U.S. Senate candidate profile: former Governor Tommy Thompson

MADISON — Four Republican candidates are vying to take on Democratic candidate Tammy Baldwin for Wisconsin’s U.S. Senate seat. The GOP Senate primary is Tuesday, August 14th. FOX6 News is profiling the candidates for U.S. Senate. Next up — former Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson.

Thompson has been out of politics for nearly a decade, but he’s still the most well-known candidate in the race. Thompson is 70 years old. He is from Elroy in Juneau County. He has a law degree and is a Catholic. He’s married with three kids, and eight grandchildren.

Thompson’s political resume spans nearly a half-century. His last election was in 1998, but he’s come out of retirement and into the Senate race.

Thompson has spent 46 years in the public eye. Many may believe they know everything there is to know about him — but they may not know this!

“Mike Ditka is a good friend of mine. In person, Mike Ditka is really friendly, funny and smart.

That a Packers fan could speak so glowingly of Ditka may seem trivial, but it illuminates an important point — almost by the force of his personality, Thompson is able to engage the other side, and form working relationships with his rivals. It is a quality that is lacking in today’s polarized political climate, but he used it to achieve unprecedented success in Wisconsin politics.

“You have got to realize that I was governor for 14 years and Democrats were in control of both houses of the Legislature in all but a year and a half. I had to work with both houses in order to get things done and I was able to do so and people respected me for that,” Thompson said.

It wasn’t always like that. In 1966, when Thompson was first elected to the Wisconsin Assembly at the age of 25, he earned a nickname.

“The nickname was ‘Dr. No’ and because I was such a fiery orator against spending proposals by Democrats that they dubbed me Dr. No and it’s amazing that that moniker stuck. To this day some people still call me Dr. No,” Thompson said.

There may be a small handful who can still call him that, but to the rest of the state, he is now so familiar that, like Cher or Oprah or Elvis, he is known simply by his first name.

“They don’t call me Governor. They don’t call me Secretary. They don’t call me Mr. Thompson. They call me Tommy.  That tells you not only the popularity but also the familiarity I have with the voters of this great state,” Thompson said.

So how did a farm boy from Elroy capture a state’s heart and its vote year after year? The answer may be in his blue-collar, Irish-Catholic upbringing. His dad owned a grocery store, and his mom was a teacher. He thinks of himself as a farmer.

“I farm. I raise belted halloways. Those are the Oreo cookie cows with the black on the front and white in the middle,” Thompson said.

High on ambition but low on cash, Thompson enrolled at the University of Wisconsin.

“I went to the university with my clothes in a paper sack — two shirts and a sweater and people made fun of me when I moved in. I couldn’t afford to live in the dorm so I worked my way through seven years of college — four years at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and three years in law school,” Thompson said.

Thompson worked a series of blue-collar jobs that helped hone his common touch.

“I was a union member and a laborer. I was an engineer labor union person. I was a bartender. I worked in the factories. I worked in a foundry. I worked in a canning factory and I worked in construction for six years black-topping. There is not much I haven’t done,” Thompson sad.

That could be the line that sums up Thompson’s political career. He ran for governor in 1986, 1990, 1994 and 1998 — winning each race by a wide margin.

“All over the state of Wisconsin we’re doing so well. It even looks like we’re going to carry Milwaukee County. It’s really humbling to be elected Governor the first time, but the second, third and fourth time is really something,” Thompson said.

Thompson’s major achievements include welfare reform — creating the model for welfare to work.

“We’re going to have people on Welfare to sign a contract with the state and counties — make them show up at work centers,” Thompson said.

He pioneered a public school voucher program and revamped education funding.

“We have the opportunity to take over two-thirds of the cost of education from the property tax payer and pick it up at the state level, without tax increases,” Thompson said.

Thompson created BadgerCare — the health care safety net for the poor that helped Wisconsin achieve one of the highest rates of insured residents in the United States.

“We believe in Wisconsin. We believe in its people. We believe in the opportunities we’ve been able to create the last four years,” Thompson said.

Thompson touts his 91 tax cuts as his top achievements. By 1998 speculation was swirling whether he would run for president. First, he was called to serve his president. He left the state Capitol in 2001 to become George W. Bush’s secretary of health and human services.

In 2007, he made a brief underfunded and ultimately failed bid for the presidency — taking his legendary retail politics to the Iowa caucuses, but not beyond.

Thompson flirted with running for U.S. Senate in 2010 — political observers were salivating over a potential heavyweight match with Russ Feingold. When he appeared at a Tea Party rally that April, he appeared to be passing the torch. Behind the scenes though, his competitive fire was still burning. He regrets not running — knowing he had a chance to win.

“It would have been easier, but my family was opposed to it. My family is fully on board now,” Thompson said.

Thompson had a lucrative post-political career sitting on various corporate boards and working for law firms — amassing a fortune of $13 million — some of which he’s spent on his Senate campaign.

Just as politics has changed since his last win in 1998, so has Thompson’s look. His hair color is now all gray. He stopped dyeing it shortly before he announced his campaign.

“I got sick and tired of it and I am what I am and I am Tommy Thompson. I thought that was phony, so no more,” Thompson said.

The gray hair leads to another uncomfortable question — at 70, is Thompson simply too old to run for office?

“Absolutely not. Ronald Reagan was 72 — two years older than me when he became President and he was probably one of the best presidents. I look back and remember that Ronald Reagan said he wasn’t going to let his age and experience to be used against the immaturity of the other candidates,” Thompson said.

Thompson says he does 100 pushups a day — 50 in the morning and 50 before bed. He demonstrated his energy walking 10 miles of parades on the Fourth of July in 100° heat.

“I am in great physical condition and I have the stamina and the workability and the mind is extremely good. I have the ability and the tenacity, the vision and the dreams and the proposals to make America better,” Thompson said.

The U.S. Senate GOP primary is August 14th.

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