Behind LeMahieu’s taciturn style lies a staunch conservative

By: - April 16, 2021 6:45 am

Sen. Devin LeMahieu

State Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu and his GOP caucus took a beating from Democrats during the Senate floor session on Wednesday as the Republicans voted for bills to spend Wisconsin’s share of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) in ways that likely violate the law.

But the intensity of that debate did not appear to faze the Republican leader from Oostburg the following day as he gave subdued, even bland answers to questions on such matters with dispassionate conservative talking points, a stark contrast in style with other state GOP leaders. As is typical of his public persona, he never raised his voice, slung any insults or showed any venom, even when he was asked about relationship issues he has had with Speaker Robin Vos and Gov. Tony Evers.

On Vos: “You come in and you make mistakes and you learn from them. We generally have the same goals in mind and the same priorities.”
On Evers: “We need to get things done for the state of Wisconsin. … My office has reached out to his office at times. I have called him personally at times … but it’s been awhile since we talked.”

It’s difficult to imagine anyone accusing LeMahieu of hyperbole or being too excitable.

The audience watching WisPolitics’ Jeff Mayers interview LeMahieu on a virtual luncheon program got few surprises — with the most newsworthy tidbit being that knowing where his Senate Republicans stand, he does not have enough votes to pass either full or medicinal legalization of marijuana, including his own vote.

“I think it’s somewhat important not to pass laws that are in conflict with the federal government,” LeMahieu, who was first elected to the Senate in 2015, said. He added that employers tell him they are concerned about people being “high on the job,” and he doesn’t want to be a “rogue state.” (At least in this matter; later he offered a different take as one of the few hold-out states against Medicaid expansion.)

Spending hated stimulus money

LeMahieu echoed his GOP colleagues in what Democrats labeled a hypocritical argument: He objects to the federal government spending an “immense” and “reckless” amount of money in the American Rescue Plan Act. But he also wants to spend Wisconsin’s portion of $3.2 billion in the manner Republicans laid out in 11 bills that passed the Senate and Assembly this week, even though the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau stated it could result in the vast majority of the money needing to be returned, potentially in violation of forthcoming U.S. Treasury guidelines.

Sen. Jon Erpenbach via Wis Eve
Sen. Jon Erpenbach via Wis Eve

“According to the LFB memo 90% of this money being proposed is possibly on the hook, as in not allowable, can’t do it,” said Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-West Point) on the Senate floor. Passing bills that promise a tax cut or checks “holds out a false hope” for constituents who will think they might receive money only to become “pretty upset” when it doesn’t come through, he said. Not all the goals laid out are bad, they’re just disingenuous because they are not reality and, Erpenbach added, if Republicans hate ARPA, then reject the money. “I don’t see a piece of legislation here from the Republicans to send the money back to D.C.,” said Erpenbach. “I just don’t think you can have it both ways.”

Sen. Tim Carpenter (D-Milwaukee) went a step further stating the real goal of Republicans’ bills is to be able say Democrats voted against property tax relief in future campaign messages, even if it could never really happen: “Today’s ‘Disneyland Day,’ where a lot of things are make believe.” 

LeMahieu labeled the bills more of a plan, even though if they were signed into law — which is almost certain not to happen under Evers — it would be binding.

Sen. Tim Carpenter | Wisconsin Eye
Sen. Tim Carpenter | Wisconsin Eye

“We think it’s very important that the legislature has a voice in how this $3.2 billion is spent,” LeMahieu said. “Speaker Vos and I sat down together and with both of our respective caucuses and developed a plan, sort of a roadmap if you will, of how we think this money should be spent. That’s sort of the game plan behind what we wanted to do — to show the governor what we thought was responsible use of these funds.”

He also made it clear his hope is that some of the ARPA money can replace money allocated in Evers’ budget for one-time expenses such as local roads, broadband expansion and capital building projects. Without knowing how the money will be spent, he said Republicans are “flying blind” as they craft a budget. He did not acknowledge that it also makes it impossible for Evers to allocate it until the federal guidelines have been laid out.

Nor would even the full $3.2 billion that the governor can allocate cover all of the costs Republicans cited in the bills. Sen. Janis Ringhand (D-Evansville) pointed out that it would take $2 billion for the state to catch up on its capital building needs alone. “That’s not fiscal conservatism, that’s pennywise and pound foolish,” Ringhand said.

Voting is “pretty simple”

On the Senate floor Wednesday and in his interview Thursday, LeMahieu and Republicans continued to peddle bills to make it more difficult to vote in Wisconsin,

Sen. Devin LeMahieu | WisPolitics program

Unlike many of his colleagues, LeMahieu did not offer false proclamations of a Donald Trump victory or stolen elections, but he did fall back on the circular rhetoric that such bills are needed  “to make sure the citizens of Wisconsin have confidence” in their elections, which was undermined because Trump and Republicans have been repeatedly spun false stories of fraud.

“I didn’t make the claim that fraud occurred in this last election [but] there may have been some liberties taken with our current election laws which is also why we are going through this process,” LeMahieu said. 

As the author of legislation requiring voter rolls be purged, he was disappointed in the recent Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling to the contrary. 

“I think it’s pretty simple to vote in the state of Wisconsin,” LeMahieu opined. “Wisconsin is a very purple state and our statewide elections are very close. So we think it’s very important to have transparent voting safeguards.”

The majority leader was also asked about another major issue frequently raised this budget season, which is why Wisconsin Republicans do not support expanding BadgerCare, even though it would bring in an additional $1.6 billion in revenue for the next biennial budget.


No health care gap

Democrats have pounded on this GOP position for years as being fiscally irresponsible, as well as heartless when it would mean that 80,000 – 90,000 Wisconsinites would gain access to health care through Medicaid while taxpayers saved money. 

For LeMahieu the answer is by the numbers — not the people — and it’s the standard conservative rejection of “government run health care,” but in his low-key answer belies the severity of the issue for the tens of thousands of people it impacts.

“To throw, potentially, 80,000 more individuals on government-run health care, there could be consequences down the road,” he said. “About half of those are already eligible for subsidized health care under Obamacare, the other 40,000 just choose not to take it.”

Sen. Devin LeMahieu and former Gov. Scott Walker | Facebook
Sen. Devin LeMahieu and former Gov. Scott Walker | Facebook

He added that Wisconsin has high-quality care and “we don’t have a coverage gap.” (Democrats would beg to differ). Pushed, he said Obamacare “seems to be effective.”

“Another interesting fact is that among the states that haven’t accepted the Medicaid expansion, we’ve had the lowest amount of people who are uninsured,” LeMahieu added, “so we do a great job with health care in Wisconsin and we’re not willing to put more people on government-run health care and jeopardize the system we have in place.”

At the close of the luncheon, Mayers noted that LeMahieu is the owner of a Sheboygan area newspaper and asked for his opinion on what is wrong with the media. While his predecessor in leadership, now Congressman Scott Fitzgerald was known for colorful critiques and dislike of the media, LeMahieu simply smiled, demurring that his paper is more of a shopper, and added without any bite, “I’d like to see the media cover more positive stories going forward.”


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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.