Exclusive: Dem operative led city officials in Milwaukee Votes 2022 GOTV effort

Empower Wisconsin | Sept. 28, 2022

By M.D. Kittle 

MADISON — Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson and his aide sought advice from a Democratic Party operative on how to explain a citywide get-out-the-vote campaign that critics have called Zuckerbucks 2.0, according to texts and emails obtained by Empower Wisconsin.

The communications, sought by state Rep. Janel Brandtjen (R-Menomonee Falls) through an open records request, show Johnson and aide Jeff Fleming earlier this month asking Dem heavy Sachin Chheda how to respond month to reporters questions on “Milwaukee Votes 2022.”

The texts also note the liberal advocacy groups involved, including an organization with close ties to the Chicago-based Center for Tech & Civic Life. CTCL received hundreds of millions of dollars in donations from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to fund controversial “safe elections” grant awards that demanded liberal and Democratic Party operatives be embedded in the election offices of Wisconsin’s largest and Dem-heavy cities. 

“Getting multiple media requests on where the $$$ is coming from for canvassing and outreach. Do you have an answer?” Jeff Fleming, spokesman for the mayor, wrote in a text to Chheda on Sept. 12, when Fox6 News first began asking questions about the Milwaukee Votes 2022 GOTV initiative. 

“Private donors and foundations,” Chheda responded. 

Fleming was still worried. 

“Alison Dirr (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel) will press for more. Are there names I can give,” Johnson’s flak asked. 

Chheda told Fleming to direct reporters to Melissa, presumably Melissa Baldauff, a long-time Democratic Party operative and former comms director for Gov. Tony Evers. Communications obtained in the open records request noted Baldauff is serving as spokeswoman for Milwaukee Votes 2022. 

“They must have an answer?“ Chheda said in his response to Fleming. 

Then he thought better of it. 

“Actually hold on. Can we just sit tight for an hour and then get back to folks?” Chheda advised Fleming. The records do not include Fleming’s response. 

What is astounding is that Fleming and the mayor’s office are taking direction from Sachin Chheda, partner at left-wing political consulting firm Nation Consulting. His bio boasts of overseeing winning campaigns for liberals, including Wisconsin Supreme Court justices Rebecca Dallet and Jill Karofsky, and Department of Public Instruction Superintendent Jill Underly, as well as her predecessor, Tony Evers, who served a decade as DPI chief before his 2018 run for governor. 

Previously, Chheda was an aide to Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat, then-U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Madison), and worked for the Democratic Party of Wisconsin. 

Johnson originally said the city was assisting with the GOTV effort funded by private grants. His office later walked back the mayor’s comments, claiming Milwaukee Votes 2022 is being carried out without government support.  We now know a Democratic Party operative was pulling the strings in the mayor’s office response. 

A couple of days later, Chheda asked Johnson in a text if there was any “update on whether you got these questions at the art museum?”

Johnson responded: “Hey, Sachin. Yes they did ask about Milwaukee Votes 2022. I said that it is:

– nonpartisan
– an initiative that we spoke about going back to May
– encourages all voters to be engaged regardless of party
– Isn’t much different than the activity we see before elections” 

“Just turn on your television and you’ll see private dollars expended to encourage voters,” Johnson asserted. Perhaps he was confusing campaign ads with GOTV initiatives by liberal-led advocacy groups that appear to be in close contact with the city of Milwaukee.  

“I also said Milwaukee probably has more raw republican voters than and (sic) other city and I’d imagine that their candidates for statewide office probably want voters engaged too,” Johnson explained. “Also said the city didn’t accept these dollars like before and it’s not running through the city either.”

Maybe. But there sure seem to be a lot of missing documents in the nine pages of records the city turned over to Brandtjen, who chairs the Assembly Campaign Finance and Elections Commission investigating the election integrity questions surrounding the 2020 election. 

The records include a text from Chheda to Johnson and Jim Bohl, the mayor’s chief of staff. The text is dated Sept. 2, nearly two weeks before the stuff hit the fan on Milwaukee Votes 2022. 

“Wanted to let you guys know we have been approved for a $1 million grant from The Center for Secure and Modern Elections,” Chheda wrote. “The money is coming to the High Ground Institute to support the nonpartisan Milwaukee Votes 2022 Canvass as we discussed. We should set up a meeting next week to give you guys the full update.”

There are no communications included in the records request on the Milwaukee Votes 2022 discussion or the pending update. 

The Center for Secure and Modern Elections is a is a left-of-center advocacy organization created as a project of the New Venture Fund, a leading “dark money” pass-through funder and fiscal sponsor, to promote sweeping changes to the elections process, including state laws that automatically register voters at state agencies, according to Influence Watch. 

“The Center for Secure and Modern Elections represents itself as a bipartisan organization, but is funded primarily by left-of-center donors. Its parent organization, the New Venture Fund, is part of a $731 million nonprofit network run by the consulting firm Arabella Advisors in Washington, DC.,” Influence Watch reports. 

CSME Action is the lobbying arm created by the Sixteen Thirty Fund, described by The Atlantic as “the indisputable heavyweight of Democratic dark money.” It often operates alongside its charitable “sister” nonprofit New Venture Fund, which provides similar funding and fiscal sponsorship services to center-left organizations.

And The Center for Secure and Modern Elections is closely tied to … The Center for Technology and Civic Life. 

Zuckerbucks 2.0? 

Brandtjen said the city’s incomplete records fulfillment raises a lot more questions. She said the so-called “nonpartisan” nonprofits have no oversight, so it’s hard to say exactly what they are doing in the GOTV campaign that the city has at least tacitly assisted. 

Brandtjen said her office is filing a follow-up open records request, seeking communications between the city and the the Center for Secure and Modern Elections and the High Ground Institute. She also is seeking information about the Wisconsin Votes initiative. In its letter to the lawmaker, the city notes a “nonpartisan” initiative announced in May, Milwaukee Votes, was later changed to Wisconsin Votes. Brandtjen said she is demanding complete records by the end of the business day next Wednesday. 

“Once again, Milwaukee —  a city that democrats rely on to get their candidates elected into office — has teamed up with a high-level democrat operative. This time it’s Sachin Chheda, who serves as the Chairman Emeritus of the Democratic Party of Milwaukee County, to ‘Get Out The Vote’ in Milwaukee by using outside funds,” Brandtjen said in a statement. “This is a blatant attempt by the City of Milwaukee to collude with the Democratic Party to perform campaign functions. It’s the job of the candidates to motivate their voters; it is not the government’s job.”

On Wednesday, the Republican Party of Wisconsin sued the city and the Mayor’s office for failing to provide records it requested on Milwaukee Votes 2022. 

In May and September, Johnson noted the city would be working to get more eligible voters to turn out in November. However, Johnson also alluded to city resources like the city website being used to push the partisan effort. Johnson also seemed to indicate city staff could also be participating in the effort with GPS Impact, which is illegal. 

“RPW requested the records nearly two weeks ago and have not yet received any. Timing related to the request is critical because absentee ballots are already being mailed to voters in Milwaukee, and courts have indicated less willingness to intervene closer to an election,” the party stated in a press release. 

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