Who is Midwest Growth Fund?

By Sam Morateck and Jerry Bader

As a Republican primary in a special election for Wisconsin’s 1st Senate District grows near, a 527 independent expenditure committee is on a spending blitz; attacking State Representative Andre Jacque. Jacque and Green Bay businessman Alex Renard are vying for the Republican nomination May 15.

“Midwest Growth Fund” is responsible for mailers attacking Jacque. The mailers call Jacque a “career politician” as well as claiming he has received over $70,000 dollars in tax free per diems:

Another mailer also has been sent out by the group attacking Jacque:

Media Trackers contacted Jacque regarding the mailers, who defended himself against the accusations, saying the per diems he has received are completely justified by long travel between his residence in De Pere and Madison:

I don’t get reimbursed for all the costs of my time in Madison, but that’s what a per diem is intended for- helping recoup lodging and travel costs during overnights and trips to and from the State Capitol.  My family is immensely important to me, so I try to work in the district and sleep in my own bed at night as much as possible and put a lot of miles and wear and tear on my car. I live with my wife and five children in De Pere, so our home isn’t some convenient mailing address and rest assured I’m don’t come up with excuses to make extra trips to Madison.

When I’m in the Capitol, I’m often arriving early and leaving in the evening with a focus of being as productive with my trips as possible. I’ve consistently served on the busiest committees in the Assembly, and there isn’t a day during my time in office that I’ve missed a hearing day in Madison. I’m proud to have never missed a committee vote during my time in the legislature, which I understand to be a pretty rare thing.

The group behind the mailers, the Midwest Growth Fund, told Media Trackers in an email that it is an “IRS Section 527 political organization registered with the WI Ethics Commission as an independent expenditure committee.” In addition to the mailers, radio advertising contracts for several stations obtained by Media Trackers shows the group is also spending aggressively on airtime in the race. The contracts we viewed list Brandon Rosner as the person placing the buys. Rosner was a key player in Gard’s campaign when he ran for Congress. When we reached out to Rosner asking about his involvement in MWGF, we received the anonymous email from the MWGF’s email address. Rosner had forwarded our email, describing us as “a blogger,” and telling the recipient they could respond if they wish.

The MWGF further supported Renard in a statement that they provided in an email to Media Trackers:

“Midwest Growth Fund supports candidates for State office in Northeast Wisconsin who share a pro-growth, pro-wage and pro-jobs approach to government. MG Fund believes Alex Renard, as a conservative businessman and outsider, is best suited to beat Democrat Caleb Frost in this June’s special election. The control of the Wisconsin State Senate is up for grabs and will come down to this State Senate seat. MG Fund supports the only candidate who best will help Governor Walker and Wisconsin Republicans maintain a majority and advance Pro-Growth ideas. Career Politician Andre Jacque, in the most anti-incumbent environment in years, has demonstrated he is simply not prepared to be that guy.”

So who is Midwest Growth Fund? Based on the radio buys, Rosner appears to be involved with the effort, despite his non-answer to us. The person corresponding with Media Trackers on its behalf refuses to identify his or herself. The group appears to be something of a sibling to Midwest Growth PAC. Besides similar sounding names, they also share a treasurer, Dr. Bruce Barrette, a retired dentist. Barrette is listed as contact and custodian on MWGF’s IRS filing. In 2016 Midwest Growth PAC was heavily involved in the 8th Congressional District primary in which it backed eventual winner Mike Gallagher. A Journal Sentinel article during the 2016 race highlighted lobbyist and former state assembly speaker John Gard, who served briefly as a spokesperson for Gallagher, and was reported to be a close friend of Barrette. Now, Gard has acted as a spokesperson for Renard in correspondence with Media Trackers, and sources tell us he has been seen at various political events with Renard.

While Barrette’s name is the only one that appears to be officially attached to MWGF, it’s not clear if he’s the person corresponding with Media Trackers. What is known is that both Gard and Barrette are no strangers to the issue of questionable per diems.

Gard was also subject to per diem scrutiny in 2008 after it was learned that he was collecting the higher reimbursement compensation even when commuting from his house in Sun Prairie (Gard also has a residence in Peshtigo):

Because his family’s legal residence is in Peshtigo (though The Taxpayers Network IRS returns have listed Zeuske’s address as Sun Prairie since 2001), Gard collects per diem expenses at the higher rate, even when he is commuting round trip 23 miles from his Sun Prairie house.

