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Tony Evers

Gov. Tony Evers, seated at center, listens to a Senate debate on his pick to head the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. Senate Republicans, led by Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, standing at rear, rejected the pick, the first time such a move has occurred in at least three decades.

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers said Wednesday that he doesn’t believe Republicans are “bastards” for firing his agriculture secretary, despite using the word when urging state workers not to be deterred by the move.

Evers stressed that he wasn’t referring to Republican lawmakers when he told state agriculture department workers last week not to let the “bastards” keep them from doing their work. He noted that the phrase he invoked — “don’t let the bastards grind you down” — was well known and used throughout history, including by other politicians and in World War II.

He called it a “term of art, it’s not a term of, necessarily, insult.”

“It’s not something I just pulled out of thin air,” Evers said following a bill signing in Wisconsin Dells. “It’s a saying, it’s a thing. I don’t think they’re bastards, but I do think they made a huge mistake doing what they did to Brad Pfaff.”

Evers said he was angry after the GOP-controlled Senate voted along party lines to reject the confirmation of Pfaff, Evers’ agriculture secretary. It was the first time the Senate had fired a Cabinet secretary since at least 1987.

“Civility is at my core,” said Evers, a former school teacher and state education superintendent. “But at the end of the day, when they decided to do a political assassination of Brad Pfaff that kind of pushed me to a different place.”

Evers took the unusual step of attending the Senate debate last week in person. Afterward, he vented to reporters in a Capitol hallway in comments sprinkled with four-letter words. He called the move “absolute bull****.”

But Evers wasn’t done.

The next day, Evers met with employees at the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. Cheryl Daniels, an attorney for the agency, tweeted Friday that Evers told them, “We can’t let the bastards keep us from doing our good work.” The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel first reported the comments Wednesday.

Evers also referred to the vote as “amoral and stupid,” according to the Daniels tweet. Evers stood by that characterization Wednesday, saying the vote was done for “political and amoral purposes.”

Pfaff had angered Republicans by criticizing them for not more quickly releasing money to fund farmer mental health and suicide prevention efforts. He also upset Republicans and some agriculture industry groups by moving forward with new siting rules aimed at protecting farmers’ neighbors from the stench of manure.

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After Pfaff was fired by the Senate last week, Evers hired him at a salary of nearly $121,000 to work as the director of business and rural development at the state Department of Administration. He promoted the deputy agriculture secretary into the leadership post.

The Evers comments come after he campaigned on the promise to bring more civility and respect to politics.

“We’ve gotten away from who we are and the values that make Wisconsin great — not Republican or Democratic values, but our Wisconsin values of kindness and respect, empathy and compassion, and integrity and civility,” Evers said in his inaugural address.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said in a statement that Evers’ public “rhetoric” doesn’t match what he says in private.

“These attacks are shockingly disrespectful toward Senate Republicans — it’s no wonder Evers hasn’t been able to accomplish anything in divided government,” Fitzgerald said. “The governor should immediately make clear if he stands behind his closed-door remarks and thinks that members of my caucus are ‘bastards.’”

Evers and Republicans haven’t found much common ground.

Evers signed a bill into law Wednesday that would be just the 21st he had signed in his more than 10 months in office. He has vetoed seven bills, which puts him on track to have the highest veto rate of any governor in Wisconsin history, according to the Legislative Reference Bureau.

Evers is also on pace to sign far fewer bills into law than previous governors who had to deal with a divided government.

In eight years as governor, Republican Scott Walker signed an average of 179 bills a year with a Republican Legislature. The last time there was divided government, in the 2007-2008 session, Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle signed 242 bills into law when Republicans controlled one chamber of the Legislature. The session before that, Doyle signed 491 bills into law even though Republicans controlled both the Senate and Assembly.

More confirmation fights may be coming next year when the Senate returns. Several other Evers’ Cabinet secretaries have yet to be confirmed, and Fitzgerald warned last week that some of them could be in jeopardy. Evers said Wednesday that he believes they will all be confirmed.

Capital W: Plug in to Wisconsin politics

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