Steven Walters
The State of Politics

School Choice Group Attacked Democrats

The group spent $850,000. Democratic Rep. Wright blames their late, “false” ads for her loss.

By - Dec 1st, 2014 09:48 am
Mandy Wright

Mandy Wright

You be the judge.

Democratic Rep. Mandy Wright, of Wausau, says she lost her re-election bid because of a late, false ad blitz by the Wisconsin Federation for Children (WFC), which champions the Parents’ Choice program that lets students attend private schools at state expense.

But WFC leaders say the Democrat is just a sore loser. “Mandy Wright lost an election and she thinks that makes her a victim. She’s looking to blame others for her defeat and in the process she’s insulting the very voters she once courted,” says WFC spokesman Brian Fraley.

Here’s what everyone agrees on: The 84-vote defeat of Wright, a former classroom teacher and soccer coach, is an example of how much clout independent special-interest groups can now wield in regional elections.

Retiring Sen. Tim Cullen, a Janesville Democrat and former Senate majority leader, says wealthy third-party groups that don’t have to disclose their sources of cash can now decide elections. WFC “had so much money they didn’t know what to do with it,” so they targeted Wright, Cullen said.

In two reports filed with the Government Accountability Board, WFC reported independently spending $850,000 to elect and defeat candidates for the Legislature. WFC reported spending $110,874 of that opposing Wright, including $73,000 spent the week before the election. WFC also disclosed spending $37,278 to independently help the Republican who defeated her, attorney David Heaton.

WFC reported spending more – $121,139 – to attack another Democratic who also lost, Senate candidate Pat Bomhack, of Spring Green, who was trying to succeed retiring Republican Sen. Dale Schultz.

Although first-term legislators like Wright are often vulnerable, she waged a neighbor-to-neighbor campaign in her hometown that didn’t include TV ads. She also raised $100,000, which she thought should be enough.

But Wright said WFC’s late misleading TV ads and glossy mailings ignored her Assembly record and instead attacked her for two things she didn’t do in 2011 – more than a year before she was elected to the Assembly.

Specifically, Wright said these two WFC charges were false:

*She did not abandon her students by calling in sick for work so she could go to an Act 10 protest in Madison. Instead, Wright said her school principal cancelled class, after learning how many teachers planned to call in sick the next day. Wright said she did call in sick, and lost a day of pay, but stayed home to care for her three young daughters.

*She did not organize a protest of a Wausau appearance by Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who introduced Act 10 and signed it into law. It made public employees pay more for health care and pensions and all but eliminated their ability to collectively bargain.

“I lost to (Assembly Republican Speaker) Robin Vos and Scott Jensen,” Wright said in an interview. Jensen, the former Republican Assembly Speaker, is considered the top strategist for WFC in Wisconsin.

“This is a different playing field in politics in Wisconsin,” Wright told the board of Common Cause in Wisconsin, which advocates campaign-finance reform.

Wright opposes the Parents’ Choice program. She said she would have welcomed it becoming a central issue in the campaign she lost to Heaton. But, instead of focusing on legitimate campaign issues like Choice, which will again be debated as part of the 2015-17 state budget, Wright said the Wisconsin Federation for Children’s late, unanswered ad blitz cost her the election.

Wright told Common Cause leaders she didn’t expect to get attacked in TV ads. “My community was duped. Many voters buy into negative, superficial messages.”

But Fraley said WFC played a legitimate, legal role in the campaign and Wausau-area residents – and not WFC – elected Heaton. “We believe the voters of the 85th (District) made a thoughtful decision.”

Fraley also said polls show that a majority of Wisconsin residents support the Parents’ Choice program. But WFC’s attacks never focused on that issue, Wright said. “If WFC is so confident that their efforts have public support, why did they purposefully fail to once mention their one and only issue?”

What lessons did Wright learn?

She should have focused on local issues exclusively. And, if ways aren’t found to limit – or confront –  the clout of wealthy, independent groups, she adds, “There’s really no hope for balance. Ever.”