He says he takes the higher amount because he declined the raises – cutting his salary by $1,336 – and because he doesn’t file as often as other legislators. Records show that in 2003, Gard collected $11,264 for 128 days, tying him for 33rd among 99 members of the Assembly. “We live in Peshtigo,” he says, summing up. “The Capitol is not in Peshtigo.”

Also in the article, Barrette defended Gard against the per diem allegations as it was reported. “Bruce Barrette is a dentist with an office in Marinette and one of Gard’s closest hunting and fishing buddies. He says the Sun Prairie house is good for Gard’s personal life.”

Whoever is speaking for MWGF may not be willing to identify themselves, but they’re not shy about attacking Jacque:

Andre Jacque made sure he got his pay raises, tax-free per diem raises and nearly $70,000 of tax-free reimbursements as a career politician- all while hoping voters wouldn’t find out -on his way to climbing the political ladder as a Senate candidate. $70k tax-free may be “crumbs” for some people you know, but the average worker driving to work in Sturgeon Bay or Green Bay would be thrilled to see that kind of tax-free money in their pockets. As an outsider, Alex Renard understands the absurdity of this and has committed to not take per diem or pay this year, if elected.
Andre Jacque, as a career politician once again trying to have it both ways, tells people he wouldn’t support higher taxes – yet last week tells the Green Bay Press Gazette that he would “support a higher gas tax”. Maybe Jacque is spending too much time in Madison with lobbyists pushing higher taxes, as he boasts the support from a prominent tax-raising lobbyist on his campaign mailer today (attached to the email was a mailer quoting lobbyist Pat Goss for the road builders).

Media Trackers shared the MWGF response with Jacque who replied:

  1. Seeing this level of hypocrisy from a group orchestrated by John Gard is just stunning. State legislators are clearly prevented from raising their own salary during their term in office.  Assembly per diem reimbursement rates are entirely set by members of Assembly leadership who serve on the Assembly Organization Committee (the vice-chair of which has endorsed my opponent), not the body as a whole. And totaling up 7 years of reimbursements to create a false perception that I’m enriching myself? That’s shameful. It’s odd that my opponent and his allies think they can paint me as a career politician for first taking office after I turned 30 when my opponent hopes to be elected at 24, just like John Gard took office at age 23 before spending 20 years in the Assembly.  As to their last comment, yes, I think Alex Renard has made it perfectly clear that he is independently wealthy.
  2. This is equally ludicrous. John Gard, his allies, and his top contract lobbying client have made it clear that they would support a wide variety of tax and fee increases without an offset to avoid increasing our citizens’ tax burden. They are twisting a simple comment I made indicating that I support the Governor’s framework that any possible increase in gas taxes or registration fees would need to be simultaneously offset by at least as much of a new reduction in the amount of broadly based state taxes or fees to ensure that there is no new net tax increase. I have understood this to be in line with even the most restrictive pledges to oppose tax increases, including the Americans for Tax Reform pledge. Anyone paying attention to my record knows that the idea of me pushing higher taxes is absurd.  In fact, my fiscally conservative record is a big part of the reason why I would not be surprised to see continued large expenditures by MG Fund after the primary- their over the top ads against me are clearly trying to weaken me to aid Caleb Frostman.
  3. I certainly don’t claim the support of Pat Goss for me as a candidate- his quote is from his written testimony in support of my artificial wetlands reform legislation, which I was able to advance through committees in both chambers with unanimous bi-partisan support.  It shows that I’m willing to work together- with road builders, legislators on both sides of the aisle, or anyone- to move forward common sense regulatory reform measures that save taxpayer dollars. It should be very concerning to voters that my opponent is the one spending hours on end with the Madison contract lobbyist that is very clearly orchestrating his campaign, and what that would mean if my opponent is elected.  Anyone involved in pushing the filth that MWG Fund is putting out should be ashamed of themselves.

Media Trackers reached out to Gard, asking him if he had any involvement with MWGF. He did not respond. An email from Media Trackers requesting that the person speaking on behalf of MWGF identify themselves went unanswered.