Pat Lucey, who served as Wisconsin governor in the early 1970s, probably could not be the candidate today for either major party.
Lucey, 96, who died May 11, was a man of principle who crossed party lines to work for what he believed were the best interests of the state.
Cooperation and principles are rare today in power politics on both the state and federal level and the people are the poorer because of it.
Lucey was a Democrat, who helped get John F. Kennedy elected in 1960. He was checking into the Los Angeles Ambassador Hotel moments after Bobby Kennedy was shot, June 6, 1968. Lucey was there for a strategy session leading to the Democrat presidential selection.
Strict legal restrictions on campaign spending in 1949 were no obstacle for Lucey’s first try at a state office, the Assembly seat representing Crawford County. He placed classified ads in all the county weekly papers:
“HANDY MAN FOR HIRE: Just place an (X) after my name … and you hired a handy man to have in Madison.”
Lucey’s first statewide office was lieutenant governor under Gov. Warren P. Knowles, a Republican, in 1964. The executive positions were voted on separately until 1967.
In 1966, he lost his first race for governor to Knowles. He won in 1970, and set an ambitious agenda. He also spoke of not wanting an inner circle of yes men and those who would say “what you want to hear.”
Landmark legislation as governor was the merging of the state’s two university systems – Wisconsin State University and University of Wisconsin in Madison and campuses in Green Bay, Milwaukee and Parkside and UW Extension – in 1974. Helping push that bill through the legislature was Republican Lee Dreyfus, chancellor at UW-Stevens Point, later elected governor.
Sen. Fred Risser, D-Madison, a Lucey peer, says probably the most significant changes, and Lucey’s greatest achievements, were in the shared tax distribution system and in equalization aid for school districts.
In 1977, he resigned as governor and became ambassador to Mexico during the Carter administration. In 1979 he resigned and criticized Carter’s leadership ability. He opposed Carter’s re-election bid in the 1980 bid in favor of Ted Kennedy.
The Vietnam War became a principle affecting his political career and differences with some candidates – including presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey – while remaining a dedicated Democrat.
In 1980, he ran as vice president with independent John Anderson against Ronald Reagan, who crushed Carter’s re-election bid.
Lucey had an attribute successful politicians and salespeople have – face and name recognition. Those assets, in addition to his easy, direct-to-the-point demeanor, also made him one of Madison’s most successful realtors.
My first social event meeting with Lucey was a barbecue hosted by Ralph Gehring at his rural Shiocton farm. Gehring was on the state Agricultural, Stabilization and Conservation Service committee.
The next time to shake his hand came months later at the Northland Hotel in Green Bay on a Packer Sunday. I was having breakfast with my mother’s cousin Patty and husband Jim. He was passing nearby, stopped and walked over to our table extending a hand, “Roger, good to see you again.” He introduced Jean and continued to his table, pausing briefly to talk with people he recognized.
Lucey was a liberal governor with a fiscally conservative principle for government – the latter probably the result of his background as a small businessman.
Not only does this country need leaders of principle but also courage.
“You are making decisions every day that cut two ways, and every time you do something that favors one group you antagonize another. If you are going to be effective, you just have to accept that and let the chips fall where they may,” Lucey said in 1974.
“I just sort of plod along and do what I think needs to be done and hope that it will all fall right.”
We need more plodders with principle. It is up to the voter to act in a similar manner.