Goodbye ‘Divide and Conquer’: With Walker Gone, Wisconsin Begins a New Era

The Capitol in Madison was packed with ebullient people—education activists in I-heart-my-public-school T-shirts, immigrant-rights activists lobbying to restore driver’s licenses to non-citizens, and many, many smiling Democrats—as Wisconsin’s new governor, Tony Evers, took the oath of office on January 7.

Departing Governor Scott Walker remained seated, awkwardly, behind Evers, refusing to participate in multiple standing ovations, Democrats, who won every statewide office, gave speeches promising to restore environmental protections, public school funding, and sensible gun-control measures, and to end an era of divisive politics in Wisconsin.

“It’s hard to believe we nearly lost this constitutional office,” state Treasurer Sarah Godlewski declared, referring to Republican efforts to do away with her post. “But together we made our voices heard.” She promised to be a good-government watchdog for all Wisconsinites, “regardless of where you live, how much you earn, or even who you voted for.”

Secretary of State Doug La Follette pointed to the bust of Wisconsin’s progressive hero, Fighting Bob La Follette, in the Capitol rotunda and promised a return to “our state’s great progressive tradition.”

Attorney General Josh Kaul was they only official to specifically address the Republican legislative power grab that took place just weeks ago in the same space.

Attorney General Josh Kaul was they only official to specifically address the Republican legislative power grab that took place just weeks ago in the same space.

“Today’s inauguration takes place in atypical circumstances,” Kaul noted as he began his remarks. “Last month, the powers of two of our state constitutional offices were diminished after the election for those offices had been held.”

The Republican legislature’s “unprecedented” power grab would make it harder for the newly elected leaders to do their jobs, he said.

“But,” he added, “I want to make clear that, irrespective of the action taken by the lame-duck legislature, the priorities of the Wisconsin Department of Justice are changing.” Kaul then reeled off a list of priorities that caused the crowd and most of the officials seated behind the podium to rise to their feet and applaud, while Walker sat with his hands in his lap.

These included revitalizing the department’s environmental protection division, standing up against the federal government “when we need to, to protect Wisconsinites,” (a reference to Kaul’s promise to withdraw Wisconsin from a federal lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act—a power the Republican legislature, in its lame-duck session, removed from the attorney general.) Kaul also called for a “red-flag” law that allows police or family members to get a court order temporarily disarming people who pose a threat to themselves or others, as well as universal background checks for gun buyers.


In his speech, Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes noted that he was only the second African American elected to statewide office in Wisconsin history. He declared that Wisconsin “must deal with extreme racial imbalance” and “make sure opportunity exists in every community across our state [because] a person’s zip code should never determine their destiny.” And he called for an end to “the era of division.”

Finally, it was Evers’s turn. A high school student from Ashland, Wisconsin, who is also a member of the Bad River Ojibwe tribe, introduced Evers, saying she was excited to see more women and people of color sworn into office. She praised Evers for having “worked hard to address racial inequities in schools” when he was state superintendent of public instruction, and for caring about the environment.

Then the lanky, white-haired Evers strode to the podium and clapped along as the band played “On Wisconsin.”

The lanky, white-haired Evers strode to the podium and clapped along as the band played “On Wisconsin.”

In perhaps the most rousing speech of his life, Evers promised to “fully fund our public schools,” to fill the potholes and the fix crumbling transportation infrastructure that became a focal point of his campaign against Walker, and to “set aside politics and personal ambition and work together on solving problems.”

Wisconsinites suffering because of underfunded schools, unaffordable health care, student loan debt and a dairy-farm crisis are looking for leadership, he said. The crowd rose to its feet when Evers said kids deserve a chance “whether or not they were born here.” After some hesitation, Walker decided he’d better stand for that point, too.

In a dig at Walker, Evers declared that the public expects its leaders to “take gun violence and global warming seriously.”

“People demanded change,” Evers concluded, “and that change is coming.”

At the heart of Evers’s speech was this declaration: “We’ve gotten away from who we are and the values that make Wisconsin great. Not Democratic or Republican values, but Wisconsin values: Kindness and respect, empathy and compassion and integrity and civility.”

Evers, who with his gentle, down-home demeanor rose above Scott Walker and the Republican legislature’s mean-spirited, divide-and-conquer style of politics, embodies those Wisconsin values. As he begins his tenure as governor in a divided state, Evers’s civilized, inclusive approach could set the tone for other political leaders struggling to overcome a bitterly divisive politics pioneered by Walker and deployed across the nation by Donald Trump.

 

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