Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and Republican challenger Tim Michels debated in Madison on Friday, Oct. 14. (Screenshot | Wisconsin Broadcasters Association)
In a debate in which both candidates hardly acknowledged what the other had just said, Gov. Tony Evers and his Republican challenger Tim Michels each attempted to paint the other as a radical who will steer Wisconsin in the wrong direction.
On issues as varied as abortion, climate change and public safety, the two candidates — who polls show are virtually tied less than a month from Election Day — separately made their cases as they raced to prove which was more reasonable than the other.
Evers, the Democratic governor fighting to win a second term, repeatedly returned to the issue of shared revenue — the amount of tax dollars the state returns to local governments — and the need for state government to better provide for communities. Michels, who has never held public office, touted how his experience helping run the construction company owned by his family will translate to running the government.
The debate was moderated by Loyola University Chicago professor and former Wisconsin TV journalist Jill Geisler with questions provided by a panel of television reporters from across the state.
It began with questions about the economy, focused on inflation and funding for local governments. To help Wisconsinites deal with inflation, both Evers and Michels said they’d lower taxes. Evers said he wanted to cut gas prices and provide money to families.
“We’re going to lower our taxes on our middle class folks in the state of Wisconsin by 10%,” Evers said. “We’re going to get rid of the minimum markup law on gasoline which could save people up to 30 cents on a gallon and also some tax credit issues. But most importantly, the one that is most important is the one about child care – a child care credit.” Helping families pay for child care will mitigate the effects of inflation, Evers said.
Michels blamed Democratic politicians for inflation and other ills and said his experience as a business owner will help him find a solution.
“We’ve had weak leadership under the Barnes-Evers administration,” said Michels, who twice referred to the administration by first referencing Lt. Gov Mandela Barnes, who is running for Senate. “What can we do? We can put more money in people’s pockets. I’m a businessman, I understand macroeconomics. I understand how to read a balance sheet. I’m going to do everything I can to put more money in people’s pockets to help them with the price at the pump and the surging price of groceries. We’re going to do massive tax reform, get more money in people’s pockets here in Wisconsin, and the hard working, taxpaying people of Wisconsin will spend more of that money on goods and services, helping make our economy here even more robust.”
After inflation, the topic moved to shared revenue. In recent years, community leaders across Wisconsin have pleaded for the Republican-controlled state Legislature to increase the amount of money the state returns to local governments. Evers has attempted to increase that amount in both of his proposed budgets.
On the day of the debate, Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley warned that the county is facing a massive budget gap that cuts can’t solve. Michels, who wouldn’t say specifically what amount he would give to shared revenue, said he would spend record amounts of the state budget on education and law enforcement while adding that local leaders are best equipped for deciding what their communities need.
“I think most importantly, the best decisions though, are made at the local level,” Michels said. “People in county government, municipal government, village presidents, they’re closest to the people. They hear the problems. We need to make sure that there is ample funds at the local level to solve the problems.”
Evers said he would work to get a 4% increase in shared revenue in each year of his second term.
“Next budget, it is my top priority,” Evers said. “We’re gonna have a 4% [increase] each year of the biennium, and that helps these people do the hard work, whether it’s around crime, whether it’s around social services, you name it, they do the hard work. They need to have the resources they need.”
In Wisconsin’s first election since its 1849 abortion ban went back into effect, Evers and Michels both claimed the other was too radical to represent Wisconsin.
Michels, whose family foundation has regularly donated money to anti-abortion causes, accused Evers of wanting to murder babies after they’re born.
“Gov. Evers and the left have spent tens of millions of dollars mischaracterizing my position, calling me a radical,” Michels said. I am pro-life and I make no apologies for that. But I’ll tell you who the real radical is. The real radical is Gov. Evers, where he is for allowing abortion as late as at the time of birth. He even vetoed the born alive bill which would allow a doctor to murder a baby after birth.”
The so-called born alive bill, which was vetoed by Evers last year, would have penalized health care professionals if they failed to provide care in the rare case that a child is born alive after an attempted abortion.
Evers said he just wanted to go back to the status quo that existed in the state for 50 years before the overturning of Roe v. Wade this summer.
“Women should have the ability and the right to make decisions about their health care, including reproductive health care, and that includes abortion,” Evers said. “My opponent is radical on this issue, and frankly, he’s radical because it’s not consistent with Wisconsin values. We’ve had 50 years of Roe v Wade and it’s worked here in the state of Wisconsin, we should go back there.”
Dan Hagen, a TV anchor in Rhinelander, asked the candidates about the wide ranging effects of climate change across Wisconsin, including harms to the Ojibwe tribe’s annual wild rice harvest. Michels, who did tout his construction company’s environmental record, indicated that he doubted the Earth is warming.
“You know, there’s a lot of discussion about that, has the temperature gone up?” Michels said. “Temperature has always fluctuated throughout the history of this world. And we can’t just say that it all happened because of man’s actions in the last 100 years, but we should all be responsible. Like we are at Michels Corporation and do everything we can to make sure we have a healthy planet for future generations.”
In a follow-up question about keeping Wisconsin’s water clean and free from harmful contaminants such as PFAS, nitrates and lead, Michels said companies should be held responsible for their actions. One of the state’s largest lobbying organizations, the Republican-aligned Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, has sued to prevent the state from enforcing penalties against companies that spill harmful contaminants.
Throughout the campaign, Michels has been attempting to attack Evers’ record on public safety — saying that Democratic leadership is to blame for an increase in violent crime in the state’s largest cities. The Michels campaign, pointing to reporting from right-wing media outlet Wisconsin Right Now, has blamed Evers for the state parole commission releasing convicted criminals from prison.
To reverse that trend, Michels said he’d make sure the state’s criminals know who’s in charge.
“I’m gonna stand with law enforcement,” Michels said. “Why? Because the hard-working, taxpaying, law-abiding citizens are really fearful of the surge in crime that we’ve had in Wisconsin over the last two years. I’m going to talk to the bad guys, if you will, on election night, in my victory speech, and I’m going to talk to them in my inaugural speech, I’m going to let them know that there’s a new sheriff in town.”
Evers said reducing crime is more than just tough talk.
“People should have the opportunity to be safe in their neighborhoods and safe in their homes,” Evers said. “Who wouldn’t believe that? Absolutely, … we have to have that. But in order to accomplish that, it isn’t just about talking tough, it is about providing the resources so that those police officers can do the job.”
Hanging over the entire debate was the election conspiracism that has struck Wisconsin and the country in the previous two years. Michels, who won the Republican primary after being endorsed by former President Donald Trump, had previously dodged the question of whether he will accept the results of the election in November.
On Friday night, both candidates were asked if they’d accept the election results. Evers wholeheartedly said he would — noting that he’s the official responsible for certifying the results no matter who wins.
Michels didn’t quite answer the question, saying, “Of course, I will certify the next election,” even though if he wins, the next election he certifies would be happening in April 2023. Michels pivoted to the changes he wants to make to the state’s election system, but did not say definitively if he’d accept a loss in November.
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