Skip to main content

labor Hacked Records Show Bradley Foundation Taking its Conservative Wisconsin Model National

Records make clear the Bradley Foundation no longer simply favors groups promoting its signature issues: taxpayer-funded school choice and increased work requirements for welfare recipients. It now regularly funds nonprofits that are, among other things, hostile to labor unions, skeptical of climate change or critical of the loosening of sexual mores in American culture.

Long a player on the national stage, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee has been quietly using its vast resources to construct state-by-state networks of activist groups to win support for its conservative agenda from coast to coast.
This previously undisclosed effort by the Bradley Foundation was revealed in hundreds of thousands of documents swiped by international hackers from the foundation's server late last year.
Those internal documents, obtained by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in recent months, show the conservative powerhouse is working to duplicate its success in Wisconsin under Republican Gov. Scott Walker, focusing on such swing states as North Carolina and Colorado.
"You have to take a longer view on some of the things we're trying to accomplish," said Bradley Foundation CEO Rick Graber in an interview. "You're not going to see definitive results every three months. It can take decades."
The records make clear the Bradley Foundation no longer simply favors groups promoting its signature issues: taxpayer-funded school choice and increased work requirements for welfare recipients. It now regularly funds nonprofits that are, among other things, hostile to labor unions, skeptical of climate change or critical of the loosening of sexual mores in American culture.
More important, the foundation has found success by changing its fundamental approach to putting policies into reality. The Bradley Foundation is paying less attention to Washington, D.C. Instead, it is methodically building a coalition of outside groups aimed at influencing officials in statehouses from Pennsylvania to Arizona.
"Many say Washington is 'broken.' Whatever this might mean, it does not mean conservative policy advancement," said one internal Bradley memo from August 2014. Instead, it continued, "there has been a recent increase in state-level receptivity to meaningful conservative policy reform."
The result: Bradley Foundation, worth nearly $900 million, is underwriting local think tanks, opposition research centers, candidate recruitment groups, conservative media, bill-drafting organizations and litigation centers around the nation — what some critics call "shadow governments."
The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation underwrites various organizations to develop a conservative network in each state. In recent years, the Bradley Foundation has spent money building up a conservative network in more than a dozen states.
The foundation is now targeting these five states based on the advice of consultants and staff. The grants in these states tend to be larger and riskier than its other ones. Expanding Wisconsin template As it often does, the foundation tested its new strategy in the political petri dish of Wisconsin, financing a network of conservative groups that defended and promoted Walker and his agenda, including his attacks on labor unions. From 2011 to 2015, these dozen-plus nonprofits, labeled the Wisconsin Network, received more than $13 million from the conservative foundation.
Michael Grebe, who stepped down as president and CEO of the Bradley Foundation last year after 15 years in charge, said he decided to make the change in direction.
"We didn't create any of these organizations, but clearly we had a prominent role in funding those operations, particularly as they got up and running," said Grebe, who has been chairman of Walker's campaign committee since 2010. "I think it's been rather successful."
Rob Stein, who tracks the state-by-state political networks for the liberal Democracy Alliance, agreed.
"The Bradley Foundation has figured this out," Stein said. "The presidency is the least important lever of power for them to control.
"We didn't create any of these organizations, but clearly we had a prominent role in funding those operations, particularly as they got up and running," said Grebe, who has been chairman of Walker's campaign committee since 2010. "I think it's been rather successful."
Rob Stein, who tracks the state-by-state political networks for the liberal Democracy Alliance, agreed.
"The Bradley Foundation has figured this out," Stein said. "The presidency is the least important lever of power for them to control.
"If they control state legislatures and governors and both houses of Congress and the Supreme Court, whether Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama or Donald Trump is president, they control the country."
If they control state legislatures and governors and both houses of Congress and the Supreme Court, whether Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama or Donald Trump is president, they control the country. Rob Stein Now the Bradley Foundation is trying to export the Wisconsin model with the help of a recent infusion of $200 million from a Bradley family member's trust. The foundation is actively trying to build a system of conservative groups in more than a dozen states, many crucial to the outcome of presidential elections.
Particularly attractive, one document says, are states where Republicans maintain what it calls "unified control" of the executive and legislative branches of government.
The internal records show the new dollars have already been spent in several states, including:
Starting in 2016, the foundation put $575,000 into five groups in Colorado, a key swing state. One group uses the money to recruit and train conservative activists and candidates while two others have the stated goal "to defund teachers unions."
