In the final days of Brad Pfaff's tenure as Wisconsin agriculture secretary, five key Republican state senators received a series of emails and other correspondence urging them to keep Gov. Tony Evers' nominee in place.
But a Cap Times check of those records didn't turn up any that opposed the appointment of the former executive director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency to lead the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.
Still, the records did reveal an employee survey from Pfaff's time at the federal level that raised "some past job performance concerns" and factored into at least one Republican senator's decision to vote against him — though he never viewed the document firsthand ahead of the floor action.
The state Senate last month acted along party lines to oust Pfaff after he had been serving in the role for some 11 months and had drawn the ire of Republicans after he targeted the Legislature's powerful budget committee this summer over the release of farmer mental health funding.
Among the 19 Republicans who moved to reject him were a handful that previously supported Pfaff's nomination in February in committee: Sens. Howard Marklein of Spring Green, Jerry Petrowski of Wausau, Patrick Testin, of Stevens Point, André Jacque of DePere, and Kathleen Bernier of Chippewa Falls.
The Cap Times reviewed emails and other correspondences to those senators, as well as the offices of Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, Senate President Roger Roth and Joint Finance Committee Co-chair Alberta Darling sent by groups and constituents regarding Pfaff.
They showed widespread support for Pfaff from Organic Valley, the Trempealeau County and Buffalo County farm bureaus, the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association, the Wisconsin Agri-Business Association, Cooperative Network, Wisconsin Land and Water and others, as well as a number of individual constituents who praised him as "farmers' biggest advocate" and urged senators to "quit the partisan crap."
"I don't think you want to vote against someone who Marathon County farmers know wants to help them," one self-identified Wausau resident wrote to Petrowski the day before the vote.
The exchanges come against a bleak backdrop in Wisconsin, which leads the nation in family farm bankruptcies. In all, some 700 dairy farms shuttered last year while others continue struggling as milk prices decline.
While no constituents in their correspondence to senators opposed Pfaff — the first cabinet pick the chamber has rejected in at least three decades — the records turned up a previously undisclosed survey of the USDA Farm Service Agency's Wisconsin State Office from 2015, when he served as executive director there.
The 24-page Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, which included responses from 34 staff in the Wisconsin office, didn't mention Pfaff by name. Instead, it asked employees about their job satisfaction and work experience, their agency and work unit, their supervisors, the organization's senior leaders and managers.
The findings were a mixed bag. Most agreed their talents were used well in the workplace and their performance appraisals were fair, for example, but they were split over whether promotions in their unit were based on merit and most disagreed that pay raises were dependent on good job performance.
Employees also had generally positive evaluations of their supervisors, though they were more divided over their managers and senior leaders.
Specifically, around half the respondents disagreed that senior leaders maintained "high standards of honestly and integrity," and refuted that they "generate high levels of motivation and commitment in the workforce." Thirty-three percent said they "have a high level of respect" for senior leaders, while 26.5% were neutral.
For managers, more than half the respondents agreed they "communicate the goals and priorities of the organization," while almost 44% said they "support collaboration across work units to accomplish work objectives." Asked how good a job the manager directly above their immediate supervisor was doing, 37.4% responded positively while 27.8% were neutral.
A USDA spokeswoman said questions surrounding managers intend to refer to state executive directors (the position Pfaff held in 2015), division directors and associate/deputy directors, while senior leaders are HQ employees who head departments and agencies rather than state-level workers. Still, she noted that "individual respondents may also have their own interpretation of what these terms mean when they complete the survey."
An Evers spokeswoman declined to comment on the document.
Jacque says results influenced his vote
The results influenced at least one senator's actions on the floor last month: Jacque, who told the Cap Times in a November interview the survey showed "some past job performance concerns," though he admitted the responses were only described to him and he never saw the physical document.
The Cap Times became aware of the survey after it was referenced in an email Jacque sent to his staff two days ahead of the floor vote. In it, Jacque described it as a "job evaluation that Marklein's office has that I need to see," though it didn't mention who first obtained it and when and how many other offices had reviewed it.
Jacque did note in the email that he spoke with Pfaff "VERY briefly" over the phone the weekend before the vote, and in that conversation Jacque didn't mention the document.
While the Cap Times later requested copies of the evaluation from Jacque's and Marklein's offices, both said they didn't have it. Fitzgerald's office eventually provided it through a separate open records request.
Jacque, who was sent a copy of the survey to confirm it matched up with what he previously reviewed, said in a statement that it "lines up with information I have received" regarding Pfaff's past job performance.
While he added it was "deeply concerning to me," he said he "didn't want to go on record with it" after it came to his attention.
A spokesman said Jacque first heard about it "shortly before the floor vote" but didn't have an exact date.
The USDA Farm Service Agency's current Wisconsin executive director confirmed last week that the document is a complete copy of the 2015 evaluation.
It's unclear how many senators viewed it in the days before the vote. A Marklein spokeswoman didn't return emails seeking comment, while the offices of Petrowski and Testin also didn't respond to questions about whether they'd seen or heard about the document — and if so, whether it affected their actions on the Senate floor.
A Bernier spokesman wrote in an email that he wasn't aware of the survey being brought up with the senator "and had not heard of its existence until your email."
Meanwhile, the records also showed Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, was particularly vocal against Pfaff, compiling "a brief case" against him that he shared with Assembly and Senate Republicans before the vote.
Nass wrote that while Pfaff's "a very nice guy," he challenged lawmakers to point to state policies the former agency head initiated to help agriculture in Wisconsin.
Alleging that Pfaff has "done more to assist the bureaucrats on the isthmus of Madison to damage farming," Nass slammed him for backing "extreme anti-farming policies" including a proposed rule change for livestock siting operations that's faced criticism — though DATCP four days ahead of the vote announced it was postponing a plan to pursue the tweaks.
"The strongest defense of Brad Pfaff from some in the agriculture community is that they fear the Governor might appoint someone even worse," Nass wrote.
An Evers spokeswoman declined to comment on Nass' email.
Evers has since elevated Randy Romanski, formerly the agency's number two, to interim secretary, while the Department of Administration previously announced that Pfaff will serve as the agency's Business and Rural Development director.