Republican Party of Wisconsin
Says Mahlon Mitchell "received a massive raise on the backs of hard-working firefighters and turned the union into his own personal political slush fund."

Republican Party of Wisconsin on Wednesday, August 1st, 2018 in a news release

Wisconsin GOP takes jabs at Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mahlon Mitchell

Democratic candidate for Wisconsin's governor Mahlon Mitchell on July 12, 2018, stands on stage prior to a debate with fellow candidates at the UWM MainStage Theatre, in Milwaukee. (Michael Sears / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel photo).

As eight Democrats fight for the right to take on Gov. Scott Walker in November, the state Republican Party is throwing its own punches from the sidelines.

Their latest jab came in the form of an Aug. 1, 2018, news release announcing a series of radio ads against four Democrats running for governor. The ads pick up some of the same themes found on a party-created webpage that slams the "Democrats’ dangerous race to the left."

Here’s what the GOP has to say about Mahlon Mitchell, head of the statewide firefighters union:

"Mitchell received a massive raise on the backs of hard-working firefighters and turned the union into his own personal political slush fund."

So, it’s a double shot.

Let’s look at both parts of the claim -- the "massive raise" and the "personal political slush fund."

Compensation increase

When asked for evidence to back up this part of the statement, state GOP communications director Alec Zimmerman referred PolitiFact Wisconsin to a Jan. 22, 2018, piece by watchdog columnist Dan Bice in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The online headline: "Firefighter leader Mahlon Mitchell would take pay cut if elected governor."

The piece noted that Mitchell was named president of the state firefighters group early in 2011 in the wake of a scandal in which top union officials were filing fraudulent expense reports.

Specifically, Zimmerman cited this paragraph:

Since taking the union's helm, Mitchell has seen his pay jump from $54,500 in 2011 to $90,600 in 2016 (plus another $6,787 in other income) — a 66% bump, according to federal Department of Labor filings. His predecessor made about half what Mitchell does.

PolitiFact Wisconsin checked the firefighter union’s Department of Labor filings for 2017 and found there had been another increase.

Those filings show Mitchell’s 2017 union compensation  at $70,922, plus $31,727 for disbursements for official business and an additional $12,431 for other disbursements for a total of $115,080.

So, Mitchell’s overall union compensation went from $97,387 in 2016 to $115,080 in 2017, an increase of about 18 percent. When compared to $54,500 when he began in 2011, his union compensation has increased to $115,080 in 2017, or about 111 percent over six years.

While there is no official definition for a "massive pay raise," Mitchell’s union compensation increase of 111 percent from 2011 to 2017 compares to an 18.3 percent increase in base pay for an entry level Madison firefighter during that same period.

According to the City of Madison Fire Department website, an entry level firefighter is currently paid $50,204.70. In 2011, an entry level firefighter salary was $42,449.16.

"Since he’s working at a Union funded by the dues of firefighters, it’s accurate to say that his raises were funded by their contributions," said Zimmerman.

Still, framing it as on the "backs of hard-working firefighters" goes a little too far in that it portrays it as something imposed on union members.

Steve Wilding, secretary/treasurer of the state firefighters union, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in January 2018 that salaries and per-diems for the union's brass are voted on by the nearly 200 delegates at the group's annual convention.

(Note: Mitchell’s pay from the City of Madison is not included in this discussion because the state GOP allegations are specifically addressing compensation from "hard-working firefighters" not city taxpayers.)

Political spending

On the "political slush fund" part of the claim, Zimmerman provided spreadsheets that showed, in his words, that the union’s political spending under Mitchell shifted to "being overwhelmingly supportive of liberal causes while he was at the helm, including over $40,000 to Mahlon’s campaigns."

We turned to Follow The Money, a website that is part of the National Institute on Money in Politics, which compiles campaign-donor, lobbyist, and other information from government agencies nationwide.

The site shows that the Wisconsin Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin has made an overwhelming majority of its contributions to Democratic candidates over the years, including Gov. Jim Doyle, Mary P. Burke and yes, Mahlon Mitchell, who in 2012 unsuccessfully ran for the office of lieutenant governor in a recall election against Rebecca Kleefisch.

The union has also contributed to GOP candidates, such as Scott Walker and Brad Schimel, though the amount of the donations to the Republican candidates have fallen far short of the donations to Democrats. According to the Journal Sentinel January article, since 2011 to that point, the firefighter union's political action fund had donated a total of $129,250 to state candidates and PACs, with 98% of the cash going to Democrats.

Also, during Mitchell's 2012 lieutenant governor's bid, the firefighters PAC gave $3,500 to his campaign and the union itself donated $40,000 to an outside group backing Mitchell with independent expenditures, the Journal Sentinel reported in the January article. Mitchell had no role, officials said, in the spending of these union funds, having recused himself on the matter.

In the current campaign, a U.S. Department of Labor website listing shows the union contributed $25,000 to Mahlon Mitchell for Wisconsin on Nov. 13, 2017, and $15,444 on Nov. 30, 2017, for a total of $40,444.

But what of the "slush fund" characterisation?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines "slush fund" as "a fund for bribing public officials or carrying on corruptive propaganda; an unregulated fund often used for illicit purposes."

While there is plenty of hyperbole in politics, in our view this goes too far.

For instance, there are no allegations that contribution limits were ignored or any campaign finance laws broken. What’s more, there is no evidence that Mitchell alone decides where the union contributions go.

In January, when the state GOP first made the "slush fund" allegation, Wilding -- the union secretary/treasurer --  told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that the union’s bylaws and constitution prevent individuals from enriching themselves at the expense of other members.

In an Aug. 8 Journal Sentinel article, Wilding noted to columnist Dan Bice that Mitchell’s base compensation dropped from some $90,000 in 2016 to $70,000 in 2017. Wilding said top union officials are paid a small salary and a payment for services performed for the organization on a day-by-day basis. 

Meanwhile, Mitchell’s campaign communications director Kirsten Allen responded with a general slam on Walker. Allen did not provide a response when asked in a series of emails and telephone calls to address the specific issues that are part of this factcheck.

Our rating

The state GOP says Mitchell "received a massive raise on the backs of hard-working firefighters and turned the union into his own personal political slush fund."

The union members did OK the compensation increase, so saying it was "on the backs" of firefighters goes too far. But Mitchell’s 111 percent increase over a period of about six years is a major one. So the GOP has a point on that part of the claim.

Meanwhile, the union’s political contributions have shifted to Democrats, including more than $40,000 to Mitchell’s current campaign. But the GOP provided no evidence Mitchell solely decides where the political contributions go.

Indeed, the union says he recuses himself from any discussions. Even with an allowance for the hyperbole of campaign season, the "slush fund" characterization goes too far.

For a statement that is partially accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context our rating is Half True.

Share the Facts
PolitiFact rating logo PolitiFact Rating:
Half True
Says Mahlon Mitchell "received a massive raise on the backs of hard-working firefighters and turned the union into his own personal political slush fund."
In a news release
Wednesday, August 1, 2018