Tommy Thompson: Human Services Reformer

Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson is widely regarded as the man who invented welfare reform.

An outspoken Midwestern governor and a Wisconsin powerhouse politician for 13 years, Thompson is considered a Republican leader on welfare reform and school choice, and a natural fit for the Health and Human Services spot. He is seen as a no nonsense politician able to execute his innovative health care and welfare reform ideas into policy. He will also help Bush reach out to Democrats: As governor of an industrial and traditionally Democratic state, he successfully brought Democrats into decisions at every turn.

Thompson’s W-2 program (“Wisconsin Works”) was the first welfare reform program in the country that insisted able-bodied welfare recipients had to find work. It made welfare recipients adhere to time limits. Thompson added to the W-2 large dollops of money to pay for training, transport, health care and child care. Thompson raised state subsidies for childcare from $12 million to over $150 million.

Since the formation of W-2, the number of Wisconsin families receiving welfare declined from 100,000 to 8,000.

Not Without His Critics

But Thompson is not without his critics. His welfare reforms have been called old school conservative politics that hurt the poor and help the rich, particularly the abolishment of the state’s Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program.

“The reforms punish poor children most,” said Gerald McEntee, president of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), AFL-CIO.

The program’s success has not been fully measured, critics said. “What happens to the remaining recipients, many of whom have few if any skills to get jobs remains to be seen,” said Kelly Bablitch, a policy analyst for W-2 critic Sen. Gwendolynne Moore, D-Milwaukee.

No Easy Pass

Once in office Bush may find he won’t get an easy pass with Thompson at his side.

He's an outspoken Republican and not afraid to take his own party to task.

“The problem with the Republicans in Congress is that they make these outlandish statements,” he once told a reporter. “That scares people. The Republicans’ rhetoric can be so shrill, that even their talk of vast tax cuts makes people wary.”

The essence of his leadership comes down to “real midwestern sense,” according to some observers. Donald Kettl, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin, says Thompson has the ability to work out and then to sell what Thompson likes to call “common sense solutions to familiar problems.”

“Welfare reform means finding poor people jobs,” Thompson told Wisconsonites.

Bringing Everyone into the Fold

Thompson always invited Democratic opponents to the discussion in Wisconsin — rather than leaving them in the distance.

In his first term, he put a senior Democrat in charge of the state’s health and family services, and then gave him responsibility for getting the first of his welfare reforms through the legislature. The committee that hammered out the details of the final bill had more Democrats than Republicans.

He also created one of the country’s first school-choice programs. Pupils can select the school they want to go to from a range of options that includes state schools, private religious schools, vocational schools, and charter schools operated by University of Wisconsin.

Thompson admits, though, that leaving Wisconsin for Washington will not be easy.

“You all know how much I love Wisconsin, how much I love the people, how much I love being governor,” he proclaimed to reporters. “Need I say any more?”

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