Wisconsin's Most Significant Governors & How The Job Has Changed Over The Years

Jan 7, 2019

New Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers was sworn in Monday, before a packed crowd at the Capitol. He told the audience, "the people of Wisconsin demanded a change this November, and that change is coming."

Evers is the former head of the state Department of Public Instruction. He replaces Republican Scott Walker, who served two four-year terms.

Walker was among five of Evers' predecessors who attended the inauguration. Evers is the state's 46th governor.

While Walker made big news often during his time in office, Michael Stevens does not list him as one of the governors who's had the greatest impact. Stevens is a former state historian for the Wisconsin Historical Society. 

Wisconsin's Most Significant Governors

1) Francis McGovern (1911-1915)

Francis McGovern was governor of Wisconsin from 1911-1915.
Credit Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

Stevens considers Francis McGovern to be the state's "most effective and significant governor."

He says McGovern was a Republican from Milwaukee, who outlined an agenda that sounds "remarkably" modern in his State of the State Address in 1911.

"He was advocating for campaign finance reform, increased teacher pay, road improvements, natural resource protection, tax fairness, increase to the UW budget, vocational education and so on," Stevens explains. "We don't remember him that much because he wasn't flashy like the La Follettes. He was kind of an inside nuts and bolts good government guy."

Stevens says McGovern also stands out because most of the items he called for in 1911 were enacted into law.

"There was a corrupt practices act, today's vocational education school — that entire system was created under him, the first county ag agents were started, what we now know as worker's compensation was passed. The predecessor of the DNR was created — a forest commission, the predecessor of the DOT — highway commission. And there were even some other ideas that he proposed that didn't become law during his term but were enacted later, things like recall elections or the line-item veto," Stevens says.

McGovern argued that political freedom and social justice went hand-in-hand, Stevens says.

2) Pat Lucey (1971-1977)

Pat Lucey was governor of Wisconsin from 1971-1977.
Credit Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

Stevens says Democrat Pat Lucey was Wisconsin's second most significant governor, in part, because he was effective at working across the aisle.

He says Lucey's biggest achievement was a merger of the University of Wisconsin campuses — including Madison and Milwaukee — and the Wisconsin State University System, which included places like Platteville, Whitewater, Eau Claire and La Crosse.

"What Pat Lucey was trying to do was rationalize the whole UW system, allowing people to transfer back and forth, [so] that there would be some kind of consistency, and eliminate the kind of annual competition between the campuses and the different systems to make it easier for the state to rationally allocate money and view it as a statewide educational system, rather than having to deal with separate appropriations bills," Stevens says.

The concept was very controversial, according to Stevens. He says when the merger was enacted into law, it created the UW System that we know today, which at the time was the largest state university system in the country.

Stevens says Lucey also is known for other measures, which "really made a difference for people's pocketbooks," such as equalization of aid for school districts, tax distribution to local governments and tax reform. The historian calls Lucey "very much a good government kind of guy."

How The Role Has Changed

As Tony Evers prepared to take office in December, Republicans in the Legislature moved swiftly to limit his powers, as well as the powers of new Attorney General Josh Kaul, a fellow Democrat. Stevens says the changes were not the first to affect the authority of governors in Wisconsin.

The historian says in the 19th century, governors played a much less prominent role than they do today. Stevens says in the 20th century, there were several significant changes that gave the governor more power.

  • The state budget: In 1931, the governor received the authority to create an executive budget. Stevens says under the previous system, each state agency submitted its own budget, which made it hard for governors to manage the state's finances as a whole. He says the change allows the governor to be involved in the process from the beginning.
  • The line-item veto: Stevens says Wisconsin governors have one of the strongest veto pens in the nation, thanks to legislation in 1930 that created the line-item veto. Prior to that time, he says governors could only veto a state budget or sign it, in its entirety. He says the line-item veto gave governors much more power. Now they can alter budgets by crossing out language and making changes to dollar amounts.
  • The creation of a cabinet form of government: Stevens says Wisconsin did not have agency heads until 1971. He says when the cabinet system was created, it gave governors secretaries of departments who've been "really, really important" in carrying out the governors' plans.
  • Longer terms: There was another significant change in 1971, according to Stevens. He says the term of governor grew from two years to four years. He says the longer term gives governors time to both get acquainted with the job and to bring proposals to fruition.

What About Walker & Evers?
Scott Walker, Wisconsin's 45th governor, was recently replaced by Gov. Tony Evers.
Credit Courtesy Scott Walker/Tony Evers

Many voters in Wisconsin have firm opinions about Scott Walker's tenure. Some may already be forming opinions of Tony Evers and what he's likely to accomplish during his time in office. But it's too early for historians like Stevens to form such views.

"As a historian, it's really hard to look at what's gone on in the last 20-30 years because we don't know how the story turns out. There are always these inadvertent twists and turns. Many people are very surprised, for instance, that in 1910 the Republican Party was the party of big spending, government regulations. The Democratic Party was the party of low taxes, small government. If you asked a historian in 1910 about that they'd probably say it's too close because things do flip and change," Stevens says.