Monday, February 20, 2017

Neoliberal politics in MPS school board race exerting deception and undue influence

School board races shouldn't be that expensive to be in one but with the influence of neoliberal, conservative PAC money in local races such as what is occurring in the current school board member race in Milwuakee, Wisconsin, they are making it very hard to compete as a representative and authentic leader of the grassroots community.

The posited ultimate goal by the business PAC as discussed by the author, Dominique Paul Noth below, is to have school board members friendly to vouchers.
You can help challenge this agenda by contributing Dr. Tony Baez' MPS board race by contributing to his campaign at ActBlue. 


Monday, February 20, 2017


By Dominique Paul Noth

The MMAC is a curious trade organization – since many businesses don’t know what they really trade in.

Ostensibly representing business interests as the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce it has a freewheeling political arm that does a lot of things its 1,800 member companies don’t know about and whose opinions individual members of these  businesses don’t always share, as many have told me.

Would members remain proud if they
knew what the political arm was up to?
If you look at its roster, the absence of many local “people friendly” businesses is quite notable, since people friendly and neighborhoods are not normal definitions of its activities. But what was more revealing to me was how many actual members did not know they have a hyper-active political lobbying arm and actually a political conduit that members pay for to fund candidates that supposedly speak in their name. You decide if this is what you want represented.

An interesting game has emerged, at least from my perspective.  The Betsy DeVos voucher school political arm, American Federation for Children, has become famous, or is that notorious?, for dipping its money rich fingers into races for the state legislature, especially  whenever there is  a strong advocate for good public schools to oppose.

That’s a bit unlike the MMAC, which sometimes supports ideas the general public might also  accept – after all, despite the myths, even liberal commentators are not anti-business – but trod a bit more carefully in Milwaukee related legislative affairs (such as worrying how some Milwaukee businesses would react if it became too public that MMAC was actively backing Waukesha’s intention to siphon Lake Michigan water).

DeVos as new education secretary will probably have to withdraw from more visible roles in solicitation, but the AFC is expected to march on with her family money.

Before his first election as state senator years ago, AFC used a series of flyers mailed to households (the cost being the entire budget of many other legislative races). It was trying to paint Chris Larson as a shoplifter because of a youthful dalliance that he had openly discussed before. 

In other races they hijacked public domain photos of anti-voucher public figures to appear in brochures for pro-voucher candidates, to fool voters about who was supporting them.

Their money and campaign methods have been wielded in rural communities against noted figures of firm community reputation who deserved re-election, such as Mandy Wright for the Assembly 85th District.  They won against her in a close election in 2016 where many think their money made the difference. But usually they have hit a brick wall – IF the community becomes aware of their dealings.

Outside money can become a horror to the local community when made aware of it, especially in things like school board races where the public still believes it decides.

Almost as if an organized “I’ll wash your back if you wash mine” agreement existed,   MMAC has dipped hard into AFC territory – Milwaukee school board races. The rationale is they want more students to be educated to their business needs.  Some of it may be sincere to make sure students know about business – even over what they know about the  arts or  civics. But much of it is based on the theory that, rather than paying for specialized education themselves, just let the taxpayers do it.

Tony Evers posing with other education names at a recent
fund raiser.  From left: Doug Armstrong, running for
Whitefish Bay school board, Evers, retired US Sen.
Herb Kohl and Larry Miller of MPS board.
The MMAC Conduit has dumped $10,000 against Tony Evers in the race for State Superintendent of Schools (primary Feb. 21). The money may now be needed as a protective barrier around John Humphries -- not so much against Evers (that comes later) but to keep the right-wing public from choosing a fellow GOP candidate in a nonpartisan race.

There has been a  self-destructive campaign war between Humphries and Lowell Holtz, also hungry for voucher money.  Humphries and Holtz are hurling accusations against each other about who originated a devious plan to seize control of Madison and Milwaukee public schools – in fact, even more urban districts that are making notable advances under highly educated and talented women.

The $10,000 may now give Humphries the ad cushion to make it easier for fence sitters to vault to his side.

But now MMAC is mucking in two of the four Milwaukee school board races that are on the ballot April 4 and are old-time AFC playgrounds. There are some intriguing connections back to the Evers race, which is statewide on both Feb. 21 and April 4.

Tony Baez doesn't face MPS election till April 4,
but MMAC money against him is already there.
While Tony Baez in MPS South Side District 6 is a remarkably experienced school leader and civil rights activist, suddenly on February 10 the MMAC dropped $3,950 behind his opponent. Now that amount of money in a school board race is really remarkably rich to help an unknown, especially when you add in the other business interests that have bulged the coffer against Baez to $7,900. I have covered entire school board races that ran on just two or three thousand.

Such early MMAC money suggests Wisconsin should brace itself for far more by April 4, probably again timed too late for most news outlets and TV stations to even be aware of the game, as was true with the Evers money dump.

The main thing besides money against Baez is the beneficiary’s name — Jonatan Zuniga. Here's a largely unknown opponent who has a Latino sounding name in a district rich in Hispanic households that have been a long-time target for voucher school and religious school come-hithers.

Take a moment to consider how insulted Latinos should feel having a Latino sounding name being the main claim to recognition and backing. A PhD Dr. Joseph won that same district four years ago because of credentials.  Her photo and her first name, Tatiana, revealed her heritage, but she was already  mightily well-known as a UWM professor and a  champion of children, Latino and others. 

