GOP Legislature’s fall agenda: pummel Evers in a culture war

‘The biggest things that we’re dealing with, really, are political in nature’

By: - September 20, 2021 7:00 am
Evers speaking in Assembly chambers with Vos behind him

Gov. Tony Evers delivers his 2019 State of the State address to a joint session of the State Legislature. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, and Assembly Speaker Pro Tempore Tyler August look on | Tony Evers via Flickr

Wisconsin Republicans set the stage last week for the fall session by painting a clear picture of how governing and campaigning will take shape into 2022, despite partisan elections being more than a year away.

While redistricting — drawing new political maps based on the 2020 census — has taken center stage of late, and will continue to do so, the Legislature came back from summer break ready to lay the groundwork in committee meetings for a legislative session of wedge-issue, culture war topics such as allowing parents to remove their children from classrooms when any topic touches on gender, forbidding teachers from discussing race and pushing a “born alive” bill as a way to raise the issue of late-term abortion, which is redundant, because there are already laws against killing a living baby and Gov. Tony Evers already vetoed an identical bill.

Devin LeMahieu, Tony Evers, Robin Vos
Devin LeMahieu, Tony Evers, Robin Vos

Redistricting moved forward with another court decision — this one favoring Democrats who hope to see federal courts rather than the Republican-dominated Wisconsin Supreme Court draw maps if (or when) Evers and the Legislature fail to agree on new district lines. That battle will be center stage until the maps are complete, and Republican Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos now have a website and invitations out to the public to draw their own lines — something Evers has been working towards for many months through the People’s Maps Commission which has invited  the public to draw maps.

Evers vs. Kleefisch? And Johnson?

The race for Wisconsin governor took shape with Republican lobbyist Bill McCoshen bowing out, despite having spent the past year-plus traveling the state promoting his unofficial, unannounced campaign. This came a week after former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, who had been doing the same, officially got in.

Former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch speaks at WisPolitics event.
Former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch

In a statement, McCoshen urged other Republicans to run. But former Gov. Scott Walker — who did not want Kleefisch as his running mate in his first campaign, when Republicans frequently mocked her — offered her an endorsement making Kleefisch his heir apparent. Walker and his former campaign manager Stephan Thompson launched Freedom Wisconsin PAC, to “serve as the leading independent expenditure committee helping to elect Rebecca Kleefisch and state Republicans.”

And while Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson continues to keep everyone guessing with his back-and-forth statements about whether he’ll break his promise not to run again, former GOP contender for Senate Kevin Nicholson (who lost a GOP primary against Leah Vukmir to run against Sen. Tammy Baldwin)  signaled his intention to run for Johnson’s seat by doing what is becoming a trend for the GOP, using a nonprofit 501(c)4 in potential violation of the IRS tax code as a shadow campaign. (The Democratic Party of Wisconsin has filed a complaint against Kleefisch for doing the same with her The 1848 Project.)

Nicholson’s “No Better Friend Corp.” nonprofit announced it will launch a $1.5 million ad campaign that looks just like a campaign ad for Nicholson. It’s message boils down to “the world’s a mess,” and highlights Nicholson’s face and his views opposing critical race theory, abortion and “paying people not to work,” as well as his positions favoring school choice, a strong national defense and “election integrity.” It’s a flexible agenda that could also apply to a campaign for governor — another move he is rumored to be mulling. “Life today can be terrifying. Join us to effectively fight back,” he states in conclusion, casting no further light on his plans.

Vos’ shadow close up

Vos has been taking it on the chin from the far-right election conspiracy wing of his caucus, which has goaded him into a full-blown so-called audit of the presidential election, so he must have enjoyed the national recognition he got from a Politico article published Wednesday titled, “How Wisconsin is ruled by a shadow governor: Robin Vos has used his GOP majority to block, thwart or resist nearly every significant move made by Wisconsin’s governor.”

The article by Daniel C. Vock (a frequent contributor to the Examiner and other States Newsroom outlets) laid out what has become painfully clear to all Wisconsinites — that Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has been attempting to control the Legislature and his party as a shadow governor for some time now.

Vock reports that Vos’ strategy is to deny Evers big policy wins on key issues, and highlights his spectacular ability to stop bipartisanship: “Vos’ brazen moves to box in Evers — and his success in doing so — make him a rare specimen among state lawmakers. Governors asserted unprecedented powers in the early days of the pandemic, and lawmakers in many states chafed at the broad executive reach. But few have done more to constrain gubernatorial power than Vos, the president of the National Conference of State Legislatures.”

Speaker Robin Vos gives his State of the State response 1/12/21 (WisEye)
Speaker Robin Vos (WisEye)

And Vos’ hometown paper, the Racine Journal Times, reported the GOP was giddy: “Republicans have responded with a sense of pride, viewing Vos as a kind of goalkeeper against the policies of Tony Evers.” The Wisconsin Republican Party posted the story with the quote “Robin Vos has used his GOP majority to block, thwart or resist nearly every significant move made by Wisconsin’s governor,” on Wednesday, and got 800 likes by Friday afternoon.

Rep. Gordon Hintz

Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz responded tartly: “To actually be the shadow governor, you would have to be interested in governing. Governing means leading your state, addressing challenges, taking care of your citizenry.”

Governance, Hintz says, is not on GOP legislative leaders’ agenda. He points to Evers putting popular ideas in his budget and calling for special sessions on topics ranging from race relations to education to gun control as examples of governing.

