Tommy Thompson Would Have Been Formidable Candidate For Governor

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.

Wisconsin Can Be Proud Of UW System President Tommy Thompson

All across Wisconsin, one thing can be said with a high degree of certainty. Parents of kids attending state universities, professors and staff at the state schools, and communities who are proud to be home to these centers of higher education are all cheering UW System President Tommy Thompson.

And I suspect cheering loudly, too.

The reason is that Thompson directly challenged the Republican leaders in the state legislature who insist they must have control on COVID-19 policies within the UW System. The Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules voted earlier this month in favor of a requirement that the System submit any plans for COVID-19 policies to the committee as emergency rules within 30 days. Failing that the System would need to drop mandates for any such measures.

Over the decades we have watched, again and again, how unsuccessful it has been to force Thompson to take actions contrary to common sense. Such was the case Tuesday when the former Wisconsin Governor and former Secretary of Health and Human Services rebuked the legislative leaders, informing them university leaders don’t need legislative approval to manage the schools.

Left unstated, at least out loud, was “Case closed.”

The reason for the cheering from Sturgeon Bay to Cassville is that people understand the severity of the fourth wave of the pandemic and the woefully inadequate and anemic response from the Republican-controlled legislature. After having watched like everyone else in the state how the pandemic has run wild and now morphed into a deadly variant, Thompson is not about to allow those who are partly to blame for the current situation to have full control over the System’s plans.

When the counter-punch from the legislature was delivered Tuesday by State Senator Steve Nass, who threatened a lawsuit, Thompson was ready to stand his ground on behalf of those he has dedicated himself to fight for.

“I’m not going to be intimidated. Even though I don’t want to pick a fight with the Legislature, I’m going to stand my ground.”

The applause one hears for Thompson this week is not new when it comes to his position.

When Thompson was named the UW System’s interim president there was statewide applause, from all points of the political compass, and all sectors of the state economy.  There was not only optimism about his selection but a deep conviction that Wisconsin’s senior statesman was the person with the skills and steady hands that could guide the UW-System through very challenging times.

From budget fights to the crushing pandemic Thompson reminds us that he is not behind his desk just to make a cameo appearance every now and then. He is invested in the fights so to make our university system stronger and smarter. And with his actions this week he is ensuring that the importance of higher education does not get mired down in the political theater of the anti-mask and mandate crowd who love to create smoke and rhetoric at the statehouse.

Thompson is again proving to be the right person, for the right job, at the right time.

And so it goes.

Tommy Thompson Shows Leadership Skills, UW-System Requests Solid Ideas

When Tommy Thompson was named the UW System’s interim president there was statewide applause, from all points of the political compass, and all sectors of the state economy.  There was not only optimism about his selection but a deep conviction that Wisconsin’s senior statesman was the person with the skills and steady hands that could guide the UW-System through these most challenging times.

With clarity of purpose and a determination to work in a timely fashion Thompson is doing what we all trusted would be his mission at this new job.

Thursday Thompson will push for the Board of Regents to support a 3.5% increase to its 2021-23 state budget.  With new ideas to buttress the UW-System at this time of pandemic and economic pain, Thompson is pushing the envelope to make clear to all state residents the importance of higher education.  Using his political skills he is connecting with parents hard-hit during this time of financial upheaval by proposing a statewide free tuition scholarship program for some Wisconsin students.

Too often we see would-be leaders acting with timidity and couching behind studies and commissions in order to stall decision making.  Too often others fall to the threadbare language of budget cuts and not being able to act as the revenue stream does not seem able to match the needs of the time.

Thompson has proudly taken a different stance. One that we all can be proud of and support. A reader of the Wisconsin State journal could almost hear his determined tone and confidence when reading this quote.

“I want to be able to convince the legislators that the University of Wisconsin has been a punching bag for too long,” he said. “We’re not going to apologize anymore. We’re going out to tell our story.”

Over and over we see all sorts of men and women in our state and across the nation strive to be leaders, and though they exert energy and hope many never attain it.  In part, that is due to not being willing to act as Thompson did by going “big and bold”.

“This is a big, bold, aggressive budget that I think is going to meet the needs of our time,” he told reporters Tuesday in a video news conference. “If you were looking at a way to grow yourself out of a financial dilemma, wouldn’t you go to an area that’s going to give you the biggest return possible? … Who’s a better job creator than the University of Wisconsin?”

For too long there have been some in the state legislature who have delighted in sending out the wrong messages about higher education in this state.  There have been attempts to deny adequate funding for the UW and to divert attention instead to topics ranging from free speech to ‘political correctness.’

Thompson has made a clarion call that the topic for discussion now, and into the next budget cycle, will be the need to foster the growth engine of the state–the UW-System.  In so doing he is demonstrating–again–the role of a leader is to outline a problem facing our state and then finding ways to remedy it.

