Politics not on agenda: Rock County 5.0 officials
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Gazette reporter Jim Leute attended a showing of clips from "As Goes Janesville" last night in MKE. He shares the experience in today's Gazette and on Your Talk Show. *** This segment begins with conversation regarding politics and unions.
JANESVILLE Rock County 5.0 bills itself as a five-year public/private initiative to advance the county's economic development vision through a single voice.
But a recently released video conversation in which the group's co-chairwoman asks Gov. Scott Walker what can be done to make Wisconsin a "completely red state and work on these unions" raises the question:
Is the voice of Diane Hendricks heard in that video the voice of Rock County 5.0?
Hendricks' comments were released last week by filmmaker Brad Lichtenstein, who has spent the last three years making a documentary about the economic struggles of the Janesville area after General Motors closed its assembly plant here.
The film clip includes Walker telling Hendricks that he would use a "divide and conquer" strategy against unions. Since the clip surfaced, Democrats and unions concerned about the prospect of right-to-work legislation have assailed Walker and Hendricks.
"It was Diane Hendricks' voice and hers alone," said Rich Gruber, a Mercy Health System vice president and one of 18 members of the group's advisory council.
"I believe the conversation Diane was having with Mary (Willmer) and Gov. Walker was their own conversation and was not at all a reflection on Rock County 5.0.
"To make it political is a mistake."
Gruber and other advisory council members said Rock County 5.0 is a grassroots economic development organization, not a group fueled by political motivations.
Hendricks of ABC Supply Co. in Beloit and Willmer of M&I Bank in Janesville are co-chairs of the group, which formed in late 2009. Neither responded to a request for an interview.
Gruber said the advisory council has not at any time had discussions about a change in leadership, particularly as it relates to Hendricks, he said.
"Rock County 5.0 is absolutely not driven by a political agenda, although there may be some very active people involved who have strong political positions," said Joe Pregont, chief executive officer of Prent Corp. and another advisory council member.
"I understand Diane is the largest contributor to Walker, but that has nothing to do with Rock 5.0."
Change in direction?
When asked for his perception of Rock County 5.0, State Sen. Tim Cullen, D-Janesville, said he's sensed a growing political motivation for the last 16 months.
"After the collective bargaining blowup and we went to Illinois, they just seemed to be much more like a subsidiary of the Republican Party and Scott Walker's interests than what's best for Rock County," said Cullen, who backs Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett in the June 5 recall election.
"When all that happened, I became an outsider to them, and I've known many of these people for so long. It happened literally overnight."
Cullen is concerned the group has become more focused on politics than job creation.
"I think they've really taken their eye off the ball," he said. "The whole point was to try to rebuild the economy of Rock County, and other chambers around the county have relied on them in good faith.
"Instead, they seem to have adopted a very conservative, anti-union agenda."
Cullen believes Rock County residents want more jobs, and he doesn't think most care whether they are union or nonunion positions.
"Getting jobs for Rock County should not be the least bit politicized," he said.
What is the agenda?
Gruber, Pregont and other advisory council members are steadfast in their contention that Rock County 5.0 is not motivated by politics.
A check of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign's website indicates that 11 of the group's 18 council members have not contributed to either Walker or Barrett. Six made donations to Walker, while a seventh contributed to both candidates.
Janesville City Manager Eric Levitt said that while he's aware of strong political opinions of particular members of Rock County 5.0's advisory council, "I don't see that with 5.0 as a group.
"As an organization, it's driven by economic development, in my opinion," Levitt said, adding that the "public" component of the public/private initiative primarily involves a contribution of time from a city employee, Vic Grassman, the city's economic development director.
Other examples of public contributions include the time of James Otterstein, Rock County economic development manager, and Andrew Janke, executive director of the Greater Beloit Economic Development Corp.
"Their mission and the things they tend to be involved in are pro-economic development," Levitt said.
Ron Ochs, president of the Janesville Foundation and an advisory council member, said the group's focus is economic development.
Its mission, he said, is bigger and broader than any one individual, and the controversy over Hendricks' comments won't hurt the organization.
"Everything we talk about is focused on economic development," he said. "There are some strong-willed guys and gals on Rock County 5.0, and the debate is often lively.
"But it's about economic development."
When Pregont was asked to be a part of the group, politics never came up, he said.
"It was all about getting Rock County back on track, and I think they've been successful, and things are moving forward," he said. "I've never seen a political agenda other than trying to get the governor to talk to our group.
"But if Barrett was the governor, we'd have Barrett come and talk to us."
Pregont said he would be insulted if people perceive Hendricks' comments to the governor as the lone voice of Rock County 5.0 and its 18 advisory council members.
He and others said Hendricks' financial commitments to the group are no more than those of any other investor.
The group's website lists 15 area companies that invested at least $50,000 toward its start-up goal of $1 million from the private sector. Take ABC Supply out of the equation, and that leaves 14 others who contributed a minimum total of $700,000.
"Diane is on par with about a dozen other investors who made the commitment to get this organization off the ground," said John Beckord, a member of the Rock County 5.0 economic development team and the president of Forward Janesville.
Right to work
Cullen said that while Hendricks made the comment on "working on these unions" in a statewide context, he wonders if it's part of the Rock County 5.0 playbook.
