At meeting with Vos and Fitzgerald, Evers strives to avoid “fireworks”

A little of the governor's incredulity and disgust with the Supreme Court decision and the legislators' actions seeps through

Gov. Tony Evers from his media briefing 5/14/20
Gov. Tony Evers at his media briefing 5/14/20

The morning after a convoluted decision in which the Wisconsin Supreme Court determined that the state Department of Health Services secretary did not have the authority to issue an extension of the Safer at Home order, Gov. Tony Evers got on the phone for a meeting with the two men who brought the lawsuit on behalf of the Legislature. 

The meeting between Evers, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos on Thursday morning was private. Democratic legislative leaders were not invited and no one else joined the three men, apart from their staff.

Sen. Scott Fitzgerald and Speaker Robin Vos hold a virtual press conference (six feet apart) on March 25, 2020
Sen. Scott Fitzgerald and Speaker Robin Vos on March 25, 2020

Evers’ tone and wording in a press call Wednesday night — as well as his public health briefing on Thursday after that meeting — remained highly critical of the Republican leadership’s approach in his own low-key manner. 

As a leader who prizes civility and refraining from personal attacks, Evers is typically measured. Yet just as it was clear to reporters after the state Senate fired his agriculture secretary, Brad Pfaff, that he was ticked off, the governor’s speec  pattern as he discussed the demise of Safer at Home made clear he was incredulous and exasperated. Some telltale signs of his strong feelings were choppy sentences with frequent rewording and strong emphasis on certain words in reaction to both the Supreme Court decision and the Republican leaders’ lack of any Plan B — apart from taking his administration to court — as he described it. 

“Republican legislators convinced four Supreme Court justices to throw our state into chaos,” Evers said after the meeting. “This virus has killed more than 400 of our family members, friends and neighbors and thousands more across our state are sick. Because of the court’s decision, many more people could get sick and overwhelm our hospitals. But not if we stay the course and stay at home.” 

With a bit of dry sarcasm, he added, “That was part of our conversation today, actually. I thought both leaders felt very comfortable with the idea, well, they aren’t concerned about what I believe will be massive confusion that will exist without a safe, statewide approach. Apparently they believe that different rules are okay. I can’t imagine another state that is in this predicament where, essentially, mile by mile there may be different rules across all the state.”

Yet Evers described the meeting as “respectful” with “no fireworks.”

Vos agreed with that assessment, according to his spokeswoman Kit Beyer.

Speaker Robin Vos at a virtual press conference on March 25, 2020
Speaker Robin Vos

“Speaker Vos says the meeting with the governor went well,” said Beyer. “I’m sure you have heard Speaker Vos say that there shouldn’t be a governor’s plan or a Republican plan but a Wisconsin plan. The speaker feels it’s important that we continue to have confidence and trust in the public and business owners to take the necessary safety precautions.”

The question of whether there is a legislative plan for reopening is a point of contention.

Evers said he received a letter dated May 1 from Vos and some colleagues. “They made it clear to me that they were interested in a gradual and safe reopening of the state. Apparently between that, at that time, and when the Supreme Court made their decision, they decided that that wasn’t what they wanted to do.”

The legislative leaders also said Evers had not wanted to make a plan or move toward a rule, preferring to wait to see what the Supreme Court did. 

While Evers had said he expected the Court to rule in his administration’s favor, calling the law very clear on that point, he disputed their take. 

“We had a plan, they didn’t. The idea I just wanted to wait for the Supreme Court, that’s not accurate.  We had a plan, the Supreme Court decided to throw that plan out on very shaky grounds. It’s as simple as that.” 

Where does this leave Wisconsin? 

According to the state’s chief medical officer and epidemiologist Dr. Ryan Westergard, more than a half-dozen counties (later reports put the total at a dozen) have their own version of the Safer at Home order in effect already.

Dr. Ryan Westergaard at the public health briefing 5/14/20
Dr. Ryan Westergaard

Evers said his administration has released a scope statement written today and can officially publish it on Monday, but it will take a minimum of two weeks to go through the legislative rule-making process controlled by a Republican committee.  (More details of the public health situation can be found here).

A part of the morning meeting was a discussion of a potential rule, but no decisions were made, Evers said. He and Secretary-designee Andrea Palm said their focus now is strictly on protecting public health through contract tracing and “massive” testing.

Andrea Palm at the media briefing 5/14/20
Andrea Palm

The Supreme Court made it clear — this is not our gig,” said Evers. Later he responded to another question about whether, looking back, he would do things differently and go through the rulemaking process from the outset, by saying he felt the administration’s quick response to the pandemic had saved lives.

“And, frankly, that’s assuming that [Supreme Court] decision that they made was an accurate one. It was not. They made things up out of whole cloth and they cut sentences out of order in the legislation to meet their needs. It was a wrong decision. So we did the right thing. I suggest those four justices did the wrong thing. And that’s why we’re in this position today.”

There was one point in the briefing when Evers seemed unable to keep his cool for a moment. He halted media questions to address a statement just released by state Sen. Tom Tiffany (R-Minoqua), who won an election to a Congressional seat on Tuesday. Tiffany’s  statement viciously attacked Palm and demanded that she resign:

“The recent Supreme Court ruling confirmed that Ms. Palm’s power grab exceeded her authority. Her shotgun approach to lock down Wisconsin has produced disastrous consequences. Wisconsin’s economy and health care system are collapsing. Small businesses are closing their doors for good. Tens of thousands of people are struggling to apply for unemployment in an attempt to survive the storm she caused. New data shows us how we can make a targeted response to the Wuhan virus, but Ms. Palm will hear none of it. 

A native New Yorker, ally of Hillary Clinton’s, and Washington, D.C. insider, Ms. Palm understands very little of our Midwestern values or how her decisions have devastated our way of life. Ms. Palm came here as Governor Evers’ hired gun, and she will leave with Wisconsin’s corpse if she continues.” 

Evers seemed almost speechless after receiving the statement, then regained his composed demeanor even as he chided Tiffany, drawing out and emphasizing the word ‘please.’ 

official photo of state Sen. Tom Tiffany
Sen. Tom Tiffany

“Sen. Tiffany, please. You just won an election. Just relax. This, this is an insane statement. We talk about trying to tone down the rhetoric and I’ve done everything I can today to do that. And to make a statement like that about someone who has dedicated their life to saving lives? Please sir, give us a break. You’re headed to Washington DC. I know we’re better than this.”

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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.