The Bradley Foundation provides a cornerstone for the U.S. conservative movement, financially supporting public-policy experiments that started in Wisconsin and spread across the nation. Yet, outside conservative circles, the foundation has kept a low profile.

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MILWAUKEE — Less than a week after being elected governor, Wisconsin Republican Scott Walker and his wife met privately with one of the most powerful philanthropic forces behind America’s conservative movement.

It wasn’t the Koch brothers — the boogeymen for the American left.

On Nov. 8, 2010, the Walkers broke bread at an upscale restaurant with the board and senior staff members of the Milwaukee-based Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.

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With more than $600 million in assets, the Bradley Foundation provides a cornerstone for the U.S. conservative movement. It has been the financial backer behind public-policy experiments that started in Wisconsin and spread across the nation — including a welfare overhaul, public vouchers for private schools and, this year, cutbacks in public-employee benefits and collective bargaining.

Yet, outside conservative circles, the foundation has kept a low profile. It receives a fraction of the attention given billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch and the politically active Scaife family of Pittsburgh.

But the Bradley Foundation is in a different league: From 2001 to 2009, it doled out nearly as much money as the seven Koch and Scaife foundations combined — not including personal or political spending.

Michael Grebe, president and chief executive of the foundation, said there’s nothing secretive about his organization. Rather, Grebe, 71, likened the Bradley Foundation to the 1960s Green Bay Packers, who ruled the football world with a fearsome ground game and a deceptively simple running play, the sweep.

“We’re going to run off tackle, right over there, and we’re telling you we’re going to run there and we’re going to knock you on your butt and carry the ball down the field,” Grebe said inside the foundation’s headquarters near downtown. “There are no surprises.”

Acting like a venture-capital firm for ideas, the Bradley Foundation funds thinkers, doers and organizations tethered to conservative ideals of “limited, competent government,” free markets and a “vigorous national defense,” faithfully executing the will of the late manufacturing titans and brothers Lynde and Harry Bradley.

And make no mistake: Bradley Foundation-funded ideas, as well as political leaders who turn those ideas into action, have helped drive America’s conservative revolution over the past quarter-century.

$350 million in grants

All told, the Bradley Foundation dispersed more than $350 million in grants from 2001 to 2010 to hundreds of institutions, ranging from arts organizations and school-choice groups in Wisconsin to prominent national policy organizations, a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel review shows.

“I think there is some level of understanding of the breadth of organizations and causes they’re involved in,” said Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha. “But I doubt many people would have any idea that they spent $350 million over the last 10 years.”

The list of major recipients reads like an all-star roster of conservative think tanks: millions of dollars directed to well-known groups such as the Hudson Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace, and the Federalist Society — all trying to put their stamp on three branches of government.

Millions more have gone to virtually every major conservative publication, including such magazines as Reason, Crisis, First Things, National Affairs and FrontPage Magazine. An additional $1.5 million was poured into Inside the Vatican, a small but influential monthly Catholic news magazine.

Bradley helped found and continues to fund the conservative publishing empire Encounter Books.

From its headquarters, Bradley has underwritten groups that define and defend bedrock economic and foreign-policy issues within the conservative movement. Bradley dollars flow to groups pumping out public-policy papers in favor of privatizing Social Security, promoting right-to-work legislation, deregulating campaign-finance laws and strengthening American defense.

Groups and foundations tied to many of the country’s leading neoconservatives, such as William Kristol, have received Bradley dollars.

Grants also go each year to lesser-known conservative advocacy groups such as the American Tort Reform Foundation and the Foundation for a Great Marriage.

New media outlets have become increasingly frequent beneficiaries of Bradley largesse, as the once-staid institution tries to stay relevant in a world where ideas are not just read in books but go viral via the Internet. The foundation now is supporting three conservative online outlets in Madison, has begun donating to Hollywood film companies and started the Bradley Prizes, which often reward right-wing pundits and opinion leaders.

Amplifying voices on right

The efforts help amplify the group’s message.

One of the Bradley-supported websites, the John K. MacIver Institute for Public Policy, posted an editorial last year demanding that Wisconsin repeal collective bargaining for public employees. The MacIver editorial appeared two weeks before Walker broached the same inflammatory subject before the Milwaukee Press Club, after his election but before taking office.

The MacIver Institute and the Americans for Prosperity Foundation have spent more than $1 million in recent weeks airing TV ads in support of Walker’s budget proposals.

Bradley gave $600,000 to the Americans for Prosperity Foundation from 2004 to 2010 and $360,000 to MacIver in its first three years of operation, making Bradley one of MacIver’s primary funding sources.

Another Bradley-supported venture created a website, Teachers Union Exposed, which included sharp criticism of Wisconsin teachers unions while Walker was proposing restrictions on public-employee unions. Walker’s anti-union proposals triggered massive protests in Madison and a wave of recall elections, including one now targeting him.

“In many respects,” Grebe said, “being stewards has caused us to continue funding what some of us refer to as the conservative intellectual infrastructure in this country through think tanks, academics, publications. We continue to do that. I don’t think as a matter of philosophical orientation, [the foundation] has changed much in that area. We still look for conservatives who are developing ideas in public policy.”

The Bradley Foundation plays on a national stage.

Earlier this year, inside the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., a proud band of intellectual movers and shakers gathered for the annual Bradley Prizes.

