Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Michael Grebe, Stealth Warrior

Is the Bradley Foundation CEO the real thinker behind Scott Walker’s policies?

By - Jun 9th, 2015 01:14 pm
The Bradley Foundation  Headquarters. Photo by Dave Reid.

The Bradley Foundation Headquarters. Photo by Dave Reid.

About a decade ago, not long after I’d taken over as editor of Milwaukee Magazine, PR operative H. Carl Mueller invited me to a breakfast with Michael Grebe, the head of the conservative Bradley Foundation. I had written extensively about the foundation in the past and had interviewed Grebe’s predecessor, Michael Joyce on several occasions, and he was always quotable, an intellectual battler who loved the limelight.

Not Grebe, it turned out. The breakfast was a snoozer. I got an update on the foundation that told me nothing of any great interest. The only thing I got out of Grebe was an admission that the foundation had been embarrassed by its association with The Bell Curve. This was the book Joyce and the foundation funded by Charles Murray that argued there were racial differences in intelligence, which set off a storm of controversy.

Clearly, the foundation wanted no more such incidents, and Grebe was the right man for the job. Joyce loved to bash the “liberal establishment” and tout all the projects and scholars the foundation was funding to vanquish liberalism. Grebe by contrast, was almost invisible, volunteering little about what his foundation was doing and handling media questions with a style that deftly downplayed and defused any possible issue. The foundation, was if anything, even more devoted to promoting conservative causes, even trimming funding of Milwaukee arts groups to help accomplish this, but it was far more quiet, far more under the radar, than in the Joyce era.

After Scott Walker was elected governor and shocked the world with his proposal to decimate public unions, the question arose: who are his advisors? One theory was Grebe, who had served as campaign chair for Walker (and who would serve again in that position for the recall election) and Milwaukee Magazine pursued that idea. But Grebe declined an interview with writer Kurt Chandler on the subject, and no one interviewed for our story mentioned Grebe as a key influence.

Later that year, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel assigned a team of reporters to look at how the Bradley Foundation is building “a conservative empire” and got an interview with Grebe. The story told readers that “Grebe is also upfront about his leadership position with Walker’s campaign,” but in fact offered not one quote from him regarding this. We did learn that Grebe was interviewing finalists for some of Walker’s cabinet posts and that the Bradley-funded MacIver Institute had done an editorial demanding the repeal of public employee collective bargaining just a few weeks before Walker first proposed this. But Grebe dismissed the charge that his group is antagonistic toward organized labor, the story noted, though again with no quote from him.

But when the New York Times comes calling, ah, that’s a different matter. Yesterday the newspaper did a story headlined, “Behind Scott Walker, a Longstanding Conservative Alliance Against Unions,” and we were introduced to a considerably more talkative Mike Grebe.

“At the risk of being immodest, I probably lent some credibility to his campaign early on,” Mr. Grebe, 74, told the Times.

Mr. Grebe said he first spotted Walker when the latter was a Marquette University student volunteering at events for Reagan or the Republican Party of Wisconsin. Grebe donated $1,000 to Walker’s campaign for county executive and became a member of his transition team, and “said he had come to believe that Mr. Walker was determined to bring change to the county in spite of ‘a highly charged partisan relationship with the Democratic-led county board,’” the Times reports.

The Times seems to borrow from the Journal Sentinel (if so, without crediting the paper) in noting the MacIver Institute editorial on collective bargaining, and also notes the Bradley’s funding of groups like Americans for Prosperity, MacIver and the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, all supporting much of the Walker agenda. (The Times misses the fact that the WPRI was actually created by Joyce and the Bradley Foundation back in the 1980s.)

“Some people in the Walker campaign were scratching their heads about how to deal with union health and pension costs, and we supplied the ideas,” James R. Klauser, who was chairman of the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute at the time, told the Times. “Mike Grebe wanted to see union reform, but I don’t think he got into the details. But the issue was a good match with Walker himself: He’s very conservative, and he takes pride in trying big things.”

Grebe told the Times that he and Walker had similar views about unions. “I knew Act 10 was going to be quite divisive and controversial, but it was a very good idea, a good set of policy moves,” Grebe said. But he added that “all the credit” should go to the man in office: “There’s this attempt to portray me as some kind of Svengali in my relationship (with Walker)… and that’s simply not the case.”

Grebe also told the Times Walker would make “a very good president” and had a “decent chance to get the nomination.” He might not be Walker’s svengali, but Grebe seems to want everyone to know he’s been portrayed that way. Yes, Grebe finally seems to be embracing — with great gusto — the role of Walker’s most important advisor. But Walker declined to discuss his conservative allies with the Times.

