With no press fanfare, Gov. Tony Evers sent a message to educators and school employees throughout Wisconsin at the end of school year telling them how much he appreciates them.
“From working long after kids have gone home for the day, to giving kids an extra lift of support when they need it, to making sure kids have a place to feel welcome, safe, and important, the work you do — and how you do it — matters,” wrote Evers, a former teacher and high-level administrator.
He communicated to educators when he was state superintendent of public instruction, but it was different coming from a governor, several of them wrote in notes to Evers’ office, an aide reported. They felt respected and they were grateful.
As Evers has gone on courtesy calls to government agencies in his first months in office, the Democratic governor at times has been met by tears of joy, so happy and relieved are some public employees not to be stereotyped and demeaned.
“They say they felt like no one cared about them for almost a decade,” the aide added.
We shouldn’t be surprised, I suppose, for if Donald Trump’s obsession is demonizing immigrants, former GOP Gov. Scott Walker specialized in doing the same to public workers — educators especially.
Another parallel between Washington, D.C., and Madison these days is how Republican legislative leaders here are emulating the hyperpartisan playbook of U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
He announced soon after Barack Obama was first elected that his primary goal was not to serve Americans, but to deprive Obama of a second term. In that he failed, but the Kentucky Republican was able to block the Supreme Court nomination of Merrick Garland and has enthusiastically rejected collaboration and fair play for years. Recently, he made news for his fight with comedian Jon Stewart about congressional foot-dragging on compensating 9/11 first responders.
Anyway, since the night Walker was defeated last November, Wisconsin’s legislative GOP has belittled Evers, undercut him, and refused to work with him at every turn. But hey, why would you work constructively with the guy who, you know, won the election?
First came their election post-mortems downplaying Evers’ victory, saying he won only because of big turnouts in Madison and Milwaukee, seeming to suggest that their votes were somehow different from those in Walker’s “hardworking” outstate base. (No one works hard here in Madison.)
Too bad for the GOP it was a statewide election, so no sophisticated gerrymandering could thwart the will of voters, as routinely happens with elections for the Legislature. (Maybe the GOP could pass a law that Dane and Milwaukee County votes only count half. I am sure they could concoct some rationale.)
Next came the lame-duck session in which Republicans passed laws limiting the powers of Evers and incoming Attorney General Josh Kaul. With the obedient conservative majority on the state Supreme Court now a de facto arm of the GOP, most of those laws were recently reinstated after legal challenges.
Still, Evers — being the straight shooter he is — said from the start that he wanted to explore areas where the two parties might work together in 2019.
Clean energy appeared to be one of those areas, so policy representatives from the two parties met this spring. The meeting seemed to go oddly and GOP attendees showed little interest in negotiating, according to an administration source.
Then — surprise — two days later GOP legislators called a press conference to announce their plan for electric car charging stations along Wisconsin's interstate corridors and other clean energy components that Evers would likely have supported.
Similarly, the Assembly GOP removed from Evers’ budget proposal what had been bipartisan ideas on homelessness, apparently for political appearances.
God forbid there be anything that would appear bipartisan and hint of the return of shared and collaborative government to Wisconsin.
“I think that it’s really that they don’t want the governor to get any wins,” observed the Evers aide, in an understatement.
Which brings us to the two-year state budget, where the GOP is contorting itself so as not to work with the governor.
It is hilarious, really, watching Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and his allies pass a unilateral GOP budget in the Assembly that actually moves the state forward on Evers’ three oft-repeated campaign goals: better funding for education, roads and health care.
The GOP then claims authorship of the ideas, implying that Evers’ presence in the Capitol had nothing to do with it. But, as a Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel news story said, Republicans are now playing on “Evers’ turf.”
As the story noted, the Republican Assembly budget provides the largest influx of cash for roads in years, includes a middle-class income-tax cut, devotes nearly $2 billion to construction projects and building repairs, increases school funding and directs more money into health care programs that Evers campaigned on last year.
Yes, the GOP stuck to some of its bizarre tea party-type positions in refusing federal Medicaid dollars, protecting what amounts to a state income tax exemption for business, and rejecting even a modest increase in the gas tax to fix roads.
Still, it is clear that Evers’ victory has frightened Republicans off the guiding principle of the Walker era — strict across-the-board austerity for most of us and tax cuts for the wealthy GOP donor class. That’s true to such a degree that Vos actually suggested liberals should like his party’s budget.
“If you’re on the more liberal side of the spectrum, we have a record increase in spending on health care … We invest in our schools,” and so on, he told the Journal-Sentinel.
He neglected to mention that it’s easy to have a “record increase” given that he and Walker spent most of this decade slashing school funding, but that’s par for the course.
In my conversations with Capitol insiders, the Vos-McConnell comparison came up repeatedly. One legislator I talked with warned the governor last winter that: “Republicans eat broken glass and raw meat for breakfast every day. They don’t want you to be successful in anything.”
For his part, Evers stands above the fray, and said he would wait to see what the state Senate, also under GOP control, does to the budget before he decides how to veto it in part or even in whole.
That legislator added: “Tony is the grownup in the room. He is very patient. He’s not responding in kind to the negativity and name-calling Republicans have offered. They don’t know quite what to do. They don’t understand his style.”
Here’s hoping they never do.