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Almanac of American Politics

The following excerpts are copyright @2019 The Almanac of American Politics. This feature was provided by and is included in The Almanac of American Politics 2020 edition, released August 2019. To learn more about this publication or purchase a copy, visit


Heading into the 2016 presidential election, some considered Wisconsin one of the Democrats’ “blue wall” states – a supposed bulwark against Republicans in the Electoral College. But they ignored that the state had turned to the right after the 2010 gubernatorial election of Scott Walker, who proceeded to enact a wish list of conservative policies. Donald Trump ended up winning the state, albeit by less than 23,000 votes, or about eight-tenths of a percentage point. Two years later, the state snapped back, again narrowly, as the Democrats ousted Walker, setting up perhaps the most pivotal battleground contest for Trump’s reelection bid in 2020. 

Wisconsin has long been one of America’s premier “laboratories of reform,” in Justice Louis Brandeis’ phrase — a state developing new public policies, debating them vigorously and even tumultuously, observing whether they worked, and serving as an example for other states. North of the dominant westward paths of migration, the state was sparsely settled, first by New England Yankees and then by waves of immigrants from Germany and Scandinavia. The German language is seldom heard now, but German place names and surnames are common and, like the once plainly German beer and brat brands, now seem quintessentially American. But from the 1840s into the 20th century, Germans were among the nation’s most distinctive immigrants. On the rolling dairy land of Wisconsin and the orderly streets of Milwaukee, they built their own churches, kept their own language, and maintained old customs, from country weddings to Christmas trees to beer gardens — a source of friction in temperance-minded America. Wisconsin still has an orderliness and steadiness that owes something to its Germanic heritage, evident in its excellence in precision manufacturing, respect for higher learning, and its hold on its people. About half of Wisconsin residents, more than in any other state, reported in the 2010 census that they are of German descent. 

Wisconsin’s economy has been an outgrowth of its immigrant and manufacturing heritage. Its high-skill, precision production at companies like Johnson Controls and Rockwell Automation jumped into gear in the late 1980s and helped lead the nation’s export boom of the 1990s. Wisconsin exceeded 100,000 tech jobs for the first time in 2016 and the state was poised to host an advanced Foxconn manufacturing plant near Racine (though both the billions of dollars in subsidies and doubts about the number of jobs to be created have made the project controversial). Wisconsin ranks either first or second in the nation in most categories of milk and cheese production. But due to improved productivity and competition from foreign countries — and from California’s giant agribusiness enterprises — the number of milk-cow herds fell by 50 percent from 2003 to 2019, when the total was fewer than 8,000; that rate has accelerated in recent years. Wisconsin, of course, is also a prime source of beer and sausage. Pabst, which began in Milwaukee in 1844, closed its operations there in 1996, but reopened a brewery, taproom and restaurant in a former German Methodist church in 2017. Over time, Wisconsin’s economy has ranked right around where the country is. “Wisconsin has suffered from the decline of manufacturing, but it isn’t a Rust Belt sob story like Michigan or Ohio. It hasn’t been among the places hardest hit by the opiate epidemic,” wrote Bloomberg columnist Noah Smith. 

Wisconsin’s reputation for innovative public policy was established during the Progressive Era that began around 1900 and which owes its development to an extraordinary governor, Robert La Follette Sr., and the state’s German heritage. This is one of the two states that gave birth to the Republican Party in 1854 (the other is Michigan), and Germans, then arriving in America in vast numbers, heavily favored the GOP. They opposed slavery and welcomed the free lands Republicans delivered in the Homestead Act, the educational opportunities provided by land grant colleges, and the transportation routes constructed by subsidized railroad builders. This was the seedbed from which sprouted the Progressive movement founded and symbolized by La Follette. At a time when Germany was the world’s leader in graduate education and the application of science to government, La Follette had professors at the University of Wisconsin help develop the state workmen’s compensation system and income tax. The Progressive movement favored the use of government to improve the lot of ordinary citizens, an idea borrowed partly from German liberals and adopted by the New Dealers a generation later. La Follette became a national figure and after he died in 1925, his sons, and then liberal Democrats such as Sens. William Proxmire and Gaylord Nelson and Gov. Patrick Lucey, carried on his tradition — progressive at home and isolationist abroad. 

Wisconsin also has a long history of labor activism. Before the violence of the 1892 Homestead steel strike in Pittsburgh and Colorado’s Ludlow Massacre in 1914, Milwaukee saw bloodshed on May 5, 1886, when 1,500 tradesmen and Polish immigrants demanding an eight-hour workday marched on the Rolling Mills iron plant in the city’s Bay View neighborhood. Gov. Jeremiah Rusk, who had served as a U.S. Army general in the Civil War, was in Milwaukee commanding 700 Wisconsin National Guard troops and gave the order to fire on the workers if they approached the iron works. Seven people, including a young boy, were killed. After the incident, Rusk famously said, “I seen my duty, and I done it.” South of downtown Milwaukee, a memorial stands in the Bay View area not far from where the blood was spilled. Wisconsin became the first state to grant collective- bargaining rights to public employees, in 1959. 

Starting in the 1990s, Wisconsin became a laboratory for conservative reforms driven by Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson, who beat a liberal Democrat in 1986 and was reelected three times. He cut taxes, sponsored a school choice program, and passed a series of welfare reforms — the nation’s most sweeping — that cut caseloads by equipping recipients to work. The 1996 overhaul of federal welfare policy may not have passed without Wisconsin’s example to give its backers confidence. When Thompson left to become George W. Bush’s Health and Human Services secretary in 2001, Wisconsin moved back toward the Democrats. From 1992 to 2006, it elected only Democratic senators, although sometimes by narrow margins, and Democrat Jim Doyle was elected governor in 2002 and 2006. The 2010 election produced another experiment in conservative reform when Republican Scott Walker, a former Milwaukee County executive, took office and proceeded to set off a firestorm with a proposal to limit the power of unions. The effort was successful, and Walker turned back an energetic, labor-driven effort to recall him in 2012 before winning reelection in 2014. By 2017, shorn of the coercive power of closed shops, union membership in the state had fallen substantially. Walker joined two other national Republican figures from Wisconsin – Rep. Paul Ryan, the party’s 2012 vice presidential nominee and later House Speaker, and Reince Priebus, the former Wisconsin GOP state chair who became chairman of the Republican National Committee and then-White House chief of staff under Trump. Two years later, all three had left public life. 

Wisconsin’s population has grown, but at a modest rate – up only 2.2 percent since the 2010 census. The city of Milwaukee grew 1.6 percent, and its suburban counties – unlike many suburbs in other states – grew between 2 and 3 percent. The state’s fastest growth has occurred in Dane County (Madison), which is home to a growing tech sector driven by the presence of the University of Wisconsin; the county has expanded by 9.4 percent since 2010, pushing growth to rural areas to the south and northeast. Another growth area has been Outagamie County (Appleton), expanding 5 percent since the last census. The state remains primarily white, with a small, if rising, foreign-born population. Overall, Wisconsin is 6 percent black, 7 percent Hispanic and 3 percent Asian. 

