MADISON, Wis. (CN) – Former state schools superintendent Tony Evers was sworn into office as Wisconsin’s 46th governor Monday, officially ending the controversial eight-year tenure of Republican Scott Walker.
Evers, a Democrat who narrowly defeated Walker in November, took the oath of office along with State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski, Secretary of State Doug La Follette, Attorney General Josh Kaul and Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes.
They’re all Democrats and all are newcomers to their respective offices with the exception of La Follette. They were sworn in by Wisconsin Chief Justice Patience Roggensack, a Republican.
In his inaugural address, Evers stressed the need for renewed unity and civility in state politics, calling for an end to a political climate that has become “indifferent to resentment and governing by retribution,” where Wisconsinites are “paralyzed by polarity and…content with division.”
“It is time to remake and repair our state and reclaim our better history,” Evers said Monday.
The Plymouth, Wisconsin native reiterated the priorities that defined his campaign, including increased funding for public schools, universities and technical colleges, an overhaul of Wisconsin’s infrastructure and roads to fix the state’s “transportation crisis,” and a health care system that will provide adequate treatment to 2.4 million Wisconsin residents with pre-existing conditions.
Evers also called for a state government that is prepared to “take gun violence and global warming seriously,” along with a return to “the Wisconsin values of kindness, integrity, respect and civility.”
Democratic across the board, the incoming administration was elected as part of a blue wave in state offices during the Nov. 6 midterm election. Evers won the governor’s office by a modest 50 to 48 percent margin in a race that was too close to call until around 1:20 am the next morning.
The Wisconsin Legislature, however, is still securely controlled by the GOP, with conservatives holding a 63-16 majority in the State Assembly and a 19-14 majority in the Senate, setting up the potential for friction and gridlock should the two sides be unable to negotiate common ground on a broad variety of policy issues.
The transition between the outgoing Walker administration and the incoming Evers administration has already been anything but smooth, due in large part to the rapid introduction, debate and eventual passage of three bills that were the result of a surprise December lame-duck legislative session.
The legislation signed in its entirety by Walker on Dec. 14 curtails the powers of Evers and Attorney General Kaul as they come into office and gives more power to the Republican-controlled Legislature.
Those provisions, now Wisconsin statutes, give lawmakers the power to appoint board members and restrict Evers’ ability to appoint the chief executive to the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, or WEDC, a public-private jobs agency created during Walker’s tenure.
The new measures also give state lawmakers broad oversight power over moves the governor could make on future health care waivers and codify drug testing and minimum work requirements for some recipients of welfare such as food stamps.
Also now Wisconsin law is a statewide two-week limit on early voting, which has already been challenged in court by liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Institute and others. Their Dec. 17 memorandum asks U.S. District Judge James Peterson to enforce the court’s July 2016 injunction and subsequent order blocking the same types of voting restrictions.
Evers held a news conference last week in which he walked back statements he had made the day before about not complying with the lame-duck laws. Evers said at that news conference he has “no intent of breaking the law.”
Attorney General Kaul was the only incoming state official to directly address the lame-duck session in his inaugural address, saying “that action – unprecedented in Wisconsin and designed to hinder our ability to do the jobs that voters elected us to do – will have an impact.”
“But I want to make clear that irrespective of the actions taken by the lame-duck legislature, the priorities of the Wisconsin Department of Justice are changing,” Kaul asserted.
Kaul used his address to call for safety in Wisconsin’s schools, red-flag laws and universal background checks for guns, revitalization of environmental protections, and expanded efforts to tackle the opioid crisis, the state’s meth problem and beleaguering issues with investigative rape kits.
In additional to Walker, other Republicans leaving their state offices include former Attorney General Brad Schimel, Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch and Treasurer Matt Adamczyk.
Evers leaves behind the position of state schools superintendent, a post he had held since 2009. He has indicated he will be appointing veteran Madison educator Carolyn Stanford Taylor, who was at the state capitol Monday, to succeed him as schools superintendent.
The inauguration ceremony featured performances by local musicians as well as high school choirs and bands. Members of Voces de la Frontera, a grassroots immigrant and worker’s rights group, were also present. They had small bands playing music and demonstrators picketing for pathways to driver’s licenses and in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants, as well as support for dreamers. Evers has indicated support for those positions.
Prominent state figures in attendance included former Governors Jim Doyle, Scott McCallum, Tommy Thompson and Martin Schreiber and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.
“Let’s polka tonight and get to work tomorrow,” Evers said at the conclusion of his speech.