Famed columnist George F. Will was emcee, working a crowd that included big shots from the country’s major conservative think tanks and major players such as anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist and Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., past president of the powerful Club for Growth.

Grebe presided over it all.

For most of the evening, Grebe, a lawyer by both profession and temperament, tried to stay out of the spotlight. It was a difficult maneuver for a man poised to hand out awards worth $250,000 each to four winners, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

During a brief speech extolling the values embodied by the Bradley Foundation and the award winners, Grebe reminded the audience that “an individual, a single person can change the world.”

So, too, can a single organization.

Roots in old Milwaukee

The foundation’s history is rooted in old Milwaukee.

The Bradley brothers, high-school dropouts, helped found an industrial colossus, Allen-Bradley. They built a fortune manufacturing electrical controls. Lynde Bradley died in 1942. Harry Bradley, a fierce anti-communist and supporter of the right-wing John Birch Society, died in 1965.

The Lynde Bradley Foundation, later called the Allen-Bradley Foundation, was set up in 1942. The foundation supported local causes, including schools, hospitals and the Boys Club. Assets eventually reached nearly $14 million.

In 1985, all changed with sale of the Allen-Bradley firm to Rockwell International for $1.65 billion. A portion of the proceeds boosted the foundation’s assets to a stunning $290 million.

With the cash came a new name, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, and a broadened mission — to promote conservative ideas and values on a national stage.

Tough-talking Michael Joyce came from Cleveland to run the operation. A Democrat-turned-fierce-conservative, he earned his philanthropic stripes running the free-market John M. Olin Foundation. He boldly predicted the Bradley Foundation would become a significant force in shaping public policy.

“If not, it will be our own fault,” Joyce said during a 1985 interview with The Milwaukee Journal. “We have the resources.”

Joyce served as foundation leader for more than 15 years until his retirement in 2001. He was an intellectual brawler to the end of his life. He died in 2006 after battling liver illness.

“He enjoyed intellectual debate,” said his widow, Mary Jo Joyce. “Where there was something of value at stake, then there was a reason to engage.”

Under Joyce, the Bradley Foundation poured some $20 million into the battle to bring the private-school voucher program to Milwaukee, turning the city into a laboratory for the program for lower-income schoolchildren. The money paid for think-tank studies and student scholarships.

Bradley cash also bankrolled the state’s court fight leading to the 1998 state Supreme Court decision that allowed the program to expand and include religious schools.

The foundation also financed studies that laid the intellectual groundwork for Gov. Tommy Thompson’s welfare overhaul, in which thousands of people were removed from welfare rolls and moved into employment or job training. Wisconsin efforts became the blueprint for national welfare changes under President Clinton.

Under Grebe, the Bradley Foundation has moved into some new directions. He said he and the board have sought to gain wider exposure for the ideas generated by foundation-funded initiatives.

He declined to be specific. But records show the foundation has begun putting money into politically driven social-media outlets and at least three movie companies — Manifold Productions, Moving Picture Institute and the American Film Renaissance Institute.

The Moving Picture Institute — whose founder has been described as being on a “campaign to make Hollywood safe for non-leftists” — sponsored and distributes “The Cartel,” a recent documentary that makes a case for cutting funds to public schools and expanding school choice. Another institute-sponsored documentary, “An Inconvenient Tax,” sets out to show how Congress abuses the tax code by using it for political purposes.

Grebe said he and his staff are “looking for more ways to affect the popular culture with these ideas so that we’re not appealing just to the elites, but we’re also attempting to appeal to a broader population.”

Grebe instituted the Bradley Prizes to try to reach a wider audience.

Prize money for writers

To him, success for the prizes might mean that they’re covered by People magazine or The Washington Post.

Yet, the prizes appear to remain an exclusive province for the conservative intellectual elite.

Will, the Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist for newspapers and Newsweek, and Paul Gigot, another Pulitzer winner and editorial-page editor for The Wall Street Journal, each won a $250,000 prize in the past, and Will continues to receive $43,500 a year as a Bradley board member.

Both said they saw no reason to disclose these financial ties to readers when writing columns or editorials that support Walker, whose campaign committee is headed by Grebe.

“Of course not, or I would have done so,” Will said. “Because I have no connection to Scott Walker. I have a connection to an organization, one member of which is connected to Scott Walker.”

Said Gigot in an email: “The implication is that anyone who has received a Bradley Prize can never write about a cause or politician that Mike Grebe happens to support. This is ridiculous.”

Experts in journalistic ethics, on the other hand, said readers should know that a writer has received money from an ideologically oriented foundation such as Bradley when the writers are supporting related causes.

“It would be journalistically wise and ethically sound for Gigot to disclose this connection, though I don’t think he needs to do so in every case where he writes about Walker or Wisconsin government,” said Bob Steele, director of the Prindle Institute for Ethics and a journalism professor at DePauw University.

“Transparency is important, so their readers can judge for themselves whether there is a conflict of interest,” said Leonard Downie Jr., a former Washington Post executive editor who now teaches journalism at Arizona State University. “Gigot and Will each should have made clear to their readers at least once their receipt of the prize [and Will’s payment for being on the Bradley Foundation board] and the nature of the Bradley Foundation.”

Having spent decades in the often rough-and-tumble world of politics, Grebe is accustomed to dealing with and overcoming criticism.

That’s because, he said, the foundation is focused on the long term.

“We tend to have a thick skin here,” he said.

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