Indiscreet union organizer's comments spell trouble for Tom Barrett's campaign

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September 21, 2010

File:Scott walker.jpg
Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker, the Republican nominee for Governor of Wisconsin

By Eileen McGuire-Mahony

MILWAUKEE, Wisconsin: A Wisconsin labor union may be in trouble after an employee of its non-profit research arm spoke openly of coordinating with a partisan political campaign and of using a fatal accident on a government owned property to tar the Republican gubernatorial candidate in the final weeks before the general election.[1]

Milwaukee County-Executive Scott Walker, who recently won the GOP nomination for governor, and Milwaukee's Democratic Mayor, Tom Barrett, are locked in a fierce gubernatorial battle with barely six weeks left before the general election on November 2, 2010. The race is overall seen to a be toss-up, though some race watchers are beginning to identify indicators that the seat, currently held by Democrat Jim Doyle, could easily switch parties. This is just one of several super-heated top of the ticket races Democrats are struggling to maintain in this once thought swing state. In addition to the fierce Feingold-Johnson Senate battle, Republicans appear likely to take control of seats in the United States House of Representatives held by Democratic top-brass such as David Obey, who is retiring rather then face re-election this year, and Steve Kagan.

Walker campaign aide Michael Brickman, using his cellphone, recorded a 15 minute conversation outside a Milwaukee bar in which union organizer John-David Morgan, of SEIU Local-1, boasted of his ability to command media coverage for his criticisms of the Republican gubernatorial candidate and bragged that he has government employees working for him in ongoing attempts to smear Walker. Mr. Morgan, who is a former journalist himself and now works full-time for the union, labeled local media outlets as “willing partners” and went on to add that “...they've been really helpful. They think it's fun." He also told Brickman, “I've got county supervisors to do this stuff so, you know, it's not just the labor union.”

Full audio of the recorded conversation is available online.[2]

Scott Walker is facing scrutiny over the late-June tragedy at the O'Donnell Parking Garage in Milwaukee, where a concrete facade collapsed, killing 15-year Jared Kellner and inuring two additional people.[3] The wall that collapsed was installed some 20 years ago by Advance Cast Stone of Random Lake and the investigation into why the wall collapsed and whether poor installation was behind it is ongoing. The investigation so far has uncovered hastily made repairs, a succession of architects and engineers working on the garage, and questions about structural soundness going back to the initial construction in 1991, years before Walker was ever elected as Milwaukee County Executive[4] To date, numerous other decorative facades have been found to be poorly attached and the county is weighing whether to repair or demolish the structure.[5]

In the wake of Morgan's slip of the tongue, at least one journalist has recounted the established facts of the construction and maintenance of O'Donnell Parking Garage.[6] The incident has also garnered national attention, with Hot Air summarizing, “In essence, Morgan laid out a plan to politicize a fatal accident and blame Walker for the death as a means of running interference for Barrett,” a damning take, indeed[7]

In addition to John-David Morgan's boasts of his ability to use the accident and the media coverage of it for political ends, there have been independent charges that reporters, particularly Milwaukee's WTMJ-TV, exploited the tragedy. By the evening of the accident, the station's investigative journalist, Aaron Diamint, was already on air claiming to have proof that the parking garage, operated by Milwaukee's County Parks, had deferred a whopping $600,000 in “critical” structural repairs.[8] Diamint's report cited cost estimates from a December 2009 audit without mentioning that those items had been repaired by the time of the O'Donnell accident and that none of the deferred repairs in the report had to do with the parking garage. David-Morgan mentioned WTMJ-TV by name when referred to media outlets “...think[ing] it's fun” in reference to attacking Walker.

Lee Holloway, chairman of the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors and a long time critic of Walker, has also made pointedly political statements about the wall's collapse.[9] In the past, Holloway has slammed Walker for declining to accept federal bailout funds under the Bush administration.[10] Later, when it came to light Holloway was traveling to Washington D.C. for the Obama Inauguration using taxpayer funds, he used a bitingly sarcastic open letter to accuse Walker of leaking the story.[11]

Holloway, who is black, also blasted Walker for "race-baiting" and likened him to KKK leader David Duke when Walker appeared at a Citizens for Responsible Growth (CRG) rally in the fall of 2009 held in support of Walker's 2010 budget proposal. He later argued that he was not accusing Walker of racism, but rather was attacking CRG that ran an ad criticizing tax rates that used his picture.[12] The Chairman of the Milwaukee County Board has himself been embroiled in charges of racism when in 1995 he "called two white female officials "cream" and a black female official "chocolate" during a committee meeting."[13]

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, Democratic candidate for Governor of Wisconsin

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett has been careful in addressing the O'Donnell Park tragedy, leaving the scene of the accident without making any media comments.[14] John David-Morgan, however, claimed he was in contact with Barrett spokesman Phil Walzak about pushing for an independent investigation and about using the accident in campaign debates. Walzak admitted speaking with Morgan, but was unclear as to what they discussed. Federal and state laws forbids candidates running for public office to coordinate any political activity with third party groups.

