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PRIMARY ELECTION NIGHT (copy)

Tony Evers addresses supporters at his primary election night party at the Best Western Premier Park Hotel in Madison.

Two Republican leaders in the state Legislature said Wednesday that state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers — a Democrat challenging Republican Gov. Scott Walker in November — didn't take the lead on urging lawmakers to pass legislation making it easier to revoke the licenses of teachers who behave inappropriately.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, and Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, told reporters there is no evidence that Evers made an effort to change the standards for license revocation, as Evers has said he did. The lawmakers' phone call with reporters followed the release of a statewide TV ad by Walker's campaign attacking Evers on the issue.

Evers' campaign manager, Maggie Gau, said the attacks from Walker and his legislative colleagues are "gross lies." 

"Without any ability to run on his record and troubling poll numbers, Walker's re-election strategy is clear: rely on disgusting, dishonest and increasingly desperate attacks to try and distract from his eight years of failure in Wisconsin," Gau said in an email. "The people of Wisconsin know Tony has spent his lifetime doing what is best for our kids, that he followed the law, and when a loophole in the law on teacher licenses needed to be changed, he worked with both parties to toughen the law so any offending teacher now would lose their license to teach."

The Walker ad, launched Wednesday, revisits a 2009 case involving a middle school teacher who viewed sexually explicit images on his school computer and, according to a report compiled by the Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District, made comments about the bodies of female students and co-workers.

The Department of Public Instruction and Evers did not revoke the license of science teacher Andrew Harris after he viewed the images, and Harris was rehired by the district in 2014. He teaches science at Middleton's Kromrey Middle School.

Evers and DPI employees have argued that state law at the time did not allow the agency to revoke the teacher's license.

A report compiled by the school district in 2010 recommending Harris be fired found that he had engaged in behavior "that constituted harassment" by viewing and sharing the sexually explicit emails, most of them containing inappropriate jokes forwarded to him by his sister. The report highlighted comments Harris allegedly made about the bodies of female co-workers and students, including a quip that a seventh-grade girl needed to "brush up on her blow job skills because that's all she'll be good at later in life."

That comment is featured in the Walker ad, with the word "job" blurred on the television screen.

According to a letter sent to Harris by DPI, while his conduct was "highly inappropriate for an educator," it did not meet the definition of "immoral conduct" under the state law that applied at the time of his behavior, which occurred in 2008 and 2009. Under state law, a teacher's license can be revoked for immoral conduct that has a nexus to children. In 2011, the Legislature and DPI worked to add viewing pornography on a school computer to the classification of immoral conduct.

The legislation had bipartisan support but only listed Republican lawmakers as cosponsors. Steineke told reporters he questioned how much work Evers had done to champion the bill given that no Democrats added their names to it.

"I think the lack of Democrats on the bill just goes to prove that he did little to nothing in leadership on this bill," Steineke said.

Fitzgerald said he thinks Evers was pressured by the Wisconsin Education Association Council to refrain from acting on the bill. Fitzgerald said he had no evidence Evers was acting at the behest of the teachers' union, but said he believed it to be true in his "heart of hearts." He noted that it was a DPI employee and not Evers who testified in favor of the bill.

"The truth is the union wouldn’t let him touch it," Fitzgerald said. "The union was still protecting its own members that had been continually involved with these types of incidents within schools, and Tony was told to back down and that’s exactly what he did."

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Asked whether he was comfortable with the graphic tone of Walker's ad, Fitzgerald said he hadn't seen it and couldn't comment on it. Steineke said he is more uncomfortable with the fact that women and children in a public school were exposed to the kind of language and behavior referenced. 

The lawmakers were also asked by a reporter whether they believed Walker had done enough to protect juvenile inmates housed at the state's youth prison.

A Racine County judge sent Walker's administration a letter in 2012 warning of problems, but Walker aides have said the governor was not shown the letter. 

Fitzgerald placed the blame on the state Department of Corrections, and said he was "not necessarily shocked, but very disappointed" the agency didn't do more at the time to stop inmate abuse. He said it was the responsibility of DOC officials to alert Walker to problems.

"Obviously Lincoln Hills has been a mess, and it’s been a mess for some time," Fitzgerald said.

In March, Walker signed into law a plan that will close Lincoln Hills by 2021 and send most youth offenders to facilities overseen by counties throughout the state.

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Jessie Opoien covers state government and politics for the Capital Times. She joined the Cap Times in 2013 and has also covered Madison life, race relations, culture and music. She has also covered education and politics for the Oshkosh Northwestern.