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The Gatekeeper
Susan Goodwin, the governor's powerful chief of staff, has helped Jim Doyle achieve political success. But at what price?
Susan Goodwin: ‘There are certain people out there who only want to undermine what Jim Doyle wants to do. I don’t have any time for those people.’
Susan Goodwin: ‘There are certain people out there who only want to undermine what Jim Doyle wants to do. I don’t have any time for those people.’
Credit:Pete Olsen

On an overcast spring afternoon, Susan Goodwin pulls a booklet from a shelf in her Capitol office. "The Many Roles of the Governor's Chief of Staff" is a guide for the job she has held for four years. Now it's a prop to answer a question: What exactly does she do each day?

She points out a chapter heading. "Guardian of the Palace," she reads aloud, and smiles wryly. "That's the one I get criticized for."

As Gov. Jim Doyle's closest adviser and the gatekeeper to his office and his time, Goodwin enjoys a degree of power in state government that even legislators envy.

But Goodwin is also viewed by many with suspicion and fear. The Doyle administration, they say, has no qualms about using the full power of the governor's office to reward friends and punish enemies.

Goodwin rejects the criticism.

"I think we're pretty forgiving to our enemies," she says, offering an example. "The Realtors. I know who was for and against us in 2002. I ran the campaign." Her voice turns matter-of-fact. "And you know, for a while we didn't really deal with them when we first got into office. We didn't see any reason why we should.

"But you know what? Eventually they came in. I used to meet with [Wisconsin Realtors Association executive director] Bill Malkasian regularly. He got lots of stuff done in our term, he had ready access. He wasn't shut out or locked out."

And Doyle's reward? "Then the Realtors went and fought against him again in the next election!" (Malkasian, through a spokesperson, declined an opportunity to comment. Doyle's budget, much to the Realtors' dismay, contains a proposal to double the transfer fee paid by the sellers of houses.)

On the other hand, Goodwin continues, there are "probably some people who really, really don't like us. Why would we ever have them in? There are certain people out there who, in our view, only want to undermine what Jim Doyle wants to do. And I don't have any time for those people."

Fiercely loyal and unabashedly pragmatic, Susan Goodwin is both praised and damned in the Capitol - occasionally by the same people.

Goodwin's admirers hail her political savvy, resoluteness, and unswerving adherence to an agenda that consists of two words: Jim Doyle.

Critics complain that Goodwin has isolated Doyle from dissenting views, too readily wielded the brass knuckles of an enforcer, and reinforced what may be the Doyle administration's congenital weakness: its preference for maintaining tactical advantage over the Republicans rather than risking bold policy initiatives.

A trim, soft-spoken woman in her early 50s who dresses with understated but impeccable taste, Goodwin could easily pass for a room mother at a comfortable suburban school. But don't be fooled: She's one tough cookie. Insiders compare her to Tommy Thompson's longtime confidant Jim Klauser for the influence she wields.

Doyle himself sums up his relationship with Goodwin in no uncertain words: "She is very close to me, she has my ear, she knows what I'm thinking. That's very, very true."

Outcome over ideology

Goodwin is one-half of perhaps Madison's premier power couple. Husband Al Fish is UW-Madison's associate vice chancellor of facilities, planning and management, the man most frequently credited with successfully shepherding the campus' ambitious building program through the thicket of city and neighborhood reviews over the past decade or so.

The two have surprisingly similar jobs, but wield power very differently. Goodwin is the consummate behind-the-scenes player, often unavailable to lawmakers and the press. Fish, in contrast, is the chancellor's point man to the community, the spokesman who tells the university's story to Rotary and Downtown Madison Inc. and who negotiates with sometimes prickly neighborhood associations.

The duo, longtime near-east-siders, have a son and a daughter in college. Goodwin also has an adult daughter from her first marriage to Roger Goodwin, the veteran city of Madison administrator who recently announced plans to retire.

Born Susan Hudock, she was raised in Wood River, Ill., near the Mississippi River and just north of St. Louis. The town is best known as the starting point for the Lewis and Clark expedition exploring the Northwest Territory.

"I grew up next to an oil refinery," Goodwin says. "It wasn't exactly a garden spot."

Hers was a blue-collar, Democratic, Catholic family. Her father worked in the refinery, her mother was a homemaker. "They admired John Kennedy a lot, so I did, too," she says. Goodwin came of age politically a decade after Kennedy's death, when she volunteered as a high school senior for George McGovern's 1972 campaign.

Goodwin's working-class upbringing imbued her with a strong belief in outcome over ideology. "We didn't have a lot of money when I was growing up," she says. "We didn't take nice vacations. I have a very common-sense, pragmatic approach to issues and to solving problems, and not getting too full of myself."

Goodwin was part of the first generation in her family to go to college. She attended Southern Illinois University, then transferred to UW-Madison, where she graduated with a bachelor's degree in economics. A stint as a VISTA volunteer in Michigan's Upper Peninsula followed, and she returned to Madison to get a master's degree in public policy and administration in 1979.

