Leah Vukmir, a soft-spoken former nurse, has emerged as one of the heaviest hitters in the Wisconsin Legislature, all by doing it her way.
When rightwisconsin.com, the conservative news site founded by uber-talker Charlie Sykes, started its own awards ceremony for conservative women in 2013, it named its two most prestigious awards after the former prime minister of Great Britain, Margaret H. Thatcher. In 2014, Wisconsin’s first lady, Tonette Walker, took home the coveted Margaret Thatcher award, toasted by her husband, Gov. Scott Walker, and a pair of clean cut, clear-eyed sons who gave speeches attesting to her bravery during the Act 10 protests. The second most coveted trophy, the Iron Lady award, went to a slender state senator with dark hair, who was dressed in a flowing red gown and first hugged her son, an Army lieutenant with the bony toughness of a young soldier, before walking through the standing ovation to the stage at the opulent and aging Pfister Hotel. Seated around the Grand Ballroom was a selection of the Wisconsin conservative bloggerati and other up-and-comers, and the camaraderie was so warm that conservative columnist James Wigderson later said, “You either had a really good time or you tried desperately hard not to.”
The assistant Senate majority leader, Leah Vukmir (R-Brookfield), stood at the fore, calmly scanning the crowd, a golden statement necklace hanging from her neck like a shield. A video had just described her as a “mom with an attitude.” Working from notes, she thanked Sykes for “providing conservatives with a forum and a platform for our ideas as we continually fight the bias of the mainstream media” and worked herself up to the highest volume when describing Thatcher, President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II as “the triumvirate of power that looked the tyrannical forces of communism in the eye and struck them down.” Her speech brought the war home to Wisconsin, saying we also face an “ongoing battle for the fight for freedom and prosperity.” Vukmir isn’t yet a marquee name among Wisconsin voters, but that could change. According to one Democratic staffer, rumors circulated this summer that the legislator would challenge state Sen. Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) for the job of majority leader in 2017, a threat Walker could have neutralized by appointing Vukmir to the vacant Cabinet post of state health services secretary, but he chose someone else, leaving the ambitious senator to find another path upward.
Her speech ended with a line credited to Thatcher: “If you just set out to be liked, you will be prepared to compromise on anything, at any time, and you will achieve nothing.”
Many people don’t like Vukmir, who won election to the state Senate in 2010 as part of the deep-red surge that also made Walker governor and installed Republican majorities in both houses of the Legislature. At the time, talk of the Tea Party was consuming the right, and staunchly conservative positions had suddenly found a more receptive audience in the Wisconsin Statehouse. How you feel about Vukmir’s politics depends largely on how you feel about the most conservative projects taken on by state Republicans in subsequent years: widely expanding school choice, limiting abortion through whatever means possible, requiring a photo ID to vote, opposing Obamacare and waging an ongoing battle against union influence. Insiders describe her as both “the ultimate team player” and someone willing to break ranks in order to pull the party further to the right.
Vukmir has often defined herself by what she’s against. Luke Fuller, a young politico who served as her chief of staff until 2015, says she often had a distinctive answer when asked by a visiting school or lobby group, “What’s your proudest legislative achievement?”
Vukmir often cited “stopping Healthy Wisconsin,” Fuller says. “She doesn’t believe it was the role of state government. It’s an unusual answer because it’s negative space.”
The Democratic measure for a state-run health care plan hit the state Legislature in 2007, when Dems controlled the Senate and Vukmir was still serving in the Assembly. A pediatric nurse practitioner by profession, Vukmir led a competing initiative called “Patients First” that included market stimulators such as greater tax breaks for people who buy health insurance. While only one of that package’s provisions ended up as part of the state budget, the fiercely promoted Healthy Wisconsin initiative became utter roadkill, ending what would have been hailed as a liberal triumph. In just a few years, Democrats would lose complete control of state government as Republicans swept the 2010 election.
Fuller describes himself as a “Walker guy” who worked on the 2010 governor’s race and went on to be political director for Eric Hovde’s U.S. Senate campaign, which lost in the Republican primary to former Gov. Tommy Thompson. Fuller first met Vukmir, then known as an up-and-coming state representative, in the mid-2000s as a Marquette student, possibly at a Wauwatosa GOP pizza party. Vukmir was a common sight at field offices and party events during the 2006 election cycle, when Walker made his first run for governor and ended up bowing out of the primary.
