Republicans, Gov. Evers spar over working with women

OSHKOSH — Democratic Gov. Tony Evers' spokeswoman accused Republican legislative leaders Saturday of refusing to work with the governor's chief of staff because she is a woman, leading the GOP lawmakers to call the charge "asinine" and "clueless."

The back and forth came after Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald detailed at the Wisconsin Republican Party convention what they said was a strained relationship with the new governor, who is in his fifth month in office. Vos called Evers "out of touch" and Fitzgerald said his office hasn't figured out how to work with lawmakers.

"There's a real disconnect on all different levels with this governor," Fitzgerald said. Fitzgerald said he and Vos have only met with Evers twice for five minutes since January.

Evers "has communicated repeatedly to GOP leadership that they should work with his chief of staff, just like they did under the previous governor," said his spokeswoman Melissa Baldauff. "That directive wasn't confusing to them when the chief of staff was a man."

Everyone who served as chief of staff under former Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, was a man. Evers' chief of staff is Maggie Gau, who ran his campaign and previously worked for Democrats in the Legislature.

"Vos and Fitzgerald are clearly uncomfortable or simply unwilling to work with a leadership team made up entirely of women," Baldauff said.

Fitzgerald, in a statement, called the accusation "completely asinine."

"The most powerful senator on the budget committee is a woman, and perhaps they'd know that if someone from the governor's team was actually engaged in budget negotiations," Fitzgerald said, referring to Republican state Sen. Alberta Darling.

Vos, in a tweet, pointed out that his chief of staff, communications director and policy director are all women.

"Evers staff - Clueless," Vos tweeted.

Vos, in a later interview, said of Evers "It's very disappointing when you're losing the argument, you have to resort to name calling."

Vos also said he would only negotiate with Evers.

"An elected official negotiates with an elected official," Vos said.

Vos and Fitzgerald defended their approach to Evers, including killing several of his major proposals, including Medicaid expansion.

"It will be over our dead bodies," Vos said of approving Medicaid expansion. Fitzgerald signaled more willingness to negotiate, saying Medicaid expansion needs to be "continually evaluated" because terms of accepting the federal money is a "moving target."

Evers built his budget around accepting the Medicaid money, which would then make $1.6 billion in federal funding available for other health care priorities. Baldauff said the governor's budget is built around what Wisconsin residents want. Polls have shown broad support for expanding Medicaid.

But Vos said Evers was catering to liberals with a "wacky" and "crazy" state budget that would never win approval of Republicans who control the Legislature.

The convention that brought together about 650 conservative activists served as part pep rally ahead of the 2020 presidential election, examination of why every Republican running for statewide office lost in 2018, and strategy session on what changes need to be made to do better next year.

Republican members of Congress praised President Donald Trump. Rep. Bryan Steil, who replaced former House Speaker Paul Ryan, credited Trump for getting his message out by going around the mainstream media.

Wisconsin is expected to be a key battleground state in the presidential race. Democrats are holding their national convention next summer in Milwaukee, something Republicans said provides the Wisconsin GOP an opportunity to offer a contrast.

"They're going to bring their crazy to the doorstep of Wisconsin," U.S. Rep. Sean Duffy said.

Sen. Ron Johnson, the only Republican in statewide office, told reporters he thought Joe Biden posed the biggest threat to Trump in Wisconsin because of his high name recognition and personality. He compared him to a congenial company sales manager.

"He's a likable guy," Johnson said.

But Johnson said he thinks Trump is right on the issues and will prevail.

Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice-elect Brian Hagedorn, in a convention speech, said Republicans who backed his successful run earlier this year "saved the Supreme Court." Conservatives control the court 4-3 and when Hagedorn takes over that will increase to 5-2.

Hagedorn said his victory shows that conservatives can prevail in next year's high court race. Conservative Justice Dan Kelly is up for election, and liberals are optimistic they can win because the election is on the same day as the Democratic presidential primary, when turnout is expected to be high.