Thompson is proving to be the right person, for the right job, at the right time.

Storied Life Of Tommy Thompson Continues

This weekend, while reading news coverage of the announcement that former Republican Governor Tommy Thompson will serve as interim president of the University of Wisconsin System, I thought about the need for a massive book dealing with his life.  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.

Thompson is trusted, and in this time of deeply partisan rancor and tribalism of the worst kind, it is truly refreshing to learn of the bi-partisan regard which the regent’s announcement was greeted.  Add the fact he fully grasps why the UW System is essential and how education paves the path to success, and I am confident we will look back on the failed search for Ray Cross’s replacement as having produced a positive outcome.

Over the decades I have been fortunate to have witnessed the style and manner of many politicians.  Most were forgettable as being glib, arrogant, and not made of substantive political material.

On the opposite end of the spectrum were the likes of Tommy Thompson and Bill Proxmire.  To watch a master at the art of politics is something which, for me, is how others might feel regarding a home run hit into the upper stands.  Thompson made a tremendous impression on me in 1987, one I have always talked about over the years.

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.  I had traveled with Representative Lary Swoboda, and alongside him was State Senator Alan Lasee.  When Thompson arrived and 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 what the art of politics can feel and look like.

The other memory I put into my journal at the time, was due to Thompson in attendance there were enough Green Bay news crews on hand to make one think Elvis was inside the restaurant having a waffle. (Or fried peanut butter and banana sandwich.)

I believe Thompson is a most-qualified person, and well-suited to lead the UW System at this time because he can strike the needed chords of unity.  Something so much in need now in our state.

A few months after Governor Thompson took his oath in 1987 he happened to swing by the office of Swoboda.  Geneva Rode and Ruth Schohl who had worked for decades in the Capitol were splitting a full-time position in the office of the assemblyman from the First District.  Thompson knew each of them and stopped by to trade a few pleasantries and shake hands. That small simple event alerted me that we all were working in the building for the folks of the state.  It has always stood out to me as memorable due to how it demonstrated that leadership and conviviality start at the top.

With that same energy and force of character, which Thompson still possesses, I am confident of the future of the UW.

As for the biography that needs to be written about the life and times of Thompson the only criteria is that it has to have the gravitas of what Robert Caro accomplished with Lyndon Johnson. There would be sub-chapters and insight into James Klauser, Tom Loftus,  David Prosser, and so many others.  From his early days in Elory to acting president of the UW System, Thompson is a Wisconsin story that needs to be told in depth.

Scott Jensen Should Not Be Allowed To Serve On Tommy Thompson Center On Public Leadership

I was surprised to read the list of names to sit on the board for the Tommy Thompson Center on Public Leadership at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos sponsored the bill that created the center.  Once it was law he nominated himself to the board.  He then placed, among others, Scott Jensen, a former Republican state representative and Assembly Speaker who ran afoul of the law while in office to the board.

Many people will recall the statehouse scandal which impacted both legislative houses, and their top leaders.  It was eye-opening for many people across the state who never before had such insight into the way politics was played in Madison.  It was also eye-opening for many in the state to witness the wheels of justice move so slow due to seemingly unlimited funds along with the best lawyers in the state working on behalf of Jensen.  Over those years Wisconsinites came to better understand how politics was a full-time job at the statehouse, but also how money and influence effects justice.

Scott Jensen was found guilty of three felonies and one misdemeanor on March 11, 2006 for directing legislative staffers to campaign on state time.  Jensen was ordered to spend 15 months in jail after Judge Ebert said that the actions of the former lawmaker were “common thievery elevated to a higher plane”.  Jensen appealed that jury decision.

In November 2006  Judge Steve Ebert released a ruling in that never-ending case to allow for restitution to the state.  The money ordered to be paid was for dollars spent on salaries for Capital staffers to do illegal campaign work on state time.  Jensen was ordered to pay back over $190,000.   At that time former State Representative Steve Foti was ordered to refund nearly $58,000.  Sherry Schultz, who was an aide and key player in the corruption scandal, was ordered to repay almost $58,000.

On December 20, 2010, the three felony charges were dropped and Jensen agreed to pay back his legal fees to the state of Wisconsin.  Jensen pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor ethics charge.

What I found most damaging to the state during that long process was how it undermined the integrity of our state’s political process.   Voters place faith in the people they cast a ballot for, and then expect responsible elected officials to abide by the laws.  But throughout the many years which the scandal matter meandered throughout the legal system there was never a heart-felt statement to the people of this state showing any remorse for the actions Jensen took while in office.   It was nothing more than utter contempt for the process of law and order.

