In a rare, big expenditure in a local race, a political action committee funded by Democratic Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele has delivered an independent, $47,090 mailing promoting challenger Satya Rhodes-Conway’s campaign against Mayor Paul Soglin.
Independent spending is legal, and the committee, Leadership WI, properly reported its expenditure to the state Ethics Commission. But such a large independent expenditure from outside Dane County is unusual, if not unprecedented, in Madison city races.
For a sense of scale, between July 1, 2018, and March 18, Rhodes-Conway had raised a total of $210,085 and Soglin $189,294 in direct donations to their campaigns.
“From my experience, I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Ald. Mike Verveer, 4th District, the city’s longest-serving City Council member, elected in 1995. “This is unprecedented. I can’t think of any significant expenditure that’s been made to this extent in any municipal election.”
The mailing promotes Rhodes-Conway as a “proven progressive” for mayor, highlights her priorities and lists some endorsements. It does not mention Soglin.
The mayor attacked the spending.
“People in Madison should be the ones deciding who is Madison’s next mayor,” he said. “Voters may ask themselves why the Milwaukee County political machine is buying influence. I’ve always stood up for the people of Madison and they can trust I will continue to do so.”
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Kyle Buda, Rhodes-Conway’s campaign manager, said the campaign was unaware the independent expenditure was being made and learned of it only when a supporter who received the mailing recently brought it to the campaign’s attention. He said the campaign is not allowed to coordinate with or influence independent expenditures and did not do so.
“We’re focused on our race,” he said. “What other people do is up to them.”
Rhodes-Conway is receiving support from many sources, and 75 percent of donations in the latest campaign report came from Madisonians, Buda said.
Abele made a $40,000 contribution to Leadership WI on March 8, state records show. A committee called Leadership MKE, started by Abele, also contributed a total $1,100 between March 1 and March 14, and the LGBTQ Victory Fund gave $7,090 to Leadership WI on March 14. Leadership WI directly paid the $47,090 to The Campaign Workshop in Washington, D.C., for a mailing on March 22.
Leadership WI’s treasurer, Daniel Housh, could not be reached for comment.
Rhodes-Conway’s campaign had purchased mailings from The Campaign Workshop through the Feb. 19 primary but hasn’t done so in the general election campaign, Buda said.
Abele is the millionaire son of billionaire John Abele, co-founder of Boston Scientific, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has reported. Last year, Leadership MKE stirred controversy by providing hundreds of thousands of dollars in independent expenditures on Milwaukee County Board races, the newspaper said. In 2018, Abele contributed $1.45 million to Leadership MKE, and the committee spent $1.35 million, state finance reports say.