Wisconsin Energy adds political clout for expansion plan

Wisconsin Energy Corp. has added some fresh political muscle in a final push for approval of its Power the Future expansion plan.
The Milwaukee company is contracting with Wilhelm & Conlon Public Strategies, a high-powered Chicago firm that has hired Thad Nation to be the director of its new Wisconsin office.
Nation, who was the deputy campaign manager of Jim Doyle’s successful Wisconsin gubernatorial campaign last year and was the director of communications for Doyle’s transition team, is now working on a contract basis to serve Wisconsin Energy’s We Energies public utility subsidiary.
“I’ll be working with We Energies, with the Power the Future team and increasingly taking on a role as the media spokesman for the project,” Nation said. “I anticipate being very busy.”
The role became vacant when Michael John resigned as director of public relations and communications at We Energies to become the director of public relations for Menasha Corp. last November.
The addition of Nation and his ties to the new governor’s office updates Wisconsin Energy’s political stable.
The company already employs James Klauser, who was a member of former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson’s cabinet and was often referred to as the state’s “vice governor.” Klauser was named senior vice president at Wisconsin Energy in 1998.
Wisconsin Energy also named former Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Walter Kunicki as vice president in 1998.
Wilhelm & Conlon brings national connections to Wisconsin Energy’s arsenal. Co-founder David Wilhelm was the national manager of the Clinton/Gore campaign in 1992 and was then named the chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
Co-founder Kevin Conlon was appointed by former President Bill Clinton to serve on the Presidential Advisory Committee on Expanding Training Opportunities.
From its Chicago office, Wilhelm & Conlon is expanding its service territory to include other states in the Midwest, Nation said.
“This is going to be a growing region for Wilhelm & Conlon, and I anticipate taking on a couple more clients in the next year,” Nation said.
Wisconsin Energy is on the stretch run to gain approval for its Power the Future project, which proposes construction of a natural gas-fired generation plant in Port Washington and expansion of its coal-burning generation plant in Oak Creek.
The Oak Creek proposal has been the most controversial component of the Power the Future plan, as critics have argued that expanded coal-burning would pose increased environmental and health risks and would diminish the value of lakefront land in the city.
However, the critics have been losing that campaign in recent weeks.
On March 20, the Wisconsin Public Service Commission denied a legal brief filed by S.C. Johnson & Son and Wisconsin’s Environmental Decade. The brief contended Wisconsin Energy’s application for its Power the Future plan was incomplete, but the PSC disagreed.
Wisconsin Energy then picked up a conditional public editorial endorsement for its proposal from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
The company gained further momentum when it reached a tentative agreement Tuesday with the City of Oak Creek. Under terms of the agreement, Wisconsin Energy will contribute $20 million to the city’s economic redevelopment efforts and pay $2.5 million for construction impact mitigation compensation.
Wisconsin Energy’s agreement with Oak Creek was reached just days before the citizens of the south-side suburb will be voting to elect a new mayor. Outgoing Mayor Dale Richards had lost in the primary election in February and will soon be stepping aside. Three aldermanic races, including two unopposed races, also will be decided in Tuesday’s election.
SC Johnson chairman emeritus Sam Johnson, who told SBT he can see the smoke stacks of the Oak Creek plant from the back yard of his rural Racine home, has vowed to continue his campaign of opposition to the plan, according to officials of Responsible Energy for Southeastern Wisconsin’s Tomorrow (RESET), an organization of opponents to the plan.
“While it is certainly disappointing that Oak Creek would consider going back on its previous, very strong, statements against the coal plans, it’s not wholly unexpected,” said RESET member Susan Greenfield, town chairwoman of the Town of Caledonia. “We Energies is a very large, very powerful company. It’s spending millions of dollars to push its plan and stands to make billions from it. We Energies has an army of paid lobbyists that have undoubtedly spent a great deal of private time with Oak Creek officials and significant financial resources to make things happen in the company’s favor.”
Wisconsin Energy officials lauded Oak Creek’s decision.
“The proposed expansion in Oak Creek will result in cleaner air through reduced emissions, the creation of good paying jobs, provide lasting economic development for the City, and will help Wisconsin become more energy self reliant,” said Larry Salustro, a vice president with Wisconsin Energy.
Gaining tentative approval from the local municipality is likely a key hurdle for Wisconsin Energy, which expects a final ruling from the Public Service Commission in November.
RESET officials have not given up their mission, but they know they face an uphill task in derailing We Energies’ Oak Creek plan. “It appears David has awakened Goliath,” the organization of nearly two dozen health organizations, environmental groups, businesses and others told its members in a letter this week.
The letter predicted We Energies is poised to turn up the intensity of its campaign for the Oak Creek expansion.
According to RESET, We Energies has hired a California-based media company to devise a “significant” radio and television advertising campaign that will begin Sunday.
We Energies also has hired at least 15 lobbyists and four public relations firms to promote its plan, RESET said.
“We expect this new wave of paid advertisements to be hard-hitting and stress the alleged value of dirty coal over cleaner, healthier natural gas,” RESET stated.
By Steve Jagler, of SBT, March 27, 2003

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