Battle of government branches over boughs

By: - December 9, 2020 4:01 pm
Rep. Paul Tittl and Rep. Shae Sortwell decorate their Christmas tree. (Photo via Assembly GOP official video.)

Rep. Paul Tittl and Rep. Shae Sortwell decorate their Christmas tree. (Photo via Assembly GOP official video.)

The Capitol building is not open to the public this holiday season due to the coronavirus, so Gov. Tony Evers invited school children throughout Wisconsin to make ornaments to be sent to nursing homes, hospitals and veterans homes around the state to spread the spirit of the season.

He also had four trees on the Capitol lawn decorated, as well as several trees outside the governor’s Executive Residence in Maple Bluff. But he skipped the usual tree in the Capitol rotunda.

Although Republicans have not convened the Legislature since April, a few Assembly Republicans thought it was important to station a tree inside the closed Capitol for the days when they may work from their offices, and made a video set to a catch rendition of O’tannenbaum for the official GOP Assembly homepage to commemorate the placement and decoration of said Christmas tree.

Reps. Paul Tittl (R-Manitowoc) and Shae Sortwell (R-Gibson) sought permission for a ‘historical display’ from the Department of Administration, and were denied because the building is closed. (According to Evers’ administration, they have appealed the denial, triggering a 10 day review process.) So the pair recorded themselves assembling a fake tree and adorning it with strings of gold beads and a star topper. 

“We hope that this will bring a little bit of joy, a little bit of Christmas spirit to your lives in this difficult time,” saidi Sortwell, “that we remember there is hope and there’s joy and there’s peace remembering the birth of our Savior.”

As a decorative touch, they added a plastic encased sign offering a traditional Christmas message: “This tree belongs to Representative Tittle and Representative Sortwell. Do not move without prior written approval from these Representatives.” Another sign added below the tree reads: “The magic of Christmas is not in the presents but in His presence.”

Rep. Dave Murphy (R-Greenville) and Rep. Chuck Wichgers (R-Muskego) joined them to decorate the tree. None of the representatives involved wore masks.

Rep. Dave Murphy, Rep. Paul Tittl, Rep. Shae Sortwell and Rep. Chuck Wichgers in front of their Christmas tree. (Photo via Assembly GOP official video.)
Rep. Dave Murphy, Rep. Paul Tittl, Rep. Shae Sortwell and Rep. Chuck Wichgers in front of their Christmas tree. (Photo via Assembly GOP official video.)

“We really wanted to have a Christmas tree in the Capitol,” Tittle said. “The governor said no, but we decided we were going to put one up anyhow.”

This marks the second annual Battle of the Branches in the Capitol War Over Christmas. Previously, the Legislature objected to Gov. Tony Evers’ labeling the tree in the rotunda as a holiday tree.

A year ago, salvos in the Capitol War Over Christmas dominated an Assembly session that was allegedly convened to pass bills and address important issues. (At this meeting Republicans passed a resolution officially calling the tree in the rotunda a Christmas tree, and renamed the week of Thanksgiving Bible Week.)

Last month the Examiner noted that the governor’s invitation to children to make holiday — not Christmas — ornaments using the theme of hope, “may stir … another brutal and bloody battle in Wisconsin’s culture war.”

One month later, the result was precisely as predicted. 

And now Tittl and Sortwell are soliciting ornaments for their Christmas tree from children, to be made and sent to their offices.

From Assembly GOP video of tree decorating

And this time — because legislators had gone eight months without convening as the pandemic raged and they fought in court to strike down limits on public gatherings and  mask mandates — Evers made a declaration of his own. 

That’s something,” said Evers during a media briefing in response to a reporter’s question about the forbidden GOP artificial evergreen at the center of the dispute.


“They go 230 days without doing any work, legislatively, which I think is their job. And then spending a short period of time putting up a tree in the rotunda in a building that no one’s in or very few people are in. So the reason we didn’t put one up this year is the Capitol building is closed because of COVID-19, and we want to keep people safe. And therefore we did not put a tree up in the rotunda.” 

“There’s a bit of irony there, too,” Evers continued, “that [they] can’t come to work to pass any bills around COVID-19 but by golly we’ll come in there and put a tree up when no one’s looking. [It’s] just weird.”

Your government: Keeping Christmas weird.

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Melanie Conklin
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.