Gov. Tony Evers is not the most powerful man in Wisconsin. Nope. That’d be Assembly Speaker Robin Vos.
The Rochester Republican is now the longest serving Speaker in Wisconsin history. He didn’t get there by being a nice guy and he didn’t get there by being an idiot. He’s been able to stay in power by threading the needle between the absolutely whacked out nut jobs in his caucus (of which there are more all the time) and the mainstream Republicans (who find it increasingly necessary to look like nut jobs even if they’re not).
Evers was never his equal in terms of sheer political smarts. Former Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald was a pretender for awhile, but Vos eventually got the upper hand. With Fitzgerald now moved on to Congress, I had some hope that the new Senate leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg) might be the guy to provide some competition.
LeMahieu’s first significant act was to get the Senate to pass a compromise COVID relief plan that Evers said he could sign. Had LeMahieu prevailed that would have been a coup. He could have formed a working relationship with the governor and put Vos in a corner. The Speaker could have been put in a position where he was the unreasonable guy standing in the way of COVID relief and other important measures in the future (maybe even the next state budget). It seemed to me that LeMahieu could have made the case to his caucus that working with the governor on some things would have put them in a much stronger position vis a vis Vos and his house.
But LeMahieu has already caved without so much as putting up even a token fight. His caucus has already reinstated the poison pills that Assembly extremists wanted, inviting a stand off with the governor that will, at best, delay much needed assistance to Wisconsinites while giving the lower house the upper hand yet again.
And earlier this week, LeMahieu was shameless in his pandering to right wing fanatics on the joint resolution that would override Evers’ statewide mask order. But that wasn’t enough for Vos. Just to make sure LeMahieu understood his position, Vos made it a point to hold up the resolution in the Assembly so that he could point out that the Senate hadn’t done its homework in checking out the possible loss of $49 million in federal food assistance if the resolution passed as it was drafted.
It looks like they’ll find a work around so that Wisconsin can still get the money even if they lift the mask mandate. (Note to the Biden administration: make all federal assistance to states contingent on minimum COVID-fighting standards including a statewide mask requirement.)
I don’t feel sorry for LeMahieu, but Evers is another story. He’s a good and decent guy who just wants to cut through the political maneuvering and get stuff done. The trouble is that he’s up against a political street fighter in Vos. Robin Vos is ready for a knife fight while Tony Evers is showing up for a bake sale.
Evers should have set the tone of the relationship right at the start by vetoing the budget Vos and Fitzgerald sent to him in the summer of 2019. Evers should have held out for a nonpartisan redistricting commission and for expansion of Medicaid and acceptance of the federal money for that. Both items had 70% public approval ratings as well as the strong support of just about every editorial board in the state.
Sure, it would have been a long and ugly fight, but it would have shown Vos that the new governor wasn’t going to be pushed around. When confronted by a bully you’ve got to slug him back right away. After awhile it becomes too late and too late is exactly what it is for Evers now.
Government functions best when there is a healthy tension and competition for power between roughly equal adversaries. If one party rule isn’t a good thing, rule by one man is even worse. But that’s pretty much what we’ve got in Wisconsin right now.