Steven Walters is a senior producer for the non-profit WisconsinEye public affairs channel. Contact him at

24 thoughts on “The State of Politics: School Choice Group Attacked Democrats”

  1. Andy says:

    That was terribly unlucky of Mandy to have had to call in sick on the very day that enough of her peers were calling in sick in order to protest in Madison that classes had to be cancelled.

  2. PMD says:

    She has three kids. Kids get sick all the time. One of mine is sick right now. How do you know she didn’t stay home to watch her sick kids? And either way Andy, if school was indeed canceled for the day, how exactly did she abandon her students?

  3. Kyle says:

    “Wright said she did call in sick, and lost a day of pay, but stayed home to care for her three young daughters”

    Kids do get sick all the time, but this doesn’t say the kids were sick. You’re just inferring that because she called in sick. In her defense though, if your primary form of daytime childcare is school, and the school cancels classes, you may very well need to use a personal day to care for your kids. Of course, I’m just guessing too.

  4. PMD says:

    I’m saying it’s a possibility that her kids were sick, or that one of them was sick and she stayed home to watch them. I’ve had to do that before, many times, and probably will again. My wife has done the same. And if school was in fact cancelled, it’s pretty vile of WFC to claim that she abandoned her students. Just more nasty politics.

  5. Andy says:

    I have no idea if her kids were actually sick… I know kids get sick a lot and parents need to take off work. I just think it’s awfully unlucky of her that enough of her coworkers planned to call in sick that they had to cancel classes on the same day that (presumably) her children got sick. She should probably be pretty angry at her coworkers if that’s the case… because of their desire to “abandon” their students that day, she looked bad as well. If her kids were indeed sick or needed looking after, I feel bad she gets lumped into that group of irresponsible teachers.

  6. Kyle says:

    School was cancelled because teachers were planning to call in sick. They cancelled classes, but had teachers report (probably, it was a pretty common response at the time). She didn’t report, she called in sick. As for what she did with that time, I suspect WFC assumed one thing while she claims another. I don’t know which is true, and WFC probably doesn’t either.

    Should I assume that you’re also disgusted with all the ads claiming Walker is a criminal, and that the groups that ran those ads were vile? Because they’re based on very similar circumstantial evidence.

  7. PMD says:

    Either way WFC is in the wrong. You can’t abandon students if there is no class to teach.

    Yes you can assume that Kyle. The ads coming from both sides in the race for governor were just awful. I don’t have selective partisan outrage.

  8. PMD says:

    Yes Andy all the teachers conspired to abandon their students and protest in Madison because they hate children and don’t want them to learn anything. That is definitely irresponsible.

  9. Andy says:

    So because the administration cancelled classes that automatically gives all the teachers an out from being labeled as “abandoning” their students?

  10. PMD says:

    I think it’s a bit much to claim they abandoned their students, yes. But I’m not surprised that you feel otherwise.

  11. Kyle says:

    Then thank you PMD for critiquing both sides. There are many on this site that don’t bother to do that.

    This whole situation has cover built into it. The teachers tell the administration that they plan to call in sick (but haven’t done anything yet). The administration cancels classes, sending all the students home. Because of that, most teachers with kids need to call in sick to watch their kids. The administration only reacted to an issue with the teachers, and the teachers only reacted to the administration. No body abandoned the kids, yet somehow the kids were abandoned.

  12. PMD says:

    I don’t know how any fair-minded person could look at the attack ads that both sides ran and come away feeling “yeah those are honest and reasonable.”

  13. Kyle says:

    Believing the content of political ads is the same as believing the content of ads in general. Somehow, drinking beer didn’t get me girls, eating snickers didn’t make me manly, and wearing over-priced shoes didn’t turn me into a superstar. Go figure. Yet somehow those gimmicks still sell beer, candy, and shoes, and those political ads still get or discourage votes. If I wanted to spend the day hating myself, I’d go find and reference some of the comments from previous stories here that buy into those ads completely.

