'Boss Vos:' As Walker exits, Robin Vos ready to become most powerful Republican in Wisconsin

MADISON — His voice nearly gone following all-night negotiations, Robin Vos stood on the floor of the Wisconsin Assembly just after sunrise and calmly made the case for legislation aimed at taking power from the incoming Democratic governor.

In his typical measured tones, the Assembly speaker ridiculed Democratic opposition as hysterical overreaction and rejected portrayals of the move as a cynical power grab: "I don't think what you believe makes you evil."

Then, when the bell rang for the Dec. 5 vote, Vos won — as usual.

Vos, who has been speaker since 2013, is used to being at the center of Wisconsin's biggest political battles. As Gov. Scott Walker leaves office, Vos is positioning himself to take over as the state's most powerful Republican and is determined to protect conservative interests in the key Midwestern swing state from Democratic Gov.-elect Tony Evers.

It's a natural transition for Vos, a key player in Walker's 2011 battle against public unions and a partner during nearly a decade of Republican dominance in the state. He was the driving force behind the lame-duck legislation, requesting that bills be drafted and outlining GOP goals to reporters the day after Walker's defeat.

Republicans love Vos for his skill at wielding a huge Assembly majority for maximum gain. Critics point to the lame-duck maneuver and others like it to deride him as "Boss Vos," a power-hungry leader eager to grasp any advantage.

"Scott Walker is the public face of conservative power and punishing your enemies," said Scot Ross, an activist with the liberal group One Wisconsin Now, the source of the "Boss Vos" nickname. "Robin Vos is the behind-the-scenes guy who executes that plan."

Democratic U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, who served with Vos in the Assembly, forged a friendship over long hours of committee meetings despite their sharp ideological differences. He said he respected Vos for his ability to get things done, calling him "very smart and strategic."

"Often, when everyone in a room is playing checkers, Robin's playing chess," Pocan said.

Vos got his start in politics early, serving as a University of Wisconsin Board of Regents student member from 1989 to 1991. His roommates included Andy Speth, a future chief of staff for House Speaker Paul Ryan, future White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and future Racine County Executive Jim Ladwig.

Vos broke in at the Capitol as a legislative aide under Ladwig's parents before winning the same seat in 2004. He was appointed two years later to the powerful budget-writing committee and was at the gavel in 2011 when he cut off testimony in the middle of the night on Walker's proposal to gut collective bargaining rights for public workers.

Since ascending to speaker, Vos has helped build a Republican majority that reached its highest mark since 1957, with 64 members following the 2016 election. This year, after months of warnings of a blue wave and despite Democrats winning every statewide office, Republicans lost just one seat in the Assembly.

Democrats blamed the gerrymandered legislative maps that Vos helped create and has defended against legal challenges. Vos maintained that Republicans won fair and square based on their record of success.

While helping to shepherd Walker's conservative agenda through the Legislature, including making Wisconsin a right-to-work state and cutting taxes by billions of dollars, Vos has also convened numerous bipartisan task forces to address issues such as foster care and Alzheimer's. He was also instrumental in bringing together Republicans and Democrats to reach a deal this year on an overhaul of the juvenile justice system.

Vos, 50, has always been in politics, but he's also a businessman. He owns a popcorn factory, a car wash and numerous rental properties valued at nearly $6 million. He makes roughly $51,000 as speaker.

He lists Ronald Reagan as a political hero and sees himself as a "happy warrior" in the Reagan mold — useful during a career that's seen plenty of political jousting. During the massive protests over the public union legislation, his home was picketed and one of his critics dumped a beer on his head.

"I don't get angry," Vos said. "I try not to get frustrated. I try to always look for how can we accomplish the end goal."

As he's accomplished his goals, Vos has consolidated his power.

His chief of staff runs the committee that works to get Republicans elected to the Assembly. His wife, former state Rep. Michelle Litjens, was paid $238,000 over three years to raise $3.5 million for an outside group called the Jobs First Coalition that attacks Democrats to help elect Republicans to the Assembly.

Vos has also championed legal changes that allow unlimited contributions to committees and transfers to candidate campaigns and coordination with issue advocacy groups. That has increased donations to the Assembly campaign committee that his chief of staff ran and that provided financial support to Republicans running for office.

Vos also increased efforts to get lobbyists to give personally to candidates through a conduit that funds individual campaigns.

His first two marriages ended in divorce. Under the terms of his second divorce, which was finalized in 2017, his ex-wife Samantha was barred from speaking with anyone about their marriage or the grounds for the divorce. The separation agreement, made in 2012 as Vos was preparing to run for speaker, prohibited her from changing her marital status on Facebook until after the election.

Vos said he welcomes an examination of his record. And while his name is mentioned more frequently as a possible candidate for governor in four years, he said he's not interested in any other job. He turned down a chance this year to run for Congress to replace retiring House Speaker Paul Ryan.

"I am not going to run for governor," Vos said. "I love being speaker. I think it's the best job in the Capitol because it allows you to have an impact but also work with a wide variety of ideas. It's what I enjoy the most and hopefully what I'll be able to do."