As the Republican governor of the state of Wisconsin in the 1980s and 1990s, Tommy Thompson (born 1941) took the lead in implementing conservative public–policy initiatives, most notably welfare reform, that influenced even the Democratic administration of United States President Bill Clinton. Thompson, sometimes mentioned as a presidential candidate himself, was rewarded at the beginning of 2001 with the post of Secretary of Health and Human Services in the new Republican administration of George W. Bush. He was at his best when wrestling with complex policy issues, and the passage of President Bush's Medicare prescription drug benefit, of which he was one of the key architects, numbered among his most important accomplishments.
Tommy Thompson was born in tiny Elroy, Wisconsin on November 19, 1941. He was of German background on his grocer father's side, Irish on his mother's. Thompson's values were shaped early by the thrift and discipline characteristic of small–town Midwestern culture. When he was four, he asked his father for a tricycle. He was put to work scraping chicken droppings off eggs for 25 cents an hour. "I had to pay for everything myself," Thompson told the New York Times as he recalled his father's philosophy regarding allowances. "But he always gave me the opportunity to work for what I wanted."
Attending the University of Wisconsin in the 1960s, Thompson did not fit in with the liberal philosophies that flourished on college campuses at the time. He was inspired instead by a book that motivated many members of the next generation of political leaders, 1964 Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater's Conscience of a Conservative. Working as a bartender to help pay his tuition bills, Thompson developed a easy rapport with strangers although he had up to then been quiet by nature. Thompson earned a bachelor's degree in political science and history in 1963 and remained in Madison for three more years, finishing law school at Wisconsin in 1966.
Elected to Wisconsin Assembly
Given to enthusiastic handshakes and even bear hugs, Thompson had political skills that were waiting to be tapped. He plunged into politics in the summer after he finished law school, driving down all of the generally unpaved roads in his rural district in the course of running for the Wisconsin Assembly. After personally visiting 80 percent of the district's residences, Thompson knocked off a Democratic incumbent who had been re–elected for 20 years. Despite a spotty attendance record during his first term, the result of his ongoing law practice and of a National Guard stint in Texas, Thompson was re–elected and spent 20 years in the assembly himself. He married schoolteacher Sue Ann Mashak in 1968, and despite disagreements over the efforts of Wisconsin's teachers' unions (Thompson despised them), they worked together to raise two sons and a daughter.
Thompson rose through the ranks of Wisconsin's legislative hierarchy, working his way up to the post of Assembly Minority Leader by 1981. In Wisconsin, a state with strong liberal traditions in which Democrats controlled both houses of the legislature, Thompson was tagged as "Dr. No" as a result of his regular resistance to Democratic initiatives. Yet he was a genial figure who won friends across the aisle and worked effectively on cooperative projects. Talk began to build that Thompson was the candidate who could break the Democratic lock on the state's highest office.
In 1986, Thompson challenged Democratic incumbent Anthony Earl for the governorship and was successfully elected. He stressed the theme of welfare reform in his campaign and followed through with a steady stream of welfare initiatives once he was elected. Arguing that welfare recipients were moving to Wisconsin from elsewhere in order to take advantage of the state's relatively generous benefits, in 1987 he cut Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) benefits by 6 percent and froze them. Wisconsin residents, Thompson told the New York Times, were "fed up to their eyeteeth" with out–of–staters moving in. "People in Wisconsin expect people to work—maybe it's the old Germanic heritage, the old European heritage."
Indeed, research by Thompson's campaign staffers told him that the welfare issue was drawing votes not just from rural Republicans but also from ethnic Democrats in the vote–rich Milwaukee area, and the AFDC cut would be just the beginning of a process that would eventually require work in exchange for payments from all of Wisconsin's welfare recipients. Thompson was reelected handily in 1990, 1994, and 1998, becoming by 2000 the longest–serving governor in the U.S.
Thompson's long record of initiatives that fundamentally remolded the role of government in Wisconsin was accomplished in a state that continued to lean Democratic and gave its electoral votes to Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996. Conservative writer Bill Kristol characterized Thompson as "a strong and bull–headed guy who is also a very good politician." At first, Thompson overreached, making frequent use of Wisconsin's gubernatorial line–item veto, which allowed him to reject even small details of bills receiving signature. Wisconsin voters trimmed his line–item veto rights in 1990. After that, Thompson tended to promote his ideas as common–sense solutions rather than as ideologically based crusades, and he invited Democrats to participate in the shaping of legislation.
The results, from a legislative standpoint, were impressive. Thompson guided through the legislature and enacted a series of innovative programs that aimed to reshape the state's antipoverty programs. Thompson's programs often used a carrot–and–stick approach, reducing benefits to combat undesirable behaviors while beefing up other programs with new funding and allowing Thompson to put a positive face on his reforms. He began with Learnfare, which cut welfare benefits to parents if their children dropped out of school. Bridefare, enacted in 1992, raised payments to female recipients who married and who stopped bearing children out of wedlock. Thompson's Work Not Welfare program placed a two–year limit on benefits. These initiatives influenced the welfare reforms of the Clinton White House, undertaken partly to neutralize what Democrats pegged as a potent and rising Republican issue. "We started welfare reform. It became a national program," Thompson told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Increased Child – Care Funding
The culmination of Thompson's efforts was Wisconsin Works (also known as W–2), which began with pilot programs in two small counties and was then expanded to the entire state. Wisconsin Works essentially put an end to welfare, requiring applicants, with just a few exceptions, to either find jobs with private employers or take a public–service job administered by the state. By 1999, Thompson had indeed trimmed Wisconsin's welfare rolls to about 8,000 from nearly 100,000 people. Forestalling criticism that child–care and transportation issues often prevented welfare recipients from taking jobs, Thompson increased funding for both—dramatically in the case of child care, from $12 million to $150 million a year.
