Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Former Gov. Thompson calls for 'civility in politics' in Offner lecture

Tommy Thompson Tommy Thompson

By Terry Shelton

Former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson bemoaned the lack of bipartisanship in local and national politics during the Paul Offner Lecture sponsored by the La Follette School of Public Affairs and the Urban Institute.

"One of the problems we have today in society is we don't really talk to each other," Thompson said at the September 30 memorial lecture that celebrates the life of Democratic state Sen. Paul Offner, who became a health policy expert and professor in Washington, D.C., before dying in 2004.

"We talk by emails, we talk by Facebook, we tweet," "Thompson said to a standing room crowd of students, faculty, former gubernatorial staff members and longtime friends at the Pyle Center on the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus.

Thompson, the longest serving governor in Wisconsin history, recalled having "a beer and a steak" with Democratic opponents following heated debates in the Capitol.

He gave several examples of bipartisan collaboration during his terms as a member of the Wisconsin Assembly, governor and secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. He spoke fondly of his Wisconsin Works program that reformed the welfare system in Wisconsin and was later copied by the federal government.

"Though President Clinton never gave me credit for it," he said, drawing laughter from the crowd.

Thompson also encouraged the university to reach out to legislators and other opinion makers.

"You've got this beautiful campus, and some of the greatest research in the world happens at the University of Wisconsin," Thompson said to the audience that included Chancellor Rebecca Blank, and College of Letters and Science Dean Karl Scholz. "How many legislators know that? Let's bring more people in here to see what's going on."

La Follette Director Susan Yackee said she was thrilled that Thompson accepted the invitation to speak about his former colleague. She also noted the large turnout of La Follette students who attended to hear the governor's message.

"Tonight the Wisconsin Idea came to life for our students in a very personal and meaningful way," she said.

Thompson and Offner served together in the Wisconsin Assembly from 1974-76. Offner then moved to the Wisconsin Senate where he served until 1984, while Thompson remained in the Assembly until 1987 when he was elected governor.

Thompson served as governor from 1987-2001, when President George W. Bush named him secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. After that, Thompson was a partner with the law firm Akin Gump and chair of global health-care practice for the international professional service firm Deloitte Touche. Thompson has served on the board of 22 other organizations.

At the time of his death on April 20, 2004, Offner was a consultant at The Urban Institute where he contributed to breakthrough research on poverty in America.

The entire speech is archived at WisconsinEye.