"I'm not in their meetings, but it's clear to me that she (Hendricks) is the leader and there are a lot of other followers," Cullen said. "I would like to know how many companies they've approached or interacted with that have unions.
"I think it's clear that Diane doesn't believe in public unions and probably not private unions, either."
Beckord said he's not surprised that people are branding the organization based on the comments of one of its leaders.
"With any board—and anyone who has served on a board knows this—there are going to be certain conversations that take place outside of the boardroom," Beckord said. "I can't stop that, and I wouldn't want to.
"When you join Rock County 5.0, there's nothing that says you have to stop having an opinion. That is very different than having it on an agenda."
Beckord said neither organization takes sides on major political issues.
"Our job is to stimulate investment and create jobs, which includes developing relationships and courting favor of politicians," he said. "That was true with Gov. Doyle, and it's true with Gov. Walker."
Beckord said the right-to-work issue has never been on an agenda.
Right-to-work states are those that have created laws prohibiting private-sector unions from forcing workers to pay union dues if the workers choose not to belong.
Walker co-sponsored right-to-work legislation in 1993 in the state Assembly but as governor has downplayed seeking any restrictions on private unions.
Beckord said, however, that he'd be lying if he said right-to-work had never been discussed in side conversations.
None of the group's board members are direct representatives of labor, but Beckord said about one-third own or represent companies that have unions.
In response to Cullen's concern about recruiting union shops to Rock County, Beckord said:
"I have been here 12 years and can remember one instance where a company visited and indicated a strong desire to have an organized work force," he said. "It's just not very common.
"In fact, the vast majority of companies want to locate in areas where they are not subject to organizing efforts."
Pick a color
Graeme Zielinski, a spokesman for the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, said Hendricks is a perfect example of Walker's failed agenda.
He called her a "a gang leader" who wants "the working women and men of Wisconsin to crawl on their bellies and beg like dogs for their wages and benefits."
Zielinski said Hendricks is "a billionaire who wants to suck dry the working families of Wisconsin so that she and her elite pals can have more riches."
While Hendricks has been criticized statewide as a staunch Walker supporter and contributor, Gruber and others stressed that her personal opinions do not represent those of the entire Rock County 5.0 board.
Gruber said Rock County 5.0 is a group of business and government representatives committed to the region's health. It represents the economic interests of the entire county, he said.
"There's no movement to make Rock County a red county," he said. "Rather than being a red county or a blue county, I'd prefer to see Rock County become a sea of green."
Beckord said he understands Cullen's frustration, although he doesn't believe the senator has been shut out of anything.
He recalls several meetings in the last year that Cullen attended and participated in.
"You have to understand that in this super-charged political world in which we live, there are some members who are not only vocal but who are also firm supporters of one party over the other," Beckord said. "It's not a big secret that a number of people in the business community have embraced one particular candidate, but as an organization, we just don't go there."
This is a transcript of a conversation between Gov. Scott Walker and Diane Hendricks, co-founder of ABC Supply, on Jan. 18, 2011. The conversation was captured by documentary filmmaker Brad Lichtenstein, who was on site to videotape a meeting of the economic development group Rock County 5.0. The conversation took place in ABC's foyer just before Hendricks escorted Walker into the Rock County 5.0 meeting.
Diane Hendricks: Can we talk just for two seconds before we get up there?
Scott Walker: Yeah, yeah, that's fine.
Hendricks: - some issues we're just going to avoid a little bit. And by the way, this is Brad and he is part of Rock County 5.0 and he has been filming everything.
Brad Lichtenstein: I've been doing a documentary -
Walker: Oh, cool.
Hendricks: - so what we're going to do and talk about right now is just concerns that Mary (Willmer) and I have that we probably, are a little controversial to bring up upstairs. OK? I don't want to - because there's press up there.
Walker: OK, sure.
Lichtenstein: Just so you know, nothing I do is going to see the light of day for over another year.
Walker: OK, that's fine.
Hendricks: So we'll just take five minutes. You know, they don't know. Any chance we'll ever get to be a completely red state and work on these unions -
Walker: Oh, yeah.
Hendricks: - and become a right-to-work (state)? What can we do to help you?
Walker: Well, we're going to start in a couple weeks with our budget adjustment bill. The first step is, we're going to deal with collective bargaining for all public employee unions, because you use divide and conquer. So for us the base we've got for that is the fact that we've got—budgetarily we can't afford not to. If we have collective bargaining agreements in place, there's no way not only the state but local governments can balance things out. So you think city of Beloit, city of Janesville, any of the school districts, that opens the door once we do that. That's your bigger problem right there.
Hendricks: Which state would you mirror? Is there any state that's already . . .
Walker: Well, (Indiana Gov.) Mitch Daniels, did - now, see the beautiful thing is, he did it in Indiana, he had it by executive order that created the unions years ago, and so when he came in about a week after he eliminated through executive order. In Wisconsin, it's by the statute. So I need lawmakers to vote on it. But the key is by tying it to the budget, there's no way to unravel that. Because unless they're going to come up with $800 million for example—it's not exactly that amount, but it's close—there's no way they cannot pass that unless they're going to pass a tax increase.