Editor’s Note: This article was edited to correct factual inaccuracies about the nature of Bradley’s relationship to Fahey’s campaign, the public availability of Fahey’s campaign finance records and Fahey’s statements after the election.
On April 4, the race for the District 8 Madison City Council seat was determined by just 104 votes. On April 11, University of Wisconsin student Charlie Fahey announced that he had almost won a seat on the Madison City Council as a conservative.
During his campaign, Fahey cited scheduling issues and questions about the effectiveness of a debate in a March interview with The Badger Herald.
Fahey has a history of conservatism and a mostly self-funded campaign — neither of which Fahey publicly stated.
“There is nothing wrong about being a conservative,” District 8 Alder and Fahey’s opponent MGR Govindarajan said. “But when you are a candidate, you cannot lie about your policies and beliefs.”
Alder elections are nonpartisan, and candidates in local alder elections are not marked on the ballot based on political party.
But District 2 Alder Juliana Bennett said it is the responsibility of candidates to be open about their beliefs while they are campaigning.
Bennett shares Govindarajan’s view that the problem is Fahey’s lack of transparency, not his political affiliation. Bennett said Fahey misled students and used the large proportion of the vote he received to make an argument toward students wanting a conservative leader.
“From starting out with not putting out their values or anything, that was misleading,” Bennett said. “To then insinuating that students wanted a conservative leader was also deliberately misleading and excluding the facts.”
Bennett’s primary concern is that students will feel lied to by the candidate they voted for and will not want to vote in the future as a result.
The impact of this could be large-scale, considering the voter turnout of the District 8 alder election this year was the biggest yet, Govindarajan said. He said the student vote in the district this year was double the previous record.
Will Bradley, like other students who voted for Fahey, feels conned. He canvassed for Fahey’s campaign, which Fahey said was on Bradley’s own behalf and not affiliated with the campaign. Bradley did not know that Fahey held conservative views. He said he voted for Fahey because his views on housing issues — one of the focuses of the election — were based on building more housing and felt that Govindarajan’s views were unclear.
Bradley said he still supports his decision to vote for Fahey but wishes he hadn’t been tricked.
“He absolutely lied to his supporters,” Bradley said to The Badger Herald via Twitter messaging. “That ward is 90% democrat, so if he got 48% of the vote, he lied to the vast majority of his supporters.”
Fahey earned 48.6% of the vote in District 8, compared to former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice and spring 2023 candidate Daniel Kelly — who was publicly identified as conservative prior to the election — and earned 11% of the vote in District 8 on the same ballot.
In an April 11 press release from Fahey’s campaign, Fahey said he ran on issues of affordable housing, supporting the policy and strengthening democracy.
“The silent majority — even in Madison — is fed up with bad ideas, but we often fail to articulate a strong alternative,” Fahey said.
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All alders’ and other elected officials’ finances are available on the City Clerk website as public records, including those campaigning for office.
Fahey received $4,057.50 in individual donations to his campaign, along with $400 in organization donations, according to his finance record. Of the individual donations, 83% were from Fahey himself.
Fahey’s total self-financing adds up to $3,392.50. The other 17% is from 15 others, with none donating over $50, the finance report shows.
Fahey described his campaign style as “grassroots” in a March interview with The Badger Herald, meaning he favored door-to-door, personal interactions over higher-level campaigning. Some argue Fahey’s choice to call his campaign “grassroots” was misleading given that campaign finance records show it was largely self-funded.
“If you have the means, go ahead and, you know, you can donate to yourself,” Bennett said. “It’s completely legal, but to market that as a grassroots campaign effort is not truthful.”
The organization that donated $400 to Fahey’s campaign is the Realtor’s Association of South Central Wisconsin, according to the finance record. The organization interviewed both Govindarajan and Fahey, Government Affairs Director Robert Procter said in an email statement to The Badger Herald.
“The Committee thought both candidates presented well and gave great answers,” Procter said. “Both candidates supported the creation of more housing, but the Committee thought that Mr. Fahey had a better grasp on the need to reduce the barriers to housing such as outdated zoning ordinances.”
RASCW also supported Bennett, Derek Field, Mike Verveer, Davy Mayer, Nikki Conklin, Sheri Carter, Julia Matthews, Isadore Knox, Jr., Brad Hinkfuss, Jael Currie, Charles Myadze, John Guequierre and Matt Phair, Procter said. In several of these cases, RASCW donated $400, the same amount they donated to Fahey’s campaign, finance records show.
Procter said RASCW did not ask questions about political beliefs, as they believe the issue of housing cuts across party lines.
In addition to the $400 RASCW donated to Fahey’s campaign, Procter and CEO Ruth Hackney both personally donated $50 to the campaign, according to the finance record. Other alder candidates did not receive funding from individuals at RASCW, including Field, Currie and Carter.
Govindarajan sees this as problematic as the organization is donating a lot of money to local elections. It should be noted that Govindarajan received a $50 donation from the Wisconsin Realtors Association, which is part of the National Association of Realtors which RASCW falls under, but is not the political action committee that donated to the other alder campaigns.
Before the Campaign
To some who knew Fahey before the election, like Govindarajan and Fahey’s high school peer Noelle Herrmann, it was not surprising to hear that he was conservative.
In high school, Fahey participated in two political activism organizations — the Junior State of America and Teenage Republicans Club, Herrmann said.
“He was one of the kids that always raised their hand in class,” Herrmann said. “He was very politically involved and involved with a lot in school, so he was very open to sharing his beliefs.”
JSA is a student-led national organization that encourages political engagement and activism in high school students. The organization has chapters in 300 high schools in 20 states, according to its website, and is student-run and nonpartisan.
At JSA meetings, students could discuss and debate their own views, or they could be assigned the view of a major political party and would debate for that view, Herrmann said. She said Fahey was on the cabinet for their chapter and said he would have been the Republican chair.
“I would say [his] was not a super far-right opinion or like conspiracy theorist authoritarian ideals, but it was definitely Republican and much more right-leaning [than the] majority of the class,” Herrmann said.
In addition to JSA, Fahey was the vice president of the Teenage Republicans Club, a club he co-founded with a friend, Herrmann said.
While at UW, Fahey has been an active member with the Associated Students of Madison, where he worked alongside Govindarajan. Govindarajan said Fahey’s activity for ASM aligned with more right-leaning views, though he clarified that that is not a bad thing in itself.
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A Lesson to Learn From
In an April tweet, Wisconsin GOP operative Ali Beneker extrapolated Fahey’s post-election references to a “silent majority” in a press release titled “Gen Z conservative nearly wins in Madison” to mean UW students wanted a conservative candidate without the label.
Additionally, GOP Badgers, a student Republican organization at UW, supported Fahey in his claim on Twitter.
Govindarajan said he would contest the claim that a conservative nearly won because voters did not know Fahey was conservative during the campaign. He also said the gap between liberal Wisconsin Supreme Court candidate Janet Protasiewicz and conservative candidate Dan Kelly in the election shows District 8 does not want conservative leaders.
“If somebody asked me, I would say, ‘Yes,’” Fahey said in an interview with the Isthmus, in regard to him being conservative but did not say if anyone ever asked if he was one.
Bennett said the best way to prevent something like this from happening again is to thoroughly research elections beforehand — even small-scale ones like alder elections.
“First of all, look at your ballot before you get to the polls,” Bennett said. “Secondly, it’s just as important to research these candidates and specifically look for who’s endorsed them. What money are they taking and from whom?”
Bennett also said voters should read between the lines of what candidates say and do and ask candidates if they identify with a political party if the candidate comes to their door.
Fahey did not respond to continued requests for further comment.