State Sen. Melissa Agard (D-Madison) was selected to be Senate Minority Leader on Nov. 15 for the 2023-24 Wisconsin legislative session.
Agard has served in the Senate since January 2021. She previously represented Wisconsin’s 48th Assembly District from 2013 to 2021 and served on the Dane County Board of Supervisors from 2010 to 2014.
Agard replaces former Senate Minority Leader Janet Bewley (D-Mason), who decided not to run for reelection in the 2022 midterms. She inherits a Democratic caucus facing a challenging 22-11 Republican supermajority in the Senate.
A mother of four, Agard’s legislative priorities focus on family issues, youth voting, reproductive rights and other liberal causes in Wisconsin.
Agard sat down with The Daily Cardinal to discuss her goals and challenges for the upcoming legislative session.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
How does it feel to be your party's leader in the State Senate?
I feel the weight of the responsibility that goes along with this job, and that does provide a little bit of internal angst, knowing that there's so much work that needs to be done on behalf of the folks in the state of Wisconsin. But I also feel really supported by my colleagues in the building, as well as my experience in the legislature over the last decade and the relationships that I built with folks all across the state. I know that they are all there as my partners.
Ultimately, as the Democratic leader of the Senate in Wisconsin, I know it's my job to be available to all of the people of the state — not only the folks within my district. I'll still work really hard on behalf [of] the people in the 16th Senate District to make sure that they are well cared for, knowing that [moving] the whole entire state forward is a top priority. We have an amazing team — we're ready to do it.
As minority leader, how do you balance the interests of your district versus the interests of your party in the whole state?
That was one of the things I mulled around as I was deciding whether or not this was something I wanted to move forward with. What really helped me settle on the fact that this was the right thing to do is the number of people that I've met from across the state of Wisconsin over the years. The messages that I hear from the 16th Senate District are not different than the messages that I hear from people all across the state of Wisconsin. Oftentimes, people will pivot and say, ‘Oh, there's so much that is different based on the senate districts.’ But ultimately, there's even more that binds us as Wisconsinites. We really care about one another.
It's clear people in Wisconsin want government to work for the people, not just for a few folks. It's clear that we care about our kids and our future. We want policies today that are going to continue moving us forward into future generations. It's clear that we're proud of being Wisconsinites — we define ourselves as cheddarheads. Most people would think that that's a derogatory term, but we embrace it.
I think that was really when I had that realization, when I thought about [if] there is a tension between representing the 16th Senate District and being the [minority leader]. It became very clear there's a lot more that unites the work that needs to be done in both of those roles.
What would you consider your legislative priorities for the upcoming legislative session?
I am in the process of meeting with my colleagues in the Senate as well as being able to sit down with my counterpart in the Assembly, Rep. [Greta] Neubauer. We're working to set up a meeting with the governor's office and also meet with Republican leadership because I know that we need to be able to trust each other and have good lines of communication with one another. Part of that is believing in the better angels in all of us and that we are here because we care about the state and the process of governing. I'm hopeful that we can get some good things done.
In January, after inauguration, it's time for the biennial budget in the state of Wisconsin. We're going to be walking into budget negotiations knowing that we have almost $5 billion of surplus within the state coffers that does not belong there. That's not even including a rainy day fund. At the same time, we know that our local and municipal governments, county governments and school boards are struggling because we have levy limits. We have unprecedented referendums on the ballot this November — whether it was to pay for police officer salaries, firefighters, build schools [or] put roads in communities, the list was very long. We need to do more in our budget process to support our local governments at the same time.
[With] the economy being what it is, everyone is struggling. I know in my house, where I have kids that I am responsible for as a mom, the grocery bill is going up. I want to make sure that we're ensuring that the hard-working people of the state of Wisconsin are able to have access to some sort of relief. Hopefully that looks like some sort of tax relief — I know my Republican colleagues care very much about that. So let's get it done, right? Where it's actually in the hands of the people, not just a few wealthy and well-connected people.
I think two other things are a paramount part of that process. One of the very important responsibilities of the Senate is confirming appointments, commissions and secretaries from the [Gov. Tony Evers] administration. There are 150 or so [appointments] that have been unconfirmed at this point. It's time for us to work — we can't continue going down the path of non-confirming. Peaceful transition of power needs to be respected at the legislative level when it comes to these appointments of folks in the state of Wisconsin. I've heard some of my Republican colleagues talking about how they want to be able to go back to the table and figure out what we're doing here. I'm hopeful that we can move forward so that people can actually get to work and roll up their sleeves because the work that's happening at that level is very, very important.
Policy-wise, the people of Wisconsin and the people across our nation have spoken — reproductive freedoms are a basic healthcare right. And I will stand proud and loud on the side of folks ensuring they have access to healthcare they need, regardless of their gender. That means that the government needs to get out of the way of abortion access rights for Wisconsinites.
Additionally, I went to the public schools [and] my kids have gone to the public schools. Public schools are part of what Wisconsin really prides itself on. They've been under attack for far too long.
One of the things that has been said to me over the years is [that] we can't afford to fully fund our schools. With the amount of money that we have in the surplus, I think we could do all the things that I've talked about and support our public schools. If we don't have good, strong, educated kids who are gritty and thoughtful, the state of Wisconsin is going to struggle.
[Kids are] going to be the business owners of the future, they're going to be the legislators of the future. I hope that they decide to call Wisconsin home and not leave our state because they are our number one resource. Right now, [they’re] one of the most successful exports that we have in the state of Wisconsin. That's not something to be proud of.
What methods do you see yourself using to accomplish these goals as the minority party?