  14. Andy says:

    PMD, I didn’t see the actual ads to my a critique on them… again, I’m just saying that if she was not planning on calling in sick that day, yet was forced to because her children needed caring for, then her situation is very unfortunate because it makes her appear to be one of the teachers who called in sick in order to protest.

  15. Andy says:

    Kyle… drinking beer didn’t get you girls? Come on…

  16. Kyle says:

    Nope. Mixing drinks did. So I fully support those ads. Of course, I hear that’s discouraged now…

  17. PMD says:

    I just wish it was “school choice is great, this is why, she is against school choice,” instead of “she abandoned her students.” But that’s boring I guess, and ineffective, unfortunately. Not that this is only directed at WFC, but the story is about them.

  18. Bill Kurtz says:

    Nice to see another special interest group whose ads never mention their real objectives. Like Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, whose ads for Supreme Court justices and Republican attorneys general are about crime (like they care), instead of knocking their opponents because they would be too tough on environmental enforcement and consumer issues.

  19. Jake formerly of the LP says:

    Bill Kurtz beat me to it. What makes Jensen’s group so sleazy is that they never tell people what they really stand for in their ads (expanding vouchers at taxpayer expense and reducing funding of public schools in the process). That’s why they go for the ad hominem garbage about “raising taxes” and trying to play divide and conquer with schoolteacher Mandy Wright.

    This wouldn’t matter if low-info and mis-info voters saw through their game and made them pay a price for being such scumbags, but they instead vote in these dingbats, even when polls on vouchers show that those same people don’t want to detract from public schools and raise property taxes (which of course, they do).

    If you can’t say what you’re about and who you’re working for (like these voucher front groups do), then you’re clearly up to nothing good.

  20. Kyle says:

    I really don’t understand all the hate for voucher schools. You love to frame it as stealing money from the public schools, but that’s really not the choice people are making at all.

    A hypothetical young family lives in the city. They like the area, but aren’t thrilled with the public school system. Their choices are find a private school that would stretch their budget, join a voucher program for that private school, or leave for a better public school district. Given all the fuss about residency requirement removal ruining the city, I thought the idea of keeping the family and their tax base in the city would be preferable to losing them altogether. Apparently you don’t want their taxes though.

  21. PMD says:

    I think the issues people have are that so many children receiving vouchers either were already attending a private school or use the voucher to attend a religious school (some of which are teaching total nonsense like dinosaurs living with humans 5,000 years ago). And that voucher schools have not performed any better than public schools (and in some cases worse) and often have little oversight.

  22. Rich says:

    Part of the voucher schools problem is the funding gap that does result in a loss for a certain group of taxpayers, namely Milwaukee property taxpayers (especially those also not participating in the program). Source: (figure 4)

    Taxpayers of a region paying to educate the citizens of a region isn’t alone a problem. But when coupled with the facts that kids don’t do any better on the whole and that many of these schools operate with little accountability and skirt rules applied to traditional public schools, then theoretically, that groups of Milwaukee property taxpayers be better off without the program.

  23. Andy says:

    Rich, thanks for that link! I’ve never seen any article or other piece explain in detail why vouchers cost MPS money. Most people assume it’s because of losing the direct funding for the pupil that leaves and goes to the voucher school. But apparently that isn’t it at all. I highly support voucher schools, but this shows me that maybe we need to re-evaluate how they are funded.

    How do the statewide vouchers get funded? Do the local school districts pay a portion? Even if they do, since it’s probably very few students per district, the amount probably isn’t that much.

  24. Bill Kurtz says:

    Kyle offers an interesting, seldom-voiced case for vouchers. Usually, arguments for them are that they specifically benefit poor families (who presumably can’t move elsewhere), or on libertarian grounds. Several years ago, a liberal I knew offered a more blunt version of Kyle’s argument. They were necessary to keep prosperous whites in the city, especially in areas with potential for gentrification, because she said, whites are willing to live with blacks, but not to send their children to school with large numbers of blacks.

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