Insurrection, partisan turmoil, election division: A 2021 timeline of Wisconsin politics
MADISON, Wis. — Divisive partisan fights over COVID-19 relief funds and mandates. Review after review of election results already recounted and authorized in 2020. Court battles over political maps.
In Wisconsin, 2021 continued to make national headlines and will stay in the center of national politics as one of the major U.S. battleground states in 2022. Here’s a timeline of Wisconsin’s biggest political and statewide headlines of 2021:
- The Jan. 6 violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol prompts bipartisan condemnation from Wisconsin’s Congressional delegation–but they go on to follow party lines in a failed vote to impeach President Trump later in January
- In February, Sen. Ron Johnson will say it ‘didn’t seem like an armed insurrection’
- The GOP-led legislature kicks off the year trying to agree on a COVID-19 relief package (the first legislation passed since April 2020), but the Assembly wants stricter limitations to pandemic safety precautions than the Senate.
- It bounces between chambers, and the final bill doesn’t include a compromise the Senate worked out with Gov. Evers, leading to his veto in February
- Meanwhile, Wisconsin’s vaccine rollout is off to a slow start–but will shift by March into one of the nation’s leading states
- No charges are brought against the Kenosha Police officer who shot Jacob Blake.
- Later, in October, federal officials will decline to charge him as well
- A legislative effort, started in January, to repeal Gov. Evers’ statewide mask mandate comes to a head: On February 4, Gov. Evers issues a new mandate the same day the Assembly repeals his existing one.
- In a sign of what becomes Wisconsin’s dominant political headline in 2021, a legislative committee approves an audit by a nonpartisan state bureau of the 2020 election results–even though a partial recount and statewide canvassing have upheld a Joe Biden victory. It’s the first of several reviews Republicans launch this year, despite the 2020 election results being certified and upheld through partial recounts. Later in the month, Republicans also introduce bills to restrict voting in Wisconsin; Gov. Evers will veto them later in the year.
- 10 years since Act 10: February marks the 10th anniversary since Gov. Scott Walker introduced legislation that would effectively eliminate most public sector unions in Wisconsin.
- Gov. Evers signs a rare bipartisan bill that will launch a system overhaul to the state’s outdated unemployment system after major backlogs throughout 2020. But as the year continues, the unemployment saga in Wisconsin is not over as a backlog of appeals drags on:
- N3I: As Wisconsinites return to work, some pandemic unemployment claims remain unpaid
- N3I: She quit her job to care for her children during COVID. Now, Wisconsin demands $30K repayment for unemployment benefits.
- N3I: For Wisconsinites facing thousands in unemployment debt, monthly payments could cost hundreds
- Vaccine rollout speeds up: Wisconsin passes 1 million mark for first doses of COVID-19 vaccine early in the month–and then again hits 1 million fully-vaccinated Wisconsinites at the end
- Also at the end of March, the statewide mask mandate is removed for good as the Wisconsin Supreme Court rules Gov. Evers exceeded his authority with the order
- Legislature Republicans try to take control of how to spend federal COVID-19 relief funds, a responsibility the federal government largely gave to governors. Evers vetoes the bill.
- As the year goes on, they’ll keep trying to control the funds for things like additional stimulus payments or rewards for schools who kept in-person learning. Evers will veto all those measures.
- The governor controls about $3.2 billion of the funds, and will spend the rest of the year disbursing it across Wisconsin
- A Republican businessman files a lawsuit challenging voting practices like dropboxes in Wisconsin; the Wisconsin Supreme Court will go on to drop the lawsuit in June.
- This is the first of a couple election-related lawsuits filed in Wisconsin this year (several others were also filed in the immediate aftermath of the 2020 election.)
- Assembly Republicans authorize another elections investigation with the power to issue subpoenas.
- This is the second election review Republicans launch this year. The first is an audit to be conducted by the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau.
- A dash of bipartisanship: Evers signs a bill allowing bars and restaurants to sell cocktails-to-go
- Wisconsinites 16 and older become eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. Nationwide, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is briefly paused as the CDC investigates rare cases of blood clots following the shot.
- The Wisconsin Supreme Court rules that a now-expired statewide executive order limiting indoor capacity limits exceeds the governor’s authority, further limiting future statewide orders designed to control the pandemic
- Donald Trump endorses Sen. Ron Johnson for a third term. To date, despite a year of speculative headlines, Sen. Johnson has still not announced whether he plans to seek reelection.
- As the year progresses, a slate of Democrat contenders emerge in what will likely be a lively and expensive 2022 primary, including frontrunner lieutenant gov. Mandela Barnes, Bucks executive Alex Lasry, state treasurer Sarah Godlewski, and Outagamie County executive Tom Nelson.
