Romanski to head DATCP; Pfaff has new role in another agency

Jan Shepel
Gov. Tony Evers has tapped Deputy Secretary Randy Romanski to head DATCP; while he has hired ousted appointee Brad Pfaff in new role for another agency.

MADISON – Randy Romanski became interim Secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection (DATCP) following the unprecedented action taken by the Republican-controlled Senate two days earlier when they voted to remove Bard Pfaff, Gov. Tony Evers’ appointee to head the agency.

Less than a week later, Evers hird Pfaff as the state Department of Administration's director of business and rural development

Romanski was already serving as deputy secretary at DATCP, a position he had also held before, under Gov. Jim Doyle.

On Tuesday, November 5, the Senate fired Pfaff who had been the Secretary-designee at DATCP since last February. When he had spoken with the Committee on Agriculture, Revenue and Financial Institutions earlier in the year, Pfaff had been unanimously approved by the panel – including a number of Republicans who reversed their position and voted to fire Pfaff last week.

The five Republicans who changed course after initially backing Pfaff are Kathy Bernier of Chippewa Falls, André Jacque of De Pere, Howard Marklein of Spring Green, Jerry Petrowski of Marathon and Patrick Testin of Stevens Point.

The Senate confirmation vote was strictly on party lines with 19 GOP members voting to fire Pfaff and all 14 Democrats voting to confirm him. Longtime capital watchers said that it’s unusual for the Senate to hold a vote if there aren’t the votes to confirm an appointee. The kind of ouster that happened to Pfaff last week hasn’t happened since 1987 according to the Legislative Reference Bureau.

Randy Romanski

When Romanski sat down with members of the citizen policy board for the agency on Nov. 7 he told them “I wish it were Brad sitting here. He loved his job and he loves this agency. He was energetic and exuberant about agriculture and Wisconsin products and he loved telling the story of Wisconsin agriculture.”

Pfaff had called him at 7:30 that morning as always, “as I was brushing my teeth,” Romanski said. “He wanted me to convey his genuine thanks for the work that you do on the board.”

 Word had come from Gov. Evers that morning that Romanski would serve as interim secretary. That morning the governor also came to the agency’s headquarters to speak with the staff and then talk to the board in light of the dramatic upheaval at the top of the agency earlier in the week.

RELATED: Pfaff ousted by GOP senate

“The importance of this department cannot be overstated,” Evers told board members, who adjourned their meeting briefly to hear from the governor and greet him afterward, before he left the building.

He told them that the work of DATCP for the agricultural community, as well as economic development and consumer protection roles, are very important to the legacy of the state. “The work these folks do is so important,” the governor said.

Evers said there were many at the agency who were “angry, sad and confused” by what had happened in the Senate on Tuesday. “My message to them when I met with them this morning is that their work is important” and that what happened in the Senate had nothing to do with their work,” he said. The work of the agency is “directly related to the values we think of in Wisconsin.”

Evers called Tuesday’s move by the Senate “a bad day for Brad – someone who is extremely caring, extremely knowledgeable and passionate about agriculture -- and a bad day for Wisconsin.” When the Senate voted to oust Pfaff, despite his passion, experience and commitment to agriculture “politics trumped all of that,” the governor added.

Former Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection Secretary designee Brad Pfaff talks to members of the Dairy Business Association during Dairy Day at the Capitol on April 10, 2019.

When he addressed agency employees he told them they need to “rise above the politics.  I told them I am behind you and your work,” the governor said.

Romanski has held leadership roles across various Wisconsin state agencies, and previously served as DATCP deputy secretary and secretary under former Gov. Jim Doyle. He was deputy secretary under Secretary Rod Nilsestuen and became interim secretary when Nilsestuen died in office. He drowned in Lake Superior while in the north country to build houses for Habitat for Humanity.

Rod Nilsestuen, who was named state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection secretary in 2003, drowned in July 2010 while swimming in Lake Superior off Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Nilsestuen was on vacation at the time, working for Habitat for Humanity in northern Michigan as he does every summer.

Later, Doyle named Romanski as his choice for secretary.  “I'm disappointed by the actions Senate Republicans decided to take on Tuesday, but I believe the agency and our farmers will be in good hands with Randy leading the way,” Evers said as he named Romanski to lead the agency.

During a break in the DATCP board meeting, Romanski spoke with reporters, noting that the department has steps in place to keep things rolling in cases like this and there is a dedicated group of workers keeping the work of the agency going. “It was great for them to hear directly from the governor this morning,” he said.

Romanski said that in either this circumstance or the one in which he replaced Nilsestuen “it was not how I wanted it to happen” referring to taking the position as the top administrator at the agency. Romanski added that he was going to do his best to make the ongoing weeks of “transition and change” the best he could for the agency’s staff.

“I’ll work hard to repay the Governor’s confidence in me and in the staff and in the work that Brad started. I also very much appreciate the governor being here today.

“I’m really honored in the confidence he’s shown to me and our staff,” he added.

In Pfaff's new role as director of business and rural development at the Department of Administration, he will advocate for small businesses and rural communities.

“While our residents have lost an advocate for our rural heritage and consumers in need of protection at the cabinet level,” said administration secretary Joel Brennan, in a statement Monday, “I’m proud to bring Brad onto the team at DOA to ensure his expertise and Wisconsin values are utilized to grow our economy.”

A spokeswoman for Evers did not immediately say whether the position was created for Pfaff. 

Prior to Evers naming him DATCP Secretary, Pfaff had worked at the USDA’s Farm Service Agency in Washington as deputy administrator for farm programs and had served as FSA State Director in Wisconsin before that. He had also held farm policy and administrative positions with Rep. Ron Kind and Sen. Herb Kohl.