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UW professors raised partisanship concerns over new center

A red and white planting forms the letter W on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus Sept. 15, 2017. (WLUK/Scott Hurley)

MADISON (AP) -- University of Wisconsin political science professors involved in the creation of a new publicly funded policy center expressed concern that there wasn't enough balance between Democratic and Republican speakers at its first planned major event, newly released emails show.

The Tommy G. Thompson Center on Public Leadership was announced in May and it received $3 million in the state budget that Republican Gov. Scott Walker signed last month. Liberals worried it would serve as a conservative think tank despite assurances from university leaders that it wouldn't be partisan.

E-mails obtained by the liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now under the state open records law that were provided to The Associated Press on Wednesday show that professors raised red flags early on.

That included political science professor Barry Burden, who has been involved in helping start the center. On March 1, Burden sent an email worrying that the center's first big event, a Nov. 17 panel discussion on leadership, wouldn't be bipartisan enough.

"The list of people who have expressed some interest is a real set of stars in current politics," Burden wrote, noting that it would be a "real coup" to get House Speaker Paul Ryan. "But I wonder if it is wise to have essentially all of them be prominent Republicans. I can't imagine another center on campus that would only invite public officials from one party or ideological camp."

Fellow political science professor David Canon agreed in a reply: "I too think it would be good to have a broader range of folks (in terms of partisanship) for the leadership conference."

The two were responding to a Feb. 24 email listing potential speakers sent by Ryan Owens, a political science professor and attorney who formerly worked in Thompson's gubernatorial office. Owens came up with the idea for the center and has been working to get it off the ground.

Everyone on Owens' list of "interested in attending" were Republicans or known conservatives: Thompson, Ryan, U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, former Solicitor General Paul Clement and Minnesota Supreme Court Justice David Stras, whom President Donald Trump nominated in August to serve as a federal appeals court judge.

Owens said Wednesday that the final panel will be split 50-50 among Republicans and Democrats, but it remained somewhat in flux. He said confirmed attendees included former Assembly Speaker Tom Loftus and current Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, both Democrats, as well as current Republican Majority Leader Jim Steineke and Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Patience Roggensack, a conservative.

Owens said he reached out to a "ton" of Democrats and "we don't have any particular ideological axe to grind."

"The proof will be in the pudding," he said. "Watch and see what we do and judge us by our actions."

But One Wisconsin Now director Scot Ross said the goal of the center was obviously partisan.

"Republican politicians and their right-wing allies are buying themselves a front group to promote their propaganda, and they're using college campuses as their base of operations," Ross said.

Another email string sheds light on initial attempts to solicit private funding for the center. It has already received an unspecified donation from the conservative Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, based in Milwaukee.

Another group contacted was the George Family Foundation, based in Minneapolis.

"I am not convinced that they are a likely supporter," Canon, who was advising on the center's creation, said of the foundation in a May 19 email. "They sound like they tilt left-of-center."

Owens responded to Canon's concerns saying, "It's important that we reach out to a broad array of groups. If they are uninterested, that's OK."

Canon said Wednesday that the first donors to be targeted had some connection to Thompson, so it would make sense that they would be more conservative. But he stressed that once the center is operational and its dedication to a bipartisan approach is proven, "it will have a broad base of support."

One Wisconsin Now requested the emails on June 6. They were turned over to the group on Sept. 22 -- the day after Walker signed the budget that included $3 million in funding for the center.

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