Politically, the three large “WOW” counties in the Milwaukee suburbs — Washington, Ozaukee and Waukesha — have traditionally been Republican, sometimes enough to cancel out Milwaukee County and its lopsided Democratic margins. Eastern Wisconsin — the counties along Lake Michigan and two or three counties inland, with small industrial cities in the Fox River Valley like Kenosha, Sheboygan, Appleton and Green Bay — is historically Republican turf. Western Wisconsin — areas along the Mississippi River, the small inland cities such as Wausau and Eau Claire and the counties along Lake Superior — have tended to be more Democratic. These patterns stem from ethnic differences: Eastern Wisconsin is more German, and western Wisconsin more Scandinavian. 

The most Democratic region by far is around Madison. Indeed, “what’s going on in Dane County is gradually altering the electoral math in Wisconsin,” the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Craig Gilbert has written in one of his fine-grained analyses of Wisconsin election results. “Dane has been growing about four points more Democratic with each presidential contest since 1980, while adding thousands more voters every year.” La Crosse and Eau Claire host University of Wisconsin campuses, as does Rock County (Janesville), which is also home to Beloit College. The arc with this university belt has leaned Democratic. With statewide races in Wisconsin often won narrowly, a significant number of Wisconsinites are swing voters. A seven-county portion of southwest Wisconsin known as the Driftless Area (for its geology) “boasts the nation’s greatest concentration of Obama-Trump counties — places that voted for Obama in 2012 and Trump in 2016,” Gilbert has written. Wisconsin has elected and re-elected both conservative Republican Ron Johnson and liberal Democrat Tammy Baldwin to the Senate. 

The 2016 presidential election in Wisconsin was dramatic from start to finish. The state had not voted Republican for president since Ronald Reagan’s 1984 landslide, and for much of the contest, Trump seemed to test Republican voters’ patience. Ted Cruz easily beat him in the primary, even though his Texas stylings were not an obvious fit for Wisconsin. After it became clear that Trump was going to be the GOP nominee, he and Ryan, by then the House Speaker, engaged in an on-again, off-again, awkward dance. The full extent of Clinton’s struggles in the state were hard to spot and were largely ignored by her campaign team. Her key weakness was in the rural areas and small towns common in Wisconsin where Democrats had historically been competitive. On Election Day, a state Barack Obama had won by seven points in 2012 ended up voting for Trump by less than a point. 

Wisconsin reasserted its swinginess in 2018. Walker lost a tough battle for a third term to Democrat Tony Evers. Walker improved his performance in 16 of Wisconsin’s 20 least densely populated counties, but he lost ground in the state’s 35 densest counties, a trade that wasn’t enough to save his governorship. Then, just to stir the pot again, Wisconsin voters swung back to the right in an April 2019 judicial election. In the nominally nonpartisan judicial contest, the Republican base turned out just a little more, handing the conservative candidate a narrow win. Next up: The high- stakes 2020 presidential campaign, with both parties on tenterhooks. 


Wisconsin’s Tony Evers achieved one of the biggest Democratic victories of the 2018 midterm elections, ousting two-term Republican Gov. Scott Walker. The low-key career educator and administrator defeated Walker by just over one percentage point. But that was enough to lead a Democratic sweep of statewide offices and vindicate the Democratic argument that Wisconsin was experiencing fatigue from Walker’s polarizing tenure. At the same time, the narrowness of Evers’ victory reinforced the notion that Wisconsin would be a pivotal state in the 2020 presidential election. 

Evers (it rhymes with “weavers”) was born in Plymouth and met his wife Kathy there in kindergarten. His father practiced medicine at Rocky Knoll, a state tuberculosis sanitarium that also treated patients with silicosis, a disease often contracted by inhaling factory dust. His father would often testify on his patients’ behalf. “It was about social justice,” Evers told the New Yorker. “He could have gone into private practice, but he didn’t. He decided to be a county employee and work with people who struggled.” Evers earned a bachelor’s, a master’s and a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and began his career in education as a science teacher in Baraboo, later becoming a principal in Tomah and running school districts in Oakfield and Verona. Eventually, Evers became deputy state superintendent of public instruction; during that time, he fought and beat esophageal cancer. In 2009 Evers was elected state superintendent, a nominally nonpartisan post, and was easily reelected in 2013 and 2017. After he won his third term, Evers began considering a run for governor. “I realized that if I really wanted to make a difference for these kids in the state, I couldn’t rely on this position to do it,” he told the New Yorker. “The governor is the one who sets the tone.” 

The governor in Evers’ mind was Walker, who had spent much of his time implementing a muscular conservative agenda. Not long after winning office, Walker called for curtailing collective bargaining rights for many of the state’s public employees. Walker became an instant political celebrity – and a target. But Walker’s collective bargaining changes survived court challenges and became law. He also signed laws tightening restrictions on abortion, enacted tough voter ID rules and eased restrictions on gun rights. Neither state Senate recall elections nor a recall attempt against Walker could vault Democrats into power; the incumbent notched a 53%-46% victory in the 2012 recall, becoming the first governor anywhere to survive such a vote. Walker won a second term in 2014, then flopped as a presidential candidate two years later, pushed aside by Donald Trump, who remade the party to be more rural and less suburban – a shift that hurt Walker’s reelection bid two years later. As Walker’s approval numbers sagged, his quest for a third term became a titanic battle in a politically energized and narrowly divided state. 

As he prepared for his reelection bid, Walker touted the state’s economic gains on his watch. He knew that Democrats were energized and sought to delay special elections in order to give GOP candidates a better shot. After Democrats won a hard-fought judicial race in April 2018, Walker tweeted, “Tonight’s results show we are at risk of a #BlueWave in WI. The Far Left is driven by anger & hatred — we must counter it with optimism & organization. Let’s share our positive story with voters & win in November.” 

The Democratic primary field was larger than any in state history, and it was not predestined that Evers would prevail. His rivals included Mahlon Mitchell, president of the Professional Fire Fighters Association of Wisconsin; former legislator Kelda Roys; state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout; former state Democratic chair Matt Flynn; Madison Mayor Paul Soglin; and activists Mike McCabe and Josh Pade. (Businessman Andy Gronik and state Rep. Dana Wachs quit the race before Election Day.) Mahlon and Roys received support from progressive groups (Roys aired an ad in which she breast- fed her baby) while Evers portrayed himself as a steady pragmatist. In the end, Evers ran away with it, winning 42 percent, ahead of Mitchell (16 percent) and Roys (13 percent). Evers leveraged his decisive primary victory into fundraising gold: In the first nine days after the primary, he raised $1 million, about twice what he had collected in the previous six months. 

Education became a major campaign issue. For years, Evers and Walker had tussled over education budgets, higher education politics and legal issues. Walker’s sought to portray himself as the “education governor,” touting his advocacy for school choice, but his record on school funding was one of consistent cuts for most of his tenure. Evers painted his record on school funding as a negative. Marquette Law School pollster Charles Franklin told The Washington Post that while Wisconsin voters had previously been evenly split between those supporting higher education spending and those backing lower property taxes, voters in 2018 were running at about 60 percent in favor of more education spending and about 35 percent in favor of lower taxes – a promising sign for Evers. 

