Barnstorming the Midwest: Milwaukee, Part 1

Since I’m on this barnstorming tour for the remainder of 2017, I don’t need to live in Milwaukee until the spring, meaning I’m moving out of my apartment. That meant the unenviable task of cleaning it out but also provided the opportunity to use the Marquette University Archives, which play host to dozens and dozens of feet of relevant material from some of Wisconsin’s prominent politicians of the 1980s.

There are 2200 words ahead, click on if you dare.

This week my focus turned to the biggest obstacle in the way of Wisconsin Democrats through the early years of my childhood: the wildly successful governorship of Tommy Thompson, along with the papers of his Secretary of Administration, Jim Klauser, who seemed to serve more as a perpetual campaign manager than an actual administrator of anything. I didn’t have much of a personal relationship to Thompson as a kid, save for the “My governor can kick your governor’s ass” mailers sent out by, well, “my governor,” Jesse Ventura, and his threats to Thompson to stop trying to lure Minnesota businesses to Wisconsin. (Say what you will about Thompson, but he avoided the heavy-handedness of silly “Open for Business” signs.)

Thompson casts a long shadow in Wisconsin politics. He’s lauded by many Democrat centrists of the 1980s and 90s (see below) for his commitment to progressive leadership in the vein of the “Wisconsin Idea” and by some Republicans for making the party more competitive at the state and local level, but there’s not a ton of existing literature on Thompson the governor and Thompson the Republican. During his tenure, which began in 1987, Wisconsin Democrats held the Senate for all but four years and the Assembly until the 1994 Republican landslide.

Thompson, though, bucked a statewide trend of going blue at the state level. After he saw off the unpopular incumbent Anthony Earl in 1986, a year in which Wisconsin broke with the Midwest and reelected a vulnerable Republican incumbent (Bob Kasten over labor-backed Ed Garvey), Thompson consolidated his gains in state elections in 1990 over Assembly Speaker Tom Loftus (D-Sun Prairie), 1994 over State Senator-turned-noted felon Chuck Chvala (D-Madison), and 1998 over still-somehow-relevant Deputy Attorney General Ed Garvey, never slipping below 58% after his win over Earl. At the same time, however, Herb Kohl defended the retiring William Proxmire’s Democratic Senate seat, and in 1992 Russ Feingold stunned Kasten with a Wellstone-esque campaign and nabbed the seat he would occupy for 18 years.

The Research


Thompson (75%)
Klauser (25%)


Populism for All? Thompson was, nakedly and unabashedly, a populist to his core. He was a friend to blacks, a friend to farmers, a friend to labor, a friend to the North, a friend to Milwaukee–until he wasn’t a friend to Milwaukee. This isn’t just his 1995 appeal to northern voters’ voting for a Miller Park building fund sales tax, where, in Thompson’s words, “All the taxes come from Waukesha and Milwaukee. Stick it to ’em.”[1] Thompson attacked Tony Earl for neglecting the North throughout the 1986 campaign, promising to be “a governor for the entire state, not just one region.”[2] He followed this up by excoriating 1990 opponent Tom Loftus for his call for a moratorium on mining in northern Wisconsin. This got thorny, though, when he intervened in a dispute over Chippewa spearfishing practices in tourism-dependent parts of the North. Not only were there real racial issues on display (things like “the Indians have gotten away with taking government aid for long enough,” never mind why they were on that land in the first place), but Thompson used a nearly-$10 million aid package to defuse these controversies, funneling more aid to the North through a Development Fund begun in 1983 by Tony Earl.[3] Using his predecessor’s accomplishments and convincing taxpayers that it was only he who cared–brilliant populism. It’s no wonder he was so popular.

There was a wonderful moment of naked redistributionism from Republican-leaning northern voters, though, reminding us exactly why Thompson was so popular. From the Vilas County News praising Thompson’s negotiated settlement to the spearfishing kerfuffle: “The high-income, bleeding heart liberals from the metropolitan areas are going to pay for the largest tax burden for this economic relief package, which will help Vilas County taxpayers as well as the Lac du Flambeau members.”[4]

And Tommy didn’t even need to encourage them to “stick it to ’em.”

