Sen. Brad Pfaff (D-Onalaska) speaks during the Senate votes on rejecting four nominees of Gov. Tony Evers to the Natural Resources Board on Tuesday, Oct. 17. (Screenshot | WisEye)
Republicans in the Wisconsin Senate voted Tuesday to fire seven of Gov. Tony Evers’ appointees to state boards and commissions, including a member of the Wisconsin Elections Commission and four members of the state Natural Resources Board.
The Republicans denied the appointments over the repeated objections of Democrats who said the votes would set a dangerous precedent and cause chaos in state government. Democrats noted that the existence of a Democratic governor means Republicans will have political disagreements with his appointees, but that shouldn’t be the basis for such blanket denials.
Senate Minority Leader Melissa Agard (D-Madison) noted that since 1981, the Senate had rejected just five executive appointments yet on Tuesday the body more than doubled that number.
In a news release, Evers said the votes were “a complete disregard for our democracy” and noted the numerous ways Republicans have delayed, deterred and declined his appointees since the beginning of his first term.
In 2019, the Senate voted to fire Evers’ nominee to be Secretary of the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, now-Sen. Brad Pfaff (D-Onalaska). Pfaff’s firing was the first time on record that a governor’s cabinet nominee was rejected by the Senate. Republicans also refused to confirm the secretary of the Department of Health Services during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Pfaff asked during the floor debate how Republicans thought their strategy would end.
“What is the end goal? What do we hope to accomplish by continuing to reject nominees that are brought forward?” he said. “Is it to create chaos? Is it to send a larger message? Is it to build a form of distrust towards one another? Is it to overall just cripple government? Or is it a crying out to be heard?”
“Because tomorrow will come, there will be another day. There will be another governor. There will be other legislatures, there may be roles reversed,” Pfaff continued. “When does this end? … Please take a deep breath. Recognize what you’re doing. This is more than just a game.”
Aside from the rejections, at the start of Evers’ second term, the Republican-held Senate had not confirmed 180 of Evers’ appointees to state boards and commissions. The Senate Republicans also played an instrumental role in allowing a Republican appointee to the state Natural Resources Board to remain in his seat for nearly two years past the expiration of his term.
“This is insanity, and this is an issue of democracy — Republicans have to stop doing this,” Evers said in a statement. “These are good people they’re voting down today. These Wisconsinites are educators, healthcare professionals, survivors of domestic violence, advocates, and conservationists. And I don’t care if you’re a Republican, a Democrat, or otherwise, these Wisconsinites are completely qualified to do the job they’ve been asked to do, and they are volunteering their time, talent, and expertise without pay to serve their neighbors and our state. Harassing them, belittling them, and publicly firing them just because Republicans have decided that’s the way they want politics to work these days, well, that’s just plain wrong.”
Evers immediately appointed new members to the boards after the Senate vote.
Natural Resources Board
The four rejections of appointees to the Natural Resources Board continue Republican efforts to obstruct Democratic-led decision making on the body which sets policy for the state Department of Natural Resources.
The Senate worked for nearly two years to keep Frederick Prehn in his seat on the board, even though his term had expired and his replacement, Sandra Dee Naas, had been nominated. Prehn held onto his seat out of a desire to continue influencing state policies on high-profile political issues such as wolf hunting and water quality.
On Tuesday, the Republicans voted to deny Naas’ appointment. They also voted to deny the appointments of Sharon Adams, Dylan Jennings and Jim VandenBrook. A fifth Evers nominee to the board, Paul Buhr, was unanimously forwarded to the Senate floor in a committee vote earlier this month, but the full Senate didn’t take up his nomination Tuesday.
Sen. Robert Cowles (R-Green Bay) joined Democrats in voting against the firing of the four NRB members.
Sen. Mary Felzkowski (R-Irma) said she was against Adams’ appointment because at a meeting last winter and in her confirmation hearing earlier this month, Adams said she still had “to learn” about some of the issues the NRB is responsible for that affect northern Wisconsin. Adams was nominated to the board as a representative of the southern part of the state.
“The 12th Senate district and northern Wisconsin cannot wait for the appointed people to come up to speed on issues that are pressing economic issues, financial issues, natural resources issues, hunting, fishing issues that affect the economy of northern Wisconsin and affect the residents,” Felzkowski said. “This is a message to Gov. Evers to appoint people that are up to speed on the state as a whole so that we can continue to make good decisions around our natural resources.”
Felzkowski said she was opposed to the nominations of the three others because of answers they gave during their confirmation hearings over compliance with the Reins Act, a state law that requires that administrative rules not have implementation and compliance costs of more than $10 million.
