A comment from Michael Grebe, the president and CEO of the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, got us thinking. In a book produced by John J. Miller and Karl Zinsmeister for the Philanthropy Roundtable on how “wise givers” can influence public policy (Agenda Setting: A Wise Giver’s Guide to Influencing Public Policy), Grebe talks about how he has tried to keep the ideologically very conservative Bradley Foundation out of partisan politics. “I’m very careful about this,” Grebe said to the Roundtable authors. “I keep everything separate. I don’t make political calls from the foundation office. I do that from home or from campaign offices. I won’t let the foundation get mixed up in partisan politics.”
Easier said than done in the case of the Bradley Foundation and Michael Grebe. The former counsel to the Republican National Committee and the chair or co-chair of Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s election campaigns in 2010, 2012, and 2014, Grebe is also the now-retired partner of the Foley & Lardner law firm whose clientele has included major Republican organizations and candidates over the years, including the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee, former Senator Jim DeMint (now heading the Heritage Foundation), and Senator Marco Rubio, the latter announcing his presidential candidacy just yesterday.
Grebe is also one of the founders and funders of the Philanthropy Roundtable and the current chair of its board of directors. Governor Walker is lionized in the Roundtable’s Wise Givers book as a “national leader at reining in runaway state spending” (helped by what he might have learned from the Bradley Foundation’s Refocus Wisconsin monograph in 2010) and the leader of the state’s “Budget Repair Bill” which “dramatically reformed state government…[by] trimming the power of public-employee unions.” Grebe doesn’t appear to be publicly involved in a Walker presidential bid and is not yet listed as involved in the Our American Revival PAC, which has been taking the place of—perhaps inappropriately and illegally, as asserted by the Campaign Legal Center and Democracy 21—an official Walker presidential exploratory committee. However, with the multiple arenas of the Bradley Foundation’s public policy funding of Wisconsin’s conservative political model dating back to the administration of Governor Tommy Thompson, including school choice policies and welfare reform, plus Grebe’s history of running Walker’s political campaigns, it would be surprising if Grebe stays aloof from a Walker presidential bid, should that officially emerge.
For Grebe, the challenge of being nonpartisan within the confines of the Bradley Foundation and clearly hyperpartisan outside of it requires a mental discipline that is difficult to imagine. Is it possible to create such an impermeable firewall within one person, one with the resources, influence, and history of Mike Grebe?
Walker’s credentials on the national stage are in his gubernatorial leadership of Wisconsin. Republicans have made Walker’s time in the state house the petri dish for an array of conservative policies that Walker can claim to have overseen and shepherded to fruition. Most recently, the state senate passed a right-to-work bill last month, which would trim the power of private sector unions the way Walker’s budget bill nicked the public employee unions. Walker’s most recent state budget proposal lifts the cap on students receiving vouchers to attend private and religious schools and partly pays for the expansion with reductions in the per-student funding available to traditional public schools. It is hard to find anything in the Walker policy canon that doesn’t have roots in the texts of Bradley Foundation publications or in the research of Bradley-funded conservative policy think tanks.
The Bradley Foundation is hardly alone in funding policy work that supports candidates, governors, and presidential candidates to its liking, a practice of foundations on both the right and the left. However, some of Bradley’s grantees have taken to a more direct role in electoral politics, sparking complaints from critics on the left. For example, according to Jack Craver, writing in the Capital Times, the MacIver Institute, a conservative think tank significantly funded by the Bradley Foundation, joined with the Koch-founded and Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity to run some very expensive ads touting Walker’s policies as he faced challenges in the 2011-2012 electoral cycle.
Another Bradley-connected electoral controversy involved the Bradley Foundation’s grant, admittedly small ($10,000), to the Einhorn Foundation, which ran billboards in minority neighborhoods of Milwaukee reading “Voter Fraud is a Felony.” The intent of the Einhorn-sponsored, Bradley-subsidized billboards was to intimidate minority voters, notable for the fact that Wisconsin’s legislature was considering and ultimately passed a Voter ID law in 2011 with Governor Walker’s support.
The Bradley Foundation has provided grant support to entities that are much more politically activist than your usual academic think-tank operations. Among Bradley’s sizable gra