A major issue in the race was a deal Walker had negotiated in 2017 (with President Donald Trump’s backing) to subsidize the building of a new, 13,000-employee factory complex in Mt. Pleasant for Foxconn Technology Group, the Taiwanese-based manufacturing partner for such tech giants as Apple, Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo. Trump joined Walker in Wisconsin to break ground, but as time went on – and as more details of the financing became known – voters in the state became less enthusiastic about the project and its cost. Walker and the legislature had approved some $4.5 billion in tax incentives to support the project – reportedly the nation’s largest-ever subsidy for a foreign company. The nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau projected that a return on that investment might come as late as 2042. 

Both candidates were charismatically challenged – Madison’s newspaper, the Capital Times called the race “bland vs. bland” – but they differed sharply on policy. Evers backed driver’s licenses and in-state tuition for undocumented residents, while Walker attacked Democratic-backed proposals for reforming the criminal justice system, saying in front of photographs of violent criminals, “I want to keep them in for their full terms.” Evers, meanwhile, took Walker to task for supporting repeal of the Affordable Care Act. Several ex-Walker aides endorsed Evers, and national political figures flocked to campaign in the state – Trump, former President Barack Obama, former Vice President Joe Biden and a bevy of potential 2020 Democratic presidential candidates. 

The result was in doubt until late absentee returns from Milwaukee County sealed the contest for Evers, 49.5%-48.4% — a margin of just over 29,000 votes. Walker got 35,000 more votes than he had in 2014, but the Democratic nominee amassed more than 200,000 more votes than his predecessor. Evers improved the Democratic showing in two key strongholds — Milwaukee County, with 31,000 extra votes, and Dane County (Madison), with 44,115 additional votes. Walker bled support in the Republican bastions of suburban Milwaukee. In Waukesha County, his 45-point margin in 2014 shrank to 33 points in 2018; in Ozaukee County, his winning margin shrunk from 41 points to 27; and in Washington County, it shrunk from 53 points to 45. “Exit polls showed Walker lost ground with at least two key groups of voters compared with his 2014 re-election victory,” the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel’s Craig Gilbert wrote. “One was independents. Walker had won independents in each of his three statewide victories, including the recall, by margins ranging from 9 to 14 points. But in the 2018 exit poll, he was trailing among independents by 7 points. A second group was college graduates. Walker won voters with college degrees by 1 point in 2014, according to the exit poll that year. He was losing them by 13 points this year.” 

The skirmishing didn’t end on Election Day. To the outrage of the victorious Democrats, Republicans in a lame-duck session sought to tie Evers’ hands as much as possible. Walker signed legislation that, among other things, hampered Evers’ ability to modify the Walker-created Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.; made it harder for Evers and the newly elected Democratic attorney general, Josh Kaul, to withdraw from the anti-Affordable Care Act lawsuit; and placed tighter limits on early voting. The new legislation was challenged in court, and those battles played out for months; and Evers sought to expand Medicaid under the health care law despite Republican opposition. Meanwhile, in April 2019, the Legislative Fiscal Bureau brought unwelcome budget news with an estimate that the state could face a shortfall of almost $2 billion in the 2021-23 fiscal years. 

This is an excerpt from a new book published by the University of Wisconsin Press: “Tommy: My Journey of a Lifetime,” by Tommy G. Thompson and Doug Moe. It’s the life story of Wisconsin’s longest-serving governor, first elected in 1986, and his time in Madison and Washington, D.C., where he served as national health secretary in the aftermath of the 9-11 tragedy.

Reprinted by permission of the University of Wisconsin Press. ©2018 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. All rights reserved.

Buy the book:

Around that time—December 1985—Kenyon Kies, who was managing director of the Wisconsin Utilities Association, had a holiday party at his office in downtown Madison, and across the room I spotted Jim Klauser, who had encouraged me to forgo a run for governor in 1982 and position myself for 1986. At that moment there was probably no one in Wisconsin whose political abilities I respected more.

I waited until I saw Jim walk into the kitchen to refresh his drink. I followed him.


“Yeah, Tommy.”

“I’m running for governor, and I need your help.”

“Tommy,” Jim said. “You don’t want to run.”

What Jim was really saying was that he didn’t want to get involved in another political campaign. His lobbying business was becoming very successful. He had just helped push through an important bill for Exxon, and new clients were knocking on his door. Jim was tired, looking at even more work, and felt the last thing he needed was to sign on to my run for governor.

I knew all that, but I also knew I needed him. We had received a report the first week of December from Brian Sweeney, a Republican campaign consultant, essentially an analysis of what my campaign for governor needed to be successful, and his top recommendation was that it needed to be run more professionally.

That evening in Kies’s office, I said, “Yes, Jim, I am running.” I said again I needed his help.

Klauser began to list the reasons why he couldn’t help, and I stopped him. “Think about it over Christmas. I know I can win, but I can’t win without you.”

In early January, Klauser came to see me in my assembly office. “I’ve made my decision,” he said. “I am going to support you. I think you can win. What do you want me to do?”

I said, “I want you to run my campaign.”

“I am not going to run the campaign, Tommy. I don’t have time.”

Instead of pushing him, I figured it would be better to just get him onboard in some capacity. If that happened, knowing Klauser, he might end up running things anyway.

I said, “You know what I would really like you to do? Make damn sure I don’t go into debt.”

I knew that would resonate with Jim. He had talked to me about Jack Steinhilber, who ran in the primary for Bill Steiger’s congressional seat—the one Petri won and I finished second—and Jack had been caught up in the race and found himself something like $35,000 in debt when it was over.

I told Klauser, “I don’t have any money. Very few assets. I’m putting it all on the line with this race. I won’t have the assembly seat anymore. I won’t have much of a law practice, after spending a year campaigning. If I’m in debt, I don’t know how I will ever pay it off. I’ve got three kids. They’re my first responsibility. I can’t go into debt.”

Klauser nodded. “OK, that’s my job.”

Jim was onboard.

He and his wife, Shirley, were in my assembly office the morning I made the official announcement of my candidacy. Jim has said since that I was nervous, but I think it was more that I was excited. It was April 6, 1986. I was practicing the speech in my office. Marlene Cummings, who later became my secretary of regulation and licensing, introduced me on the assembly floor at the capitol. I gave my speech and then I was off on a whirlwind two-day tour of the state.

That first day, after the announcement, we hit Mauston, La Crosse, and Milwaukee and wound up at Cliff and Ceil’s, a restaurant and ballroom in Green Bay that has since closed. A group of builders—builders were among my earliest supporters—was meeting there that night. The next day I was in Rhinelander, Wausau, Superior, Eau Claire, and finally back in Madison, for a rally of my supporters at the Badger Bowl.

It was a great two days. I enjoyed it and fed off the energy of the people who came to see me. I was an official candidate for governor. We had crisscrossed the state in those two days, and that would continue. Occasionally a private plane would be made available for the campaign, but more often we drove, and therein lies a tale.

Back in December, I had received a letter that meant a lot to me at the time and later had a greater impact on the campaign than anyone could have then known.

It was written by John Tries, president of the Milwaukee Police Supervisors Organization. He was writing to tell me his organization was supporting me.

