Thursday, August 30, 2012

Paul "Pinocchio" Ryan's speech: A roundup of media fact-checks

By Barbara J. Miner

The articles exposing the distortions, misleading statements and outright lies in Paul Ryan’s Wednesday night speech are racing through the Internet so fast that it’s hard to keep track of them all.

The posts span the political spectrum, from the Washington Post to The New Republic, the Associated Press and CNN— even to Fox News.

As Sally Kohn, a Fox contributor, said of the speech: “To anyone paying the slightest bit of attention to facts, Ryan’s speech was an apparent attempt to set the world record for the greatest number of blatant lies and misrepresentations slipped into a single political speech.”

Many of the articles took aim at Ryan’s claims on the federal budget, Medicare and the GM plant in Janesville. Given that Ryan is supposedly a Medicare and budget policy wonk, and that he’s from Janesville and should know the GM plant’s history, it’s hard to imagine his mis-statements were a mistake.

Take the claim that the President Obama broke a promise to keep open the GM plant in Ryan’s hometown. Politifact rated the claim “False,” and noted that the Janesville plant closed before Obama even took office.

Which Ryan must have known. In June of 2008, Ryan joined with Wisconsin U.S. Senators Herb Kohl and Russ Feingold in a joint letter asking GM to reconsider its decision to close the Janesville plant. The letter is available through Ryan’s House website.

PolitiFact, in addition to a “False” rating to Ryan’s claim on the Janesville plant, also rated “Mostly False” Ryan’s statement that Obama funneled $716 billion out of Medicare at the expense of the elderly.

Here are headlines from some of the many articles available online:

“Paul Ryan’s breathtakingly dishonest speech,” by James Downie of the Washington Post.

Top 5 Fibs in Paul Ryan’s Convention Speech,” by Brian Beutler of Talking Points Memo.

“The Most Dishonest Convention Speech … Ever?” by Jonathan Cohn of The New Republic.

“Mr. Ryan’s misleading speech,” an editorial in the Washington Post.

“Here’s a list of some of the whoppers that Paul Ryan served up Wednesday night,” by David Weigel ofSlate.

“Fact Check: Ryan Ignores Parts of His Own Record,” by Cal Woodward and Jack Gillum of theAssociated Press.

Fact-checking Ryan’s Convention Speech,” by Michael Cooper of the New York Times.

For a video outlining the lies and distortions, check out the two-minute video available as part of the article, “A lollapalooza of lies,” by Barbara Morrill for Daily Kos. The video is based on excerpts from Ryan’s speech and responses from fact-checkers.
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This blog is cross-posted at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Purple Wisconsin Project.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

When did supporting public education become ideological extremism?

By Barbara J. Miner

One of the many benefits of a vacation is that you don’t have to be tethered to your computer or iPhone and obsess about instant access to “the news.”
At the same time, habits die hard. My husband and I were thousands of miles away from Milwaukee during our two-week getaway this August — but more often than I’d like to admit, we checked the online version of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
By the time we returned this week, I realized that most of the news wasn’t really that important. Yes, there was the Todd Akin foot-in-mouth outbreak, interesting in part because his views are not that different from those of Wisconsin’s own Paul Ryan. It’s just that Ryan is better at dressing up his draconian positions in acceptable rhetoric.
County Executive Chris Abele’s firing of Parks Department director Sue Black was also definitely of interest. But the media’s coverage was frustrating. It devolved into guessing games and pro-Abele rationalizations that never really addressed a key question: isn’t it a good thing that Black passionately defended the parks and wasn’t just a “yes” person who acquiesced to year after year of budget cuts?
And then there was the media’s coverage of the Aug. 14 Democratic primaries in Milwaukee. This time, frustration was replaced with amazement.
I had more than passing familiarity with the primaries in Milwaukee for various state legislative seats. In particular, I had blogged about education as a key issue in the Democratic primaries and the behind-the-scenes involvement of the Republican-dominated, pro-voucher American Federation for Children. (Because there are no serious Republicans running in those races this fall, the Democratic primary was, in essence, the election.)
Among other things, the American Federation for Children paid for robocalls and flyers, with its support of six pro-voucher candidates reaching at least $100,000.
The federation is the most powerful national group in the Republican-dominated movement to use public tax dollars to fund private and religious schools. Wisconsin, home to the country’s largest and oldest voucher program, has always been a key battleground.
The federation is led by Betsy DeVos, who is married to the son of billionaire Amway co-founder Richard DeVos, and who once boasted that the family is the “largest single contributor of soft money” to the national Republicans. “Other than possibly the Koch brothers, few billionaires have a more established place in conservative America than the DeVos clan,” notes a article last year.

