By John McCormick
When Wisconsin Democrats failed recently to block anti-union legislation supported by Gov. Scott Walker, one name kept coming up: the Bradley Foundation.
The Republican governor's opponents wanted to know whether the Milwaukee group helped draft the bill or coached those who testified for it. Their suspicions were rooted in the fact that Michael Grebe, one of Walker's closest advisers, leads the powerful yet mostly inconspicuous voice for American conservatism. Diane Hendricks, a billionaire roofing-supply executive who is Walker's top individual donor, is on its board.
Bradley and Grebe were central to Walker's rise to national prominence four years ago, when he rolled back the power of government unions. They'll probably be equally key to his almost-certain presidential bid.
"Without the Bradley Foundation, there is no Scott Walker," said Democratic state Sen. Chris Larson, whose district includes its headquarters.
With almost $1 billion in assets, the group has financed research and policy experiments concerning public vouchers for private schools, voter-identification requirements and collective-bargaining restrictions _ all issues Walker has championed. Bradley had ties to many who testified for the "Freedom to Work" law, which lets employees in union workplaces opt out of membership.
While the group has a lower profile than those of David and Charles Koch, the billionaires who've raised hundreds of millions for Republicans, including Walker, its aims are similar.
"They are kindred spirits," Aaron Dorfman, executive director of the Washington-based National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, said of the Bradley Foundation and the Koch brothers.
One key distinction: The nonprofit foundation can't directly engage in politics, while the Kochs can spend their wealth on campaigns however they like and enlist other donors. Bradley spends roughly double the national average of 12 percent of foundation dollars on policy and public affairs, Dorfman said.
"The Bradley Foundation has been one of the leading funders of the conservative movement," he said. "They've supported think tanks and other organizations that have been very effective at moving a conservative policy agenda."
For all of Bradley's political involvement, most of its giving is directed toward charities, artistic and cultural institutions, and schools. It's especially generous to entities in Milwaukee, including the Milwaukee Art Museum, theaters, Boy Scout troops and Little League teams.
To Larson, all that charitable work isn't enough to mitigate actions he says harm his community. "If they weren't here, I think our community would be a lot better off," he said.
Walker, 47, isn't the only likely Republican presidential candidate with ties to the outfit. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush won a $250,000 Bradley Prize in 2011, recognition that he said at the time left him "incredibly humbled." Bush was picked because of his creation of a charter school and testing program and for efforts to "cut taxes every year of his tenure in office," the foundation's website says.
Still, Walker, who, along with Bush, leads in early polling about possible Republican candidates, has stronger ties to the foundation.
In 2009, Walker picked Grebe as campaign chairman. Less than a week after winning the governor's office in November 2010, Walker dined at a Milwaukee restaurant with the foundation's board and senior staff, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported. Grebe went on to lead Walker's campaigns against a recall in 2012 and for re-election in 2014.
Before joining the foundation in 2002, Grebe was chairman and chief executive officer of one of the nation's largest law firms, Foley & Lardner, and is a past president of the University of Wisconsin board of regents. He's also a former general counsel to the Republican National Committee and RNC member for Wisconsin from 1984 to 2002.
The foundation paid him more than $518,000 in 2013, according to its most recent Internal Revenue Service disclosure.
Grebe declined an interview request for himself and the foundation. Kirsten Kukowski, a spokeswoman for Walker's political committee, Our American Revival, declined to comment on Walker's connections with Bradley.
Grebe has also promoted two other Wisconsin power players: RNC Chairman Reince Priebus and 2012 vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, who represents a southern Wisconsin district in Congress.
"Michael Grebe is one of the godfathers of modern Republican politics in Wisconsin," said Mark Graul, a Wisconsin consultant who has worked as a Republican campaign manager. "Mike is someone that everyone who runs for higher office consults with and gets advice from."
Graul downplayed the foundation's influence in Walker's rise in Wisconsin and the importance of Bradley-backed groups promoting his policy initiatives. Those "are uniquely and solely owned by Scott Walker," he said.
The roles played by various groups funded by the Bradley Foundation before, during and after the 2011 fight over Walker's signature issue suggest otherwise.
Before Walker's December 2010 announcement that he'd seek to eliminate almost all collective bargaining for state and local government workers, the John K. MacIver Institute for Public Policy in Madison called for the change. The think tank, which says it promotes "individual freedom, personal responsibility and limited government," received $85,000 from the foundation in 2011, records show.
Another Bradley-backed group, the Center for Union Facts, runs a website called Teachers Union Exposed. During the 2011 fight, it featured criticisms of the Wisconsin education establishment, the Journal Sentinel reported. That year, Bradley gave the center $300,000.
In 2011 and during the 2012 recall campaign, Americans for Prosperity Foundation spent millions on advertising and other activity on Walker's behalf. The organization, whose chairman is David Koch, received $40,000 in 2011 and 2012 from Bradley.
And when the law was challenged in court, the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty filed "friend-of-the-court" briefs in its support. The Milwaukee-based group received $375,000 from the foundation during 2012.
Whatever influence Bradley has had on Walker, they share one thing in common: increasing asset value. While the Wisconsin governor's political stock has risen among Republicans since his 2011 faceoff with unions, the foundation's holdings soared almost 60 percent to $922 million.
(c)2015 Bloomberg News