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As Walker exits, Vos ready to step forward

Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — His voice nearly gone following all-night negotiations, Robin Vos stood on the floor of the Wisconsin Assembly just after sunrise and calmly made the case for legislation meant to take power away from the incoming governor.

In his typical measured tones, the Assembly speaker ridiculed Democratic opposition as hysterical overreaction and pushed back against those who would portray the legislative proposals as nothing more than a power grab: “I don’t think what you believe makes you evil.”

Then, when the bell rang for the vote, Vos won — as usual.

Vos, who has been speaker since 2013, is used to being at the center of biggest political battles in Wisconsin. As his fellow Republican Gov. Scott Walker leaves office, Vos is positioning himself to take over as the state’s most powerful Republican and hunkering down to protect conservative priorities in this Midwestern swing state from Gov.-elect Tony Evers, a Democrat.

It’s a natural transition for Vos, a central player in Walker’s 2011 battle against public unions and a big contributor to nearly a decade of Republican dominance in the state. He was the driving force behind the lame-duck legislation, requesting that bills be drafted and outlining GOP goals to reporters the day after Walker’s defeat.

Republicans love Vos for his ability to marshal a huge Assembly majority for maximum gain. Critics point to the lame-duck bills and others like them to deride him as “Boss Vos,” a power-hungry opportunists.

“Scott Walker is the public face of conservative power and punishing your enemies,” said Scot Ross, an activist with the liberal group One Wisconsin Now, the source of the “Boss Vos” nickname. “Robin Vos is the behind-the-scenes guy who executes that plan.”

U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, a Democrat who served with Vos in the state Assembly, forged a friendship over long hours of committee meetings despite their sharp differences. He said he respected Vos for his ability to get things done, calling him “very smart and strategic.”

“Often, when everyone in a room is playing checkers, Robin’s playing chess,” Pocan said.

Vos got his start in politics early, serving as a student member of the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents from 1989 to 1991. His roommates included Andy Speth, a future chief of staff for House Speaker Paul Ryan; as well as future White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and future Racine County Executive Jim Ladwig.

Vos started at the Capitol as a legislative aide under Ladwig’s parents before winning election to an Assembly seat in 2004. He was appointed two years later to the powerful budget-writing committee and, in 2011, cut off testimony in the middle of the night during a debate on Walker’s proposal to gut collective-bargaining rights for public workers.

Since ascending to the speaker’s position, Vos has helped Republicans build the biggest majority they’ve seen since 1957, giving the party 64 members in the Assembly in the 2016 election. This year, after months of warnings about a blue wave and even as Democrats won every race for an office representing the entire state, Republicans managed to lose only one seat in the Assembly.

Democrats have said that outcome was the result of the state’s having gerrymandered legislative maps, which Vos helped draw up and has defended against legal challenges. Vos maintained that Republicans won because voters support the party’s accomplishments.

While helping to shepherd Walker’s priorities through the state Legislature, including laws making Wisconsin a right-to-work state and cutting taxes by billions of dollars, Vos has also convened various bipartisan task forces to take up issues such as foster care and Alzheimer’s care. He was also instrumental in bringing together Republicans and Democrats to reach a deal this year on a proposed overhaul of the state’s juvenile-justice system.

Although Vos, 50, has always been in politics, he’s also a businessman. He owns a popcorn factory, a car wash and roughly $6 million worth of rental properties. He makes roughly $51,000 a year as speaker.

He names Ronald Reagan as a political hero and sees himself as a “happy warrior” in the Reagan mold — useful during a career that’s seen plenty of political jousting. During the massive protests over the public-union legislation, his home was picketed and one of his critics dumped a beer on his head.

“I don’t get angry,” Vos said. “I try not to get frustrated. I try to always look for how can we accomplish the end goal.”

As he’s accomplished his goals, Vos has consolidated his power.

His chief of staff runs the committee that works to get Republicans elected to the Assembly. His wife, former state Rep. Michelle Litjens, was paid $238,000 over three years to raise $3.5 million for an outside group called the Jobs First Coalition, which attacks Democrats and works to help elect Republicans to the Assembly.

Vos has also championed legal changes that allow unlimited contributions to committees, transfers to candidate campaigns and coordination with issue advocacy groups. The result has been increased donations to the Assembly campaign committee that his chief of staff ran and that provided financial support to Republicans running for office.

Vos’s first two marriages ended in divorce. Under the terms of his second divorce, which was finalized in 2017, his ex-wife Samantha was barred from speaking with anyone about their marriage or the grounds for the divorce. The separation agreement, made in 2012 as Vos was preparing to run for speaker, prohibited her from changing her marital status on Facebook until after the election.

Vos said he welcomes an examination of his record. And while his name is mentioned more frequently as a possible candidate for governor in four years, he said he’s not interested in any other job. He turned down a chance this year to run for Congress to replace the retiring House Speaker Paul Ryan.

“I am not going to run for governor,” Vos said. “I love being speaker. I think it’s the best job in the Capitol because it allows you to have an impact but also work with a wide variety of ideas. It’s what I enjoy the most and hopefully what I’ll be able to do.”

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