Kleefisch unveils her nonprofit’s agenda and it reads like a campaign platform

Turns out she filed paperwork to run against Evers last week

By: - August 31, 2021 6:17 pm
Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch

Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch and senior Wisconsin National Guard officials joined family and friends in welcoming home members of the Wisconsin Army National Guard at Joint Force Headquarters in Madison, Wis. Wisconsin National Guard photo by Vaughn R. Larson CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

On Tuesday former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, who has been touring the state criticizing actions by Gov. Tony Evers, released an “agenda” for her nonprofit foundation — the “1848 Project.”

Her foundation’s advocacy mimics a campaign for office in nearly every way possible, except that she has not publicly declared her intention to run against Evers for governor in 2022.  However, it was revealed Tuesday that a week before unveiling the agenda, she had quietly filed papers with the Wisconsin Ethics Commission to run for governor. Her spokesperson told WisPolitics that it’s “just the next step” as she considers whether she will run.

Her seven-person staff includes Republican apparatchiks, former GOP Capitol staffers, as well as former Republican party and campaign staff.

The 15-page agenda Kleefisch put out would easily translate into a document or website material for such a campaign — with the Democratic Party of Wisconsin (DPW) labeling it “a self-described policy ‘manifesto’ through her shadow campaign, the 1848 Project.” The Democrats’ press release accuses her of using the project to “hide her donors, abuse the tax code, and avoid the scrutiny that comes from being an announced candidate.”

“Rebecca Kleefisch’s 1848 Project is transparently a political campaign platform,” says Wikler. “To suggest it is anything other than part of an election campaign is farcical.”

Former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch speaks at WisPolitics event.
Former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch speaks at WisPolitics event.

In July, DPW filed an IRS complaint against Kleefisch and the Project accusing her of abusing the group’s 501(c)(4)’s status, which defines “social welfare work,” as not permitted to include “direct or indirect participation or intervention in political campaigns.” The party also stated that “the IRS expressly prohibits political activity from being the organization’s primary activity.” Quoting Kleefisch’s talk at the GOP Lincoln Day dinner and comment afterward to a reporter who asked why she had not just announced when it was clear she was running, she said, “You’re not wrong.”  The complaint states, “ it could not be more clear that Kleefisch is using her organization to house a gubernatorial campaign.”

The 1848 agenda released Tuesday did nothing to dispel the charges in that complaint.

The 1848 agenda begins with an open letter, much like a stump speech, by Kleefish: “Wisconsin conservatives have ushered in bold policy reforms in the last decade: Act 10. Right to work. Welfare reform. Billions in tax relief for small businesses, farmers, and families. … I founded the 1848 Project to listen, learn, and lead. Over the past year I have executed on that three-part mission. We have listened to the voices, stories, and hopes of thousands of average, everyday Wisconsinites.”

She states that she has held 50 roundtables, 22 working group sessions, attended “scores of events” and done quantitative research “asking the people of Wisconsin what is important to them as they look to their futures.” The latter sounds a lot like candidate polling. She also mentions her “Real Jobs with Rebecca” visits when she was lieutenant governor, saying business summits and listening sessions preceded the agenda she released Tuesday. When Evers has given major speeches — such as the State of the State — the former television news reporter has videotaped and released her own response speeches.

The first item on Kleefisch’s agenda is “Protecting public safety,” which includes hiring 1,000 new cops, banning sanctuary cities that refuse to use local public officials to hand over undocumented immigrants to the feds, passing tougher sanctions on “mobs and rioting” and a “surge” in police presence in high-crime areas.

Gov. Tony Evers vetoes bills making it harder to vote on Aug. 10 | Evers' YouTube
Gov. Tony Evers | YouTube

Number two is a mostly nonpartisan economic development agenda that mirrors many efforts Evers is taking as governor. And third on her list is “improving public education.” Under the Walker/Kleefisch administration, public schools absorbed historically draconian cuts while there was a massive expansion of private-school vouchers. Many of her bullet points put restrictions on public schools or invite conservative, ideological oversight. The bullet points, in full, are:

  • Guarantee parent and taxpayer access to curriculum
  • Increase access and transparency to school budgets
  • Raise standards, starting with civics education
  • Ban critical race theory from the classroom
  • Teach life skills before high school graduation
  • Start from the basic principle that dollars follow the child, not buildings or bureaucrats
  • Move substitute teacher selection from Madison to local districts
  • Protect the integrity of youth athletics
  • Create one uniform program for school choice
  • Expand the circle of charter school authorizers
  • Start education savings accounts for special-needs students

Other planks in her platform include: Bettering our Health Care, Reform Big Government, Protecting the Ballot Box and Defending Our Constitution and Wisconsin Values.