Elected to the Assembly in 2002, Vukmir became part of a group of conservative representatives sometimes called the “spooky caucus” for its unflinching approach to issues, according to a former Republican staffer. Others in that group included Glenn Grothman (R-West Bend), the politically incorrect state rep who later took on Kwanzaa, Martin Luther King Jr. Day and feminism before winning election to Congress, and Frank Lasee (R-De Pere), a former IT salesman. A still earlier member was Mary Lazich (R-New Berlin), who rose to become the first female president of the Senate where she, along with state Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills), became close to Vukmir. Darling was once known as a more moderate Republican but shifted as the tide of conservatives rose around her. One of these was Vukmir, who joked at the Right Wisconsin event she might borrow Thatcher’s idea to start a “Rent a Spine” business after leaving public office.
As a state representative, Vukmir became known for fighting well-intentioned but, she felt, unwise health care proposals such as Healthy Wisconsin and the Mental Health Parity Act, which now requires that insurers treat mental illness the same as other forms of disease. She also opposed a 2007 law mandating that hospitals provide emergency contraception to rape victims as an option, burnishing her credentials as an uncompromising pro-life supporter. State legislatures are not kind places for nicknames, and the former Republican staffer says fellow party members sometimes called Vukmir “Nurse Ratched,” after the martinet in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, or “The Wicked Witch of the East,” based on her district’s geographic location. Some Republican senators used these terms openly, along with the “spooky” label for the insurgents from the Assembly. “She has a very tight group of people,” so tight that it forces out more moderate conservatives, says the former staffer.
In the year 2016, it’s not unusual for a Wisconsin lawmaker to run in a small group. Legislative alliances in the state have only narrowed in the 15 years since deal-maker and moderate Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson left office to become U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services. In this polarized environment, Vukmir’s allies have included such conservative figures as Lasee and Sen. Pam Galloway (R-Wausau), a hard-bitten surgeon and NRA instructor who resigned from the Legislature in 2012 shortly before a recall election, citing health issues in her family. Vukmir, also an NRA member, and Galloway staked out positions that included supporting the use of drug testing for food stamp recipients, which began in 2015.
Which isn’t to say Vukmir can be seen charging down the aisles of the Legislature. “She really works behind the scenes,” says one Democratic staffer who works in the Senate. “She’s not directly confrontational. She’s more dismissive.” She’s learned the adage that “if you have the votes, you shut up and sit down.”
One example of this came during a committee meeting from 2015 quiet enough to hear a legislator’s stomach grumble. Vukmir chairs the Senate Health and Human Services committee, and in June of that year, it voted on a Lazich bill banning abortions in the state past 20 weeks, when many experts contend the fetus can feel pain. While Vukmir signed on as a sponsor, credit for the original authorship went to Lazich and Republicans in the Assembly.
The legislation ultimately succeeded, but state Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-Middleton) staged a last stand in the committee by attempting to introduce an amendment that would have, he argued, given doctors more legal standing to prioritize the mother’s life over that of the fetus’ during an emergency. A former radio host and truck driver, Erpenbach said the 20-week deadline would actually cause more abortions by rushing pregnant women to make a decision. He added that the very bill was being rushed. “The authors of the legislation aren’t real certain what’s in it.
“Here we are as state legislators saying we know better than the doctor,” Erpenbach said. “We shouldn’t pass legislation based on what we think God wants us to do.”
In a firm, almost parental demeanor, Vukmir said his amendment was the thing being rushed, and he would have to take it up on the floor of the Senate. “I really would prefer that you not disparage the authors of the bill in the manner you have,” Vukmir said, looking sideways down the table at Erpenbach. “We kind of have a code around here of not doing that.”
And that was that. Vukmir had little to gain from prolonging debate on the bill, which later passed along party lines.