“Our organization has never given its endorsement to any candidate in the past,” Tries wrote. “We are extremely impressed with your past accomplishments and your plans for the future.”

I was grateful, and Tries was to become an important part of that first run for governor. John was a big, tough guy, a Milwaukee police sergeant who was a native of Austria. He had recently injured his back to the extent that he went on disability from his police job. As I remember it, he was tossing his riot gear in the trunk of his car, moved the wrong way, and ripped some vertebrae in his back. In any case, he wasn’t working, and he said, “I’ve really got nothing else to do. I will be your driver.”

I said, “You’re kidding me.”

“No,” John said. “I want to help you win.”

He helped, all right. I had a 1984 Buick with maybe twenty-five thousand miles on it when we started the campaign. It was the only asset I had that was paid for. By the end of the campaign it had over two hundred thousand miles on it. John put most of those miles on that Buick, and I read or slept in the seat next to him. He was a warrior.

He was also fun to travel with. John liked Jimmy Buffett songs, and there is a Buffett lyric that describes “good days, bad days and going half mad days.” That’s what a campaign is like. I recall we arrived late one night at a motel in Sheboygan—we always slept in one room with two beds to save money—and John was checking us in, using my credit card. I came shuffling in as they were finishing up.

“Who are you?” the desk clerk asked.

“I’m Tommy Thompson.”

The desk clerk looked at John, pointed at me, and said to John, “Do you know his name is on your credit card?”

Another time, in Racine, the campaign had booked us into a terrible hotel that was located above a tavern. A band was playing and we couldn’t sleep. There was no question of going somewhere else—there wasn’t money for that. So we got through the night, and in the morning, when John was taking a shower, the bathroom ceiling collapsed. Everything, including John, was covered with plaster.

I think John’s favorite moment in the whole campaign came in a motel room in Waupun when he noticed a little laminated card next to the phone that said, “Please do not pick up this receiver unless it rings.” I don’t know what it meant unless they didn’t allow outgoing calls. John thought it was the funniest thing he had ever seen. Don’t pick up the phone unless it rings! John took the card with him when we left and kept it with him in his wallet until the day he died, which came too early, in 2006. John was just sixty and had battled some health problems. I liked and respected John Tries enough that once I was elected governor I appointed him secretary of the Department of Employment Relations. You log the kind of miles together in a campaign together that we did, and you feel a kinship. John’s memorial was at Turner Hall in Milwaukee. They served Beck’s, his favorite beer, and played Jimmy Buffett songs.

While John and I were bouncing around the state, we also managed to get a small campaign office open in Madison. Jerry Mullins was a businessman who owned quite a bit of property in downtown Madison, including the Park Motor Inn, later the Inn on the Park. He didn’t want to contribute to my campaign, but he liked the idea of a Republican governor. He said there was a basement office in a building adjacent to the hotel that we could use if we cleaned it up. It took some cleaning. We didn’t have any kind of storefront presence—you entered from a side door—but the place had its advantages. Ave Bie and Diane Harmelink could walk across the street from the capitol on their lunch hours or after work, and it was also close to Jim Klauser’s law office. At first Klauser stopped by once a week or so to check the books, but then, as I had hoped might happen, he got more involved despite himself.

One spring day—it was probably late April—we were both in the campaign office one noon when Jim suggested we go next door to the Park Hotel coffee shop for a hamburger. After we ordered, Jim said he thought the campaign needed to bite the bullet and do some heavy spending on advertising leading up to the state Republican convention in Milwaukee in early June. He said we had around $100,000 on hand.

“How much do you want to spend?” I said.

“All of it,” Jim said.

I’m sure I gave him a look. Klauser explained that he felt we needed to win the straw poll at the convention. Despite my statewide grassroots efforts over the past several years, some of the big-money Republicans, the country club Republicans, were either backing Jonathan Barry outright or taking a wait-and-see position. Jim felt a big win for us at the convention would pop Barry’s balloon. And if we won—even though the straw poll was not a formal endorsement—money would not be an issue. We’d be able to raise money. If we lost, well, at least we had given it our best shot.

We didn’t lose. We spent all but a few hundred bucks on a radio and TV blitz, and even though some party regulars tried to sabotage me—they moved the straw poll to Sunday, because some of my rural supporters had to leave Saturday night—we won big. I got 62 percent in the straw poll. Barry got 20. Many of our people stayed an extra day. There was a backlash against the effort to stack the vote against me.

The radio and TV campaign helped, too, but Klauser was not happy with the advertising firm we were using. I found that out a short time later, after giving a speech at the La Crosse Club. I remember a couple of things about that night. Jerome Gundersen and Charles Gelatt, two of the leading citizens in La Crosse, were in attendance. Gelatt approached me after the speech, shook my hand, and said, “I really like you. How much can I contribute to your campaign?”

“Well,” I said, “you can contribute $10,000. That’s the individual limit.”

He was shocked. “I’m not giving you that much!” he said. He shook his head. I don’t know why he even asked me. In the end, I think he wrote me a check for $1,000.

At some point I looked across the room, and there was Jim Klauser. That was unusual. Klauser didn’t get out of Madison much. He said he needed to talk to me. I was going to catch a plane to Superior to give a speech the next morning, and Jim said he would walk me to my car, which he did.

“Good speech, Tommy,” he said. “I wanted to let you know that we released most of the campaign staff today.”

I stopped walking and looked at him. I was shocked.

“You campaign, and I’ll take care of it,” he said. As it turned out, it wasn’t everybody. But a couple of things were going on. Jim was unhappy with the quality of our television spots in the run-up to the convention and went so far as to change the imagery in the last six or seven seconds. They had me looking funereal, Jim said. He found something brighter and spliced it in at the last minute, before the spots aired. Klauser was also unhappy with our campaign manager. They had tussled over the organization of the field staff. Klauser wanted it more hands-on, and the guy said, “I talk to them on the phone. It works.” Jim told me he was intending to fire him, but never got the chance. It turned out the campaign manager was in a romantic relationship with the head of our campaign ad agency. When Klauser said he was changing agencies after the convention, the campaign manager said, “Then I quit.”

Klauser was running things anyway by then, and he was tough. Around this time, one of our fundraisers made the mistake of telling Jim she was wasn’t going to turn over the money she had raised until she was paid. “That money is not yours,” Jim said. “If it is not in the Madison office by noon tomorrow I will get an arrest warrant from the district attorney.” She brought it in. Klauser paid her, and fired her.

We could get by without any particular fundraiser, but we needed a campaign manager. Klauser had talked to Gerald Whitburn, who was involved with Kasten’s Senate reelection campaign, and Whitburn had suggested we get in touch with a guy named Robert “Buzz” Buzinski, a Wisconsin native who had worked as a field representative for the Republican National Committee in states across the country. Klauser flew to Washington to meet with Buzinski. It was almost like destiny. They were having lunch in a D.C. restaurant when a camera crew from a local TV station showed up and said they were trying to do a piece on the “entertainment deduction” on tax returns, which had become controversial. The three-martini lunch was on the way out. The TV crew offered to buy Klauser and Buzinski martinis if they could take some shots of them sipping from the glasses. They didn’t have to ask twice. Jim and Buzz, as it happened, both enjoyed martinis. Buzz signed on to the campaign.

