The Wisconsin State Journal profiles the two major-party candidates for governor because …
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 he says faltered under Walker, ensuring access to affordable health care and fixing the state’s roads and bridges.
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 hus 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.”
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.'”
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.
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.”
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.”
This from the most political attorney general in this state’s history and one of the dirtiest campaigners in state history. Ask 2006 Republican gubernatorial candidate Mark Green about that.
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.
As is always the case, the problem isn’t necessarily with Evers, it’s the parasites he brings into political-appointee positions. That was the case with Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, among others. And legislative Democrats will be out for red blood if they get control of anything in Madison.
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.”
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.
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.
The State Journal adds a comparison of positions:
Evers: Increase state funding for school districts by nearly $1.7 billion over the next two years, with a boost of more than $600 million for special education and fully funding 4-year-old kindergarten for all children. The plan would renew a now-defunct commitment for the state to fund two-thirds of school districts’ per-pupil cost to educate students. The plan would not cause an overall property tax increase statewide, though taxes could go up in wealthier districts and down in poorer ones.
Walker: Renew a now-defunct commitment for the state to fund two-thirds of school districts’ per-pupil cost to educate students, a move expected to cost at least $130 million a year. Keep pushing to freeze or lower property taxes, a key source of funding for schools and local governments.
As you know, Democrats’ claims about school spending are false.
Evers: Continue for two years the University of Wisconsin System tuition freeze for in-state students, but unclear what would happen after that. “Increase investments” for the UW System and state technical colleges.
Walker: Continue the UW System tuition freeze for in-state students he implemented and has maintained since 2013. Create a new tax credit of up to $5,000 over a five-year period for college graduates who continue to live and work in Wisconsin.
Evers: Remove Wisconsin from a national coalition of states suing to overturn the federal health care law known as Obamacare. Expand Medicaid in Wisconsin under Obamacare, which would extend coverage to an estimated 80,000 low-income Wisconsinites and save the state an estimated $190 million a year by bringing more federal funds to the state.
Walker: Authorized Attorney General Brad Schimel to participate in lawsuit to overturn Obamacare. Staunchly opposed expanding Medicaid in Wisconsin under Obamacare, arguing the federal government could one day leave the state on the hook to keep funding the expansion if it cannot. Would support state legislation to help people with pre-existing conditions get health coverage if Obamacare were repealed, though the bill doesn’t provide the same level of protections as Obamacare to people with serious health conditions.
As stated here before, expanding Medicaid is a bad idea.
Evers: Eliminate the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. created by Walker in 2011, and move economic development functions to another agency. Criticized Walker’s $3 billion subsidy package for electronics maker Foxconn to locate near Racine, saying the deal was poorly negotiated.
Walker: Created WEDC and has said it’s helping fuel job growth in Wisconsin. Chief architect of the $3 billion state subsidy package for Foxconn, which he has argued will have a transformative impact on the state’s economy by bringing as many as 13,000 direct jobs.
Evers doesn’t even know what he doesn’t know about economic development. Bureaucrats never accomplish anything in economic development, because their jobs don’t depend on success.
Evers: Cut state income taxes by 10 percent for individuals making no more than $100,000 a year and families making no more than $150,000. Would pay for most of the cut by rolling back a state tax break for manufacturers and farmers by capping it at $300,000 of annual income.
Walker: Maintain the full tax break for manufacturers and farmers, which he says has aided the state’s economic comeback. New tax credits for seniors to defray property tax costs, recent college graduates who stay in Wisconsin and to offset child care costs for families.
This statement about Evers’ position on taxes is about $4.5 billion short of what he has already pledged to do by eliminating Act 10 ($1 billion per year) eliminating property tax credits ($3.5 billion over the 2019–21 budget).
Evers: Cut the state’s prison population in half, though no time frame specified. Supports medical marijuana and would back legalizing marijuana for recreational use if approved by voters in a statewide referendum.
Walker: As a state lawmaker, authored Wisconsin’s “truth in sentencing” law that restricts early release of prisoners. Opposes legalizing marijuana for medical and recreational use.
Letting out half of the state’s prisoners would require letting out violent prisoners, because two-thirds of the state’s prisoners are in prison for their violent crimes.
Evers: Accused Walker of allowing corporate and political interests to influence environmental regulation. Would rely on science to guide natural resources policy and join other states in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Walker: Curtailed a range of environmental regulations and protections to make the state more business friendly. Opposed federal rules to curb greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change.
If you want to return to the days where the DNR strangled any kind of development, hence its long-time nickname Damn Near Russia, by all means vote for Evers.
Evers: Open to tax or fee increases, including a gas-tax increase, to repair the state’s roads and bridges, which studies have shown to be among the worst in the nation.
Walker: Won’t increase the gas tax without an offsetting tax cut of equal or greater value elsewhere. Has pushed the state to maintain its roads and bridges by operating more efficiently and forgoing the reconstruction of large interchanges near Milwaukee.
The road-builders claim the roads are that bad. Those who encounter orange cones and barrels daily — say, on Verona Road in Madison — might challenge that assertion.