State Superintendent Tony Evers launched his campaign against Gov. Scott Walker on Wednesday, pledging to heal political divisions, devote more money to schools and colleges, and to improve wages for middle-class workers.

Evers, 65, said in an interview Tuesday that he’s running because of a pervasive divisiveness created by Walker, who he said is “pitting people against each other.”

“Bottom line is we are in desperate need of a change,” Evers said. “Clearly he’s failed on uniting our state. He started out talking about dividing and conquering and to this day we continue to face that. Families fighting with each other — my wife and her sister don’t talk to each other much. A small example, but it happens all across the state.”

Evers made his formal announcement in front of a playground in a Fitchburg park, saying he has seen “first-hand” the effects of Walker’s approach on school funding since taking office in 2011.

“Walker raided public education to fund tax cuts for wealthy corporations,” Evers said. “I’ve watched voters in hundreds of school districts across Wisconsin vote to raise their own taxes because Walker’s policies had not given them the resources they needed to do the job.”

Evers’ announcement comes four months after winning his third four-year term as the head of the Department of Public Instruction, which oversees Wisconsin’s 422 school districts and the state’s four private school voucher programs.

He said he chose to seek a higher office, in part, because of “inadequate resources” from the state to schools and higher education institutions, which he said has a negative impact on the state’s workforce.

“We need to rebuild our middle class — clearly it’s in significant disarray and people frankly just aren’t paid enough to support a family,” Evers said.

In his first years in office, Walker cut millions of dollars from K-12 and higher education, or kept funding flat. He also has proposed $649 million in new funding for schools in the next two-year budget — part of an education funding plan that is higher than what Evers proposed earlier this year.

In response, Walker’s campaign spokesman Joe Fadness cited the state’s record-low unemployment rate as the governor’s commitment to Wisconsin workers.

“Under Gov. Walker’s leadership, Wisconsin is a top 10 state for business and education, more people are working than ever before, and our future is bright with bold reforms making possible tens of thousands of family-supporting jobs through Foxconn’s historic investment,” Fadness said, referring to a proposal Walker has championed to convince the Taiwanese tech giant to build its first U.S. plant in Wisconsin.

Evers called Walker’s proposal to give Foxconn a $3 billion incentive package “an extraordinarily risky amount of money.”

“I think it’s plain as the nose on my face that most of those production jobs will be short-lived,” Evers said Tuesday, adding that state officials need to secure a promise from the company to train workers if their jobs are eventually replaced with robots. He also said on Wednesday he would seek to renegotiate the deal with Foxconn if elected.

Crowded Democratic field

Walker has not yet formally announced he will seek a third term, and Evers joins what could be a crowded field of Democratic candidates looking to challenge the governor.

Evers says his three wins in statewide races, his experience leading a state agency and his central Wisconsin roots set him apart from announced Democratic candidates Rep. Dana Wachs, an attorney from Eau Claire, and Milwaukee businessman Andy Gronik.

“I have lived most of my life outside of the Madison bubble — probably more so than even the governor,” Evers said.

Evers was born in Plymouth and worked in or oversaw school districts in Tomah, Oakfield and Verona. He was first elected state superintendent in 2009.

Jake Hajdu, spokesman for Wachs, said Wachs is the only Democrat in the race who “has the background to win a general election against Scott Walker.”

Gronik said Wednesday the “high caliber of individuals considering a run for governor is a strong reflection of Scott Walker’s unpopularity and the deep divisions that he has created across the state.”

Evers said his time running school districts and regional and state agencies make him better suited than his Democratic opponents and Walker for overseeing state operations.

“Executive experience is a critical issue in this governor’s race — and to being governor,” Evers said. “You only need to point to Lincoln Hills as an example. How in the hell did that happen?”

The Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls, the state’s youth prison, has been under investigation for more than two years over allegations of abuse and sexual assault of inmates and has been at the center of a number of federal lawsuits.

Walker has been criticized for being slow to recognize problems at the facility and for not visiting it since the allegations surfaced.

“I don’t think he’s ever stepped foot in that place — how is that doing your job?” Evers said.

But Republicans are also criticizing Evers for decisions that “left children in danger.” The state party this week released an online ad attacking Evers for not revoking a license of a Middleton teacher who looked at pornographic materials at school and shared them with other teachers, and for a DPI software error that resulted in DPI unable to verify four-year graduation rates for 2016.

“Madison bureaucrat Tony Evers can try to distract voters from his record of standing with teachers who circulate porn in schools, but they know that his troubling mismanagement is bad for Wisconsin,” said Alec Zimmerman, spokesman for the state Republican party.

Evers said Tuesday he could not have legally revoked the teacher’s license and that he and the DPI “led the way” in changing state law to allow DPI to revoke licenses in similar incidents.

Union backing

Evers has been backed heavily by teachers unions in his previous three races. Those unions were especially weakened by Act 10, which nearly eliminated their collective bargaining power and resulted in massive losses in membership and in money.

But Evers, who signed a petition to recall Walker over Act 10, stopped short of saying he would seek to repeal Act 10 if elected governor.

Evers said as governor he would make sure public employees have a “great opportunity for leadership positions” and “have a voice in their workplace” through employee advisory councils and requiring employees’ opinions of agency policies be considered by their bosses.

“If the Legislature approved a bill that would reinstate collective bargaining rights I, of course, would sign it but I don’t want to over-promise on something that I don’t believe is going to happen the first week I’m governor,” Evers said.

Evers also said he would:

  • Take federal money available to expand Medicaid and criticized Walker for not doing so.
  • Seek to make more independent the state’s elections and campaign ethics agencies.
  • Ensure that the state’s taxpayer-funded statewide voucher program is funded differently, and did not signal he would move to scale back or eliminate the state’s voucher programs.
  • Seek to eliminate or reject policies and proposals championed by Walker that require recipients of taxpayer-funded food stamps and health care to work and be screened for drug use in order to receive the benefits.
10
4
31
2
61

Molly Beck covers politics and state government for the Wisconsin State Journal.