Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Koch-Funded Group Backs Anti-Streetcar Drive

Americans for Prosperity has provided paid staff for petition drive, its state director says.

By - Jan 20th, 2015 09:56 pm

For weeks, organizers of the petition drive calling for a referendum on the streetcar have emphasized the grass-roots nature of the effort. After all, as Chris Kliesmet of the CRG Network, which is organizing the petition drive, put it: “the sentiment in the city is wildly against” the streetcar.

Kliesmet laughed off the idea that the effort was getting any funding from conservative groups outside the city. They’ve received “no funding” nor was any on the horizon, he assured me. Republican PR operative Craig Peterson, also involved in the petition drive, said he had paid personally for anti-streetcar radio ads and not one dollar of support (“No. None at all”) was coming to the group from elsewhere.

But in answer to my email inquiry, David Fladeboe, state director of the Koch brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity, told me his group is quite involved in the effort: “We have been educating the public on the why the streetcar is wrong for Milwaukee since the mayor started on this project. Now we are working on pushing the referendum to allow the people of Milwaukee to decide the fate of the streetcar.”

When I pressed for more detail, Fladeboe said, “Our field teams are working with several coalition partners to gather the required signatures to have a referendum in Milwaukee. We have both paid staff and volunteers working on this project.”

How many paid staff, how much money is being spent? I asked. Fladeboe did not respond.

When I confronted Kliesmet about this, he conceded that he did contact Fladenoe asking him to contact AFP members in Milwaukee. And come to think of it, Kliesmet had met a staffer of AFP and “I’m pretty sure the guy is paid staff.” And yes, a petition organizer was spending money on sponsored Facebook posts, but this would not be paid for by AFP, Kliesmet assured me. “CRG is paying for it,” he said.

The AFP was also involved in a past anti-streetcar effort by Ald. Bob Donovan. Back in August 2012 he announced a drive to get the signatures of streetcar opponents, even including those who lived in the suburbs. Luke Hilgemann, who now serves as Executive CEO of the AFP nationally, attended the press conference to promote an anti-streetcar online petition. The effort ultimately went nowhere.

Koch Industries is heavily involved in oil and gas production, and the billionaire Koch Brothers have generously funded the Americans for Prosperity (with $122 million annual budget, according its most recent federal tax form) and the Americans for Prosperity Foundation ($25 million annual budget). The Wisconsin chapter, it appears, is part of national group and not separately incorporated.

An anti-transit campaign in Nashville was funded by the Koch Brothers and the advocacy group they fund, the Americans for Prosperity. The AFP also fought mass transit in Indiana and opposed the streetcar in San Antonio, as I’ve previously reported.

“Almost no issue appears to be too small for the Kochs’ activists,” a story in the Huffington Post noted. “Americans for Prosperity jumped into an Iron County board of supervisors election in northern Wisconsin to attack candidates opposed to an iron ore mine. The group also flexed its organizing muscle over a 1.75 percent food and beverage tax in Fremont, Nebraska, to fund emergency capital improvement projects and a 1 percent tax increase in Gahanna, Ohio, to prevent cuts to the local police force.”

The Wisconsin branch of the AFP shows up as a lobbyist in records compiled by the Government Accountability Board. Fladeboe has already registered as a lobbyist on the proposed right-to-work bill. And for the prior biennial budget, 2013-2014, the AFP spent just over $100,000 on five lobbyists, including Fladeboe, Hilgemann,  Robert Seitz, Thomas Fonfara and Sean Lansing. Much of the lobbying was on the mining bill, but overall the group lobbied on 20 different legislative bills with a wide of range of subjects.

In short, the group is very involved in Wisconsin politics.

Back when Kliesmet was touting the grassroots purity of the drive, he said his group’s goal was to get the targeted 35,000 signatures and present them to the Common Council at their meeting on January 21st. Now he concedes that won’t happen. The new goal to complete all signatures is February 8, he says.