Bradley Foundation officials are giving $1.5 million over three years to two organizations in North Carolina, another swing state, to "create a comprehensive communications infrastructure around four primary elements: radio, online content aggregation, mobile applications and an AP-style news service for local newspapers." One group has acquired a Drudge Report-style website called Carolina Plott Hound.
In the states of Washington and Oregon, a group called the Freedom Foundation was awarded $1.5 million over three years to "educate union workers themselves about their rights — which, if and when exercised, would defund Big Labor."
Already, the Freedom Foundation has won a two-year court battle in the state of Washington to get the names of 34,000 members of a major union and contacted many of them to try to get them to drop their membership. The Freedom Foundation even hired a Santa Claus to stand outside a Washington state agency to encourage workers there to opt out of the union.
Refining conservative blueprint
The records used by the Journal Sentinel became available because a foreign group calling itself Anonymous Poland hacked the foundation's server shortly before the 2016 general election and briefly posted the compressed file of 30 gigabytes of hacked data information online. The information included more than 56,000 internal files. Foundation officials, who reported the crime to the FBI, still don't know who was behind the security breach.
Those internal files point out the Bradley Foundation was following the lead of liberal philanthropists called the "Gang of Four" who famously achieved this by putting big bucks into Colorado to further their agenda there more than a decade ago. A book on their success, called "The Blueprint: How the Democrats Won Colorado," came out in 2010.
Today, Wisconsin liberals have their own alliance of groups, often funded by unions or billionaires such as George Soros, that provide help to Democrats and liberal candidates for nonpartisan office.
One Wisconsin Now, for example, digs up dirt on conservative politicians that can be used in political ads, and Emerge Wisconsin and Wisconsin Progress recruit and train liberal candidates and grass roots activists, just as the Bradley-funded American Majority does for candidates on the other side of the aisle. The Center for Media and Democracy posts original reporting and stories while pursuing a left wing agenda.
An internal Bradley document compiles a list of 17 liberal organizations that "attack groups and people helping the Foundation further its mission" — an enemies list, of sorts. Making the list were two Wisconsin groups, One Wisconsin Now and the Center for Media and Democracy, and a host of national ones, including Media Matters for America, Democracy Alliance and Open Society.
The Bradley Foundation board voted in 2014 to approve pursuing grants intended "to mitigate the damage" these groups can do, according to the minutes of the meeting.
History of Influence
But Wisconsin liberals already trail their conservative counterparts in important ways. They don't have state-based legal centers or think tanks, for instance.
"The word I would use is grit," said Mike Tate, a former state Democratic Party chairman who works with liberal nonprofits and candidates. "They have a 15- or 20-year vision, and they are executing it. They have their eyes on the horizon the whole time. That is not something seen in a substantial way in the progressive movement."
Tate concluded, "As much ink as the Koch brothers get, what the Bradley Foundation is doing has a way bigger impact and is way more substantial."
History of influence From its inception in 1985, the Bradley Foundation funded organizations tethered to conservative ideals of limited government, free markets and a strong national defense — a mission crafted in keeping with the late manufacturing titans and brothers Lynde and Harry Bradley, who built the Allen Bradley Co. into a manufacturing giant.
Lynde Bradley died in 1942, and the Lynde Bradley Foundation, later called the Allen-Bradley Foundation, was set up that year. The foundation supported local causes, including schools, hospitals and the Boys Club. Eventually, its assets reached nearly $14 million.
Harry Bradley, a fierce anti-Communist and a supporter of the right wing John Birch Society, died in 1965.
Twenty years later, the company the two brothers founded was sold to Rockwell International for $1.65 billion. A portion of the proceeds boosted the foundation's assets to $290 million.
With the influx of money came a new name, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, and a more ambitious goal of promoting the brothers' conservative values to a national audience.
Since then, millions of Bradley Foundation dollars have been directed to groups such as the Hudson Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace and the Federalist Society. Smaller amounts have flowed to major conservative publications, including Reason, Crisis, First Things, National Affairs and FrontPage Magazine.
An internal statement of "current program interests" spells out the scope and breadth of the Bradley Foundation's agenda in more specific terms than the mission statement, which is posted on the group's website.
First, the statement says the foundation is interested in promoting government policies that "lower taxes, cut spending and reform entitlements." It also said it favors tort reform, gifted education programs and school choice while opposing civil rights programs that judge people by the color of their skin.
