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Wisconsin’s Trickle-Down Jerkonomics
Robin Vos, speaker of the Wisconsin Assembly, has a longstanding commitment to smashmouth politics. The state is worse off for it.
IN 2006 AND 2007, I served on a Wisconsin Legislative Council Special Committee chaired by Rep. Robin Vos. Its purpose was to study whether to change the state’s rules regarding the expungement of criminal convictions. I was there in my role as president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, a group that advocates for government transparency, including for criminal records. Among the dozen other “stakeholders” were lawmakers, privacy advocates, criminal defense attorneys, and prosecutors.
After three long meetings over a period of several months, assisted by considerable staff support, the committee’s members struck upon a plan to let most first-time misdemeanor offenders avoid criminal convictions if they fulfill certain conditions, while retaining public access to underlying records. (Under existing rules, a very small number of convicted persons get to have their court records hidden while their criminal convictions remain and must still be disclosed when, say, they apply for jobs.)
Vos, during the committee’s third meeting, asked whether this ability to avoid a conviction would be available to people who fight the charges against them and are found guilty anyway. He thought it shouldn’t. A roll call vote was taken in which most committee members thought it should.
“We’re all done,” Vos announced. “Thank you for your service.” A number of people laughed. But Vos, it turned out, wasn’t kidding.
After a bit more discussion and another vote against one of his ideas, Vos adjourned the committee, never to reconvene. I sent him an email urging him to put forth a version of the plan that he could support, since his points of disagreement were minor, but he did not respond. The committee ended up making no recommendations. The work of its members was for naught. The thousands of people who could have been helped by the proposed changes were not. And it was all because Robin Vos didn’t get his way, immediately and completely.
THE PRICKLY REPUBLICAN who represents a safely red district in Racine County was elected in 2004 and became speaker of the Assembly in 2013. A decade later, he’s still there—the most prominent Republican in state government and, as countless episodes attest, kind of a jerk. Robin Vos engages in smashmouth politics because he enjoys smashing mouths.
In July 2019, Vos made headlines for refusing to allow a paralyzed Democratic state lawmaker to attend meetings remotely. Vos said granting the accommodation would be “disrespectful” to those who attend in person. Esquire said Vos was “being a colossal dick for no good reason at all.” In 2015, he tried to eviscerate the state’s open records law, largely exempting lawmakers from its provisions. In December 2018, he joined other Republicans in curbing the powers of the governor and attorney general, after Democrats were elected to these positions and before they took office, despite overwhelming opposition among Wisconsinites to this power grab.
In mid-2021, prodded by a scolding from Donald Trump, Vos tapped former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman to look into allegations of fraud in the 2020 election. The probe was laughably inept, turned up no evidence of significant fraud, and has to date cost state taxpayers around $2.5 million. (The price tag continues to rise in part because Vos keeps fighting judicial rulings related to the case.)
In the end, Vos fired Gableman after he endorsed Vos’s primary opponent, who nearly won. Vos, with good reason, called Gableman “an embarrassment to the state.” It was one of those look-who’s-talking moments.
IN RECENT YEARS, as all this was happening, Vos and his fellow Republicans have had a lock on the state legislature, thanks to extreme gerrymandering. They currently enjoy a 22-11 supermajority in the Senate and 64-35 edge in the Assembly even though the people of the state are about equally divided politically.
But the recent swearing in of elected Justice Janet Protasiewicz has put liberals in the majority on the Wisconsin Supreme Court for the first time in decades. Fresh challenges to the state’s redistricting maps have been filed with the court, which could strike them down as unconstitutional in advance of the 2024 elections.
This has sent Vos into a tizzy. He’s threatened to impeach Protasiewicz unless she recuses herself from hearing these cases because, while running for the court, she referred to the maps, correctly, as “rigged.”
The blowback to Vos’s impeachment threat has been astonishing. New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie wrote that it shows “breathtaking contempt” for the will of the voters and cements the reputation of the state’s Republican party as “the most openly authoritarian in the country.” The Wisconsin Democratic Party has been running ads portraying impeachment as an effort to undo the results of an election that Protasiewicz won by 11 points. And news outlets have reported that the conservative justices, who have themselves regularly participated in cases despite much more glaring conflicts, have expressly rejected any rule that would require Protasiewicz to recuse herself.
Scads of letters to the editor have appeared in local papers opposing the move. The moderate Wisconsin State Journal, in an editorial, said Vos’s “intimidating talk of taking her down is wildly irresponsible, undemocratic, and comes off as desperate.”
