Robin Vos moves to check Tony Evers in new era of divided government
After a sweeping lame-duck session curtailing the powers of the next governor and attorney general, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos’ move toward what he calls a level playing field is not yet complete.
Vos, 50, already one of Wisconsin’s longest-serving Assembly speakers — he’ll tie the record set by Tom Loftus at the end of this upcoming term — is set to preside over an increasingly empowered Legislature craving more resources as it acts to check Democratic Gov.-elect Tony Evers.
The longtime speaker said Thursday in an interview with the Wisconsin State Journal that he’s prepared to supply those resources in the form of increased Republican Assembly staff to help craft an alternative budget in the Capitol’s west wing as Evers takes office in the east.
Vos, R-Rochester, and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said they may draft their own biennial budget, especially if Evers strays far from the GOP agenda by expanding Medicaid or increasing taxes.
Vos wouldn’t specify how many additional staff he plans to hire. But in a response strikingly similar to one he gave last month hinting at the lame-duck session, Vos said adding some GOP staff to deal with administrative rules, budget writing and communications is only fair given the roughly 250 political appointments and 30,000 state employees Evers will have. Assembly Republicans currently have about 200 employees.
“We’re going to look and say, ‘Geez, are there some positions that we should look at and potentially add on?’” he said.
Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, worries Republican plans to craft their own budget instead of working off of Evers’ is yet another “power grab.”
“It’s clear that Rep. Vos sees himself as the opposition,” Hintz said. “Partisan power is a major priority at the expense of the public and democracy.”
Even if Republicans overlook Evers’ budget, Hintz and Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, are holding out hope some of the priorities of both parties will overlap, something Vos is willing to consider.
“I’m going to compromise on things where I can and I’m going to stand like bedrock on the principles I believe in,” Vos said. “I’m sure (Evers is) going to, too.”
The impending departure of Gov. Scott Walker makes Vos arguably the most powerful Republican in the state Capitol — and chief foil to Evers.
“He certainly has the talent to become the countervailing force to the new governor,” said one of Vos’ predecessors, former Assembly Speaker-turned-lobbyist Scott Jensen.
But Vos said he never wished to be in the position of top Republican, lamenting the fact Walker lost his re-election bid. He said he views his position not in terms of power, but in his ability to influence.
“My style is very collaborative,” Vos said. “I try not to rush into decisions. I have to persuade people.”
Vos said he views his job as preventing Wisconsin from regressing as Walker leaves center stage.
The lame-duck session heightened Vos’ national profile and endeared him to some fellow conservatives. It also made him a bigger-than-ever target for Democrats who contend Vos and GOP lawmakers overreached with the fast-tracked package — eroding democratic norms, defying the will of voters and inviting a future electoral backlash.
“(Evers) has extended an olive branch within a day of victory, and it seemed that Speaker Vos and Senator Fitzgerald snapped that branch in two within a couple of hours,” Shilling said.
Recent Assembly speakers have frequently used the position as a stepping stone to higher office, but Vos downplays any suggestion he could be a gubernatorial contender in 2022. He acknowledged another decade in the position isn’t out of the realm of possibility, but added he doesn’t think that far ahead.
“I’m not like an attention seeker,” Vos said. “I think I have found my niche in the fact most people believe I do a good job as speaker.”
In considering an eventual exit from politics, he said he’d consider whether he’s still intellectually fulfilled and making a difference.
He briefly considered but ultimately passed earlier this year on a run for the U.S. congressional seat being vacated by U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan. He said gaining congressional influence would take too long, and he doesn’t want to frequent airplanes.
As for the governorship, he said he prefers the intellectual challenge of being speaker.
“I’ve often joked about the fact that when Scott Walker has to make a decision, he looks in the mirror and says, ‘What should we do?’ That’s the power of the executive,” he said. “I have to actually persuade people.”
Even political opponents attest to Vos’ energy, intellect and strategic skill.
U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Black Earth, who kindled an unlikely friendship with Vos when they served on the Joint Finance Committee, described Vos as “one of the three smartest leaders that I saw in action” at the state Capitol.
“Robin is very bright, very strategic — often several steps ahead of most everyone else in the room,” Pocan said. “You don’t always find people who are both smart and politically savvy.”
“So that means depending on your perspective, he’s either extra-dangerous or extra-good,” he said.
In addition to his political ascent, those traits have fueled Vos’ considerable private wealth — he runs a popcorn business and a real-estate empire that, as of his most recent disclosure to state ethics officials, included ownership of rental properties worth about $6 million.
An early start in politics
Vos caught the political bug in the sixth grade, when his teacher began taking him to GOP events. His autograph book from that time contains the signatures not of athletes or rock stars, but former Rep. Cloyd Porter, who represented the same area from 1972 until 2000.
A Burlington native, Vos was college roommates at UW-Whitewater with Reince Priebus, who would go on to be Republican National Committee chairman and chief of staff to President Donald Trump, and Andy Speth, Ryan’s chief of staff.
