Pat Lucey used bully pulpit of governor’s office to make tough choices

He was a governor who angered many in the education establishment, who sought to exercise more control over the state bureaucracy, and a politician who redefined his party yet seemingly didn’t care if he won by one vote or thousands.

Gov. Scott Walker? Perhaps so, depending on your point of view, but the description also fits former Wisconsin Gov. Patrick J. Lucey.

Lucey, who died May 10 at 96, was elected governor twice in the 1970s before resigning late in his second term to become ambassador to Mexico. A few years later, disappointed in the Democratic president who appointed him, Lucey ran as independent John Anderson’s vice presidential running mate in an election won by Ronald Reagan.

It was his stint as governor, and his knack for campaign tactics and hard-nosed party politics, that defined Lucey much more than his time in the national limelight.

Along with a handful of other familiar names in Wisconsin politics — John Reynolds, William Proxmire, Gaylord Nelson, and James Doyle among them — Lucey was an architect of the state’s modern Democratic Party. It arose in the late 1940s and early 1950s, just as the Progressive Party’s influence was waning, and quickly became a force in an otherwise Republican state.

In part, that was because Lucey took political organizing to a new level. During his years as director and later as chairman of the Democratic Party, Lucey made sure the party fielded candidates in virtually every race for the Wisconsin Legislature. That hard work paid off. When Democrats finally won the Assembly in 1958, it was the party’s first working majority since 1933.

Much of the political capital Lucey earned by working in party vineyards was available to spend during his years as governor. He dusted off the idea of merging the University of Wisconsin in Madison, which also included the UW Extension and campuses in Milwaukee, Green Bay, and Racine-Kenosha, with the nine-campus Wisconsin State University System. At the time, both systems had a Board of Regents.

He believed a merger would control costs at a time when “baby boomer” enrollments were taxing most campuses, diminish duplication, improve education, and give the combined UW System a larger voice.

The move was initially unpopular with legislators in both parties and many people within academia, particularly those on the Madison campus who believed it would water down the quality of the state’s flagship university.

Lucey cracked heads, cut deals, cajoled, and threatened (“I had to be pretty heavy-handed — no merger, no budget,” he said later) and won in October 1971 by the slimmest of margins. In some ways, the “merger wars” of that era wage on, as evidenced a few years ago when a proposal to carve out more autonomy for the UW-Madison was shot down, basically from within the UW System itself.



Lucey rarely shied away from a fight. His push for changes in the state’s shared revenue system — the mechanism by which state tax dollars are redistributed to local governments — and the state aid formula for local schools were among other political rumbles. It was during his first term that Wisconsin adopted a property tax exemption for manufacturing equipment and machinery, an incentive still in place today.

And while Democrats were closely identified with labor unions then and now, Lucey was still governor in mid-1977 during events that led to a major state employee strike. He was generally suspicious of the civil service, and not afraid to put political appointees in place within state agencies to make sure his policies were being carried out.

Although a tactician who loved the art of organization, Pat Lucey probably wasn’t a politician who would fit in well today. He joked about his own lack of charisma, wasn’t especially telegenic, and often disagreed with his own party on major issues.

Then again, for those who believe politics has become a province of form over substance, perhaps Lucey’s main legacy is that elected officials don’t always have to be popular to be effective.

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