Tony Evers is, supposedly, the most mild-mannered, even-tempered and, we are told, boring governor in the United States.
But there was nothing circumspect about the governor of Wisconsin’s response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to reverse almost 50 years of precedent when it came to abortion rights. On June 24, 2022, the right-wing judicial activist majority on the high court voted to overturn the standards set by the court’s previous rulings in the cases of Roe v. Wade (1973) and Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992). Instead of a national guarantee for the right to choose — which had been the settled law of the land — the court asserted that abortion rights are not protected by the U.S. Constitution and that states could effectively eliminate protections for Americans who choose to make decisions about their own bodies.
That was an especially significant ruling for Wisconsin, where polls show voters are intensely pro-choice. Despite widespread support for abortion rights in the state, an 1849 ban on abortion was still on the books. The Dr. Frankensteins in Wisconsin’s Legislature were determined to reanimate the dead law. But Evers was not about to go along with them.
The day after the court’s ruling came down, Evers gathered delegates to the state Democratic convention in La Crosse and declared, “I have seven granddaughters who are girls or young women. Yesterday they were made second-class citizens. That’s bullshit!”
No, that was a fighting governor speaking, and he was prepared to back up his words with a promise to render enforcement of 1849 law — which suggests that anyone who provides an abortion is subject to a felony, with potential jail time of up to six years — meaningless.
“I will provide clemency to any physician that is charged under that law,” announced the governor, who under the Wisconsin Constitution has broad executive authority when it comes to granting reprieves, commutations and pardons.
Evers pledged to support Attorney General Josh Kaul’s efforts to defend abortion rights in the courts. And Evers also pledged to make choice a central issue in the 2022 campaign.
Republicans, who have always underestimated Evers, were sure they could beat the governor, who had been elected in 2018 with margin of just 29,227 votes over former Gov. Scott Walker, an ardent foe of women’s rights.
But Evers provided a master class in how to run for the state’s highest office. He immediately defined his November opponent, conservative businessman Tim Michels, as a threat to public education, local services, labor rights and the progressive policies that have historically defined Wisconsin.
And when Michels made a dismissive comment about democracy — telling a crowd in Jefferson County, “Republicans will never lose another election in Wisconsin after I’m elected governor” — the Evers campaign successfully characterized the Republican as a “dangerous” contender at a time when former President Donald Trump, a key Michels supporter, was turning the Republican Party into a vehicle for voter suppression and the denial of election results.
But the issue that most clearly separated Evers from Michels was the one on which the governor stood strongest: protection for the rights of women.
It proved to be a winning stance, not just because Evers was on the right side of history, but because he knew exactly how to discuss the issue — even when that involved the employment of some salty language.
The voters liked what they heard from Evers. He was not just reelected with a comfortable margin of 51.2-47.8 over Michels. The governor’s 90,239 advantage was three times what he had in 2018.
That was a mandate to fight on for abortion rights in 2023 and beyond. And Evers read it as such. In the final days of 2022, Evers was as unequivocal as the voters wanted him to be.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, sought to muddle the issue by proposing amendments to the 1849 law. Vos, a conniving political careerist who has a long history of opposing abortion rights, said, "I feel like we have areas we could find consensus on.” In particular, Vos talked about adding provisions that might avert prosecution of physicians in cases where the life of the mother was involved, and perhaps in cases of rape or incest. But Vos wanted to keep the overall ban intact.
Trying to sound reasonable, Vos said: "When Gov. Evers said, I'm not going to sign anything that's not a complete repeal — and I'm not going to do rape and incest — that to me is an irrational position. Right? Why would you not sit, negotiate and say, OK, let's see if we can make improvements. Maybe I don't get everything that I want, but I get something that's better for the state."
The problem, as Evers recognized, was that Vos was only willing to negotiate on the issues where there is virtually no support for the hardline Republican position. He was unwilling to negotiate on the broad question of whether a woman has a right to decide what to do with her own body.
Evers recognized what was at stake. And he held his ground on a matter of principle and common sense.
His position was bold and unapologetic. He was a leader who was not prepared to compromise away the right to choose. Vos was upset, but Evers was right.
It was this strength and fortitude that made Tony Evers Wisconsin’s most dynamic political leader in 2022.