The Wisconsin State Senate today voted to fire Brad Pfaff, Wisconsin’s acting Secretary of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. The vote fell along partisan lines: every Republican in the Senate voted against Pfaff’s confirmation, while every Democrat voted in favor.
Governor Tony Evers nominated Pfaff to the position back in December of last year. He’s been leading the department as the Secretary-designee for the past eight months.
Wisconsin’s constitution does not specify when the senate has to vote to confirm an appointee, and it is possible that a Secretary-designee could serve in the position without ever being confirmed .
During today’s confirmation hearing, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said that some of Pfaff’s decisions convinced him Pfaff is unfit for the job.
“Whether it’s comments related to DATCAP, ATCP 51, comments about Republicans and farmer suicide, there’s a whole slew of things I think that anybody can bring forth, and I think as we stand here today there is a number of members of the majority that are not comfortable with Brad Pfaff,” Fitzgerald said.
“And that’s all it really takes for people to say I don’t support this nominee.”
Pfaff previously worked as the Deputy Administrator for Farm Programs in the U.S. Department of Agriculture under former President Barack Obama and has clashed with state Republicans in the past. Recently, Pfaff has come under fire for a livestock citing regulation change from the department that has been criticized by Republicans. But last Friday, Pfaff announced he would not move the issue forward.
In July, the Joint Finance Committee held back funding for mental health services that the committee had already allocated while waiting for the results of a task force. Pfaff said the agriculture department “has funding to provide just five more counseling vouchers to farmers in need of mental health care… which five farmers will it be?”
LaTonya Johnson, a Democrat from Milwaukee, accused Republicans of voting to remove Pfaff because of those comments.
“Secretary Pfaff failed to stay in his place. He said unflattering things and used an unflattering tone that offended Republicans” Johnson said. “That is why he came out of committee with a 9-0 vote and the Republicans are now going to vote to take away his job.”
Pfaff was confirmed by a Senate subcommittee in February. All nine members of the committee, including five Republicans, voted in support of him at the time. Those five Republicans voted against him today.
This hearing comes at a critical moment for Wisconsin farms. Data from Wisconsin’s Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, show that Wisconsin has lost 551 dairy farms this year, a rate of over ten farms a week.
Low milk prices, flooding, and an early winter have contributed to a very hostile environment for local farms, and the suicide rate among farmers has increased as a result. Democrats argued during the hearing that voting to remove Pfaff at this time would be making a sensitive situation even less stable, and Senator Chris Larson criticized Republican senate leadership for debating a rules change in the middle of the hearing.
“We have spent the last ten months not confirming an agriculture secretary at a time when we’re seeing two dairy farms a day go down, at a time where we’re seeing an increased rate of suicides among farmers, we’re sitting here debating about a new rule,” Larson said.
Fitzgerald released a statement after the hearing saying that Pfaff “tried to place burdensome rules on Wisconsin farmers at a time they can least afford it and repeatedly engaged in partisan political games targeting the legislature.”
With Pfaff voted down, Evers will need to choose a replacement. Evers who attended the hearing in an unprecedented move for a sitting governor, told reporters after the meeting he had not chosen a replacement. There are other acting secretaries in Evers’ cabinet, and he says now any of them could be fired for saying the wrong thing.
“If I was a total cynic, I’d say keep your damn mouth shut,” Evers said. “I want them to be forthcoming, I want them to be professional, that’s why we hired them. They’re the best people for the job and to think that they’re going to have to keep their mouths shut for the next, who knows, four years in order to get approved by this senate, that is just absolute bullsh*t.”
Fitzgerald said during the hearing that the Senate would vote on all of Evers’ nominees.