Milwaukee businessman Sheldon Lubar contributed to and helped raise money for this campaign. But Lubar, via email, said he’s not connected with this effort: “Be assured, I would never fund anything like that,” he says.

Rice is a former county supervisor who was redistricted out of his district by board members who clearly hated him. So he would have reason to go after Dimitrijevic and even Brostoff, who worked for then-Supervisor Chris Larson, who supported the anti-Rice plan.

But where did he get the money for it? Abele, who backs Adams and is no friend to Dimitrijevic, flatly denied he had anything to do with the campaign, in contrast to his coy answer regrading Clarke. It does seem unlikely Abele would go after Brostoff, as they both have Democratic friends in common.

One politico in town tells me that Joe Williams of the Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) approached a wealthy local donor about donating to such an ad.  DFER supports charter schools in particular, and also supports more accountability for public schools and choice schools, Williams told me via email. They would be simpatico with the views of Dan Adams, the one Democratic candidate for the 19th assembly who supports any schools that succeed, whether public, charter or choice, as Adams has put it.

Williams offered a coy response as to whether his group funded the ad. “Our team has been super impressed with Dan Adams as a candidate,” he wrote me, “but we haven’t yet put resources behind any ads in his race. If anyone is looking to help support that kind of effort, it probably wouldn’t take more than a beer for us to say yes. He’s a great candidate.”

DFER’s Wisconsin chapter was run for a while by former state Rep. Jason Fields (D-Milwaukee), a school choice supporter and later run by his brother Jarret Fields.

Jason Fields was defeated by anti-voucher Democrat Mandela Barnes, with support from the Dem Team, the group created by Larson.  Brostoff also worked with the group so Fields would have reason to go after him in an ad.

What’s ingenious about the ad is that it exploits the chronic disgust of Milwaukee voters with the county board, but uses it to tarnish two Democrats seeking state office who happen to oppose school choice. Whoever paid for it, the intent seems to be to elect Adams. He, meanwhile, has sent out a mailer touting his background as a prosecutor and promising to “confront Milwaukee’s gun violence problems head-on by preventing dangerous criminals from obtaining firearms illegally.”

Short Take

Williams, by the way, is a former reporter (and a good one) for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and later the New York Daily News who covered education for both papers. He now runs DFER, which is a political action committee that can spend on ads, Education Reform Now, which is a standard non-profit that does advocacy, and Education Reform Now-Advocacy, a 501-c-4 that can do lobbying. He is a full service administrator who earns at least $224,000 according to the groups’ federal tax forms. Those raffish days of living on a reporter’s salary are long gone.

He now lives in New York City, where DFER is based and according to his bio, “his children attend the city’s public schools.”

Categories: Murphy's Law, Politics

17 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Is David Clarke “Sheriff Spends a Lot”?”

  1. bcm says:

    Wonder when Todd “political hit man” Rongstad will pop up in these races. No doubt he’s involved with the Gary George campaign. Wait. Or is it George Gary? 😉

  2. PMD says:

    If the causes are worthy and the fight worth fighting, the quick denials are sort of hilarious. “Who, me? Wasn’t me. No idea what you’re talking about. I would never do such a thing.”

  3. wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    Only the true Clarke Left will believe this. His budget is set by the County board and little weenie Abele. It has been cut for years. He has state mandated programs that he has to fund: courts, parks, hiways jail and some others. If they cut his deputies then he has to give overtime to make sure all places are staffed.
    The HOC, correction facility was disaster till he took it over, cleaned it up made money made the convicts do something and that pissed off the Left. Little weenie Abele just could not stand have someone get more coverage then him, so he went after him. Abele wants to be Mayor and he does not want to go against Clarke who would eat him up.

  4. PMD says:

    A 74 year-old man repeatedly saying “little weenie.” Sigh.

  5. bruce murphy says:

    Bob, Clarke’s budget rose 61% in decade before Abele elected while most county departments were flat or declining. Its true he’s come in for some cuts under Abele, but the situation he inherited might suggest why.

  6. Kyle says:

    Bruce, when did corrections get moved into the county sheriff budget, and how does that compare to the 61% rise in budget you mentioned?

  7. bruce murphy says:

    Kyle, Clarke has never suggested that had any bearing. He has blamed the increase on employee benefits (which all depts must absorb), and thereby claimed he only increased the budget by 37% rather than 62%:

  8. Kyle says:

    That’s a lovely politifact article that shows his soundbyte was ill-advised. But my question is left unanswered. What effect has corrections had on the sheriff’s budget? Is it free, to include the pay and benefits of those assigned there? Because I can’t think of any other way it would have zero effect on the budget.

  9. bruce murphy says:

    my understanding is it was taken into account in computing the increase, meaning the addition wasn’t included, only any increase in its budget since added. This issue goes back years, has been reported many times, and when I asked Clarke for comment on this back when first reported on the increase in 2012 he did not mention the House of Corrections. He’s certainly a bright guy but has never mentioned this in the two years since this.

  10. Nicholas says:

    Kyle, do you mean corrections as in the County Jail, not the HoC?

  11. Kyle says:

    Nicholas, it’s my understanding that the Sheriff assumed responsibility for the House of Corrections sometime in the late 2000’s.

    Bruce, I agree that he’s a bright guy, even if I don’t always agree with his agenda. I always assumed he avoided bringing it up because he’d rather keep it than give it back. Please forgive my distrust of the numbers. While I’m sure they’ve tried to do some normalizing to account for the change in duties, I have trouble believing that the attacks claiming he pays too much overtime are completely divorced from the additional work.

    However, since I have neither the time nor the desire to dig through a dozen budgets, I’ll just concede that Sheriff Clarke’s department does indeed cost more now than it did in 2002. He requested budget increases, as I’m sure most departments do. The difference is that his were granted.

  12. mitch says:

    Bruce, considering the jail portion of Clarke’s budget amounts to nearly 75% of the total, its no wonder his budget increased when he was tasked to take over the house of correction. Housing an increasing jail population ain’t cheap. Did you make mention of his 10 consecutive balanced budgets previous to the Abele regime?

  13. Bruce Murphy says:

    Mitch, they may have been balanced at the end of the year, but he often asked and got budget increases at the beginning of year, which is why his budget increases far outstripped any other county dept.

  14. capper says:

    There are some omissions in this story. Jason Fields has done work for Abele and the Greater Milwaukee Committee. Add to that the fact that Lubar and Abele have said that they plan on targeting the MPS School Board, makes them still likely suspects. And lets face it, Abele has been less than honest on numerous occasions. There is no reason to believe them now.

  15. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    After Clarke cleaned up the mess at the HOC and the other messes that he got and did it with in budgets, and after all of the cuts forced by little weenie Abele they know that this article is just another left hate/smear tactic.

  16. Mitch says:

    Ol Bruce has been awfully quiet since Clarke won his re-election…..

  17. wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    He lost a lot of money and creditabilty with this race. If the whole county would have voted Clarke would get 70%. Why? He is only elected official speaking out against the violence and failure of MPS to educate kids.

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