The head of the state’s largest construction union is defending an ad that some have criticized as a low blow aimed at a Democratic Assembly candidate who was left paralyzed by a drunken-driving accident.
Terry McGowan, president and business manager of Local 139 of the International Union of Operating Engineers, ended all speculation Wednesday about who might be behind radio spots that ran in the Madison area to dissuade voters from supporting Jimmy Anderson, a Fitchburg man who is in a wheelchair. McGowan said that the group that ran the ads – the Construction Trades Coalition – receives support from various construction unions and builders associations.
But he and the operating engineers are ultimately answerable.
“We’re the ones that do the books,” McGowan said Wednesday. “And if I’ve learned anything, it’s that I have to suck it up and take the responsibility.”
The Construction Trades Coalition injected itself into Anderson’s race by paying $10,000 for radio ads contending that voters couldn’t trust Anderson to “stand up” to Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican who has angered labor organizations with his support for right-to-work laws and eliminating prevailing wages. Many people found the spots offensive, noting that Anderson has been unable to walk since 2010, when a drunken driver left him paralyzed from a crash that also killed his parents and brother.
McGowan declined to say who actually wrote the spot but said he reviewed the wording before it went on the air. McGowan said he was surprised that anyone took offense.
He noted that Anderson contends in several places on his own website that he will “stand against Walker.”
McGowan said he is in a better position than many to understand the struggles of the disabled. His sister, he said, died last year at the age of 61 after spending much of her life paralyzed from the chin down.
“If I had seen anything that was offensive for someone who was in a wheelchair, I would have taken it out,” McGowan said.
The Construction Trades Coalition’s ad also faults Anderson for not putting his name to the petitions that were being circulated in 2011 to recall Walker from office. Anderson has released statements saying he was still recovering from his accident then and not able to hold a pen.
But McGowan, who himself supported Walker before the governor came out for right to work and prevailing-wage repeal, noted that state statutes contain an exception allowing disabled people to sign their names through the use of a proxy.
“If you are going to stand against (Walker) like it says on his website – not my words, his – you begin by making sure your name is on that petition for the recall,” McGowan said.
Anderson defeated two Democratic rivals in Tuesday’s primary. Since there is no Republican in the race, he is all but certain this November to be elected to a state Assembly seat that is now being vacated by state Rep. Robb Kahl, a Democrat from Monona.
Kahl has various ties to the construction industry. He is, for instance, executive director of the Construction Business Group, an organization that works to prevent abuses of the state’s labor laws.
The group’s top officials also include McGowan, who serves as chairman of the organization’s labor trustees. McGowan said Wednesday that the opposition to Anderson had nothing to do with the intra-party challenge of Kahl or Kahl’s ultimate decision to drop out of the race.
Instead, McGowan said, the ads were meant to throw support behind Julia Arrata-Frata, one of Anderson’s rivals in Tuesday’s Democratic primary. McGowan said Arrata-Frata was the only candidate who was vocal in her support for “responsible development in that Assembly district.”
The operating engineers gave the Construction Trades Coalition $20,000 on July 21, but they are not the only industry-connected organization to have contributed. The same day also brought $5,000 from a group called Wisconsin Infrastructure Investment Now, as well as $8,200 from the Milwaukee Metropolitan Association of Commerce.
Meanwhile in the Oshkosh area, a state Senate candidate went down to defeat amid ads contending that his support for eliminating Wisconsin’s personal-property tax on construction equipment and other items would cause other sorts of taxes to increase. Mark Elliott, a real-estate developer and former pastor out of Oshkosh, lost in Tuesday’s Republican primary to Dan Feyen, chairman of the Fond du Lac Republican Party.
Both Elliott and Feyen support eliminating the personal-property tax, which opponents have described as an outmoded relic that saddles contractors and other business managers with unnecessary paperwork and expenses. Only Elliott, though, became the subject of attack ads claiming that he favors raising taxes on land, buildings and other sorts of real property.
The state’s nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau has estimated that $270 million worth of personal-property taxes were collected in 2014 in Wisconsin. Most of the money went to local governments. Should that revenue source go away, local officials who are already struggling with tight budgets might be tempted to raise real-property taxes by a corresponding amount.
But both Elliott and Feyen denied their plans would result in tax increases, in part because they said they would find a way to slowly phase personal-property taxes out over a number of years. Meanwhile, various observers tried to link the attack ads against Elliott – paid for by a mysterious group named the Wisconsin Freedom Alliance – to his stance on the state’s transportation fund.
Elliott has aligned himself with Gov. Scott Walker in saying the state’s gas tax or other revenue sources should not be raised unless state spending can be reduced by a similar amount elsewhere. Feyen, in contrast, has expressed openness to raising revenue as a way to lower the state’s reliance on borrowing.
Yet, various construction-industry representatives have denied having any connection to the Wisconsin Freedom Alliance or knowledge of who is behind it. Attempts to reach the group have been unsuccessful.