The group, however, wanted to get its request for a referendum before voters in the spring election on April 7. Under the law, this would mean the petitions must be completed by 70 days before the election — and that’s around February 1. That seems to rule out the possibility of the measure being voted on in April and would push this to the next election, in February 2016. That would come a year after the Common Council’s vote on the streetcar project, and probably many months after the project broke ground. The issue would be moot by then.

The curious question is why Donovan and Ald. Joe Davis waited so long to launch a petition drive requiring a referendum to approve any rail transit project of $20 million or more and to enlist the help of CRG network, given that the council voted in favor of the streetcar project way back in July 2011. In the case of Davis, the answer is obvious: back then he still supported rail transit, as he had for many years. He made the flip-flop in his position around the time he announced an interest in running for mayor.

In the case of Donovan, he faced a tough 2012 reelection in a district with an increasing population of Latinos, and was considered anything but a shoo-in for reelection. He might have feared making the streetcar a lightning rod issue that would rile up opposition to him. As soon as he was re-elected, he was all over the issue, but only recently has he hit on the idea (if it was his idea) of going directly to voters to demand a referendum on all rail transit

Whatever the reason for his delays, he made this petition drive, from a timing standpoint, almost impossible to accomplish.

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Categories: Murphy's Law, Politics

37 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Koch-Funded Group Backs Anti-Streetcar Drive”

  1. Bruce Thompson says:

    These guys seem to tie everything together. The Biz Times has an op ed ( by Widgerson promoting their website call “A streetcar named disaster.” But clicking on their link leads to a page promoting Right to Work.

  2. capper says:

    Very good story and rather accurate. But it does beg the question – who are the big money special interests paying for the pro-streetcar propaganda? Hmmm?

  3. PJ says:

    Who cares who is paying for propaganda on either side? Do the majority of the people of Milwaukee want it or not? Anecdotal evidence would suggest that we do not. Unfortunately one side of the discussion is VERY afraid of the truth.

  4. Beer Baron says:

    All of those anti-streetcar are pro-right to work.

  5. AG says:

    Paid staff helping with recall petitions, paid protesters at the minimum wage rallies… now paid staff getting signatures to block the streetcar. I guess grass roots just isn’t what it used to be.

  6. john jansen says:

    Bruce, you are a reporters reporter. Thank you for digging into this and bringing it to light.

  7. PMD says:

    What is it about this project that gets opponents so worked up? It isn’t nearly as much money as we spend on roads every year. I’m not surprised that people are against it. I’m surprised by the intensity of their opposition. It’s not exactly the California bullet train.

  8. Ken says:

    OH MY GOD! The Koch brothers are behind actually letting the PEOPLE vote on the spending of tax dollars. How horrible can it get??? This should never be allowed! The people are too stupid to know how to spend their money!

  9. Casey says:

    @Ken by that logic there should be a referendum for every public works project/improvement. Widen the hwys? Referendum. New playground? Referendum. Replace Hoan Bridge? Referendum. Building a dam? Referendum.
    I think we have to remember that we live in a republic with elected representatives. This isn’t ancient Greece were the general free population all met on a regular basis and voted for every little thing. That just isn’t efficient with modern populations.

  10. David says:

    @PJ… If you want to talk about anecdotal evedence than there is much more interest in the streetcar than not. The city wanted to gage interest in the streetcar do they put the question of support or not on the Nov, 2008 ballot. Approval rate was around 75%.

  11. pj says:

    Fair enough David. But I would argue that the current “winds” are blowing against it, at least in most circles. Six years is an eternity in politics and public opinion. Since we’re spending the money now, we should know if we want it now. I would agree with Casey that not everything needs to go to a referendum however, when an issue is as polarizing as this, what’s the harm?

  12. Steve says:

    @David Don’t go clouding the issue with facts! Many, many people in my neighborhood, Bay View, appear to be for a more robust public transit system, yet, our guy, Tony Zielinski, claims that some of his constituents don’t want it. But now his sounds bites are focused on helping the “inner city.” This whole thing is slippery. And our opportunities to become a 21st century city also slip away.

    Don’t know how I feel about Bruce’s reporting. He said to me once, “the Ament story was the gift that keeps on giving.” he appears, at times, to be feeding the likes of North Shore Kliesmet, who has very much benefitted from government programs, public schools being number one.

