Republicans defy Gov. Evers, put Christmas tree in closed Capitol

Two Republican lawmakers put up a Christmas tree in the Wisconsin Capitol rotunda despite being told they weren't allowed to do so — a show of defiance after Gov. Tony Evers opted not to display a holiday tree there this year because the building is closed to the public due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Department of Administration has traditionally placed a towering evergreen decorated with ornaments constructed by school children in the rotunda every year to celebrate the winter holidays. Evers, who controls the DOA, has refused to call the tree a Christmas tree, irking Republicans.

This year, Evers decided to forego a tree since the Capitol is closed to the public due to the coronavirus pandemic. That apparently didn't sit well with Republican Reps. Paul Tittl and Shae Sortwell, who, like other lawmakers, are still working out of the building.

Records show the two lawmakers applied for a permit on Dec. 1 to place what they described only as an “historical display” in the rotunda from Dec. 1 through Jan. 6. The application does not say that the display is a Christmas or holiday tree.

Dan Blackdeer, chief of the Capitol Police, an extension of the DOA, denied the request the next day. He wrote that although the DOA can issue permits for events and exhibits, only the State Capitol and Executive Residence Board can approve decorative items.

He went on to say that state law prohibits the DOA from permitting any exhibits on the rotunda's ground floor. A permit request must be filed at least 72 hours in advance and the lawmakers' sought to display an exhibit the same day they submitted the application, Blackdeer added. What's more, the DOA is denying all permit requests for the interior of Capitol since the building is closed to the public, he wrote.

DOA Assistant Deputy Secretary Olivia Hwang sent an email to Tittl and Sortwell that night explaining that since the DOA owns the building, it doesn't need a permit for the traditional holiday tree. She reiterated that the agency has denied all permit requests since the building is closed and said the lawmakers could still display a tree or other holiday decorations in their offices or any space in the building controlled by the Assembly.

The lawmakers put up a tree in the rotunda anyway. The seven-foot artificial decoration was sitting there on Monday morning, complete with signs that read, “The magic of Christmas is not in the presents but in his presence” and “This tree belongs to Representative Tittl and Representative Sortwell. Do not move without prior written approval from these Representatives.”

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It's unclear when the representatives set up the tree or why they decided to do so without a permit. Messages left at their offices Monday morning weren't immediately returned.

DOA spokeswoman Molly Vidal didn't respond to an email asking if the agency planned to remove the tree.

The move by Tittl and Sortwell is another example of the defiance that Republicans have shown Evers since he defeated GOP Gov. Scott Walker in 2018. Among other things, they passed lame-duck legislation weakening Evers' powers and convinced the state Supreme Court to strike down his stay-at-home coronavirus order.

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