(First published in the February 28, 2019 issue of City Pages)
Maggie Gau’s position means that the state’s highest office has a key perspective from central Wisconsin
As chief of staff for Gov. Tony Evers, Maggie Gau, a 2005 graduate of Wausau West, holds one of the most influential non-elected positions in state government.
On Jan. 10, Wausau was one of Gov. Tony Evers’ first stops in a tour around the state as newly elected governor, days following his inauguration in Madison. The visit here, at the Department of Motor Vehicles in Rib Mountain, was part of a tour to highlight his focuses as governor in anticipation of his first state budget (set to be released to the public Thursday, Feb. 28). Evers talked that day in January about transportation funding, and used the opportunity to praise DMV workers.
Evers has been no stranger to Wausau, both during and after the campaign. Evers even stopped at City Pages in early spring 2018, as the Democratic primary race for governor was becoming crowded. It was a primary to decide who would take on Republican Gov. Walker in a race that eyeballs around the nation were following.
There’s a good reason why Wausau and central Wisconsin is on Evers’ radar: Maggie Gau, the governor’s chief of staff.
Gau, who at 32 years old already had spent years in statehouse politics, grew up in Rib Mountain and graduated from Wausau West High in 2005; her parents still live in Rib Mountain.
In fact, she points to her roots in central Wisconsin, as well as the diversity of lawmakers she has worked for, as providing key insights that helped Evers win the governor’s race in 2018, with her as campaign manager. The three women legislators she worked for represented rural and suburban areas, and in the case of Rep. Chris Taylor, the city of Madison itself.
Central Wisconsin politicians say it’s a big deal for the area to have Gau in the governor’s office, in what’s perhaps the most influential non-elected position in state government. It means the governor’s right hand woman has a perspective from central Wisconsin as she helps Evers make decisions; it’s not just Madison and Milwaukee getting all the attention.
“You can ask any staff member: They’ll say “Maggie is always trying to get him to go to Wausau or central Wisconsin,’” Gau says. “It’s become a running joke.”
For someone with such a high-pressure job in the high-pressure world of politics, Gau is warm and easy-going. A person might be excused for meeting her and not realizing she holds such a position in the state of Wisconsin, something she dreamed about but never guessed she would achieve at the age of 32.
But those who know Maggie aren’t surprised. They say she’s dedicated — when she decides to do something, she does it 120%. Gau isn’t afraid of speaking her mind or going against the grain.
“As a high school student, she already had a strong sense of conviction for what she stood for,” says Jenny Seymour, who taught Gau in high school and was her coach on her forensics team. Gau gave speeches as part of the forensics team and participated on the debate team, which piqued her interest in politics while building important skills. “I am incredibly proud of her, but I’m not surprised in the least,” Seymour says of Gau being Evers’ chief of staff. “It was clear even back in high school that she was destined for great things.”
Maggie Myszka, who had been assistant coach of Gau’s debate team at West, says Gau always had a knack for distilling down ideas in a way that people could easily understand. “What I’ve always admired about Maggie is that she has always been someone who takes in all the facts and makes decisions based on facts and not emotion,” Myszka says. “That made her really successful as a high school debater.”
Straight into politics
After graduating from Wausau West in 2005, it didn’t take Gau long to become involved in politics. Her first week at UW—Madison she joined the College Democrats group and soon started as an intern with U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold’s campaign committee. She then interned for then state Rep. Ann Hraychuck (D-Balsam Lake), throwing herself into the world of state politics. In 2008 Democrats won a majority in the statehouse and Hraychuck got another staff position, which she offered to Gau. It came with a good amount of responsibility and had a huge impact on her career, Gau says.
Gau then found herself back in central Wisconsin in 2010 when she worked for a candidate in the 87th Assembly District, Dana Schultz. From July to the November election that year, Gau lived in Athens, worked in Medford, and “came home (to Rib Mountain) on Sundays to do my laundry and eat at the places I used to, like Sam’s Pizza or Wausau Mine Company,” Gau says.
It was in rural campaigning that Gau found the joy of reaching out to people and finding out what issues they care about. “I got a great understanding of what people outside of Madison think,” Gau says.
Her candidate lost the election, and as is the way of politics, a grueling job of 12- to 16-hour days ground to a screeching halt of unemployment.
But talent doesn’t go unutilized long in politics and Gau was quickly tapped to work in the office of Rep. Janis Ringhand (D-Evansville, who’s now in the state Senate). On her staff Gau had a front row seat to the unrest going on in Madison in the wake of Act 10, which limited the collective bargaining rights of public workers and sent droves of protestors to Madison. “There were days when I would come into the capital and there would be thousands of people here,” Gau says. “People were upset, they were scared, they were hurt.”
Gau’s career took another upward swing when she was tapped to work as Wisconsin’s deputy political director for the Obama presidential campaign in 2012. Wisconsin became a focal point and saw visits by the President, Vice President and First Lady several times during the campaign, and she met all of them. She traveled the state with actor Kurtwood Smith—who’s from Wisconsin and most famous for starring as the dad in That 70s Show— in an RV to help promote the campaign. Gau is still in touch with.
