photo by Peter DiAntoni
Mayor Tom Barrett likes to tell the story of playing basketball in Beijing with Tim Sheehy. The 6-foot-3-inch Barrett and 6-foot-3-inch Sheehy were up against a team of Chinese businessmen while on a trade mission last fall.
“I’m only a 25 percent shooter,” Barrett warned Sheehy before the game. “I like to rebound and pass.”
“Well, then, we’re gonna make good teammates,” said Sheehy, a one-time star player at Nicolet High School, “because I like to shoot.”
With the help of an 18-year-old Chinese ringer who sank a dozen three-point shots, the Barrett-Sheehy squad edged the Chinese execs, 50-48.
The story underscores the budding business relationship between Milwaukee and China. But it also illustrates the style of Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce longtime President Sheehy: He likes the starring role and doesn’t mind taking political shots, yet can work with people who don’t agree with him.
Sheehy and the MMAC have backed school vouchers for more than a decade. In the current legislative session, the association devoted half of its lobbying effort – 100 hours and $23,000 so far – toward persuading lawmakers to lift the enrollment cap on the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program.
Yet Sheehy gets high marks for diplomacy from the mayor’s office, governor’s office and teachers’ union – all critics of school choice.
“Tim is clearly a Republican, but he doesn’t get involved in all this nonsense of being a mouthpiece of the Republican Party,” says Marc Marotta, chairman of Gov. Jim Doyle’s re-election campaign and a former Marquette University basketball star who has known Sheehy since the 1980s. “The good thing about Tim is he understands politics and that it can’t all be one-sided.”
Voucher opponent Sam Carmen, executive director of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association, says he’s seen Sheehy “evolve” over the years. “He’s become much more interested in what’s going on with Milwaukee Public Schools,” says Carmen, citing Sheehy’s support of 4-year-old kindergarten as one example. “He’s tough but pragmatic.”
Sheehy has projected a bipartisan tone by masterfully working the media and forging connections with the right people. Former Mayor John Norquist, a maverick Democrat, kept a photo behind his desk of Sheehy and himself quaffing beer on a trip to Europe.
But even as Sheehy and the MMAC have successfully sold their political agenda, they have sometimes neglected what might seem their main mission: economic development. A marked conservatism has made the business community “undynamic,” says Milwaukee County Supervisor Roger Quindel.
“We have the highest healthcare costs in the country. Corporate executive salaries have gone through the roof. But it doesn’t bother them,” says Quindel. “They haven’t spoken out on any real issues for a long time. They’re irrelevant to what’s really going on.”
But Sheehy points to the MMAC’s push to help get Miller Park built and the Marquette Interchange rebuilt and, more recently, work on trade missions to China and (some would say belatedly) regional economic development.
Sheehy and the MMAC have also advocated for cuts in benefits to public employees and opposed the requirement that Park East construction companies pay a “prevailing wage,” something labor unions favored.
“Tim has emerged as one of the major political leaders in this community,” says labor economist Michael Rosen, a Milwaukee Area Technical College professor and union leader who has opposed Sheehy on issues. “I’m not sure this is the most appropriate role for the MMAC. As a special interest group, it’s supposed to be promoting small and medium-size businesses.”
As Sheehy has focused on politics, membership in the MMAC has stalled, the group has begun posting annual deficits and growing the organization has become a secondary objective. Sheehy remains an active player, and the MMAC is a formidable team, but is the regional economy winning because of their efforts? After 13 years as the team’s leader, just how many victories has Sheehy chalked up?
The Association of Commerce occupies the fourth floor of the Monroe Building at Mason and Milwaukee streets. Sheehy’s modest office has the feel of a den, its walls and shelves adorned with awards and sports souvenirs. On one wall hangs a prized photograph of Milwaukee Braves third baseman Eddie Mathews on the cover of the very first issue of Sports Illustrated in August 1954.
Unlike the Greater Milwaukee Committee (GMC) – a traditional nonprofit with representatives from business, labor, education and the professions – the MMAC is a nonprofit that’s a registered lobby and pushes its agenda from City Hall to the State Capitol. Dating to its birth in 1860, the organization’s aim has been “to make propaganda for Milwaukee,” as stated by the association‘s first paid employee.
