Over the holidays, Tony Evers, who will soon become Wisconsin’s 46th governor, was working long hours at his transition offices a block west of the Capitol Building.
He and I met there one morning in a nondescript and windowless first-floor conference room with two aides looking on. Evers seemed, as always, unruffled, unpretentious and welcoming. We talked about his post-victory weeks and looked ahead to his first year.
Here is a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for clarity.
You won by presenting yourself as an authentic Wisconsin native focused on education, health care and transportation, certainly not because of strident ideology. But you take office at a time of political divisiveness here and in Washington, D.C., that is probably unmatched in your lifetime. Certainly legislative Republicans have welcomed you in adversarial fashion. How will that affect your approach to governing?
They (Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos) clearly are two different people than I am, but I think at their core, anybody who serves in public service is someone who believes that good things can happen for the state of Wisconsin. So I think I can help get them to that point. Let’s put it this way: this is my DNA and I not going to be changing and becoming an ideologue. I believe that my approach is the right one. … We’re going to be able to accomplish things, no question about that. I think my approach will be helpful.
Many of your supporters remain very angry about what the past eight years have meant for — fill in the blank — public schools, the UW, the environment, prison reform, consumer protection, reproductive rights, tax fairness, health-care access, roads and bridges, election fairness, civil rights, and on and on. What message do you have for Wisconsin’s deeply aggrieved progressives, some of whom seek retribution?
Yes, I certainly recognize that. We are going to focus on the issues that we ran on — education, transportation and health care — but there are other issues that maybe don’t fit into those categories. It’s my goal to make sure that we address some of those issues without looking like we’re into retribution because we won’t be. What I have to do as governor is help people understand that we need to connect the dots. Criminal justice reform is an example. … There are those who view it narrowly on moral and justice grounds, and others, frankly, who look at it in a very narrow view about costs. I think it’s my job, as governor, to make sure we connect the dots. … What I’m going to do is make sure people understand, even though they have retribution (in mind), that varied interests intersect and we can accomplish their goals and other goals. The federal criminal justice reform that just passed was huge, and (reality television personality) Kim Kardashian became one of the heroes of making that happen. Who would’ve known? But until people understand the broader context of their narrow issue, we’re not going to be successful, and so I have an obligation as governor to kind of take that lead.
Political scientist Kathy Cramer of the University of Wisconsin-Madison has described how the “politics of resentment” have long been present in many rural areas of Wisconsin. A recent in-depth election analysis by Craig Gilbert of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel found that you fared most poorly with voters in the least populated areas of the state. Why do you think that is, and what do you think you can do about that?
We all have work to do to make sure that people feel engaged and that government is solving problems, and we’ll continue to do that. But I guess to some extent I reject the idea that folks who live and work in rural Wisconsin rejected our ideas. I think they care about education, transportation, and health care as much as anybody and I think we’ve closed the gaps in a lot of counties, as compared to maybe some of my Democratic (candidate) predecessors. I am concerned that there’s resentment out there, absolutely, but I am also concerned about the resentment in urban areas too and in medium-sized towns. I think we have closed the gap on that, and as long as we are able to deliver on some of the issues that rural people feel are important, I think we’re in good shape.
One would presume you will make education, health care and transportation top priorities given that they featured heavily in your campaign. But how will you prioritize the enormous number of issues you face?
Well, again, I’ll be focusing on issues we ran on and that people expected. Frankly, our listening sessions across the state (after the election) were a huge hit not only because of the sheer number of people who came, but because of the input they gave us. … I think there are high expectations, there’s no question about it, and I’m never going to lower those expectations because they’re what brought me to this office, but we also have to continue to bring people together and reach common ground. That has to happen at some point. Will all these issues be resolved on day one? Absolutely not, but we’re going to make sure we have progress on each and every one of them.
I noted your published comments about how you do not want your appointees to the UW Board of Regents to feel they report to you. Do you intend to de-politicize more broadly across your administration? If so, what would you say to supporters who think you need bare-knuckled political leverage to attain your goals?
I don’t buy it, for starters, and even with my cabinet appointments, under no circumstances, have I ever asked anybody whether they’ve given (campaign) money to me. They usually are Democrats, but we’re looking for good people, looking for talent. Obviously, some of them may look more Democratic than others, but at the end of the day, none of that matters, and so we will try to de-politicize as much as possible. I know that there are people who believe that bare knuckles is the only way to win. If that was the case, I wouldn’t have won.
The weeks since your victory must have been surreal for you, making staffing decisions and hearing the torrent of advice directed your way. Can you share one or two examples of the best advice you have received and from whom?
I met with the newly elected governors with the National Governors Association. It wasn’t necessarily an “aha” moment, but they made sure that the new governors understood how important it is to schedule personal time or you’ll go crazy. That was good advice because I can see it already, that if I have a spare 15 minutes, somebody’s going to slap something in there. So I’ve scheduled Badger basketball games. Will I get to them all? Hell, no. But will I at least get to some? Yes. And I’ve been married to the same person for well over 40 years, and if we don’t have together time, that doesn’t make either of us happy, and so that was good advice. The other advice came from (former) Gov. (Jim) Doyle, and he said make sure that when you appoint people, talent is really important, but your ability to get along with them is equally important, and I think that was very good advice. It’s not that one is exclusive of the other, but you’re better off having both of those things intersect.
More than once, I have likened you to former Gov. Tommy Thompson, who repeatedly won and then built bigger majorities by trying to win over all voters, the opposite of this decade’s divide-and-conquer style. Do you think that is a valid comparison and what lessons if any do you take from past governors?
Well, I think it’s absolutely right. Tommy Thompson is iconic here in Wisconsin. First of all, he’s viewed as a moderate. I think there are some areas where liberals would consider him not necessarily moderate, but actually, for the most part, he would be. Another example is (former state Sen.) Dale Schultz, a Republican. He cared deeply about the environment, and many times, he kind of bucked his own party. Both those people I think are role models for us in that they viewed their job, whether they’re Republicans or not, as finding common ground to solve problems. … It’s easy to criticize, harder to fix. Thompson was a fixer.
You have met with GOP leaders, but they have hardly extended an olive branch. Do you intend to meet regularly with Fitzgerald and Vos, together or individually?
I’ve talked to both, and we’ve talked in general about doing that, but we haven’t decided how that’s going to be. But yes, it would be my intention to do that. They are the leaders of the legislative branch, and I think the governor has an opportunity and obligation to make sure lines of communication are open.
With your inaugural speech approaching, I assume you will be talking about aspiring to have a new era of collaborative government. Can you share any central theme or themes you intend to start with?
It will be about hope. I saw a newspaper quote where a series of ministers and priests who talked about what their Christmas message was going to be. One was about how we have to be intentional about establishing hope in people’s lives. That’s in general what I’m going to be talking about.
A question I often ask of job seekers is “What do you hope others will say about your performance a year from today?” What would you hope your Wisconsin constituents might say a year from now?
That’s a great question because it is going to be about the issues I ran on, and what I hope to do is make sure that people get involved. … Education, transportation and health care are what brought me here, and I’m hoping to keep those at a high level, that people continue to think through those issues, and at the end of the day, they will say we have absolutely made some progress in those three areas, and we’ve done it with bipartisanship, civility and have given people hope.