The Arch-Conservative Bradley Foundation Is Waging a War on Democracy

This group’s money is building a far-right infrastructure state by state that is undermining electoral democracy, dismantling the separation of church and state, attacking public education, and eroding workers’ rights.
Image courtesy of Adobe Stock.

The Waltons may be more familiar. The Koch brothers may be more infamous. But when it comes to right-wing money working to undermine functional features of democracy, including public education, the Milwaukee-based Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation is also powerful, wealthy, and well-connected.

Established way back in 1942 after the death of Lynde Bradley. The foundation later also honored Lynde’s brother Harry Bradley, a charter member of the John Birch Society (the granddaddy of U.S. right-wing fringe groups). Bradley had some partners in launching John Birch, with Fred Koch, the father of the Koch Brothers. Bradley was also a fan of the Manion Forum, the radio show of conservative Christopher Manion, the man who made sure that Goldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative was published.

The Bradleys made their money running the Allen-Bradley company, which manufactured factory automation equipment. They did quite well in the first half of the 2oth Century, but in 1985 Rockwell International bought the company for $1.65 billion. They have been spending that money on their vision of the country ever since.

Initially, the foundation provided aid for the poor of the Milwaukee area. But with the huge payday from the sale of the company, the foundation upped its game. The foundation reportedly gives away something like $35-45 million a year; from 2001 to 2009, it handed out more money than the seven Koch and Scaife Foundations combined. This “venture capital firm for ideas” has not slowed down since then. 

As reported by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Aaron Dorfman, the executive director of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, said the Bradley Foundation supplies “the intellectual justification for conservative causes.”

“They have been particularly skillful at funding the think tanks and university programs that provide this intellectual foundation for their policy positions.”

The foundation’s stated mission is simple enough:

The Bradley Foundation supports grassroots and faith-based groups that serve individuals, strengthen families, and revitalize neighborhoods by sharing a common belief in the self-worth of individuals, the inherent dignity of work, and the need to reduce government dependence.

The foundation also believes that the founders envisioned a political system that is “unique, extraordinary, and must be preserved ‘to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.’”

Leadership of the foundation has been in line with those ideals. After the sale of Allen-Bradley to Rockwell, the foundation hired Michael S. Joyce. Mentored by neoconservative leader Irving Kristol, Joyce was in his forties when hired, but he had already had a busy career in conservative activism, including his pre-Bradley stint at the John M. Olin Foundation, a conservative grant-making outfit. While at Olin, Joyce helped turn a college symposium of dissatisfied conservative law students into the Federalist Society, a group now led by Leonard Leo and famous for steering Trump’s judicial picks

While leading the foundation, Joyce helped push the legislature to set up the nation’s first modern school voucher program in Milwaukee. Then the foundation helped bankroll successful court challenges that allowed those vouchers to be used in religious schools. Joyce, working through the Institute for Educational Affairs (a Kristol group), established the Philanthropy Roundtable, a network of like-minded rich persons and organizations (their current CEO has vocally opposed “woke” philanthropy) that belongs to the State Policy Network, a network of conservative and libertarian think tanks.

Joyce moved on in 2002 and was replaced by Michael Grebe. Grebe had served as general counsel to the Republican National Committee; he also chaired gubernatorial campaigns for the virulently anti-union Scott Walker in 2010, his hard-fought recall election in 2012, and his reelection campaign in 2014. He was also supposed to run Walker’s Presidential campaign until that fizzled out. While choosing to do the campaign while still running the foundation, Jane Meyer, in her book Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, wrote that “it was exactly the kind of hands-on political impact Joyce had sought when he set out to weaponize conservative philanthropy.” 

The newest leader is Richard Graber. Hired for the president and CEO post in July of 2016, Graber handled government relations for defense giant Honeywell, both in the U.S. and Europe, and worked in Wisconsin as a lawyer for decades. He ran unsuccessfully for public office, but chaired the state’s Republic Party for nearly a decade. President George W. Bush appointed Graber U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic. He had also headed up the Kern Family Foundation, a group that advocates for school choice.

The chairman of the board of directors is John Arthur Pope. Art Pope, who made his fortune with a chain of grocery stores, has a career both as a politician and a wealthy philanthropist, a major player in North Carolina, where he founded the Civitas Institute and the John Locke Foundation, a North Carolina right-wing think tank, with ties to Koch money, Bradley money, and Art Pope, who provides most of the money for the group. Pope is a former head of Americans for Prosperity, the Koch outfit that helped juice up the Tea Party. Pope used the John Locke Foundation to set up the John William Pope Foundation, which funnels more money to more conservative groups. It has ties to all of that same money, as well as the aforementioned State Policy Network.

The Center for Media and Democracy, which has done extensive research of the foundation, sees the Bradley Foundation’s goal as assessing and expanding right-wing “infrastructure” to influence policies and politicians in statehouses nationwide. Scot Ross, former head of liberal One Wisconsin Now, characterizes the foundation’s goals as “privatizing public schools and denying legal voters the franchise.” 

In a 2018 interview, Graber himself characterizes the “four major areas of focus” for the foundation:

Constitutional order, by which he means “federalism, separation of powers, the importance of individual liberties like freedom of speech and freedom of religion” as well as promoting free markets and deregulation.

Education, by which he means that public schools are allegedly failing so we should have choice. “This foundation [was] at the forefront of school choice; it started here.”

Civil society, which seems to be a blanket term for people behaving properly. “The breakdown of the family, people not working, drug addiction, alcohol addiction – the things that seem to be pulling us apart as a country.” The foundation does not seem to embrace a particularly complicated view of any of these issues.

Arts and culture, about which Graber actually had little to say.