So it is easy to understand why there should be a stunned reaction that Jensen has now been appointed as a board member to a UW center which has as its mission the facilitating of research and leadership training.

There are countless Wisconsin Republicans who could have been named to the center’s board.  Countless skilled, intelligent, ethical, and decent men and women.    People who understand that virtue was a foundation the Founding Fathers stressed continually when shaping our nation.  A value that certainly is at the heart of what creates a leader–the very type of leaders which the center wishes to be known for in the decades to come.

I have been hard-edged with both Democrats and Republicans who misused their position and power (and taxpayer’s monies) for both illegal and unethical campaign activities in the Wisconsin Statehouse.  I have argued that the responsibility voters entrust to a candidate at the time of election is a treasured bond that requires elected officials to act with honor while in office.  When that trust is broken, as with Jensen, not only is the law violated, but the trust of the voter is shattered.  When that faith from the voters is replaced with doubt and cynicism our political institutions suffers.

Should it not be the mission of the Tommy Thompson Center On Public Leadership to make our politics a higher and more noble calling?

Wisconsin Legislature Needs This New Year’s Resolution

Over the holidays I ran into one of the most colorful and conversant former members of the state assembly.  Without doubt Marlin Schneider carries more institutional memory of the statehouse than perhaps all the current members combined.    Agree with his politics or not, Schneider is a funny and insightful man.  As he was about to exit a restaurant we shook hands and talked a few minutes as the rest of his family gathered themselves so to leave too.

He mentioned a desire to have been in the fray over ACT 10, but sadly was not reelected to what would have been his last term.  It was obvious he misses the policy battles under the dome but it was clear the mean rhetoric of the current political climate was not something he wanted to be engaged in.    We mentioned how communities have been split, while family and friends are still deeply divided over all sorts of political issues that have developed since the election of Governor Walker in 2010.   I wanted to get his thoughts on how the political divide might be bridged but it was time to let him move on.

But I am sure he would have answered in the same way that so many would in this state to that very question.  No one knows how to stem the current tide of political chaos.

There is a meanness and crass nature to so much of our politics.  Not all of it takes places at the nati0nal level where not a day goes by without Donald Trump saying something that creates a new low in our political culture.  (I am quite certain Walker Cronkite would not have elevated much of what Trump said to the level of ‘news’ for his broadcasts.  The media certainly have a duty to play a more constructive role in our political discourse, too.)

At the state level there is the relentless politically planned attacks on state employees and public workers that started out as a strategy so to place Walker in the national spotlight.  Working feverishly to deny voters the accessibility to casting a ballot or attempting to limit women their health care rights are all part of an elbows out manner of governing in this state that has worked to turn citizen against citizen.  Perhaps most shameful of all was the attempt to portray refugees from war-torn Syria as something other than humans in need of help.

This is not to say our politics both locally and nationally have not always been frothy.  But in the recent past there is no denying of almost an effort to reach down for the lowest rung on the ladder with the desire to make that the new norm for the way we conduct politics.

Over the holidays while I was on a blogging break while either making cookies or eating them The Wisconsin State Journal published an article about former legislator and current lobbyist Gary Goyke.    His words are clear, to the point, and very accurate about the current breakdown in the way the government under the statehouse dome functions.

Yes. I believe that the current political polarization is almost all purposefully designed. People can choose how they will act in political matters. You can choose to be nice or nasty about individuals or policy. Being nasty is in vogue and advocated by many political managers. Nasty successfully divides people. Advice of campaign consultants who proscribe this philosophy may get a candidate to 51 percent, but they will never get a candidate into a history book for achieving any sense of what I believe should always be the main goal of government, which is seeking the Common Good.

The renowned Wisconsin legislative process is being greatly hampered by the current polarization. Many times standing committee members are purposely excluded from legislative matters until the very last minute. That would have been a rare occurrence years ago.

Developing a strategy to deliberately keep a minority out of the process is not respectful to any other colleague who represents the very same number of voters. That kind of behavior does not help build consensus in any way.

Legislative consensus has always built a stronger state of Wisconsin. In my opinion, some kind of consensus building process needs to return—and quickly.

But how does one right the ship of government when it is upside down in the water?  I have an idea.

Perhaps it is time to turn to the former leaders of this state–in a bi-partisan fashion–and have them brainstorm about what might be done to again fashion a working center for state politics so to make good, as Goyke stated, for “the Common Good”.  Bring former Assembly Speakers Tom Loftus and John Gard, former governors Tommy Thompson and Tony Earl, and former state senators Dale Schultz and Tim Cullen along with others together to put forth a blueprint on how collegiality can again lead us in our politics.  Get the editors of our state papers engaged in writing articles and OP-ED pieces so to then enlist the voters of the state to step up and also demand changes.

