Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos looks on as Gov. Tony Evers delivers his State of the State address at the Wisconsin state Capitol on Jan. 22, 2020. | Amber Arnold/Wisconsin State Journal via AP
BURLINGTON, Wis. — Robin Vos isn’t the governor of Wisconsin. But he certainly acts like he is.
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.
The landscape near Vos’ home is carved up with creeks and small lakes, with plenty of corn and soybean fields in between. It is also close enough to the industrial cities along Lake Michigan that Vos' predominantly white district includes subdivisions and strip malls on its eastern edge. Vos’ district, in which he won with 58 percent of the vote in 2020, is adjacent to a Racine-based district that, in the same election, a Democrat won with more than 70 percent of the vote.
Vos got his start in politics in college at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, where he graduated in 1991.
Then-Gov. Tommy Thompson, a Republican, picked Vos to serve as a student representative on the University of Wisconsin’s board of trustees. Vos was also college roommates with Reince Priebus, who later became chair of the Republican National Committee and Trump’s first White House chief of staff. Priebus didn’t respond to inquiries about Vos.
Vos first won elected office in 1994, the Republican wave election that gave the GOP control of Congress during Bill Clinton’s first term as president. Vos won a seat on the county board, where he stayed for 10 years before running for and winning his Assembly seat in 2004.
By the time Scott Walker won the governorship in the 2010 elections, Vos earned enough standing in his caucus to secure a spot as one of two chairs of the Legislature’s powerful Joint Finance Committee. That gave Vos a hands-on role in advancing the legislation known as Act 10, Walker’s effort to undermine teachers unions in the state.
“Other than myself and maybe my lieutenant governor, Rebecca Kleefisch, I don’t think there was any better, more forceful advocate for the reforms we were doing in Act 10 early on,” Walker said. “He knew his stuff, he articulated it, and that went a long way.”
Vos became the Assembly speaker after the 2012 election. His caucus ended up with 61 percent of the Assembly seats while getting fewer than half of the votes cast in Assembly races that year. It was the first time the state used Republican-drawn legislative maps that Evers and other Democrats say give Republicans an unfair advantage. A professor working for Republicans to draft the map concluded that Democrats would have to win 54 percent of the statewide vote to take the majority in the Assembly.
Democrats challenged the maps in court for denying their party fair representation, but eventually the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against them.
With Republicans solidly in control of the statehouse, Vos was able to get many of his priorities passed, including large tax cuts, a voter ID law and making Wisconsin a “right-to-work” state. Vos met with Walker and then-Senate President Scott Fitzgerald (who is now a member of the House) every Wednesday.
Wisconsin Republicans enjoyed national prominence, especially as the “Cheesehead Revolution” brought Priebus into the White House, Paul Ryan into the speakership in Congress and Walker into national fame as a conservative icon.
Their clout was on display in 2017, when the White House and Foxconn Technology Group announced that the company would spend $10 billion to build high-end video screens in Wisconsin. Trump later described the planned facility as the “eighth Wonder of the World.” Vos helped steer an incentive package for the development through the Wisconsin Legislature, and Foxconn eventually chose a site in Vos’ district for the development.
But the Cheesehead Revolution turned out to be short-lived. After the 2018 election, Priebus and Ryan had left the federal government and, most importantly for Vos, Walker lost his bid for a third term as governor.
Now Vos would have to work with Evers, a mild-mannered former state superintendent of education who had largely stayed out of the partisan clashes that consumed Wisconsin under Walker. The incoming Democrat had talked about expanding Medicaid, boosting state funding for schools and renegotiating the state’s incentive package for Foxconn. Before Evers could even celebrate his victory, Vos began working on ways to limit his power.
A rocky start
Less than 24 hours after Evers won his election, Vos started talking to reporters about weakening the power of the executive branch and strengthening the power of the legislature.
But Vos had actually started planning the move half a year earlier, when Walker warned that a blue wave could swamp Republican candidates in Wisconsin. GOP lawmakers eventually approved changes that give the legislature more say in the formation of administrative rules, increased lawmakers’ power over the state economic development agency and prevented the governor from applying for waivers from federal programs without legislative approval.
Walker signed the changes into law. They were “overwhelmingly things that codified practices that I already had,” he said. Walker says, though, that he rejected proposals from some Republican lawmakers to scale back the veto powers of Wisconsin governors, which are some of the most expansive in the country.
