Over the weekend, a spokeswoman for Governor Tony Evers conjectured – and that is being charitable (more on that in a moment) – that the reason budget negotiations in Madison aren’t going smoothly, if at all, between the Democratic governor and the GOP leaders in the state Assembly and state Senate is because his designated negotiator, Chief of Staff Maggie Gau, is a woman.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald called the suggestion, “asinine” because he can’t call it what it is. What he likely wanted to call it was all that is malodorous in the farm fields around Juneau, WI this time of year. And he’d be right.
Speaker Robin Vos’ response was more measured yet perhaps more showed the absurdity of the conjecture. He pointed out via Twitter that his Chief of Staff, Director of Communications, and Policy Director are all women. By his response, it’s not hard to conclude that he has no compunction with being counseled by, and he implicitly values, these women and their commitment to public service. I’m willing to bet that he similarly appreciates Gau’s commitment to public service.
But she is not the governor while Vos is the Speaker of the State Assembly and Fitzgerald is the leader of the state Senate. None of them have to like each other and none of them have to like that the others have the positions they have. But they are the elected officials and that is where the negotiations begin. Not as a “directive” from the governor.
According to legislative leaders, Gau’s gender has absolutely zero bearing on the budget negotiations (which will likely become an impasse in under two months). And the more I think about it, I think it’s offensive to Gau to have her boss reduce her to her gender for a political cheap – albeit misaimed and misfired – shot.
Yet, even the tone of the statement struck me as a bit infantilizing.
Evers seems to be rightly proud to have assembled a team of successful women who deserve to be in the roles in which they find themselves. I applaud him for his commitment to elevate women in his administration. But they are not a punchline and yet his spokeswoman, Melissa Baldauff, seems to want to trot them out for show instead of narrating Gau’s unique story. Or Baldauff’s own unique story.
Instead, Evers claims GOP leaders don’t want to negotiate with a woman because they ostensibly harbor Neanderthal views of women?
So, here’s the “more” as summed up by the late Christopher Hitchens, “There is a tendency on the left, to think if someone in any way disagrees with the left it must be for the lowest possible reason and if you found the lowest possible motive you have found the right one. There’s this whole culture of no one would leave us or quarrel with us if they weren’t a sellout. It is actually a very sick mentality and very widespread.”
When I suggested that Evers’ spokeswoman’s statement about the reason GOP leaders in the legislature not negotiating with is “conjecture,” I was indeed being charitable. Evers’ administration seems to fall back to stoking identity politics and bludgeoning Republicans with the gender hammer. It was devoid of a genuine policy statement and real goal.
It was – as Democrats oft accuse Republicans – dog whistling to their base. And Evers’ spokeswoman, Baldauff, knows that. She’s a seasoned and successful political communicator.
This administration seems to bask in a sense of righteousness, nary missing an opportunity to remind everyone that they won an election; from this episode to calling the budget, “The People’s Budget.” (Which is to say nothing of how awkward it is to draw attention to other historical “People’s”, like the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea a.k.a.North Korea, the People’s Republic of China, or the Eastern Bloc countries of Europe until the 1990’s).
All of this seems to underscore what many observers in Madison have been quietly saying: that the Evers Administration doesn’t have a strategy and falls back to election talking points when challenged.
It will be a poor reflection on Evers and Baldauff if they continue to insist on his chief of staff running point on budget negotiations in the current environment and she is unable to maneuver the more experienced and seasoned Messrs. Vos and Fitzgerald. And no fallback to dog whistles about women will sanction that insistence.
Cameron Sholty is a principle at Bell Public Affairs, LLC and has served in both public and private capacities as a communications and public policy advisor. He was Chief of Staff to the former Wisconsin Assembly Majority Leader and Communications Director in the State Senate.