Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Why Vos, Fitzgerald Refused to Lead

They took away Gov. Evers’ power to oversee pandemic and then did nothing. Why?

By - May 18th, 2020 01:01 pm
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Robin Vos and Scott Fitzgerald.

Robin Vos and Scott Fitzgerald.

The state Supreme Court decision taking away the power of Gov. Tony Evers and his top health officer to enforce a state stay-at-home order was a big victory for the Republican-led Legislature. It gave Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald what they had demanded for nearly a month, that Evers share power in determining what to do about the COVID-19 pandemic. 

And yet, once they got just what they called for, Vos and Fitzgerald used that power to do nothing. Why? 

Back in March, Vos and Fitzgerald saw no reason for the Legislature to take action to combat the pandemic. “There’s no need for the Assembly to come in and have politicians grandstand on the issue,” Vos said.

Nor did they object to the statewide “Safer at Home” order passed on March 24 by Evers and his health services secretary Andrea Palm. Vos and Fitzgerald did not contend that Evers and Palm were breaking the law or taking unconstitutional measures. 

On the contrary, Vos urged his constituents to obey the order. “We would like to thank the people of Wisconsin for coming together in this crisis. Whether you agree or disagree with the ‘Safer at Home’ order, we have to follow it. Do the best you can, so we can get through it quickly.”

Meanwhile the Republicans ended the Legislative session in late March, after taking no action on the pandemic, despite the urgings of Democratic legislators to address this life-and-death issue. They did get around to passing some legislation a couple weeks later, but continued to offer no objection to Evers order.

Yet after Evers announced an extension of the Safer-at-Home order on April 17, and they began to sense seem push back from constituents, Republicans pounced on the order. “We’re angry, we’re frustrated and we’re trying to push back in every way that we can,” Vos said on WISN-AM (1130). 

Suddenly Vos now saw such actions as illegal. “Nothing in the constitution or the statutes should give one person unlimited power to shutter our economy and cause people to lose their jobs,” he declared.  

Evers needed to consult with legislators on such actions, Vos now declared to talk radio: “Basically what he does is he sits down with his minions inside his office, reaching out to very few people. They then make a decision and they come and tell us like it’s an edict, like we’re subjects of the king.”

Republicans threatened to vote against the appointment of Palm as top health official, some 17 months after she had been appointed by Evers, which would have essentially fired her. And Vos and Fitzgerald announced a lawsuit to stop Evers and Palm from issuing such state orders, arguing the Legislature had the power to oversee any such rules. 

There was no basis in law for this suit, as as conservative Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Brian Hagedorn noted in his dissent: “We are allowing the Legislature to argue its own laws are unconstitutional, a legal claim it has no authority to make,” he wrote. But the four other conservative justices did what Republicans wanted, as the court routinely does, and took away Evers power and gave it to the Legislative. 

And then something funny happened. Or actually, didn’t happen. Evers met with Vos and Fitzgerald, as they had demanded, and the two Republicans didn’t seem to have any alternative plan to suggest. 

In a tweet, Fitzgerald said he was “glad that we can finally engage in a back-and-forth discussion regarding the rules process, and look forward to continuing the dialogue.”

And Vos spokeswoman Kit Beyer said “the meeting with the governor went well. I’m sure you have heard Speaker Vos say that there shouldn’t be a governor’s plan or a Republican plan but a Wisconsin plan.”

But what is that plan? What exactly did Vos and Fitzgerald suggest in that discussion with the governor they had been waiting a month to have? The list of state orders issued by Evers is quite long and detailed. But both leaders declined to provide any details on any suggested changes. Evers told reporters the meeting didn’t include any decisions about what his administration and Republicans could agree on as a baseline for state action.

Instead, Vos announced the Legislature would give up all power and simply let local governments in Wisconsin decide how to handle the pandemic. After all that fuming about being treated like minions by the governor and demanding an equal say in decisions, Republicans decided not to fire Palm, not to argue for a policy opening the state up earlier, to simply punt the whole issue to cities and counties. 

Vos and the Republicans have a long history of overriding local control, passing 128 measures doing this in just their first five years of power, from 2011 to 2016. So why the sudden change to embrace local control? 

Because Evers had been too successful. As Urban Milwaukee has reported, Wisconsin had the lowest rate of COVID-19 cases and deaths per capita in the Midwest and lower than most states in America. Meanwhile the growth in cases in Wisconsin was increasing at a slower rate than every state save Michigan in the Midwest — and Michigan was following similar policies to Wisconsin. 

Evers, meanwhile, had announced a carefully calibrated and smartly named “Badger Bounce Back” plan that would reopen the state in phases, and had already announced rules for some non-essential businesses to open. And his administration announced the state was coming closer to meeting all metrics required before the state could be reopened more fully.

Meanwhile the latest Marquette University Law School poll showed that most in the state — 69 percent — said it was appropriate to close schools and businesses and restrict public gatherings, while just 26 percent said this was an overreaction to the pandemic. And 64 percent approved and 32 percent disapproved of Evers handling of the pandemic.

In short, overriding Evers or his plan would be a very unpopular thing to do. And Vos has hopes of running against Evers in 2022. So the only possible solution, politically, was to take away Evers power, hoping that reduces his approval rating, give the power to local governments and run away from the problem.

The result, Evers lamented, “will be massive confusion that will exist without a safe, statewide approach… I can’t imagine another state that is in this predicament where, essentially, mile by mile there may be different rules across all the state.”

And yet, he noted of Vos and Fitzgerald, “I thought both leaders felt very comfortable with the idea.”