According to Fuller, Vukmir isn’t at complete loggerheads with Erpenbach and has a relationship with him, along with State Sen. Tim Carpenter (D-Milwaukee), who also serves on the committee. In a common refrain, veterans of the Legislature say the scorched-earth polarization described in the mainstream press is something of a myth. Senators at least get along socially: Vukmir has described a longtime Democratic friend who she will hang out with but not discuss politics. Another friendly acquaintance is state Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee), even though a vast ideological gulf lies between them.
A daughter of Greek immigrants who went on to get a master’s degree in nursing from UW-Madison, Vukmir represents a squarish Senate district composed of parts of West Allis, New Berlin, Brookfield, where she lives in a small house, and Wauwatosa, her old home of many years. On the whole, the territory is Republican, but closer examination reveals whorls of blue and purple in Wauwatosa and West Allis, suburbs adjoining deep-blue Milwaukee. Walker, Vukmir and other Republicans with a foot in Wauwatosa have long joined in a decades-old institution called the Wauwatosa Republican Club, a political action committee under state law. According to an old newsletter, Walker used to hold an annual “Christmas Cookie Taster” at the home of a Republican supporter, to which other local Republicans were invited. Wauwatosa bears additional meaning for Vukmir as the location of the grand Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church, where she’s an active member.
When Walker left the Assembly to become Milwaukee County executive in 2002, Vukmir ran for his seat and won. Her background was in the school choice movement, where she’d risen to become one of the biggest organizers in the state after co-founding a conservative reform group called PRESS (Parents Raising Educational Standards in Schools) in 1994. It claimed the country’s public schools had slid into a wishy-washy liberal morass with no real standards, and as a result, parents should have the power to direct their child’s per-pupil funding to the private school of their choice. In a 2001 video, she says her transition from humble pediatric nurse to conservative standard bearer began the day her 5-year-old daughter, Elena, brought an assignment home from school, “My Newspaper Journal,” for which she was encouraged to use “creative spelling.” Like a 5-year-old, the girl had written “Nooz Paper,” which her teacher apparently thought was fine.
Vukmir turned up at the school to question the teacher and administrators, who said kids’ work wasn’t corrected until the second or third grade “in the interest of not stifling student creativity,” she says. Not wanting to fold, she took her complaints to the local school board and penned letters to the editor, and one of the administrators began a “whisper campaign,” she says, painting her as a “right-wing wacko.” Thoroughly frustrated by the public school system, Vukmir placed her two kids in private schools, including Elena, who went on to work at a hedge fund in Manhattan, and Nicholas, the Army officer-to-be who skated on the local S.W.I.F.T. Speedskating Team while attending Marquette University High School. Vukmir has often shared athletic interests with her children, including golfing, and she was interested enough in speedskating to become a referee.
PRESS also connected Vukmir to Sykes, a fixture in the school choice world of the 1990s and the best friend an aspiring Republican could have. An early Vukmir appearance on his show helped to push PRESS’ membership to over 1,000, and the group held several conferences. As its president, Vukmir penned a number of columns for the PRESS website, now defunct but still accessible through the Internet Archive. One of the last, from 1999, blames the Columbine shooting, in part, on “the self-esteem movement.” She writes that because of “coddling” and “our attempt to protect our youth from pain and sorrow, we are actually ensuring that they will be absorbed by their own self-pity. It is under these circumstances that a despondent teen may find no other recourse but to lose control and act out violently … I fear another Columbine is inevitable.”
PRESS was an early scouting party on the mission to expand school choice statewide. As early as 1997, Vukmir and PRESS were calling for the removal of the income cap in Milwaukee that prevented more affluent families from participating, something that could have benefited her financially and still hasn’t happened, although Walker relaxed the cap somewhat in the 2011 state budget. Come 2013, Vukmir was one of a handful of legislators who pushed hard to add a statewide expansion of school choice to that year’s budget, and such a program was quickly launched that fall.
When Vukmir first won election to the Legislature, one of the people she met was Steve Baas, a prominent and sometimes fiery staffer who went on to be communications director under Republican Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen. He says her move from mom to Madison is “in a lot of ways the classic citizen legislator story.” In recent years, they’ve been in touch because Baas is the lead lobbyist for the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, which scores the voting of lawmakers each year on business-related issues, and for the 2015-16 legislative session, Vukmir has so far received a grade of 100 percent, he says after checking. “Even when we have disagreements with her, her office has always been willing to listen,” he says. For example, Vukmir has attempted to repeal the state’s minimum markup law, which prohibits businesses from selling things below cost, but the MMAC would prefer to keep it in place for certain industries.
