Governor Tommy Thompson, who was the longest serving Governor in Wisconsin history, and Ambassador and former Assembly Speaker Tom Loftus, who was the longest-serving Speaker in Wisconsin history, shared their perspectives on partisanship and political gridlock at a panel discussion, “Tom and Tommy: Bridging the Political Divide” at One Alumni Place on Thursday, October 12. The discussion, organized by the Wisconsin Foundation and Alumni Association’s Alumni for Wisconsin advocacy network, was hosted by UW Law Professor Ryan Owens.
In reflecting on their cooperative efforts while serving as leaders of opposing parties from 1986–1992, Thompson and Loftus credited a personal relationship that developed over many years and was solidified by a tour of the state holding hearings on the future of the UW System. They saw their relationship and the statewide tour as the reasons why they were able to work across party lines. That relationship, which allowed them to develop trust and respect for each other, is often missing in politics today, according the two UW-Madison graduates and state leaders.
While familiarity and trust were the key component of their cooperative relationship, both men stressed the need for elected officials to want to cooperate and accomplish something in order to reduce partisanship and political polarization in Wisconsin. Governor Thompson also stressed the need to listen to constituents, citing his example of how meeting with state welfare recipients guided and changed his view on legislation that eventually became landmark welfare reform when he was Governor.
Loftus and Thompson agreed that gerrymandering of legislative districts has profoundly impacted the lack of compromise in politics today. With districts highly tilted to one party or the other, elected officials are more concerned with primary challenges from the extreme left or right of their own political party, rather than facing off against a Democrat or Republican in the general election. This dynamic promotes governing from the extremes and the loss of moderate voices in the legislature. While neither felt a third party was a viable option— and Governor Thompson was not willing to take away the power to redistrict from elected officials — both agreed that finding a solution to extreme gerrymandering was necessary.
Thompson and Loftus, who are both honored alumni in the newly opened Alumni Park, expressed optimism that the trend of partisanship will eventually swing back toward compromise and collaboration. After all, if these two long time adversaries could also be friends and work together in the best interest of the citizens of Wisconsin, surely other future leaders will find similar common ground.