Sheehy chuckles at the archaic job description but finds it compatible with his role as top lobbyist for Milwaukee’s business community. “I love what I’m selling,” he says. “I love the issues we get involved in.”
Lean and boyish at 46, Sheehy’s manner is loose and casual. He moves with an agitated energy, his large hands in motion, and accentuates his comments with a cuss word here and there. He clearly has inherited the Irish-American gift of gab.
The fruit fell at the very base of the family tree for Sheehy. His grandfather, a World War I combat hero, and his father, a graduate of Marquette University Law School, both were chief lobbyists for the Wisconsin Gas and Electric Co. Indeed, his grandfather, Raymond Sheehy, was saluted as “the dean of Wisconsin lobbyists” in his 1979 obituary. And his father, John Sheehy, was the City of Milwaukee’s first legislative lobbyist before joining the gas company.
“I didn’t grow up thinking I wanted to be a lobbyist” – he wanted to be a baseball player or a pilot – “but I had an early appreciation and respect for them,” says Sheehy.
Today, he’s in the same profession as his father and grandfather, lives in the same Fox Point house where he grew up and sends his three children to the same Fox Point-Bayside schools he attended as a child.
Looking back, Sheehy remembers riding in a fire truck when he was a boy with then-Gov. Warren Knowles and driving around the state with his grandfather as he called on legislators. “He knew everybody, he got along with everybody,” says Sheehy.
Dinner table chatter in the Sheehy household often centered on politics. “We had our own political bent within our family,” says his sister, Mary Reid, who ran then Gov. Tommy Thompson’s Washington, D.C., office and now serves as chief of staff for Assembly Speaker John Gard. “But we understood that working together with everybody was important.”
As the oldest of four children, Sheehy was the mediator when his siblings fought. “Tim was not the confrontational type,” says his sister. “The diplomacy was always there.”
His boyhood obsession with sports deepened in high school. At Nicolet, Sheehy played baseball, football and basketball and ran track. Courted by a number of colleges, he accepted a full scholarship from the University of Wisconsin-Madison to pitch on the school’s baseball team, now long defunct.
“I like to compete,” he says today. On a ball field or basketball court, “You strip the varnish off of people pretty quickly. You see how they tick. It’s the closest thing to going to war.”
But he was smart enough to see that sports was not his future. With his grades slipping in business school, Sheehy switched his major to political science. His father’s connections helped him win a congressional internship with U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, the Menomonee Falls Republican. “I put on my clip-on tie and drove him to all the events,” says Sheehy.
Sensenbrenner hired him as a legislative assistant, and over the next two years, Sheehy worked on constituent requests, met with Capitol Hill lobbyists, even helped craft the NASA budget with Sensenbrenner, a member of the House Science Committee.
As exciting as it was, working within the Washington beltway bred a disdain for big government. “It’s almost embarrassing – thinking the sun orbits the earth, that Washington is the center of everything,” he says.
In 1983, at his father’s suggestion, he talked MMAC President John Duncan into meeting him. The next day, Duncan offered him a job as a lobbyist. He was 24 and green. “I didn’t know what the chamber was,” says Sheehy.
Tossed into deep waters, Sheehy quickly learned how to swim, maneuvering through Madison’s power elite and the state media.
Three years later, he met Northwestern University graduate Liz Butler at the Miller beer tent at Summerfest. The following summer, he proposed to her – again, in the Miller beer tent. They were married the year after, not in a beer tent but at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, where Sheehy’s parents and grandparents had also wed.
In November 1992, at age 33, Sheehy was promoted to president of the MMAC, the 10th in a string of men with long tenures. His predecessor, Duncan, had served for 25 years.
Upon his elevation, Sheehy boldly predicted that the association’s role in public affairs would grow “because of all the ways the public can be affected by the private sector.”