On health care, she cites some actions supported by Republicans and Democrats alike, such as preserving protection for people with pre-existing conditions, price transparency and outlawing surprise medical bills.


The Reforming Big Government section is more overtly partisan, requiring two rules to be repealed for every new rule adopted (which while sounding like a cut to red-tape, would be nearly impossible given state statute’s rule-making process), limiting an executive’s power in a crisis (a slap at Evers’ safer at home orders), incentivizing state employees based on outcomes and lowering/flattening income tax rates.

Protecting the ballot box alludes to many of the bills Republicans are currently pushing to make it harder to vote, particularly for absentee voters, using terminology like “banning ballot harvesting.”

The section on Wisconsin Values contains a call to  “Vigorously enforce antitrust laws against monopolistic Big Tech,” protect free speech on campuses and in high schools, stop church closures during pandemics, ban most state gun control laws, an anti-abortion “Born-Alive Infant Protection Act” and “Appoint originalist judges in the mold of Justices Thomas and Barrett.”

And she warns, “Our state still lives with the legacy of the big government progressives of a century ago.” In another statement that will likely make her Democratic detractors cringe, she quotes a Progressive Era motto and reshapes it to her own purposes: “One of my favorite paintings in the Wisconsin Capitol Building is a ceiling panel that admonishes public officials, “The will of the people is the law of the land.” Later in the document, she adds, “But on too many topics, it’s the will of the Madison bureaucrats that reigns supreme. That has to change.”

Kleefisch concludes with a description of the 1848 Project based on the pioneers that founded Wisconsin, that seemingly stands counter to much of the policy she has endorsed and supported. In particular while her administration shifted tax policy and regulation to help large corporations — she complains that “today’s policy is too much big government being friendly to big corporations that don’t put the American people first. It’s time to fix that.”

And despite her call to “go into battle” and conduct “hand to hand combat” after the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection  she says that current politics is “characterized far too much by fear-mongering.”

headshot of Wisconsin Democratic Party chair Ben Wikler
Ben Wikler (photo courtesy of Democratic Party of Wisconsin)

State Democratic Party Chair Ben Wikler is not a fan of her agenda.

“Radical Rebecca Kleefisch’s self-described policy ‘manifesto’ doubles down on the disastrous far-right agenda that deeply hurt Wisconsinites under the Walker-Kleefisch administration,” he said in response. “Together, Kleefisch and Walker opposed affordable health care expansion, supported cutting protections for Wisconsinites with pre-existing conditions, slashed rights for Wisconsin workers, and gutted funding for public education. This radical manifesto starts where that terrible record ended, and becomes even more extreme.”

He dubs her “Radical Rebecca” Kleefisch calling the focus of the 1848 project agenda “to the far right of her party.” Wikler says Kleefisch is helping those at the top at the expense of the rest of Wisconsinites and, also not surprisingly, promotes Evers’ agenda.

“Governor Evers has already started cleaning up the mess Rebecca Kleefisch created,” Wikler said. “He’s restoring funding to public schools, fixing roads and bridges across the state, and he’s repaired the disastrous Foxconn deal Kleefisch helped negotiate.”

The difference between the partisan messages from Kleefish and Wikler is that Wikler is running a political party, while Kleefish is supposedly running a nonprofit foundation. Turns out that’s a distinction without a difference …

Wikler’s statement is clearly a campaign message. It turns out Kleefish’s manifesto is, too.


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Melanie Conklin
Melanie Conklin

Melanie Conklin was the Wisconsin Examiner's founding Deputy Editor, serving from its launch July 1, 2019, until Feb. 1, 2022. She is proud to be a native of the state of Wisconsin, which gave humankind the typewriter, progressivism and deep-fried cheese curds. Her several decades in journalism include political beats and columns at Isthmus newspaper, the Wisconsin State Journal and other publications. When not an ink-stained wretch, she served time inside state, local and federal government in communications before returning to journalism at the Examiner. It’s what she’s loved ever since getting her master’s degree in journalism from the UW-Madison. Her family includes one husband, two kids, four dogs and five (or more) chinchillas.