- A task force set up to examine policing and race relations in Wisconsin after the racial reckoning of 2020 releases 18 recommendations for police reform.
- Wisconsin attorney general Josh Kaul launches sweeping probe into sexual assault allegations among Catholic clergy statewide
- Vaccine demand begins to drop off, as people who want a COVID-19 vaccine finish their initial series while hesitancy in other populations remains. The state approves the Pfizer vaccine for children between ages 12 and 15.
- In what hindsight will tell us is a short-lived respite amid declining cases, the state begins to relax COVID-19 safety recommendations for the vaccinated.
- Assembly Speaker Robin Vos makes the first hires for the Assembly-led elections investigation: former police officers.
- Two officers quit within weeks.
- It’s Wisconsin’s biennial budget year, and the GOP-controlled legislature begins its back-and-forth with Gov. Evers to sign a 2-year budget into law. In May, they scrap dozens of priorities from his proposals, like marijuana legalization, expanded Medicaid, and a repeal of Act 10.
- Legislature Republicans begin a push for an early end to extra federal unemployment benefits, on which they blame an emerging labor shortage.
- The Delta variant begins spreading in Wisconsin.
- As the LAB audit and Assembly-led election review continues, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports several GOP lawmakers visit the controversial elections audit in Arizona.
- The Arizona audit later upholds Biden’s victory in the state
- Later in June, as Republicans gather for their annual state convention, Donald Trump calls out the state’s most prominent GOP leaders for not doing enough to investigate election results. It makes national headlines, sets off a flurry of responses, and comes alongside a new hire in the Assembly-led election review: Former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman, which Speaker Vos announces at the state convention.
- Before the state hires him to review the election results, Gableman said the election was ‘stolen’.
- In one of several headlines in 2021 where Sen. Ron Johnson spread misinformation about the coronavirus, YouTube suspends him for COVID misinformation.
- The Wisconsin Assembly approves bills banning transgender athletes from competing in women’s sports.
- The chair of the state’s Natural Resources Board, which sets policy for the Department of Natural Resources, refuses to step down after his term expires, citing a little-used state law.
- It’s the year Wisconsin will redraw its political maps, as it does every ten years after the U.S. Census. With a divided government, the maps are sure to end up in the courts. July sees early indicators of that after the Wisconsin Supreme Court allows Republicans to resume working with their taxpayer-funded private attorneys ahead of anticipated litigation.
- The GOP-controlled legislature will ultimately pass maps that Gov. Evers will veto. In November, Democrats will split over their own maps, with some rejecting those drawn by Gov. Evers’ Peoples Map Commission and others drawing up new maps.
- Speaker Vos expands the reach and timeline of Gableman’s election investigation. Meanwhile, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports a New London man begins his own investigation into election results, demanding to inspect ballots at municipalities statewide.
- Fundraising for 2022 elections ramps up in the governor and senate races.
- As COVID-related mandates (and bans on mandates) begin to take center stage in Wisconsin, former Republican governor and current interim University of Wisconsin-System President Tommy Thompson lashes out, threatens lawsuits after the GOP legislature tries to limit COVID precautions the UW can put in place on its campuses.
- Gov. Evers launches a vaccine incentive program.
- In August, we learn Michael Gableman also traveled to watch the Arizona audit (using taxpayer funds), as well as the symposium on election fraud led by the MyPillow chief executive. Separately, a GOP state lawmaker tries to issue a subpoena for their own elections investigation; state attorneys call it invalid.
- As versions of race-related theories in education connected to critical race theory, or CRT, become a flashpoint nationwide for the Republican platform, Wisconsin Republicans introduce and debate similar bills in the legislature.
- Gov. Evers won’t sign it into law, but in September the legislature passes a ban on teaching these theories to students and state employees.
- After the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, Wisconsin’s only U.S. military base at Fort McCoy learns it will house some of the tens of thousands of Afghan refugees fleeing the country.
- The announcement prompts Republican lawmakers to stoke fears about refugee vetting.
- Longtime Rep. Ron Kind (D-03) announces he won’t seek reelection.
- Wisconsin politics are once again in the national news as Gableman defends his elections investigation, and threatens clerks with subpoenas. Still, it’s not enough for some Wisconsin conservatives; former Milwaukee County sheriff David Clarke leads a protest at the state capitol saying the probe is insufficient (other election reviews are also still ongoing).
- The Associated Press reports some local elections officials expressed security concerns about a strange email coming from the Gableman probe.