Despite its national influence and deep pockets, the federation was unsuccessful in convincing Milwaukee voters that it had their interests at heart.
All of the federation’s candidates in Milwaukee lost.
It was the most stunning defeat for voucher proponents in Wisconsin in recent memory.
The defeat of incumbent Jason Fields was particularly striking. First elected in 2004, Fields had assumed a national role in promoting vouchers. This May, for instance, he was on a panel of “legislative champions” at the federation’s 2012 National Policy Summit in Jersey City, N.J. 
Given the dominant role education has played in Wisconsin politics in the last year — to say nothing of vouchers as a key plank in the Republican national agenda — you would think it would be news that candidates strongly supporting public education overwhelmingly defeated pro-voucher candidates.
So imagine my surprise at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s editorial analyzing the Milwaukee races.
The results, it said, were an example of Democrats enforcing an “ideological code” that mandates “ideological purity” and “fealty to the [Democratic] party agenda.” Just to make sure readers didn’t miss the point, the headline declared: “Purging of moderates bodes ill for Wisconsin.”
The editorial cited Daniel Riemer’s defeat of incumbent Peggy Krusick and Mandela Barnes's defeat of Fields as evidence of moderates being purged. It proclaimed not just vouchers but abortion as the key issues. (Krusick opposes abortion, Riemer supports reproductive rights; Fields supports private school vouchers, Barnes is an advocate of public education.)
When I read the editorial, even though I was thousands of miles away on vacation, I was flabbergasted.
Since when did support for public education and women’s reproductive rights become examples of ideological extremism?
What’s more, how did abortion become a central issue in the primary?
I understand that education was a fundamental dividing line. Both Riemer and Barnes had made the protection of public education a key focus of their campaigns, as did other primary winners. What’s more, Gov. Scott Walker’s unprecedented cuts in education funding, his attack on public sector unions and his expansion of the voucher program have ensured that education is page one news across the state.
But bringing up abortion as essential to Krusick’s defeat was odd. Yes, abortion remains an ongoing and ever-present political controversy. But Reimer didn’t raise that as an issue.
Which made me wonder. Was the abortion issue thrown in to help make the editorial’s case that ideological extremists led a purge of moderates?
After all, it would have been hard to make such an accusation merely because a candidate supported public education, which is an essential right enshrined in the state’s constitution. Until the Republicans decided to malign public schools and push their agenda of private school vouchers, support for public education was as American as apple pie.
Throughout their campaigns, Riemer and Barnes demonstrated a willingness to work hard. They will take to Madison fresh energy and a reinvigorated commitment to public education. They deserve better than the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s editorial.
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This blog is cross-posted at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Purple Wisconsin project.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

School vouchers leader to strange bedfellows. Why a hard-core Republican group is backing Democratic candidates

