Steven Walters
The State of Politics

LeMahieu Struggles in Vos’s Shadow

New Senate majority leader a surprise choice who's trying to resist the dictates of Robin Vos.

By - Jan 18th, 2021 11:41 am
Sen. Devin LeMahieu. File photo by Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Watch

Sen. Devin LeMahieu. File photo by Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Watch

Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, elected by the 20 Senate Republicans to lead their party after former Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald went to Washington, is wrestling with how to emerge from the political shadow of Assembly Speaker Robin Vos.

Vos, speaker since 2013, became the longest-serving Assembly leader this week. The Rochester Republican, who has served in the Assembly since 2006, is now the Legislature’s most experienced power broker. He spent 10 years sharing that clout with Fitzgerald.

LeMahieu graduated from the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee (JFC) to the job of majority leader, defeating former Senate President Roger Roth. One of LaMahieu’s first acts was to replace veteran JFC Cochair Alberta Darling with Sen. Howard Marklein.

In a WisconsinEye interview, LeMahieu said he got the leadership job after telling his fellow Republicans that, since he’s single, he could spend whatever time was needed to champion their goals in the 2021-22 session. Five of the 20 Republicans are first-term senators.

In the first two weeks of the session, LaMahieu seemed to be trying to avoid having him, and his Republican caucus, being dictated to or pre-empted by Vos. The Assembly quickly passed its first COVID-19 response bill since mid-April. But Vos was surprised when LeMahieu said the Assembly bill would not pass the Senate. Last week, LaMahieu steered through the Senate a COVID-19 response bill that Democrats voted for and Democratic Gov. Tony Evers said he would sign. Evers had threatened to veto the Assembly-passed bill.

Evers poked Vos by praising LeMahieu: “I’ve been grateful to work together with Republican Majority Leader LeMahieu to find common ground and pass a bill on COVID-19 that reflects a good faith effort in compromise and bipartisanship….The Assembly should pass [it] as amended today and send it to my desk for my signature.”

But that COVID-19 response won’t get to the governor’s desk without another Assembly vote, so Vos may still dictate what’s in it. Vos poked the LaMahieu-led Senate, saying Assembly Republicans will “never compromise our conservative ideals… It seems some would think the only way to find common ground is to cave into the governor’s demands,”

On behalf of Senate Republicans, LeMahieu’s staff tentatively planned for him to give a response to the Democratic governor’s first ever online State of the State speech. But LeMahieu’s staff canceled that response, so only Vos gave the Republicans’ response. There was no mention of any joint Vos-LeMahieu GOP response to the Democratic governor’s speech.

LaMahieu also convened a rare meeting of the Senate Committee on Organization to debate, and recommend, one version of the Senate’s COVID-19 response bill. That broke with the practice of JFC and other joint Senate-Assembly committees meeting to act on major bills.

Explaining why the Senate Organization Committee met on short notice, LeMahieu said he’s still learning his new role. “Blame the new majority leader for a rocky start,” LeMahieu told Senate Democratic Leader Janet Bewley.

LaMahieu “is finding his sea legs,” a veteran lobbyist for a major statewide trade association observed. “He was a surprise winner in the leadership election and was a back bencher for five years.” Senate Republicans Include “a faction – conservatives – who think Vos has too much power and want attention for their ideas, positions, etc.,” the lobbyist added.

It’s just possible that three of those Republicans — Senate President Chris Kapenga, of Delafield, Sen. Steve Nass, of Whitewater, and Sen. Duey Stroebel, of Saukville — haven’t forgotten that Vos in October 2017 called them “terrorists” for striking a deal with then-Republican Gov Scott Walker on budget-bill vetoes.

Vos quickly apologized for his remark, although he still blamed “rogue holdouts” for blocking priorities of Assembly Republicans. At the time Kapenga said that “Vos choosing to take this to a level so personal is severely inappropriate.” And Nass called Vos’s comment “a shallow political ploy … to thwart conservative legislation.”

The lobbyist said LaMahieu “is not media savvy and he’s taking some early hits as a result. He needs to get his leadership style down, and fast. Or he risks being seen as a poor substitute for Scott Fitzgerald who is clearly not ready for prime time.”

Evers and LeMahieu grew up in Sheboygan County communities — Plymouth and Oostburg — about 20 miles apart. Maybe they can hold some future brat-and-beer summit. Vos may not be invited.

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

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