Steven Walters
The State of Politics

Can Evers, Republicans Mend Fences?

Their first two years weren't very cooperative. But that might change with a new Legislature.

By - Nov 9th, 2020 09:52 am
Gov. Tony Evers. Photo by Emily Hamer / Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

Gov. Tony Evers. File photo by Emily Hamer / Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

The next two years in the Capitol offer both sides – Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and Republicans who control the Legislature – a chance for a “do over.”

After two years of partisan fighting over everything from the powers of each branch of government to how to respond to the pandemic that has killed 2,312  Wisconsin residents, new political dynamics offer hope for compromise in 2021.

Why?

The Legislature — the state Senate, most noticeably — will look much different in January than two years ago, when Republican legislators chafed at the narrow victory of Evers over two-term Republican Gov. Scott Walker. Before Evers even took office, the GOP narrowed the powers of the incoming governor and incoming Democratic Atty. Gen. Josh Kaul.

That set the stage for two years of ugliness between Republican legislators and Evers and Kaul. Conservatives on the state Supreme Court repeatedly sided with Republican legislators, giving these two years an even more partisan feel.

Consider the state Senate in the 2021-22 session. Sure, Republicans picked up two seats, in the Green Bay-area and on Wisconsin’s western border with Minnesota. They will control the Senate by a 21-12 margin, which denies them the 22nd vote needed to override any Evers veto.

But eight of the 33 senators on Jan. 1 will be new. And, within weeks, that number rises to nine when Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald resigns to go to Washington to represent the Fifth District in the U.S. House. Evers controls the timing of a special election to fill the two years remaining on Fitzgerald’s Senate term.

The election of two-term Sen. Devin LaMahieu to replace Fitzgerald as majority leader may lead to better relations between Evers and Senate Republicans. The 48-year-old LaMahieu, who beat Senate President Roger Roth for the leadership job, may have a less confrontational style than the battle-scarred Fitzgerald, who has led or helped lead Republican senators for more than 20 years.

And, of the eight new senators, four — two Republicans and two Democrats — will be women. The number of Republican women senators will double, from two to four, with the addition of Reps. Joan Ballweg and Mary Felzkowski. The number of Democratic women senators will go from four to six, with the addition of Reps. Melissa Sargent and Kelda Roys.

Ten women senators will change the dynamics of both Senate caucuses. It may even dial back the party-comes-first tone of the last two years in the full Senate.

And the addition of the first black Republican senator, Julian Bradley, will also change the Senate Republican caucus. Bradley won after uberconservative Sen. David Craig did not seek re-election.

In the Assembly, Speaker Robin Vos reached for the 66-member “supermajority” he would need to override an Evers veto in Nov. 3 elections, but didn’t get it. Assembly Republicans lost two members, so their margin of control will be 61-38. Fifteen new Assembly members – six Republicans and nine Democrats – will take office in January.

In his first post-election statement, Vos drew only two don’t-go-there lines for Evers: Assembly Republicans won’t raise taxes and won’t “defund” police.

The longest-serving Republican speaker pledged that, for the next two years, Assembly Republicans will “help our state continue to battle the coronavirus; assist our businesses and especially the unemployed, and work hard to revive and keep the economy of our state growing strong….

“We know we’re also not going to ask taxpayers to pay more of their hard-earned money to your Wisconsin state government.

“Our police will not be defunded. We’ll keep neighborhoods safe by supporting our police and finding bipartisan solutions that support law and order.”

Vos also vowed to fund health care and education, protect natural resources, help farmers and the lodging, hospitality and tourism industries devastated by COVID-19 — all priorities that Evers shares.

Two things they won’t agree on: Republican legislators will not expand Medicaid to more middle-income residents — a top Evers priority. And Republicans will never consider any new Congressional or legislative district lines drawn by the governor’s People’s Maps Commission.

For his part, asked whether he thought the next Legislature will be more willing to work with him, Evers gave a “believe it when I see it” answer.

Republicans didn’t get the “supermajority” they wanted, Evers noted. “We’re happy we were able to prevent that from happening.”

Steven Walters is a senior producer with the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Contact him at stevenscotwalters@gmail.com

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