Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers was livid Nov. 5 following the Republican-controlled Senate’s vote to fire Brad Pfaff, who had served as state agriculture secretary since January.
Evers, a Democrat, watched the debate from the Senate chamber — which is highly unusual for a governor to do — as senators voted along party lines 19-14 to oust Pfaff. All 19 Republicans voted to fire Pfaff, while all 14 Democrats voted against. In February, all nine members of the Senate Ag Committee voted in favor of Pfaff as ag secretary, including five Republicans on the committee who voted Nov. 5 to oust him. Those senators are Kathy Bernier, Chippewa Falls; Andre Jacque, De Pere; Howard Marklein, Spring Green; Jerry Petrowski, Marathon; and Patrick Testin, Stevens Point.
According to the Legislative Reference Bureau, the Senate hasn’t voted to reject a governor’s cabinet nominee since before 1987.
About an hour after the Senate voted, Evers’ office issued a statement outlining his frustration and disappointment over the Senate’s actions.
“Brad Pfaff is an extraordinary person and public servant who has dedicated his life to serving and advocating for our farmers, their families and our rural communities,” Evers said (pictured at left). “Brad once even went as far to say that being the secretary of the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection was his dream job, and by golly, it showed. He brought relentless passion and joy to this work, and it was contagious to our cabinet and the people he fought each day to help. Brad has had and will continue to have my full support. I was honored to be able to appoint Brad, and it has been my honor to have the opportunity to serve alongside him these past 11 months.”
Evers called Republicans’ actions “nothing short of callous and cruel to reject a good man who has a good heart and who wakes up every day ready to serve.”
“It was apparently more important for Republicans to serve up political retribution because Brad had the courage and the audacity to scold them for playing politics with farmers’ mental health during this dairy crisis,” Evers said. “Frankly, it would have been a disservice to this state if I’d appointed a secretary who didn’t fight like hell for our farmers, regardless of the consequences. This is the same political B.S. people are sick and tired of, and to say it’s a dark day for Wisconsin is simply an understatement.”
Pfaff, 51, was born in La Crosse and grew up on his family’s 50-cow dairy farm in northern La Crosse County. He received a bachelor’s degree at University of Wisconsin-Green Bay in public and environmental administration and a master’s degree from George Mason University in public administration.
Before being appointed ag secretary, Pfaff was the state executive director of the Wisconsin Farm Service Agency and served as national deputy administrator of farm programs. He also served on the La Crosse County Board and worked as a staffer for former U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., and as deputy chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, D-La Crosse.
Pfaff and his wife and two high school-age children live in Onalaska near La Crosse.
Last summer, Pfaff angered some Republicans when he criticized them for not releasing $200,000 to help fund farmer mental health. He also upset Republicans on Oct. 31 when he moved forward with scheduling a vote on new livestock siting rules for the DATCP board on Nov. 8. The proposed regulations would update the state’s 14-year-old livestock siting rule ATCP 51, which focused on setbacks from property lines, odor, nutrient management, and manure storage requirements that new or expanding livestock facilities must follow.
On Oct. 31, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald told Evers to withdraw Pfaff’s nomination because Fitzgerald didn’t have the support to confirm Pfaff. Evers acknowledged after the vote on Nov. 5 that the DATCP board suspended a vote on the farm siting regulations in an effort to appease Republican senators.
In a statement after the Nov. 5 vote, Fitzgerald said Pfaff was “was part of the problem, not the solution.”
“The liberal Evers administration has been no friend to farmers,” Fitzgerald said. “The Senate will continue to take its role of oversight seriously and will exercise our responsibility to hold them in check.”
While it hasn’t been determined who will lead DATCP, Evers hasn’t ruled out promoting current Deputy Ag Secretary Randy Romanski to the role of secretary and giving Pfaff Romanski’s job.
After the vote, Evers said he doesn’t know who he will appoint as the new ag secretary.
“I can’t even speak about that now, I’m so PO’d about what happened today,” Evers said.
Wisconsin ag groups react
A number of Wisconsin farm organizations sent letters of support to Wisconsin senators and the media citing their support for Brad Pfaff prior to the vote on Nov. 5. Other groups sent emails to the media following the vote. Below are excerpts from comments made by groups before Pfaff was fired.
Wisconsin Corn Growers Association: “As I’m sure you are aware, Wisconsin’s agriculture industry is one of the leading economic drivers of our state, contributing $104.8 billion annually, along with 11.8% of the state’s employment. Every job in agriculture supports an additional 1.46 jobs elsewhere in Wisconsin.
