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WI’s ideological candidate schools ‘graduating’ more elected officials

By   /   April 8, 2013  /   No Comments

By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON – The “farm team” is ready for the Big Leagues.

American Majority, a nonprofit political training organization, had a pretty good showing in last Tuesday’s Wisconsin spring elections – by grassroots standards, anyway.

The group, which defines itself as nonpartisan through its IRS 501(c)(3) filing status but is proudly conservative, counted 24 American Majority trained candidates advancing out of February’s primaries.

Nine of those candidates won their respective spring elections for schools boards, village boards city councils and county circuit courts, according to the organization.

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TRAINING GROUND: Conservative political training organization American Majority rallies at the Wisconsin capitol during the cold heat of the collective bargaining reform protests.

Following the elections, Matt Batzel, executive director of American Majority’s Wisconsin’s office, said the grassroots group’s “continued training throughout Wisconsin is paying off.” He said American Majority now has 60 trained candidates who have been elected to office since the Wisconsin office opened in October 2010.

“This election cycle we again saw more people elected to boards who one at a time are making a difference in the shape and outcomes of the boards they serve,” Batzel said in a news release.

And make no mistake about it, grassroots political training organizations like American Majority and their liberal counterparts in Wisconsin are making a big impact on the political process. While critics say ideological political training groups are creating cookie-cutter candidates in manufactured democracy, Batzel tells Wisconsin Reporter the movement is all about “empowering individuals and equipping them with the tools to run.”

But the idea is to make an impact, a difference, in the outcome of government. American Majority espouses free-market and conservative principles — cutting property taxes, limiting the size of government, curbing regulations. And the local level is where the impacts of those principles are felt.

In one of its latest releases, American Majority notes that it “works to build a farm team of candidates at all levels in government.”

“By building the farm team at this level, it is also where citizens can see the most change,” the organization states.

On the other end of the political spectrum is Wisconsin Progress. The state-based candidate recruitment and training program, founded in 2009, asserts on its website it is “responsible for building a progressive network of elected leaders at the local and state level.

“Our candidates represent the next generation of progressive leaders in Wisconsin,” the website declares.

It’s an arguably edgier group, with the motto: “Don’t get mad, get elected.”

Of the two things Wisconsin Progress wants the public to know about it, the second in short sums up this grassroots organization’s attitude:

“We are a little ticked off.”

“Why? Like you, we believe there should be more elected officials that are committed to progressive values. We want to see more diversity in the halls of power. We want to see more bold and fearless leaders that will stand up and make our voices heard.”

Scott Spector, executive director of Wisconsin Progress, said 80 percent of the approximately 80 candidates the group worked with at some level won their spring elections.

“We had a great election cycle,” he said of the nonprofit. Unlike American Majority, Wisconsin Progress is not a 501(c)(3), but works out of a political action committee.

Wisconsin Progress claims it is one of the few progressive organizations in the state with its own conduit – a way to “maximize” campaign contributions. Spector notes conservative groups are way ahead in campaign conduits, which collect and bundle individual contributions to target campaign funds to key individual races around the state.

The organization endorsed dozens of liberal candidates, including its Milwaukee County Judge candidate Janet Protasiewicz. The challenger lost to incumbent Judge Rebecca Bradley. Protasiewicz made a big deal out of Gov. Scott Walker’s appointment of Bradley.

The strategy of going after a Walker-appointed judge, however, worked in Dane County, where challenger Rhonda Lanford defeated Rebecca St. John despite St. John’s litany of liberal endorsements, including Madison Mayor Paul Soglin, arguably a top contender for most liberal mayor in America. In left-of-center Madison, a Scott Walker appointment, it seems, is a cup of political hemlock.

American Majority’s biggest win of the spring election was the Ozaukee County judge race, where American Majority-trained candidate attorney Joe Voiland defied conventional wisdom about the invulnerability of sitting judges and beat incumbent Circuit Judge Tom Wolfgram. Voiland picked up more than 60 percent of the vote.

The implications of that race were political, too. Voiland criticized Wolfgram for sacrificing his impartiality when he signed a petition to recall Walker.

Batzel said Voiland, an ardent supporter of conservative state Supreme Court Justice David Prosser, had a “powerful story” to tell.

In the wake of Act 10, the Walker-driven law that effectively gutted collective bargaining for most unionized public workers in the state, the political environment has been ripe for activism and homegrown candidacy, Batzel said.

Still, American Majority, at least in Wisconsin, is playing catch-up to liberal political training organizations that have had a lengthy head start over their conservative counterparts, Batzel said.

“They are the experts,” Batzel condeded. “Teachers unions have long been able to find school board candidates to run for local school boards, and they spread the word about their candidates. Teachers do vote in local elections. That’s a powerful constituency, and we have a natural disadvantage.”

Grassroots candidate schools aren’t going anywhere.

In 2014, just about every county has board elections,  while two-thirds of municipalities and school board have elections next year.

The right and the left are gearing up for an active season ahead, with a lot on the line. That’s where organizations like American Majority will see whether members of their “farm team” are crowned political champions.

Contact M.D. Kittle at mkittle@wisconsinreporter.com

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Kittle is a 25-year veteran of radio, newspaper and online journalism. In July 2011, Kittle joined Watchdog.org as bureau chief for Wisconsin Reporter. He has spent much of the past three years covering the seismic political changes taking place in the Badger State. Last year, Kittle joined Watchdog’s national reporting team, covering everything from energy policy to governmental assaults on civil rights. Beyond being published in Wisconsin’s daily newspapers and in multimedia news outlets, Kittle’s work has appeared on Fox News, and in Human Events, Reason Magazine, Newsmax and Town Hall. His special investigation into a politically charged John Doe probe, “Wisconsin’s Secret War,” was the basis of a 2014 documentary on Glenn Beck’s TheBlaze. Kittle has made several appearances on Fox News, including “On the Record with Greta Van Susteren. He serves as weekly politics commentator for Lake 96.1 FM in Lake Geneva, and WRJN-AM 1400 in Racine. His resume includes multiple awards for journalism excellence from The Associated Press, Inland Press, Wisconsin Broadcast Association and other journalism associations. Contact Kittle at mkittle@watchdog.org.