By Barbara J. Miner
Two powerful school voucher groups that ordinarily work behind the scenes have made headlines and raised eyebrows in Milwaukee in recent weeks: The American Federation for Children and School Choice Wisconsin.
The American Federation for Children is a national school voucher group led by prominent Republicans. Yet it is promoting Democratic pro-voucher candidates in several Milwaukee races, touting the candidates’ anti-Republican Party bona fides in order to win over voters in Democratic strongholds.
School Choice Wisconsin, meanwhile, opposes a City of Milwaukee ordinance requiring playgrounds at new elementary schools, including private voucher schools. Such a measure would “significantly limit parent’s educational choices” and would “restrict education reform,” School Choice Wisconsin argued
The American Federation for Children’s activities have raised the most eyebrows, because of the subterfuge in its efforts. The federation is a well-known and long-time Republican powerbroker. Because there are no Republicans in the Milwaukee races in question, the Aug. 14 primary is in part a battle between candidates supporting vouchers for private schools versus candidates focused on public education.
In one of many testimonies to the federation’s Republican Party ties, in May 2011 it invited Gov. Scott Walker to deliver a keynote address on school vouchers at its national policy summit in Washington, D.C.
However, in a recent mailer, the federation praised the anti-Republican positions of Rep. Jason Fields. A strong supporter of vouchers, Fields is facing a challenge in the11th District assembly race from Mandela Barnes, who supports public education. 
The federation also sent out a flyer supporting candidate Mildred “Millie” Colby in the redistricted 10th District assembly race where State Rep. Sandy Pasch is Colby’s main opponent. Like Barnes, Pasch has been critical of school vouchers.
In addition to the campaign flyer for Colby, the federation paid for a “robocall” criticizing Pasch as a Whitefish Bay resident who does not support the interests of African-Americans. Colby is African American, Pasch is white, and the race has become embroiled in politics of whether one should “vote for someone who looks like you.”
The federation has also filed notice with the Government Accountability Board of its involvement in State Rep. Elizabeth Coggs’s upcoming primary race for the Senate seat now held by her cousin, Spencer Coggs, who was elected City of Milwaukee treasurer in April. Coggs faces a primary where current County Supervisor Nikiya Harris is considered her strongest opponent.
Barnes, Pasch and Harris held a joint press conference last week criticizing the federation’s involvement in their Democratic primaries and noting the federation’s conservative agenda. They held the press conference in front of a former voucher school closed down after concerns that the school “put students in danger and was so understaffed in May that the school leader took children to his home while he worked on ‘other things,’” as a May 29 article on described the situation.
The American Federation for Children is the most powerful national group in the Republican-dominated movement to use public tax dollars to fund private and religious schools. Wisconsin, home to the country’s largest and oldest voucher program, plays an important national role.
The federation had a budget of almost $4 million in 2010, according to its tax forms. It is led by Betsy DeVos, a former chair of the Republican Party of Michigan and the sister of Erik Prince, the leader of Xe, the mercenary outfit formerly known as Blackwater that led the privatization of U.S. military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Betsy is married to Dick DeVos, son of billionaire Amway co-founder Richard DeVos. All are long-time supporters of right-wing causes, from school vouchers to initiatives opposing gay marriage and women’s reproductive rights.
“Other than possibly the Koch brothers, few billionaires have a more established place in conservative America than the DeVos clan,” notes a article last year.
Betsy DeVos’s involvement in partisan politics goes back decades. Back in 1997 she wrote an op-ed in which she said her family “is the largest single contributor of soft money to the national Republican Party.” She went on to say that she had decided “to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence. Now I simply concede the point.” 
The Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation also provided funding for the Citizens United case upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, which successfully challenged campaign finance reform and allowed unrestricted spending by Super PACs. 
The federation has long focused on Wisconsin. Scott Jensen, a long-time Republican operative in the state, is a senior advisor for the federation. []
The federation also has a non-profit arm, the Alliance for School Choice. The alliance’s 2010 tax form reported a budget of $3 million. In one of the many examples of the inter-locking nature of voucher/choice organizations, Betsy DeVos is the chair and Jensen is a senior advisor for the alliance
The federation’s involvement in the Jason Fields race should not come as a surprise. Earlier this year, at a lunch hosted by the American Federation for Children at a symposium of the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO), Fields was a featured speaker. (Kevin P. Chavous, a senior advisor for the American Federation for Children, is on the BAEO board of directors. BAEO was founded in 2000 by voucher/choice advocate Howard Fuller of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University.)
