If the Koch brothers have their way, the next president will be a guy they all but created—and one whose propensity for alliances and questionable deals with robber barons and at least one dirty political player mark a quality only an oligarch could love.
When Walker, after winning Wisconsin’s 2010 gubernatorial election, burst on the national scene in 2011 with his jihad against the state’s public-sector unions, he seemed to come out of nowhere. But he had been groomed for years by powerful anti-labor forces, rising from the state assembly under the tutelage of Michael Grebe, president of the Bradley Foundation, a major backer of right-wing, anti-labor politicians and policies. Grebe also served as Walker’s campaign chairman.
In Sunday’s New York Times, reporters Patrick Healy and Monica Davey detail the role of the Bradley Foundation, part of the right-wing, dark-money funding network in which billionaires Charles and David Koch play key roles as organizers and donors, in Walker’s rise to national stature.
“At the risk of being immodest, I probably lent some credibility to his campaign early on,” Grebe told the Times reporters. It was Grebe, the Times reports, who first spotted Walker when the latter was a student at Marquette University (from which he never graduated).
Mentioned in passing in the Times piece is Mark Block, the dirty political operative who built the Wisconsin chapter of the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity (AFP), a group integral to Walker’s good fortune. If you want to take the measure of the Wisconsin governor as he prepares a run for the Republican presidential nomination, Block’s contribution to Walker’s stardom is instructive.
When Block was tasked with building a new AFP chapter in the Dairy State, he did so with the expressed goal of challenging the teachers unions. As I reported for AlterNet in 2011, Block told participants in a February 2010 Sheboygan Tea Party rally (video) that he wouldn't be satisfied until membership in the Wisconsin AFP chapter equaled the membership of the state teachers union, the Wisconsin Education Association Council.
During the time that Block was building one of AFP’s most important chapters, he was also implicated in a voter-caging scheme in Milwaukee that targeted university students and residents of African-American neighborhoods for ballot challenges during the 2010 election, the one that landed Scott Walker, then the executive of Milwaukee County, the governor’s mansion. Also implicated in the scheme was Reince Priebus, then chairman of the state Republican Party, who was rewarded with the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee.
At first, Block denied using the auspices of Americans for Prosperity to mail out the 500 letters to targeted voters that would be used as the means to challenge their votes. But when Tim Dake, leader of the Tea Party group Grandsons of Liberty that was involved in the activist part of the scheme, pointed the finger at Koch’s man in Wisconsin, Block relented and admitted his and AFP’s involvement.
According to the Times, in 2010 AFP received $520,000 from the Bradley Foundation—under the direction, one assumes, of its president and Walker campaign chair, Michael Grebe, and AFP national returned the favor, spending some $3.7 million on ads supporting the governor when Walker opponents launched a ballot measure to recall his election after he led the rammed-through passage of Act 10, the law that ended collective bargaining rights for most public employees in the state, and prompted progressive activists to occupy the state Capitol building for weeks in Madison. In response, AFP launched a “Stand With Walker” bus tour campaign.
Around the time of Walker’s gubernatorial campaign, Block was involved in another entity, this one contrived for his own personal gain, called Prosperity 101, which was billed as an optional educational program for employees of the companies who brought his outfit in to “educate” them on economics and the dangers allegedly posed by labor unions. At the end of the sessions, participants are encouraged to register to vote, on the spot. An early client of the program was Menards, the third-largest home-improvement store chain in the nation, which is based in Eau Claire. Founder John Menard is a prominent right-wing donor.
(Block later got into some trouble for using the resources of Prosperity 101 inappropriately for the Herman Cain presidential campaign, which Block managed. That wasn’t the first time Block had run afoul of the law: he was banned from participating in Wisconsin politics for three years after some hinky campaign solicitations on behalf of a state judge whose campaign he ran.)
Then there’s the murky campaign activities of Walker’s own campaign during the recall election, the subject of a “John Doe” investigation by the Milwaukee County district attorney of allegations of illegal coordination between non-profit advocacy groups and the gubernatorial campaign. The Journal Sentinel reported that Walker appeared to have asked prominent donors to contribute to the Wisconsin Club for Growth, a dark-money and bundling group that supports his anti-labor efforts. The prosecutors’ work has been on-again, off-again, as they face legal challenges to an effort whose details are cloaked in secrecy. Prosecutors have said that Walker himself is not a target, but it appears that former members of his campaign staff are.
David Koch, according to news reports, deemed Scott Walker his candidate of choice at a recent gathering of donors. And well he should, considering how well his Wisconsin toady has performed on his behalf.
But should Koch see a Walker nomination, reporters will have a field day turning over all the rocks to inspect the writhing ecosystem underlying Walker’s success. The question is whether any exposure of the forces behind Wisconsin’s governor will make a whit of difference.
A previous version of this article mistakenly stated that the home improvement store chain Menards was based in Racine, and that Scott Walker had attended the University of Wisconsin. Menards is headquartered in Eau Claire, and Walker was a student at Marquette University when he was first spotted by Michael Grebe. The article has been corrected.