Democrats objected by pointing to the wide range of experience all the nominees have in environmental policy. Adams is the co-founder of a Milwaukee-based conservation organization; Jennings, who was the first Native American appointee to the NRB, previously served as spokesperson for the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission; Naas is an Ashland-area environmental educator who also served on the Bayfield County Conservation Congress; VandenBrook worked for decades as a county conservationist and as DATCP’s water quality section chief.
When the nominations of the four appointees were recommended for denial in committee, several Republicans cited ongoing debate on the DNR’s proposed new wolf management plan — and the appointees’ support for its decision not to include a population goal — as the reason for denial.
The Senate voted to reject the nominations just one week before the NRB is scheduled to hold a meeting on the approval of the wolf plan. According to state law, a majority of the NRB must be present in order for a quorum to be established and a meeting legally held.
Evers’ four new appointees to the board will be able to immediately take their seats on the board to fill the newly created vacancies and attend the meeting next week.
The new appointees are Todd Ambs, who retired from the DNR in 2021 as deputy secretary; Robin Schmidt, who retired from the DNR in 2018 after working for the agency for 34 years; Patty Schactner, a former Democratic state senator, and Douglas Cox, who currently serves as land management director for the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin.
The Senate voted 21-11 to deny the appointment of Joseph Czarnezki to the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC). Again, Cowles was the only Republican to join Democrats in voting against the firing.
Czarnezki previously served in the Assembly and Senate, worked as the Milwaukee County Clerk and sat on the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors.
The rejection of Czarnezki’s appointment marks the second time in recent months that Republicans in the Senate have sided with election conspiracy theorists in voting against a state election official. Last month, the Republicans took a legally disputed vote to fire the commission’s administrator, Meagan Wolfe, because 2020 election deniers have blamed her for perceived faults with that election.
Wolfe’s status in her job is in dispute because the three Democratic members of the commission, including Czarnezki, abstained from a vote to renominate her for the role in an attempt to keep her in the post without having to face Senate confirmation because Republicans had threatened to remove her from the position despite her popularity among the state’s election clerks.
A lawsuit is pending over whether or not Wolfe can remain on the job. On Monday, attorneys for Senate Republicans acknowledged the legislators did not have the power to remove her, writing in a legal brief that the vote to fire her was “symbolic.”
Ahead of the vote against Czarnezki, Republicans said they were voting to deny his appointment because of his abstention from the Wolfe vote. Sen. Dan Knodl (R-Germantown) said it was a “dereliction of duty.”
But Democrats said the Republicans were simply deciding to side with the election deniers who opposed Czarnezki’s appointment.
“You can choose to side with our hardworking clerks, or you can side with conspiracy theorists,” Sen. Mark Spreitzer (D-Beloit) said. “That’s the choice you have today.”
Spreitzer also pointed out that Republicans wrote the law that established the WEC, which requires three Democratic members and three Republican members. The law also requires that one of each party’s representatives be a former clerk. The nominees to the commission are selected from lists provided by the state parties.
The design of the commission, Spreitzer said, means that three Democrats must be on the commission so denying the appointment of a Democrat because of a political disagreement doesn’t make sense.
“It is ridiculous to put demands in statute for Democratic appointees to the Wisconsin Elections Commission, and then reject them for their political views for acting like Democrats,” Spreitzer said. “But I suppose as we’ll see repeatedly today, rejecting qualified people who don’t toe the Republican party line isn’t new.”
After the vote, Evers named former Eau Claire City Clerk Carrie Riepl to the commission.
Medical Examining Board, Domestic Abuse Council and Livestock Siting
The Republicans also voted to reject nominees to the Council on Domestic Abuse, the Medical Examining Board and the Livestock Facility Siting Review Board.
The Senate voted to reject the reappointment of Dr. Sheldon Wasserman to the state Medical Examining Board, which is responsible for licensing doctors in the state. Wasserman, an obstetrician and gynecologist, is the plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging the state’s 1849 abortion ban.
Evers immediately replaced Wasserman on the board with Dr. Steven Leuthner, a neonatal pediatrician who teaches at the Medical College of Wisconsin.
Also fired by the Senate Tuesday was Melissa Baldauff, who had been the co-chair of the Governor’s Council on Domestic Abuse. A survivor of domestic violence, Baldauff had also previously worked in the Evers administration — a job history that Democrats said was the only reason Republicans were opposed to her appointment.
Evers replaced Baldauff with Shannon Barry, who currently works as the executive director of Domestic Abuse Intervention Services.
The Senate also rejected the appointment of Jerry Halvorsen to the Livestock Facility Siting Review Board. The board is responsible for hearing appeals of local decisions over whether or not to allow large farms to operate in a municipality. Members aren’t nominated by the governor, yet multiple seats on the body have sat vacant for years.
Halvorsen spent decades working as a county conservationist. While the board does not meet regularly, its decisions can be politically fraught because of the tensions, both locally and around the state, surrounding large factory farms housing thousands of animals.
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