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Craig Thompson

One of Gov.-elect Tony Evers' Cabinet appointees could have trouble securing confirmation from the Republican-led state Senate, with several GOP senators raising concerns about his transportation industry ties.

Evers announced on Friday that he has appointed Craig Thompson, executive director of the Wisconsin Transportation Development Association, to serve as secretary of the Department of Transportation. The group backed the "Just Fix It" campaign, which urged officials to find a "long-term funding solution" for the state's transportation budget.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, suggested Thompson's lobbying history could make it difficult to find support among senators who oppose raising revenue for roads projects. 

"I have heard serious concerns over the governor-elect appointing a provocative figure to head the Department of Transportation who is a long-time advocate for special interests. Governor-elect Evers would be better served by nominating someone who worked in a less controversial role during previous policy debates," Fitzgerald said in a statement.

Before he joined the TDA in 2007, Thompson was the legislative director for the Wisconsin Counties Association. He has been appointed to boards and committees by Govs. Tommy Thompson, Scott McCallum, Jim Doyle and Scott Walker.

Evers said throughout the gubernatorial campaign that he would not rule anything out as he considered how to approach transportation funding. Walker, while in office, pledged to veto any budget that included a gas tax or vehicle registration fee increase that was not offset by a corresponding tax cut elsewhere.

An ongoing disagreement among the Legislature's Republican majority over transportation funding contributed to the 2017-19 state budget being completed two months late, as Assembly Republicans resisted additional borrowing while Senate Republicans opposed new revenue.

Sen. Duey Strobel, R-Cedarburg, has been a vocal opponent of increasing transportation revenues, and was among the first to criticize Thompson's appointment.

"This appointment looks like a political payback. Governor-elect Evers no doubt appreciates all of the help his campaign received from the ‘Just Fix It’ campaign and its road builder allies, who believe we should raise taxes to funnel them more money," Stroebel said in a statement. "Rewarding one of the leaders of the full-spectrum campaign to attack Governor Scott Walker’s transportation reforms with a top spot in state government is a generous, taxpayer-funded thank-you to a political ally."

Spokeswomen for the Evers campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Thompson's appointment earned praise from groups including the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, the Wisconsin Laborers’ District Council, the Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association, the Wisconsin Counties Association and others.

Republican former Gov. Tommy Thompson (no relation) also applauded the pick.

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"Craig has developed a deep understanding of the connection between a strong infrastructure and a strong economy and how all modes of transportation play a role in our economic success," Thompson said in a statement. "Gov.-Elect Evers has made a wise choice in this selection of a bi-partisan consensus builder to tackle the significant transportation challenges facing Wisconsin."

All of Evers' Cabinet appointees are subject to confirmation by the state Senate, where Republicans will hold a 19-14 majority in the new year. 

Fitzgerald told reporters on Thursday he has told Evers to encourage his Cabinet picks to meet with each member of the Senate and answer any questions they might have. 

Although Fitzgerald signaled opposition to Thompson, he said Evers' choice for Department of Administration Secretary, Joel Brennan, is a "great guy" and a "good pick."

This story has been updated to remove WISPIRG from the list of organizations praising Thompson's appointment. WISPIRG issued a statement congratulating Thompson but not praising the pick. 

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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.