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Friday, January 30, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 24.0° F  A Few Clouds
The Paper
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Wisconsin Democrats need business-friendly progressive like Pat Lucey

The warm glow of the Nov. 6 election will finally dissipate for Wisconsin Democrats next January when the Legislature reconvenes.

Politically, the Democrats will be threatened by a Republican juggernaut. The GOP's capture of the state Senate aligns both houses with the recall-tested and change-minded Gov. Scott Walker.

Existentially, the Democrats will face an even bigger challenge in 2013 than a resolute Walker. Who are they? What do they believe? Is this a party that has a program other than restoring bargaining rights for public employees and opposing Walker on all matters?

Most importantly, what is the Democratic program to resuscitate Wisconsin's economy? Walker and the Republicans talk a good game, but the results have been meager.

The state's total workforce is still far below the December 2007 peak. Bureau of Labor Statistics data show that the state actually lost 4,500 jobs over the 12-month period ending in September. The governor's pledge to help add 250,000 jobs by January 2015 increasingly sounds like wishful thinking.

Can the Democrats do better?

Perhaps they can if they look to their past and model their behavior on Pat Lucey. "Next to Bob La Follette," says state Sen. Tim Cullen (D-Janesville), "Pat was our greatest governor."

Lucey, who is 94 (and living in an assisted-living condo in Milwaukee), brought consummate political skill to advancing a sweeping policy agenda. "They were enormous changes all at once," recalls his former staffer David Adamany.

Governing from 1971 to 1977, Lucey merged the two university systems, enacted consumer protection laws, strengthened ethics provisions for officials, revamped campaign finance laws, shifted mental health treatment from institutions to community programs and, perhaps most importantly, retooled government aid programs to reflect the progressive vision: Poorer communities, especially their schools, should get more state aid than richer communities. Republicans howled at how Lucey threatened their low-tax enclaves.

Jesuit educated, Lucey saw the moral end in politics. Linda Reivitz, who worked in the Department of Natural Resources, recalls briefing Lucey on the pros and cons of a policy matter only to be interrupted when she veered into its politics. "He put up his hand and said something like, 'Young lady. I will worry about the politics. You just tell me about the policy options.'"

Notes Jim Wood, another aide: "Pat knew you only walked through this valley once. Politics wasn't about getting elected. It was getting elected to do something."

After La Follette's Progressive Party collapsed in 1946, Lucey was among the legendary activists who launched the modern-day Democratic Party. When he was elected to the Assembly in 1949, a fellow Democrat griped to the Milwaukee Journal: "He thinks he's down here to reform us." Lucey later served as state party chair and built the party infrastructure county by county.

He made his fortune in real estate, and that too shaped his political success. "He could talk to businessmen as one of their own," notes Adamany. Early on, Lucey embraced a Republican pet issue - exempting manufacturing machinery and equipment from the property tax, as an incentive to reinvest - and got it passed through a divided Legislature. He also removed business inventories from the property tax and standardized assessment practices so county assessors could no longer over-assess business property to benefit homeowners.

By 1977, the Wall Street Journal, chronicling the Wisconsin economic success, called us "the shining star of the Snowbelt."

Wisconsin needs a new Pat Lucey. A progressive who gets job creation.

If anything, state Democrats risk irrelevance today because they're too focused on protecting public employees. Lucey offered a striking contrast when I interviewed him during the 1981 recession. He felt certain that the public would tire of "Reaganomics," but he was also willing to challenge his union friends. How eerily contemporary his words sound.

He faulted the Wisconsin Education Association Council for fighting his efforts to institute periodic student testing to measure educational quality. He suggested that public unions were relatively privileged in the hard times of the recession. "Democrats who seek office cannot simply be champions of public employees and expect to be elected," he said. "In fact, I'm surprised there hasn't been a serious conflict within the labor movement between private and public employees."

Lucey was a spent force politically when we talked. After a stint as U.S. ambassador to Mexico, he had bolted from the Democrats to run for vice president in 1980 on a third party ticket with the liberal Republican John Anderson. The duo drew 7% of the vote and became a footnote in Ronald Reagan's defeat of Jimmy Carter, whom he dismissed as a lightweight.

Lucey had no regrets. His philosophy had been clear. Settle on the best public policy. Figure out the politics to make it happen. "I was perfectly willing to use up my political capital to do the things that I knew needed to be done," he said.

Today, Wisconsin is the dim bulb of the Snowbelt. Quarterly economic census data show us trailing Minnesota, Illinois and Iowa in job growth. Where is our modern Pat Lucey?

Marc Eisen is the former editor of Isthmus.

[Editor's note: This op-ed is corrected to note that Pat Lucey lives in an assisted living facility in Milwaukee.]

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