By Doug Hissom Special to Published Aug 20, 2010 at 5:41 AM

The opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the opinions of, its advertisers or editorial staff.

Milwaukee progressives are taking hard aim at unseating state Sen. Jeff Plale (D-South Milwaukee) in the coming Sept. 14 primary and they're taking the old fashioned way-special interest money.

A group calling itself Citizens for a Progressive Wisconsin Political Fund is sending out high-priced glossy mailings this week attacking Plale for being a tool, of all things, special interest money.

Two mailings showed up this week in registered voters' mailboxes. One four-color flyer accuses Plale of siding with state utilities and cable companies after taking campaign contributions from them.

In artwork surely intended to hit Plale's South Milwaukee, South Side base, the mailer depicts Plale in a racecar driver's suit sponsored by big oil and lobbyists. His race car, No. 7 (for Seventh Senate District), is also sponsored by the telecom industry and cable industries.

The group takes issue with Plale opposing the Clean Energy Jobs Act, his backing of a 21 percent increase in cable rates and his support of phone companies to raise rates without state approval.

The other flyer slaps Plale for receiving a 100 percent rating from a pro-life group, voting to ban stem cell research and supporting a concealed carry law.

Plale will say he's just representing his district's concerns. And in a way he's correct-if his district included only St. Francis, Oak Creek, Cudahy and South Milwaukee. But progressives say there's an entirely different district that Plale is supposed to represent north of Oklahoma Avenue. So district progressives found County Board member Chris Larson from Bay View to run against Plale. The mailings are attacking Plale for Larson's benefit, although by law, it cannot officially endorse Larson, only rip on Plale.

Progressives and East Side Dems have been trying to get Plale out of the Senate since he first got elected to the gig in 2002, after six years in the Assembly. In his first contest Plale defeated publically unknown, yet politically wired Joel Brennan, who went on to work Mayor Tom Barrett's first campaign and is now head of Discovery World Museum. His backers ended up privately ripping him for a poorly run campaign. Next up for the East Side crowd to pit against Plale in 2006 was retired lawyer Donovan Riley, who it turned out voted twice in the 2004 presidential election and ended up pleading no contest to the charges prior to the primary election that year. Those two efforts left progressives with some potato on their faces.

But with the help of the Citizens for a Progressive Wisconsin Political Fund, Larson's camp is getting some much-needed financial backing. He reported raising $27,422 as of the end of June and had cash on hand of $19,372. Plale raised $92,230 with $33,187 on cash on hand.

The Fund's treasurer and listed officer is John Budzinski, a former union official with the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipefitting Industry of the United State and Canada. The group reports raising $191,500, with most of that money coming from labor unions, even though groups are not required to say who is giving them money. The group is listed as new and has stated that its efforts will be mainly focused on the Plale race.

Plale will be tough to unseat since his support is strong in the southern part of Milwaukee County and his family has long rolled with the establishment politicians of South Milwaukee such as the venerable Grobschmidt family. His opponents are hoping that the conservative NASCAR-type Dems will swing over to the Republican gubernatorial primary and vote for Scott Walker or Mark Neumann. The press, however, is playing that race as all-but-won by Walker, so those Dems may stay Dem voters in September with more on the line in the Plale race.

Larson won a County Board race in 2008 running on a campaign that stressed fixing the failing parks and transit systems. Before that he managed a sporting goods chain. His organized support for the Senate is coming from the more liberal labor unions and environmental groups, among others.

The emergence of the Citizens for a Progressive Wisconsin Political Fund is part of the trend of Democratic-supported groups getting into the independent expenditure game in force. A new report from the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign notes that a record $1.34 million was raised by similar groups in the first half of 2010, most of that supporting Democratic candidates. The contributions are 128% more than the $587,458 the so-called 527 groups got from state contributors in the first half of 2006, a comparable election year, the WDC says.

The Democracy Campaign found that, thanks mostly to large contributions from a few individuals or organizations, Democratic funded groups got 63% of dough.

Topping the list of contributors was Milwaukee philanthropist Lynde Uihlein, an heir to the Schlitz Brewing and Allen Bradley family fortunes, who contributed $582,000 to four Democratic groups.

Citizens for a Progressive Wisconsin Political Fund ranked third in its take of contributions, behind the Republican Governors Association ($353,593) and the Greater Wisconsin Political Fund ($255,000). The progressive Fund lists no e-mail, no Web site, and reports it started in 2008. Its address is a Madison Post Office box.


Doug Hissom Special to
Doug Hissom has covered local and state politics for 20 years. Over the course of that time he was publisher, editor, news editor, managing editor and senior writer at the Shepherd Express weekly paper in Milwaukee. He also covered education and environmental issues extensively. He ran the UWM Post in the mid-1980s, winning a Society of Professional Journalists award as best non-daily college newspaper.

An avid outdoors person he regularly takes extended paddling trips in the wilderness, preferring the hinterlands of northern Canada and Alaska. After a bet with a bunch of sailors, he paddled across Lake Michigan in a canoe.

He lives in Bay View.