For weeks, organizers of the petition drive calling for a referendum on the streetcar have emphasized the grass-roots nature of the effort. After all, as Chris Kliesmet of the CRG Network, which is organizing the petition drive, put it: “the sentiment in the city is wildly against” the streetcar.
Kliesmet laughed off the idea that the effort was getting any funding from conservative groups outside the city. They’ve received “no funding” nor was any on the horizon, he assured me. Republican PR operative Craig Peterson, also involved in the petition drive, said he had paid personally for anti-streetcar radio ads and not one dollar of support (“No. None at all”) was coming to the group from elsewhere.
But in answer to my email inquiry, David Fladeboe, state director of the Koch brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity, told me his group is quite involved in the effort: “We have been educating the public on the why the streetcar is wrong for Milwaukee since the mayor started on this project. Now we are working on pushing the referendum to allow the people of Milwaukee to decide the fate of the streetcar.”
When I pressed for more detail, Fladeboe said, “Our field teams are working with several coalition partners to gather the required signatures to have a referendum in Milwaukee. We have both paid staff and volunteers working on this project.”
How many paid staff, how much money is being spent? I asked. Fladeboe did not respond.
When I confronted Kliesmet about this, he conceded that he did contact Fladenoe asking him to contact AFP members in Milwaukee. And come to think of it, Kliesmet had met a staffer of AFP and “I’m pretty sure the guy is paid staff.” And yes, a petition organizer was spending money on sponsored Facebook posts, but this would not be paid for by AFP, Kliesmet assured me. “CRG is paying for it,” he said.
Despite the paid staff assisting the effort in opposition to the Milwaukee streetcar, Fox 6 News has reported that the group has gathered just 4,000 of the 31,000 signatures the group had hoped to gather.