Other insiders who have dealt with Vukmir say she’s all black and white and brooks no compromises, even with members of her own party. “You’re either with her or against her, and if you’re against her, she has no time for you,” says the former Republican staffer.
“It’s all her way or the highway,” says one Democratic staffer. “Vukmir is one of a group of very partisan legislators who don’t see any middle.”
In some quarters, Vukmir has also developed a reputation for walling herself off from debate and anyone who disagrees with her. Perhaps more than any other legislator, she’s known for avoiding the Capitol press corps and communicates primarily through statements and interviews with friendly conservative outlets such as the MacIver Institute or Sykes’ show. Multiple calls and emails requesting comment for this story were ignored.
A Wauwatosa-based parent group called Support our Schools (SOS), formed in 2014 as a sort of mom (and dad) lobby, tried and failed for months to get an in-person meeting with Vukmir. SOS is in many ways the diametric opposite of PRESS and supports halting the expansion of voucher programs in the state while lifting the revenue caps that prevent public school districts from raising property taxes. In late 2015, Vukmir agreed to meet with one of SOS’ members but only if she selected the location, the Colectivo Café on North Avenue, and the SOS member agreed not to record the conversation or take notes. “The point of the meeting was to come to an agreement on where she stood,” says Mary Young, SOS’ president, but no such pact was reached. The SOS representative, also hand-picked by Vukmir, “was very frustrated by the conversation.”
SOS has also sought out Vukmir after town hall meetings hosted by U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Menomonee Falls), which the senator sometimes attends in place of holding her own. Although Young says these chats have been “very argumentative,” they still don’t compare to the discord that roiled the March 2011 town hall Sensenbrenner held at the Wauwatosa Library, where the long Firefly Room was filled to capacity with people in heavy winter coats, a few of them holding bright protest signs. The Act 10 protests were still raging in Madison over Walker’s plan to sharply limit collective bargaining for most public employees.
Sensenbrenner sat at a table in the front, a large wooden gavel at the ready, as Vukmir walked up to the podium. “First of all, collective bargaining rights are not being taken away,” she said, to booing.
Sensenbrenner rapped the gavel. “Why do you think we’re here?” a guy yelled from the audience.
“So it’s not being taken away,” Vukmir pressed on. “It will continue for wages.”
Vukmir said the city of Oshkosh estimated it would save $4 million a year under the legislation. “Another example that will help districts all across the country is that through the collective bargaining process…” she continued, but more shouting cut her off.
“We’re not dealing with the country!” shouted a woman carrying an orange “We Support Public Schools” sign.
Sensenbrenner gaveled the table hard. His patience was beginning to fray. Shortly thereafter, he adjourned the meeting, and the legislators packed up and attempted to depart as gracefully as possible as arguments erupted in the crowd.
Vukmir remained calm. A former aide to the senator, Matt Adamczyk, the current state treasurer, says she maintained an even keel throughout all of the protests, even behind the scenes. The Statehouse “was a madhouse, and Leah stood by her views.” Others say that as an unshakable Walker supporter, the protests left her indignant and disdainful of the demonstrators.
In private, Vukmir can come off as downright bloodthirsty in dealing with moderate Republicans and other opponents. Exhibit A is Todd Allbaugh’s testimony from a recent federal lawsuit against Wisconsin’s voter ID law, which requires proof of identity at the polls. As former state Sen. Dale Schultz’s (R-Richland Center) chief of staff, Allbaugh was in the 2011 Republican Senate caucus meeting during which senators discussed the legislation, and a few were “ashen faced” at it, he testified. Vukmir and then state Sen. Randy Hopper, on the other hand, were “politically frothing at the mouth” over the effects the bill could have in Democrat-laden areas such as Milwaukee, where minorities are less likely to have the IDs needed to vote.
