Gov. Thompson Once ‘Dr. No,’ Now Pragmatist


The Democrats had a nickname for Wisconsin Gov. Tommy G. Thompson when he was in the state Assembly: “Dr. No.”

“He was against everything,” said Paul Offner, a former Wisconsin Democratic assemblyman who served with Thompson during the early 1970s. Thompson seemed automatically to oppose any program put forth by the Democrats, Offner recalled.

And when--in 1986, after 20 years in the Assembly--Thompson decided to run for governor, Democrats were gleeful.

“They thought he would be easily defeated,” said Tom Corbett, associate director of the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. But the people of Wisconsin handed him yet another victory.

“And here we are,” Corbett said, “14 years later.”

The nation’s longest-serving governor, Thompson, 59, was tapped Friday by President-elect George W. Bush to become secretary of Health and Human Services. He is best known nationally for pushing his state to overhaul its welfare system even before Congress and President Clinton undertook national reform of the program. Under his leadership, Wisconsin has reduced its welfare rolls by almost 90%, cutting welfare spending but increasing investments in child care and health care, especially for low-income working families.


A story told less often, however, is that many of Wisconsin’s poor have remained well below the federal poverty line and, despite the state’s efforts, slightly more of the poorest children lack health insurance than before the welfare overhaul, according to the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation, a health policy think tank.

Although his roots are deeply conservative, the positions Thompson has taken on many social programs are a complex, often progressive amalgam, particularly in the area of health care, where he has made a great effort to reach out to the working poor and those leaving welfare. “Tommy is a funny mixture--very conservative but very pragmatic,” said Offner, now a Georgetown University professor. “Once he became governor, his pragmatism came out. . . . He really tried to be bipartisan.”

As Health and Human Services secretary, Thompson would need those skills to run one of the most unwieldy departments in the executive branch. Before his nomination was announced, there were rumors that he would have been at least as happy to head the Department of Transportation. An avid railroad enthusiast, he is chairman of the Amtrak board of directors and a supporter of mass transit.

Several Ethical Issues Awaiting Thompson

At the Department of Health and Human Services, he would manage a fiscal 2001 budget of $423 billion, more than 20 times the budget of Wisconsin; 63,000 employees, nearly the same as Wisconsin; and more than 300 programs that cover a breathtaking array of social issues touching the lives of virtually every American.

If, as expected, he is confirmed by the Senate, Thompson will have direct influence over some of the biggest policy challenges in the federal government. He will walk into a raging partisan fight over how to revamp the $210-billion-a-year Medicare program so that it covers prescription drugs and the debate over whether to push more seniors to join health maintenance organizations.

Thompson will be on the hot seat on such ethical issues as whether to continue the current federal policy that permits research on embryonic stem cells--research that offers the promise of therapies, even cures, for a wide range of diseases but is fervently opposed by anti-abortion groups. An abortion opponent, he would help shape the administration’s policies on family planning, especially the controversial effort by conservatives to expand abstinence-based sex education and reduce funding for programs that teach contraceptive techniques.

Although there is far less federal control over the nation’s safety-net welfare program today than before it was overhauled in 1996, Thompson would determine the administration’s position when Congress reauthorizes the welfare successor program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, in 2001.

He would also face a continuing fight over how tightly to regulate the tobacco industry and discourage smoking among young people. In Wisconsin, Thompson was a friend to tobacco interests, accepting tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions as well as taking trips at the expense of Philip Morris, the nation’s largest tobacco company and the largest employer in the state. Several Philip Morris Cos. subsidiaries--including the Miller Brewing Co., Kraft Foods Inc. and Oscar Mayer--are either based in Wisconsin or have large installations there. He vetoed a tobacco excise tax and delayed authorizing the state attorney general to join other state attorneys general in a lawsuit against cigarette manufacturers.

Known as an energetic man with lots of ideas and a temper, Thompson was born and raised in Elroy, a small, central Wisconsin town where his father ran a gas station and general store and his mother was a schoolteacher. Thompson’s first job, at age 6, was sorting and polishing eggs in his father’s store.

He was elected to the state Assembly in 1966--the same year he graduated from the University of Wisconsin Law School--and served there until he was elected governor in 1986. Wisconsin has no term limits and Thompson has proved tremendously popular, winning reelection four times, most recently in 1998.

“He’s amazing in his ability to understand ordinary folks,” said Kevin Piper, a former Wisconsin Medicaid director, now vice president of the Academy for Health Services and Research Policy, a Washington-based health policy think tank. “He talks to people in their own language.”

Thompson used his facility for translating government-speak into plain English to win popular support for his radical welfare policies, which made it increasingly difficult for people to remain on welfare. Today, fewer than 7,000 Wisconsin residents receive temporary assistance for needy families--a 90% reduction since 1987, when Thompson began trying different means to get welfare recipients into the work force.

But critics say that the state’s success in reducing the welfare population has only occasionally translated into better lives for the poor.

“The rhetoric and intentions have been good, but the policies have been implemented too punitively,” said Wendell Primus of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan group that analyzes federal poverty policy. “Many families have actually lost ground even though they are no longer on welfare.”

Wisconsin Leads in Aiding Working Poor

However, unlike many states--where the primary objective was to reform welfare by cutting costs--Thompson’s philosophy was not simply that people needed to work for a living but that, to do so, they needed help with child care and health care. Unlike many conservatives, he was willing to spend money to ensure that.

The state is one of the few that has no waiting list for subsidized child care and is a leader in health care for the working poor. Its BadgerCare health program is one of the first in the country to allow low-income families--not just children--to sign up for government-subsidized health care through Medicaid and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, which covers children in families with incomes of up to 200% of the poverty level, or about $34,000 a year.

Although Thompson has a limited record on medical research policy--a major responsibility of the department--he has been supportive of breast cancer research. His wife, Sue Ann, a retired schoolteacher, is a breast cancer survivor and has been very active in women’s health issues in the state. The couple have three children.

In one area, reproductive health, Thompson is already meeting stiff opposition. Planned Parenthood, the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League and a number of other abortion rights groups say they will oppose him because of his anti-abortion stand.

“He’s signed every anti-choice bill that has come before him,” said Gloria Feldt, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. “So we have to start with the baseline that anyone who opposes these fundamental human rights is not the ideal pick to be the secretary of Health and Human Services.”

However, his support of contraceptive-based family planning has heartened some family planning advocates.


Profile: Tommy G. Thompson

* Born: Nov. 19, 1941

* Education: Undergraduate degree, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1963; law degree, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1966

* Career highlights: Lawyer; U.S. Army Reserve, 1966-76; Wisconsin Assembly, 1967-87; Wisconsin governor since 1987

* Family: Wife, Sue Ann; three children; one grandchild

* Quote: “Keep in mind--a compassionate conservative is a person of action, not one of words, for compassion means being bold and courageous enough to act and to lead.”

Source: Associated Press