Fields was also on a panel of “legislative champions” at the federation’s 2012 National Policy Summit in May in Jersey City, N.J. Wisconsin State Senator Lena Taylor also attended the summit, and an interview with her is posted on the federation’s “SchoolChoiceWorks’s channel,” accessible via YouTube. Republican governors Chris Christie of New Jersey and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana were the summit’s featured speakers.
Scott Jensen, meanwhile, is well known in Wisconsin political circles. He served as a Republican in the Wisconsin assembly from 1992 until 2006, and was indicted and later convicted for having his staff work on campaign issues on state time. (Justice David Prosser — who himself made headlines for his “I felt-the-warmth of her neck” incident with Justice Ann Bradley over a contentious meeting related to Walker’s anti-union legislation — was a character witness for Jensen in his 2006 trial.)
In 2004, after his indictment but before he resigned from the Assembly upon his conviction, Jensen was hired by the Alliance for School Choice to promote school vouchers on a state-by-state level.
Think Progress— a non-partisan liberal blog focusing on investigative journalism — reports that funders for the Alliance for School Choice include DeVos, the Wal Mart Foundation, the Chase Foundation of Virginia, the Charles Koch Foundation, and the powerful Walton Family Foundation (of Wal-Mart fame). 
Milwaukee’s Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, which as long been one of the country’s most important supporters of vouchers, has donated some $400,000 to the Alliance for School Choice over the years, according to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel searchable database on Bradley donations. 
The American Federation for Children and Alliance for Choice also have a number of state-allied organizations. In Wisconsin, they include Hispanics for School Choice, the Milwaukee chapter of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, and School Choice Wisconsin.
School Choice Wisconsin, founded in 2004, had a budget of almost $750,00 in 2010, according to its tax forms.
Until a year ago, the organization was headed by Susan Mitchell, a well-known government consultant. Jim Bender is the current head of School Choice Wisconsin. Bender previously had been a lobbyist for the organization and, before that, chief of staff for Assembly Speaker (and current U.S. Senate candidate) Republican Jeff Fitzgerald.
The Board of Directors includes Tim Sheehy, head of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce and Margaret Farrow, a former Republican state senator and the lieutenant governor under Gov. Scott McCallum. The Board Chair is Andrew Neumann, son of U.S. Senate Republican hopeful Mark Neumann, and head of the HOPE Christian Schools that are part of the Milwaukee voucher program. Howard Fuller was a director until January 2010.
Since 2004, School Choice Wisconsin has received $1.95 million from the Bradley Foundation, according to the foundation’s annual reports. Like Bradley, School Choice supports universal vouchers that are not limited to poor or middle-income people.
In the press release noting her departure as president, Mitchell praised the Republicans for their 2011 expansion of the private school voucher program. “We thank Governor Walker, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, Senator Alberta Darling, Representative Robin Vos, and our many other legislative allies for expanding a valuable opportunity to more families,” Mitchell said. (While expanding private school vouchers, the Republican-controlled legislature made the deepest cuts ever to public education.)
In Milwaukee, School Choice Wisconsin has had a lower profile, in part because vouchers are a state-funded program.
In a recent foray into city politics, it stumbled when it issued a press release opposing an ordinance requiring playgrounds at new elementary schools. School Choice Wisconsin argued that the ordinance was impractical in an urban area, would limit parent choice and would set back educational reform.
The initiative had unanimously passed the Zoning, Neighborhoods & Development Committee. School Choice Wisconsin then called on the Common Council to pause and reconsider the initiative.
The council agreed 14-1 at its July meeting to hold the matter, which was clearly a victory for School Choice Wisconsin. At the same time, several aldermen voiced concerns over School Choice Wisconsin’s perspective, with Alderman Michael Murphy calling its views “embarrassing.”
To date, both School Choice Wisconsin and the American Federation for Children have enjoyed significant success in Wisconsin — with the voucher program now rivaling, in size, the state’s largest public school districts after Milwaukee and Madison.
Both groups have relied on the seductive rhetoric of “parental choice” to mask an agenda that seeks to privatize public education and funnel taxpayer dollars to private and religious schools.
Whether their tactics will be successful in these latest battles remains to be seen. At the very least, it has led to scrutiny of the groups’ goals and their ties with powerful conservatives.
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This blog is cross-posted at my blog, “View from the Heartland: Honoring the Wisconsin tradition of common decency and progressive politics.” At the blog,, you can also sign up for email notifications.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Grieve. And when the time comes, educate yourself and help prevent future tragedies