The speaker insists that the moves were primarily to push back against the growing power of the governor’s office and that he would have sought similar changes even if Walker had been reelected.
“We made a mistake in the first two years after Governor Walker [took office]. We ceded too much authority to the governor. We did it for generations,” Vos said. “So when I became speaker, I became very focused on giving no additional power to the executive.”
Whatever the motivation, it was certainly a rocky start for the relationship between the speaker and the governor.
It didn’t get any better after Evers took office.
Vos says he asked for one-on-one meetings with the governor, with no staff present. The Evers camp accused him of being sexist, because the governor’s chief of staff is a woman.
Evers, meanwhile, remembers inviting lawmakers of both parties over for a night of euchre, a favorite card game of the governor’s and a staple of Wisconsin culture up there with Friday fish fries. But only one Republican showed up because, the governor says, Republican leaders warned their lawmakers not to attend.
Pandemic deepens divisions
The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic made the relationship between Vos and Evers even worse. Not only did they disagree over how to handle the public health crisis, the governor and speaker also lined up on different sides as Wisconsin became an electoral battleground and protests against police brutality in the state turned deadly.
When the pandemic started, Evers wanted to postpone Wisconsin’s April presidential primary and state Supreme Court election. Vos and other Republicans filed a flurry of lawsuits to block the governor’s moves and won, meaning the state held an in-person election (pictures of Milwaukee voters in long lines to vote in-person circulated the country) while the governor’s stay-at-home order was still in effect.
Vos volunteered as a poll worker on Election Day and conducted an interview with a local newspaper where he assured voters that it was “incredibly safe to go out.” The video showed him dressed in latex gloves, a surgical mask, goggles and a plastic gown. He later clarified that the city election agency he volunteered for required all poll workers to wear the protective gear, but Democrats mocked him for pushing for an in-person election under those circumstances anyway.
Later that month, Vos and Fitzgerald sued to block the Evers administration from extending a stay-at-home order, arguing that it would leave Wisconsin’s economy “in shambles.” The conservative majority on the state supreme court agreed in May, and Wisconsin became the first state where a court invalidated a governor’s coronavirus restrictions.
The rebuke from the high court left Evers with fewer options as the pandemic stretched on. He didn’t issue a mask mandate until July, after most governors had already done so. Vos and Fitzgerald supported an unsuccessful effort to strike down the mask mandate last fall, but, eventually, the state Supreme Court also blocked Evers from requiring masks this March.
Protests against police brutality broke out in August 2020 in Kenosha, not far from where Vos lives, after a white police officer shot a Black man, Jacob Blake, seven times and left him paralyzed.
The governor tried to call the Wisconsin Legislature — which had been largely absent in Madison during 2020 — into a special session to address police misconduct. Predictably, Vos adjourned the session as soon as it started.
The Republican speaker also criticized Evers for not calling out the National Guard to disperse the protests. He blamed the governor after Kyle Rittenhouse, an Illinois teen, shot three protesters and killed two of them.
“Those people did not need to die,” Vos said in a radio interview at the time. “But, because of Tony Evers’ actions, they’re dead. … People are literally dead, because folks have had to take to themselves to try to protect their own property.”
As the November elections drew near, the governor tried to blame Vos and other Republicans for not taking the Covid-19 crisis seriously. Evers wasn’t even on the ballot last year, but Vos was. The speaker faced the best-funded Democratic challenger in his career in that election, thanks to outside groups that wanted to rattle the speaker. Vos won easily. Still, he admitted he was nervous about the outcome. When he won, he called the vote a “repudiation of Tony Evers’ leadership style.”
The pandemic is by no means over, but the governor says Vos and other Republican lawmakers did more to hurt, rather than help, the state’s recovery efforts.
“They were not in session for 300 days during the pandemic,” Evers said in an interview. “The work that was done in the state of Wisconsin, that I’m proud of — getting the PPE, making sure we were getting shots in arms, making sure we had a good testing program — all of the things that happened during this pandemic, we did alone. The Legislature had nothing to do with it, except to make it more difficult for people.”
The speaker says the pandemic underscored how much power governors across the country exerted, and he worried that too many of them failed to work with their legislatures as the pandemic progressed.
Vos argues that it is legislatures that should take the lead.
