Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Who is “Lobbying” For the Streetcar?

Money is being spent and wild rumors are flying. So what’s the truth?

By - Feb 5th, 2015 10:48 am
Milwaukee Streetcar.

Milwaukee Streetcar.

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.”

In fact, Mueller’s firm has had little involvement with the issue, and mainly helped place an “open letter” to the community supporting the streetcar by a short list of business people, published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. As Mueller associate, James H. Madlom, notes, “we haven’t been involved in the broader streetcar effort,” and “no public dollars” supported the newspaper ad.

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,, 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 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.”

Government spending on public information and outreach for transportation projects on any kind is routine. Polenske says “the scope of services that our consultants and sub consultants were hired for, includes only a public information/outreach and community relations component. Lobbying is not a part of that.”

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 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.

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14 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Who is “Lobbying” For the Streetcar?”

  1. PMD says:

    Wow if opposition is so strong why has the deadline to collect signatures been pushed back at least twice? And cripes it’s not like the anti-streetcar crowd isn’t being heard. Talk radio, online publications like Wisconsin Reporter and Right Wisconsin, Bob Donovan and Co., etc.

  2. Dave says:

    If you think this is a circus, wait until they propose bike racks for the new streetcar.

  3. Beer Baron says:

    Check into Tony Zielinski’s work with that “news” outlet. His connections to Koch run deep and he’s actively working to sell out his residents for his own favor. He’s a full turncoat.

  4. Joe Klein says:

    I am Spartacus. I am their leader. The streetcar cabal meets secretly every Wednesday in the former TMER&L subway tunnel under the Marquette Interchange. I plotted this out with Al Gore when we cooked up the Internet and the global warming plot to destroy American Capitalism.

    Thank you Bruce Murphy for throwing some light on that miserable piece of slanted journalism. The level of bull being spread by the streetcar appoints is more damning to their own cause than any argument the pro streetcar people could make. Facts may not speak for themselves, by lies and stupidity tend to bite the teller in the ass.

  5. BTW – Bike rack on new Toronto low floor streetcars. … and did you know they run in the snow?

  6. smh says:

    If there’s a subway tunnel in Milwaukee please make it the next house confidential!

  7. This is hilarious….

    Seems to me the complaint is the supporters of the Street Car are supporting the Street Car — doing what people do to influence others.

  8. PJ says:

    …I wonder if this publication will ever complain about an organization that is funded by Soros…..not waiting for an answer. #KOCHSHOCK

  9. Bruce Murphy says:

    PJ, I regularly note any idealogical connections to groups generating information. In Wisconsin, for instance, there’s the liberal One Wisconsin Now. I don’t know of any Soros-funded entities publishing info on this topic.

  10. PMD says:

    PJ what does Soros fund in terms of Wisconsin issues? Is he behind a pro-streetcar organization? Or an anti-mine one?

  11. Andrey says:

    “…the website development and maintenance cost $25,000…”

    I am apparently in the wrong business

  12. mary says:

    They say they have 17,000* signatures. That is what Donovan said in a crash the mic party, following the mayor’s southside meeting last night. Zielinski and Donovan ranted to a group of maybe 20 people. *which if you remember this the same number of signatures Kliesmet gave in his interview on Jan 26th with fox6. There may be some rounding up happening. Just an observation.

  13. Bill says:

    Mark Kass just published an editorial where he essentially said he wishes the opponents of the Streetcar, The Jock Tax and the Couture would all just shut up and go away. The Business Journal is all in on the streetcar.

  14. Frank says:

    I saw John Norquist meeting with Bruce, Pat Curley, Carl Mueller and other streetcar conspirators on the top floor of the Grand Avenue parking ramp at 3 a.m.last Sunday. Norquist had his fedora pulled low, but you could tell it was him by the monotone. These guys are definitely in cahoots.

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