All we want for Christmas is civility

Gov. Tony Evers offers a model for politics in the age of Trump

Wisconsin Capitol tree in 2014 (Wikimedia Commons)

My family attended the annual neighborhood holiday party at the governor’s mansion this year. My 13-year-old was pumped. The last time we went, she was 5. That was before eight long years of Gov. Scott Walker and the bitter polarization of politics in our state. 

The governor’s mansion, which looks like a mini White House, with its wrought-iron gates, white columns and fountain in front, has been an object of fascination for my kids for years.

Runner giving giving the finger to the executive residence occupied by then-Gov. Scott Walker (Photo from Google Earth)
Runner giving giving the finger to the executive residence occupied by then-Gov. Scott Walker (Photo from Google Earth)

More than a fancy house, it was long the center of scandal and controversy — symbolized by the Google Earth image of a runner we know extending her middle finger toward those iron gates as she jogged past. 

But that changed when Gov. Tony Evers replaced Walker.

After years of partisanship, massive protests, and a curdling of relations among neighbors under Walker’s “divide and conquer” strategy, we have a governor who promised at his inauguration to put division, resentment and “governing by retribution” behind us and get back to “the values that make Wisconsin great—not Republican or Democratic values, but our Wisconsin values of kindness and respect, empathy and compassion and integrity and civility.”

Instead of slipping in and out of the neighborhood in a convoy of black SUVs, almost never to be seen in public, as Walker did, Evers plays pickleball in the driveway, and walks down to the park on summer evenings to chat with whomever is around. 

Around this time of year, for the last eight years, a heavy card-stock invitation to the neighborhood holiday party at the governor’s mansion with Walker would arrive, with an early RSVP date so they could run a background check on every guest.

This year, the invitation was so casual we almost missed it — just a neighborhood email, with no RSVP required.

Gov. Evers chatting with a student at the holiday party in the governor's mansion
Gov. Evers chatting with a student at the holiday party in the governor’s mansion

Inside the mansion, Evers was milling around talking with everyone. There was no receiving line. Like the teacher he is, he seemed most interested in talking with the kids.

Evers’ easygoing manner and accessibility is more than a change of style. It’s a completely different approach to politics, driven by a different philosophy about who the governor is there to serve.

Walker spent a great deal of time with big donors. Urban Milwaukee reported that he spent more than $800 million on 869 state airplane flights from September to April of 2018 to “try to repair and rehabilitate his political image” after the collapse of his presidential campaign. Many of those flights took him to fundraisers around the country.

In another move to take politics behind closed doors, Walker’s Republican allies in the legislature also ran the most secretive redistricting process in state history, in a private room at a pricey local law firm.

The gerrymandered map they came up with gave them solid Republican majorities, even when a majority of voters chose Democrats statewide in 2018. It also dramatically increased political polarization in the state. With so few competitive voting districts, legislators have no incentive to listen to diverse views or break out of partisan lockstep. Even saying you support a nonpartisan process to draw a fair map can earn you a threatened primary challenge if you are a Republican. 

In such a poisoned atmosphere, a lot of people thought Evers was too nice a guy to stand a chance. 

Evers and Evers and friends at the holiday party
Evers and friends at the holiday party

But the choice to remain civil, even-tempered and reasonable turned out to be a formula for success. Evers won statewide (as did every other Democrat on the statewide ballot) even as the Republicans turned up the heat with their base and held onto their gerrymandered majority. 

Evers offers an interesting model for politics in the age of Donald Trump. Instead of engaging in a mudslinging contest, he listened to voters and stayed focused on the things they wanted: better health care, education, and someone who would “fix the damn roads.” It worked.

In office, he has turned out to have the patience of Job. Rarely rising to outrageous provocation, he has plugged away, trying to build consensus and respond to the interests of voters. The Republicans continue to fulminate and posture, refusing to work from Evers’ budget proposal, refusing to hold a special session on guns, refusing to confirm the popular acting agriculture secretary, working to take away powers from the governor since before he even took office, and, of course, turning up the heat on the War on Christmas.

Suffrage tree in the women's bathroom at the governor's mansion
Suffrage tree in the women’s bathroom at the governor’s mansion

Evers, a veteran of state politics after many years running the public school system, might be the perfect person to deal with these tantrums. He rarely takes the bait. He keeps plugging away at the voters’ priorities, and he doesn’t seem to be knocked off his game by the sheer pettiness in the Capitol. That isn’t to say he isn’t above the occasional sly dig — like making science the theme of this year’s holiday tree (which the Republicans who failed to pass a bipartisan measure to help the homeless resolved to call a Christmas tree).

Eventually, if there is to be any hope at all for our country, we will have to get to a place where the mature, the wise, and the mentally stable prevail over the amygdala-driven politics of internet trolls and Fox News. 

Evers offers hope that we can get there. That’s a real gift.

Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine, and opened the Progressive’s office in Washington, DC, during the Clinton Administration, where she made her debut as a political pundit on CNN’s Capital Gang Sunday and Fox News. She moved to Oaxaca, Mexico, for a year in 2017, where she covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Donald Trump. Conniff is a frequent guest on All in with Chris Hayes on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, and other radio and television programs. In 2011, she did award-winning coverage of the uprising against Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. Conniff graduated from Yale University in 1990, where she ran track and edited the campus magazine The New Journal.