We still didn’t have much staff, or money either, but we gained momentum as the summer went on. Our campaign circulated a three-page memo that pointed out how liberal Jonathan Barry had been during his many years as a Democrat. The ultraliberal Capital Times had given Barry its third highest score out of ninety-nine members of the assembly in assessing his votes on select key issues. The memo was pretty devastating—true, but devastating—and Barry was outraged. It was while he was addressing it in an interview with the Milwaukee Sentinel editorial board that Barry called me “a two-bit hack from Elroy.” I think he knew he was in trouble.

By the day of the primary—September 9—I was feeling confident we would win. Sue Ann and I had dinner that night at the University Club in Milwaukee with Jim and Shirley Klauser and John and Peggy MacIver and afterward went to the Astor Hotel, where the victory celebration was being held. The early numbers were very positive and Klauser was telling me I needed to talk to the television reporters even though my opponents hadn’t conceded yet. I wasn’t sure, but Jim insisted. It worked out well because at one point during the interview, Tony Earl came on and we were together via a split screen. Tony congratulated me and said he was looking forward to the campaign. It was a classy thing to do but a bad move from the standpoint of political strategy: it served to put me on equal footing with the governor. I held my own in the conversation. I think maybe Tony and his people were relieved that Jonathan Barry didn’t win the Republican nomination. They had become obsessed with him, and I was an afterthought. It was probably why their campaign didn’t advertise for several weeks after the primary, another terrible move in hindsight. They still weren’t taking me seriously.

That night at the Astor, after Jonathan and the others had called to officially concede, I addressed my supporters and pointed out that there was still much work to do. “We’ve won the pennant,” I said. “We are now moving on to the World Series.”

They liked that.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” I said, “we are going to sweep the Series.”

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Excerpt published with permission from Island Press.

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Chapter 17: Who Will Win the War?
Great Lakes Water Wars, 2nd Edition by Peter Annin
Page 302-309

Thanks in part to the invasive-species issue, Chicago will likely continue to be the most complicated and controversial diversion of this century, just as it was during the last. But southeastern Wisconsin is coming on strong, with more contemporary water-diversion hotspots than all other Great Lakes states and provinces combined: Pleasant Prairie, New Berlin, Waukesha, and to a lesser extent, Menomonee Falls and Kenosha. Following that trend is Mount Pleasant, the most recent southeastern Wisconsin community to consider a Great Lakes water diversion under the Compact’s straddling-community exception clause. Mount Pleasant is a uniquely shaped village of 26,000 people that wraps around Racine’s west and south sides. The village stretches from the shore of Lake Michigan westward, past the Great Lakes Basin line, ending at Interstate 94. Mount Pleasant’s interest in Great Lakes water was triggered by the proposal by Foxconn Technology Group to build an enormous, $10-billion liquid-crystal-display (LCD) manufacturing facility that promises to eventually employ 13,000 people. The Taiwan-based company came to Wisconsin for the water, as well as $3 billion in state incentives that helped lure the company away from Michigan and Ohio, which were also in the running. The stakes over Foxconn are high: a study by the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce estimated that the facility could add more than $51 billion to Wisconsin’s gross domestic product over fifteen years.1

Foxconn scoured southeastern Wisconsin for a place to site its massive campus, which eventually is expected to cover 20 million square feet, roughly the size of three Pentagons. The company wanted to be close to ground transportation corridors, major airports, potential employees from either side of the Illinois border…and the abundant waters of Lake Michigan. Ideally, from a water standpoint, Foxconn would have landed completely inside the Great Lakes Basin (which would have been much easier in Michigan, of course), but due in part to the narrow width of the Basin in southeastern Wisconsin, Foxconn landed in a straddling community instead, prompting Mount Pleasant to pursue a water-diversion application to support the facility.

Foxconn brings a whole new twist to the straddling-community conversation. In an irony of ironies, its corporate campus will straddle the basin line—a characteristic that it is hard to imagine the drafters of the Compact ever envisioning. As one Wisconsin official describes it, the flat screens may end up starting the assembly process in the Mississippi River watershed, with the finished product exiting the other end of the sprawling campus in the Great Lakes Basin. The facility’s geographic position raises intriguing questions for the Great Lakes Compact. “I don’t think anybody envisioned something like this happening,” says one Wisconsin official. “So I think we’re in kind of uncharted territory here.”

Image courtesy of Peter Annin
Foxconn’s corporate campus, and much of its overall proposed land purchase, straddles the Great Lakes Basin line—a situation that has tested the Great Lakes Compact in unexpected ways. Officials say the $10-billion project will be the size of three Pentagons and eventually employ up to 13,000 people.

So the straddling corporate campus is part of a straddling-community application. Mount Pleasant doesn’t have its own public water-supply system. The vast majority of the village is already in the Great Lakes Basin and municipal customers get Lake Michigan water from Racine. It’s just the far southwest corner of Mount Pleasant that happens to slightly jut out across the Basin line, and that’s where Foxconn has decided to build its multifaceted facility. Because the Compact says that a water diversion can only be used for public water supply purposes, and since Mount Pleasant does not have its own public water-supply utility, Racine submitted the water-diversion application on behalf of Mount Pleasant, which in turn applied on behalf of Foxconn. The application requested 7 million gallons of water per day (mgd)—5.8 mgd for the Foxconn facility—roughly 40 percent of which (2.7 mgd) will be lost to consumptive use. The rest will be returned to Lake Michigan, as required under the Compact. By comparison, the highly controversial Waukesha water diversion will pull 8.2 mgd from Lake Michigan and return 100 percent of the water. As usual, the amount of water isn’t really the issue—it is a pittance compared to the 1.2 quadrillion gallons of water in Lake Michigan. What matters is whether the Foxconn diversion meets the letter of the law under the Compact, and if it is setting any unintended precedent that the region might regret later.

A key question in the Foxconn debate is whether the Compact’s water-diversion exception clauses were designed to encourage corporations like Foxconn to develop large industrial facilities at the edge of the Great Lakes Basin. Or were the exception clauses designed to help water-strapped communities in need? Or both? Local officials say that Mount Pleasant was not having any water issues until the Foxconn facility was proposed. “The question was never really fully answered in the negotiations with the Compact about when exactly did we think these exemptions were okay for straddling communities,” one Wisconsin official says. “Is industrial use okay, or not okay? Is it something we want to be encouraging or discouraging as much as possible?…I think what we are seeing with the Waukesha case, and then with this case, is some of those things are going to begin to get defined just by practice and precedents that get set.” Certainly, a key driving force behind the Compact was to bring jobs to the water, rather than send water to jobs someplace else. That’s the “blue economy” that the Great Lakes governors and other boosters have been talking about for years. Foxconn is a global corporate force of nature, lured to Wisconsin personally by Governor Scott Walker. Hon Hai / Foxconn Technology Group is one of the largest multinational corporations in the world, ranking high on Fortune magazine’s “Global500” list, and it has more employees (worldwide) than Milwaukee has people. But the overriding philosophy behind the Great Lakes Compact’s approach was that, ideally, any blue-economy jobs would land completely inside the Great Lakes Basin. Foxconn came close.