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.
Ecclesiastes 3
By Barbara J. Miner
In the initial days of shock after the August 5 shootings at the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, there was only one appropriate response. Grief.
Milwaukee, an often-divided community, responded with one voice to condemn the carnage. 
In the coming weeks and months, however, the difficult and contentious question must be asked. How can we, as a society, help prevent such future tragedies?
There are no easy answers. But two issues that must be discussed are the disturbing realities of too much racism and too many guns in this country.

Following are organizations, locally and nationally, that provide educational resources on fighting racism and on promoting gun control. The list is by no means exhaustive, but provides a starting point.


The YWCA of Greater Milwaukee has a Racial Justice initiative and sponsors a range and anti-racist workshops. This October it begins its “Unlearning Racism: Tools for Action” workshops. 

Educators’ Network for Social Justice is a network of teachers in the Milwaukee area promoting “pro-justice curricula and policies.” Among its initiatives is an annual “Anti-racist Anti-bias Conference.”

The CLEaR Justice initiative of the Milwaukee Public Schools. The initiative is an advisory council within MPS to counter discrimination based on class, language, ethnicity and race. The website also lists a variety of local resources.

Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, provides a range of resources for educators, community groups and parents. Among its resources is a magazine, free for teachers, and also available for free through its website. Its Spring 2011 issue provided a look at using social media to teach social justice.

Southern Poverty Law Center, which has provided much of the background for the media on Wade Michael Page.The center, based in Montgomery, Ala., was founded in 1971 “to ensure that the promises of the civil rights movement became a reality for all.” It provides educational resources, investigates and tracks hate groups, and is involved in lawsuits on issues ranging from abuse of prison inmates to defending the rights of disabled children.

Teaching for Change, based in Washington, D.C. provides resources for both teachers and parents.


The Wisconsin Anti-Violence Effort is Wisconsin’s leading grassroots organization “dedicated to reducing gun violence, injuries and deaths.” Founded in 1995, the group provides a variety of resources and links to other organizations.

The Brady Center to Prevent Gun ViolenceThe organization dates back to 1974, and was renamed in 2001 to honor Jim and Sarah Brady. Jim Brady is the former assistance to the President and White House Press Secretary under Ronald Reagan; he was permanently disabled during the assassination attempt on Reagan in 1981. Since then, the Brady’s have become ardent supporters of gun control. is an international organization providing information on guns. It includes information ranging from the worldwide gun industry to gun policies and statistics, country-by-country. The website is hosted by the Sydney School of Public Health in Australia.
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This blog is cross-posted  at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Purple Wisconsin project.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Do children deserve playgrounds? "Maybe," says Milwaukee's Common Council

By Barbara J. Miner

I thought that asking whether the children of Milwaukee deserve school playgrounds would be a slam-dunk question — sort of like asking whether it would be cool for the Brewers to win the World Series.

But I was apparently wrong. A pro-voucher group complained about a proposed ordinance requiring that all new elementary schools in Milwaukee have playgrounds. Such a measure would “significantly limit parent’s educational choices” and would “restrict education reform,” School Choice Wisconsin argued.

It would look bad to outright oppose playgrounds. The voucher group called for Milwaukee's Common Council to “pause” and give the ordinance “a complete review.”

Last week the Common Council did what School Choice Wisconsin wanted. With a 14-1 vote it put the ordinance on hold, with Ald. Tony Zielinski the only “no” vote. 

School Choice Wisconsin includes some heavy hitters. Tim Sheehy of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce is on its board, and the board chair is Andrew Neumann, head of the voucher HOPE Christian Schools and son of GOP U.S. Senate candidate Mark Neumann. Long-time voucher proponent Howard Fuller is a former board member.

The proposal will now go back to committee. The soonest it will come up again is in September, thus allowing another round of new voucher and charter schools to open without playgrounds. (MPS is not planning new schools in new buildings, so the ordinance primarily speaks to concerns about voucher and charter schools.)

