For the second time since his appointment by Gov. Tony Evers to lead the state Department of Transportation, Secretary Craig Thompson’s appointment will go before a Senate committee — an unusual if not unprecedented step toward a still uncertain Senate vote.
Thompson, who was appointed two years ago, remains one of a handful of cabinet secretaries who have yet to be confirmed by the GOP-led Senate. While some department heads still await a formal vote from the Senate, two others have departed for other roles. Former Agriculture Secretary Brad Pfaff was rejected by the Senate and former Workforce Development Secretary Caleb Frostman was fired by Evers last September.
Thompson’s appointment unanimously passed a Senate committee in August 2019, but it never reached the Senate floor. Under a new legislative session, his appointment has to go through committee again before reaching a full vote. The Senate Committee on Transportation and Local Government will take up the matter at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday.
“I’ll leave that up to the senators,” Thompson said about the upcoming vote. “I take it as a good sign and hopefully it can move forward this time.”
Thompson said he’s been trying to meet with lawmakers to discuss Evers’ 2021-23 budget proposal and any concerns in legislators’ respective districts, but hasn’t actively reached out to talk about his appointment. He said conversations have been “uniformly positive.”
“I think we’ve got a great story to tell with what’s transpired here in the last two years,” Thompson said. “We were able to, during the pandemic, keep all our projects moving. We didn’t have to cancel or delay any of them, and many of them we were able to finish ahead of schedule and under budget.”
It remains to be seen whether Thompson has enough support among Senate Republicans to secure a full vote in the chamber. The office of Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, did not respond to a request for comment on Thompson’s appointment and whether there is enough support among the caucus for approval.
Back in 2019, a few of the Senate’s more conservative members, including Sen. Duey Stroebel, R-Saukville, raised concerns over Thompson’s appointment, due in part to his former role as executive director of the Wisconsin Transportation Development Association, an influential transportation advocacy group.
“I continue to have serious reservations about Mr. Thompson’s suitability for the role of DOT Secretary,” Stroebel said in an email Tuesday.
However, other Republican senators, including Sen. Jerry Petrowski, R-Marathon, who chairs the Senate transportation committee, have praised Thompson in the past.
Pfaff, D-Onalaska, now serves in the state Senate after a narrow victory last November and is a member of the Senate transportation committee. Pfaff said he can’t speak for his legislative colleagues, but said Wednesday’s meeting marks “an important step” toward a full Senate vote on Thompson’s appointment and hopefully a sign of bipartisan progress.
“This is a new legislative session and I think that there’s real opportunities to work in a bipartisan fashion in order to continue to serve the people of this state,” Pfaff said.
‘Tension in the air’
Under state rules, cabinet secretaries are appointed by the governor, but the Senate provides final approval. While confirmation is largely seen as symbolic — cabinet secretaries can still serve without confirmation — it can serve as a political weapon if lawmakers threaten to oust cabinet members or hold up confirmation over grievances with the administration.
“I think it just leaves a little tension in the air, quite frankly, and these folks have been at the job for over two years now and I think they’ve certainly shown their abilities,” said Sen. Janis Ringhand, D-Evansville. “I don’t understand what the negativity is with some of these candidates, their departments are functioning very well, and Secretary-designee Thompson certainly has an above average background in transportation issues.”
Thompson said he doesn’t let questions surrounding his appointment affect his role at DOT.
“It does create some uncertainty for some people but it really doesn’t impact the job we do on a day-to-day basis,” he said.
There have been a handful of departures from Evers’ cabinet since the Democratic governor took office in 2019.
In November 2019, Senate Republicans voted to fire Pfaff due in part to criticism lobbed by Pfaff earlier that year against the Legislature’s budget committee for failing to release money for mental health assistance to farmers and their families.
The Senate vote to oust Pfaff marked the first time since at least 1987 that a governor’s appointee had been denied by the Senate, according to the Legislative Reference Bureau.
“The past is the past,” Pfaff said. “I will always look forward in an optimistic way, and I do believe that our job is to put people before politics.”
After the vote to fire Pfaff, former Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, who has since been elected to Congress, said several of Evers’ remaining appointees also could face an uphill battle to secure enough Republican senators to be approved. Fitzgerald listed Sara Meaney, then-secretary of the Department of Tourism; Dawn Crim, secretary of the Department of Safety and Professional Services; Andrea Palm, who was then secretary of the Department of Health Services; and Thompson.
Palm, who also faced her share of criticism from state Republicans for her role in the state’s COVID-19 response efforts, departed DHS in January to take on the role of deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services — effectively becoming President Joe Biden’s No. 2 health official. In November, Meaney announced she was leaving her position to take a career opportunity outside of state government.
A few months earlier in September, Evers fired Frostman for persistent delays in processing the state’s unemployment claims, which skyrocketed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Melissa Hughes, who was appointed by Evers as secretary of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., also has not been fully approved by the Senate. A law passed by Walker and Republicans in 2018 prevented Evers from making a WEDC appointment until September 2019.