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Scott Walker, Tony Evers square off in race for governor

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tony Evers, left, and Republican Gov. Scott Walker debated twice over the past two weeks.

The top two candidates for governor took paths to this point as divergent as the directions they want to take Wisconsin over the next four years.

Those paths hint at what the future may bring under Republican Gov. Scott Walker or Democratic challenger Tony Evers. The candidates for governor, including four others who trail substantially in fundraising and polling, face off in the Nov. 6 election.

Walker, 50, faces what appears to be the re-election fight of his career, which began 25 years ago when he was elected to the state Assembly at age 25. Polls show the race to be close, and some have shown Evers leading.

Evers, 66, spent most of his career as a public school administrator and made few foes since 2009 serving as state superintendent. Governor would be the first partisan office Evers has held, and he says he never thought seriously, until last year, of seeking it.

Now Evers — who professes to enjoy polka music and the card game euchre, and who some have likened to the TV host Mr. Rogers — wants to enter the pressure cooker of the state’s top office and become Wisconsin’s top-ranking Democrat. Supporters say Evers beating a near-fatal bout with cancer shows his steeliness shouldn’t be sold short.

“Sometimes (Democrats) and others get frustrated with me because they can’t pigeonhole me. My goal is to be a pragmatist and solve things for the people of Wisconsin,” Evers said in an interview last week. “I’m not running for president. I have no other ambitions.”

Walker, meanwhile, says his third term as governor would be his last. Some supporters say that could free him to pursue an even more ambitious agenda than in his first two terms.

Walker, who declined to be interviewed for this article, has said his priorities the next four years would include continuing to hold the line on taxes, maintaining a tuition freeze at public colleges and universities, and bolstering the state’s workforce.

“My ask is to have a third term, a final term, to finish the job off, and that is to grow the workforce,” Walker said on WISN-AM radio last week. “We unleashed the ability to grow in this state like we haven’t grown at least in my lifetime. And we want to keep doing that.”

Observers say Evers’ lack of a political pedigree could present a learning curve but also free him to buck his party and lead him to appoint state staffers on merit, not party allegiance. Another challenge for Evers would be working with a Legislature that almost certainly will be controlled, at least in part, by Republicans.

Evers says his priorities would be bolstering a state public-school system that he says faltered under Walker, ensuring access to affordable health care and fixing the state’s roads and bridges.

‘That’s why he wants to be governor’

Evers said his desire to be governor came from chafing at the limits of what he could accomplish as state superintendent.

Amanda Brink, a Democratic operative who managed Evers’ most recent bid for state superintendent in 2017, recounted an Evers interview during the 2017 campaign in which he highlighted Milwaukee public school students who move frequently and thus need extra support.

“Tony Evers, the state superintendent, can’t fix that, and he knows that,” Brink said. “And I think that’s why he wants to be governor.”

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Tony Evers and running mate Mandela Barnes meet for first time

Democratic gubernatorial nominee Tony Evers, left, meets with Democratic lieutenant governor nominee Mandela Barnes shortly after they won their August primary races.

Evers began his career as a teacher and principal in Tomah schools. Then he was superintendent at Oakfield and Verona schools, followed by a stint at an Oshkosh-based cooperative that serves member school districts. He joined state government as a deputy state superintendent in 2001, then was elected to the top post in 2009 and was re-elected twice since.

Former Verona School Board President Gregg Miller, a self-described independent voter, helped hire Evers as the district’s superintendent in 1988.

“Tony was very good about inclusion in decision-making,” Miller said. “He’s not afraid to listen to other people and thoughts from other sides and incorporate that into his vision.”

Former Verona Superintendent Bill Conzemius, who worked under Evers when he led that district, became close friends with him. Conzemius said Evers, while leading a school district and later in state government, eschewed partisanship despite his own Democratic-leaning views.

“He respected and worked hard with Republicans,” said Conzemius, a self-described political independent. “It is, frankly, one of the reasons I’m so supportive.”

Evers’ life changed drastically when he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, an often-fatal form of the disease that Evers has said he thought would kill him. Radical surgery in 2008 to remove Evers’ esophagus and part of his stomach caused him to lose weight and permanently changed his eating and sleeping habits. But now he has been cancer-free for a decade.

Conzemius met with Evers, his wife Kathy and a few other close friends shortly after Evers got his cancer diagnosis.

“He was in for the battle of a lifetime and he didn’t know how it was going to end up,” Conzemius said. “As he will tell you, it also motivated him from the standpoint of: ‘We have one life to live and I was right on the edge of losing it. I’m going to finish my life advocating for what I believe in.’”

In Walker, some see ambition, others, service

A preacher’s son and Harley motorcycle rider who touts his daily lunch ritual of ham sandwiches and cranberry juice, Walker is a keen political strategist and a tireless campaigner.

Since becoming governor in 2011, Walker gained national stature for confronting labor unions and winning re-election twice afterward, including as the first governor ever to survive a recall attempt in U.S. history.

