Senate Democrats elect new leadership during Tuesday meeting

By: - November 16, 2022 6:06 am

Sen. Melissa Agard (D-Madison) official portrait. Courtesy of Agard’s office.

Senate Democrats unanimously elected Sen. Melissa Agard (D-Madison) as the Senate minority leader during their caucus meeting on Tuesday. 

“To my current colleagues and my incoming colleagues, I want to thank you,” Agard said to the caucus. “I am humbled and honored to be taking on this responsibility, and I am eager to begin our work together, preparing for this upcoming legislative session.” 

Agard, who served in the Assembly for eight years before joining the Senate in 2020, replaces Sen. Janet Bewley (D – Mason). Bewley, who served as the Senate Democratic leader since 2017, announced she wouldn’t seek reelection to the Senate earlier this year. Her seat in the 25th District was won by Republican Romaine Quinn.

The loss of Bewley’s seat leaves Agard to lead a smaller caucus of 11 members in the new session. 

“We might hold the minority of the seats in the statehouse, but I know that we hold the majority of the hearts and minds of the people all across Wisconsin,” Agard said. “Time and time again, we’ve heard from folks all across this great state that we need to do more to ensure that people have access to a clean environment, that folks need to be able to live free [of]  fear, that our public schools are fully supported, that the color of a person’s skin does not dictate how it is that they will be successful in this life…”   

The rest of the Senate Democratic leadership — also unanimously elected — will also change. Sen. Jeff Smith (D – Brunswick) will replace outgoing Sen. Janis Ringhand as the assistant minority leader. Sen. Chris Larson (D – Milwaukee) will replace Smith to serve as the minority caucus chair and Senator-elect Dianne Hesselbein of Middleton will replace Agard as the minority caucus vice-chair. 

Agard, touching on the many issues the Legislature will take up once it returns to session in January, highlighted decisions about how to invest Wisconsin’s historic $5 billion budget surplus and Gov. Tony Evers’ appointment confirmations as major priorities. 

“Because of Gov. Evers’ leadership, our state’s strong financial standing, with nearly $5 billion in the surplus, Republicans can no longer say to us, ‘How we can afford that?’” Agard said.

Republican leaders have indicated they might be open to working out compromises with Democrats in the new session. Senate Republicans reelected Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu and Senate President Chris Kapenga during their caucus last week.

Though he says his party will continue working as a check on Evers’ powers, LeMahieu said during an interview with WKOW that he will reach out to Evers to set up an in-person meeting. 

In the past, compromise between the parties has been lacking, including on the issue of confirmation of Evers’ nominations

LeMahieu and the former Leader, now-U.S. Rep. Scott Fitzgerald — worked to block the installation of Evers’ appointees throughout his first term, allowing appointees from former Gov. Scott Walker’s administration to remain in their positions and leaving Evers’ nominees to only serve as secretary-designees, with the possibility that the Legislature would vote not to confirm them hanging over their heads. Majority Leader LeMahieu suggested on the campaign trail that it could be hard to stop the “liberal takeover” of state agencies and boards. 

“I know that we need to get the state Senate back to work,” Agard said. “Everyone in this room knows that we are responsible for confirming the governor’s nominations to various state boards and commissions. That’s a responsibility that we must fulfill during the upcoming session.”

The $5 billion budget surplus will also be the center of debate in the new session as lawmakers consider how to allocate the funds. Agard said priorities include investing in local government, including public schools, and providing substantial tax cuts to Wisconsinites. 

Increasing public school funding with the surplus is a big priority for Evers and Democrats. LeMahieu, like Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, has said that he would support increasing public school funding as long as Wisconsin’s school voucher program is also expanded. 

Agard said her priority will be investing in public schools to ensure they have what they need to be successful and that she is not supportive of the idea of putting more money in unaccountable schools. 

“What we have in the state of Wisconsin is multiple school systems and investing in more unaccountable schools as opposed to investing in our public schools does not seem like the right path forward and that is not what we are hearing from our constituents across the state of Wisconsin,” Agard said.

Despite the challenges, Agard said she remains hopeful about the coming session and future discussions across the aisle.  

“In this new role, I’m going to be unapologetic about what my values are, and what my constituents are asking me to do,” Agard said. “But in getting the ball to move down the field, sometimes that means compromise and I am hopeful that the majority party also understands that and that we’re able to get some good things done.”


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Baylor Spears
Baylor Spears

Baylor Spears is a staff reporter for the Wisconsin Examiner. She’s previously written for the Minnesota Reformer and Washingtonian Magazine. A Tennessee-native, she graduated with a degree in journalism from Northwestern University in June 2022.