A Wis­con­sin GOP power play, months in the mak­ing

The Buffalo News - - WASHINGTON NEWS - By Mitch Smith, John Eligon and Mon­ica Davey NEW YORK TIMES

MADI­SON, Wis. – Last spring, af­ter Wis­con­sin Democrats seized a state leg­isla­tive seat long held by Repub­li­cans and sent a liberal jus­tice to the state Supreme Court, Repub­li­cans be­gan to worry. Gov. Scott Walker, pre­par­ing to seek a third term, warned his fel­low Repub­li­cans on Twit­ter of the “risk of a blue wave” and pub­licly urged them not to be com­pla­cent with fall elec­tions ahead.

Dur­ing the same pe­riod, an ag­gres­sive and me­thod­i­cal al­ter­nate strat­egy was emerg­ing be­hind the scenes. Over the sum­mer, Robin Vos, speaker of the Wis­con­sin Assem­bly, sought a de­tailed anal­y­sis from the state’s Leg­isla­tive Fis­cal Bureau of the pow­ers of the gover­nor com­pared with those of the State Leg­is­la­ture.

By fall, with polls show­ing an ex­tremely tight gover­nor’s race, Scott L. Fitzger­ald, the State Se­nate ma­jor­ity leader, said he and Vos had con­ferred about how best to “put on solid ground” some of the poli­cies the Repub­li­cans had ad­vanced dur­ing eight years of full control of state gov­ern­ment.

“We were kick­ing it around, ner­vous about the way the elec­tions were go­ing to go,” Fitzger­ald said in an in­ter­view.

When Wis­con­sin Repub­li­cans this week pushed through a sweep­ing set of bills that di­min­ish the power of the newly elected Demo­cratic gover­nor and at­tor­ney gen­eral while ex­pand­ing that of the Repub­li­can-held Leg­is­la­ture, Democrats re­sponded with out­rage, call­ing it a swift and sud­den power grab by Repub­li­cans.

But the plans had ac­tu­ally been months in the mak­ing, part of what has be­come a play­book for hold­ing onto power in places where Repub­li­cans have had state control to them­selves and now face shar­ing it.

North Carolina law­mak­ers took sim­i­lar steps when a Demo­cratic gover­nor was elected in 2016, and in Michi­gan, where Democrats in the midterms won the of­fices of gover­nor, at­tor­ney gen­eral and sec­re­tary of state, Repub­li­can law­mak­ers were this month weigh­ing new lim­its to their op­po­nents’ power.

In Wis­con­sin, fu­ri­ous Democrats raised the pos­si­bil­ity of fil­ing suit if Walker, the out­go­ing gover­nor, signs the bills in the com­ing days. With the state seen as a crit­i­cal prize in 2020, es­pe­cially given the un­ex­pected role it played in help­ing seal Pres­i­dent Trump’s vic­tory in 2016, Democrats also warned of sig­nif­i­cant voter back­lash.

“It speaks to a new brand of pol­i­tics where you’re see­ing a re­jec­tion of the so­cial con­tract that ex­ists with the pub­lic where we re­spect the out­comes of elec­tions,” said Gor­don Hintz, the Demo­cratic mi­nor­ity leader in the Assem­bly. “It’s not re­ally about pol­icy. It’s about un­der­min­ing our democ­racy.”

Just hours af­ter Walker con­ceded the elec­tion in Novem­ber, Vos stopped by the press room at the Wis­con­sin Capi­tol and ex­pressed an in­ter­est in lim­it­ing the pow­ers of Tony Evers, the Demo­crat who won.

Vos, a brash leader known for keep­ing his cau­cus in line and widely seen as a chief ar­chi­tect of the bills passed this week, helped Walker turn Wis­con­sin into a strong­hold of con­ser­va­tive pol­icy in the last decade. To­gether, they en­acted right-to-work and voter iden­ti­fi­ca­tion laws and a work re­quire­ment for Med­i­caid re­cip­i­ents. Vos had no in­ten­tion of let­ting Evers re­verse those poli­cies.

Vos, whose party re­tained its leg­isla­tive ma­jori­ties, said he was open to com­pro­mis­ing with Evers on some is­sues, “but it doesn’t mean that I’m just go­ing to roll over and let him do a bunch of things that I ul­ti­mately dis­agree with.”

To Vos, the leg­is­la­tion was a happy mar­riage of po­lit­i­cal op­por­tunism and his long­time skep­ti­cism of ex­ec­u­tive power. He said lim­it­ing ex­ec­u­tive power had long been a goal of his, even un­der Walker. This spring, months be­fore Democrats even nom­i­nated Evers, Vos said he had met with the gover­nor and Fitzger­ald to dis­cuss ideas to rein in ex­ec­u­tive power. Much of what was passed this week, Vos said, came in that spirit.

“If you take the names off it and do it be­fore the elec­tion, which of these pro­pos­als would a state leg­is­la­tor have not wanted to have a voice in?” Vos said. “I think the prob­lem is the de­ci­sions were made at a time when Democrats in Wis­con­sin feel like their agenda was val­i­dated.”

The bills would pre­vent Evers from with­draw­ing from a law­suit chal­leng­ing the Af­ford­able Care Act, block him from opt­ing out of fed­eral waivers and limit his ad­min­is­tra­tion’s rule-mak­ing au­thor­ity. The bills also limit early vot­ing to two weeks and give law­mak­ers the abil­ity to hire out­side lawyers and in­ter­vene in cer­tain law­suits. And the leg­is­la­tion tar­gets the au­thor­ity of the in­com­ing Demo­cratic at­tor­ney gen­eral, Josh Kaul, who would no longer be able to hire a solic­i­tor gen­eral.