Thompson had numerous liberal critics. A common charge was one leveled by Milwaukee Journal Sentinel commentator Eugene Kane, who characterized Wisconsin Works as "a confusing and incompetent muddle of a welfare program that took millions of dollars from taxpayers and transferred them to bureaucrats—often in the form of obscene bonuses—while abandoning thousands of poor people who opted out of the so–called 'reform.' " Indeed, Wisconsin's budget ballooned during much of Thompson's tenure, leveling off only after Republicans won legislative control in the mid–1990s.
Thompson's accomplishments as governor of Wisconsin extended beyond welfare reform. He was well out ahead of other state governors in promoting new "charter" schools in inner–city areas and in arranging for state–funded private school tuition for poor students. He initiated a program of state health insurance for the working poor, dubbed BadgerCare, and he was involved in efforts to get a high–speed Milwaukee–to–Chicago rail corridor off the ground. Under Thompson, Wisconsin's prison system grew sharply, with new prisons approved at a pace of almost one per year and a 350 percent increase in the state's prison population during his tenure.
After flirting briefly with a presidential run himself, Thompson endorsed Texas governor George W. Bush in the 2000 Republican presidential primaries. Thompson was rewarded by President–elect with the cabinet post of Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), although Wisconsin insiders whispered that, given his position on the national Amtrak railroad's board of directors and his work on Wisconsin's rail system, he would have preferred the Secretary of Transportation post. As things turned out, Thompson, who had little background in the health field and had sometimes derided Washington, D.C. as "Disneyland East," found himself deluged with challenges in his new job.
Struggled after Anthrax Outbreak
In the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, America was awash in fears of new terrorist attacks. The worst of those fears seemed to be confirmed later that fall when a series of cases of the deadly disease anthrax appeared, first in a publisher's office in Boca Raton, Florida and then in mail sorting facilities and media offices in the Northeast. Thompson's press briefings during the crisis were criticized as rambling and ambiguous. "There has been a breakdown in the public–diplomacy aspect of [the bioterrorism] issue, Clinton administration official Elisa Harris told Time.
Thompson himself admitted to the magazine that "When I was asked to take this job, I never expected I was going to spend all my time on embryonic stem cells and bioterrorism." The stem cell issue marked another rough spot for Thompson during Bush's first term; a supporter of stem cell research, Thompson clashed with the conservative Republican base that opposed the medical use of stem cells taken from human embryos. In the fall of 2004, too, Thompson faced the glare of news–program spotlights as the U.S. struggled with an influenza vaccine shortage brought on by an unexpected shutdown of a British pharmaceutical company's manufacturing plant.
As HHS secretary, Thompson oversaw an entity with about 67,000 employees and a budget of nearly $600 million. The Byzantine power corridors of Washington sometimes frustrated the take–charge Thompson. "Out here, in this department, you get an idea and you have to vet it with all the division heads and the 67,000 employees. . . . then it goes over to the supergod in our society, and the supergod is O.M.B., the Office of Management and Budget," Thompson lamented to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "And they turn you down nine times out of 10, just to show you who the boss is. Then it goes to the young intelligentsia of the White House, who don't believe that anything original or good can come from a cabinet secretary. And if you do get it by them, it goes to the president. And if the president does agree with it, it goes on to the Congress, and if Congress ever does pass it, it's time to retire."
One instance in which Thompson did succeed in overcoming various forms of entrenched resistance was the 2003 passage of Bush's Medicare Modernization Act, which was slated to provide public funding for prescription drugs for Medicare recipients starting in 2006. On the complex prescription drug–benefit issue, the major piece of health care legislation of President Bush's first term, Thompson frequently served as the president's point man. Washington analysts counted the passage of Medicare reform as the most important achievement of Thompson's tenure as HHS secretary.
And, as he had predicted, once the legislation passed, it was nearly time for him to retire. As early as 2003, Thompson telegraphed his intention to leave the administration after Bush's first term, and he followed through by announcing his retirement on December 3, 2004. Once more, the blunt–spoken Midwesterner raised eyebrows with his parting remark, quoted in USA Today, that "For the life of me, I cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply, because it is so easy to do." He said he had worried about the threat "every single night." But now the former small–town lawyer was returning to private practice after 38 years of public service. His only political ambition, his wife Sue Ann quipped, was a possible run for mayor of Elroy.
Daily News (New York), October 18, 2004.
Economist, August 7, 1999.
Los Angeles Times, October 15, 2004.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, December 30, 2000; January 28, 2001; October 28, 2001; December 14, 2003; December 4, 2004.
National Review, August 12, 1991; June 16, 1997.
New Republic, September 18, 1995.
New York Times, January 15, 1995.
Time, October 29, 2001.
USA Today, October 26, 2001; December 6, 2004.
Biography Resource Center Online, Gale Group, 2001. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Thomson Gale. 2005. http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (April 15, 2005).