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Midway through Gov. Tony Evers' term, Democrats want him to play hardball
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Midway through Gov. Tony Evers' term, Democrats want him to play hardball

Gov. Tony Evers

Gov. Tony Evers, flanked by Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, says he has not decided whether he will run again in 2022.

Facing a public health crisis not seen in a century and a lack of bipartisanship tending toward the extreme, Gov. Tony Evers at the midpoint of his term is facing pressure to shed the “nice guy” demeanor and start playing hardball with Republicans.

Evers, who in a year-end interview with the Wisconsin State Journal said he hasn’t decided whether to run again in 2022, is focusing on what he considers a string of Democratic victories.

Joe Biden just won the state’s presidential election, more people are likely wearing masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 than ever before, and he managed to sign a budget bill last year he says made important progress on the issues of K-12 education, health care and funding the state’s roads.

But despite those accomplishments, pressure is building in Democratic circles for Evers to press harder in the upcoming budget cycle to accomplish party goals, potentially a considerable challenge for a governor who spent much of his career out of the political maelstrom.

While Republican-authored laws stripped Evers of some of his powers, Democrats say the power of Wisconsin’s executive still remains largely intact and should be wielded forcefully against Republican roadblocks.

“The governor’s a nice guy, but I’m afraid the only way that he’s going to get the attention of legislative leaders, and the only hope for getting them to cooperate with him in some way, is to kick them in the nuts,” said Mike McCabe, who ran against Evers for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 2018.

During his time in office, Republicans have blocked much of the governor’s agenda, including during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic when Republicans strongly objected to Evers’ statewide virus mitigation approach and backed lawsuits that successfully limited his pandemic response.

McCabe said Evers also got the short end of the stick during his first budget negotiations with Republicans, an $82 billion package that spent tens of millions of dollars more on education than Republicans intended through a creative use of his veto power.

That budget, however, fell far short of Evers’ spending goals for K-12 education, and failed to take federal dollars to expand Medicaid, two major policy goals of Democrats.

Evers said he will again push for expanding Medicaid in the upcoming budget cycle, but appeared doubtful of whether he’d be able to get it past skeptical Republicans in the Legislature.

“The people of Wisconsin are sending their tax dollars someplace else, and our people are not getting the advantages that Medicaid expansion could provide us,” Evers said. “There may be some advantage there, but there’s a knee-jerk reaction around this being welfare — which it absolutely is not — and I’m not sure those people can be brought along. Hopefully we will be in a better place.”

Senate Minority Leader Janet Bewley, D-Mason, said potential budget challenges next year — state spending is projected to exceed revenues by about $373.1 million without taking into account an estimated $1.1 billion in new Medicaid costs — could open the door to negotiations on Medicaid expansion.

“I think that what this could be is an opportunity to see Medicaid expansion in a different way, where instead of the Republicans being able to believe that it hurts us, I think we have the opportunity to demonstrate more clearly now than ever that accepting the Medicaid money, which is ours and it is there for us to just take, we could be helping our budget more than hindering it,” she said.

Though he hasn’t committed to running in 2022, Evers said he will be weighing whether he wants to pursue another campaign, while also measuring how many of his agenda items remain unfulfilled.

In the next two years, Evers said he wants to prioritize reforms in the criminal justice system, which comes as he has so far failed to meaningfully reduce the state’s prison population, which during the campaign he said he wanted to halve.

He also wants to focus on clean water and other environmental issues.

Maps in crosshairs

Evers said one of his biggest goals over the remaining term is to block Republicans from again drawing politically skewed political maps that have cemented their majority in the Legislature for the last decade. During the last budget, Evers created a redistricting commission to draw up nonpartisan maps.

While Republicans who control the Legislature are under no obligation to pass the commission’s version, and almost certainly won’t, Evers has said having a nonpartisan version of the maps to compare with the Republican version might help move the needle.

Evers said he’s not afraid to veto Republican-authored maps that aren’t to his liking, an action that will almost certainly put the matter once again in court.