This time we seem to  have the cynical assumption that every Hispanic knows or identifies with every other Hispanic and will vote for the name.  The public has to hope the Hispanic voters are smarter than Trump, who recently committed the same faux pas that the African American community learned long ago to laugh about, the assumption “that every black person must know every other black person”  as Rep. Elijah Cummings joked. This came after Trump asked a black reporter to introduce him to the Black Caucus (they are not really black; the group represents many minorities, including Latinos). It also came as Trump made up a story about Cummings being too scared to meet with him, quickly exposed as a lie.

Dr. (as in highly educated) Baez is a proven and tested quantity and has until April 4 to make that clear to district voters, who like personal encounters more than the flyers money can buy.  An articulate veteran of community service and helper of low income families, Baez is also endorsed by state Supt. Tony Evers (more on that race in a moment, but trust me, it all ties together).

The MMAC contributions may reveal a lot more about Zuniga that his resume does -- it should be a warning signal to constituents of school district 6, because this business trade group doesn’t give something without expecting something back. 

MMAC has been supportive of voucher schools and religious education – nothing wrong in that by itself. But since the state funding formula robs public schools to finance religious schools with taxpayer money whether they belong to that religion or not, the whole exercise is rather shifty. MMAC should be fighting hard for a better formula but instead they are fighting to shift representation of education money to business interests they expect will be more receptive to their wishes.

Similarly over in District 4, Annie Woodward has been a veteran of public service, moving to the school board after retiring as a mental health and service professional at Milwaukee County Health and Human Services.  For several election cycles since, she has been a champion of what you would expect from an MPS board member – vibrant healthy public schools that may need better management but also need intelligent use of better money.

Her opponent, Aisha Carr, has received $3,450 – nearly as much as Zuniga – from MMAC and added money from the same business interests.  Her brochure and website emphasize her survival as a single mother, her support of Black Lives Matter and her work as a teacher, saying nothing of her stand on issues, voucher schools, funding formula or anything substantial she wants to accomplish.  (Recall there are some prominent Democrats who also support vouchers, such as Lena Taylor and Jason Fields, and they have a sturdy opposition from their constituents and educators over that.)

In sum, Carr is also black in a predominately black district, a single mother which always sounds like a hard-knock life, and more photogenic (i.e. younger) than Woodward. So mostly her campaign is a hope that black voters will swallow “change” without meaning. It seems to have happened in some places on November 8 -- change to anything or anyone who hasn’t been in the trenches struggling.  Woodward has been there, and that shouldn’t be a negative.

But why should we worry about April 4 school board elections now? Shouldn’t we just go out and vote Tuesday?  As election sites remind us, no more than two candidates are running for any of the MPS seats, so there is no need for a primary this time around. 

To look a little further into April 4, there is genuine competition for East Side District 5 between a veteran I have long admired, Larry Miller, and newcomer Kahri Phelps Okoro, who has a construction company background.  There is also an open seat for District 8 between two candidates who both have strong progressive credentials, Joey Balistreri and Paula Phillips. Interesting how quality and ideology in these races did not tempt the MMAC, while Zuniga and Carr did.

That MMAC money jives with the right-wing effort to defeat Evers, who is likely to move forward Feb. 21 (probably against Humphries).

But the MMAC Conduit had scant money to offer  at the end of 2016. Then suddenly this PAC (Political Action Committee) got $20,000 at the end of January – in one big gift on the same day it forwarded $10,000 to the Humphries campaign!

The $20,000 to the conduit came from Agustin Ramirez, the retired chairman of Waukesha’s Husco International and a respected businessman and philanthropist with a special interest in Christian schools. In fact, he pushed through City Hall and is self-funding the building of St. Augustine Preparatory Academy, located at 2607 S. 5th Street, where some city fathers once dreamed of building soccer fields.

Enrolling students this February with the intention of opening three grades for the 2017-2018 school year and growing into a facility serving 2,000 K-12 “primarily Hispanic students,” the school has only told the public it would be “private.” It has told the applicants much more. It is accepting applications through the city and state voucher school programs. 

(The state program inflates levels of family income far beyond what taxpayers long expected to be their contribution to voucher schools, ranging up to $75,647. Simply add $7,696 to your taxpayer cost for each family member up to eight accepted by these schools, which still don’t face the same accountability standards as public schools.)

Perhaps after the building, this is not quite the philanthropic largesse Ramirez originally promoted. (I would be accused of sarcasm if I also suggested the school will discover a far lower percentage of Hispanic special needs students in the Hispanic population compared with the high percentage in the general population absorbed by the public schools -- voucher schools do have a habit of somehow not seeing or finding such students.)

The school would be located in the school district that Baez and Zuniga are vying for April 4 – and bingo, that seems where the MMAC and Ramirez‘s generosity connect.  If you’re running a voucher school wouldn’t you want a more pliable MPS board? 

MMAC lobbyist Steve Baas.
The MMAC conduit did not have the money on hand to contribute to these school races until Ramirez stepped in.

Steve Baas, the MMAC’s senior vice president of governmental affairs and public policy (in other words, lobbying mouthpiece), has stated forcefully that his group's PAC does not make donations at the request of individual donors and simply “reaches out” to all its business members for contributions.

Wonder if he has a bridge to Brooklyn for sale. 

About the author: Noth has been  a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its original Green Sheet, also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He also created its Friday Weekend section and ran Sunday TV Screen magazine and Lively Arts as he became the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and Internet and consumer news. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with archives at  In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as his culture and politics outlets known as Dom's Domain.  He also reviews theater for 

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