Despite roadblocks Wisconsin Gov. Evers pushes forward
Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers interviewed at the National Governors Association meeting in Washington, Feb. 23. Evers wants to cap enrollment in Wisconsin's private voucher school program, ending expansions that Republicans have enacted over the past eight years. The proposal will be a part of Evers' two-year state budget that he releases on Feb. 28. AP /Jose Luis Magana

Nationally, the Democrats are fighting about how progressive should progressives be or if there is room for moderating instincts, for maneuvering cautiously toward the progressive promises that got you elected. The debate can be both severe and transient. Two months ago Nancy Pelosi was in the firing chamber for being too old or too stuck in her ways. Now she’s a hero and Sen. Diane Feinstein has replaced her on the firing line.

No state more exemplifies that fight between the caution of experience and the fire of new urgency than Wisconsin, where Democrats swept all the statewide offices last November but the Republicans retained control of both chambers of the state legislature. This almost automatically set up anger at how slow Tony Evers, the Democratic governor, could move and how his maneuvers seemed too “white bread” for some of his supporters, who longed for a cannon to blast away at Republican legislators.

The new governor ran on expanding Medicaid and helping on health costs, on tackling the worst excesses of the Foxconn deal, on stopping and even reversing privatization in public education (voucher and charter school money is taken directly taken from public school funding in the GOP state budget).

The GOP stepped in with lame-duck bills flat preventing or impeding such ideas, including keeping the new governor legally sidelined from Foxconn until September. They were defying Tony Evers to take them on, mano a mano, so they could paint him as an outlaw, a violator of the new laws they created. Evers demurred. He pulled back on campaign promises in favor of building public support first. In January, some criticized him for cowardice.

But sure enough, within a month of taking office, there are now four lawsuits against the lame-duck bills involving a number of respected citizen groups, including unions. In a major February step, Evers while technically a defendant, joined the union plaintiffs in describing the lame duck laws as substantially interfering with established powers for the governor guaranteed in the state constitution.

Evers and the unions also attacked an onerous set of rules blocking some 200,000 state agency guidance documents in a GOP effort to cripple real action by state agencies under a Democratic governor. Legally this argument about how blatantly the legislature overstepped its authority seems to have legs in initial court decisions.

Simultaneously, assistant attorney generals for new AG chief Josh Kaul informed the legislature that his office could not defend these lame duck laws, actuating the legislature’s insistence on hiring its own legal team and allowing Kaul’s office to hire his own team. The taxpayer suffers both ways. But this was again a pushback in a confusing array of state regulations where the attorney general is supposed to defend the legislature unless he finds their laws in conflict with his constitutional authority. Kaul clearly does.

So within a month, Evers in his pleasant card play manner was raising the ante and daring the GOP to find out if he is bluffing.

First he vetoed a GOP tax bill that gave far more to the rich than the middle class as he worked on several tax affecting measures of his own budget. His veto is holding.

Then he reversed an order given by the GOP governor he defeated, Scott Walker, to send the National Guard to the southern border. Evers called all 112 back home, to the anger of the state Republicans.

“I cannot support keeping our brave servicemen and women away from their families without a clear need or purpose that would actively benefit the people of Wisconsin or our nation,” Evers said.

Then he announced his budget would freeze the number of students enrolling in voucher schools – many religiously run that the state has funded by taking money from public school students – and would also suspend the creation of new charter schools. The GOP is screaming but more with a genuine fear that Evers, three times elected the state superintendent of schools, can make a good case to the public.

On the campaign trail, Evers had pledged a full elimination of voucher schools, which clearly was a bridge too far under the GOP legislature. Now they will have to debate a proposal based in large part of how state funding has been shortchanging public schools. Evers clearly is taking a step by step approach to meet his campaign rhetoric.

Among Evers other actions is having the state join other states in pledging to support the goals of the Paris accord on climate change.

Several of his emerging budget plans – including medical marijuana, in-state tuition for qualified Dreamers and $150 million more for the University of Wisconsin system – may not pass the legislature but they will stir lively debate that puts priorities and state needs squarely before the public. The GOP had hoped to be beating up on Evers as a law breaker, but he is letting the public decide on the laws and the priorities, which has turned state Republicans into a defensive crouch. He has nearly four years to work with while most of them face re-election in 2020.

Evers had upset some Democrats in the state, who thought his approach somewhat wishy-washy. He has always been known as Mr. Nice Guy, someone who knows the levers of government and has had to work for schoolchildren within the severe opposition of a Republican governor and legislature. He clearly intends to continue working within the system but more and more is making the GOP understand that, while pleasant in manner, he is no pushover.

So while some in the public school movement wanted him to fully cut off voucher and charter schools, Evers is proposing freezing or slowing down, which may make more sense in what the public will buy. Because if the public buys in, GOP resistance becomes harder.

His approach is raising an argument for Democrats across the country with the results probably varying according to location. How hard do you push for change? Is going in increments better?

Or is a bold leap better? All these approaches are going to be fodder in the presidential debate as well as in state politics.


Dominique Paul Noth
Dominique Paul Noth

Dominique Paul Noth for the past decade was editor of the Milwaukee Labor Press and website, He now writes as an independent journalist on culture and politics.