“Wisconsin’s farmers — while providing so much to this great state — are struggling. Here at WCGA, we call it the ‘perfect storm.’ On a federal level, the future of USMCA remains uncertain, and the use of ethanol-blended fuels is still jeopardized by RFS waivers. Our growers are dealing with increased tariffs, low commodity prices and a combination of surprises from Mother Nature, including a wet spring and what appears to be an early winter. Our members need stability and continuity. They need someone to speak on their behalf, to work on their behalf and to put it simply: someone to care. Brad Pfaff is that person.”
Dairy Business Association: “Our dairy farmers are being battered by a perfect storm of challenges, from low milk prices in recent years and extreme weather conditions to shifting regulations and trade disruptions. What we desperately need is certainty and stability, not a political fight. DBA supported Mr. Pfaff’s appointment at the outset, and we see no reason to change that position now. At this critical moment for Wisconsin’s dairy community, the right thing to do is to keep him in place.”
Cooperative Network: “Wisconsin farmers are facing some of the most challenging economic and weather-related conditions they have seen in decades. When Secretary Pfaff was nominated, Cooperative Network joined a group of agriculture groups voicing support for Gov. Evers’ nomination, and we continue to support his confirmation.”
Organic Valley Co-op: “We find Mr. Pfaff to be approachable and to have a strong understanding of food and farm issues informed by his work at FSA, as an agriculture aide for various offices, and as the son of a Wisconsin dairy farmer.
“We have been dismayed to hear his nomination could be in jeopardy. It gives us pause to consider what other options there really would be for this position and how losing DATCP leadership would leave the agency rudderless for an extended period of time — an especially worrisome outcome given the challenging agriculture economy where a fully functioning and stable DATCP is needed.
“While we are not entirely sure what reservation might surround Mr. Pfaff’s nomination, we wanted to make sure and provide our perspective as a cooperative business based in the state with over 500 farm-members and nearly 700 employees in Wisconsin.”
Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association: “Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association supports the confirmation of secretary-designee Brad Pfaff to the role of secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.
“WCMA noted support at the announcement of the secretary-designee in February, citing Mr. Pfaff’s distinguished career in public service, including leadership of the Wisconsin Farm Service Agency for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Those solid credentials remain relevant today.
“In his tenure, the secretary-designee has worked with dairy processors to form a new Dairy Rules advisory committee, take up more reasonable dairy labeling requirements, and partner on expanding dairy export programs.”
The following groups issued statements following the Senate vote to oust Pfaff.
Wisconsin Farmers Union President Darin Von Ruden: “Wisconsin Farmers Union appreciates Brad Pfaff's longtime commitment to family farmers, and we are disappointed in the dysfunction witnessed on the Senate floor today. Pfaff, who was incredibly qualified and already had spent nearly a year in his role, was sacrificed for standing up for the very family farmers he is meant to represent.
“It seems that the Senate is punishing Pfaff for pushing on two critical issues for rural Wisconsin: urgency of mental health funding for farmers in dire times and the need to revisit ATCP 51 to safeguard our water and communities.
“The actions taken by the Senate today have real consequences on the people of Wisconsin and are a disappointment to democratic process. Now, maybe more than ever, our rural places need strong leadership, not partisan divides and squabbles. The political quagmire and lackluster farm policy distract us from the reality: America’s Dairyland continues to lead the nation in farm bankruptcies, with farm loss and farmer mental health issues on the rise. People are hurting out here in farm country.
“The decision the GOP made today cannot be reversed, but WFU reiterates that revisions to the Livestock Siting Law can still be salvaged. The ATCP 51 updates were swiped from the Nov. 7 DATCP board agenda last week, presumably in a last-ditch effort to placate Senate opposition. WFU urges the agency to reinstate this important item and move forward on revisions without delay. For many citizens, this issue has a daily impact, and they have been waiting a decade for updates to the rule.
“These are incredibly tough times in Wisconsin agriculture and in the state’s politics. They require that we muster up our courage, fight for what we believe is right, and push for real change if we truly want a future for family farms. We hope that Gov. Evers will not let political trappings get in the way of the needs of the people. We should be encouraging — not punishing — bold, visionary leaders who are speaking for Wisconsin’s family farmers and our rural communities.”
Other farm groups: Issuing a joint statement were the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, Wisconsin Pork Association, Wisconsin Dairy Alliance, Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Association, Wisconsin Soybean Association, Wisconsin Association of Professional Agricultural Consultants, Wisconsin Cattlemen’s Association and the Wisconsin State Cranberry Growers Association.
“We respect the governor’s nomination of Brad Pfaff as DATCP secretary. Earlier this spring, we issued a joint statement of support for his nomination and supported him at his confirmation hearing.
“We also respect the authority of the state Senate to review leadership appointments for state agencies and departments. We are confident that they aim to defend and promote agriculture in Wisconsin.
“As an agricultural community, we strive to work together with leaders in state and local government to support and maintain Wisconsin’s farm economy. We look forward to working together to support the development of strong agriculture policy in Wisconsin.”