Two of the last six Wisconsin governors never served in the Legislature.
Democratic Gov. Tony Evers paid a high price last week for being one of them.
In a historic rebuke, all 19 Senate Republicans refused to confirm Brad Pfaff, who had just started his 11th month as secretary of the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.
The vote fired Pfaff and sent Evers this blunt message:
You don’t see the Legislature as an equal branch of government; you never served in it, and don’t know how it works. But Republicans, who you won’t meaningfully negotiate with, control the Legislature.
To get your attention, we’ll fire your agriculture secretary in the midst of a crisis that is forcing two Wisconsin—“America’s Dairyland”—dairy farmers out of business every day.
Pfaff grew up on a LaCrosse County dairy farm, had been a U.S. Agriculture Department official and senior staffer for Democratic Congressman Ron Kind. Evers appointed him last December.
The Senate vote divided the state’s agricultural groups and stunned and angered Evers, who watched the debate from a seat just behind Senate Democratic Leader Jennifer Shilling.
No one remembers the last time a governor personally monitored a legislative debate.
“It doesn’t happen, because that puts the governor on an equal status with legislators,” one former Senate leader observed. There’s only one governor and 132 legislators.
Did Evers think making Republican senators vote against Pfaff in front of the governor would change the outcome? If so, that seemed like gubernatorial naivete.
The Senate vote was high political drama for another reason:
Five of the 19 Republicans who forced Pfaff out of office Tuesday had voted to confirm him. Pfaff got the 9-0 blessing of the Senate Agriculture, Revenue and Financial Institutions Committee in February.
Voting to confirm Pfaff then were GOP Sens. Howard Marklein of Spring Green, Jerry Petrowski of Marathon, Pat Testin of Stevens Point, Andre Jacque of DePere and Kathy Bernier of Chippewa Falls.
Agribusiness plays a key role in each of their districts. Petrowski is a former ginseng, dairy and beef farmer.
The first-term Testin is the only one of the five up for re-election next year.
Marklein, committee chairman, said after the Senate vote he had first considered Pfaff a “positive, strong leader for an agency that has been non-political.”
Instead, Marklein added in a statement, “Pfaff has played politics with information and has attacked the Legislature… when he should have been focused on doing what is best for farmers and consumers.”
Pfaff’s biggest political misstep came in July, when he attacked Republican leaders for not funding a mental health program for farmers.
Pfaff asked “which five farmers” should get mental health counseling, with the few dollars left. He also said when stressed farmers get help shouldn’t be dictated by the schedules of GOP leaders.
Republicans never forgave him for those comments.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, who asked Evers to withdraw Pfaff’s nomination to avoid the vote, called those comments “offensive and unproductive.”
Pfaff also pushed a controversial update of livestock siting rules, which Republicans and some agribusiness groups said would allow local governments to put unfair, costly new requirements on farmers.
Pfaff put a hold on those new rules on Nov. 1—four days before he lost his job.
Fitzgerald said Evers and Pfaff were “no friend to farmers,” although other forces—low milk prices, tariffs and international competition—have hammered farmers.
The Republican leader also warned other Evers cabinet secretaries awaiting confirmation—including those running health and transportation departments—that Senate Republicans would “hold them in check.”
Republican senators, after all, in January 2018 refused to confirm Ethics Commission Administrator Brian Bell and Elections Commission Administrator Mike Haas, forcing both out of those jobs.
The usually low-key Evers was incensed by Pfaff’s dismissal, accusing Republicans of intimidating his senior advisers.
“I want (cabinet secretaries) to be forthcoming,” he said. “They’re the best people for the job.”
They can’t be told to “keep their mouth shut for the next four years in order to get approved by this Senate,” Evers added.
In the past, senators from both parties respected the cabinet choices of governors, with rare exceptions.
For the record: Of the last six governors, the only other one who never served in the Legislature was Democrat Jim Doyle (2003-10).