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As the political crisis was brewing in Wisconsin last winter, Governor Scott Walker rebuffed former governor Tommy Thompson's advice to reach a compromise with public employee unions, according to a state senator as well as a friend of Thompson's who was involved in the political drama at the time.
"Tommy was beside himself that Walker was so dogmatic," says the friend. "We had lots of conversations about this--about how it was going to do nothing but cause chaos, and it was bad for the state. Businesses aren't going to move here in the middle of all this conflict."
Thompson, along with other moderate Republicans, reached out to Walker, the friend says, and urged him to sit down with union leaders and seek a compromise before Walker pushed through a law curtailing public employees' collective bargaining rights--the issue that sparked mass protests and a the state's first ever recall campaign against a governor.
"After a certain point, Walker quit taking Tommy's phone calls," the friend says. "I think Tommy was giving him advice he didn't want to hear."
Democratic State Senator Bob Jauch says that during the crisis, after he and 13 other state Democrats had fled the state to stall a vote on the collective bargaining issue, he spoke with former officials in Tommy Thompson's administration who said Thompson was trying to persuade Walker to reach a deal. "I heard it from three different people who talked to him," says Jauch.
Jauch also describes a recent meeting with Thompson at a memorial service for the president of the Wisconsin Capitol Correspondents Association, Dick Wheeler:
"I said, 'Tommy, you and I could have solved this whole thing over a cup of coffee.'" Jauch says. "Tommy put his hands on my shoulders and said, 'Bob, it would have been a pot of coffee, but absolutely we could have solved it.' "
Jauch and state Senator Tim Cullen drafted a compromise bill that would have headed off the crisis in Wisconsin by accepting the pay and benefit cuts for public employees Walker was seeking, while maintaining public employees' right to bargain. Walker ultimately rejected the compromise.
"Tommy Thompson spent his career unifying Wisconsin," Jauch adds. "It has to be stressful for him to watch Governor Walker divide the state."
Scott Walker, through campaign spokesperson Ciara Matthews, denies that Thompson advised him to take a more moderate approach: "No such conversation took place," she says.
Thompson also publicly denies any difference of opinion with Walker.
Since he announced his candidacy for the U.S. Senate this year, Thompson has been involved in a contentious primary battle (See my last blog). The Club for Growth is running ads attacking him for being too moderate on issues like health care, and Thompson has been defending his conservative credentials before Tea Party audiences, and backing away from former stances like his support for Obama's health care reform.
Darrin Schmitz, spokesperson for Tommy Thompson's 2012 Senate campaign, underscores Thompson's support for Walker:
“Thompson is no stranger to the protests that come with reforming government. Ending welfare and implementing property tax caps both ignited protests and demonstrations. Thompson understands what Governor Walker is going through, and he supports his efforts."
According to Schmitz, Thompson never discussed the collective bargaining agreement that became such a flashpoint in Wisconsin with the current governor: "Naturally, they have talked on a variety of topics, but a strategy on CBA was never discussed.”
But Jauch and others say Thompson remained a moderating voice through the recent crisis.
Morris Andrews, who was executive director of the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC) from 1972 until 1992, paints a stark picture of the contrast between Thompson and Walker.
(WEAC is the union representing public school teachers in Wisconsin, as well as University and technical college staff.)
"Of all the governors I ever worked with, Tommy was, in my view, the best listener," Andrews says. "I had lots of fights with Tommy, but he would always listen and it was never, 'My way or the highway.'"
Walker is Thompson's opposite, Andrews says. "I've worked with a lot of governors, both Republican and Democrat, and he is by far different from anybody. It's just, 'I'm gonna do what I want to do.' The difference is enormous."
"All this talk about state finances--all that was able to be worked out," Andrews adds, pointing out that the unions were willing to accept all of Walker's pay and benefit cuts. Beyond the budgetary issues, Walker insisted on ending the automatic deduction of union dues from public employees' paychecks and a vote of more than 50% of union members in order to recertify the union.
"Those two issues have nothing to do with balancing the budget. They have to do with breaking the union so the Republican Party has an advantage over the Democrats," says Andrews. "It's nothing more than a raw power move to unbalance political power toward the Republican Party."
Senator Tim Cullen, who has announced his intention to run against Scott Walker in a recall election, agrees that Walker and Thompson were polar opposites. "I have worked with eight different governors over the course of my career, and I've never seen anything like this," he says. "Not only won't Governor Walker listen to public employees, he won't even sit down with them," he says.
Cullen, whom Thompson appointed to be head of Health and Social Services, believes Thompson had a completely different vision of his role. "He really cared about Wisconsin."
"I've never seen the state so divided and so angry in my life," Cullen adds. "We have to begin to heal this place."
But while moderates and Democrats are nostalgic for the Tommy Thompson era, a recent article in The Hill suggested that Thompson's good relationship with unions during his tenure as Wisconsin's longest serving governor could be a serious liability in his Senate campaign.
“With Walker’s recent defense of his actions it’s hard to square any cooperation with labor unions, let alone expanding their benefits, with where the GOP is today,” University of Wisconsin-Madison Professor Charles Franklin told The Hill. “This critique of Thompson as an accommodationist, one willing to work with unions to expand their power, seems tailor-made for the campaign.”
"Couldn't you please write a piece attacking Tommy Thompson?" a lobbyist and former Thompson campaign official asked me recently.
Even as Thompson's friends, allies, and former political rivals contrast him favorably with Scott Walker, and praise his efforts to bring peace to Wisconsin, Thompson's campaign would rather not hear any more such kind words.
If you liked this article by Ruth Conniff, the political editor of The Progressive, check out her story "Tommy Thompson/Scott Walker Smackdown."
Follow Ruth Conniff @rconniff on Twitter