The speaker insists that the moves were primarily to push back against the growing power of the governor’s office and that he would have sought similar changes even if Walker had been reelected.
“We made a mistake in the first two years after Governor Walker [took office]. We ceded too much authority to the governor. We did it for generations,” Vos said. “So when I became speaker, I became very focused on giving no additional power to the executive.”
Whatever the motivation, it was certainly a rocky start for the relationship between the speaker and the governor.
It didn’t get any better after Evers took office.
Vos says he asked for one-on-one meetings with the governor, with no staff present. The Evers camp accused him of being sexist, because the governor’s chief of staff is a woman.
Evers, meanwhile, remembers inviting lawmakers of both parties over for a night of euchre, a favorite card game of the governor’s and a staple of Wisconsin culture up there with Friday fish fries. But only one Republican showed up because, the governor says, Republican leaders warned their lawmakers not to attend.
Pandemic deepens divisions
The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic made the relationship between Vos and Evers even worse. Not only did they disagree over how to handle the public health crisis, the governor and speaker also lined up on different sides as Wisconsin became an electoral battleground and protests against police brutality in the state turned deadly.
When the pandemic started, Evers wanted to postpone Wisconsin’s April presidential primary and state Supreme Court election. Vos and other Republicans filed a flurry of lawsuits to block the governor’s moves and won, meaning the state held an in-person election (pictures of Milwaukee voters in long lines to vote in-person circulated the country) while the governor’s stay-at-home order was still in effect.
Vos volunteered as a poll worker on Election Day and conducted an interview with a local newspaper where he assured voters that it was “incredibly safe to go out.” The video showed him dressed in latex gloves, a surgical mask, goggles and a plastic gown. He later clarified that the city election agency he volunteered for required all poll workers to wear the protective gear, but Democrats mocked him for pushing for an in-person election under those circumstances anyway.
Later that month, Vos and Fitzgerald sued to block the Evers administration from extending a stay-at-home order, arguing that it would leave Wisconsin’s economy “in shambles.” The conservative majority on the state supreme court agreed in May, and Wisconsin became the first state where a court invalidated a governor’s coronavirus restrictions.
The rebuke from the high court left Evers with fewer options as the pandemic stretched on. He didn’t issue a mask mandate until July, after most governors had already done so. Vos and Fitzgerald supported an unsuccessful effort to strike down the mask mandate last fall, but, eventually, the state Supreme Court also blocked Evers from requiring masks this March.
Protests against police brutality broke out in August 2020 in Kenosha, not far from where Vos lives, after a white police officer shot a Black man, Jacob Blake, seven times and left him paralyzed.
The governor tried to call the Wisconsin Legislature — which had been largely absent in Madison during 2020 — into a special session to address police misconduct. Predictably, Vos adjourned the session as soon as it started.
The Republican speaker also criticized Evers for not calling out the National Guard to disperse the protests. He blamed the governor after Kyle Rittenhouse, an Illinois teen, shot three protesters and killed two of them.
“Those people did not need to die,” Vos said in a radio interview at the time. “But, because of Tony Evers’ actions, they’re dead. … People are literally dead, because folks have had to take to themselves to try to protect their own property.”
As the November elections drew near, the governor tried to blame Vos and other Republicans for not taking the Covid-19 crisis seriously. Evers wasn’t even on the ballot last year, but Vos was. The speaker faced the best-funded Democratic challenger in his career in that election, thanks to outside groups that wanted to rattle the speaker. Vos won easily. Still, he admitted he was nervous about the outcome. When he won, he called the vote a “repudiation of Tony Evers’ leadership style.”
The pandemic is by no means over, but the governor says Vos and other Republican lawmakers did more to hurt, rather than help, the state’s recovery efforts.
“They were not in session for 300 days during the pandemic,” Evers said in an interview. “The work that was done in the state of Wisconsin, that I’m proud of — getting the PPE, making sure we were getting shots in arms, making sure we had a good testing program — all of the things that happened during this pandemic, we did alone. The Legislature had nothing to do with it, except to make it more difficult for people.”
The speaker says the pandemic underscored how much power governors across the country exerted, and he worried that too many of them failed to work with their legislatures as the pandemic progressed.
Vos argues that it is legislatures that should take the lead.
“I want the Legislature to never weaken, because we are the most representative body in the country,” Vos said. “We are the ones who have public hearings. We are the ones where you can call somebody and get a return call. You can go to a town hall meeting anywhere in the state and talk to a legislator, because we’re that accessible.”
‘There’s no accountability‘
Democrats chafe at the idea that the Wisconsin Legislature is “representative,” because of what they see as gerrymandered districts that prevent Democrats in urban areas like Milwaukee and Madison from having their votes count in the statehouse. (A panel of federal judges also redrew two legislative districts under the original GOP plan, because they found the districts would have weakened Hispanic voting strength.)
Hintz, the leader of the Assembly Democrats, says the district maps protect Republican lawmakers from repercussions at the polls.
“The speaker and the Republicans have suffocated the legislative process, because they don’t want Gov. Evers to be successful,” Hintz said. “So they scheduled fewer days, we meet fewer days, we pass fewer bills and the governor signs fewer laws. And there’s no accountability, because there’s no chance that they were going to lose their seats.”
But Evers could erase some of the Republicans’ advantages in upcoming legislative races. The governor can veto any redistricting plan Republican lawmakers advance now that new Census numbers are out, which would likely throw to the courts the decision over what maps to use. (Democrats have already filed a lawsuit to try to get federal judges to draw new maps.)
That’s not a guarantee that Democrats will prevail in the 2022 legislative elections, but it probably beats trying to win under the maps drawn by Republicans a decade ago.
The governor and Republican legislators recently clashed on the rules for the upcoming elections, too. Evers vetoed six GOP bills that would have made it harder for voters to obtain and use absentee ballots, put restrictions on voting in nursing homes and stepped up scrutiny of local elections officials.
That came after Vos announced the Assembly would hire its own investigators, including a former state supreme court judge, to investigate what he calls irregularities in the 2020 elections. Vos said he regards Joe Biden as the winner of the state’s presidential contest, but he raised questions about disparities in how officials in Wisconsin’s 1,850 municipalities ran their elections.