One of Sheehy’s first big tests as president was hammering out a deal to fund a new baseball stadium. “We were the lead sled dog,” he says, hosting last-minute negotiations in the MMAC’s boardroom. At the table was an impressive lineup: baseball commissioner and Brewers owner Bud Selig, Gov. Tommy Thompson, “Deputy Governor” Jim Klauser, Michael Joyce of the Bradley Foundation and MMAC directors and corporate execs Bob O’Toole of A.O. Smith, Jim Keyes of Johnson Controls and Jack McDonough of Miller Brewing, who handed out cans of Genuine Draft from a cooler at his feet when the discussions grew heated.
To fund the stadium, the chamber had pushed for a constitutional amendment to create a sports lottery. But the amendment failed by a landslide, and Sheehy and his board instead threw their support to a metro-wide sales tax while agreeing to sign for a $14 million loan to the Brewers.
As of fiscal 2003, the team owed a balance of $9.1 million on the loan, according to tax statements for that year, after making that year’s payment to the MMAC of $1,523,492.
Sheehy still defends the Miller Park project but regrets the MMAC loan. “I was ignorant at the time of what a [financial] risk it was,” he says.
He also regrets the chamber’s endorsement of a referendum to spend $366 million in property taxes to build and renovate MPS schools. Put forward in 1993 by School Superintendent Howard Fuller but opposed by Mayor Norquist, the referendum split MMAC’s membership and failed at the polls by a 3-1 margin.
In pushing for Fuller’s plan, says Sheehy, “My heart won over my head.” Fuller eventually left MPS and became a national champion of school choice, winning over Sheehy and the MMAC board along the way.
The choice program has been politically charged since its beginning, with the MMAC squaring off against the teachers’ unions in School Board elections. In the 2003 election, MMAC members donated more than $3,000 through their political conduit to pro-voucher board member John Gardner, only to see him lose.
Sheehy and other proponents have long argued that competition from vouchers would force MPS to improve. But with the program in operation for more than 10 years, there’s scant evidence of that, argues economist Rosen. The racial achievement gap is still wide and graduation rates still low in MPS. “Vouchers have not solved the issue of inner city education,” he says.
Sheehy counters that competition pushed the teachers’ union to change policies, allowing school principals and staff to place teachers instead of requiring the central office to give preference to teachers with seniority. Businesses depend on a skilled and educated labor force, Sheehy adds, and the MMAC believes choice schools drive up the quality of education in Milwaukee.
Still, the MMAC has changed its tune on education over the years. In 1989, the MMAC and Greater Milwaukee Committee formed the Greater Milwaukee Education Trust to foster cooperation between business leaders and the public school system. But within a couple of years, business leaders began abandoning that mission in favor of vouchers for secular and then religious schools, as the trust went out of business.
To show its continued commitment to public education, -Sheehy points to the chamber’s college scholarship program for MPS graduates. Hatched in 1990 and funded by the sale of its credit bureau, the MMAC has awarded nearly $15 million in scholarships to more than 2,000 students who have enrolled in local colleges and technical schools.
But the scholarship fund will be empty this spring, ending the program, and Sheehy admits that it didn’t do much to change the system in Milwaukee.
“I think it was the best $15 million we ever spent,” he says. “But I think a lot of the kids would have found their way through college anyway.”
Education remains a hot-button issue for Sheehy as the debate plays out over raising enrollment caps at choice schools. But Sheehy approaches all such issues warily, after checking with his membership.
“We have to build consensus,” he says. “Because if we can’t do that, we’re about as effective as a wet noodle.”
By all accounts, Sheehy is easy to work with. “Like Nancy Zimpher [former University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee chancellor], Tim’s someone who projects leadership and energy without being a cutting-edge visionary,” says one observer close to City Hall. “He does what he needs to do to get along with Democrats, but he’s been a pretty loyal Thompson Republican.”
The chamber plays it safe, say critics, rallying behind noncontroversial projects like trade missions to China instead of a transportation link between inner city workers and suburban jobs, government waste instead of skyrocketing energy costs, commuter rail to Kenosha instead of light rail in the city.
“Every time there’s a tough decision, Sheehy hides behind his board of directors and says, ‘I don’t have consensus,’_” says a City Hall insider. “Somebody should be pushing the envelope and advancing bold ideas.”