Wis­con­sin Repub­li­cans ve­he­mently dis­missed any sug­ges­tion that the idea for the leg­isla­tive pack­age might have come from some­where out­side of the state or have been based, for in­stance, on North Carolina’s model from 2016.

“This was home­grown,” Fitzger­ald said.

Shortly be­fore 5 p.m. last Fri­day, State Sen. Robert L. Cowles, a Repub­li­can, got an email that con­tained 141 pages of bills that were to be voted on a few days later. The sheer scope of the pro­posal caught peo­ple off guard.

The leg­is­la­tion went be­yond what he had an­tic­i­pated af­ter an ear­lier meet­ing with his fel­low Repub­li­cans. “We talked through a few ba­sic things, but the ul­ti­mate doc­u­ment went fur­ther,” said Cowles, who has been a law­maker for 3ø decades. All week­end, he said, he got phone calls and emails by the hun­dreds from con­stituents.

“Most of the peo­ple that con­tacted me didn’t like it,” he said, and many of them “were Repub­li­cans who said, ‘This just did not look good.’ ”

By Mon­day, the back­lash was clear in Madi­son. Cowles and other law­mak­ers faced a Capi­tol packed with op­po­nents. In a cramped com­mit­tee room, hun­dreds of res­i­dents spoke, two min­utes at a time, about what they al­ter­nately called a “coup,” an “ero­sion of Amer­i­can democ­racy” and “an at­tempt to negate an elec­tion.” Hun­dreds more gath­ered out­side, protest­ing in the bit­ter cold.

“So, if Gov. Walker were re-elected, would we be here tonight?” state Rep. Ka­t­rina Shank­land, a Demo­crat, asked at one point in a hear­ing.

“My guess is we wouldn’t nec­es­sar­ily be here tonight,” state Rep. John Ny­gren, a Repub­li­can, re­sponded as au­di­ence mem­bers hissed. He added that if Walker were still in power, “we would be in a po­si­tion where we would be ne­go­ti­at­ing with the ex­ec­u­tive branch to make these changes – yes, I be­lieve that.”

For two days, meet­ings stretched late into the night. Pro­test­ers booed Walker dur­ing a Christ­mas tree light­ing cer­e­mony. Repub­li­cans or­dered Capi­tol Po­lice to re­move spec­ta­tors from a Se­nate gallery. Frus­trated, vis­i­bly ex­hausted law­mak­ers or­dered piz­zas.

Repub­li­cans ne­go­ti­ated be­hind closed doors long past mid­night with skep­ti­cal sen­a­tors to nar­row some of the mea­sures and re­write parts of the bills. Cowles, who kept him­self go­ing with Diet Moun­tain Dew, had not seen enough changes to one of the bills to per­suade him to sup­port it. Not even a late visit to his Capi­tol of­fice from Fitzger­ald could make him budge.

Cowles’ op­po­si­tion was not enough to de­rail the process. Vos hud­dled with Fitzger­ald in the early hours of Wed­nes­day. Fi­nally, law­mak­ers re­turned to the Se­nate floor and shortly af­ter sun­rise, the most ex­pan­sive cuts to Evers’ power had cleared both cham­bers.

Evers vowed to per­son­ally lobby Walker to veto the mea­sures. If that failed, he said lit­i­ga­tion was on the ta­ble. Walker did not re­spond to an in­ter­view re­quest.

“We will not just lie down and ac­cept this,” Evers said. “We be­lieve it was the wrong step and we’re go­ing to con­tinue to take the steps nec­es­sary to change that.”

For Wis­con­sin Repub­li­cans, press­ing for­ward with speedy changes over loud op­po­si­tion was noth­ing new. In 2011, they cut ben­e­fits and col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing rights for most pub­lic-sec­tor work­ers as thou­sands of pro­test­ers chanted in the Capi­tol and as Se­nate Democrats fled the state to try to slow the mea­sure. In 2015, they pushed through a right-to-work bill over the fu­ri­ous chants of la­bor union mem­bers af­ter late-night meet­ings.

“They have this way of think­ing from those ex­pe­ri­ences – if we can just gut this out and deal with the protest and have a day of pain, we can ram it through and just be done,” said Char­lie Sykes, a con­ser­va­tive for­mer ra­dio host in Wis­con­sin who has been crit­i­cal of Repub­li­cans lately. “But those ear­lier ones were about some­thing mean­ing­ful. I don’t think they un­der­stand the op­tics of this. It cre­ates the im­age of a last-minute power grab.”

But Fitzger­ald said he be­lieved that many Wis­con­sin vot­ers will sup­port what Repub­li­cans did.

“There’s a rea­son that the Leg­is­la­ture is Repub­li­can in both houses, and I think peo­ple are go­ing to be com­fort­able with this di­vided gov­ern­ment once they see how liberal Tony Evers is,” Fitzger­ald said.

“You can­not ar­gue that the state has ever been in a bet­ter po­si­tion than what we are right now,” he said. “It’s just one thing af­ter an­other that makes Wis­con­sin look awe­some.”

New York Times

Wis­con­sin res­i­dents watch law­mak­ers from a Se­nate gallery at the Capi­tol in Madi­son this week as of­fi­cials de­bate a se­ries of bills that would strip the in­com­ing Demo­cratic gover­nor of power. Repub­li­cans or­dered po­lice to re­move spec­ta­tors who booed the power grab, the cul­mi­na­tion of months of pre-elec­tion strate­giz­ing.

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