Democrats for Tommy: While Thompson won the endorsement of every major (participating) paper in Wisconsin beside the Madison-based Capital Times, he more significantly had the backing of a substantial wing of Milwaukee Democrats. Barbara Curry, a Milwaukee fundraiser, solicited money for Thompson. Henry Maier, longtime Democratic mayor of Milwaukee (1960-88) stumped openly for the incumbent–there was some lingering resentment of the Tony Earl Administration, of which Loftus was an ally–and declared “I have seen no more earnest Governor in my 28 years as mayor.”[5] It’s no surprise, given that Maier spent a lifetime raging against how under Tony Earl (and Tom Loftus as Assembly Speaker), “central cities have been victimized by agricultural programs that mechanized farms and drove the displaced rural poor into northern cities. They have also been victimized by the federal FHA and VA loan programs that built the suburbs.”[6]

But those ones are, perhaps, more popularly known. The one that surprised me was Janesville-area State Assemblyman Tim Cullen (who was eventually appointed Secretary of Health and Social Services) writing a January 6, 1987 memo to Thompson in which he encouraged him to “find a local issue for each community and ride it to death [emphasis his].”[7] This was right in line with the Thompson who Cullen remembered wanted “to unite the state, not divide it intentionally,” but that Jim Klauser approached him right after the election to gauge his interest in the cabinet job and that many leading Democrats feared this was part of a plot to flip a Democratic seat.[8] While it’s not surprising that Cullen would paint a rosier picture of himself in the long run–this could only be commitment to bipartisanship, not a ploy from the cunning Klauser or Thompson to force the Democrats into a special election for his seat (which they lost) right after a Wisconsin Republican landslide in 1986–it’s interesting to see that not only was he mostly absolving himself of responsibility for the party’s impotence in challenging Thompson, he actively aided Thompson without solicitation.

No tails on Tommy. The problem, for Thompson, was that his center-right governing style failed to unseat Democratic incumbents in the State Senate and Assembly early on. While he won a crushing victory over Loftus in 1990, the Democrats’ control of the Senate ballooned to 20-13. Thompson was winning in the North and West, but so were Herb Kohl (nobody’s Senator but yours!), incumbent assemblymen, and eventually Russ Feingold. The Thompson campaign was very attuned to the issue that “Republican incumbents and challengers made a serious mistake by campaigning on Tommy Thompson instead of his record and his vision for the future.”[9] This, however, might be part of what enabled the legend of Thompson, as passed on by Cullen: a Democratic legislature allowed him to continue his reputation as “Dr. No,” keeping “rampant” Democratic spending in check, while not having to seriously consider the right wing of the Republican Party.

What does this mean for studying Wisconsin political history? Instead of looking only to rural resentment as the rise of Scott Walker, perhaps we need to consider how Tommy Thompson established the precedent of a Republican in the Capitol, and that rural resentment led to the rise of the conservative Assembly. (Titles have to be sexy titles, though, so I understand Kathy Cramer’s publisher there.) We also need to consider just how inept Wisconsin state Democrats were at the gubernatorial level on down, including congressional seats. My initial forays into the Democratic Party of Wisconsin (DPW) papers in Madison demonstrate an elite-driven process that emerged from putting out the fires of the Reagan Revolution–including a challenge to its open primary system from the national Democratic Party–to reflect an increasingly Madison-driven process unsure how to win swing districts like the western 3rd or the northeastern 8th.

And no, contrary to modern complaints, it wasn’t just gerrymandering or redistricting, as in 1990 Scott Klug swept out 16-term Madison-area incumbent Bob Kastenmeier, and in 1994 Mark Neumann picked up Les Aspin’s former House seat by beating Peter Barca in a rematch of the 1993 special election. Swing districts were up for play in a swing state, and while Kohl and Feingold represented a state that was in the middle of going blue in consecutive presidential and Senate elections, Wisconsin Democrats dropped the ball. There’s more to tell here.

The City

There is not enough time or space in the world to say everything I’d need to about my four years in Milwaukee. Even just being in town for a week, I had the opportunity to see former colleagues, visit a nanobrewery (!), clean out a desk and an apartment, and possibly some other things, too. It was a busy time!


Goodbye, Janola #415. You were a spacious one-bedroom with a miserably-tiny kitchen.
Six months of swearing “I’ll clean this up when DQEs are done” led to this.

I won’t live or work in Milwaukee again until this spring, when I serve as a teaching fellow at Marquette, teaching

Believe it or not, it only took a day and about 6 boxes.

two sections of HIST 1101: Intro to American History. That meant I needed to clean out my old apartment (which I somehow forgot to photograph before I left) and my work desk in Sensenbrenner Hall. I really did need every hour of the seven days I was there…turns out you accumulate a lot over four years.