She began her government career as an analyst at the nonpartisan state Legislative Council. In 1989 she took over directing policy for then-Assembly Speaker Tom Loftus, shifting to Loftus' political campaign when the Democrat challenged Gov. Tommy Thompson's first reelection in 1990.

"If I were in a foxhole, I would want her in there with me," Loftus says.

The strategist

Goodwin earned a reputation for working hard and keeping her cool in the Loftus campaign. "She was there at 7 or 8 in the morning and still there at 9 o'clock at night," says political consultant Michelle Carrier,

Thompson clobbered Loftus, but another Democrat, Jim Doyle, ousted the incumbent Republican attorney general. After a couple of years of tending to her two young children, Goodwin went to work for Doyle in the Department of Justice, first as a policy analyst and later directing the office of crime victim services.

"From very early on it was evident to me that she's a person who could map out a strategy and get from Point A to Point B," Doyle says. "I also think she has a set of core values that are very much in line with mine."

When Doyle ran for a third term in 1998 and was already being seen as a possible Democratic successor to Thompson, Goodwin headed his reelection campaign. There was little doubt he'd be reelected. But Goodwin and campaign consultant Bill Christofferson decided not to coast.

"They said, 'Let's run this campaign all out,'" Doyle recalls. "In the end, we got more votes than anybody received in a statewide race in an off-presidential year. We set the stage for the run for governor four years later."

Goodwin "was the one who conceived that strategy and more or less drove it," says Doyle. She became his executive assistant for his third term as attorney general. She subsequently managed Doyle's 2002 campaign for governor and has served as his chief of staff since he took office in 2003.

It's a role in which Goodwin serves both as a wall and a window. "There's only one governor, and there's only so much time in his day," she says. "Not everybody needs to see the governor."

'If you screw up...'

At the start of each of Doyle's two terms, Goodwin gathered together all the executive staffers to impress upon them the gravity of working for the state's chief executive.

"I kind of give them a lecture," Goodwin says. "This is serious. It's a big responsibility. This is a professional office. You're very young, and you're very privileged to be working in this atmosphere, in this role for the governor. You're lucky to be here. If you don't take it seriously, if you screw up, there are lots of other people who are really anxious to take your place."

Thad Nation, who served as Doyle's spokesman in the 2002 campaign and during the first few months of the governor's first term, recalls when Goodwin confronted him after he talked too freely with a reporter about the campaign's strategy.

"She was right," Nation says of Goodwin's reprimand, and when their talk was finished, "I knew what our boundaries were. It was very direct."

There are outsiders who know what that's like as well. Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, recalls an encounter during the 2002 campaign, shortly after his organization made statements criticizing a $10,000 donation to Doyle from movie producer and Wisconsin native Jerry Zucker.

The donation came after then-Attorney General Doyle made a $250,000 grant in Zucker's name to the UW for stem cell research, using funds from Wisconsin's $6.6 million share of a settlement over price-fixing in the vitamin business.

McCabe questioned whether a quid pro quo was involved. Doyle and Goodwin weren't happy.

"She asked to come meet with our board and brought the governor along with her," McCabe recalls. "They let it be known we were crossing the line. Our board listened respectively and begged to differ."

Goodwin confirms the meeting, saying it was Doyle who was upset at what he believed were McCabe's cavalier allegations. "He was the one who actually talked to the board," she says. "I went with him, but I did not speak."

'She's part of the problem'

During Doyle's first term, Goodwin avoided the spotlight. "She had a much lower public visibility than most chief of staffs have had in the governor's office," says Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause in Wisconsin. "She was more comfortable working behind the scenes."

Heck and members of the Common Cause board had met with Doyle in advance of the 2002 election to promote campaign finance reform in light of Doyle's strong anti-corruption talking points in that race. After the election, "it became much more difficult to reach Susan," he says. "I stopped trying."

State Rep. Tamara Grigsby (D-Milwaukee) captured the frustration of some Democratic lawmakers when she told Isthmus last year: "If Susan Goodwin passed me on the street, I wouldn't know who she is. I've tried to meet with her, tried to talk to her. But she isn't at all accessible to people. She's part of the problem: She isolates the governor."

Taking care to choose her words, state Rep. Terese Berceau (D-Madison) sums up the problem: "There has been, sometimes, a desire, when we want to know what the governor's thinking on an issue, to hear from Susan, because we know she's closest to the governor. But that's not the role she's played with us."

Ed Garvey, one of Doyle's progressive critics, charges that Goodwin freezes out Democrats who disagree with the Doyle administration. He says he was treated better by Thompson, even though he ran against him in 1998 as the Democratic standard-bearer.

"I would meet with Tommy and with Klauser, and they would treat you as if you were a regular person," says Garvey. "You get the sensation with the Doyle administration, if you're not part of a very, very small inner circle, Susan Goodwin and perhaps [former Department of Administration Secretary] Marc Marotta, you're not part of the deal."