But, deep in the bowels of the Compact’s fine print, there may be a hurdle for the company, and it has to do with the Compact clause that limits new diversions to “public water supply purposes.” As the document puts it: “Public Water Supply Purposes means water distributed to the public through a physically connected system of treatment, storage, and distribution facilities serving a group of largely residential customers that may also serve industrial, commercial, and other institutional operators” (emphasis added). Mount Pleasant is a community of 26,000 people, most of whom live in the Basin and don’t need a diversion. The diversion is for the small section of town that lies outside the Basin, which is expected to host 13,000 new workers. Does that mean the diversion will be serving “a group of largely residential customers”? That’s the multibillion-dollar question in Madison and Taipei. “It will be interesting if this brings up a private right-of-action, or if another state sues,” says one Wisconsin official. “That would certainly put a wrench in the whole project.”

At a packed public hearing in March of 2018, speakers zeroed in on the “largely residential customer” issue. “Here’s the rub,” said Jodi Habush Sinykin of Midwest Environmental Advocates. “A ‘group of largely residential customers’ will not be the ones served by the 7 million gallons….Rather, the complete opposite is true. Racine will use the majority, if not the entirety, of the diverted Great Lakes water to serve the industrial needs of a single, private, foreign, industrial entity, Foxconn.”

Remember that under a straddling-community application like Racine’s, the local state alone decides whether a water-diversion application can be approved. There is no requirement for regional review, and no threat of a veto from other Great Lakes states.2 (Think of New Berlin, not Waukesha.) But the other Great Lakes jurisdictions could make their views known in other ways. “Even though it may be a decision exclusively of Wisconsin under the straddling-community clause,” said Jon Allan, director of Michigan’s Office of the Great Lakes, “it’s still incumbent upon every state and province to understand the nuances and the specifics of that arrangement so we can make sure that it fully and adequately conforms to the Compact, because protection of the Compact is paramount.”

As the Racine water-diversion application moved through the approval process, the threat of environmental litigation hovered in the background. Large-scale, long-term capital investment tends to shy away from uncertainty, and Foxconn may not attain a final position of certainty in its multibillion-dollar investment until after the water diversion’s potential legal issues are resolved. “It is going to be an issue,” admits one Wisconsin official in reference to Foxconn’s straddling circumstance. “Look, this Foxconn thing was competitive in the region, and if you’re another state who lost out to Wisconsin, as Michigan and Ohio did, wouldn’t you say, ‘Hey, here’s an opportunity for me to raise all kinds of trouble?’ ” Experts agree that the Foxconn proposal could be interpreted as pushing the limits of what was intended by the Compact’s authors. “It’s definitely not what was anticipated for the limited purpose of the straddling community and straddling county,” says Noah Hall, the Wayne State Compact expert. “I’m not so sure it will be a deal-breaker….We were concerned about limiting the exceptions to public water supplies,” he says. “But that’s not to say that we will have done a good job….The thread of money in water is real.”

The Foxconn debate has prompted a legal discussion behind the scenes about the “intent” of those who authored the Compact and International Agreement. Does the Foxconn deal sound like the kind of diversion that the straddling-community exception clause envisioned? “No—it was much more aimed at residential,” says one senior Canadian official who spent years in the discussions. “It wasn’t meant that you were going to have a Tesla factory farm…put one toe into the Basin and that will allow them to get a pipe that would then provide them with the water that they needed….For some of the environmentalists, this would be exactly the horror story.” It’s called the “straddling community” exception clause for a reason, these officials say, not the “straddling factory” exception clause. But Todd Ambs, who negotiated the Compact under Wisconsin’s Democratic governor Jim Doyle, disagrees. He says the language referring to predominantly residential customers does not refer to the community that wants the water, but rather the community supplying the water. Under that line of thought, as long as Racine has plenty of water to share, and most of its customers are residential, it can supply water to Foxconn and the company can use it for whatever it wants. Mr. Ambs doesn’t see a problem with a Foxconn straddling-community application “as long as they’re getting the water through a public utility that still has room under their cap,” which Racine definitely does.3

Wisconsin officials certainly realize that they have the final say on Foxconn, but also that a controversial decision could stress the Com-pact in new and unique ways. “I do think we have a credible argument that this is copacetic under the Compact,” says one Wisconsin official. “But I am curious about how much of an issue it’s going to be….Is somebody going to sue?” Business leaders dread the thought of one state suing another over water. “I would like to believe that the region will act more regionally,” said Kathryn Buckner, president of the Council of Great Lakes Industries. “This is a program designed to be protective of the region as a whole, and hopefully we aren’t as short sighted as to see that one facility can break that down and create a fracture in that regional program. “Three states submitted official comments raising questions about the Racine diversion: Illinois, Michigan, and New York. “It is unclear that the proposed diversion is largely for residential customers,” the New York letter said. “The water is intended to facilitate the construction and operation of the future industrial site of the Foxconn facility.” Regional mayors raised questions about the application, too. The Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative complained that “the City of Racine is not the straddling community requesting the water; Mount Pleasant is. And in fact, Mount Pleasant isn’t the entity with the water need; Foxconn, a private business, is.”

Despite these complaints, on April 25, 2018, as expected, Wisconsin approved Racine’s 7 mgd water-diversion application. The decision allowed the city “to extend public water service to the 8 percent of [Mount Pleasant] that is in the Mississippi River Basin, partially including the Foxconn facility site,” a DNR press release said. The agency added that the annual consumptive use from the diversion would lower Lake Michigan’s water level by 0.0025 inches, or the thickness of a “light-weight” sheet of paper. “We received approximately 800 comments on the Racine application, which shows the public’s strong interest in this topic,” said Adam Freihoefer, from the DNR’s Bureau of Drinking Water and Groundwater. “We appreciate the public’s involvement and I thank those who took the time to comment.” The key quote from the agency’s Findings of Fact also focused on the language about residential use, saying Racine delivered water to more than 5,500 homes in Mount Pleasant already. “The proposed additional industrial and commercial customers within the diversion area will not significantly change the fact that the [Racine water] utility’s distribution of water to the public in the Village of Mount Pleasant will serve a group of largely residential customers.”

Environmentalists were disappointed by the Foxconn proposal, almost from the start—primarily because Wisconsin waived key non-Compact-related environmental requirements in order to fast-track construction of the giant LCD factory. Approval of the water diversion only made things worse. Environmentalists challenged the Racine/Foxconn diversion on May 25, 2018—the first litigation ever filed under the Great Lakes Compact. Midwest Environmental Advocates, which filed the petition, said diversions can only serve “a group of largely residential customers,” yet 83 percent of the 7 mgd requested by Racine “will be used to supply Lake Michigan water to one single private industrial customer, Foxconn,” and the rest of the water would be used by “industrial and commercial facilities surrounding the Fox-conn facilities.” The legal challenge remained unresolved as this book went to press.

