This article was last modified on September 30, 2010.

Interview with Tom Nelson

Sat down with Wisconsin’s Assembly Majority Leader, Tom Nelson, at Kaukauna Coffee and Tea on September 30, 2010. We had a nice chat, far too early in the morning for me to function properly. In 2010, Nelson announced that he was running for the position of Lieutenant Governor of the State of Wisconsin, rather than seek re-election to the Assembly. On September 14, he won the Democratic nomination in a four-way race, winning an absolute majority (52%) over state senator Spencer Coggs’ 21% and two other, more conservative candidates.

Running to replace Nelson in the Assembly are Democrat Mert Summers and the frontrunner, Republican Jim Steineke.

GS: Who are your political or philosophical mentors?

TN: I’ve made it a point not to pattern or replicate my service or my approach in politics on one specific person; I think that would be a big mistake. I’ve tried to look at the strengths of various elected officials who have come before me and then identify their best attributes or their strengths. I’ve tried to adopt those strengths.

For example, Bill Proxmire. I think Bill Proxmire is universally respected as an official who was really in touch with the people who he served. Based on the number of miles he traveled, the hands he shook and the constituent cases that he solved. I would have to include him.

I have enormous respect for the legacy of Gaylord Nelson. Here’s a boy from Clear Lake that grew up to be governor and a US senator, he completely changed the course of history for the environmental movement. If it was not for Gaylord Nelson, we would not have the Clean Air Act, the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA makes sure the things we take for granted are not contaminated with pollutants.

GS: I doubt that any politician spends as much time as you do talking to constituents. Can you give an example of where their input helped you think up legislation or changed your mind about a vote?

TN: One of the very first constituent cases I did was saving a turn of the century limestone house in Seymour, on the corner of VV and 55. They expanded Highway 55 in December of 2006. The namesake of the community of Seymour had owned the house at one time, and the locals made a very persuasive case. We were able to have the DOT reroute its construction plans and save the house.

I’ve helped a couple of veterans secure loans to buy houses or remodel their homes. As far as changing my vote, their have been literally countless bills that I have voted on based on just a dozen calls, but sometimes one or two constituent calls. There was the issue with depleted uranium that I took up during my first term. A couple of veterans came up to me and said their was this substance used in Iraq and Afghanistan and there is research that shows it is linked to lung cancer and other illnesses. I wrote a bill, and tried to pass it. It didn’t pass in 2005, it did pass in 2007. This was not a partisan issue, but things were so partisan back then that they wouldn’t take it because my name was attached to it. So we passed it in 2007-2008, and it forced the Department of Veterans Affairs to provide information and training before and after deployment.

Also in 2007, there was the issue of SeniorCare. It was on the chopping block, the Bush Administration did not want to renew it, and seniors across the state pushed back.

GS: How will you be able to serve Wisconsin as Lt Gov in a way you cannot currently do?

TN: This is what I’ve learned in the legislature, either as the minority or the majority, it’s very clear: 90% of the game is in the executive office. Whether it’s Democratic-controlled, split, or Republican-controlled, the legislature gave the governor 98% of what he asked for. That’s huge. In terms of impacting public policy, the best way to impact public policy is in the governor’s office. Before I decided to run, I sat down with Tom Barrett and asked, if elected, if I would play a definitely role in his administration. He gave me a resounding yes. There was no agreement that I would do x, y, or z. That sort of conversation would be premature.

But I am certain I would have a greater impact on public policy as Tom Barrett’s Lieutenant Governor. We have a very strong working relationship. They have basically given me almost free rein to travel the state on behalf of the ticket, which is unprecedented. Traditionally, the governor would keep a very short leash on the lieutenant. In my years of service, both in the Assembly and in my campaigns, I have built a reputation of someone who has a good working ethic.

GS: A steady meme right now is that government does not create jobs, only businesses do. How do you respond to that?

TN: Well, in the economic downtown businesses have, and continue to, ask for help. It is a very challenging economic environment, and what we have tried to do is provide the kind of assistance to businesses to help them off the ground or keep them running. Whether it is with targeted tax incentives that are tied to job creation, or continued investment in work force development, or extension of unemployment assistance for displaced workers… those are all examples of services a vibrant economy depends on. We need well trained workers. The workers who are displaced need assistance to keep them above water between jobs.

The problem for the state is that it is in its own financial straits. This last session we had to close with a six and half billion dollar deficit. This was the largest in state history. So, you have this pressure on us to pass a budget that will collapse this deficit, but at the same time, now more than ever, people are turning to the state for assistance to get them through these tough times. So, it’s this perfect storm. What we’ve done this last session, and what we’ll continue to do, is provide the assistance to businesses to keep them going.

