Lily Eskelsen, a union leader who lives and works in Washington, D.C., cares deeply about the recall election challenge being waged in Wisconsin by Democrat Shelly Moore.

You might even say she’s invested in it.

Eskelsen, the vice president of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union, in early May gave $500 to help elect Moore, a high school English teacher in Ellsworth. Three other NEA officials have also given money to Moore, who is seeking to unseat state Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, R-River Falls.

Wisconsin’s recall elections, spurred by the turmoil over changes that undercut public employee unions, are seen as nationally significant. It’s no surprise they have drawn contributions from across the nation, in amounts large and small.

The $1,425 given by the four NEA officials represents a significant out-of-state contribution to Moore. She has reported raising $238,228 so far this year, including $58,638 from outside Wisconsin, compared to $336,308 raised by Harsdorf, with $25,077 from out of state, according to the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board’s website.

But what’s most unusual is Eskelsen’s willingness to talk about why she and others in NEA are giving money to a candidate in a state where they don’t live and can’t vote.

“We know her, we love her,” she exclaims about Moore. “For us, this is all about family.”

Moore, explains Eskelsen, has been a member of the NEA board since 2005, serving on a number of committees. “She was so active and so passionate about everything with her students and what they needed.”

Eskelsen says having a teacher like Moore in the state Senate is “not only good for Wisconsin — it’s good for education.”

Perhaps a similar logic prompted two University of Virginia architecture instructors to give $1,000 each on the same day to Democrat Nancy Nusbaum, who’s running against state Sen. Rob Cowles, R-Allouez. Perhaps not. The instructors did not respond to requests for comment.

Neither did a dozen other out-of-state contributors contacted over the past two weeks, since their names appeared in campaign finance reports filed by the candidates and candidate committees. Among the most mysterious is a group of donors we’ll call the Gang of Five.

They are: William Hume and Patricia Hume of San Francisco; Virginia James of Lambertville, N.J.: Richard Sharp of Richmond, Va.; and Arthur Dantchik of Gladwyne, Pa.

All five are listed as giving substantial contributions to Republican recall targets on the same dates — $500 to Cowles on April 25, $500 to Sheila Harsdorf on May 2, $500 to Dan Kapanke on May 17, and $1,000 to Alberta Darling on May 23. And all except Sharp gave $1,000 to Luther Olsen on April 23.

William Hume is an executive with Basic American Foods Inc. Patricia Hume, his wife, is a travel agent. Hume’s office said both were unavailable for comment.

James is alternately listed in online filings as “retired” and as a “self-employed investor.” The website, run by the nonprofit and nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, lists James as giving $417,800 to various political causes and campaigns in the 2010 election cycle, with an emphasis on the conservative advocacy group Club for Growth. She could not be reached.

Sharp, a former chairman of Circuit City, is managing director of V-Ten Capital Partners, a private equity firm. He did not respond to a phone message.

Dantchik is a financial trader with a company called SIG. His national contribution profile on shows he gives generously to Democrats as well as Republicans. A message left for him was not returned.

Nor did the beneficiaries of the Gang of Five’s largess offer any insight into why they were favored. The campaigns of four of the five recipients did not respond to an email asking, “Do you know who these people are and why they all contributed to your campaign on the same day?”

The only response was from Jennifer Harrington, campaign manager for Kapanke. She says neither she nor the candidate knows these donors, but speculates that they were moved by national media accounts on the race.

“Every time (Kapanke’s) name appears, we get a fairly good response,” says Harrington, adding that there is “interest on both sides from out-of-state donors.”

But isn’t it strange how reluctant many of them are to discuss it? Why not take the opportunity, as did Eskelsen, to put in a good word for the candidates they back?

Instead, these donors prefer to let their money do the talking.

Bill Lueders is director of the Money and Politics Project at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization. The project, a partnership of the Center and MapLight, is supported by the Open Society Institute.

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