Steven Walters
The State of Politics

Top 10 Political Stories of 2019

Lots of drama in last year of the decade. Which were the biggest stories?

By - Dec 30th, 2019 10:24 am
Get a daily rundown of the top stories on Urban Milwaukee
Wisconsin State Capitol. Photo by Dave Reid.

Wisconsin State Capitol. Photo by Dave Reid.

Goodbye to 2019, a fascinating year in Wisconsin politics. What were the top stories of the year? Our top ten list:

1: Lame-Duck Session Triggers Year of Partisanship. Days after Democrat Tony Evers defeated Republican Gov. Scott Walker, Republican legislative leaders did something they had not done during the eight years in office of Walker and Republican Atty. Gen. Brad Schimel – limit the powers of the governor and attorney general.

Walker signed those changes into before leaving office. The move shocked Evers and Democratic legislators, who accused Republicans of trying to overturn the results of the election. Republicans defended the changes, saying them rebalanced power between two branches of government.

The lame-duck laws set the bitter partisan tone for 2019, which saw the conservative-dominated Supreme Court uphold those laws. The Supreme Court also agreed to review Evers budget vetoes, which could lead to new limits on broad veto powers governors have exercised for decades.

As the year ended, Democratic Atty. Gen. Josh Kaul and the GOP-led Finance committee fought over legislative oversight of settlements of major lawsuits brought by Kaul’s Justice Department. And Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos kept their hockey goalie pads within reach, saying they must stop Evers’s liberal ideas.

2: State Budget Boosts K-12, Highway Funds. Because of a booming economy, Evers and Republican legislators added major increases in state funding for highways and K-12 schools in the 2019-21 budget. Evers didn’t get what he wanted for special education funding, and the highway funding package won’t meet long-term needs. Those two issues, and expanding Medicaid coverage – another Evers priority rejected by Republicans – will dominate the 2021 budget debate.

3: Brian Hagedorn Replaces Justice Abrahamson. When third-party groups attacked conservative Court of Appeals Judge Brian Hagedorn for his views on homosexuality and abortion rights, his supporters very effectively argued this was an attack on Hagedorn’s Christian faith, and  voters were offended enough to pick Hagedorn over another Court of Appeals Judge, Lisa Neubauer. Hagedorn replaced liberal Justice Shirley Abrahamson, who retired for health reasons after a record-setting 43 years as justice and chief justice.

4: Sensenbrenner Retires, Duffy Resigns. Fifth District Congressman F. James Sensenbrenner, a U.S. House fixture for four decades, said he would not seek re-election in that suburban Milwaukee, heavily Republican district. The announcement opened the door for Fitzgerald to replace Sensenbrenner.

Nobody saw the September surprise resignation of Seventh District Congressman Sean Duffy coming. Now a K Street lobbyist, the Republican resigned after disclosing serious health problems of the ninth child of he and his wife, Rachel Campos-Duffy.

5: “Clean Water” Woes Worsen. Almost every day brought new reports of serious water quality problems across Wisconsin: toxic PFAs, nitrates, so many contaminated wells in southwest Wisconsin that local officials considered – and then rejected – a proposal to punish anyone who publicized the problems. Evers sounded an early warning, declaring it the “Year of Clean Water.”

6: Senate Fires Ag Secretary, Won’t Confirm Others. No records exist of the last time the state Senate refused to confirm a governor’s choice to run a state agency. So the vote by Senate Republicans against Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection Secretary Brad Pfaff, which essentially fired him, was historic. Senate Republicans have also questioned the qualifications of four other cabinet secretaries.

7: Milwaukee to Host Democratic National Convention. Milwaukee beat out Houston and Miami for the July 13-16 convention where Democrats will anoint someone to run against President Donald Trump.

8: Sex-Harassment Failures Ends Dunbar’s Command. Adjutant General Donald Dunbar was the longest-serving head of National Guard troops in the nation until a federal report documented mishandling of reports of sex assault and harassment on his watch. Evers asked him to resign.

9: Republicans Ignore Evers Call for Gun-Safety Laws. Evers called his first special session of the Legislature, asking it to pass universal background checks and a “red flag” law that would let judges order those found dangerous to themselves or others to temporarily surrender their guns. Republicans attended the session and immediately adjourned it, rejecting Evers call for action.

10: Crisis in Dairyland Squeezes Small Farmers. “America’s Dairyland” continued to see two small dairy farms go out of business each day because of low commodity prices and the uncertainty of international markets.

What will be the top political stories of 2020? Will Wisconsin again be one of three states that decide who is elected President? Will Foxconn surprise with decisions it makes regarding its state subsidized operations? Or will something completely unexpected dominate the news in the coming year?

Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Contact him atstevenscotwalters@gmail.com

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