  13. bruce Murphy says:

    Steve, I have no idea who you and when this conversation with me was supposed to have occurred. Can you let us know who you are and refresh me on this conversation, as I don’t recall it.

  14. tomw says:

    Suddenly public spending or government spending becomes a problem for AFP but where are they when the Pentagon spends for a ship that is almost defenseless (the “Littorals”) or a bomber that can’t fly with armaments on board or a defenseless truck (the original humvee) is being built! How about a referendum on the next destroyer to be built? or bomber or tank? Oh yeah, we have to match Islamic radicals and their navies and air forces! Never mind!

  15. PJ says:

    tomw, who said I (we) aren’t upset about that too? Waste in government (and our crushing debt) is everyone’s problem whether it is in the Pentagon or the US DOT. We (the US taxpayer) can’t afford useless armaments or inefficient transportation systems.

  16. Steve says:

    Bruce, we met a few years back, right after the Ament exposé. My comment isn’t directed at you, but the near-muckraking reporting that leads to wholesale bashing of institutions. CRG, and it’s suburban posse, cherry picks and strives to destroy any government that doesn’t fit its extreme laissez-faire wet dream.

  17. Kent Mueller says:

    AFP wants in on local school boards and God knows what else. They’re relentless in their efforts. They also view Wisconsin as a test bed for turning every state into Mississippi or Alabama.
    The question for street car opponents should be this: Do you want Milwaukee to be the last or the largest major American city not to have fixed rail transit? How does that distinction serve the city (or the metro area) going forward?
    Bad enough Scott Walker has already kicked WI back into the 20th Century by rejecting high speed rail, kicking Talgo in the teeth and dooming up to 500 jobs in the process. Talgo is one of the most well-respected companies in Europe. Now the entire European business community knows Wisconsin as a state with weird politics that breaks its contracts.
    The federal money in the case of the streetcar isn’t fungible. It won’t fund additional police or fill pot holes. Bonds can be issued for the rest. If we don’t take this the money, as with the funds for high speed rail, we don’t take this the money will go to a more deserving city — more deserving because, unlike Milwaukee, that city would actually have an interest in moving forward.

  18. Labitokov says:

    This on WUWM (both on their website and broadcast) this morning:

    “If I had access to any appreciable funding, certainly, you’d have seen a print or a radio ad. Those are quite expensive. You’ve seen neither of those. You don’t see this army of paid circulators out there,” Kliesmet says.

    Kliesmet says the only contributions he’s gotten are from people dropping off $20 checks here and there, but he would gladly accept more.”

    The hard hitting muckrakers of the local media.

  19. PMD says:

    Kliesmet would never, ever tell a lie.

  20. David Jorling says:

    So the ultimate Climate Disaster Capitalists are trying to defeat streetcar in Milwaukee. They live among the bubble of climate change deniers, and will do anything to grow its dirty industries. Any mass transit project that does not use their dirty energy is viewed as a threat to their bottom line. As Upton Sinclair once said ” It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.’ So it is with the Koch brothers. Here’s hoping Milwaukee overcomes their moneyed ignorance, and starts its way to becoming part of the solution to climate change with the approval of the first of many streetcar and mass transit lines that Milwaukee needs.

  21. wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    Interesting but this new trolley will be suing dirty energy from coal.

  22. Dave says:

    “Interesting but this new trolley will be suing dirty energy from coal.”

    And why is that, WCD? Seems to me, you and your ilk have fought every effort to ween Wisconsin off coal and non renewable energy at every possible opportunity. Oh, and never mind the fact that electric streetcars emit less emissions per passenger mile than that of your 4 wheel friends…even if that electricty comes from your beloved coal power plants.

  23. john wintheiser says:

    I am not entirely convinced that this project is the best use of public transportation funds. However, the opponents do not seem to be suggesting any other way to improve public transport in Milwaukee. In fact, these folks seem to have an almost visceral dislike of public transportation in general. I wonder why. Actually, I don’t wonder. It’s because the public would use it. You know, “those people.” “Those people” might find it easier to leave “their” neighborhoods and enter those of their “betters.” Public transport to jobs and schools is an absolutely vital aspect of social mobility. Perhaps that is the real problem.