The Beer

Obviously there’s no way I could visit all the breweries in Milwaukee, where 8 or 9 or 10 new breweries have opened up in the last year or month or week or something. Around Marquette alone there’s been Third Space (go and have the Midwest Pale Ale and the Mocha Java Porter), City Lights Brewing, and Best Place at the recently-reopened Pabst Brewery.

Can you spot the baseball theme? CAN YOU?

This week, though, I met up with colleague and Holocaust Educational Foundation fellowship recipient Ben Nestor (a PhD student at Marquette) to try a new nanobrewery. Broken Bat Brewery Co., located in a garden-level space in Milwaukee’s Historic Third Ward, was awesome. Obviously it’s got a baseball theme to it, but the beer was excellent, the atmosphere was cozy, and it offered an interesting variety of beers.

I started with their Straight Chedd, an apricot IPA which was definitely sweeter than a normal IPA, which made it a dangerously-easy drinker. I followed that up with the only real disappointment of the bunch, the Mint Condition porter. Billed as a summer porter, it definitely had the nice flavor of mint that would have been refreshing on a patio even in 80-degree heat, but the actual porter flavor was lacking–it was almost too thin to even call it a porter. A tiny bit thicker, and I’d have been very positive on it.

I’ve definitely lost a few people’s respect over these surreptitious pictures of the beer I drink.

While Ben opted for the High and Tight IPA, which had a nice malty body to it, I finished with the Frozen Rope wheat (not as fruity as the addition of raspberry would imply, which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing) and the Climb the Wall farmhouse ale, which definitely had the added sweetness of the orange puree they claimed to add during the fermentation process.

All in all, Broken Bat is definitely a must for those who enjoy brewing and baseball (on TV everywhere, along with complimentary in-shell peanuts), especially lighter summer fares which pair nicely with a day at the ballpark. There’s a great cork dartboard in the corner, ample seating, and a surprising amount of light for a garden level. Love the commitment to displaying the Cream City brick in the building’s foundation, too.

What’s Next?

After a week in the Twin Cities, where I’m scheduled to speak at a fundraiser for Dunrovin Christian Brothers Retreat Center, do a few days in the Minnesota Historical Society archives, and staff a Catholic youth retreat, I head to the part of my summer I’ve been anticipating the most. I’ll do a week on the Iron Range in the Rudy Perpich Papers at the Iron Range Research Center (lodging on the shore of Lake Vermillion), then a week in Grand Forks diving into North Dakota’s Democratic-Non-Partisan League, take a two-day trip to Winnipeg because I can, head to Bismarck for a week of more D-NPLers, and finish up with another week on the Range (this time lodging in Biwabik). Lots of posts ahead; stay tuned!

Past Trips

Iowa City
St. Paul, St. Cloud

[1] Bill Glauber, “Candidates put area back on political map,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 14 November 2009. Accessed at

[2] Press release, “Thompson says Earl has neglected North,” 30 October 1986. Accessed in Tommy G. Thompson Collection: Campaign Papers, 1986 Gubernatorial Election: Series 3-2, Box 7, Folder 8.

[3] Neil H. Shively, “Thompson’s pro-business moves dazzling,” Milwaukee Sentinel, 6 August 1990.

[4] Editorial, Vilas County News, 4 October 1989. Accessed in Thompson Collection, Series 3-3, Box 3, Folder 1.

[5] Press release, “11 Former Democratic Legislators Endorse Thompson,” 21 September 1990. Accessed in Thompson Collection, James R. Klauser Gubernatorial Campaign Records, 1990 Gubernatorial Election, Series 10-2, Box 4, Folder 3.

[6] Henry Maier, The Mayor Who Made Milwaukee Famous: An Autobiography (Lanham, MD: Madison Books, 1993), 2-3.

[7] “Advice to a Governor,” Tim Cullen to Thompson, 6 January 1987. Accessed in Thompson Collection: Gubernatorial Papers, Personal Correspondence, Series 2-1, Box 1, Folder 5.

[8] Tim Cullen, Ringside Seat: Wisconsin Politics, the 1970s to Scott Walker (Mineral Point, WI: Little Creek Press, 2015), 92, 57-58.

[9] William J. McCoshen, “1990 Election Analysis: ‘A Look at the Governor’s Race,'” 8-9. Accessed in Thompson Collection, Klauser Papers, Series 10-2, Box 4, Folder 8.

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