One of the constant refrains I have heard from people who teach or work at UW-Madison is how Tommy Thompson rose to the occasion as interim president of the University of Wisconsin System. The former governor cemented himself as a reasoned statesman for the higher educational ideals of our state.
When liberals in Madison are praising Tommy Thompson it proves not only the continuing legacy of this man but something deeper about politics and governing. We desire competence and gravitas from our leaders. When people watched Thompson do his work with clarity of purpose and determination during tough and challenging times, while a pandemic raged, they paid attention. They also applauded.
Thompson made an announcement Monday that his four terms as governor, starting in the 1980s, will not be extended by another four years. There are surely varied reactions to the news as some in the Republican Party would prefer to see a powerful and robust candidate take the state into the fall election. At the same time, Democrats are pleased that Governor Tony Evers will only need to deal with the current lineup of GOP candidates who have yet to find an energized pace.
For politicos, however, the loss of Thompson as a candidate has deprived this battleground state of what would have been a grand election experience.
There is something that changes when Thompson enters a room or takes to a stage. One does not need to be a Republican to feel that charge in the air, as no one can doubt a sense of pride when the former governor speaks inspirationally about the state, our workers, and the future.
And then there is the handshaking campaign style of Thompson who seemingly never forgets a name or the son or daughter who is taking classes at Stevens Point or Eau Claire. He is the consummate campaigner.
Thompson made a tremendous impression on me in 1987, one that encompasses his abilities and personality.
An employee of the famed Door County eatery, Al Johnson’s Restaurant (with goats on the roof!), fell ill with hepatitis contracted during a vacation. The establishment closed down for an extended period of time, and when reopening called in none other than Thompson to create the needed favorable headlines.
A number of elected officials were standing in line along with local citizens galore, waiting for the Governor to arrive. When Thompson’s car arrived and he set foot on the ground his smile and outstretched hand never stopped. He greeted people by first names, and if he did not know it he still bantered like they had been college buddies. His one hand rested on a shoulder as he pumped a handshake and looked into a person’s eyes, as opposed to the too-often ‘political scan’ over the shoulder to see what else is happening. He was truly present with the folks in that restaurant. That morning has never been forgotten for how the art of politics can look and feel.
I regret Thompson’s decision not to run as he is perhaps the only one in our state who has that larger trust from a wide segment of the state. If anyone has bi-partisan regard from the electorate it is Thompson. Yes, Thompson is a solid conservative, but he also has proven to operate above deeply partisan rancor and tribalism of the worst kind.
There are few Wisconsin personalities that match his dynamism or scope of service. He is a Republican, through and through, but has that essential quality of honesty and fair-play that allows him to have true friends from the entire political spectrum. And that counts in politics!
As such, Thompson would have been a formidable candidate for Wisconsin governor.
And so it goes.