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Construction groups go big with election spending

This year sees more spending meant to unseat lawmakers for policy decisions

In most election years, it’s not uncommon to see construction groups using political contributions to show appreciation for policies that benefit contractors, unions and others.

This year is bringing just the opposite, though — spending meant to unseat candidates whose policy decisions have been unpopular in many parts of the industry. Front and center in these efforts is Local 139 of the International Union of Operating Engineers, which had disbursed just over $140,000 through its state-level political action committee in the first 10 months of the year.

Local 139 is not only tied to the Construction Trades Coalition, an independent group that ran radio ads this September attacking various Republican state senators. The 9,000-member strong union has also completely broken with its past practice of giving money to Republican candidates for state office.

Although Local 139 is still giving to national GOP politicians such as House Speaker Paul Ryan, the group’s state-level spending has flowed exclusively to Democrats and aligned groups.

And it’s not alone.

Both the Wisconsin State Council of Carpenters and the Wisconsin Pipe Trades Association, two union groups with a history of contributing to Gov. Scott Walker and other Republicans, are now directing their spending to Democrats and their supporters.

Terry McGowan

Terry McGowan

Terry McGowan, Local 139 president and business manager, said the union’s political giving is being motivated largely by a desire to support candidates who will find a way to move long-planned road projects forward without saddling the state with an excessive amount of debt.

Walker and the Wisconsin Department of Transportation have proposed a budget that would hold the line on borrowing and tax increases at the cost of delaying parts of the Zoo Interchange reconstruction and other large projects. Critics have argued a more responsible way of proceeding would be to at least consider raising the state’s gas tax or vehicle-registration fees.

“We need to have adults working on the transportation budget,” McGowan said. “We need to have some adults in the room.”

McGowan also said that many people in the industry remain displeased with the Republicans who cast votes last year passing the state’s right-to-work law and overhaul of prevailing-wage requirements. McGowan said he was once assured by many of the candidates now up for re-election that they would support neither policy.

“I was looked in the eye and lied to,” he said. “Why would you back someone and give support to someone who lied to you?”

McGowan took some heat in the primary election for a Construction Trade Coalition ad that took the Democratic Assembly candidate Jimmy Anderson, a quadriplegic, to task for refusing to “stand up” to Walker. McGowan said he did not write the spot but did approve its wording, which he noted merely echoed phrases used on Anderson’s own website.

Since then, the Construction Trades Coalition last made a splash in September, when it spent $35,600 on radio ads that ran during Badgers and Packers football games.

“Game plan: Cut our losses, cut the Republican state Senators,” the ad states. “It’s time for a new team in Madison.”

The Construction Trade’s Coalition’s website, named “The Game Plan,” also leaves little doubt about the group’s strategy. The organizers want to wrest control of the state Senate from Republicans, who now control that chamber 19-14.

Luther Olsen

Luther Olsen

The Game Plan website points to three possibly vulnerable Republican state senators. State Sens. Luther Olsen of Ripon, Sheila Harsdorf of River Falls and Tom Tiffany of Hazelhurst all have Democratic challengers who have posed at least credible threats.

As Election Day has approached, much of the attention has centered on Olsen, who represents parts of eight counties. Often considered a moderate Republican, Olsen has come under fire for voting in favor of building a new arena for the Bucks in downtown Milwaukee.

The Construction Trades Coalition’s advertising efforts have been paid for in part by $50,000 that Local 139 gave the group this summer. And the largesse hasn’t stopped there.

Local 139 also gave $50,000 on July 26 to a left-leaning independent group named Prosperity for Everyday People, which has also received $50,000 from the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing & Pipefitting Industry. Together with a related organization named Wisconsin Prosperity, Prosperity for Everyday People has spent about $1.1 million in favor of Democratic candidates, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a group that tracks political spending.

Many of the resulting ads have run in the Fox Valley area, where a Republican and a Democrat are competing for a seat left open by the recently deceased state Sen. Rick Gudex, a Republican from Oshkosh. The website targets Dan Feyen, chairman of the Fond du Lac County Republican Party, who is running for the seat against Winnebago County Executive Mark Harris, a Democrat.

Both candidates have expressed willingness to consider raising the state’s gas tax. That position seems to be sparing them from attack ads run by another left-leaning group, the Wisconsin Freedom Alliance.

The Freedom Alliance had run spots in the run-up to the primary election held in August for the Fox Valley Senate seat but has abstained before the general election. Why the change?

“We have two candidates who support the gas tax, which is a good place to be,” said Steve Welchert, an adviser to the Freedom Alliance. “We have two candidates who support infrastructure investment in Wisconsin.”

Left-leaning groups are by no means the only ones spending heavily on the election. Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, a group that tends to support Republicans and whose members include construction companies, has funneled about $1.6 million into the election, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.

Such spending has helped set a record. The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign released a report Wednesday finding that groups with no formal connections to candidates or political parties have spent a record $7.8 million in the current contest. The previous record for a Wisconsin election was set in 2008.

To be sure, Local 139 is not the only group whose spending is coming in response to construction-related policies. The Associated Builders and Contractors of Wisconsin, a group that mostly represents nonunion companies, has used its political action committee to disburse nearly $50,000 this year.

Much of the money has gone to support Republican candidates who voted for the state’s recent prevailing-wage overhaul, which will have the pay requirements cease applying to locally funded projects starting Jan. 1. John Schulze, director of government relations for the group, said that the ABC, like Local 139, views its spending as a response to lawmakers’ policy decisions.

With the ABC, though, the goal is to protect incumbents.

“Our members know these folks went out on a limb with prevailing-wage reforms and other things,” Schulze said. “And they know that if you have folks who are like-minded and agree with you on policy, it’s good to have those folks in the Legislature.”

About Dan Shaw, dan.shaw@dailyreporter.com

Dan Shaw is the associate editor at The Daily Reporter. He can be reached at dan.shaw@dailyreporter.com or at 414-225-1807.

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