It was hard not to be star-struck, despite her years of political experience at that point. One night at an event in Kenosha, Vice President Joe Biden saw Gau and some staffers in a corner chatting and he “made a beeline for us,” Gau says. “Oh my god, the Vice President is coming over to us. He told us a story about his mom and her history, it was an incredible experience.”
Gau then led Rep. Ringhand’s bid for state Senate in 2014, as her campaign manager. Ringhand defeated two opponents from bigger cities in her district in the primary and went on to win the general election.
“She wasn’t flashy, but she was a kind person who worked hard and understood the people of her district,” Gau says. “One thing I’ve learned in my career: authenticity matters.”
She served as chief of staff for Ringhand briefly before joining the staff of state Rep. Chris Taylor, who had just been named to the Joint Finance Committee, the most powerful committee in the statehouse.
All that experience worked in Gau’s favor in 2017, when then state superintendent Tony Evers decided to run for governor. Gau had done some campaign work for Evers, and got along well with Evers and his wife, Kathy. She signed on as political director, and then was named campaign director.
It was no easy feat. There were more than 20 potential Democratic candidates lining up to challenge then Gov. Scott Walker, and 10 got on the primary ballot. Not to mention all the national pressure the governor’s race was garnering. That meant Gau was hearing from a lot of Washington, D.C. consultants, trying to dictate how the campaign would go.
But they didn’t know Wisconsin like Gau does.
Gau already had learned to trust her gut. In an earlier campaign she worked on, she took advice, against her better judgment, to not respond to an attack ad from her candidate’s opponent—the suggestion being that if the campaign didn’t respond, the issue would go away. It didn’t. “I made the commitment to always trust my gut,” Gau says.
She did just that during the Evers campaign in 2018. National consultants were advising her to rely on more ads featuring third parties talking about the governor, and fewer with Evers talking directly to voters. (One of the early criticisms of candidate Evers was that he’s too reserved, and not charismatic enough to excite voters, compared to Walker.)
Gau’s instincts told her that more face time from Evers would be a winning strategy for Wisconsin.
“We wanted to run the campaign we wanted to,” Gau says. “One of the things we did well was let Tony be Tony,” Gau says. “We didn’t try to change him.”
On Election Night in November, Gau and other staffers joined Evers and his family, playing Euchre with his family. At one point, he sent the grandkids to bed, confident he would win. It was that same confidence early on that made Gau want to work for his campaign.
But the campaign was in a frenzy, figuring out what a recount strategy would look like as the vote totals looked close. But at 1 am, Gau found herself running down to Evers’ condo near the capitol, to let him know the results: Evers was the next governor of Wisconsin. A Wausau West graduate had helped him do it.
It wasn’t long afterward that Gau let Evers know that she was interested in being his chief of staff. Evers, always calm, turned to Gau and said very nonchalantly, “Well of course it’s going to be you.”
Friends in regular places
State Rep. Katrina Shankland (D-Stevens Point), like many interviewed for the story, says she wasn’t surprised that Evers tapped Gau for chief of staff. Early on she’d heard Gau had a reputation as intelligent and politically savvy. “She has a reputation for excellence,” Shankland says.
Gau had a big influence in Evers’ campaign message that Madison needs to pay attention to central and rural Wisconsin, and that’s part of what helped Evers take the top state chair, Shankland says.
“Maggie and I always say, you have a 715 zip code, you understand central Wisconsin,” Shankland says. “She still has a 715 zip code.”
That’s a big deal, Shankland says. The chief of staff is one of the most influential positions in the state government and that’s good news for central Wisconsin. “Maggie being from central Wisconsin, she knows the policies that work for one part of the state might not work for others,” Shankland says. “She is loyal to central Wisconsin.”
Marathon County Democratic Chair Nancy Tabaka-Stencil echoed those sentiments. “It’s nice to have some representation from around central Wisconsin, instead of everyone being from the Madison and Milwaukee area,” Tabaka-Stencil says. Tabaka-Stencil also said it’s good to see a young person in such a high-up position at the statehouse.
What’s the job like? Well, it’s more Amy Brookheimer from Veep than Doug Stamper from House of Cards. The chief of staff is a super manager, who does whatever it takes to make sure the trains run on time. That can mean serving as a surrogate for the governor in meetings, managing all the staff and helping develop policies.
“Most days I’m a problem solver,” Gau says. “If an issue comes up with a department, or the legislature, or a stakeholder group, I’m the problem solver.”
The job also means being a confidant to the governor, someone to offer advice and make sure the governor has the resources to lead the state. Essentially, Gau is the Swiss Army Knife for the governor, ready to take on any task that needs doing.
Like her campaign work, it means long hours — 12- to 16-hour days are relatively normal, Gau says.
This week the first fruits of that labor will come to bear as the governor releases his state budget, which Gau says is the people’s budget. It includes funding for schools, better health care, and “We’re finally going to fix those damned roads,” Gau jokes. One of the listening sessions for the budget was held in Wausau.
“Where I am today is based on the experience I had growing up in Wausau,” Gau says. “I learned hard work, honesty, loyalty and compassion for others. I learned that growing up in a blue collar family in central Wisconsin. I will always use those values to make sure all of Wisconsin is successful, but especially my home community.”