Our history shows what can happen when partisans place the common good ahead of everything else.  When Europe was starving after WWII it was Democratic President Harry Truman who turned to former Republican President Herbert Hoover to enlist his aid in formulating a plan to combat the human devastation in large parts of the world.  History shows us the rest of that successful  story.

The needs we have in Wisconsin are far less dire than that faced by Truman but the larger lesson should not be missed.  Working as colleagues in a fair and open-oriented process of governing will produce good policy, renew the electorate’s faith in government along with those elected to serve, and shine a light on Wisconsin as an example of how the values and ideals we share are still alive.

Tommy Thompson Missed A Sister Souljah Moment

If we question why it seems so hard for Republican presidential candidates to speak with authority as to why Donald Trump is damaging the party and not good for the nation we need to keep in mind that it is also somehow hard for others in the GOP to speak out clearly on the matter.

This weekend I was rather surprised to see the elder statesman of the Wisconsin Republican Party, former Governor Tommy Thompson, not speak more forthrightly about Trump.  Appearing on UpFront With Mike Gousha it was clear that a direct and candid answer was not something Thompson was interested in giving about the current leader in the presidential contest.

The former leader of this state did comment twice that he firmly believed Trump would not be the eventual nominee. Most lucid-minded people think the same thing.  But when pressed by the host to answer who would get his vote should the contest be between Hillary Clinton and Trump there was a strong statement that Thompson would vote Republican.

I fully understand the reason that people tied to a political party answer in that fashion.  I could vote for Joe Biden as easily as Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders.  I know that Thompson could have easily said the same about Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio or a list of others running for the nomination.

But Donald Trump is simply an embarrassment with no substance on the issues that deservers nothing short of repudiation.  There must come a time when the seasoned and respected establishment within the Republican Party stands up and makes it known that what played out this summer was nothing short of absurd and can not continue.

In short, the Republican Party needs a Sister Souljah moment.  Gousha had teed up the question so Thompson could have once more scored for the party who he has long supported and worked with.  But Thompson bunted the ball.

At some point very soon the adults in the GOP will need to once again drive the bus and a real contest for the nomination must get underway.  I was hoping when the questions by Gousha started that this would be the moment when such a line in the sand was drawn.  After all, Thompson is someone who has respect on both sides of the aisle and can still command attention when he wants to say something of importance.

Had Thompson given the answer about Trump that I know he truly feels it would have shown that he may be older but no less a leader.

What I Want To Hear From Last Gubernatorial Debate

 

As I think about the last debate scheduled Friday night between Scott Walker and Mary Burke I am reminded of something that happened in the first weeks of Governor Tommy Thompson’s first term.

I had worked hard for Tony Earl’s election and admired him as a politician. While I had found a job inside the capitol (my first day was Inauguration Day) the person I wanted leading the state was not there to craft a budget or lead the party. But I was still very excited about all the action that was taking place including the morning when one of the swinging doors to our office opened and Thompson walked in grinning and looking all about.

One of our staff was a woman who had worked decades inside the building and the governor had heard she was now employed for a different Democratic legislator. I will never forget how Ruth Schohl stood and shook Thompson’s hand.   I do not recall what was said except he just wanted to stop in and say hello to someone who had worked so long under the dome.

It was a gracious move and one that helped me come to terms with the fact that while Thompson had not been my candidate for offie he was now my govenrror.

The past four years have been a most difficult time in our state as politics has divided us in ways that we really had not experienced before. Families found themselves on opposite sides of union issues, communities were  splintered, and there was even genuine fear at times among some elected official’s for personal safety.  All of that was so very  out of character for Wisconsin.

As we await the final debate Friday for governor I am quite certain most voters following the campaigns are pretty sure what the positions are between the two candidates when it comes to unions, Medicaid, jobs, marriage, and taxes. I think most people have heard all they want to hear on these topics.

However, what I strongly suspect voters want to hear something about is what will be done in concrete ways to mend the broken fences and join the frayed fabric of this politically-torn state. How can there again be comity in the statehouse and a mature sense of compromise in the way we tackle the issues that confront us as a state?

I would urge one of the reporters Friday night to demand an expanded response from both Walker and Burke as to how we move forward as a state and again be whole. Do not allow either candidate to look backwards as to what happened over the past four years, or allow blame to be placed here or there—as everyone has his or her own perspective of how we reached this point. Instead have both candidates present a road map of how to get beyond this present anger and resentment.

It was nearly 27 years ago that Thompson made a simple act of opening a door and shaking some hands that still resonates as to how leadership can prove to unite people. There is no doubt this state needs a grand unifying act.  Many of my fellow citizens are yearning for it to happen.