Dean of Wisconsin political writers covered 10 governors

Matt Pommer • Wisconsin Newspaper Association

Over 650,000 words have flowed through this weekly column since I began writing it.

Only the late State Capitol reporter and columnist John Wyngaard, Madison bureau chief for the Appleton Post-Crescent and Green Bay Press-Gazette, had a longer stint writing this column, and hopefully I have measured up to his high standards. This is, at age 78, a final essay reflecting on a 55-year career in Wisconsin journalism, most of it writing about state government.

Ten men – five Republicans, five Democrats – have been governor in that period. Scott Walker recently said he enjoys being governor. He could have been speaking for the other nine. Each of them enjoyed the role.

I winced when Republican Warren Knowles said it was a great day – outside the temperature was a windy minus 19 degrees. But then an aide reminded me that a warm car picked him up at the front door of the mansion and drove him to the Capitol door.

The governor’s brother, Bobby, a state senator from 1955 to 1975, delighted in telling about the brothers attending a University of Wisconsin hockey game shortly after Warren had left office. It was a cold snowy night, Bobby would relate. After the game Warren told him to get the car.

“Get the car yourself. You’re not the governor any more ...” replied Bobby. The ex-governor, roaring with laughter, pulled up his collar and went for the car.

Government and politics, like all else, change in 55 years. Democrat Gaylord Nelson could only appoint a handful of people when he became governor. Now, governors can make scores of appointments to positions once held by career civil servants. Civil service changes have been called “reform;” it will be left to future generations make that judgment.

Almost every governor incrementally increased the power of the office. Gubernatorial terms were increased from two to four years. Democrat Pat Lucey introduced “cabinet-officer” government in which he appointed the heads of most agencies.

Some editors question why the governor’s name appears in so many columns over the years. That’s because under the current Wisconsin system the governor and his appointees control most of government. He has broad partial veto power on spending legislation. The Wisconsin governor is among the most powerful state chief executives.

Salaries for the part-time legislators began to increase sharply in the 1970s. State Rep. Kenneth Merkel, a Republican conservative respected by both parties, accurately predicted it would change the Legislature. It would attract more young persons who see it as a potential career rather than a public service later in life.

Creation of safe legislative districts and the growing availability of money raised by the party leadership add to the attractiveness of a legislative life.

But perhaps the last – and best – word about career politicians comes from the retirement speech of Republican State Sen. Clifford “Tiny” Krueger, also widely respected on both sides of the aisle. “There is nothing lazy, immoral, or selfish about being a career politician. The giants of our Republic were political animals. They spent their lives at politics because being good at it demands a great deal,” he said, citing the father-son Adams presidents, Jefferson, Lincoln and the Wisconsin La Follettes. “They put interests aside when the going got tough.”

Among the more than 1,400 columns written for the Wisconsin Newspaper Association, some touched on history. One dealt with a polio epidemic as it struck thousands of young people in Wisconsin in the 1950s. A retired pediatrician recalled the iron lungs in hospitals and distraught families. A governor’s press secretary remembered it could kill quickly. A friend had died three days after being stricken.

Decades later a wheel-chair bound victim was employed as a Capitol page. Her fellow workers didn’t know about the disease or the terror it had created.

Another was the personal story of a Wisconsin soldier who had been in the second wave of landings on Omaha Beach on D-Day. He had received a Silver Star for heroism, but he was reluctant to talk about the war. The details were told slowly. Had he gone back to France? I asked.

No, and he never wanted to see it or war again.

Like the 10 governors, I have enjoyed my role.

On, Wisconsin.

Editor's note: Veteran and respected State Capitol reporter Matt Pommer concludes his 26 years of authoring the State Capitol Newsletter. We wish him well as he goes into full retirement.

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