Leaders of state veterans groups say they like Daniel Zimmerman, the new Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs chief, even though they had never heard of him until a short time before Gov. Scott Walker placed him in charge of the agency.
Walker and other Republican politicians had more opportunities to become acquainted with the retired Army officer because of work he is doing with state and national GOP organizations as leader of an effort to build a National Republican Party History Museum in his hometown of Ripon.
In his resume, Zimmerman also says he “fostered effective liaison with fellow board members who are current and past state legislators, state supreme court justices, and other influential state and national leaders” as deputy chairman of Ripon College’s Center for Politics and People, a political science forum.
Walker’s office didn’t respond when asked how Zimmerman came to the governor’s attention. The retired Army officer wasn’t on a list of applicants veterans groups were asked to review in December.
Republican state Sen. Luther Olsen has known Zimmerman for several years because they live in Ripon, but he said Zimmerman applied for the job independent of him. Olsen said he found out Zimmerman was a candidate when the governor’s office called a few weeks before the Feb. 2 announcement.
“They wanted somebody from the outside,” Olsen said. “In fact I said that was imperative, that we get some new blood, fresh from the outside, I won’t say to clean house, but to take a look and assess.”
Zimmerman is the second veterans affairs secretary to be appointed by Walker since the Legislature and the governor took hiring and firing authority away from a semi-autonomous citizens board in 2011.
Scocos came into the Department of Veterans Affairs job with GOP connections, too. Republicans appointed him to a half-dozen positions going back to the 1990s. The last two WDVA secretaries — Scocos and Ken Black — both worked in the department before running the agency.
Outsider a plus?
Advocates for veterans said having someone like Zimmerman coming from the outside could be a good thing for the department, which provides funding to several veterans organizations.
“We’re very excited to move forward,” said Joe Aulik, president of the County Veteran Service Officer Association of Wisconsin. “It’s a fresh perspective. No preconceived conceptions. Just assess what needs to be done and do the right thing.”
The CVSO association has been unhappy over the last year with changes the state made in its funding and organization. In a statement announcing Zimmerman’s appointment, Walker said he instructed him to immediately assess conditions at King and schedule meetings with the CVSO association and other veterans groups.
Aulik said Zimmerman visited him the next day for more than two hours in his offices in Winnebago County.
“I emphasized to him that what has happened to the CVSO/WDVA relationship will never be allowed to ever happen again by the leadership of the (CVSO Association,) as it negatively affected not only our offices but, more importantly, our fellow veterans and their families whom we serve.” Aulik said in a Feb. 5 email to CVSO officers in other counties. “He completely agreed.”
In a Dec. 21 memorandum to Walker, the association echoed desires expressed by other veterans advocates, saying it hoped Scocos’ successor would be honest, even-tempered, transparent, open-minded, a strong advocate for veterans, and — at the top of the list — apolitical.
“That’s what we wanted,” Aulik said. “Veterans issues, it’s not Democrat or Republican.” Aulik said Zimmerman told him he didn’t have plans to run for political office.
The Wisconsin State Journal made several requests for interviews with Zimmerman, but a WDVA spokeswoman said he wasn’t available last week.
When asked if Walker was looking for someone from outside WDVA and state veterans groups, the governor’s spokesman said only that Zimmerman got the job “because he is highly qualified and the right fit for the job.”
Zimmerman graduated from New Berlin West High School in 1983, and spent 25 years in the Army before retiring as a lieutenant colonel. He was vice president of the Ripon Area School District, taught military science classes at Ripon College and at Marian College in Fond du Lac, and worked for the state emergency management division.
His resume also listed him as chief operating officer for the Madison office of Pax Americana Institute, a conservative think tank, from 2008 to 2010. He has served since 2011 on a board that recommends applicants for Sen. Ron Johnson, an Oshkosh Republican, to nominate for admission to military service academies.
Museum project seeks support
As president of the National Republican History Museum Foundation, Zimmerman recruited Ripon College graduate, former Republican state Assembly representative and former state Supreme Court justice Jon Wilcox to serve on the foundation board.
The Republican Party of Wisconsin and the Sixth District Republican Party of Wisconsin have passed resolutions supporting the museum.
Reince Priebus, the White House chief of staff who grew up in Kenosha, gave his personal support to the project in 2015 when he was chairman of the Republican National Committee, and the RNC contracted with the foundation to archive historical materials it was storing in a warehouse, said foundation development director Renee Jaeger.
The foundation may announce its first major donations in the next few months, but fundraising goals haven’t been disclosed publicly, Jaeger said. Ripon bills itself as the birthplace of the Republican Party.
King nursing home issues loom
Last year, during a successful campaign for reelection to his state senate seat, Olsen took heat over conditions at the King veterans home, which are the target of an ongoing legislative audit.
Olsen said Zimmerman has qualities that will ensure improved conditions at King.
Zimmerman is setting up an office on the grounds of the facility and he plans to spend two days a week working there, Olsen said.
He said the new WDVA secretary is an effective leader who will be a strong advocate for veterans, even if that means pushing for funding or other items that Republican elected officials are reluctant to deliver.
“Knowing Dan, that will not be a problem,” Olsen said. “He’s not going to be shy about standing up for what he believes in.”