Steven Walters
The State of Politics

Tony Evers Plays Mr. Rogers

Governor handles pandemic and Supreme Court loss with nice guy concerns for our health.

By - May 18th, 2020 09:58 am
Tony Evers. Image from the Department of Health Services.

Tony Evers. Image from the Department of Health Services.

Less than 24 hours after four Supreme Court justices threw out his statewide Safer at Home order, the former Baraboo science teacher was at an online blackboard.

“Stay the course and stay home,” Democratic Gov. Tony Evers declared during the 24th briefing by him, leaders of the state Health Services and Military Affairs departments and the governor’s chief lawyer. They explained what state government is doing to fight the deadly COVID-19 virus and how residents can help.

Be careful, Wisconsin, the first-term governor advised business leaders, their workers and everyone thinking about going to public places they haven’t been to in about two months. “This is certain: The more people you put in a small place, the greater the chances are you’re going to get the disease.”

The briefings are informative and folksy, a combination of Meet the Press and Evers as Mr. Rogers.

On Thursday, Evers said Wisconsin had made “great gains” in fighting COVID-19 and had just allowed 14,000 small businesses to reopen, with a five-customer limit. But Evers said Republican legislative leaders without a reopening plan of their own sued and got Safer at Home overturned.

“It was a wrong decision,” Evers said. “We understand; we lost this. That said, we’re moving forward.”

The two top Republicans — Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald — are “okay with having confusion,” as some communities adopt their own Safer at Home codes while others allow businesses to reopen, the governor added.

It takes a lot to make him mad, said the former teacher and state superintendent of public instruction. But Republican Sen. Tom Tiffany’s call for the firing of state Health Services Secretary Andrea Palm was “insane.”

“You just won an election. Just relax,” Evers admonished Tiffany, who won Tuesday’s special election in northwest Wisconsin’s 7th U.S. House District. “You’re headed to Washington. I know you are better than this.”

Although the Supreme Court ruled that Palm’s Safer at Home order — issued at the request of Evers — was illegal, Palm has spent months doing all she can to “save lives,” Evers added.

Evers used Thursday’s online briefing to explain what his administration must continue to do: Hire more contact tracers statewide, ensure there are enough labs checking test results, make sure anyone wanting a test can get one, raise the testing capacity to 13,300 per day, use National Guard members as needed, and continue to tally the number of positive and negative tests and deaths.

These efforts are more important than ever, since the court erased state government’s enforcement power, Evers said.

To his credit, Evers has led most of the briefings. Numbers and technical questions — numbers of daily tests, positives and negatives; numbers of deaths and the role of antibody testing, for example  — are answered by Palm and DHS medical officer Dr. Ryan Westergaard.

Legal questions are answered by Ryan Nilsestuen, the governor’s chief counsel.

Evers doesn’t use his COVID-19 briefings for as much partisan purposes as President Trump. The Democratic governor, for example, passed on a chance to endorse Tricia Zunker, the Democratic candidate who lost to Tiffany. Instead, on the day before the election, Evers said he hoped every voter in that special election did so safely.

Evers style is anti-Andrew Cuomo, the brash, bullying Democratic governor of the State of New York who cited soaring COVID-19 infection and death rates to shame the nation into responding. The Wisconsin briefings end with the four officials taking questions for up to an hour from reporters for media organizations that have ranged from NBC News to the online Racine County Eye. Admirably, the briefings don’t end until all reporters get a chance to ask a question.

Questions ranged from when will bars and restaurants could reopen — which was asked twice in a row last week by different reporters — to how Evers is dealing with not getting a haircut, since barber shops and styling salons have been closed for two months.

“Get up every morning, wash my hair, comb it, go to work,” the governor said.

What might the now longer-haired governor say at a future briefing? Oh, maybe something like this:

“Folks, stay home. You’re saving lives. We will get through this. The Milwaukee Bucks might get a chance at that NBA championship. And, we hope we can watch the Brewers — although maybe online  — by July…. And, won’t you be my neighbor?”

Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Contact him at

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2 thoughts on “The State of Politics: Tony Evers Plays Mr. Rogers”

  1. JMcD says:

    I’ll take a calm demeanor every time. This state, this country would do well to have leadership function without name calling, gaslighting. Elections have consequences and I for one am happy we elected Evers.

  2. Barbara Richards says:

    Mr. Rogers had it right.

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