Evers sits on the Senate floor as Republicans fire his ag secretary

Ag Secretary-designee Brad Pfaff talks with farmers in Trempealeau and Buffalo Counties (Photos submitted by county farm bureaus with letter to senators and Gov. Evers support Pfaff.)
Ag Secretary-designee Brad Pfaff tours destroyed barns in Trempealeau and Buffalo Counties in Feb. 2019.

After voting 33-0 on the nominations of two of Gov. Tony Evers cabinet members — Insurance Commissioner Mark Afable and Public Service Commission Rebecca Cameron Valcq —  Senate floor debate took a sharp turn toward the unusual.

It began, as is routine, with Democratic and Republican leaders laying out their caucuses’ positions.

“I ask you to have the courage to do the right thing, be consistent in your support of Brad Pfaff,” said Minority Leader Jen Shilling speaking to the five GOP senators who voted in favor of confirming Pfaff in committee. 

“It’s because of a number of mis-steps going back to February,” said Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald on his push to sink the nomination. “I’m warning you, there are still enough cabinet appointees that still are not going to garner enough support.” He described a call with the governor during which he said he told Evers that some nominees will not be confirmed.

Advice and consent of the Senate, several Democrats argued, should be based on qualifications. Many of them rose to defend Pfaff and cited the farm crisis, trade troubles and a rash of suicides among farmers as a reason not to upend the ag department. 

Several senators suggested the failure to confirm an acting secretary who has been in office for 10 months was based on his pushiness in asking the legislature to release funding for a suicide-prevention program for farmers.

“We have a secretary of agriculture choosing not to be quiet on an issue that is near and dear to him and near and dear to the farming community, said Sen. Jon Erpenbach, adding later. “I support that ag secretary certainly more than another ag secretary telling Wisconsin farmers ‘to go big or go home,’ yet you support that administration.

“You think you are sending a message to the governor? It’s a message to the family farmers in your district. That’s who you are sending a message to… You are taking a kid who bleeds manure and you are saying no,” said Sen. Jon Erpenbach. “The majority leader is going to be leaving here really soon, you don’t owe him anything. Don’t fall on the sword for this vote. You should vote your conscience.” 

Republicans, other than Fitzgerald, stayed silent. While an argument over legislative procedure broke out, Evers entered the Senate and took a seat on the floor with the senators, silently observing the discussion as is permitted under Senate Rule 11.

Gov. Tony Evers sits on the Senate floor as they debate confirming his cabinet pick for ag secretary, Brad Pfaff

Fitzgerald called the question, ending debate over whether members should be allowed to quote another senator’s words said in committee on the floor. Republicans all voted aye and the debate returned to Pfaff. Before the final vote, Evers was recognized and stood up briefly to applause from Democrats.

The Senate voted along straight party lines to reject Pfaff’s nomination, thereby firing him from the job he has been performing for 10 months. 

Gov. Tony Evers addresses reporters after the Senate Republicans fire his cabinet pick for ag secretary, Brad Pfaff.
Gov. Tony Evers addresses reporters after the Senate Republicans fire his cabinet pick for ag secretary, Brad Pfaff.

Afterward, Evers’ exited the Senate chambers and spoke to reporters making it clear how angry — or PO’d as he put it — he was with the vote. He asked reporters to think about how it will feel for Pfaff to go home to his family and say he lost his job for speaking his mind.

“The reason I wanted to be here, I want to make sure I heard the arguments for and against one of the most distinguished agricultural leaders in the state of Wisconsin,” said Evers after the vote. “To have the legislature essentially vote against the farmers, Wisconsin… There’s nobody that generates more enthusiasm and passion for the state of Wisconsin. Now, they just threw that away. And for what reason? I, frankly, I don’t know.” 

He would not speculate on whether there would be a different position that would not require Senate confirmation for Pfaff in his administration saying he was too upset as he’d hoped the vote would be different. 

“I want them to be forthcoming. I want them to be professional. That’s why we hired them,” said Evers. “They’re very best people for the job and to think that they’re going to have to keep their mouth’s shut … in order to be approved by the Senate. That is just absolute bullshit.”

Melanie Conklin
Melanie Conklin is proud to be a native of the state of Wisconsin, which gave humankind the typewriter, progressivism and deep-fried cheese curds. Her several decades in journalism include political beats and columns at Isthmus newspaper, the Wisconsin State Journal and other publications. When not an ink-stained wretch, she served time inside state, local and federal government in communications. She is excited to be back at the craft of journalism as Deputy Editor of the Wisconsin Examiner. It’s what she’s loved ever since getting her master’s degree in journalism from the UW-Madison. Her family includes one husband, two kids, four dogs and five (or more) chinchillas.