Schultz was the only Senate Republican to vote against Act 10 and left the Legislature shortly thereafter, complaining that it had taken on a hyper-conservative tilt. Allbaugh didn’t take a new job in politics and instead opened 5th Element Coffee shop in Madison, where he works seven days a week. Vukmir “was the first Republican to openly and aggressively endorse my former boss’ opponent,” Allbaugh says, “before my boss had decided whether or not he was going to seek reelection.”
That opponent, state Rep. Howard Marklein, an accountant, announced his candidacy at a local GOP event, a cozy Lincoln Day Dinner with all the fixings, where Allbaugh was sitting at a table next to Schultz, who was still pondering whether to retire. Vukmir was also there and got up to endorse Marklein, the eventual victor. A former Senate majority leader, Schultz felt pushed aside by the party he had helped to build. “She wanted him out because he stood for everything she is not,” Allbaugh says, which was, “pragmatic government that worked for all Wisconsinites.”
Few people realize Vukmir is the national chairwoman of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a decades-old conservative organization that brings together a large number of state lawmakers and corporate lobbyists (some of whom are representing tobacco companies) to collaborate on model legislation that the legislators are then encouraged to go back to their states and pass. ALEC’s yearly meetings are held in nice hotels where companies such as the Koch brothers’ Koch Industries sponsor ice cream socials and cigar parties with silver platters (an actual event) for lawmakers and lobbyists to mix.
Vukmir’s precise role in ALEC’s model legislation process isn’t clear from the information the organization makes public. State Rep. John Nygren (R-Marinette), co-chair of the rather important Joint Finance Committee, is another active ALEC member, and Walker is a former one. But a Republican talking on background pooh-poohs ALEC’s impact. “It gets a lot more credit than it deserves for being influential,” he says.
So what’s the appeal? “They get to outsource their thinking to this corporate lobbying organization,” says Lisa Graves, executive director of the liberal Center for Media and Democracy, which is based in Madison. “And they get to meet lobbyists who send $500 or $1,000 to their reelection campaign. They get to be part of a club.”
CMD accuses ALEC of engaging in illegal, unregistered lobbying on a mass scale. Vukmir, on the other hand, has accused CMD of doing its own illegal lobbying, citing an old filing by the AFL-CIO labor union that listed a payment to CMD related to “lobbying.”
Graves says this was funding to look into lobbying in the state, not to carry it out. “She has demonstrated herself to be a shill and engage in baseless attacks,” Graves says.
Vukmir made the accusation during a hearing that was important both for her career and for the state. In late 2015, she was one of the lawmakers behind a plan to disband the Government Accountability Board, the state nonpartisan elections body, and replace it with a pair of bipartisan panels. At the hearing, she described what she called the GAB’s “continued pursuit of unrelenting ludicrousness,” including the board’s failure to investigate CMD for lobbying. Her tone turned to gravel when she got to the matter that she and other Republicans were still insisting this wasn’t all about: the GAB’s participation in the John Doe investigation, then frozen by the court system, into possible illegal coordination between the Scott Walker campaign and conservative groups.
Vukmir’s pitch on behalf of the bill intertwined research, politics, personal anger and analysis, the potent combination that makes standing between Leah Vukmir and a bill one of the most dangerous places in Madison. (Years ago, the same was said about the space between state Rep. Scott Walker and a microphone.) Vukmir said the panel of retired judges that oversees the GAB had fallen asleep and allowed the full-time staff to devolve into “partisan witch hunts” and “detestable” behavior. After she finished her remarks, the hearing went on for almost 12 hours, with a large chunk taken up by heated testimony on the GAB plan. Democrats hated the bill, which later passed along party lines.
Perhaps more than anything, Vukmir wishes to do things on her own terms. “I’m a pretty tough cookie,” she said during an ALEC event in 2014. When asked to impart some advice to her fellow legislators, she didn’t warn against partisanship or being offensive or making enemies, only of doing things based on your own motivations, a conspicuous message for an organization built on closed-door collaboration between elected lawmakers and corporate lobbyists. “Never say something or do something you don’t feel right about doing,” she said, seated onstage as part of a panel of elected officials. “Somebody will say, ‘You really should lead with this bill. You really should say this on the floor.’ Follow your gut. If it doesn’t feel like you, don’t say it.”
‘Lady Leah’ appeared in the October 2016 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
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