Foxconn declined an interview request for this book, and because the company’s situation could remain dynamic for some time, few experts were willing to speak on the record about it. But all were fascinated by the geographic uniqueness of the company’s situation, and the challenges that it could pose to the next phase of Great Lakes water discussions, disputes, and debates. As one senior Wisconsin official put it, “This particular site is just fascinating from the [Great Lakes] divide standpoint….I just can’t get over it.” However things end up, the Racine / Mount Pleasant / Foxconn water diversion has landed in a familiar neighborhood for Great Lakes water disputes. It is just up the road from Pleasant Prairie, and just down the road from Waukesha and New Berlin. Southeastern Wisconsin is becoming water-diversion row.

–Annin is Director of the Mary Griggs Burke Center for Freshwater Innovation at
Northland College in Ashland, Wis.


  1. Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, “State Gross Domestic Product Leveraged by Tax Credit Investment at Various Jobs/Capital Expenditure Performance Levels,” March 22, 2018, /mmac_foxconn_roi_release_and_tables.pdf, accessed March 24, 2018.
  2. If a straddling-community diversion consumes 5 mgd or more—averaged over any 90-day period—the application is subject to regional review by other Great Lakes states and provinces. Even so, the other jurisdictions do not have the authority to veto a straddling-community application.
  3. Racine’s water permit allows the city to withdraw more than 60 million gallons of water from Lake Michigan per day. In 2017, the year before Racine’s application was approved, it withdrew an average of approximately 17 million gallons per day, giving the city more than 40 million gallons of buffer to accommodate the 7 mgd requested in the Racine / Mount Pleasant / Foxconn diversion application.

Book Cover

The following is an excerpt from Proxmire: Bulldog of the Senate, by Jonathan Kasparek, published by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press. The book is available through libraries and book retailers statewide and online at The book is also available as an e-book.

Excerpted from Chapter 9: “Building a Legacy” Proxmire: Bulldog of the Senate

From 1950 to 1989, William Proxmire was a major figure in Wisconsin politics, serving one term in the legislature before running for governor. Denied the governorship three times in six years, he shocked everyone by winning a special election in 1957 to replace the late U.S. Senator Joe McCarthy, and he went on to win reelection six times. Known for championing consumer protection legislation and farming interests, Senator Proxmire also fought continuously against wasteful government spending, highlighting the most egregious examples with his monthly “Golden Fleece Awards.”

Proxmire began the Golden Fleece Awards—which would become his most popular and longest-lasting attack on federal spending—in 1975. His success in exposing the cost overruns of the C-5A and other Pentagon waste demonstrated the necessity of good publicity to expose government waste, so Proxmire decided to create “a monthly award for the most absurd example of waste accomplished by one federal agency or another during the preceding thirty days.” After considering several names (such as Rip-Off of the Month, Spending Crime of the Month), Proxmire and his staff settled on “fleece” to suggest “a smooth, legalized theft from the taxpayers.” Tom van der Voort, who had an interest in Greek mythology, suggested “Golden Fleece” 1  

On March 11, Proxmire issued a press release awarding a Golden Fleece to the National Science Foundation for spending $84,000 on a University of Minnesota study on why people fall in love. It set the tone for ridicule that would characterize the award for the next thirteen years:

I object to this because no one—not even the National Science Foundation—can argue that falling in love is a science. Even if they spend $84 million or $84 billion, they wouldn’t get an answer that anyone would believe. And I’m against it because I don’t want the answer. I believe that 200 million other Americans want to leave some things in life a mystery, and right at the top of this list of things we don’t want to know is why a man falls in love with a woman and vice versa.2

Professor Ellen Berscheid, the lead researcher, quickly defended the study as part of a larger project studying psychological dependence and interpersonal attraction begun in 1972 that would benefit psychologists and therapists and therefore have practical application. When Proxmire followed up by criticizing a similar $224,000 grant to the University of Wisconsin, Professor Elaine Walster responded that her study was part of a larger field of study that she called “equity theory,” which she had been working on for the past fifteen years and was widely respected among social scientists. She accused Proxmire of not trying to understand a complex and relevant field of research and instead going after a cheap laugh and political points. The UW Faculty Senate condemned Proxmire’s criticism as a threat to basic university research in a statement that concluded, “To the extent that in his personal opinion some funded basic research projects are wasteful, Senator Proxmire’s criticisms must be directed at improving the Foundation’s policies and review criteria. To instead make attacks on individual scientists’ projects, through the mass media and on insufficient knowledge, is a threat to the freedom of scientific inquiry which the Faculty Senate can only view with deep dismay.” Proxmire conceded that the UW faculty had a fair point and did indeed work with the NSF to improve its procedures for approving and reporting grants.3

Proxmire awarded the second Golden Fleece to the NSF, NASA, and the Office of Naval Research for spending more than $500,000 over seven years to fund a study by Dr. Roland Hutchinson of Kalamazoo State Hospital on why rats, monkeys, and humans clench their jaws. His press release for the second “fleece” was even more sarcastic than the first, mocking the “transparent worthlessness” of Hutchinson’s research and declaring it was “time for the federal government to get out of this ‘monkey business.’ ”

Proxmire repeated this story in his constituent newsletter and on the Mike Douglas television show.4 This time, Proxmire got more than an angry rebuke from Midwestern faculty: a year later, Hutchinson filed a lawsuit against Proxmire and legislative assistant Morton Schwartz, who had done most of the research, for libel, claiming that the award had “held him up to public ridicule and damaged his professional reputation,” rendering him unable to obtain future grants. Ironically, Schwarz, a former economics professor himself, had indeed done his homework, contacting each of the granting institutions and obtaining documents that supported the grants.

Before making the announcement, Schwarz contacted Hutchinson and read him the press release. Hutchinson insisted that the press release was not a fair evaluation of his work and that he would prepare a rebuttal, which turned out to be a $6 million lawsuit.5

Despite its origin in government-funded “monkey business,” the Hutchinson lawsuit dragged on for nearly four years and actually involved some serious constitutional issues. Article I, Section 6 of the Constitution granted members of Congress legal immunity for statements made on the floor in order to guarantee free debate and prevent reprisal for controversial statements. But did that immunity extend to statements repeated in print or on television? Because this question was of great importance to every member of Congress, the Senate funded Proxmire’s defense, though

Senator Barry Goldwater pointed out the hypocrisy of Proxmire himself receiving federal funds to defend himself for attacking others for receiving federal funds. A federal court dismissed the suit based on the doctrine of congressional immunity (which covered Proxmire’s statements on the floor of the Senate) and the freedom of speech clause of the First Amendment (which covered his newsletter and television appearance), but Hutchinson appealed the decision. In July 1978, the US Court of Appeals upheld the lower court ruling, stating that by accepting public funding for his work, Hutchinson had become a public figure. As a public figure, therefore, Hutchinson had to prove that Proxmire had acted with malice in his statements. Without evidence of malice, Proxmires statements were protected free speech. Hutchinson refused to give up and appealed the verdict to the US Supreme Court, which agreed to take the case in January 1979. In June, the court ruled in an 8–1 decision that Hutchinson was not a public figure and had to prove only injury, not malice, and that the congressional immunity clause did not apply to statements made outside of Senate debate, meaning that Proxmire could be sued for libel. The court remanded the case back to a lower court, but in March 1980, Proxmire agreed to a settlement. Hutchinson accepted $10,000 plus $5,131.92 in court costs—paid out of Proxmire’s own pocket—and a public clarification that Proxmire had not intended to disparage Hutchinson’s research, a not-quite apology. Proxmire’s defense costs were nearly $125,000, which

