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Evers administration fundraiser: Is it a ‘shakedown’?

By M.D. Kittle

MADISON — In the heat of the state budget battle, Gov Tony Evers’ chief administrator is taking time to do some fundraising for a Democratic senator.

Department of Administration Secretary Joel Brennan’s “special guest” status next Tuesday at Sen. Brad Pfaff’s posh fundraiser in Madison is a departure from the days of former Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who forbade his secretaries from shilling for political campaigns.

The Pfaff fundraiser is scheduled for late Tuesday afternoon at the Robina Courtyard, an East Washington Avenue beer garden that’s just a 17-minute walk from the State Capitol. According to the invitation, the “suggested donation” to the La Crosse Democrat’s campaign is $100, with sponsorship levels ranging between $250 and $2,000.

“My first thought when I saw that was, it’s been a while since that has been done. The Walker administration didn’t allow that,” a Capitol insider told Empower Wisconsin. You’d have to go back to the days of Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle to see administration secretaries working the political fundraising circuit.

It also may not be the best look for the Administration secretary to engage in fundraising as the next state budget is being debated. One of the Department of Administration’s key functions is to “help the governor develop and implement the state budget.”

“It’s in poor taste, especially given the size of the budget role DOA has. It’s the brain of the operations of the state,” said state Rep. Tony Kurtz (R-Wonewoc), who also serves portions of western Wisconsin and is a member of the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee. “It is a bit concerning.”

It’s interesting how quiet so-called good government groups and mainstream media outlets have been about Brennan’s involvement in Pfaff’s fundraiser.

In 2015, state Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) and then-Rep. John Nygren (R-Marinette), co-chairs of the Joint Finance Committee at the time, were excoriated in the press for fundraising during the budget talks. Darling ultimately canceled a fundraiser after it was described in news stories as a “shakedown for lobbyists and special interests.”

“The co-chair of the Legislature’s budget-writing committee postponed the fundraiser Wednesday after a government watchdog group and Democrats criticized her over its timing,” AP’s Scott Bauer wrote.

Pfaff, Evers’ original secretary-designee of the Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection, was sent packing after the Republican-controlled Senate rejected his nomination in November 2019. The partisan ag chief got into a very public political battle with Republican lawmakers. He then ran for the 32nd Senate seat, which opened up after Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling (D-La Crosse) suddenly stepped down.

Pfaff raised and spent more than $1.5 million in his Senate run, according to campaign finance records. He out-raised his opponent, Dan Kapanke (R-La Crosse) by a nearly 3-1 margin. Pfaff won by just 582 votes in this critical western Wisconsin swing district. Had he lost, Republicans would have had a veto-proof majority in the Senate, a powerful check on Evers’ liberal, big-government agenda.

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