  24. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    dave, nothing you ever says is worth answering or casts any light on the subject. And John, that is really a nasty note, the only people that have spent any time trying to help the inner city are Conservative. Under Doyle, Barrett, the Left wing school board and nutty County board, has happened, it is worse now than it was 50 years ago. The white racist liberals have destroyed the people in the inner city with their lack of answers to problems and their programs Under Obama, they are worse off then they were in 2008.

  25. Observer says:

    Yes Dave and John, we have an expert on what “those” people need and who helped them. Why I bet Bob invited Dr King to stay with him back in the day.

  26. Jerry Braden says:

    Such a big effort here to blow smoke in our eyes. Really, the Kock Bros. again? You are sounding more like Harry Reid than sensible thinkers. Pulling the specious political plots is more like getting stuck on stupid. The facts are that the liberal progressives have out spent anything that is attributed to the Kock Brothers have made.. This article sounds more like kock envy rather than anything worthy of our time and attention. Put the game away. It’s out dated. This is the sort of stuff that keeps a city from entering the next century. Go to confession. Lent & Easter is coming soon. Ash Wed. can’t come soon enough. repent !

  27. Tom D says:

    WCD (post 21),

    There is no reason the streetcar has to use coal-generated electricity. In Canada, Calgary’s light rail system (with daily ridership roughly twice that of MCTS) powers the entire thing from wind power.

    We Energies offers “Energy for Tomorrow” (57% from wind, none from coal or other fossil fuel) for 2¢ extra per kWh. Since the streetcar’s first phase is expected to use 1.4 million kWh annually, the streetcar could dump coal entirely for a mere $28,000 per year.

    This comes to just 1% of the streetcar’s annual operating budget and points out another huge difference between buses and streetcars: There is no way that MCTS could dump fossil fuels at anywhere near 1% of its operating budget.

    I’d love to see somebody establish a charitable fund to accept private sector contributions toward this $28,000 annual expense. I would personally contribute to this worthy goal (and I don’t even live in Wisconsin).

  28. wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    I sure would have invited Dr. King to eat he was great man. If he had followed Maclom X instead of Gandhi this country would have been in another Civil war. Plus his message was right on. My relatives fought to en slavery long time ago. He probably would have asked the question of why we were spending the transit money for a yuppie train instead of improving the bus system for the inner city.

  29. Observer says:

    I’m happy to hear that. Back in the day I would have put his approval rating with whites at 10% max. Tossup as to who was more hated back then, Fr. Groppi or Dr. King. Now it’s almost impossible to hear someone say they didn’t like them.

  30. Dave says:

    “dave, nothing you ever says is worth answering or casts any light on the subject.”

    What’s the matter, Bob? Pointing out how your absurd assertions are got you crabby? Drink a glass of metamusil and get to bed…tomorrow will be a better a day in the ‘burbs, I’m sure.

  31. Dave says:

    “My relatives fought to en slavery long time ago.”

    Do tell.

  32. capper says:

    I’m still waiting for an answer to my question. Who’s bankrolling the pro-streetcar propaganda?

  33. wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    I have spent $40 on Facebook probalby one of the biggest donations.

  34. Jeramey Jannene says:


    If there is pro-streetcar propaganda, it’s been pretty pathetic.

    WCD and others have spent money on Facebook sponsored posts in opposition. The Pabst Theater has spent money on ads encouraging people to make their voice heard on the issue. Mueller Communications had something to do with the full page ad in the Journal Sentinel, but I don’t know if they paid for it.

    Given that most of the planning money (which pays for official communications) is federal money, it can’t be used for lobbying. That’s why you’ll see is a just the facts website.

  35. Observer says:

    Wisconsin Reporter is your source? As of 2011, Wisconsin Reporter was funded by the libertarian Sam Adams Alliance and the conservative Bradley Foundation.

  36. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    and so what. The people know the story and they will be getting out just as they were in Kenosha.

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