It is unclear how much the proposal will be sliced and diced and watered down before it returns to the council. Or, in a worst-case scenario, it could get buried, never to rise again. It wouldn’t be the first time that the word “committee” was merely a euphemism for “cemetery.”

Not trusting School Choice Wisconsin’s word that playgrounds would set back reform, I looked at the playground space (or lack thereof) at some of the proposed and existing voucher schools in Milwaukee. It was depressing.

Photos #1 and #2 below show the “playground” that will be shared by Carter’s Christian Academy and Imani Academy, two schools across the street from each other on 35th Street just north of Villard Avenue. Carter’s Christian Academy, a K-8 school, had 135 voucher students last year, according to the state Department of Public Instruction (DPI). Imani, which has applied as a voucher school for the fall, will serve students up to fourth grade. Photo #3 is a side view of Carter’s Christian Academy.




It could be worse, however. Some voucher schools have no playgrounds.

The photos below are of some voucher schools without playgrounds. The school buildings come up to the sidewalk and are only a few feet from the street. The photos are of the back and/or side that are not along the sidewalk.

Photo #4 is of a new voucher school due to open in the fall, the Academy of Excellence at 12th and Pierce Street on the South Side. The academy is located in the third floor of a building used primarily by Blackhawk Antiques Market.

Photo #5 is from the Clara Mohammed School on MLKing Drive and Wright Street. The school served 225 students last year, according to the DPI. The DPI also lists a second address for the coming school year at 20th and Vliet Street.

Photos #6 and #7 are the front and back of Calvary’s Christian Academy, a K4-5 school on Burleigh Street just east of Holton Avenue. The school is next to a hardware store and, in the back, abuts on the alley.

Photo #8 is from the Ceria M. Travis Academy on Wisconsin Avenue near 27th Street. The K-12 school served 703 students last year, according to the DPI. The DPI lists a second address for the coming school year, at a former Catholic school on the north side.






The proposed ordinance requiring playgrounds at all new schools in the City of Milwaukee — charter, voucher and MPS — had unanimously passed the Zoning, Neighborhoods & Development Committee. But a week before the Common Council meeting, School Choice Wisconsin complained.

In addition to saying that the ordinance restricted parental choice and hampered education reform, the voucher advocacy group said that the policy is “impractical” and “will be difficult to implement in an urban environment like Milwaukee.”

What’s next? Complaints that cities don’t have room for parks and green space?

School Choice Wisconsin also complained that the ordinance would require “large amounts of play space to be set aside.” Large, however, is a relative term.

Based on state standards for child care centers, the proposal called for 75 square feet of outdoor play space for each child using the playground at any time. Overall, the playground was to accommodate at least a third of the children at a school.

Yes, 75 square feet per child can seem a lot. Until you do the math.

Assume a school of 200 students, which means a playground that can accommodate about 65 children. In terms of space, that would mean a playground roughly the size needed for a high school basketball court.

If anything, the requirement should be even stricter. Imagine having 65 14-year-old boys on a basketball court, after they were cooped up in a classroom all morning. Sure, they might have space for yoga or calisthenics or military drills, but certainly not for kickball or dodgeball or even just running around.

What’s more, the state’s child care regulation is for centers serving children seven years old or younger. The regulations also recognize that children need more space as they grow older, so it sets a lower standard for very young children.

Is School Choice Wisconsin arguing that adolescent boys and girls need less space than children at daycare?

More troubling: why did the Common Council do the bidding of School Choice Wisconsin and table the ordinance? 

Granted, many private and charter schools in Milwaukee have good playgrounds. But the point of public policy is to not only encourage the best, but also to guard against the worst.

Perhaps a decent ordinance will pass in September. Let’s hope so. Unfortunately, it will be too late for the hundreds of young children who will go to new voucher and charter schools this fall.

Part 2, coming Monday August 6: Who is School Choice Wisconsin?
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This blog is cross-posted at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Purple Wisconsin project.  

Correction: The original post said the council voted without discussion. Ald. Nik Kovac reports the matter was discussed before the 14-1 vote.