"It identifies and supports institutions and projects exposing and highlighting Big Labor's role in obstructing the (conservative) program," the statement reads.
In 2009, records show, Grebe commissioned former Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen and his ex-chief of staff, Brett Healy, now the head of a Bradley Foundation-funded think tank, to do a study of the liberal and conservative networks in Wisconsin. The report was recently updated.
"That was at the beginning of our increased focus on state infrastructure," said Grebe, a former managing partner at the Foley & Lardner law firm and former counsel for the Republican National Committee.
"We wanted to see the relative array of resources from the left and right," Grebe continued. "What we took away from that was that conservatives (in Wisconsin) were being out-resourced, outspent by people on the left."
Along with the study, Bradley Foundation staffers began circulating copies of the blueprint internally and among some of its supporters. The document argued that, along with Colorado, liberals had built a "healthy, sustainable, progressive infrastructure" in Wisconsin and Minnesota.
It wasn't long until all sides concluded the foundation needed to shift its focus and dollars away from the federal government in Washington. Perhaps, officials thought, with then-President Barack Obama in charge, the conservative outfit should take a page from the playbook of the deep-pocketed liberals in Colorado.
"We felt this was something we should try," Grebe said. "Since Wisconsin was our home, we would start with Wisconsin."
Stein, the founder of the liberal Democracy Alliance, said the Bradley Foundation's investment in state-based groups works well alongside the spending by the industrialist Koch brothers in Americans for Prosperity and Freedom Partners.
This partnership, Stein said, is "brilliantly conceived" and could lead to a permanent "red wall" for Republicans in national and state elections. "It's what I call the Republican iron curtain," Stein said.
Laying Wisconsin Groundwork
Beginning in late 2010 and early 2011, the Bradley Foundation started putting money into 14 Wisconsin-based groups.
That meant helping support Media Trackers, a website that distributes negative information on liberals and certain Republicans, and Wisconsin Watchdog, which published nearly 400 stories attacking the John Doe investigation of Walker and his GOP allies over their campaign spending in the recall elections. It also has poured millions of dollars collectively into two think tanks, the MacIver Institute and the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute.
And American Majority took in more than $1.6 million from the Bradley Foundation from 2011 to 2015 to identify and train "pro-freedom" individuals interested in running for office or participating in the political process. In just four years, the group trained more than 6,000 local political leaders and helped candidates run for everything from municipal judge to state lawmaker.
"From that group, there were 651 new leaders in state or local office, including whole cohorts of candidates who, together, overturned school boards and county boards, and village boards, and made them newly accountable to the citizens," wrote Janet Riordan, then a Bradley staffer in 2015 and the spouse of former conservative talk show host Charlie Sykes, the editor of WPRI's "Wisconsin Interest" magazine.
In 2010, both of the houses in the Wisconsin Legislature flipped from Democrat to Republican, putting the party in charge of redistricting after the census.
"This has been a long-term investment for the Bradley Foundation, but it paid off when Walker succeeded in dismantling public sector unions in 2011," said Mary Bottari of the liberal Center for Media and Democracy, which appears on the Bradley Foundation's enemies list. "Once you have gutted out the opposition, you can continue to win on issue after issue because you have made yourself the only game in town."
Buoyed by the success in the Badger state, nonprofits began asking the foundation for cash to begin doing similar work elsewhere.
For instance, in Pennsylvania, a local think tank, Media Trackers and American Majority, requested grant money in 2013 "to create a permanent, alternative 'infrastructure' that they say mimics Wisconsin's." A Bradley staffer noted the "potential national importance of Pennsylvania as a place for policy to pivot."
Likewise, the Texas Public Policy Foundation has been given more than $300,000 to pursue policies such as eliminating the Texas property tax and replacing it with a sales tax or requiring that Texas state agencies cannot be expanded but only downsized, privatized or eliminated.
In March, the Texas foundation registered to start lobbying Wisconsin lawmakers on a dozen criminal justice and occupational-licensing bills.
And now there are 13 states with conservative public interest litigation centers and five state chapters of the Institute for Justice. The Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty has sued over issues ranging from limits on taxi cab licenses to emails to a senator on Walker's collective bargaining law, known as Act 10.
The money from the trust — along with a bump in its investments — helped boost the foundation's bottom line from $630 million at the start of 2013 to $903 million at the end of that year. Private foundations are supposed to give away at least 5% of their assets each year, a percentage that works out to between $40 million and $46 million a year these days for the conservative behemoth.
