State schools superintendent Tony Evers will run for governor in 2018, seeking the Democratic nomination to challenge Republican Gov. Scott Walker.
Evers, 65, announced his candidacy on Wednesday, speaking to supporters at McKee Farms Park in Fitchburg.
The longtime educator said in an interview he had never considered a gubernatorial bid until after his most recent election in April. Evers defeated a Republican-backed candidate with 70 percent of the vote — his third statewide victory since 2009.
The victory offered a glimmer of hope to Wisconsin Democrats, who suffered huge losses at the ballot box in November and have not held majorities in the legislative or executive branches since Walker was elected in 2010.
Evers said Walker has failed to adequately invest in public education at every level, failed to strengthen the middle class and engaged in divide-and-conquer style politics since he first took office.
"It’s things like that that, frankly, drive me nuts, so that’s why I’m running for governor," Evers said. "I think the issue of continuous adequate public resourcing for our public schools, K-12, making sure that we have a robust middle class and the pitting of people against each other — those are the reasons I'm running, and Walker has caused many of those things to be a problem."
A priority for Evers upon taking office would be to seek an extension from the federal government to accept the federal Medicaid expansion, which Walker rejected, Evers said.
Before he was elected to head the state Department of Public Instruction, Evers served for eight years as deputy superintendent of schools. He grew up in Plymouth, and worked as a science teacher, high school principal and district superintendent in Baraboo, Tomah, Oakfield and Verona.
"If everything was great, I wouldn’t be running. Things are not great ... especially in the economic areas. Our state is not well economically," Evers said, adding that a sound economy comes from "investing in people."
He is critical of tax cuts enacted by the state's Republican lawmakers and governor, in particular the manufacturing and agriculture tax credit, and said problems that have emerged at Lincoln Hills, the state's juvenile corrections facility, represent a management failure on Walker's part.
"Lincoln Hills is a stain on this state that will not be removed for some time. Not only is it a stain but it’s a bunch of kids who had their lives screwed up as a result. He needs to own that," Evers said.
He also accused Republicans of "passing the buck" on transportation funding, which he said should be an area that can be addressed with bipartisan solutions.
Elected officials need to have an "honest conversation" about tax policy to ensure public schools are adequately funded, he said.
Walker's 2017-19 budget proposal includes a $649 million increase for K-12 schools, and Evers has praised it as a "pro-kid budget." He said this week the funding boost is an "anomaly" under Walker and it "hardly gets us back to where we started from."
Walker is expected to announce within the next few months that he will seek re-election for a third term.
"Under Gov. Walker's leadership, Wisconsin is a top 10 state for business and education, more people are working than ever before, and our future is bright with bold reforms making possible tens of thousands of family-supporting jobs through Foxconn's historic investment," said Walker campaign manager Joe Fadness.
Evers argues his experience working as a Democratic agency head in a largely Republican administration would allow him to find common ground and "build bridges" across the aisle.
The Republican Party of Wisconsin launched a digital ad campaign on Monday in advance of Evers' announcement, calling him a "Madison bureaucrat" who has "left children in danger."
The ad refers to a 2014 ruling made by DPI that allowed a Middleton teacher who viewed sexually explicit images on a school computer to keep his license. Andrew Harris was rehired by the Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District in 2014 after being fired in 2010.
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.
Walker at the time said he believed the agency had the authority to revoke the teacher's license and was disappointed in the decision.
RPW spokesman Alec Zimmerman said Evers has "repeatedly failed to stand up" and "failed to lead when children and families needed him most."
State Republicans have also attacked Evers for a recent DPI data glitch that left it unclear how many Wisconsin students graduated from high school in four years in 2016.
Evers dismissed the party's criticism as "smears."
Meanwhile, he was welcomed to the race by his Democratic opponents.
Milwaukee businessman Andy Gronik said he has "the utmost respect" for Evers.
"I believe anyone with a vision, plan, and ability to execute for the state of Wisconsin should get into the race. It’s exactly what the people of Wisconsin deserve when considering who they want to be their new governor and I love competition," Gronik said. "The high caliber of individuals considering a run for governor is a strong reflection of Scott Walker's unpopularity and the deep divisions that he has created across the state."
Jake Hajdu, campaign manager for Eau Claire state Rep. Dana Wachs, said the campaign welcomes "all Democrats to the race and respect Superintendent Evers' decades long career of running for and holding office."
"Dana is the only Democrat in the race that brings strong progressive credentials, a track record of fighting for the middle class and has the background to win a general election against Scott Walker," Hajdu said.
Other potential Democratic candidates include state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, political activist Mike McCabe, Madison Mayor Paul Soglin, former state Rep. Kelda Helen Roys, Milwaukee attorney Matt Flynn, Sheboygan businessman Kurt Kober and former state Rep. Brett Hulsey. Political newcomer Bob Harlow has also launched a campaign.