In the foundation’s 2021 annual report, aimed at the “inside audience,” Graber is more direct, referring to the “pillars of American exceptionalism,” which the foundation considers to be “fidelity to the Constitution, a strong free market system, an informed citizenry and a vibrant civil society.”

To that aim, the foundation supports a huge array of organizations. The 2021 Annual Report lists over $43 million in grants, spread over nine categories, including civil society, constitutional order, free markets, and informed citizens. 

The grantee list takes up 18 pages at around 16-18 names per page. It includes many Wisconsin charitable groups, and also familiar right-wing names, like Manhattan Institute, ALEC, the Goldwater Institute, the Federalist Society, the Heritage Society, the libertarian CATO Institute, Hoover Institution, American Enterprise Institute, Prager University, and the John Locke Foundation. 

They gave $100,000 to the Liberty Justice Center, the legal conservatives who helped litigate the Janus lawsuit, which resulted in a SCOTUS ruling that local teachers unions must allow free riders. They gave money to the First Liberty Institute, the group that has been taking lawsuits before the Supreme Court to tear down the wall between church and state (particularly in education).

These are just the grants that the Bradley Foundation makes in plain sight. Digging through a treasure trove of leaked documents, the Center for Media and Democracy uncovered other foundation activity.

In particular, they found the foundation supporting the work of Richard Berman. Berman specializes in spreading disinformation through front groups, websites, TV and print ads and paid social media campaigns. Many of his groups are just a website, but others incorporate as charitable groups. 

For example, the Center for Union Facts is a Berman operation that opposes public sector unions. After the Janus decision, CUF embarked on a campaign to get teachers to quit their union (you still get all the benefits, so why pay for them). “The Center for Union Facts is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization supported by foundations, businesses, union members, and the general public,” they said in their materials as they ran the Speak Out For Teachers campaign.

The CUF is part of the constellation of conservative dark money activist groups run by Richard Berman. Berman has been at this for years. He started out in the food and drink industry, opposing minimum wage laws, and forming Beverage Retailers Against Drunk Driving, a group created to counter MADD. He’s proud of a “win ugly” approach of personal attacks, and promises his donors anonymity by running their money through his many various groups. One of his groups ran a full-page ad in USA Today against teachers and in support of the Vergara lawsuit. Right after Janus, CUF set up a website, promoted by billboards, that referred folks to My Pay My Say, the Mackinac Center’s (another Bradley grantee) initiative to try to get people to leave the union. You can catch more of his exploits at Sourcewatch, but the bottom line is that this is a guy who fights hard for the bosses and will try just about anything to trash unions. 

CMD talked to many watchdog groups about the Berman approach:

“When a company or a foundation gives money to Richard Berman or one of the groups set up and run by his consulting firm, they’re investing in his way of doing business, which includes exploiting ‘fear and anger’ to ‘shoot the messenger,’ usually in defense of issues his clients don’t want to be publicly identified with,” said Matt Corley, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) Research Director.

Berman, using Bradley Foundation money, has other involvements as well.

The foundation supports many anti-union groups, including Americans for Fair Treatment, a group that opposes all public sector unions and the Harrisburg-based Fairness Center, a “law firm that provides free legal services to those hurt by public-sector union officials.” The foundation has also heavily funded the National Right To Work Legal Defense Foundation. CMD says that these attempts to defund and dismantle unions are part of a larger attempt to influence elections by defunding Democratic Party “ground troops” and other supporters. 

The foundation has been busy funding attacks on elections themselves. Jane Mayer, reporting for the New Yorker in August, 2021, tied the foundation to many of the forces promoting the Big Lie, saying that the foundation “has become an extraordinary force in persuading mainstream Republicans to support radical challenges to election rules.” Since 2012, she found that the foundation had spent at least $18 million on eleven groups involved in election issues. 

Foundation board member Cleta Mitchell, who runs the Election Integrity Network at the pro-Trump Conservative Partnership Institute to which a Trump Pac donated $1 million, was on the Trump phone call that tried to pressure Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensberger “to find 11,780 votes.”  

She lost her cushy law firm job over that, but is still welcome to speak at GOP donor events, including the one where she called for the suppression of college student votes.

The foundation has funded challenges to voting rights (including the Shelby County case in which SCOTUS decided that racism is no longer a big deal, so we don’t need the Voting Rights Act to be enforced any more). 

It is also opposed to climate regulation and works hard to counter climate change information and the “radical” organizations that inform the public. 

They’ve backed Scott Walker heavily, put up voter suppression billboards, and given grants to folks like Charles Murray (author of the racist The Bell Curve) and Dinesh D’Souza (author of The End of Racism and director of the crazy “documentary” 2,000 Mules). The foundation also makes considerable use of Donors Trust, a dark money laundering operation that lets rich folks fund their favorite causes without having their names attached. 

They give out awards every year. This year Betsy DeVos recieved one;, while previous winners include Jeb Bush, Roger Ailes, Carcy Olsen (the president of the Goldwater Institute), Larry Arnn (president of Hillsdale College), Mitch Daniels, and Charles Murray.

And they have an enemies list

It is absolutely dizzying to wander through the web that surrounds the Bradley Foundation. Over and over you meet the same groups, the same actors who are shared by various boards, all in service of the same constellation of causes. Dismantle unions. Privatize education. Reduce taxation. Tweak the system so that only votes from the right people will count, and only the right people will be elected. 

And it just keeps growing. When the foundation got its big boost 40 years ago, it had about $300 million to play with. These days that number is closer to $900 million. That money, passed either in plain sight or through dark channels, is aimed at remaking this country according to Bradley’s narrow far-right view.

Peter Greene

Peter Greene

Peter Greene is a recently retired classroom secondary English teacher of 39 years. He lives and works in a small town in Northwest Pennsylvania, and blogs at Curmudgucation.

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