At 19, Vos was named a student representative to the UW Board of Regents by then-Gov. Tommy Thompson.
“He was very passionate, very intelligent, very articulate — sort of driven. He loved politics and you could feel it,” Thompson said.
Vos after college worked as a staffer for Republican Rep. Bonnie Ladwig, and during that time made an impression on U.S. Rep. Glenn Grothman, R-Glenbeulah, who occupied a neighboring office as a newly minted state representative. Grothman said Vos stood out to him among other staffers and had assisted him in his transition to the state Capitol, teaching him how to run the office.
The time as a staffer set him up in 1994 to run for and win a seat on the Racine County Board, where he served for 10 years while also expanding his business ventures. In 1996 he purchased Rojo’s Popcorn.
Those who know Vos tout his entrepreneurial spirit, which conservatives such as Grothman argue keeps his policy decisions grounded in their real-world consequences.
Vos has accumulated 26 college rental properties and seven companies, according to a statement of economic interest filed with the state. One of those is a political consulting agency with his new wife, former Rep. Michelle Litjens.
John Gard, a close friend and former GOP Assembly speaker between 2003 and 2005, said Vos’ work ethic carries over to his work guiding the Assembly.
“I don’t think anybody works harder,” Gard said. “People know Robin has been battle-tested.”
A guiding hand
Under Vos’ leadership, Republicans have seen some of the largest majorities in the Assembly beginning with the 2010 wave. Republicans in 2019 will hold 63 of 99 Assembly seats, down one seat from their high-water mark of 64 seats this session.
Critics argue much of those gains are due to gerrymandered political maps given that Republicans only captured 46 percent of the popular vote in Assembly races. Even so, Vos during the lame-duck session repeatedly extolled the Legislature as the most representative branch of government.
Gard has had disagreements with the speaker, particularly for what he deems as “unnecessary attacks” on the building trades. Vos has been a champion of so-called “right-to-work” legislation and repealing the prevailing wage.
But Vos also has had to compromise with a caucus that’s more “hard-nosed” than he is, Gard said.
Others said Vos has quelled Republican renegades and pushed his caucus in one general direction, but not without its sticking points.
“A lot of his conference sometimes wishes he didn’t compromise so much, actually,” Grothman said.
Vos had particular trouble with several conservative Republican senators who held up the last budget — Chris Kapenga, Steve Nass and Duey Stroebel — leading him to call them “terrorists” on TV, a comment for which he later apologized.
Differences with some in the caucus, specifically on socially conservative issues, have occasionally caused fissures.
For example, Vos never brought a bill to the floor that would have banned the sale of fetal tissue for research purposes on the basis there wasn’t consensus on the issue. And though he voted for the now-invalidated amendment banning same-sex marriage in 2005, he doesn’t share the views of religious conservatives on birth control.
“I’m a single guy,” he told the Racine Journal Times in 2005. “To say I am against birth control is to say I am against water.”
Vos has a reputation for maintaining an orderly caucus. But critics argue he also has a penchant for secrecy.
Liberal group One Wisconsin Now shared records of the settlement from Vos’ second divorce in 2012, which includes a gag order preventing his ex-wife from ever speaking about their marriage publicly without Vos’ permission.
Additionally, Vos stipulated she could not change her marital status on Facebook until it was clear he did not have an election opponent or, if he did, until after the 2012 election.
Vos declined to address the divorce.
Critics also pointed to Vos’ request in 2015 for legislation that would have curtailed the state’s open records law by blocking public access to nearly all records of state and local lawmakers or their aides. Both Walker and Fitzgerald acknowledged their role in drafting the language which was eventually stripped from the state budget after public outcry.
Vos still defends the language, arguing excessive open records requests can be a significant cost to taxpayers.
But in other arenas, those close to Vos describe him as more compassionate than he might otherwise let on.
Vos, for example, said he has hired dozens of prisoners at his businesses, helping them in the transition to life after incarceration and providing him with a window into the lives of people he otherwise wouldn’t meet.
“He has a bigger heart than I think he wants people to know,” Republican strategist Brian Fraley said.
Even so, he still keeps a hard-line view on crime and punishment.
“I don’t think there’s anybody in the prison system that does not deserve to be there,” Vos said.
Toward split government
If Vos had his way, Walker would be entering a third term in office and the two would continue to whittle away at the reach of state government. Vos’ dog’s name is Reagan, after all.
But Wisconsin voters in November dealt him a different hand, one he admits makes him less excited for the New Year.
“I was hoping we’d be able to have a four-year transformation discussion of what government should be doing,” Vos said. “Unfortunately now we’re probably not going to get at the same discussion.”
Vos said he’s open to compromising with Evers, however much will depend on Evers’ budget proposal, which Vos described as “the first move in the chess match.”