A slow political sunset still casts shadows on the glow of Wisconsin’s new leadership
Scott Walker is manufacturing the slowest possible ride into the sunset after being beaten for governor of Wisconsin in 2018.
Since his defeat he supported and then signed lame-duck legislation limiting his successor’s powers, making his post-holiday presence felt. Now as he hits the road Jan. 7 he has announced his availability through a speakers’ bureau to champion Trump and his policies.
The speakers bureau is amusing. Wags are suggesting such titles for his speeches as “How to Destroy a State’s Economy and Progressive Reputation in Eight Years” or “How to Give a Taiwanese Company (Foxconn), the Most Taxpayer Money in U.S. History with the Least Strings.”
But the real kicker as Walker marches into oblivion is how badly Republicans will miss having him around to blame for regressive policies they plan to continue.
Right now, two largely unknowns, even to Wisconsinites, are sitting in the GOP catbird seat – State Senate majority leader Scott Fitzgerald and particularly Assembly leader (the state equivalent of U.S. Speaker of the House) Robin Vos.
Fitzgerald only has a three-vote edge to maneuver in the state Senate, so he is more malleable. Vos is the more powerful with a 29-vote Assembly margin. That has allowed him to impose the most ferocious control on his members in state history – yet he always had Walker around to blame in a pinch.
For instance in 2011, unnoticed by many in Wisconsin, Walker’s budget cut milk money for the schools. In a dairy state! But the legislature escaped blame though several of the cuts were their idea. The dreaded Act 10 against unions and other nasty Acts put at Walker’s doorstep required the legislative involvement and even interpolations. But the public and the media preferred to blame the individual in headlines.
In 2019 Evers, the new Democratic governor will work to restore milk money and other general education funding the Republicans cut – and if they resist this time, they will be nakedly to blame.
All those “Walker years,” the two legislative leaders have been joining, goading and finding rationales for much of the financial and corruption damage blamed on the governor. They now intend to take the leadership role of a state GOP machinery that long bore his name in public discourse. Their excuse now is that they gave Walker too much power!
The only plus in all this is that voters are finally turning attention away from individual leaders to focus on the hypocrisy of the GOP legislature.
Vos will succeed for a few months thanks to a gerrymandering reality People’s World has covered – GOP control of the legislature even as it lost every statewide contest in 2018. It is a situation that may change through court action but could continue through the 2020 election of a new legislature – if the public continues to stand still.
There are growing signs the public is changing and the Republicans are newly vulnerable in communities they have long controlled. A better analysis of November voter data confirms that Republicans lost ground throughout the state even while gerrymandered districts kept them in the legislature. Around the nation, voters defied similar gerrymandering. It’s particularly strict in Wisconsin, but the Democrats are just warming up.
The GOP tried to blame Walker’s defeat on the two large municipalities, the so-called liberal bastions of Milwaukee and Madison, though both had lesser but important votes for Walker. It turns out that in many mid-sized and smaller population centers throughout the state – red as well as blue from Brookfield to Appleton to La Crosse, from Green Bay to Eau Claire – the voters turned some 10 percent more toward the Democrats.
Gerrymandering depends on the public standing still in its beliefs, and that is clearly not happening because of issues of education and local control (where the GOP has routinely provided less support) along with wages, immigration, and lasting economic development. Throw in the traditional Wisconsin concern for clean environment — and how often the GOP has equated making money with making it easier to pollute rivers and forests with pig farms and chemical factories — and you have a recipe for further turning away from the Republicans.
The new governor, Tony Evers, is writing such a recipe. He is choosing a pretty powerful cabinet that impresses even Republicans in the legislature. More shrewdly he is willing to obey the bad laws they have passed because he knows they will be challenged by others in court.
Evers won’t openly defy the lame duck laws but he is counting on others to “get me out from under” laws that attempt to limit his ability as governor to write state rules and oversee economic development. He is clearly happy those laws will be challenged by the likes of the ACLU, One Wisconsin Institute and other respected groups that have announced such plans.
These likely plaintiffs suspect that even in a conservative-tilting state court system Evers stands a good chance of relief. Letting others carry his water prevents Republicans from branding him a scofflaw. The courts may actually be friendly and heed the state constitution – they no longer have the protection of a willing governor nor a desire to be seen as too much of a vassal of the little-known leaders of the legislature. Many of these judges owed a personal allegiance to Walker that has vanished.
Evers has an added power in his willingness to work with the GOP as he proposes restorative ideas the public, both left and right, want on education, economics, and the environment. Evers represents a tradition of progressive Wisconsin politics once embraced by all parties and only departed from in the last eight years. The GOP is likely to see their support base tilt in Evers’s favor as the public grasps he is no radical left-winger in style or rhetoric.
Fitzgerald and Vos stayed so much in the background over eight years that many Wisconsin citizens don’t even know their names or the extent of their power. What shenanigans they engaged in to create warped district maps are only now coming to the surface.
There are also internal GOP squabbles that will start cropping up. In the past behind the scenes, they have actually fought with Walker on several items. They are even more to blame for some of the extreme decisions and they are now trying to retain control over the scandal-ridden Wisconsin Employment Development Commission.
The public was always prone to praise or blame Walker. That has allowed Vos, in particular, to keep his chamber in check through abusive nastiness, knowing that any blame would attach to the governor.
The protection is gone. Fitzgerald and Vos can no longer triangulate with an absent Walker. If the duo fights against good ideas that both parties want, they are going to be burned in an unfamiliar media spotlight.
Dominique Paul Noth
Originally published as Scott Walker refusing to ride quietly into the sunset