Sheehy’s critics seem to contradict each other, with some saying he shouldn’t get involved in political issues and some saying he doesn’t get involved enough. Just what is the right balance?
Nationally, not all chambers of commerce get involved in politics. Typically, a chamber has three key functions: offering services to its members, such as networking -conferences and low-cost health insurance; backing economic development through attracting and retaining companies, transportation projects and marketing campaigns; and advocating or lobbying for business.
Under Sheehy’s predecessor, public policy took a back seat to building membership and economic development. “John Duncan was more the traditional chamber executive,” says Bob Milbourne, president of the GMC from 1985 until 2002, when he took a similar job in Columbus, Ohio. “You hardly ever heard of Duncan beyond the chamber world. Tim has chosen to define his job more as Mr. Outside in the public policy arena.”
When Sheehy took over as MMAC president in 1992, he declared his intention to build its membership, then at 2,600. “The organization could support 4,000 members,” he told The Milwaukee Journal. But instead, the membership has gradually declined to just under 2,000 today, according to MMAC Executive Vice President Mary Ellen Powers.
“It’s never been a goal of mine or the board’s to define ourselves numerically,” Sheehy now says. The numbers have dropped because the association no longer offers discount insurance to its members as other cities do, he says, a reflection of its diminishing emphasis on membership services. Cleveland, for instance, has built its membership to 18,000, largely through its insurance programs.
“I’d rather not let insurance wag the dog,” says Sheehy.
More important than the size of its membership, he says, is the organization’s DNA. “We try to hold up a mirror and ask: Do we represent the business community?” Currently, 85 percent of its members are companies with 100 or fewer workers, a “spot on” reflection of the city, he says.
Maybe so, says Milbourne. “But I would say that any organization should want growing membership. It is a sign of whether the group is attracting the support it seeks within the business community. A group can be a stronger business advocate with 4,000 members than with 2,000.”
Another sign of decline is nagging annual deficits: The chamber closed its books with a deficit of nearly $2 million in fiscal 2001, $1.5 million in 2002 and $680,000 in 2003. -Sheehy blames the deficit in part on the fluctuation of scholarship payouts from year to year, but in each year, the deficit was more than the total scholarship payout.
Is there any concern about the stagnant membership? The chamber’s current chairman, Dennis Kuester of M&I Bank, and past chairman, Richard Abdoo, formerly of We Energies, did not respond to repeated requests for interviews about Sheehy.
One of the chamber’s newest and most promising outreach efforts is Young Professionals of Milwaukee. Formed in 2001, YPM boasts 4,000 members, most of them between 21 and 30 years old with at least a bachelor’s degree and earnings of $35,000 to $60,000 a year.
But at least one small-business owner in the city believes he’s been ignored by the chamber. “Tim Sheehy and his people have never contacted me,” says Peter Jest, owner of Shank Hall, an East Side music club. Last summer’s bid – proposed by the -mayor and backed by Sheehy – to develop out-of-town businesses at PabstCity alienated the city’s restaurant and entertainment industry, including owners like Jest.
“Why aren’t they touting small businesses like us?” he asks.
Hispanic leaders also say that their community is ignored by the chamber and corporate boards in general, despite its thriving South Side businesses and close to 100,000 Milwaukee residents. Rarely does Sheehy make an appearance south of Wisconsin Avenue, they complain.
The chamber’s record on economic development is equally checkered. Recently, it provided the leadership in forming the China Business Council, but other efforts have been uneven.
To promote economic development, the MMAC in 2002 launched its Blueprint for Economic Prosperity, which included five broad strategies – education, infrastructure, taxes, healthcare and diversity – each with a set of objectives.
The objectives were worthy goals, yet hardly groundbreaking. For example, one education objective called for increasing the MPS graduation rate from 55 percent to 60 percent by 2006, a goal that was reached by the end of the 2001-’02 school year. A tax objective called for the repeal of the state estate tax, a measure that failed to pass.
