Stateline Story

Wisconsin's Tommy Thompson - Eyeing New Horizons?

  • January 27, 1999
  • By Steven Walters

Wisconsin's capitol, the political preserve of Republican Gov. Tommy G. Thompson for 13 years, is getting reacquainted with political diversity. Other players are emerging from the political spell cast by the 57-year-old four-term governor, who has thrice enjoyed the magic of a 60 percent reelection margin.

Thompson has made being Wisconsin's governor a job to have: none of his more than 1,800 vetoes of spending bills has been overriden by the legislature. He has recast all state agencies in his own image, and even tried to strip the state's elected top educational officer of constitutionally guaranteed powers a few years ago. (The state supreme court blocked the move, even though two of the justices owe their jobs to Thompson.)

To help his party gain control of the legislature, Thompson has given Democratic legislators from political swing districts attractive jobs in the state bureaucracy, flipping their seats to Republicans.

Despite Thompson's maneuvering, however, the state senate is currently controlled by the Democrats, 17-16.

That's not the only reason that in 1999, for the first time that many in Madison can remember, Thompson must watch his back politically. He also carries the vulnerability of being perceived as a lame duck, and the budget he must submit by Feb. 16 is so freighted with payments for past political promises it is likely to be his most unpopular spending plan ever.

Thompson tacitly encourages the notion he is no longer the force to be reckoned with he once was by saying that in two years, he could be gone -- serving as President, Vice President, cabinet secretary, U.S. senator or even running a business.

In December, he offered a new theory of how he could win his party's presidential nomination. He will wait until other candidates are "picked apart" before Iowa's presidential caucuses next January, enter late with his reformer image, do well and go on from there. Even he shrugs and calls his scenario a one-in-10 longshot.As Thompson dreams of moving to the White House, Democrats are measuring the drapes in the governor's office. Attorney General Jim Doyle says he is being pressured to run for the state's highest office and may have to respond to that pressure with a campaign staff soon. Two young Democratic rising stars in Congress, Tom Barrett, of Milwaukee, and Ron Kind, of western Wisconsin, are either mentioning themselves as candidates for governor or letting party tribal elders do so.

But none of them would challenge U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl, the millionaire pro basketball team owner, if Kohl woke up one day and decided that he wanted to be governor.

Republican contenders to succeed Thompson start with Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen, whose base is suburban Milwaukee. Jensen, 38, resembles former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich in conservative intellectual firepower. And he has the same fund-raising contacts as Thompson, since he served as the governor's chief of staff.

Jensen's potential rivals include moderate, ex-Congressman Scott Klug, 45, the former TV journalist, and Lt. Gov. Scott McCallum, 48, who now openly covets the job he understudied for so long.