Bradley Foundation board members voted in 2014 to begin using a portion of the unrestricted Barder Funds on "capacity-building in the states." Graber said the foundation considers this money to be like venture capital funds, meaning they often are used for larger, higher-risk grants.
A staff analysis of the situation said the foundation was known historically for supporting the national think tanks that "laid the foundation for and then helped sustain the conservative ascendance beginning in the 1980s." Along with that, the report said Bradley paved the way for Gov. Tommy Thompson's W-2, or Wisconsin Works, welfare-to-work program and the taxpayer-funded voucher program for public schools in Milwaukee.
But the report concluded that "conservativism's ascendance was not permanent nor universal," noting that two Democratic presidents have been elected to two terms since the 1990s. By contrast, it noted, Republicans now have control of both houses of the legislature and the governor's office in half the states, opening the door to "meaningful conservative policy advancement."
Some call this coalition of power in statehouses a political "trifecta," but the Bradley report opted to call it "unified control," a term coined by former board member George Will, a columnist for the Washington Post. The report noted that many of the states with unified control also have "restrained" Supreme Courts as opposed to "activist" ones.
In building these state-based conservative networks, the study said, the Bradley Foundation should focus on finding dynamic leaders for think tanks, grass roots groups, legal centers and other organizations. "Chefs, not restaurants," it explained.
"Given the demise of the media as it was constituted at Bradley's beginning, a relatively new characteristic of successful conservative infrastructures, including at the state level, is investigative journalism that doesn't rely on old or new organs of the left and is able to stand on its own," the report said. "The Foundation has taken note, and tries to help here, too."
In deciding where to spend the Barder funds, board members had its staff and an outside consultant rate states in terms of the conservative networks by grading them from one to five in eight different categories, including think tanks, local funding, advocacy journalism and receptive policy-makers.
Given the Bradley Foundation's spending in the state, Wisconsin, not surprisingly, came out on top, receiving 39 of 40 points. The only area where it didn't receive a perfect score was for conservative groups that do "opposition research."
A consultant recommended that Bradley officials focus their spending in eight states, led by Colorado, which was described as "an important swing state with a broad base of center-right organizations and donors."
After soliciting grant proposals from scores of conservative groups, the Bradley board took the consultant's advice and put $575,000 into five groups in Colorado as well as pumping money into projects in North Carolina, Washington, Oregon and Wisconsin.
A slew of proposals from more than two dozen other states were under review late last year.
According to the internal documents, SEIU Local 925 in the state of Washington has lost 4,000 members, or 60% of its total, since the Freedom Foundation was awarded its Barder grant. The group had also sent out seven mailers and three emails and done automated and live calls and door-to-door canvassing of members of SEIU Local 775 to try to get them to opt out of the union.
But SEIU won a big victory in November with a ballot initiative to bar any future release of union membership lists contained in public records. The Freedom Foundation is challenging the constitutionality of the measure.
Less successful has been the efforts by the conservative John Locke Foundation to provide news stories in North Carolina. An earlier report said only 12 small papers had signed up.
"The AP-style Conservative News Service for local newspapers has not taken hold as originally contemplated," said a June 14, 2016, report. "There has not been much success so far at all in recruiting papers to sign up and use the service."
One of the most ambitious projects is a $1.2 million, three-year grant to the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty to establish a Center for Competitive Federalism. The group hopes to use the money to go to court to stop the federal government from coercing states into taking certain actions in exchange for receiving federal funds, such as passing specific OWI laws to obtain federal highway dollars.
Rick Esenberg, head of the institute, has said he will "seek the best opportunities for meaningful litigation."
Along with these state-based efforts, there are another 20 national groups receiving significant dollars from the conservative philanthropy that were helping with the state efforts. These include the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which provides model bills to lawmakers, Americans for Tax Reform Foundation, America's Future Foundation, Think Freely Media and the Liberty Foundation of America.
Among the most significant is the State Policy Network, a collection of 66 state and national think tanks and 80 affiliate organizations from around the country that originally organized in 1992.
Wisconsin has three members and two affiliates of the network, which has its headquarters in Virginia.
Over the years, the Bradley Foundation has poured out nearly $116 million to 65 members and associates of the conservative network, according to a tally by the Center for the Media and Democracy. That includes more than $21 million to the five Wisconsin groups in the network.
Contact Daniel Bice at (414) 224-2135 or Follow him on Twitter @DanielBice or on Facebook at
© 2017 The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, All rights reserved.