Then came Walker’s ill-fated run for president in 2015, which caused his home-state popularity to flounder before partially rebounding.

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Scott Walker seeks to reconnect with Wisconsin voters

Gov. Scott Walker hugs a family member of a Madison firefighter who died in April. Since dropping out of the presidential race in September 2015, Walker has been trying to reconnect with Wisconsin voters.

Most recently four of Walker’s former Cabinet secretaries have stepped forward to criticize him, with three endorsing Evers and saying Walker’s presidential run shifted his focus away from Wisconsin. Even now, some say it remains unclear how his post-governor plans could affect a potential third term.

Anne Genal, a family friend of Scott Walker and his wife Tonette for about 20 years, said she has long known Walker as someone anchored by religious faith and a close circle of family and friends. She bristles at suggestions during this campaign that Walker is motivated only by political ambition.

“Scott is someone who has dedicated his personal and professional life to public service, and that speaks volumes about a man’s character,” Genal said.

Genal said Walker is likely to have fresh ideas if voters give him four more years as governor. But as a person and a leader, Genal said Walker — amid the ups and downs of his governorship and a White House bid — hasn’t really changed from the young father she met two decades ago.

“The thing about him is he really is steady,” Genal said. “I don’t see him as fundamentally changing who he was.”

Evers’ challenge: Politics

Former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle, who worked with Evers starting when he became deputy state superintendent, said the difference between Evers and Walker is in what motivates them.

“Scott Walker’s always been trying to get to the next office,” Doyle said. “I’ve known Tony Evers for many years, and I have never seen him act out of any personal political interest.

“There won’t be a lot of politically doctrinaire decisions being made,” Doyle added. “He’ll look at a problem head-on and make a decision based on what’s best for the people of Wisconsin.”

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Scott Walker, Tony Evers disagree on budget priorities

State Superintendent Tony Evers waves to the crowd before Gov. Scott Walker's 2018 State of the State address. The two have sharp disagreements about spending priorities in the next biennial budget.

Even among top Wisconsin Republicans, it’s tough to find harsh words about Evers.

“He does listen to people and is a person who tries to find the best answer,” said state Sen. Luther Olsen, R-Ripon, who leads the Senate Education Committee.

Scott Jensen, the former GOP Assembly Speaker who’s now a lobbyist for a group supporting private school vouchers, described the state superintendent as “pleasant and easy to work with.” He said Evers is someone who has been comfortable delegating major tasks to staffers, which contrasts with Walker, who likes to manage big initiatives more closely.

Either candidate almost certainly will work with a state Assembly led by Republicans, who are virtually assured of maintaining control of it after the election. Republicans currently control the state Senate and are favored to retain it, though Democrats hold out hope of flipping it.

For Evers, that means anything he proposes would need to be negotiated with at least one legislative chamber led by the opposing party.

“That’d be (Evers’) greatest test: figuring out how to advance his agenda,” said Bill McCoshen, a Republican lobbyist and former chief of staff to Gov. Tommy Thompson.

Ed Miller, a political scientist at UW-Stevens Point, noted a potential point of common ground might be on the state’s roads and bridges, to which both Evers and GOP Assembly leaders are open to giving a revenue infusion — something Walker resisted.

Jensen said Walker excels at “communicating to people where he’s trying to take the state.” He said it’s unclear how, or if, Evers would use the bully pulpit of the governor’s office to do the same.

“They say you campaign in poetry and govern in prose,” Jensen said. “I think (Evers) is having trouble shifting from his governing prose to his campaign poetry, and that’s an important skill for a leader.”

Walker’s dream job

The only other Wisconsin governor to serve a third four-year term, Republican Tommy Thompson, has campaigned with Walker this cycle. In a recent interview, Thompson predicted “the third term of Walker is going to be his best term.”

“When you announce you’re not going to run again, you’re pretty much a free person,” Thompson said. “It just takes a burden off you that you have to toe any line.”

McCoshen said it’s conceivable that plans to restructure state aid to local governments or further restructuring of the University of Wisconsin System could be considered.

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Scott Walker, Tony Evers shake hands before 2017 budget address

Gov. Scott Walker before his 2017 state budget address shakes hands with State Superintendent Tony Evers. Walker adopted much of Evers' budget proposal, eliciting praise from his future political opponent.

There remains some question for Walker about another White House bid after his 2016 run grew his national following that germinated during the recall. But that doesn’t look like a near-term possibility: Republican President Donald Trump is angling for re-election in 2020, and Walker recently told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that he will not run in 2024.

Walker lacks personal wealth, and some expect he’d seek lucrative private-sector opportunities after leaving office.

Stephan Thompson, a GOP consultant who managed Walker’s 2014 campaign, said the aftermath of Walker’s presidential bid triggered his realization that “at the end of the day, he loves being governor.”

“It’s his dream job,” Thompson said.

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Mark Sommerhauser covers state government and politics for the Wisconsin State Journal.