Legislators from both sides of the aisle gathered at the Governor’s Mansion on Tuesday for an afternoon brat cook-out designed to promote unity and heal divisions after a very contentious legislative session and recall election. Dubbed the “Beer and Brat Summit,” the event was announced during Governor’s victory speech after last week’s election and was the brainchild of Wisconsin First Lady Tonette Walker.
The use of the term “summit” to characterize this social gathering is somewhat misleading, as a summit would suggest that policy discussions, not just social connections, were the substance of the event. The press release from the Governor’s office detailing the picnic included Gov. Walker’s vision, “ I am hopeful this get-together will forge relationships that will make it easier to work together to help create jobs.”
Invited guests were greeted by a vigilant group of protesters petitioning for a real dialogue about citizen concerns, and questioning the appropriateness of a private event attended by public servants at a residence financed by taxpayer dollars. The Governor’s office claimed that Wisconsin’s Open Meetings laws did not apply to this particular gathering of public officials. More than enough legislators were in attendance to meet quorum and official business was conducted, according to reports from inside the event. Some might argue that any bipartisan function designed to help foster an environment where effective policy change can occur is public business subject to our state’s laws.
The gathering was closed to the media, as well as the public. Despite the media ban inside the event, numerous satellite television teams positioned their crews outside the mansion for the obligatory afternoon live shot as the legislators and their invited guests, mostly staff, filed in after showing a photo ID to security personnel. The media frenzy included news choppers circling above the Maple Bluff residence. The event created front page headlines in almost every corner of the state.
Many legislators were in attendance. The official RSVP list showed that 98 legislators(37 Democrats, 60 Republicans, 1 Independent) planned to attend, although several questioned the motivations of the Governor as there has been so little positive communication during the last 18 months in Wisconsin politics. Some declined the invitation to socialize over bratwurst and beer, citing schedule conflicts or their concerns over the messaging to their constituents.
Rep. Mark Pocan issued a statement noting, “A first step towards true reconciliation would be for the Governor to apologize for his statement to ‘divide and conquer.’ The public needs to know that the past rhetoric is truly over, and that means the Governor has to take honest, meaningful steps towards working together.“
Senator Jon Erpenbach declined to attend and explained via his Facebook page: “Brats and beer… I’m taking a pass and here’s why. I’ve attempted to reach out many times the past year and a half to work with Gov Walker and the Republicans. I’ve participated in committee hearings and offered dozens of amendments on the Senate floor and will continue to do so. We don’t need a “Brat and A Beer Summit” in order to send a message to Wisconsinites that Democrats and Republicans can get along. A real sign to the people of Wisconsin would be to give everyone a seat at the table, before legislation is signed, sealed and delivered… you know, actually include Democrats in the process. Nothing would send a louder signal to the people we were elected to serve. So, let’s do the job we were all elected to do, and that’s to work together to make Wisconsin the best it can be.”
Rep. Kelda Helen Roys wrote the governor a letter, explaining her decision to boycott the event. “If you are truly interested in working with Democrats to move our state forward, I suggest offering some meaningful compromise on policy, rather than a photo opportunity cookout at the mansion.”
Rep Steve Nass based his decision to boycott the event on recent statements made by Sen. Fred Risser and DPW Chair Mike Tate and sent a clear message, “ We encourage our children to stand up to bullies. That’s exactly what must happen in the Legislature,” Nass said. Sen. Frank Lasee was one of several other legislators who stayed away.
The intense media presence descended upon legislators as they granted brief interviews upon arriving at the mansion, explaining their willingness to break bread and have a brew with their colleagues. Senators Dale Schultz and Bob Jauch, a successful team during the mining legislation debates, were upbeat as they chatted with reporters. Sen. Schultz declared, “Most people in Wisconsin want us to come together and do the people’s business.” Sen. Jauch was heard saying that reporters should ask former Senate majority leader Scott Fitzgerald to “recognize the will of the people and acknowledge the majority party in the Senate.“ He then quoted “Fighting” Bob La Follette, “The cure to the ills of democracy is greater democracy.”
Governor Walker greeted his guests and helped cook brats during the event, and seemed intent on not conducting any official business. Guests who took advantage of the opportunity to initiate a dialogue with the governor were met with a smile and a handshake.
Rep. Chris Taylor used her time with the Governor to question him about how he would heal the deep divisions in the state, or if he would abandon the divisive social agenda responsible for wreaking havoc on working families. His response to both questions, “Focus on the economy.” When asked about their brief conversation, Taylor mused, “The great leaders through history bring people together.”
Taylor, a first term legislator, was extremely grateful for the opportunity to have access to people that she normally isn’t able to meet with and sought out Dennis Smith, whom she questioned about the attacks on Planned Parenthood. While he had no definitive answers to her questions about who was providing services in counties where Planned Parenthood had been defunded, he did promise to come to her office soon, which can be interpreted as a positive first step, if and when such a meeting takes place.
Rep. Taylor commented on her Facebook post after the social, “Do I believe that things are going to change? No. Am I glad I expressed my opinions and asked the questions I went to ask? Yes.”
The list of sponsors donating food and beverages to the event read like a who’s who of the Wisconsin Grocer’s Association, who helped coordinate the event with the Governor’s office, and who have generously donated in the past to several GOP campaigns, including Walker’s. A recent blog on Badger Democracy highlights the connections between WGA and this particular social event. While no official business was to be conducted, the opportunity to be associated with the Brat Summit appeared to reward businesses who have had favorable relationships with the Governor’s office.
“Moving Wisconsin Forward” was the motto on the custom Sprechers root beer label served at the cook out. We will do our best to keep tabs on everyone, including those left behind, as our Badger State moves forward.