Full-court press for Pfaff puts GOP senators in a bind

Rural residents once seen as a Republican base send a strong message of support

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 talks with farmers in Trempealeau and Buffalo Counties (Photos submitted by county farm bureaus with letter to senators and Gov. Evers support Pfaff.)

Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection Secretary-designee Brad Pfaff received a warm reception in his committee confirmation hearing earlier this year. In answering questions, he spoke fondly about growing up on a farm, displaying his passion for agriculture. He was among the very first secretaries to have his confirmation pass through a senate committee  — chaired by a Republican — and did so with a unanimous vote. That was in April. 

But Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald accused Pfaff of “bungling his job since day one,” which was in January. Key proof Fitzgerald offered was his opinion that Pfaff  ‘played politics’ in pushing to get $200,000 allocated in the budget released to fund mental-health vouchers. (Those funds passed with the budget in July and, under pressure from Pfaff and others, were released in September.)

Pfaff’s push for those mental-health vouchers for farmers comes during a crisis in Wisconsin, after more than 700 farms shut down last year and international trade wars have had devastating consequences. Suicides rates among state farmers have spiked.

Speaker Robin Vos, Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, Sen. Alberta Darling

Then late last week, Fitzgerald announced his caucus would vote against confirming Pfaff, which would mean he would be kicked out of his job. The vote is on the state Senate agenda for Tuesday. That would require the five Republican senators who voted unanimously to confirm Pfaff in committee to change their votes after Fitzgerald’s orders. The five senators who approved Pfaff on the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Revenue and Financial Institutions are: Chair Howard Marklein, Vice-chair Jerry Petrowski, Patrick Testin, Andre Jacques and Kathy Bernier. 

It could cost those GOP senators, as the public regardless of political party is concerned about both mental health issues and the negative environment for farmers and agricultural workers, say Democrats. Many chalk this confirmation battle up to political revenge against Pfaff for embarrassing Fitzgerald publicly.

“Brad Pfaff just has a stellar work history in who he has worked for, along with just advocating for farmers,” says Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling. “That is his passion. That is in his DNA. He will tell you that farming paid for his braces and it paid for his college diploma. To use Secretary Pfaff as an example, is a new level of mean-spiritedness and just being cruel to a member of the governor’s administration who is clearly qualified, in order to score political points.”

Pfaff previously worked as the state executive director for the Farm Service Agency in Wisconsin and the national deputy administrator for farm programs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Farmers praise Pfaff

The majority of the push to confirm Pfaff, however, came not from Democratic elected leaders, but from farming and agricultural groups, which have long been viewed as a Republican base of support in Wisconsin. There was an immediate outpouring of support for Gov. Tony Evers’ nominee after the news broke that Pfaff might not be confirmed.

Ag Secretary-designee Brad Pfaff talks with farmers in Trempealeau and Buffalo Counties
Ag Secretary-designee Brad Pfaff talks with farmers in Trempealeau and Buffalo counties in Feb. 2019

One heartfelt letter told the story of Pfaff’s visit to farmers who wanted to talk to him after their barns collapsed in severe February weather. It was from Shane Goplin, president of the Trempealeau County Farm Bureau and Ed Rippley, president of the Buffalo County Farm Bureau—published Monday in the Wisconsin Examiner. The two men described the shock and concern on Pfaff’s face when he saw the devastation, and the compassion he showed for the farmers. When it was time for him to leave at noon, they wrote, and he hadn’t met all of the farmers, Pfaff tossed aside his set schedule and stayed for an extra four hours.

“These farmers were in a mental state that we have never seen before,” the two heads of the county farm bureaus wrote. Their polite request was this: “…please allow us to tell you about the Brad Pfaff we know; the champion that farmers depend on and the leader that Wisconsin agriculture needs.”

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 severe storms.

Their message was echoed in many other letters from  The Dairy Business Association, Organic Valley farming cooperative, Wisconsin Agri-Business Association, The Cooperative Network, the Wisconsin Land+Water Conservation Association, the Wisconsin Corn Growers Association, the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association, as well as U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin and another of Pfaff’s former employers, U.S. Rep. Ron Kind.

“National Farmers Organization represents dairy, grain and livestock farmers in the marketplace and in farm legislation matters. Therefore, we understand how critical it is that an Agriculture Secretary possess the real-life knowledge that Mr. Pfaff brings to that position,” wrote the Wisconsin National Farmers’ Association.

The publisher emeritus of The County Line in Ontario, Wis., Karen Parker, sent a scathing letter, writing, “The threat by the Senate to not confirm Brad Pfaff as Secretary of Agriculture is an outrage. The reasoning: Because he has lobbied for funding for suicide prevention among Wisconsin’s dairy farmers smacks of partisanship at its worst. Is it that funding is an admission that Republican farm policy has lead farmers to the brink of despair?

“When the 2018 flood destroyed the village of Ontario, Mr. Pfaff was the first politician on the scene while our own Republican State Representatives were never seen… In all the years I have dealt with Mr. Pfaff there has been no question that he deeply cares for farmers and their rural community. Why you want to deprive the Wisconsin agriculture community of his leadership says a great deal about how you value partisan politics over the welfare of rural Wisconsin.”

The letters, which continued to come in as this article was published, were a “full court press,” as Shilling describes it. She says that should make some GOP senators nervous about joining Fitzgerald in this “attack.”

Baldwin highlights bipartisanship on farmer struggle

Baldwin, who points out that she voted in favor of confirming President Donald Trump’s Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue, although she had major disagreements with his political philosophy, also drew the spotlight to the mental-health needs of farmers coinciding with Tuesday’s state Senate vote. Her planned Tuesday morning press release focuses on her bipartisan work with U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) on her Farmer’s First bill, which has attracted an additional $8 million for mental-health resources and support for farmers nationwide. 

Our Wisconsin farmers are facing many difficult challenges and we all need to work together to provide them the support they need, including more funding for local mental health resources,” said Baldwin.

Baldwin also sent a letter in support of Pfaff’s confirmation, stating, “State legislative Republicans should not let politics get in the way of helping our farmers when they are dealing with many difficult challenges… Secretary Pfaff has the experience, qualifications and commitment to do this and the State Legislature should put partisan politics aside and confirm him so he can continue doing his job and we can all get to work putting our Wisconsin farmers first.”

Fitzgerald’s office has not responded to a request from the Examiner to discuss this issue. He has stated publicly that some of Evers’ cabinet may never get a confirmation vote due to a rocky relationship between the GOP legislature and the Democratic governor. Thus far only five of Evers’ cabinet members have been confirmed, the other 11 — unless they are voted against — could retain their jobs with titles of secretary-designee. No governor’s cabinet picks have been voted down, at least as far back as when records date, which was 1987.