Retiring senator reflects on lengthy public service
Herbert H. Kohl says he figured out early on in his 24 years in the U.S. Senate that he didn't want to be an ideologue of any sort.
"Wisconsin is a state of tremendous diversity, and dozens and dozens and dozens of legitimate interests -- some of which might be called Democrat, some Republican, but all of them legitimate," Kohl said in a visit to Hudson last week.
The 77-year-old senator will be retiring from public office at the end of the year.
He came to Hudson Wednesday evening, Oct. 17, to help raise money for fellow Democrat Pat Kreitlow's campaign for the U.S. House of Representatives.
Kohl stepped out of the reception at the St. Croix Marina clubhouse for a short interview with the Hudson Star-Observer.
"I am a Democrat and proudly a Democrat," he added. "I think Democratic principles, in the main, are good for our country. But it's not totally true.
"There are good ideas that emanate from people who are of the Republican persuasion, as well as of the Democrat persuasion."
He said he did his best over the years to represent Wisconsinites of all backgrounds.
"They're all good citizens, and they all deserve representation," he said.
Judging from his biography, you might expect Kohl to be a Republican.
Before being elected to the Senate in 1988, he served as president of the family-owned Kohl's grocery and department stores.
He and his brother inherited the business from their parents, who started it as a very small storefront grocery in Milwaukee.
His Jewish parents emigrated from Europe as young adults in the 1920s, met in Milwaukee, married and began their business. They came with almost nothing but a strong work ethic. His father was from Poland and his mother, from Russia.
"Isn't that amazing?" the senator said. "They both left family in Europe that were caught in the holocaust. So I grew up in a home of hard-working people who were learning the American way. They learned the language. They learned the culture, and what it is to be an American."
He grew up in a middle-class home and attended public schools. His parents weren't political, but voted Democratic, he said.
"We were Roosevelt Democrats."
Kohl, who was born in 1935, would attend the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and then earn a Master of Business Administration degree from Harvard Business School.
He started his own investment company before being named president of the Kohl's chain of stores in 1970. After helping grow the family business, he sold it in 1979.
In 1985, he bought the Milwaukee Bucks professional basketball team to prevent it from leaving the city -- and still owns the team.
He's one of the wealthiest U.S. senators with a net worth in the hundreds of millions.
The University of Wisconsin's basketball and hockey arena was named the Kohl Center when he donated $25 million for its construction.
His business background is part of the reason he is one of a vanishing breed of moderates in Congress.
But Kohl added that he is a Democrat "through and through."
He believes the leadership of the Republican Party has moved too far to the right and out of the mainstream of American core values.
"I think it's too exclusive, oftentimes, for people who are more wealthy, and not nearly sufficiently representative of the broad cross-section of our country," he said of the Republican Party.
Kohl pointed to the debate over income taxes as an example.
He said he doesn't understand how Republicans can resist any tax increase on the wealthiest Americans, while at the same time calling for deficits to be reduced.
"So we're going to reduce spending. What about raising some additional taxes? Nada -- on rich people like me, who aren't even asking for that kind of treatment and don't need it," he said.
"If you look at the kind of budgets that are proposed by Republicans like Paul Ryan, they're vicious -- cutting spending on virtually all things that Americans need," he continued, naming Social Security and Medicare as examples.
"In their idealized world, they would privatize Social Security and, in effect, privatize Medicare," he charged.
Kohl emphasized that he believes it is the Republican leadership that has moved to the right, and not everyday citizens who identify with the party.
"People outside of Washington aren't nearly as political. They aren't as ideological," he said. "They see things, I believe, in a more practical way. They can't understand why Democrats and Republicans don't get together, resolve their differences, and address the problems that really face our country."
Washington was becoming more polarized when he entered the Senate at the start of 1989, he said, but is much more so now.
He said the animosity between the political parties makes it hard to get anything done, especially in the Senate where it often takes 60 votes to pass a bill because of the filibuster.
"It used to be that the 60-vote requirement was only on the most important issues, and they didn't come up very often," he said. "Now every significant issue is filibustered. So we need to figure a way around the filibuster, because it paralyzes the Senate."
Kohl also decried the influence that money has on Washington, especially since the Supreme Court's United Citizens decision removing limits on spending by corporations and unions on political campaigns.
He decided early in his political career not to solicit campaign contributions and ran on the slogan, "Nobody's senator but yours."
"I discovered how much more effective I could be when I didn't raise money," he said. "...It changed the job entirely because I didn't have to spend so much time raising money."
Because of his wealth, he could largely self-fund his campaigns.
"I've enjoyed immeasurably representing the people of Wisconsin," he said. "And I'm happy that I can leave at a time when, for the most part, people are happy with me. That doesn't happen all the time."
Kohl also gave a strong endorsement of Kreitlow, who is challenging incumbent Republican Sean Duffy for Wisconsin's 7th District seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
"Pat Kreitlow would be a great Unites States congressman," he said. "He is not an ideologue. He does not take the party line come hell or high water. He is an independent thinker -- a smart person who has a background in the private sector."
Kreitlow is a former Eau Claire TV news anchor and a one-term state senator.
Kohl criticized Duffy for taking money from the insurance and banking industries, and charged that he is beholden to them.