Mr. Morgan's unguarded comments fueled speculation that either Holloway or Barrett might try to score political points off attacking Walker over the accident. In addition to mentioning repeatedly that Barrett will bring up O'Donnell Park in debates, Morgan hinted that Barrett will also use the accident as a platform to push for legislation. John David-Morgan spoke of his coordination with county officials, especially Supervisor John Weishan, on pushing for a third-party inquiry into the cause of the accident.

Lee Holloway called for an independent investigation immediately. In his official comment on the day of the accident, he said, “I am calling for an immediate and thorough investigation into this incident, as well as a review of all County facilities to make sure that they are structurally safe for our residents to use and enjoy...I don't care how long it's going to sit empty," he said. "We're not letting people in until we are 100 percent certain this is safe."[15]

Mr. Morgan is openly the founder of progressive blog Watchdog Milwaukee and, until he disclosed it to Michael Brickman, was the anonymous voice behind attack site Scott Walker Truth Squad, a site that was started in the wake of the O'Donnell Park accident. The site, however, has not been updated since David-Morgan learned he had been recorded. Both sites have explicitly blamed Walker for delaying maintenance that they claim would have prevented the collapse at the parking garage.[16][17] There is, of course, the question whether such activity conducted by Morgan on behalf of SEIU is legal. While unions are allowed to engage in political activity, it must under federal law come from the union's political action committee (PAC), not the union group itself. This is done so that union dues paid by members are not used to fund such efforts. The issue at the center of this controversy is the fact that Morgan works as a lobbyist for SEIU, not its PAC.

Perhaps the more troubling revelation for the State Democratic Party is the contention by the union organizer that Democratic incumbent Governor Jim Doyle, who opted not to seek for a third term in office, would play a vital role in this attempted smear campaign. Morgan stated that Doyle planned to order state engineers to inspect O'Donnell Park which, in effect, would be an insinuation that the investigation conducted by Milwaukee County was insufficient.

See also

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  1. Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel “Union plan not lost on Walker aide: Talkative labor official divulges strategy, unaware he's being taped” 19 Sept. 2010
  2. News Busters, "SEIU Activist: Local Networks 'Willing Partners' in Campaign Against Wis. GOP Gubernatorial Candidate" 20 Sept. 2010
  3. Milwaukee Examiner “Wall from O'Donnell Park parking garage collapses“ 24 June, 2010
  4. Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel “Connections for O'Donnell panel that fell apparently were not used“ 7 July, 2010
  5. Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel “O'Donnell garage panel installation faulted: More than a third of panels are in danger of failing because of bad connections” 8 Sept. 2010
  6. Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel “Loose lips and the glum-Republicans plot” 20 Sept. 2010
  7. Hot Air “GOP takes lead in WI governor race, unions hardest hit; Update: PPP poll disaster for Feingold tomorrow?” 20 Sept. 2010
  8. The Maciver Institute “Did O’Donnell Parking Garage Tragedy Reporting Cross The Line?” 28 June, 2010
  9. Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, "Holloway chides Walker for no college degree" 12 April, 2010
  10. Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, "Walker says no thanks to federal stimulus dollars" 6 Jan. 2009
  11. TMJ-4 Milwaukee, "Holloway, Walker in War of Words over Inauguration Trip" 27 Jan. 2009
  12. Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, "Holloway accuses Walker of race baiting " 5 Oct. 2009
  13. Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, "Supervisor's coments raise eyebrows" 17 May, 1995
  14. WISN “Raw Video: Mayor Tom Barrett Leaves O'Donnell Park Scene” 24 June, 2010 (dead link)
  15. WISN “Boy, 15, Dies When Concrete Slab Falls From Parking Garage“24 June, 2010
  16. Watchdog Milwaukee “Credit where credit is due” 28 June, 2010
  17. Scott Walker Truth Squad “Supervisors urged to take a stand against Walker’s neglect“ 28 July, 2010