Proxmire gradually repaid, beginning with royalties he earned from a book about the Golden Fleece Awards.6

The lawsuit was an expensive ordeal, but Proxmire continued to make his monthly award during the suit and for the remainder of his time in the Senate. Every month, his legislative assistants spent hours meticulously researching some instance of wasteful government spending, often tipped off by someone working for some federal agency, and the office would decide on a winner. Proxmire would revise the award’s language, injecting his own humorous style to make them appealing as press releases. Administrative assistant Howard Shuman was responsible for editing and releasing them. Some government agencies were targeted more frequently, like NASA and the Armed Forces, and the amounts were sometimes tiny compared to other federal spending, but the press releases were always written to outrage the American taxpayer. Proxmire issued one of his favorite Golden Fleece Awards in July 1981 to the Department of the Army for spending $6,000 to produce a seventeen-page set of instructions for the purchase of Worcestershire sauce. The Senate itself received occasional awards, including a March 1978 award for spending $122 million on a new office building. Sometimes Proxmire issued special merit awards to those individuals or agencies that saved money, such as the Smithsonian Institution, which completed the Air and Space Museum ahead of schedule and under budget. Although the Golden Fleece Award remained quite popular with Wisconsin voters and certainly generated good press, not everyone was entirely comfortable with a prominent US Senator ridiculing research. NASA received several awards—spending $140,000 to pay an author to write a six-thousand-word history of the Viking Project, for example, or requesting $28 million for a building addition to store moon rocks. He bestowed an award on the Smithsonian Institution for producing a Tzotzil dictionary, a language spoken by a few thousand inhabitants of southern Mexico. Some journalists, though they admired the research put into them by Proxmire’s staff, thought a few of the Golden Fleece Awards were little more than cheap shots. Even some of his staff were uncomfortable with them, seeing some as petty. Such criticism may have had an impact. Over the years, Proxmire and his staff tended to focus on government agencies funding sometimes embarrassingly inappropriate expenses rather than getting pulled into the merits of research, and later awards avoided naming names. Legislative director Ken Dameron, who had a law degree, took on the responsibility of reading the awards to make sure there would be no further legal issues. Even after Proxmire had been out of office for years, the Golden Fleece Awards remained probably his best-known work.

“Where’s William Proxmire when you need him?” wondered one columnist in a 2002 column bemoaning a $3.2 million study on identifying individuals by smell.7



  1. According to his March 29, 2009 interview with Anita Hecht in Proxmire, The Fleecing of America (Proxmire Oral History Project, Wisconsin Historical Society Archives)
  2. Wisconsin State Journal, March 12, 1975 (William Proxmire Papers, Archives Division, State Historical Society of Wisconsin)
  3. Wisconsin State Journal, March 13, 1975 (William Proxmire Papers, Archives Division, State Historical Society of Wisconsin)
  4. From an April 18, 1975 press release (William Proxmire Papers, Archives Division, State Historical Society of Wisconsin)
  5. According to Irvin Kresiman in his April 16, 1976, Capital Times article “Fleece Award Winner Sues Prox for Libel” (Wisconsin Historical Society Archives)
  6. According to Spencer Rich in his May 10, 1976 Capital Times article, “Proxmire Seeks Funds from Senate.” (Wisconsin Historical Society Archives)
  7. According to Carl Eifert in his July 6, 2009, interview with Anita Hecht, Proxmire Oral History Project, Wisconsin Historical Archives.


It Happened in Wisconsin – Michael Bie
– Excerpt

Rads: The 1970 Bombing of the Army Math Research Center at the University of Wisconsin and Its Aftermath – Tom Bates

White Coat Wisdom – Stephen J. Busalacchi
– – More Busalacchi books

The Man from Clear Lake – Bill Christofferson
– Excerpt

The Education of an Anti-Imperialist: Robert La Follette and U.S. Expansion – Richard Drake

While America Sleeps: A Wake-up Call for the Post-9/11 Era – Russ Feingold

Wisconsin Votes: An Electoral History – Robert Booth Fowler
– Excerpt

The Making of Milwaukee – John Gurda

Environmental Politics and the Creation of a Dream: Establishing the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore – Harold “Bud” Jordahl and Annie Booth

Planning a Wilderness: Regenerating the Great Lakes Cutover Region – James Kates

Let the people decide – William M. Kraus

The Survival Handbook: A Strategy for Saving Planet Earth – Doug La Follette

Adventure in politics: the memoirs of Philip LaFollette – Philip Fox La Follette

La Follette’s Autobiography: A Personal Narrative of Political Experiences – Robert M. La Follette and Allan Nevins

A Mind of Her Own: Helen Connor Laird and Family, 1888-1982 – Helen L. Laird
– Excerpt

Cold War University: Madison and the New Left in the Sixties – Matthew Levin

Madison: The Illustrated Sesquicentennial History, Volume 1, 1856-1931 – Stu Levitan

The Art of Legislative Politics – Tom Loftus

An Enemy of the State: the Life of Erwin Knoll – Bill Lueders
– More Lueders books

Barack Obama: The Story – David Maraniss
– More Maraniss books

More than They Bargained For: Scott Walker, Unions, and the Fight for Wisconsin – Patrick Marley, Jason Stein
– Excerpt

Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work Paperback – Curt D. Meine

Lessons from the Heartland: A Turbulent Half-Century of Public Education in an Iconic American City – Barbara Miner
– Excerpt

Madison: A History of the Formative Years – David V. Mollenhoff

Uprising: How Wisconsin Renewed the Politics of Protest, from Madison to Wall Street – John Nichols
– More Nichols books

The Wealth Of Cities: Revitalizing The Centers Of American Life – John Norquist

Raising Hell for Justice: The Washington Battles of a Heartland Progressive – Dave Obey

Medicaid and the States: A Century Foundation Report (The Devolution Revolution) – Paul Offner

Your Joy Ride to Health Hardcover – Bill Proxmire 

Democracy in Print: The Best of The Progressive Magazine, 1909-2009 – Matthew Rothschild

Forward! A History of Dane: The Capital County – Allen Ruff and Tracy Will

Young Guns: A New Generation of Conservative Leaders – Paul Ryan, Eric Cantor, Kevin McCarthy

Edwin E. Witte: Cautious Reformer Hardcover – Theron F. Schlabach

The Sixteenth Rail: The Evidence, the Scientist, and the Lindbergh Kidnapping – Adam Schrager

A Nation of Moochers: America’s Addiction to Getting Something for Nothing – Charlie Sykes
– More Sykes books

Power to the People: An American State at Work – Tommy G. Thompson

The Company That Solved Health Care – John Torinus

With Honor: Melvin Laird in War, Peace, and Politics – Dale Van Atta
– Excerpt

The La Follettes of Wisconsin: Love and Politics in Progressive America – Bernard A. Weisberger


Pryme Knumber – Matt Flynn

The Alliance – Scott Klug