“The reason those things aren’t happening is because the speaker and the majority leader decided that they don’t want to get anything done — that politics is more important than what the public wants and what the public needs,” Hintz says.

Legislative session sneak peek

If last week’s public hearings and bills were any indication, the Legislature is poised to turn the next session into a culture war battle royale.

On Thursday, a committee debated a riot bill that would allow anyone at a protest where a participant becomes violent to be charged with a felony. Also on Thursday Republicans held a public hearing on a bill to require schools to give advance notice to parents and guardians before they teach anything related to sexual orientation, gender, gender identity or gender expression.


Proponents of the bill, introduced just two days before the hearing, argued that parents know what’s best for their children and should be entitled to know if information is being taught that may conflict with their religious beliefs so they can excuse their children from a lesson or have discussions at home about it. The bill’s author, Rep. Donna Rozar (R-Marshfield) pitched the bill as empowering parents, but Democrats spoke to how refusing to acknowledge LGBTQ students and families could do real harm.

Jill Underly, candidate for State Superintendent of Public Instruction (photo courtesy of Underly)
Jill Underly, State Superintendent of Public Instruction (photo courtesy of Underly)

“At this pivotal moment when we should be focused on doing what is best for our children, our legislative leaders are choosing to focus instead on ramming through bills that stand to cause real harm to students and that have barely seen the light of day,” Superintendent of Public Instruction Jill Underly said in a statement. “Make no mistake, they know exactly what they are doing: using our children as pawns in a culture war. They will not win in the long-term, but they will hurt our students, our educators, and our democratic principles in the process.”

As if to illustrate the need for better LGBTQ education, when Rep. Sondy Pope (D-Mt. Horeb) asked Rozar if teaching a history lesson on Harvey Milk would trigger a parental notification under her bill, Rozar responded, “I’m not familiar, is that a real person?”

Some of the most extreme bills, including Rozar’s, have been flowing through the education committee, where GOP committee members and others refuse to wear masks, despite Republican Sen. Andre Jacque (R-De Pere) appearing maskless and potentially infecting others early last month, shortly before COVID-19 required him to be on a ventilator in the hospital, where he remained on Friday. Democratic members of the education committee walked out and had to watch remotely, missing the opportunity to ask questions in person on a bill that creates new reading tests.

A Senate hearing next Wednesday will feature all-invited speakers opposing critical race theory. Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) tweeted: “First on the agenda: the man responsible for pushing Critical Race Theory hysteria last year, which resulted in Trump banning racial sensitivity training for federal employees.”

Rep. Barb Dittrich (R-Oconomowoc) is touting her new bill promoting private voucher schools as offering parents “a choice on where they want their children educated in this COVID-19 atmosphere.” She introduced her “medical freedom” bill that allows parents to move their kids to avoid mask mandates just after the news broke that a 13-year-old in Fort Atkinson, just outside of her district, died after contracting COVID-19. “Protecting the medical privacy and freedom of the citizens of Wisconsin should never take a backseat to frustration and fear,” she said in her release.

Rep. Barb Dittrich

Rep. Robyn Vining, a Democrat who represents areas in the more conservative northern Milwaukee suburbs, sees many of the “wedge, divide and conquer” bills being pushed through the education committee as a deliberate attempt to wound Evers — who was state schools superintendent before becoming governor — in districts like hers, particularly among suburban women.

“They just failed to fund the schools at a time of great need combined with the most money we’ve had,” says Vining referring to the austerity budget that went into effect in July. “Public opinion on school funding for them is terrible — they look awful. And we have a governor who cares about education. So instead of funding the schools, they want to pick fights with people about schools. They’re acknowledging that he’s a strong education governor by doing it this way.”

Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes and Rep. Robyn Vining | Vining official Facebook

Evers will almost certainly veto most of the bills the Legislature is bringing up that take aim at abortion rights, LGBTQ rights and issues of race.

Meanwhile, Vos and Gableman continue to pursue their effort to show election fraud in the Wisconsin 2020 presidential contest — despite the fact that the election  has been validated by multiple courts, audits and the Wisconsin Election Commission.

Hintz sees all of these efforts as part of a single political plan.

“When Vos bent a knee to Donald Trump — that was political,” Hintz says, adding that an expensive election so-called audit does not top the agenda for most Wisconsinites. “I don’t know anybody that has a whole lot of interest in a $700,000 investigation into whether satellites manipulated numbers in meetings that aren’t even hooked up to the internet,” he adds. “I don’t hear anybody talking about the need to ensure that teachers aren’t feeding propaganda to their children about diversity, racial issues and gender issues.”

The Legislature has completed its constitutionally required task: passing the biennial budget. So in a divided, divisive Wisconsin government, as the GOP runs its “shadow” administration, passing bills Evers will veto and refusing to confirm Evers’ appointees, it’s a safe bet that not much real policy will emerge from the Capitol.

Everyone knows this — so with the exception of some mostly minor and truly bipartisan bills — it’s all for show.

And for 2022 campaign ads.

“The biggest things that we’re dealing with, really, are political in nature,” Hintz says. “We hear nothing from them on health care, we hear nothing from them on education — despite the fact that they just practically cut off classroom funding in this budget in terms of new dollars, so that will likely result in layoffs next year, or referendum.”

Reviewing what the fall session might look like, he adds,  “That priority on campaigning is certainly what people hate about politics.”

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Melanie Conklin
Melanie Conklin

Melanie Conklin was the Wisconsin Examiner's founding Deputy Editor, serving from its launch July 1, 2019, until Feb. 1, 2022. She 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 before returning to journalism at the 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.