Gov.-elect Tony Evers’ Cabinet roster points to a pragmatic approach aimed more at building consensus and managing agencies than fighting ideological battles or transforming how agencies operate, according to both Republican and Democratic observers.
Evers, a Democrat and three-term state superintendent, takes the inaugural oath on Monday to become Wisconsin’s 46th governor.
As of Saturday, Evers had announced 13 of his 14 Cabinet picks. An announcement on the remaining one, executive director of the Wisconsin Housing & Economic Development Authority, is expected soon.
Evers’ lack of a background in partisan politics means his Cabinet choices give some of the first post-campaign hints at how he will lead.
His Cabinet roster includes several of his top deputies at the Department of Public Instruction, and most are from Dane or Milwaukee counties. It also comprises fewer partisan politicians than did Scott Walker’s first Cabinet and has more racial and gender diversity.
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All department secretaries, along with many other governor appointees, must be confirmed by the state Senate. At least one of Evers’ picks, Craig Thompson, his choice to lead the Department of Transportation, could face a rocky path to confirmation.
GOP legislative leaders have criticized Evers’ slate for being primarily from the state’s two biggest metro areas, Milwaukee and Madison. Of Evers’ 13 department secretaries, nine are from Dane or Milwaukee counties.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said in a statement that “Madison and Milwaukee may have elected the new governor, but Gov.-elect Evers has to be governor of all of Wisconsin.”
“With his cabinet primarily selected from the Madison and Milwaukee areas, it’s concerning that he seems to be already ignoring the rest of the state,” Vos said.
Melissa Baldauff, an Evers deputy chief of staff, said his picks to lead agencies and his office are “a diverse group. It doesn’t look like leadership of the past, necessarily.”
Baldauff said the picks send another message about Evers’ approach.
“He is serious about solving the problems that our state is facing, and doing it in a way that is collaborative and focused on solutions, not partisanship,” Baldauff said.
Fewer lawmakers appointed
Bill McCoshen, a prominent Republican lobbyist and former Commerce secretary under Gov. Tommy Thompson, said Evers’ picks generally lack the deep experience of Gov. Scott Walker’s choices for his first Cabinet. But McCoshen said Evers’ picks signal a middle-of-the-road approach that improve their odds of getting through the Republican-controlled Senate.
“I think the picture is fairly moderate,” he said. “It’s a good message that (Evers) wants to get things done.”
Sachin Chheda, a Democratic strategist from Milwaukee, said Evers’ Cabinet picks make it clear that he values “managerial competence” over partisan or ideological pedigrees.
“He’s selecting people to run the government,” Chheda said. “It’s a marked contrast to what we’ve seen the last eight years.”
Two of Evers’ picks are state lawmakers: former Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, his choice for Revenue secretary; and Sen. Caleb Frostman, D-Sturgeon Bay, the pick for Workforce Development secretary.
Six of Walker’s picks for his first Cabinet sought or held partisan office: former Assembly speakers Mike Huebsch and Ben Brancel; former legislators Cathy Stepp and Mark Gottlieb; former Republican Dane County Sheriff Gary Hamblin; and Dave Ross, who sought the GOP lieutenant governor nomination in 2010.
Evers’ Cabinet appointees, meanwhile, include many picks who have operated more behind the scenes. His pick to run the Department of Administration — a post that oversees hiring and personnel matters throughout state government, and typically works very closely with the governor — is Joel Brennan, CEO of Milwaukee’s Discovery World science and technology museum. Brennan’s political activities include managing one of the gubernatorial campaigns and a mayoral campaign for Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, a Democrat.
Evers pick for Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, Brad Pfaff, of Onalaska, was a staffer for U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, D-La Crosse, and worked in former President Barack Obama’s administration at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
‘Encouraged by the diversity’
Other Evers picks to lead high-profile departments include Preston Cole, a Milwaukee city official tapped for the Department of Natural Resources — whose selection drew praise from Walker and Stepp. Cole is a member of the state’s Natural Resources Board and has a forestry background.
Evers’ choice for the Department of Corrections is Kevin Carr, a U.S. marshal and onetime top aide to former Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke.
Andrea Palm is Evers’ pick for Health Services secretary — a pick that will help lead Evers’ efforts to expand Medicaid health coverage to 80,000 Wisconsinites under the federal Obamacare law. Palm most recently served under the Obama administration as senior counselor to the secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, as well as senior health policy adviser for former U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton.
Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, said in a statement that Evers “has built a team from across the state that brings diverse experience and knowledge.”
“It’s refreshing to move away from some of the more partisan and political appointees we’ve seen in the past toward a cabinet focused on being problem-solvers that can work together,” Shilling said.
Liberal activists looking for staunchly left-wing pedigrees in Evers’ Cabinet won’t find many. But Grace Wagner, a spokeswoman for the group Our Wisconsin Revolution, which formed out of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign in the state, said her group is nonetheless pleased by what it has seen so far. She said they point to Evers’ “hope for cooperation and a bipartisan era for the state of Wisconsin.”
“We’re certainly encouraged by the diversity and the experience level of the people he has appointed,” Wagner said.
Six of Evers’ Cabinet picks so far are women and three are people of color — four if you add his choice to succeed him as state superintendent, Carolyn Stanford Taylor. That compares to Walker’s first-term Cabinet picks, of whom three were women and two were people of color.
All four of Evers’ top aides are women, led by his chief of staff, Maggie Gau. The three deputies are Baldauff, a former Democratic Party of Wisconsin spokeswoman and staffer for Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele; Kara Pennoyer, former chief of staff to Shilling; and Barbara Worcester, who was a staffer to former Senate Majority Leader Russ Decker.
DOT pick at issue
Evers’ pick of Thompson for the Department of Transportation has been the most contentious. It drew critical statements from Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, and Sen. Duey Stroebel, R-Saukville, noting Thompson’s role as a lobbyist in previous transportation budget debates.
Thompson leads the Wisconsin Transportation Development Association, which advocates boosting revenues for road, bridge and transit projects — of which Stroebel has been a leading opponent.
Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, in a statement for this story, said Evers’ picks signal a departure from the principles that underpinned the state’s wave of conservative changes enacted under Walker. But Fitzgerald also praised his pick for Administration secretary.
“I’m encouraged by the selection of individuals like Joel Brennan ... and look forward to working with him in a closer capacity moving forward,” Fitzgerald said.
Like past governors, Evers has relied heavily on past associates to stock his gubernatorial inner circle. He has named four from the Department of Public Instruction to top state posts: Emilie Amundson as Department of Children and Families secretary; Brian Pahnke as state budget director; Stanford Taylor as state superintendent; and Dawn Crim as Safety and Professional Services secretary.
For John Schulze, a lobbyist at Associated Builders and Contractors and former Department of Transportation chief legal counsel under Walker, Evers’ Cabinet picks are no surprise. Schulze said it’s typical for Cabinet members to reflect who appointed them.
“Administrations are like tofu,” Schulze said. “They take on the flavor of their governor.”
Editor's note: This story has been changed to accurately reflect which Department of Public Instruction employees have been named to top state posts and to correct the spelling of Melissa Baldauff.