But, back to the question, I think the issue here is that it’s not either/or. With the exception of right-wing pundits and quite a few Republican candidates, we recognize there’s a relationship between the public sector and the private sector to foster economic development. For example, someone like Tom Barrett. He converted the state’s largest brown field. If you had gone to a Brewer game ten years ago, everything east of Miller Park was brown field, a wasteland. Now, today, there are almost 4,000 jobs. That would not have happened without a productive public-private partnership, with a defined role for the public sector to create jobs.

GS: Another meme is the decrease of federal power and an increase in state power. How do you feel about this, particularly regarding the health care debate.

TN: The states, by and large, will be charged with the implementation of the health care reform. And in Wisconsin, we are ahead of most other states — we have the lowest uninsured rate in the country, something like 2-5%. One of the reasons for this is that we have experimented with reforms on a smaller scale. We have offered more and more affordable health insurance to people, whether through the expansion of BadgerCare or the expansion of health care cooperatives. These are all striving for the top health care objective, getting more people into the health insurance pool to spread out the risk and lower the cost for everyone.

GS: You believe in better education and better access to education. President Obama has proposed extending the school year. Do you see this as an answer?

TN: It could be, it certainly could be. I haven’t really thought too much about that. Many parts of the country have experimented with year-round school, and some have been successful. I would hesitate, because the historical reason we have summer vacation is because we come from an agrarian culture, where the time off was to help bring in the harvest. And Wisconsin still is an agricultural state, with agriculture bringing in something like $49 billion. So even though there are a lot of families in Kaukauna that aren’t a part of agriculture, there’s still a significant cohort in the state. What might make sense for Connecticut or California might not make sense for Wisconsin.

GS: Politifact has taken you to task with your claim that the stimulus created tens of thousands of jobs. They claim that a mere 1,200 were created. Do you recant or defend your statement?

TN: I will re-clarify my statement. There have been multiple phases. Taken together, not just one segment, the net effect has lead to creating or saving tens of thousands of jobs. What I said was that the stimulus we passed last year has lead to the creation of ten of thousands of jobs. If i would have modified my statement to say the entire stimulus, as implemented, has lead to creating or saving tens of thousands of jobs, that would have been accurate.

And the thing is, let’s say there is a government project to refurbish a highway for $10 million. And you have thirty people out there working. We don’t know if those people would have found a job five weeks later, so it’s kind of an existential argument. That’s why you have the qualifier of saved or created, because it’s hard to prove that job wouldn’t have been created six months later. We know that the investment has created the job, or saved it, so we know the stimulus has protected jobs.

And if you look at the two sources I gave them, one of them was written by my colleague, Pocan. And he said exactly what I said, only in a modified why.

(For those curious, Nelson’s original comment, made without preparation on a radio show, was, “We were one of the first states in the country to pass and to implement a statewide stimulus that has led to the creation of tens of thousands of jobs in every corner of this state.”)

GS: Independent challenge: Name at least one issue where you disagree with Governor Doyle.

TN: The Wisconsin State Journal, without any evidence, said that I’m super-close to the governor. I guess they just deduced that because I’m the Assembly Majority Leader. But if you look at the facts, and I have a lot of respect for Governor Doyle, I voted to override him four or five times. Show me a Republican in the 1990s who voted to override Tommy Thompson. Overriding a governor in your own party is the penultimate way to show bipartisanship, and there isn’t a Republican out there who would disagree. So, I will let my voting record speak for itself.

GS: You are moving up at a quick, steady pace… would it be safe to assume you have big political ambitions?

TN: Maybe. People asked this question in 2008 when I ran for re-election. Look, I’m focused on this election. And I’m fortunate to have won the last four contested elections, but one of those reasons is that I’m focused on the task at hand. I’m not thinking about what I’m doing in five or ten years, I’m looking at five weeks. I’m not even very focused on what I’d do as part of the Barrett Administration, I’m looking at five weeks. You learn in politics that you don’t choose opportunities, opportunities choose you. If you would have asked me three years ago, would you be interested in majority leader, I would have looked at you funny. At the time, it just wasn’t in the cards. So, in 2008, I won re-election, I went around the state helping other people that summer, and noticed nobody was really talking about majority leader. This is a very important position in the state. I figured I’d give it a shot. I picked up the phone, called my colleagues. I drove around the state, putting 16,000 miles on my car, and began knocking on doors. It worked out, and I had a chance to serve my community and my state as majority leader. If this was 2004, I couldn’t have mapped out some secret plan of what I’d be doing in 2010.

By the way, I have a distinct recollection of interviewing for various jobs, and the one question I hated was “where do you see yourself in five years?” I think people ask that question, but they don’t have an appreciation for life, and how the opportunities and twists and turns change so much. To ignore changes is detrimental to your personal growth, and detrimental to how you might use your God-given talents.

Also try another article under Political
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

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