Last April, Sheehy unveiled another economic plan centering on an effort to retain and attract businesses through the MMAC affiliate Milwaukee Development Corp. and an outreach program designed to gauge the satisfaction of CEOs around the city.
A draft of the plan was released hastily by the chamber after a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel story detailed a Cincinnati Web site that promoted the city to businesses and raised the question of why Milwaukee lacked something comparable. Sheehy told the newspaper that the chamber was working on a similar marketing plan. The MMAC later joined with the city and the GMC to form the Seven-County Regional Economic Development Initiative, a five-year, $12 million strategy.
But the effort is largely credited to Mayor Barrett’s open-arms approach to the suburbs, along with the work of key business leaders. Sheehy and the MMAC looked as if they had jumped on the train as it was leaving the station.
When it comes to lobbying, the influence of Milwaukee’s chamber is vastly overshadowed in the halls of the Capitol by the Madison-based Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, a statewide business group with nearly 4,000 members. The WMC is a powerful voice, says Doyle campaign chair Marotta. “But they have people over there who are just hacks. They come right out of the Republicans offices,” he adds. “The MMAC doesn’t have the political clout, but they have the credibility. Tim is well regarded by Democrats and Republicans.”
At an annual salary of $267,872 as of 2004, Sheehy is the high-profile face of the organization, the go-to guy when the press is looking for a cogent quote from the private sector. When Norquist announced he would resign from office, Sheehy’s name was batted around as a possible successor.
But as he’s pumped up the role of the MMAC as a business lobby, its politics have become more transparent. Its political action committee dumped $7,500 into the coffers of the state Republican Party in the first half of election year 2004. Its 2003-’04 legislative scorecard of state lawmakers listed 53 Republicans and just one Democrat with a 100 percent MMAC rating. Even its “Milwaukee Hotline” newsletter takes a conservative slant on topical issues. “Hotline” Editor Don Dooley recently took a jab at Harold Pinter, 2005 Nobel Prize winner for literature, condemning him not for his award-winning plays but for his comments on the war in Iraq.
Sheehy downplays political affiliation. The association did not make endorsements in the last mayoral or county executive elections. Nor will it endorse candidates in next year’s gubernatorial race. “My political party is really metro Milwaukee,” he says. “Oftentimes, Democrats or Republicans from this area don’t put Milwaukee first.”
But his governmental affairs office is anything but -bipartisan, being staffed, somewhat incestuously, with Republicans – Mary Jo Baas; Sheehy’s brother-in-law, Bill Reid; and Nathan Elias, all Thompson appointees or aides. His current lobbyist, Steve Baas (husband of Mary Jo), is the former communications director for state Rep. Scott Jensen and Assembly Speaker John Gard.
Sheehy also became close friends with Republican Gov. Scott McCallum and was tapped by him to lead his task force on cutting costs of state and local government following McCallum’s pitch to eliminate revenue sharing to cities.
Sheehy also has been a dependable ally to athletes he’s known over the years. Pat O’Brien, a star quarterback at Yale, is president of the Milwaukee Development Corp. Ulice Payne Jr., who played on Marquette’s championship basketball team, sits on the MMAC’s board of directors. Payne’s former teammate, Robert Byrd, is the founder of Bridging the Gap Learning Center, a Milwaukee choice school supported by Sheehy, Payne and former UW basketball star Joe Chrnelich.
“I’ve met a lot of people through sports interactions,” says Sheehy.
In one case, Sheehy apparently used his influence to get his friend Chrnelich hired as chief executive officer of State Fair Park in 2001. Sheehy sat on the park’s board of directors at the time and chaired its search committee. To find and screen candidates, Sheehy’s committee hired Mequon search firm Overton Consulting (now DHL International), run by Sheehy friend and MMAC member Justin Strom.
Chrnelich, a co-founder of the Wisconsin Sports Authority, had been the State Fair’s director of development since 1997, before getting tapped as CEO. “He was asked by some members of the [State Fair] board to apply,” says Sheehy. “Joe is a good friend of mine, which made the process difficult for both of us. I didn’t see it as a reason not to consider him.”