Sometimes, it appears that these are partisan issues that we're talking about — whether we're talking about reproductive freedoms, whether we're talking about cannabis legalization, our public schools or addressing the suicide epidemic and gun violence in the state. But at the end of the day, they are not partisan issues.
Folks in both parties, regardless of who it is that they vote for at the top of the ticket, care very much about these when you talk to them one on one, despite the fact that our Legislature has been very right-leaning for over a decade. That's because of gerrymandering. That has caused inequity within the Capitol building, as opposed to what people outside the Capitol care about and believe.
I know that the policies I champion and my caucus is going to champion are really the policies that match up with the hearts and minds of Wisconsinites. We are hopeful that our colleagues on the other side of the aisle are becoming more in touch with what the people that our communities are asking for. Certainly, they were out campaigning in the same way that we were. They have also seen that Gov. Evers and his leadership style is really something that people in Wisconsin embrace and want more of.
There is an inscription on the ceiling of the governor's conference room that reads, “The will of the people is the law of the land.” That is a reminder to me that the people of the state of Wisconsin are [our] bosses. We need to listen to them earnestly. That means putting aside our party affiliation, sitting down with one another, building trusting relationships and figuring out how we move that ball forward. There's going to need to be some compromise in some of the work we do. There's some things, like reproductive freedoms, where I'm not going to compromise because it is no place for the Legislature to be involved.
What are you excited about in your leadership position, whether that's personally or professionally?
One of the most exciting things about this is that I am a born and bred Wisconsinite. I am so proud to be raising my kids here and to be able to have a voice in the Capitol. Every time I have the opportunity to get out of the Capitol and spend time on main streets with Wisconsinites that have businesses here, I become more proud of the community that we are.
In the position of minority leader, I'm going to have the opportunity to get to know more people in Wisconsin, build on those relationships and fall more in love with my state. That's going to give me more passion to come into the [Capitol] and work hard on their behalf.
What are your big concerns about being in party leadership?
I would be goofy if I didn't look at this with eyes wide open and realize that there are going to be lots of challenges with the gerrymandering in Wisconsin and with the strong Republican numbers in our Legislature. I'm worried it's going to be harder to have our voices heard.
I do realize that there are real struggles. I've been in the building for a while. I've seen Democrats present amazing ideas for consideration and have them completely ignored simply because they were presented by a Democrat. Good policies deserve to be heard in this building because those good policies will move Wisconsin forward in the best interest of everyone. I think that's one of the biggest struggles — how do we overcome a decade of [legislative] gridlock?
At the same time, I know I'm a hard worker, and I’m earnest. I realize that I'm not going to get my way a lot of the time, but I think that with relationship building, you can build trust. I'm hopeful that my partners on the outside of the building — the good people of Wisconsin — will lift up voices and be here to support the work that we're doing on their behalf.
Do you have any big takeaways from the election, whether that's in your race, in the statewide races, in the voter turnout or how things turned out?
I am thrilled with how many young people became audible for the very first time in this election. I think [their] voice was instrumental in reelecting Evers and Attorney General Josh Kaul here in Wisconsin. We need to do better [at] lifting up the voices of young people in our communities.
As long as my kids have been alive — I have kids in their 20s — government has been inherently broken. It becomes really hard to believe that you should be involved in something that hasn't worked your entire life.
One of the bright spots of this election was that young people believed if they do roll up their sleeves and become involved, they can affect change. I want more of that. And I do think that young voters and new voters were instrumental in helping us achieve what we did in November.
I would advocate strongly that people remember that passion in April. There is a really big election for the state of Wisconsin with our Supreme Court in April, and there's likely going to be a primary in that race as well. As complicated and confusing as the judiciary is, we need to care about it.
In races like the state Supreme Court election, how do you want to drive greater voter turnout, especially youth voter turnout?
If we want Wisconsin to be a place where young people put down their roots and stay, then our government needs to be matching the values of young people. Governing isn't about the history of yesterday. Governing is about making sure that we have a safe, secure and prosperous community now [while] looking forward so we can build it up and make it even better. That means making sure that we have the thoughts and innovation of young people at the table. Maybe it’s running for office, maybe it's volunteering on a campaign, maybe it's wanting to get hired by one of the agencies that support our government. There are so many ways young people can be involved.
We all do better when we make space. Right now, I look around and I think this building isn't as diverse as the community that I represent. Why is that, and how do we make that change?
My message for young people in Wisconsin is to not give up. Oftentimes in governing, things take longer than we'd like them to. It also takes a while to change the direction of a big ship on the ocean, right? It doesn't mean it's not happening. When we have that youth voice, it's going to be moving more in the direction of the things that matter. Young people are moving to states like Colorado, where cannabis is legal, schools are funded and the environment is protected. We have challenges in Wisconsin with all those things. But, if young people decide they're going to advocate and work for that change, I believe that it will happen.
Any last takeaways you think are important for either the election or the legislative session going forward or about youth voting?
Government works best when people care about it. Democracy isn't something that happens all by itself. Democracy is something that happens when we all roll up our sleeves and take part in it. It's a verb, in my opinion. This is an amazing time to be able to learn about how government works and what doesn't work. I think we're at a fork in the road. We were supposed to see this huge big red wave in Wisconsin and across the nation in November, and that did not happen. I think a lot of that has to be accredited to young people who showed up, not just here in Wisconsin but across our country.
It's really easy to complain when you don't like the way things are going. It's a little bit harder and more uncomfortable to think about how [you] can become part of this process. But, I think that we all benefit when we become a little uncomfortable and try to think about how we can be part of the change that we desire for our communities.