- We learn Gableman has a former Trump official assisting him on the probe. Names of other taxpayer-funded staffers for the investigation remain secret. We’ll gradually learn their names, and how many have partisan ties, have tried to overturn election results, or have backgrounds connected to fraud.
- Thousands of Afghan refugees arrive at Fort McCoy, reaching at its height about 13,000; reports of issues with food, clothing, and medical care begin to emerge.
- Actions in redistricting lawsuits ramp up from both Republicans and Democrats. Republicans propose maps with few changes from the current ones; Gov. Evers Peoples Map Commission releases its maps as well which improve chances for Democratic districts but don’t entirely eliminate Republican advantages.
- Evers will veto the Republican maps in November, setting up court battle.
- Department of Workforce Development announces a partnership with an IT company to streamline the unemployment claims process, after massive backlogs in 2020 and ongoing appeal backlogs in 2021. They announce they’ll be using $80 million in federal funds to upgrade their system.
- After months of leadup, former lieutenant governor Rebecca Kleefisch formally launches her Republican bid for governor in 2022.
- Gableman kicks off the month serving his first subpoenas to Wisconsin Elections Commission and officials of the state’s five largest cities.
- Days later, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports Gableman said he ‘does not know how elections work’.
- Criticism of the probe mounts; Republicans resist efforts to turn over records from the review; attorney general Josh Kaul asks a court to block subpoenas.
- Once again, the issue puts Wisconsin in national news.
- Meanwhile, the LAB audit Republicans separately authorized in February returns its report, finding the election in Wisconsin was ‘safe and secure’ but includes recommendations for improvement. The state Senate announces it will launch its own elections investigation, separate from the ongoing Assembly-led Gableman probe.
- Anti-abortion bills clear the state Senate as similar anti-abortion pushes takes center stage nationwide; Gov. Evers will veto the bills later this year.
- Wisconsin could become one a of a small handful of states nationwide that revert to an old state law banning abortions if Roe v. Wade is overturned in 2022. In December, Attorney General Josh Kaul will announce he doesn’t plan to enforce the law.
- Tragedy in Waukesha: Six are killed and dozens more injured when suspect Darrell Brooks is accused of driving his SUV through the Waukesha holiday parade.
- Brooks is out on a $1000 bail when it happens. Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm says a staffer set the bond ‘inappropriately low’; now, some have filed a formal complaint asking governor to fire him.
- The tragedy also sparks calls for bail reform, which Gov. Evers suggests he might support.
- Kyle Rittenhouse is found not guilty of murder in the killings of two people during protests in Kenosha following the police shooting of Jacob Blake in 2020.
- Wisconsin’s chief elections official, Megan Wolfe, defies GOP calls for her resignation, and defends how the 2020 elections were run.
- State Republicans discredit the bipartisan elections commission they set up, and a heating-up race for Secretary of State includes signs that Republicans will want to invest the role with election administration powers.
- Vos says WEC commissioners ‘probably’ should be charged with felonies after a Racine County Sheriff investigation purports to find a handful of coerced nursing home ballots (but no charges are recommended). GOP gubernatorial candidate Rebecca Kleefisch files a lawsuit against the WEC.
- While gubernatorial election results in Virginia and New Jersey project a tough 2022 road for Gov. Evers in Wisconsin, Democrats see a failure to unseat the Mequon-Thiensville school board in a recall election that garners national attention as a hopeful sign for how race-related education issues will fare at the ballot box.
- Wisconsin’s unemployment rate reaches a tied historic low rate of 3%, below pre-pandemic levels.
- In a far-reaching decision that will benefit Republicans for years to come, the Wisconsin Supreme Court rules it will only accept new political maps to rule on which have minimal changes to the current maps.
- The Omicron variant begins spreading in Wisconsin. Hospitals plead with the public to get vaccinated as COVID hospitalizations reach highest they’ve been since last December and staffing shortages and overcrowding threaten to overwhelm hospitals.
- The Gableman probe, which was supposed to be completed by the end of the year and costing hundreds of thousands in taxpayer dollars, will now drag into 2022.
- Gableman files a lawsuit seeking to jail Madison and Green Bay mayors if they don’t sit for interviews. Both say they haven’t been properly requested to testify, and Madison mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway says she will only interview in public. The hearing is now set for January.
- The fight to block subpoenas in court continues, with a December hearing on Kaul’s requested block and a decision expected in January. Kaul is arguing the subpoenas are too broad, and that testimony should be public–not behind closed doors.
- Big-name changes in the Wisconsin legislature:
- Longtime Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett resigns to accept an appointment as ambassador to Luxembourg, which is confirmed in the U.S. Senate.
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