But one source familiar with the process says, “The search was fixed. The search firm was told who the candidate would be up front. They put on this show and brought in five or six candidates.”
One of those candidates was Lester Ingram, then a vice president at MATC. “I was very interested in the job,” says Ingram, an African American. But he quickly withdrew his name. “I had contacts and was told at the 11th hour that it was wired,” he says. “I believe I was the only minority in the pool.”
Chrnelich’s name was forwarded to Gov. McCallum, who approved the selection in October 2001.
“It’s a fair criticism,” Sheehy says of Chrnelich’s hire, sidestepping but not denying the charge of favoritism. “I think we got the best candidate.”
Adding to the sense that this was insider dealing was how Chrnelich’s salary was handled. According to Marty Greenberg, who was appointed chairman of the State Fair board in February 2003 by Gov. Doyle, Chrnelich was hired not as a state employee but as a private consultant. As a result, his annual salary was not limited to the state cap of $100,000. Instead, he was paid $143,000.
Under Chrnelich, though, the State Fair fell deep into debt. In 2002-’03, as it undertook a $160 million revamping of the park, the fair amassed a debt of $4.5 million. The problem was blamed on several factors, but Chrnelich resigned under pressure in August 2004, five days before opening day of the fair.
For decades, the MMAC has suffered the perception that it’s a good old boys club, run by a board of white men who live in the suburbs and make huge salaries running large corporations.
Sheehy says he has been directed by his board to diversify the association. “That is a management objective of mine through which I am measured,” he says. “And it gets my attention.”
As evidenced at the annual board of directors meeting in October, the board is still dominated by Milwaukee’s largest corporations –top execs of Johnson Controls, Harley-Davidson, Miller Brewing, Rockwell Automation, Northwestern Mutual, We Energies and other major companies, banks and law firms in the area.
“Our pond that we fish in is a lot less diverse,” Sheehy says of Milwaukee’s business community.
There have been improvements, he says. One-third of the directors are from small or mid-size businesses and at least a dozen live within Milwaukee’s city limits. Three of the chamber’s four newest directors are minorities or women who lead companies with fewer than 100 employees.
One of those is Gerardo Gonzalez, managing partner at the Milwaukee law firm Gonzales Saggio and Harlan. But except for Carlos Santiago, who represents UWM as its chancellor, there were no Hispanic directors on the board until Gonzalez’s addition in November.
A glaring example of inattention to the Hispanic community was the embarrassing scheduling snafu last spring of an MMAC trade mission to China. Sheehy had lined up a September trip, inviting the mayor to attend. Barrett, however, was already booked to attend the week-long U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Milwaukee. Hispanic leaders wonder why Sheehy himself overlooked this convention when scheduling the China trip.
The representation of women directors at MMAC is also woefully low. Only eight of the 60-plus members of the board are women.
“I think the leadership of organizations like the MMAC has always reflected the captains of industry,” says Kris -Martinsek, a Milwaukee consultant and member of the research and advocacy group Milwaukee Women Inc. “In Milwaukee, that has always been white men. And that has not been easy to change.”
Yet Martinsek gives Sheehy the benefit of the doubt. “I find him very smart, very willing to listen to facts and figures,” she says. “I like him a lot, although personally I hardly ever agree with his politics.”
Barrett Chief of Staff Pat Curley got to know Sheehy when Curley served as the city’s lobbyist during the Norquist administration. He remembers butting heads with Sheehy during the “sewer wars” and over Miller Park negotiations. “Then we’d go out for beers,” says Curley.
The rapport is comparable today.
“The relationship between Tim and the mayor is much better than anyone would have thought coming in,” says Curley. “But that’s not going to prevent us from taking the gloves off.”
Perhaps, but any battle is likely to be softened by Sheehy’s style. Well informed and easygoing, he doesn’t let ego get in the way and is always willing to bargain. He’s the consummate influence peddler, in the mold of his father and grandfather.
It’s an approach that has served him well for 13 years as metro Milwaukee’s top business lobbyist. And an approach that seldom strays from business as usual.
Kurt Chandler is a senior editor of Milwaukee Magazine.