Book review: ‘Tommy: My Journey of a Lifetime’ by Tommy Thompson and Doug Moe

By LARRY BALLWAHN | Wilton

Tommy Thompson takes a great deal of pride in what he was able to accomplish despite, or because of, coming from the small rural community of Elroy.

“Tommy” details Thompson’s successful career, from that start to governor of Wisconsin (four terms) to cabinet secretary for Health and Human Services under President George Bush, to noteworthy business positions following the government service. He also speaks candidly about his interactions with President Trump and hints at areas where he disagrees with Gov. Walker. He seems to say that his main reason for supporting them was that he thought they were better choices than the alternative.

Thompson began his service in the Wisconsin Assembly in 1967, continuing there until he was elected governor. He served as governor from 1987 to 2001, longer than any other Wisconsin governor has held the office. He resigned as governor to become George W. Bush’s Secretary ofHealth and Human Services, a position he kept for Bush’s first term. “Tommy” provides recollections of those experiences as well as some explanation as to how they came about. The book displays the human side of politics and gives Thompson’s views on a myriad of political topics.

Explaining that he first became enamored with politics in his father’s store, he describes the wheeling and dealing that went on there, as his father was road commissioner for Juneau County. “To this day, I love to make deals and negotiate.”

As minority leader in the Assembly, he took pride in his ability to “deal” with the Democrats in a way that was beneficial to Republican goals. At the same time, he realized, “My views were evolving. I realized that government could perform a service.”

Thompson summarized his approach to governing, saying, “When you are working with people with whom you have fundamental disagreements — but who are in the same business you are in — you find a way to work together, to have a meeting of the minds, in search of the best outcomes.”

Though that may or may not have been his purpose, Thompson emphasizes at least a couple of areas where he disagrees with Scott Walker. As a former board chairman of Amtrak, Thompson was a strong advocate of high-speed rail, an ongoing effort in Wisconsin that Walker quashed soon after taking office. While Walker spars with the University of Wisconsin, Thompson writes, “I can’t understand why any public official wouldn’t see the University of Wisconsin System as an ally, especially in a world that is changing faster than ever.”

I have several recollections of Gov. Thompson, none of which made it into the book. When I was a principal in theElroy-Kendall-Wilton Schools, I heard one side of a couple of conversations between the governor and School Superintendent Allen Schraufnagel regarding the state and rural school systems. Also, when Thompson was governor, the state budget might well be delayed due to negotiations, but you knew there would be a budget and that it would be responsible.

Later, I was superintendent for Horicon Public Schools. The early ‘90s was a time of property tax revolt in much of the state. Horicon was no exception. Gov. Thompson had the state assume two-thirds of school costs. Annual meetings were much more civil after that and easier on the superintendent. Sometime later, Gov. Thompson was to speak at the Wisconsin Association of School Boards convention in Milwaukee. Walking through a hallway with a couple of my board members, we met the governor. “Larry,” he said, “when are you coming back to Elroy to be superintendent?” I didn’t go back, but my standing with the Horicon School Board rose.

Thompson is a moderate Republican; sadly, in my opinion, that’s a rarity in today’s Republican Party. Tony Evers and the Republican leadership in the Legislature would do well to read the book and apply the lessons proffered.

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