Senator Herb Kohl announced Friday morning that he will not seek a fifth term in the United States Senate.
In a news conference Kohl reiterated his “Nobody’s Senator but Yours” campaign slogan and said he has done everything in his power to keep the promise.
“But the time has come to give someone else the opportunity to serve. I will not seek another term as your senator, but in the next 19 months I will see that the people of the state are well served.”
After a couple of weeks of deliberation, Kohl said it is better to leave a job a little too early, than a little too late. He added that the people of Wisconsin have been kind to him and he hopes he returned their kindness by improving the quality of life in the state.
“It has been my pleasure to serve each and every one of you in Wisconsin.”
Kohl waved off suggestions that he claimed he would run again in 2012, saying serving for 24 years is long enough and it was time for him to go.
“This seat doesn’t belong to me; it belongs to the people of Wisconsin.”
Alluding to the reference that he has been an invisible senator, while others have been much more verbose and camera-seeking, Kohl said it has never been in his nature to seek the spotlight. He said his quiet deliberations over issues have been a better way to get things done and to get cooperation.
“I don’t disparage people or tear down public institutions. It’s not the way to go,” he said. “Too much of that goes on and that is why people have such a low opinion of public institutions. That is not good for democracy and I personally abhor that kind of conduct.”
The Senator has no plans to run off to a tropical island after retirement, eluding to new opportunities for his talents. He looks forward to being able to work with people who will keep him interested and excited about life and intends to spend an significant amount of time in Wisconsin. He will also be active in helping to elect his successor and re-elect President Barack Obama in 2012.
Kohl is optimistic about the Democratic chances in 2012, despite the toxic landscape of politics in this state.
“Whoever we nominate will have a good chance of winning,” he said. “The Republicans have overreached and the people have recoiled. The landscape will be favorable to Democrats.”
Kohl is proud of his work to bring a Navy contract to Marinette Marine within the last few months. The contract will bring a net 5,000 jobs to the company and other state suppliers and he said his hard work leading the legislation will benefit the state for a long time.
His disappointments in office have been the mess of the national finances.
“I wish we were in better fiscal shape,” he said. “We need to bring down the deficit and debt in a balanced way.”
But overall, Kohl said he has had great satisfaction and enrichment while on the job, every though he wasn’t always successful. “I’ve had a good, strong run as senator.”
Kohl is not only a senator but the owner of the Milwaukee Bucks, the city’s NBA franchise. He said his retirement from the Senate will have no effect on his ownership of the team he purchased to keep it in the community.
“I wish we would win a championship,” he said. “Winning is the way to ensure people will come out and watch.”
Kohl has represented the state since 1988, when he won the seat in a closely fought race against Republican Susan Engeleiter. His subsequent three campaigns were less contentious, since Kohl became something of a folk-hero in the state after purchasing the Milwaukee Bucks basketball team to keep it based in the city.
Kohl was heir to the grocery and department store chain bearing his name, and he served as the president of the company in the 1970s. He facilitated the sale of the department store division to an English company in the early 70s and the Kohl’s grocery store brand disappeared from the Wisconsin scene in the late 90s and early 2000s with the growth of Pick n’ Save and Sendiks.
Kohl is considered a solid liberal Democratic representative, but he does occasionally show some libertarian tendancies. He supported President Barack Obama’s Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act, is staunchly pro-choice and anti-death penalty, supports gay marriage, opposes flag desecration legislation and is considered a pro-environmental vote.
He did support the war agasint Iraq in 2002, but voted against the Gulf War in 1991. He also voted against increase military spending while troops have been on the ground in Afgahistan and Iraq, but voted for the Patriot Act. In recent years, he has backed off that vote and supported warrants to wiretap detainees at Guantanamo Bay.
Let the wagering begin
With Kohl’s announcement, the wagering begins on who will toss their hat in the ring to succeed him. On the Democratic side there is former senator Russ Feingold, current WI Secretary of State Doug LaFollette, WI Assembly Minority Speaker Peter Barca (Racine), Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and U.S. Representative Ron Kind (La Crosse). Republican contenders could include Mark Neumann, former governor Tommy Thompson and Rep. Paul Ryan.
LaFollette ran in the 1988 primary against Kohl, finishing fourth in a field of four. Recently, his profile has risen due to his strict adherence to the 10-day publication rule of state laws and participation in the current lawsuit over Wisconsin Act 10, the bill that limits public employee collective bargaining. However at age 70 (only six years younger than Kohl), LaFollette may not want to trade the relative quiet of Wisconsin for a national stage.
Barca has also increased his name recognition in recent months. As the leader of the Assembly Democrats, Barca has been the voice of opposition in Madison against the GOP and Walker. Barca has national experience, winning a special election to fill the remainder of Rep. Les Aspin’s term after he was tapped by Bill Clinton to be Secretary of Defense. However, he lost his reelection campaign in 1994 to Mark Neumann.
Kind was considered a heavy favorite for the Democratic nomination in the 2010 gubernatorial race, but he chose not to run citing his work to get affordable health care passed for American families. A senate run would keep Kind in Washington where he could continue his work on national issues, but also increase his visibility across the state.
Barrett is also a viable candidate, based on his statewide recognition and former service in the U.S. Congress. However, his gubernatorial campaign was lackluster, to say the least, and if he wants the Senatorial seat he would have to wage a more powerful campaign than his last effort.
The big fish in the pool is Feingold. Calls for him to return to the senate began immediately after he lost to Ron Johnson in 2010. He has also been mentioned as a candidate against Scott Walker in either a recall election or in 2012. Feingold served as the state’s junior senator for 18 years and now is an instructor at Marquette University’s Law School. He is also writing a book about his Senate career, leading a political action group – Progressives United and pledging his assistance to re-elect President Obama in 2012.
Feingold would seem to be the favorite for the Democratic nomination to succeed Kohl, but would he be comfortable returning to Washington as the junior senator to Johnson and having none of the seniority he built up after 18 years in the body? It’s a serious question he would have to consider.
Perennial GOP candidate Mark Neumann, who has not held an elected office since he lost the Senate race to Feingold in 1998 has been campaigning for Kohl’s seat since he lost the GOP nomination for governor in 2010. He served two terms in Congress, but since then has run a home construction company and bankrolled a parochial school system that is part of the Milwaukee Parental School Choice program.
Thompson, will be one to watch, since the GOP seems paralyzed to offer up alternative candidates until Thompson takes himself out of a race. Since he left Madison for a cabinet seat in the Bush Administration, he has toyed with running for Senate and Governor, but always drops out in the end to pursue lucrative private opportunities.
Ryan is the current darling of the GOP, with his Path to Prosperity fiscal plan and powerful budget chairmanship in Congress. But he has passed on Presidential and Governor races, citing his young family. Maybe a move across the hall to the Senate chambers would be more palatable to this young family man, as he builds his political resume.
So let the bets begin!