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Right-to-work ad wars

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A lobbyist for various trades groups says he has no way of knowing if an advertisement he helped put on the air Monday has anything to do with Republican lawmakers’ decision this week to push right-to-work legislation.

But so what, says John Gard, if it did?

Gard, a spokesman for Wisconsin Infrastructure Investment Now and a former Republican speaker of the state Assembly, said his group has just as much freedom to take to the airwaves and espouse its views as do proponents of right-to-work.

“We are not targeting an individual,” he said. “I feel like everybody is at least allowed to have some voice.”

When discussing why Republican lawmakers had decided to put their right-to-work bill on a fast track through the state Legislature, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald has said he had caught wind of an impending ad campaign meant to dissuade his colleagues from supporting right-to-work. Fitzgerald, a Republican from Juneau, said at a news conference Feb. 20 in the state Capitol that he took what he had heard seriously enough to worry about getting the 17 votes needed to pass a bill out of the Senate.

“I lie awake at night losing sleep over that all the time,” he said. “You never know if someone will kind of change their mind or is given some information that they didn’t have before, if that forces them to change their mind.”

In the end, Fitzgerald proved he had the 17 votes he needed to eke his right-to-work legislation, Senate Bill 44, out of the Senate. The proposal now goes to the Assembly, where it is much more certain of being adopted, given the GOP’s 63 to 36 majority in that chamber.

Before announcing his surprise decision to take up a right-to-work bill this week, Fitzgerald said, he had taken an informal count of likely supporters and was surprised to find that 17 senators said they were willing to vote for right-to-work. He also said he believed Walker would sign the bill if it reached his desk, a prediction that was later confirmed by the governor’s spokeswoman.

Still, Fitzgerald said he was afraid support in the Senate was not stable and could quite possibly be diminished under the assault of an ad campaign. Hence the need, he said, to act now.

“My experience as leader is when you have the votes, you go to the floor,” Fitzgerald said. “You don’t wait around.”

The Wisconsin Infrastructure Investment Now’s ads feature Tim Butler, a veteran who operated heavy equipment for the U.S. Army and who now does similar work for Edgerton Contractors Inc., Oak Creek. Butler, a member of the operating-engineers union, proclaims in the 30-second TV spot that right-to-work would be harmful to both him and his employer.

“Like a lot of Wisconsin companies, my boss could lose skilled workers,” he says. “And that’s bad for everyone.”

Gard said Monday that the ads’ release might have been advanced in response to Republican lawmakers’ push for right-to-work but said the timing makes little difference for the actual message. He said the groups that oppose right-to-work — including the Wisconsin Contractors Coalition, which represents more than 400 construction companies — should be no more shy about expressing their views than should supporters like the powerful business-lobbying group Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce.

“I hope that doesn’t bother people,” Gard said. “But they are allowed to speak just like WMC is.”

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