By shielding Doyle, Goodwin "has really isolated the governor from people who make constructively critical comments," says Garvey.

Berceau feels the complaint is overblown. Doyle "knows what's out there" and is determined to set his own agenda: "He's not looking for approval from the Assembly or from the Senate Democrats for where he may be on an issue."

And state Rep. Mark Pocan is proof that you can criticize Doyle and still have his ear. The voluble Madison Democrat, in whose district Goodwin and Fish live, denies ever feeling cut off from the East Wing.

Goodwin herself says if she's not more accessible, for instance to legislators, it's because she delegates that task to others.

"Sometimes," she adds wryly, "the Assembly caucuses want me to come in there so they can yell at me because they like beating up on people."

Not a lot of big ideas

At least a segment of the state's progressive activists are profoundly disappointed with Doyle's performance. Their central complaint: The administration has no loftier agenda than buttressing its own political power.

"This is what Goodwin has in common with Doyle," says one of the disaffected Democrats. "They both practice power-driven politics, not purpose-driven politics."

Of course, Doyle and his supporters insist he does have an agenda - one focused on economic development and education. "The governor's very interested in making sure that state government is very well coordinated around serving kids and families, especially vulnerable kids and families," says Department of Workfare Development Secretary Roberta Gassman.

Doyle's first term and his reelection campaign were branded with such broad, popular themes, not the sweeping legislative reforms that progressives wanted. But given that the Republicans controlled both the Assembly and the Senate, the case can be made that the Doyle administration was only being prudent in not attempting more.

"I'm a little impatient with politicians, with Democrats in particular, who would rather make a statement than get something done," says Goodwin.

But even with a Democratic Senate in his second term, Doyle continues to shy from big proposals.

Take health care. Rather than endorsing any of the competing ideas to fundamentally restructure the current system (See "Sick System," 5/11/07), such as one championed by the Wisconsin AFL-CIO that would model health insurance on unemployment comp and worker's comp programs, Doyle's proposal is cautious and incremental.

Similarly, the administration has yet to tackle the state's creaky system of providing aid to cities and villages or address the growing crisis in school finance. Instead, under Doyle, the state continues to lurch from one biennial budget deficit to another, relying on optimistic revenue projections, complicated vetoes of spending provisions and creative accounting to carry the day.

The failure to attempt a major overhaul of state spending may simply reflect the stolid, centrist incrementalism that both Doyle and Goodwin believe will ultimately bring about change in a politically divided Capitol. But many progressives simply throw up their arms in frustration over the Doyle administration's failure to address the root issues.

Strong negotiator

Steve Baas, a former aide to Republican Assembly Speakers John Gard and Scott Jensen, suggests that much of the criticism of Goodwin actually demonstrates her effectiveness.

Goodwin, he says, deserves credit for helping Doyle become "arguably one of the most successful statewide politicians in Wisconsin history."

Now the director of governmental affairs for the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, Baas notes that Doyle has won more statewide elections than Tommy Thompson.

Goodwin, he continues, "understands almost at an instinctual level the interests and agenda of her boss, and she is just a dogged advocate for it. She is a strong negotiator - and almost maddeningly so, sometimes, when you're on the other side."

Even adversaries have respected Goodwin because she showed she had "the authority to make a deal," Baas says. "Her toughness, her hardness and single-mindedness in advancing the interests of the governor are frustrating to some members of the Legislature who were looking for a little more give than they would get. People say she's 'cold' or 'too powerful.' It doesn't take a lot of detective work to find what's behind those complaints.

"It's that, 'I couldn't get what I wanted. She was tougher than I was, and she won the stare-down.'"

In the first few months of Doyle's second term, there are signs that both the governor and Goodwin are changing their approach. Mike McCabe of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign says that after their 2002 clash he didn't hear from Goodwin again until this past November, a few weeks after Doyle's re-election.

This time around, according to McCabe, "Susan said, 'We want to do things a bit differently. Do you want to talk?'" McCabe says his group and Common Cause subsequently held a series of "good conversations" with the governor's office, culminating with a special session called by Doyle to pass a new ethics reform bill.

"Susan has been very pleasant, very frank, and we've had good interactions," says McCabe, who still hopes to see the governor put some political muscle behind a major campaign financing reform bill.

The question now is whether the palace gates really are opening wider - or whether this is simply an isolated tactical pivot by a pair of wily and successful combat veterans, as Doyle and Goodwin map out the governor's second term.

How they work together

Susan Goodwin's long history with Jim Doyle makes her job easier.

"We can talk in shorthand," she explains. And when he's considering a course of action, "I have an idea about his history. I can say, 'Do you really want to do that?'" - something a staffer in the office half her age just isn't free to do, she points out.

"I can be blunt - and he can be blunt with me, too," Goodwin says. And if after she's recommended something and he still doesn't agree, "I'm the one who changes my mind. I don't change his mind."

Jim Doyle: 'She is very close to me, she has my ear, she knows what I'm thinking.'

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