A well-funded Wisconsin conservative group is blasting seven County Board candidates in sparsely populated Iron County, calling them “radical anti-mining” environmentalists.
The campaign — launched this week by Americans for Prosperity, a group founded by billionaire conservative businessmen Charles and David Koch — isn’t the first time an advocacy group from the right or the left has waded into small-town politics.
But in a county where candidates seldom bother to campaign because there are almost never any challengers, people took note when they found, among the bills and junk mail, glossy, full-color flyers warning of “radicals” who were about to shut down businesses and put families on welfare.
Perhaps more surprised than anyone was one mine booster, labeled “radical,” who appeared aside Gov. Scott Walker at the state Capitol to tout the mine.
At stake is a 15-member County Board that could make monetary and other demands of Gogebic Taconite, which is already deep into a sometimes combative state permitting process over its proposal for a huge iron mine that promises jobs while inspiring worries about environmental degradation.
The mailing delivered Wednesday to about 1,000 homes in northern Wisconsin’s Iron County is just the start of what AFP’s Wisconsin director David Fladeboe called an educational campaign against some of the candidates challenging members of the pro-mining County Board in the April 1 election.
“We want to educate folks in Iron County about the issue,” Fladeboe said. “We’re working with our folks in the area who know what’s going on.”
However, town of Saxon Assistant Fire Chief Karl Krall said he wonders where they are getting their information. Krall said he is a strong proponent of the mine, and he is puzzled and angry about being described as a job-killing radical on the material sent to his friends, neighbors and potential voters in the district where he is a candidate.
“I couldn’t believe that someone who is pro-mine and for this wouldn’t do the research on the people they are sliming in the mailing,” Krall said. “Is that the kind of people we want supporting the mine if that’s the kind sloppy research they did?”
Wearing a blue hardhat, Krall stood an arm’s length away from Walker as the governor pushed for mine-friendly legislation during the 2013 State of the State address in the Capitol.
Krall said he was also in attendance when Walker signed the landmark bill that relaxed regulations for Gogebic. Krall said he was given one of the pens Walker used to sign the bill.
“Everybody in the town except me got the flyer saying I’m an anti-mine radicalist,” Krall said. “It’s a joke.”
He said about 10 people called him Wednesday asking if he’d suddenly turned against the mine. The flyer listed phone numbers for each of the seven candidates challenging County Board members.
“Call these anti-mine radicals and tell them to stand up for you and your local jobs, not radical environmental policies,” the mailer urges in bold red lettering.
Krall said the mailer printed his neighbor’s phone number instead of his own. He said he hasn’t asked the neighbor if he’d received any calls.
Krall is a member of the Local 139 Operating Engineers union that supported the mining bill.
Fladeboe wouldn’t describe exactly how Americans for Prosperity chose the candidates it labeled as radicals.
“It’s entirely possible that we made a mistake, but we do our best to vet that information,” Fladeboe said. “To be honest, I hope he (Krall) is 100 percent for a mine (and for) an appropriate tax burden. He is more than welcome to talk to the people of Iron County and discuss his support for the iron mine.”
Krall is worried his elections chances have been dashed, but another candidate — one who is closely questioning the mine proposal — said the mailing is a blessing.
“I was going to have campaign signs made, but I don’t think I need to with all this publicity,” said Richard A. Thiede, who believes skepticism about the proposed mine runs deep through the county.
AFP state chapters have run “issue advocacy” campaigns during local elections in several states.
In a widely reported election in Coralville, Iowa, population 19,000, voters last fall rejected four AFP-backed candidates. Coralville people don’t like electoral interference by outsiders with money, said city council member Bill Hoeft, who was re-elected over an AFP-backed candidate.
At least one challenger said AFP backing hurt him, Hoeft said. And Coralville residents were turned off by a constant barrage of phone calls and door-to-door canvassers who spread misinformation, he said.
AFP national spokesmen didn’t answer specific questions about that campaign. Spokesman Chris Neefus issued a statement: “Our opportunities won’t be protected until local officials also see some scrutiny and some accountability when they overspend, overtax and overregulate.”
More to come
The mine proposal helped bring out challengers in 10 Iron County Board districts. Board elections seldom have even one contested race, said county clerk Mike Saari.
In a primary last month, an experienced politician who billed himself as “the pro-mine candidate” got the fewest votes, leaving the incumbent and a critic of the mine law on the April ballot. The critic isn’t listed on the mailing. Fladeboe said he couldn’t explain why.
A field organizer is recruiting volunteers to help with more mailings, make phone calls and knock on doors, Fladeboe said.
AFP sent out a second flyer Thursday touting nine “pro-jobs” incumbents.
Gogebic Taconite has said it has no problem with the current County Board.
Environmental groups contacted by the State Journal on Thursday said they weren’t conducting any campaigns related to the Iron County Board election.
The Wisconsin chapter of the Sierra Club has rarely purchased advertising criticizing specific actions by local elected officials, though the group endorses candidates based on detailed analysis of their voting records, said chapter director Shahla Werner. She said she found the AFP mailer outrageous and misleading.