Vos, in a spirit reminiscent of Senator Tommy Tuberville or Representative Matt Gaetz, remains obstinate. Rather than give up on the idea of impeachment, which even some of his fellow Republicans have expressed qualms about, Vos has tasked a panel of three former state Supreme Court justices to study its possibility in secret, promptly drawing a complaint alleging a violation of the state’s open meetings law. The only panelist whose identity is known is David Prosser, who served on the court from 1998 to 2016.
Prosser, who before his 18 years on the bench served 18 years as a Republican lawmaker, including a stint as Assembly speaker, contributed money to the campaign of Protasiewicz’s conservative rival. As a member of the court, he not only refused to recuse himself from a case involving a law that he helped pass, but ended up writing the majority opinion upholding it. Meanwhile, current members of the court, including Chief Justice Annette Ziegler, have refused to recuse themselves from hearing cases involving major donors to their campaigns.
Vos has also attempted to perform an end-run around a Supreme Court review of legislative redistricting by hastily pushing through a bill that would relegate the process to nonpartisan staff. While the proposal was similar to one that Tony Evers, the state’s Democratic governor, has touted for years, it was deemed dead on arrival by Democrats including Evers, who noted that it would still allow legislative Republicans to control the result.
“Wisconsinites deserve a redistricting process that’s free of partisanship and interference from politicians, and it’s never been clearer that today’s legislature cannot be trusted with that important responsibility,” Evers said. Among the reasons for this distrust, Evers elaborated, was GOP lawmakers’ tendency to “bully, threaten, or fire on a whim anyone who happens to disagree with them.”
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As if to underscore the shady foundations of its proposed reform, the Assembly voted to pass the bill on September 14, less than 48 hours after Vos first brought it up, with no public hearing and no effort to consult with state groups that have been working on the redistricting issue for years. On the same day, the state Senate voted to fire Wisconsin’s top election official, Meagan Wolfe, despite being told by the state’s attorney general, Josh Kaul, that it had no authority to do so. (Kaul has since filed a lawsuit against state GOP leaders that would reaffirm Wolfe’s role on the commission.)
Wolfe, who has a target on her back because of lunatic MAGA conspiracy theories, remains in her position as administrator of the Wisconsin Elections Commission pending court review. But some Republicans in the legislature are now proposing to impeach her. It’s not clear whether Vos will support this effort, but there is little doubt that he inspired it.
ELSEWHERE, THE WISCONSIN LEGISLATURE’S Republican majority is showing no signs of moderating its extremism. On September 19, a day after Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin resumed performing abortions following a judge’s ruling that the state’s 1849 law did not prohibit them as was previously thought, a state Senate committee met to ponder a bill to tighten the state’s remaining rules. It would prohibit any state or local employee “from providing abortion services, promoting or encouraging abortion services, making abortion referrals, or training others or receiving training in performing abortions while acting within the scope of his or her employment.”
Wisconsin law already forbids the use of tax dollars to pay for abortions; the proposed bill would go further in barring public employees, including those at state-run hospitals, from even talking about abortion services while on the job. State Sen. Kelda Roys, a Madison Democrat, called it “blatantly unconstitutional,” saying the goal was “to silence and intimidate people” and create a “climate of fear.”
Vos, for his part, reacted to news of Planned Parenthood’s decision by vowing to “pray tonight for all the unborn children who will no longer have the opportunity to be born because of the decisions that politicians are making.”
It would be nice, though of course improbable, for Vos to also offer a prayer for the state of Wisconsin, which has become a perpetual stew of bitter contention, largely due to the my-way-or-the-highway style of politics he helped advance. The rifts that were deliberately created by former Republican Governor Scott “divide and conquer” Walker have remained yawningly large.
Vos, it seems, likes it this way. Last week, he announced that, unless the University of Wisconsin System shuts down its programs to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion, which he tried and failed to achieve via the state budget, he will seek to block 6 percent pay raises over two years for the state’s 41,000 university employees.
“I don’t think that they deserve to have any more resources until they accomplish the goal” of eliminating DEI in the state’s universities, he told the news outlet WisPolitics.
This is vintage Vos—peevish, petulant, reflexively retributive. It is governance by temper tantrum, which is to say, it handily symbolizes the state GOP’s response to any challenge to its antidemocratic consolidation of power.