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Monday, September 22, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 63.0° F  Fair
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Retiring Sen. Herb Kohl got a lot done while shunning the spotlight
'A workhorse, not a show horse'
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Credit:Michael Kress-Russick

Current polling suggests that whoever wins the 2012 race for Wisconsin's open Senate seat - Republican Tommy Thompson or Democrat Tammy Baldwin - it will probably be by a narrow margin.

That alone will mark a significant change from the person who's held the seat for nearly a quarter-century.

Democrat Herb Kohl first won the office in 1988, defeating State Sen. Susan Engeleiter, a moderate Republican, by a narrow but decisive 52%-48%. But his margins since then have only gone up: Against GOP challengers, Kohl garnered 58% in '94, 61.5% in 2000, and better than 67% in 2006.

It's a record that belies the state's more recent reputation as bitterly and closely divided along ideological lines. It reflects Kohl's personal appeal, his low-key manner - and also the commanding advantage he enjoyed from being his own number-one donor.

Herb Kohl is likely to be remembered first as a pioneer candidate who poured huge amounts of his own money into his campaign. His predecessor was Sen. William Proxmire, the maverick Democrat who in his later years was perhaps most known for poking fun at Washington spending with his Golden Fleece awards. Proxmire's popularity had enabled him to spend only $200 on his last two elections - the cost of filing.

By contrast, Kohl, who owns the Milwaukee Bucks, spent $6.1 million of his personal wealth in the 1988 race against Engeleiter - money he got as an heir to and later chief executive of the eponymous Kohl's grocery and department store chains. He would go on to spend similar sums to retain the seat in three more races, with token donations from supporters.

Proxmire had said the low cost of his campaigns meant he could not be bought. Kohl's campaign made the argument that his own wealth similarly insulated him from corruption. Rejecting contributions from outside funders and political action committees - whose influence was already being decried - Kohl billed himself as "Nobody's senator but yours." He largely stuck with the slogan throughout his tenure in Washington.

Once in the Senate, Kohl (whose office said it was too early for an "exit interview") amassed a moderate-to-liberal voting record in step with his party. His social-issues votes were solidly liberal: pro-choice on abortion rights, in favor of expanded gay rights, and against various measures to curtail federal support for family planning. Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America both rated him 100% in the last few years, according to VoteSmart.org, a nonprofit website tracking congressional records. The National Right to Life Committee gave him zeros.

On business and economic issues, he won strong support - and ratings ranging from 80% to 100% - from unions. He often voted against free-trade agreements advanced both by Republican and Democratic leaders but opposed by labor. And he was a cosponsor in 2007 of the Employee Free Choice Act, which would have made union organizing easier; the bill died under a veto threat from President George W. Bush. When it was revived by labor-allied Democrats in 2009, Kohl did not sign on as a sponsor. While he was not among the conservative Democrats who joined Senate Republicans to help block the measure, Kohl's seeming retreat rankled activists.

On the Senate Judiciary Committee, Kohl rose to the position of chairman of an antitrust subcommittee. In that capacity, he has several times challenged the Internet giant Google.

In September 2011, under threat of a subpoena, Google chairman Eric Schmidt voluntarily testified before Kohl's subcommittee. Kohl asked Schmidt sharply if the company's search formula was distorted to favor its own commercial interests: travel planning, shopping, and financial sites, among others, that the company had been acquiring and that depend on search engines for traffic.

Schmidt insisted that Google was not "cooking the books" on its search, but Kohl wasn't satisfied. Last December, he and the subcommittee's ranking Republican sent a letter to the Federal Trade Commission, urging the agency - which had already opened an antitrust inquiry of Google - to undertake "a thorough investigation."

Yet Kohl's aggressive stance focused on a subject that was not guaranteed to garner front-page headlines. For the most part, only the technology trade press paid attention.

Publicity did not seem to be a particularly strong objective for Kohl, observers say. More commonly, his soft-spoken style and avoidance of the spotlight gave him an air of being above the political fray. In some quarters, however, it left the impression that he did little in the nation's capital.

Political veterans say that sorely underestimates him, though.

Kohl's low profile was an underappreciated strength, says Mordecai Lee, a former Democratic state senator who now teaches political science at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

"He was a workhorse who toiled in the background and who was a team member," says Lee. "He didn't push himself to the front.

"Most of true legislative work is unglamorous and quite eye-glazing," Lee adds. "That's where Herb was at his best."

Lee says Kohl didn't have to prove himself because he was already a success in business and did not have his sights set on the White House. Presidential aspirations, says Lee, affect "much more of the behavior of senators than most people would realize."

State Sen. Tim Cullen, a moderate Janesville Democrat, calls Kohl "a workhorse, not a show horse" who focused on agriculture, legislation to benefit the elderly, and "bringing defense dollars back to defense contractors in Wisconsin."

Kohl, 77, chaired the Senate Special Committee on Aging. And as a longtime member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, he also quietly helped the state win federal spending on a raft of programs, from grants to help social service agencies and municipal departments around the state to recent contracts for the Marinette Marine shipbuilding company to build new Navy warships.

Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm singles out Kohl for helping the county win federal grants to establish specialized community prosecutors assigned to police stations. "To Kohl, earmarks are another kind of customer service," observed a 2010 Milwaukee Magazine profile.

Between the bills he's chosen to push for, the assistance his office provides constituents with problems like late Social Security checks, and the weekly breakfast reception Kohl provides Capitol visitors who call on him from back home, the story credits the senator with "quietly running what may be the premier customer service operation in the U.S. Senate."

"I don't know anybody he couldn't work with or get along with," says Cullen. "He did the kind of job I hope everybody would want to do if they had the chance to go to Washington."

David Niles, a former newspaper editor and now communications and public relations consultant in the Milwaukee area, worked as a communications staffer in Kohl's 1994 reelection campaign. Niles says the most prominent concern he heard from Kohl "was his frustration with the way things work in Washington."

As a business operator, Kohl was accustomed to seeing things finished with dispatch once a course of action was chosen.

"He could say, 'Let's do this,' and they'd get it done or figure out how to get it done," says Niles. "That's not the way things worked in Washington. Things got done much more slowly, or for reasons that weren't the best reasons. He was frustrated with just the whole process."

Lee contends that Kohl's successors and fellow federal legislators could do worse than look to him as a role model: "For the U.S. Senate to revert back to being a working body, we need more Herb Kohls there."

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