Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Read "Ringside Seat" by Tim Cullen

By Roger Utnehmer

Former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson will be recorded as the second-most effective executive in state history. The reasons are apparent in a recent book by a two-time state senator and Thompson cabinet member, Tim Cullen, "Ringside Seat."

Cullen served in the state senate from 1975 to 1986 when be was appointed the highest-ranking Democrat in the cabinet of Gov. Thompson. Cullen returned to the state senate for one term after a long career in the private sector, retiring in 2015.

(Full Disclosure: I knew Tim Cullen when I worked for Republican State Sen. Clifford "Tiny" Krueger in the mid '70's and we continue a friendship today serving together on the Board of Directors of Common Cause-Wisconsin. Tim, in "Ringside Seat," calls "Tiny" the greatest senator with whom he served.)

His book is an insiders' look at the best and worst of our political system. Cullen writes a critical portrayal of Wisconsin's current governor, Scott Walker, accusing Walker of dividing a state rather than uniting it and of pursuing an unneeded and divisive attack on public employees to fuel a presidential campaign.

"Ringside Seat" portrays Thompson as a statesman, winning a narrow victory in 1986 and committing to a center-right government that included political opponents. Thompson appointed Cullen to head the largest state agency, the Department of Health and Social Services. Thompson wanted to show the people of Wisconsin that the state would be governed well, that he was governor of all the people, not just those who voted for him. Thompson's margins of victory increased significantly in future elections as a result of reaching out to political opponents and pursuing a policy of inclusion.

Thompson and Cullen are both social gospel Catholics. The welfare reform adopted during the Thompson administration became a national model and reflected the compassion and decency of a governor and his cabinet secretary.

Cullen denounces the insidious influence of special interest group money in political campaigns. He is just as direct in his criticism of the role of the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC) as he is Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC).

According to Cullen, Wisconsin is losing a distinguishing characteristic of good government. He points out that twelve governors from 1951 to 2001, six from each party, kept Republicans from governing too conservatively and Democrats from governing to liberally. He cites Walker as breaking that pattern in ways that will damage the state. Republican and Democrat governors came and went.

People saw the basic values of a strong majority of citizens were not disrupted or attacked. Not so, Cullen says about Walker who demonizes opponents, drops "bombs" and articulates a strategy of "divide and conquer."

Liberals reading Cullen's book will help better understand those with whom they do not agree on policy and politics. A local elected official will better understand how to unite a divided electorate, build consensus and promote open government. A millennial will better understand the opportunity their emerging optimism, engagement and non-judgmental values bring to creating a more positive future in politics.

So, if Tommy Thompson is not Wisconsin's most effective governor in history, who is? In my opinion, it would be Robert LaFollette, Sr. LaFollette and his Progressives authored the Wisconsin Idea, created workers compensation, unemployment compensation, the Public Service Commission, open primaries, recall elections and are responsible for Wisconsin's tradition of open, clean, honest government. Reading "Ringside Seat" will give those who tarnish that tradition the historical perspective that is, unfortunately, missing with many.

That's my opinion. I'd like to hear yours.

Roger Utnehmer is President and CEO of, and a member of Common Cause in Wisconsin's State Governing Board.

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