“I want the Legislature to never weaken, because we are the most representative body in the country,” Vos said. “We are the ones who have public hearings. We are the ones where you can call somebody and get a return call. You can go to a town hall meeting anywhere in the state and talk to a legislator, because we’re that accessible.”
‘There’s no accountability‘
Democrats chafe at the idea that the Wisconsin Legislature is “representative,” because of what they see as gerrymandered districts that prevent Democrats in urban areas like Milwaukee and Madison from having their votes count in the statehouse. (A panel of federal judges also redrew two legislative districts under the original GOP plan, because they found the districts would have weakened Hispanic voting strength.)
Hintz, the leader of the Assembly Democrats, says the district maps protect Republican lawmakers from repercussions at the polls.
“The speaker and the Republicans have suffocated the legislative process, because they don’t want Gov. Evers to be successful,” Hintz said. “So they scheduled fewer days, we meet fewer days, we pass fewer bills and the governor signs fewer laws. And there’s no accountability, because there’s no chance that they were going to lose their seats.”
But Evers could erase some of the Republicans’ advantages in upcoming legislative races. The governor can veto any redistricting plan Republican lawmakers advance now that new Census numbers are out, which would likely throw to the courts the decision over what maps to use. (Democrats have already filed a lawsuit to try to get federal judges to draw new maps.)
That’s not a guarantee that Democrats will prevail in the 2022 legislative elections, but it probably beats trying to win under the maps drawn by Republicans a decade ago.
The governor and Republican legislators recently clashed on the rules for the upcoming elections, too. Evers vetoed six GOP bills that would have made it harder for voters to obtain and use absentee ballots, put restrictions on voting in nursing homes and stepped up scrutiny of local elections officials.
That came after Vos announced the Assembly would hire its own investigators, including a former state supreme court judge, to investigate what he calls irregularities in the 2020 elections. Vos said he regards Joe Biden as the winner of the state’s presidential contest, but he raised questions about disparities in how officials in Wisconsin’s 1,850 municipalities ran their elections.
Vos has not gone far enough to satisfy many critics on the right — including, initially, Trump — who falsely claim Trump won the 2020 election. The Republican chair of an Assembly elections committee has issued subpoenas for election officials in Milwaukee and Green Bay to turn over materials. Evers has said the local officials should respond to the subpoenas with a “hell no!” Legal experts say Vos must sign off on the subpoenas first, and Vos said he will leave the decision to the investigators the Assembly Republicans hired.
There is one move that Evers recently pulled that has flummoxed Vos and his fellow Republicans: He agreed with them.
Specifically, the governor signed the Republicans’ proposed budget into law, including a $2 billion tax cut.
It was a far, far different spending plan than the one the governor proposed himself earlier in the year, which included tax increases, Medicaid expansion, a minimum wage hike, the legalization of marijuana, the repeal of Act 10 and more spending on schools.
Evers said he approved the Republican-drafted budget, with a few minor changes, because he promised to cut income taxes for middle class residents by 10 percent. He made progress toward that goal in an earlier budget, but “I knew this would get us over that hump,” he said.
The governor also points out that, if he had vetoed the bill, the state could have lost out on $2.3 billion in federal coronavirus relief funds for schools.
Wisconsin political experts have also speculated that signing the budget could boost Evers’ reelection effort, because it lets him take credit for a major Republican priority: lowering taxes.
Even though Evers’ decision is a major win for Republicans, Vos is incredulous. Once Republicans rejected the governor’s budget, Evers never tried to fight for his priorities in the ensuing negotiations, Vos said. “Never a call. Never an email. Never even a text message or a contact to say: ‘Why don’t we talk about my priorities?’” he said. “Phoning it in would be the kindest way of putting what he did with the budget. If you’re serious about it, wouldn’t you actually lobby for it?”
Evers doesn’t see what good it would do to engage with such an intransigent foe.
The governor said if he called up Vos and pushed for, say, expanding Medicaid, which 70 percent of Wisconsin voters supported in a 2019 Marquette University Law School Poll, “he’d say, ‘No.’ End of story.”
“He wouldn’t say, ‘If you did this, I’d give you Medicaid.’ That’s not going to happen,” Evers said. “It might be dysfunctional, but he makes it clear he can essentially ignore the will of the people of Wisconsin, and, frankly, there’s nothing I can do about it.”