Wisconsin business interests accustomed to backstage passes during eight years of Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s administration may now be relegated to general admission status as Democratic Gov.-elect Tony Evers prepares to take office.
Since mid-November, Evers has announced more than 120 volunteer advisers to work with his core transition team as it hammers out policy matters and finds people for key jobs in the new administration.
In contrast to the relatively low public profile of Walker’s transition operation in 2010, Evers is reaching out more visibly to a broad swath of the state as he prepares to take office Jan. 7.
“It looks like Evers has a wider set of interests than just serving big business,” said Matt Rothschild, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, which tracks election spending in the state.
Vocal critics of Walker are among those named to two of the advisory councils announced since Dec. 7 to address economic development and environmental regulation — policy areas that have been highly controversial in Wisconsin.
Evers has promised changes such as stronger enforcement of environmental protections, which business groups have vigorously resisted over the past decade.
Advisory groups covering health, education, crime and personnel recruitment also have been named.
Republican activists have found fault with some of the council membership, particularly the head of a reproductive health care organization that supports abortion rights.
But Evers has also included business executives on the teams. Of the six top leaders on Evers’ core transition team, four are business executives.
A transition official has already been in contact with major agribusiness associations and other commercial groups.
“There is information and dialogue, very much similar to when Gov.-elect Walker and (Democratic) Gov.-elect (Jim) Doyle were in that time between the election and their inauguration,” said Paul Zimmerman, a lobbyist for the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation. “There (also) had been some conversations throughout the election process with Evers’ supporters.”
Zimmerman said he knows many members of the environmental regulation advisory council announced last week, and they are “quality people.”
The Farm Bureau has told Evers’ representatives what its priorities are, and the group will speak up if the new governor makes proposals it sees as harmful, Zimmerman said. But he said he wouldn’t speculate on potential areas of conflict with Evers.
No other advisory councils are planned, Evers spokeswoman Carrie Lynch said Friday.
The advisory councils on economic development and environmental regulation include representatives of a few private businesses along with state universities, labor unions, economic development agencies and nonprofits.
Conservationists have opposed Walker and the Republican legislative majority as they loosened regulations on businesses linked to pollution of drinking water, degradation of lakes and streams, flooding and loss of wildlife habitat.
The Republicans cast their actions as necessary to help businesses grow and create jobs, and said they wouldn’t cause unnecessary harm to the environment.
Under Walker, developers have gained more freedom to build on wetlands. Farmers and others have been allowed to withdraw more groundwater. And large animal feedlots continue to spread millions of gallons of manure on fields despite the widespread water-quality problems.
Leaders of the Wisconsin Realtors Association, the Wisconsin Dairy Business Association and the Wisconsin Potato & Vegetable Growers Association didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Wisconsin Builders Association executive director Brad Boycks said he wasn’t disappointed that he isn’t on one of Evers’ advisory councils.
“We are not overly concerned that we do not have formal representation on the councils that have been announced so far, but our members stand at the ready to serve if asked to provide input to Gov.-elect Evers during his transition,” Boycks said.
In 2010, Walker’s nine-member transition team was led by chairman Michael Grebe, a longtime Republican activist who at the time was president and CEO of the conservative Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee.
Walker’s team eight years ago was consulting with Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, said WMC spokesman Nick Novak. The organization is the largest business lobby in the state.
Evers has had brief conversations with WMC staff and board members, and the organization has invited him to speak at upcoming events and outline his economic policy plans for the group’s magazine, Novak said.
WMC had no comment on Evers’ transition advisory councils, Novak said.
Former Democratic state lawmaker and UW-Milwaukee professor Mordecai Lee saw the Evers and Walker transition efforts as expressions of their styles.
“Gov. Walker is very well organized, and he really likes things tight and well organized,” Lee said. “Whereas Evers is more of a low-key guy, has more of an open door: ‘Come on in, everybody.’ He doesn’t want to make exclusionary decisions, where Walker had his coalition and knew who it was, and what he was going to do.”
Incoming governors typically have a core group of people developing policies and finding candidates to fill key administrative posts, said John Gard, a former Republican state Assembly speaker who now lobbies in the Capitol.
“Every governor has a different approach,” Gard said. “While some roles may not be as public, I believe these transitions find a way to have conversations with multiple stakeholders to put the puzzle pieces together.”
Gard said Evers has a talented team in place. But not everyone was happy.
An anti-abortion rights group last month called on Evers to remove one member of the health council.
Heather Weininger, executive director of Wisconsin Right to Life, said Evers should pull Tonya Atkinson, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin, but Lynch said it was unlikely.
“Planned Parenthood is one of the biggest providers of women’s health care in the state,” Lynch said.
Republican Party of Wisconsin Executive Director Mark Morgan complained in a press release last week that Evers’ economic development panel had too many “liberal insiders from Madison and Milwaukee.”
The 30-member council includes representatives from Ashland, Dunn, Manitowoc, Waukesha and Oconto counties, but economic development offices from other areas should also have been tapped, said party spokesman Charles Nichols. Nichols said he also believed large businesses were underrepresented.
Lynch said Evers and Lt. Gov.-elect Mandela Barnes were proud to have marshaled a group with diverse expertise.
“These leaders, representing communities in every corner of the state, are among the best and brightest innovators in their fields and embody a broad depth of experience that will inform the Evers administration’s work to transform our state,” Lynch said.
George Meyer, a former state Department of Natural Resources secretary who is now executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, said the members of the agriculture and natural resources advisory council were impressive.
“They are people of good standing and well respected in the conservation community,” Meyer said. “These are not people that in my experience express anything but mainstream positions and values in conservation.”