A few other Bradley connections worth noting:

-Walker’s talk radio cheerleader Charlie Sykes also has a connection to the foundation. Sykes’ wife Janet Riordan is director of community programs at the Bradley Foundation, earning $111,320 in compensation, according to the foundation’s most recent federal tax form,  and Sykes has long edited Wisconsin Interest, published by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, which in turn gets funding from Bradley.

-Walker recently appointed Grebe’s son, Mike M. Grebe, to the UW Board of Regents.

-Then there is nationally syndicated columnist George Will, who is a veritable cluster of conflicts. He has heaped praise on Walker in columns and has recently disclosed that his wife Mari Will now works for Walker, serving as an advisor to his Super Pac, Our American Revival. George Will sits on the board of the Bradley Foundation, earning a $43,500 annual fee, has won the Foundation’s $250,000 Bradley Prize and has done columns praising the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, which was essentially created by and is heavily funded by the Bradley Foundation. Media Matters devoted an entire column to a long list of alleged ethical lapses by Will.

Categories: Murphy's Law, Politics

9 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Michael Grebe, Stealth Warrior”

  1. PMD says:

    And this has to be at least part of the reason for the GOP’s success in Wisconsin (outside of presidential elections at least). Yes redistricting has played a role, but when you factor in the Bradley Foundation and WPRI and WILL and MacIver and talk radio, that is one well-oiled and on-message machine. You can’t help but be impressed. I have to think state Dems would kill for that kind of disciplined coordination and messaging.

  2. Jake formerly of the LP says:

    So the people who put together countless MacIvered propaganda pieces about “greedy teachers” gives Liz Woodhouse over $100K a year? And gives George F’ing Will $43,500 to lie his clueless backside off?

    Oh, and aren’t these guys avoiding Milwaukee property taxes because they claim to be a “social welfare” organization? I think I remember reading that at some point.

    People like Grebe and the Bradleys are going to revive the guillotine if they keep this act up.

  3. tommy says:


    The Dems should beat them at their own game? Then everyone would be better off? Well not everyone. Journalists who are not part of the “conservative” cabal would be able to sit on boards, be bought and paid for.

    Not my idea of a “free press” that is essential for democracy.

  4. tim haering says:

    Bruce, your headline seems to ask the old Tommy question: “Who’s your Klauser?” I don’t think Walker has a Klauser. Kinda risky, but like he says, “I love risk.”

    The Question: Is he risking his secure East Wing for a full-court fling at the West Wing?

  5. Kent Mueller says:

    Michael Grebe should be proud of his accomplishments. In four short years Wisconsin has demonized not just all public employees but most especially teachers. Now they’re hacking away at higher education. Hard to believe the good conservatives of Waukesha-Ozaukee-Washington Counties intended their high-scoring schools to repel the best teaching talent but hey, if that’s the price you have to pay, along with pot-holes, for a ten or 140 dollar average tax-cut so be it.
    Pot-holes? Talk about high-scoring, how about third worst roads in the country and a large transportation fund deficit? Great for business, just the best. Exactly what every corporation is looking for when it comes to location.
    Employment? Wage growth? Entrepreneurship? Worst in the region, among the worst in the nation. Way to go, Mikey!
    Slightly off-topic, but am I the only one here who expected to see “Scott Walker Visits Wisconsin” as a headline the other day?

  6. PMD says:

    tommy I am no fan of Walker or GOP legislators or any of the groups mentioned in this story. My point is that they are getting the job done and state Dems, in comparison, look pretty hapless and disorganized.

  7. PMD says:

    In case anyone is interested, Patrick Healy, co-author of the New York Times story Bruce references here, is on NPR’s Fresh Air program tomorrow to talk about Scott Walker.

  8. rnprn says:

    Fascism is alive and well in Wisconsin. Adolph would be proud!

  9. M. Douglas Kutzler says:

    So, Mr. Murphy if I understand the tenor of your rant correctly, Conservative thinkers and social scientists should sit quietly on the sidelines and allow only liberal social engineers to shape our future?

    Mr. Murphy, I am just an average guy doing an average job in my average way. I must tell you how humorous it is when I see and hear the liberal elite describe Act 10 as to use your words, “decimate public unions” as though union organizing had been outlawed. To my fellow workers of the world I remind you of this. If you love your job and you do it well, you will not need union stewards telling you how to do it, and most of all, how to think.

    Mr. Murphy, now that you have warned us of the dangers of Mr. Grebe, can we expect future exposes on the mega millions spent by George Soros for liberal activists groups. You are a journalist, I’m sure fairness is what you are all about.

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