The Shadow Governor - Part 1

The Shadow Governor - Part 1

4 mins
September 21, 2021

by Daniel C. Vock for Politico

For nearly three years, the state Assembly speaker has used his Republican majority — and the support of the Republicans who control the state Senate — to block, thwart or resist almost every significant move made by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers.

Before Evers even took office in 2019, Vos led the charge to strip power from the incoming governor. When the pandemic hit, Vos helped curb Evers’ authority to declare public health emergencies. This spring, Vos tried to commandeer federal rescue money that the governor had the authority to dole out.

And when it comes to the governor’s legislative priorities, Vos has killed every one. He threw out Evers’ budget proposals and had Republicans write their own. When the governor called a special legislative session to force lawmakers to discuss gun control, Vos dismissed the idea out of hand. Both chambers adjourned almost immediately. Lawmakers did the same when the governor called further special sessions on school funding (twice), police reforms, expanding Medicaid and moving the date of the April 2020 primary election because of Covid-19.

In January, Evers delivered his annual State of the State speech to lawmakers via video message. After it was over, Vos gave his own speech from the same spot in the Assembly chamber where Evers would have normally stood during his address. Vos tore into the governor, attacking him on everything from vaccine distribution to tax policy to unemployment benefits. “Gov. Evers,” Vos said, “do your job.”

Vos’ brazen moves to box in Evers — and his success in doing so — make him a rare specimen among state lawmakers. Governors asserted unprecedented powers in the early days of the pandemic, and lawmakers in many states chafed at the broad executive reach. But few have done more to constrain gubernatorial power than Vos, the president of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

His approach is simple and offers a model for Republican legislators serving with Democratic governors in other swing states: Deny Democrats any big policy wins, thus depriving them of any major accomplishments to promote when seeking reelection. Evers, like most governors, is up again next year.

Vos, the longest-serving speaker in Wisconsin history, blames the governor for their antagonistic relationship, but he is especially irked by Evers’ decision not to meet regularly with legislative leaders. Vos and Evers often go months without talking face-to-face.

I am somewhat jealous of my colleagues around the country when they have a relationship with a governor who at least is smart on policy or is passionate about X, Y or Z,” Vos said in an interview over the summer.

Sitting at a table at one of his favorite restaurants, munching on a lunch of burgers and cheese curds, the legislative leader relished the chance to explain how he has outmaneuvered his opponents — particularly the governor. He said he wished he had a better adversary in the governor’s office, someone with the inclination to take him on.

Our governor,” he said as he folded his hands in front of him, “has no passion and no policy chops on the vast majority of issues. So it’s very hard to have an intellectual conversation and get into the topic to say, how do we fix that problem with [someone] who doesn’t necessarily think of that as their job.”

Evers, who recently announced he is running for a second term, isn’t bothered by the criticism from his frenetic adversary. “I have nothing against Robin Vos personally,” Evers said in another interview, speaking by phone. “I just told him pretty much that my job is not only to listen to the speaker but to the people of Wisconsin. ... I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about our relationship.”

Many Wisconsin Democrats see Vos as the biggest obstacle to passing changes they say are popular among Wisconsin residents — an obstructionist out for political gain.

Having a Democratic governor dramatically changed things, especially the Republicans’ ability to continue the downward spiral of our state,” said state Rep. Gordon Hintz, the leader of the Assembly Democrats. “But the same toxic politics that the speaker was known for before Gov. Evers [continue]. You’re seeing the same national model being applied to suffocating the Democratic governor during his four years.

The voice of the Wisconsin GOP

Vos, 53, has long been influential among Wisconsin Republicans. He helped turn Wisconsin into a perpetual political battleground, starting a decade ago when he shepherded legislation promoted by then-Gov. Scott Walker that weakened unions and brought 100,000 protesters to Madison.

But Vos became a more prominent figure with the general public — almost a household name in his state — after 2018. Democrats swept all the statewide offices in that fall’s election and many prominent Republicans left public life. Vos’ counterpart in the state Senate ran for Congress and won. That leaves Vos front and center as the voice of Republicans in his state.

He's probably the highest-profile elected Republican in the state right now, at least when it comes to state issues,” Walker, the Republican former governor, said in an interview. “That’s because the Legislature really is the safeguard from things going absolutely crazy in Wisconsin.”

But that also means a lot of the media scrutiny and criticism from the left — animosity that used to be directed at Walker — is now focused on Vos, Walker said.

Rep. Mark Pocan, a Democrat who became friends with Vos when they both served in the Wisconsin Assembly, said much of Vos’ influence had been overlooked when Walker was governor.

While Scott Walker might have been talking about the ham sandwiches in his brown paper bag, the real person probably doing the heavy lifting was Robin Vos behind the scenes,” Pocan said. “Now his role is more visible, but I think he’s always been fairly influential.”

As one of Wisconsin’s most powerful Republicans, Vos has also had to placate former President Donald Trump. Vos met with Trump on the former president’s plane in August, after Trump criticized Vos for blocking investigations into the 2020 election.

And despite Vos’ reputation for hardball politics, he comes across as friendly and engaging in person. He seems eager to answer tough questions, and he never seems at a loss for words.

He’s very sharp, very savvy,” says Tim Storey, the executive director of the National Conference of State Legislatures. “He’s one of the most savvy political thinkers that I’ve ever worked with. And he sees the world through that lens.”

He’s a skilled conversationalist,” Storey added. “He’s sharp with facts, and he doesn’t just skim along the surface. He’ll get down in the weeds.

Vos said one of the things that sets him apart from other politicians is that he is not interested in any higher office. It’s a point he made several times, unprompted, during an hourlong interview.

When I made the decision to be speaker, I thought long and hard about it: Is this something where I’m going to want to run for Congress or for governor?” he said. “I am very much at peace with saying: This is the last elected job I am going to hold. So I feel like my perspective as a legislator is dramatically different than everybody else’s.”

He talked over lunch at one of Vos’ favorite stops, a restaurant called Fred’s, in Burlington, Wis. It’s a squat brick building next to a railroad crossing where freight trains regularly rumble by. Inside, the restaurant is surprisingly bright, its wooden walls decorated mostly with memorabilia from local high school teams, the Packers and the Bucks. Vos’ aides suggested meeting there.

The speaker, who showed up in a trim red University of Wisconsin polo shirt, said his staff didn’t even tell him what the interview was about, but he was eager to talk about his relationship with the governor. Vos is not the kind of guy who needs notes, much less talking points.

He groused about the news of the day, an announcement about Evers’ plan to give federal money to 10 groups to improve workforce development (“How innovative is that?” Vos asked. “That’s not even lazy. That’s sad.”) He wondered why Evers hasn’t tried to govern from the center, like Republican Gov. Charlie Baker has with the solidly Democratic legislature in Massachusetts. (“It would have frustrated me, because it would have made [Evers] more effective. It would have made him harder to target,” Vos said.)

Throughout his political career, Vos has never strayed far from his home in Racine County. The speaker has spent all of his life in southeastern Wisconsin, in small towns just inland from Racine and Kenosha, which sit on the shore of Lake Michigan.

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