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Categories: Murphy's Law

10 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Why Vos, Fitzgerald Refused to Lead”

  1. George Wagner says:

    Typical Republican playbook. Weaken government’s ability to respond effectively, then criticize it for not doing the job. It reminds me of David Stockman, Reagan’s economic guru, who let the cat out of the bag when he said that the Reaganites cut taxes and massively increased defense spending in order to eviscerate any future Democratic plans to fund social needs adequately.

  2. jnor says:

    “Vos has hopes of running against Evers in 2022. So the only possible solution, politically, was to take away Evers power, hoping that reduces his approval rating, give the power to local governments and run away from the problem.”

    And let thousands of Wisconsin citizens die.

    But it’s okay: if current patterns hold, most of those dead citizens would be Democratic voters.

    So in the Republican perspective, this is a win-win: fewer Democratic voters, and therefore a higher likelihood of Republican victory.

    It’s all very strategic…if human life is meaningless to you.

  3. Keith Prochnow says:

    Amazing. How canVos and Fitz not see that all of Wisconsin can see the blood on their hands?

  4. Neal Brenard says:

    Republicans seem very confident there is no health crisis in Wisconsin; one that merits much concern on their parts, or the parts of their constituents. And right now, it’s hard to say they’re wrong. Worst case for them cases start spiking again as early as June and July, but no one’s following politics right now and most of us will be feeling typically devil-may-care by then regardless. For a lot of us here in Wisconsin, this isn’t so much more than a bad winter where we all-of-a-sudden lost old Uncle Bud to hypertension and Grandmother to a bad cold in the same year.Death happens. Life goes on. Ob-la-di, ob-la-da. Like always, it seems like everything’s going to have to get a whole lot worse before Republicans give a sh!t.

  5. Virginia Small says:

    To follow up on #2jnor’s statements, perhaps “Simply living will be the best revenge.” In other words, continue to listen to trusted health officials, avoid unwarranted risks, and follow public-safety precautions.

    We still are all in this together, even if some elected offcials pretend and act otherwise.

  6. Thomas Martinsen says:

    George Wagner provided cogent historical perspective in post # 1. jnor’s post # 2 expressed the dire consequences of what is happening right now. Virginia Small’s post # 5 gave us reasons to follow science and reason in these times. I add to the above that we must insist that the federal government helps our nation test and trace in order to stop the spread of the virus. Our cities and states need financial and infrastructural assistance from the federal government to combat Covid 19,

  7. Thomas Martinsen says:

    We cannot expect any help from our state government when it is run by the likes of Fitzgerald and Vos. We need help from our federal government, but that body is currently run by someone who is not inclined to help anybody other than those who will advance his self serving agenda.

  8. frank a schneiger says:

    A follow up on Virginia’s and Thomas’ comments, and one of those infrequent instances in which I don’t fully agree with Virginia. In a very basic sense, the pandemic has clarified the harsh reality that we aren’t all in this together. All of our long-festering problems, extreme inequality, racial bigotry, decaying government and an ever more powerful corporate sector make it clear that we now live in a populist (white supremacist) plutocracy with islands of democracy. These islands have been very hard hit by the pandemic.

    In the short term, cities like Milwaukee will continue to be screwed by the federal and state governments because they are all of the things that the modern Republican Party and its “base” hates: minorities, immigrants, liberals and government itself. The big questions are, what do you do in the short term, and then, what do you do in the long term? In the short term, the answer is to keep trying to find the exact right balance between addressing the core COVID-19 health concerns, getting the economy moving again, and addressing the needs, particularly the need for money, of those most affected. This last are also the groups that Republicans would least like to see helped. So far, the City of Milwaukee is doing a very good job in those areas, with limited resources.

    In the long-term, this would seem to be a very good time to start thinking about the city, post-pandemic. And here, a different basic question should be asked: do we really want to go back to the old “normal”? That normal being thriving and gentrifying neighborhoods and deep and entrenched poverty and rigid segregation on the near north and south sides. The answer to that question should be a firm “no.”

    And, if there is a vision for a better future, it can all be captured in two words: healthy communities. And healthy communities doesn’t just mean health care or health insurance. It means healthy people who don’t live in constant fear and insecurity. The big question is, how do you get from here to there? And, especially, how do you get from here to there when we are not all in it together, and, when there are significant groups that define “winning” as making the lives of the people in those Milwaukee communities more miserable? For starters, how do you overcome norms of pessimism and mistrust among the very groups in the City of Milwaukee that do have to all be in it together?

    That would seem to be a strategic discussion that could keep Urban Milwaukee humming for at least several months.

  9. Virginia Small says:

    I may have oversimplified my thoughts in comment #5. I fully agree with Frank Schneiger that we are not all equally facing the brunt of this pandemic. And, as he noted, it will take some major shifts in thinking and policy for Milwaukee (and most cities) to address these issues and inequities going forward.

    In the before times, I interviewed Dee Merriam, a now-retired “community planner” who created guides for the CDC about how to design :healthy communities.” Those approaches seem more relevant than ever.

    https://urbanmilwaukee.com/2018/03/16/10-ways-to-design-healthy-communities/

    As Frank noted, collaboration and big-picture thinking that directly focuses on public health will be essential. Otherwise “public health” is rarely part of the job descriptions of public servants making decisions that affect public health, Merriam said (except for medical officials who usually are not “designing” our communities).

    A salient quote:
    “A gracious advocate for big-picture thinking, [Merriam] stressed the importance of structuring collaboration into community planning, design and development processes. She said that although most government regulations are founded on “providing for the public health and welfare,” it’s actually “rare for public health and community development officials to collaborate.” She encourages professionals with diverse titles to “get out of their silos.” Operating in isolation often wastes tax dollars on duplicative systems instead of leveraging opportunities to serve broad public goals, she stressed.

  10. Thomas Martinsen says:

    My take on the promising dialogue in the above 9 posts is that all of us should do what we can to GET “all of us in this together.”

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