MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Two Republican lawmakers put up a Christmas tree in the Wisconsin Capitol rotunda despite being told they weren't allowed to do so — a show of defiance after Gov. Tony Evers opted not to display a holiday tree there this year because the building is closed to the public due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The Department of Administration has traditionally placed a towering evergreen decorated with ornaments constructed by school children in the rotunda every year to celebrate the winter holidays. Evers, who controls the DOA, has refused to call the tree a Christmas tree, irking Republicans.
This year, Evers decided to forego a tree since the Capitol is closed to the public due to the coronavirus pandemic. That apparently didn't sit well with Republican Reps. Paul Tittl and Shae Sortwell, who, like other lawmakers, are still working out of the building.
Records show the two lawmakers applied for a permit on Dec. 1 to place what they described only as a “historical display” in the rotunda from Dec. 1 through Jan. 6. The application does not say the display is a Christmas or holiday tree.
Dan Blackdeer, chief of the Capitol Police, an extension of the DOA, denied the request the next day. He wrote that the DOA can issue permits for events and exhibits in the building but under state law only the State Capitol and Executive Residence Board can approve decorative items.
He said the board has prohibited the DOA from permitting any exhibits on the rotunda's ground floor since 1978. A permit request must be filed at least 72 hours in advance and the lawmakers' sought to display an exhibit the same day they submitted the application, Blackdeer added. What's more, the DOA is denying all permit requests for the interior of Capitol since the building is closed to the public, he wrote.
DOA Assistant Deputy Secretary Olivia Hwang sent an email to Tittl and Sortwell that night explaining that since the DOA owns the building, it doesn't need a permit for the traditional holiday tree. She reiterated that the agency has denied all permit requests since the building is closed and said the lawmakers could still display a tree or other holiday decorations in their offices or any space in the building controlled by the Assembly.
The lawmakers put up a tree in the rotunda anyway on Dec. 1 before they received a decision on the permit from DOA, Sortwell said. The seven-foot artificial decoration was still there on Monday morning, complete with signs that read, “The magic of Christmas is not in the presents but in his presence” and “This tree belongs to Representative Tittl and Representative Sortwell. Do not move without prior written approval from these Representatives.”
Sortwell said he and Tittl wanted to give people a symbol of hope. They believe they don’t need a permit since the traditional tree has never required one, he said. He refused to accept Hwang’s explanation that the traditional tree doesn’t need a permit because the DOA owns the building.
“The people of Wisconsin own the building, not the Department of Administration,” Sortwell said. “The tree has never needed a permit until now. ... All (Evers) needs to do is let this stand as our choice.”
Reminded that people can’t see their tree since the building is closed, Sortwell said that they can watch a video of him and Tittl setting it up in the rotunda. Evers could open the building anytime, he added.
“When times are tough, it’s even more critically important that we hold onto the traditions we can hold onto,” he said.
Tittl didn’t immediately respond to messages. He said during the video that, “We really wanted to have a Christmas tree in the Capitol. The governor said no, but we decided we were going to put one up anyhow.”
DOA spokeswoman Molly Vidal didn't respond to an email asking if the agency planned to remove the tree. Hwang said the lawmakers have appealed the permit denial.
The move by Tittl and Sortwell is another example of the defiance that Republicans have shown Evers since he defeated GOP Gov. Scott Walker in 2018. Among other things, they passed lame-duck legislation weakening Evers' powers and convinced the state Supreme Court to strike down his stay-at-home coronavirus order.
Meanwhile on Monday, Capitol Police approved Republican Rep. Amy Loudenbeck’s permit application to place an artificial Christmas tree on the rotunda’s first floor from Thursday to Jan. 5.
Sgt. Andrew Hyatt sent an email to Hwang explaining that Loudenbeck’s application differed from Tittl and Sortwell’s because she filed it on Friday, more than 72 hours in advance, the permit is for the first floor and is valid for less than 30 days.
This story has been corrected to show that the residence board has prohibited DOA from permitting exhibits in the rotunda, not state law.
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