Giving even more ground to a GOP engaged in a reckless power-grab is unacceptable.
Nothing captures the precariousness of this moment in Wisconsin politics—when Democrats have narrowly taken out Scott Walker but are struggling to make the most of that victory—like Governor-elect Tony Evers’ suggestion that he might appoint Republicans to key cabinet positions in his administration. If the idea was to be the bigger person, make a kind gesture, and usher in a new era of cooperative politics, it’s not going to work. Wisconsin Republicans are still planning this week to ram through a set of last-minute bills that would limit Evers’ powers as governor and Democrat Josh Kaul’s powers as Attorney General, and further sabotage voting rights in Wisconsin. It’s a plan they almost certainly had in their back pocket since well before the November 2018 election.
Imagine the headaches Evers would create for himself if he appoints Republicans to his cabinet. The idea of appointing Republican State Sen. Luther Olsen to replace Evers as State Superintendent of Public Instruction, as Evers has said he is open to doing doing, illustrates why this is a power-sharing blunder in the making. The Department of Public Instruction is an independent agency with an elected head. That’s its saving grace and the reason Evers has been effective. Evers, as Superintendent, helped put pressure on Walker to increase state aid to Wisconsin’s public schools, after years of Republican budget cuts and other corrosive education policies. Imagine what the DPI could do with a governor who actually understands and cares about public education. Why would Evers jeopardize that opportunity, of all things?
Handing over that power wouldn’t be worth the chance to flip Olsen’s 14th District seat in a special election. Olsen is seen as a moderate who cares about public schools, but when push comes to shove he’s still supported private school vouchers. He voted in favor of the 2011 union-busting bill Act 10, which has damaged schools across the state. And he would still answer to his fellow Republicans, especially if he wanted to seek re-election as State Superintendent in 2021. One more Democrat in the legislature would not undo the damage to Wisconsin’s public schools, and appointing Olsen would give the GOP another platform for its absolutely poisonous rhetoric about local public schools and the state’s public universities.
We need to stop thinking of Wisconsin Republicans as “the other side of the aisle.” They’re a racket that we need to bust up. Their majority in the state legislature is illegitimate, shored up through extreme gerrymandering and a discriminatory voter-ID law. Republican legislative leaders have routinely slammed new laws through committees and floor votes as quickly as possible in order to limit public involvement in the process and sideline any opposition or input from the minority. People who unveil a package of major changes to state government on a Friday afternoon, have the hearing on Monday, and plan to vote on Tuesday are not interested in good-faith collaboration. Play nice with them in the name of some nebulous “bipartisan” harmony, and they’ll take advantage, get what they can get from you politically, and still turn around and talk as if Democrats are extreme obstructionists. For Republicans, it’s all about power, not about what’s healthy for the political process or what’s good for the people of Wisconsin.
Yes, some individual Republican legislators occasionally show an interest in compromise and constructive policy. Rep. John Nygren’s leadership on opioid legislation—even if it’s flawed and should have happened long before opioids became perceived as a white problem—will save lives. But ultimately, even the best of them show little interest in curbing the GOP’s worst instincts. The last Wisconsin politician to meaningfully challenge the Republican Party from the inside was Dale Schultz, and his fellow Republicans sent a clear message by kicking him to the curb. Those Republicans who very occasionally do the right thing are still engaged in a destructive far-right project.
Evers will, of course, need Republicans in the state Senate to support his cabinet picks. He should appoint actual qualified left-wingers to head state agencies and fight for those picks. That is the job the voters have sent him to do. Yes, there will be some uphill battles. It’s going to be a whole damn term of uphill battles. Heavy is the head and whatnot. If this is all about making a magnanimous gesture, then throw the Republicans a couple of low-power jobs. At the very least, Evers should make Republicans engage in some real bargaining before offering them anything of value. They do still have to let him veto bills and things like that, I think.
Don’t think, by the way, that Republicans feel chastened or on their back foot. They narrowly lost a governorship and state supreme court seat in 2018. But over the past decade they’ve also held onto legislative majorities, kept all but three of the state’s U.S. House seats, beat Russ Feingold twice, carried the state in a presidential election for the first time since 1984, and convinced the U.S. Supreme Court to once again punt on partisan gerrymandering. Their policies and open corruption are still paying off for them. Evers should not be adding to that dividend.