“I don’t want a Democratic gerrymandered map, I want as many competitive races as possible,” Evers said. “What that does is it forces people to compromise. If they can’t compromise and you have a competitive district, you will not be re-elected. That is what I’ll be looking for is as many competitive races as possible on both sides, and that will make Wisconsin a better place.”

Despite receiving about 46% of total votes cast in state Assembly races in the November election, Democratic candidates ended up with only 38 of 99 seats after winning two new districts. In state Senate races, Democratic candidates secured about 47% of total votes, but only picked up 38% of the seats on the ballot.

Republicans are already splashing cold water on Evers’ idea for nonpartisan maps.

“Clearly he is just trying to get the political upper hand, I think we need to call it for what it is — it’s politics,” said Andrew Hitt, chairman of the Republican Party of Wisconsin.

Beyond the redistricting issue, Hitt said Evers needs to do more to work with Republican lawmakers and lead the way on discussions. In November, Evers and Republicans spoke for the first time in six months during a conversation on addressing COVID-19 Evers previously described as “productive.”

Call to arms

Some Democrats think such conversations with Republicans — which have proven fruitless so far — may need to be tossed aside for shrewder, more tactical moves.

“The governor has a lot of power, and he’s got a lot of support among Democrats in the Legislature and people around the state of Wisconsin, and we’re all rooting for him because he’s doing everything he can to help our state survive this crisis, and we want him to use the power that the people granted him, and we’re going to have his back,” said Sen.-elect Kelda Roys, D-Madison, who challenged Evers for the gubernatorial nomination in 2018.

Roys said Evers should do more to harness the powers of state agencies to accomplish Democratic goals outside of normal legislative avenues. Roys said she’d like to see Evers making better use of compassionate release for prisoners, especially pregnant women.

She also wants to see the governor reduce the incarceration rate by declining to imprison people who commit minor parole violations.

For his part, McCabe said it’s time for Evers to use his executive powers to reduce economic and health inequalities.

For McCabe, that means Evers should wield the veto pen over individual budget items. Chief among them should be the state’s private school voucher program, he said.

“He’s going to have to plausibly threaten some of their pet programs,” McCabe said. “He’s going to have to show a willingness to eliminate funding for things that they really want to see funded, and he’s going to have to show a willingness to shut those programs down. If they want to continue to see their favorite programs funded, they’re going to have to meet him halfway.”

McCabe also wants to see the state raise the minimum wage from the current $7.25 per hour to $15; implement a more progressive tax system; accept federal funds to expand Medicaid to cover more people; increase access to high-speed internet; achieve 100% renewable energy by 2050; and legalize cannabis for both personal and medical use.

“I don’t know that the governor has it in him, but I think it’s the only path forward,” McCabe said. “I think he tried to be conciliatory and cooperative in the first budget go-around, and he didn’t get much. (Republicans) have been trying to block him ever since.”

Party viewpoints

Hitt, the Republican chairman, said he doubts Evers wielding such leverage would be a smart tactical move. Republican programs such as the private school voucher program are popular, he said, and eliminating funding for them could place Evers on an even tougher path to victory in 2022, if he runs again.

“It is a risky game for him to proceed down some sort of defunding path,” Hitt said. “It could be popular inside the city of Madison, but not very popular in the rest of the state.”

Meanwhile, Ben Wikler, chairman of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, said he projects the GOP-led Legislature’s response, or lack thereof, to the COVID-19 pandemic to be one of the biggest factors in the upcoming 2022 election.

“Gov. Evers has a record of steady leadership in a period of chaos — much of it created by in-state Republicans — and every Republican rumored to be eying the governorship has been complicit, in one way or another,” Wikler said.

“For all the partisan polarization, most Wisconsinites want their leaders to come together and do something about health care and this pandemic and the economy and schools and their roads. Time and again, Republicans have refused to live up to their duty to be partners in governing.”

State Journal reporter Mitchell Schmidt contributed to this report.

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