Patrick Lucey, Former Wisconsin Governor and Ambassador to Mexico, Is Dead
By Jan Uebelherr
Former Wisconsin Gov. Patrick J. Lucey believed he was a man without charisma, but whatever he may have lacked in that department he made up for as a tenacious organizer.
Lucey moved in political circles for more than four decades -- he was chairman of the state Democratic Party in the 1950s and became a personal friend of John F. Kennedy after helping JFK win the state's key presidential primary over Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey. In the era of Joseph McCarthy, Lucey was credited with the rise of the Democratic Party in Wisconsin. And as Wisconsin's 38th elected governor, he won the first four-year gubernatorial term in 1970.
That victory gave him the political clout to push for what was considered sweeping change, including the 1972 merger of the state's two university systems.
"He's going to be remembered as one of Wisconsin's most influential citizens," said state Sen. Fred Risser (D-Madison), who served in the Legislature during Lucey's two terms as governor. "He turned Wisconsin into a two-party state."
Lucey, a two-term governor who served as ambassador to Mexico and ran for vice president, died Saturday night after a brief illness at the Milwaukee Catholic Home, where he had lived for several years. He was 96.
A liberal governor who took a fiscally conservative approach, Lucey considered political capital something meant to be spent.
"You're making decisions every day that cut two ways, and every time you do something that favors one group, you antagonize another," Lucey said in a 1974 interview. "If you're going to be effective, you just have to accept that and let the chips fall where they may."
In 1980 he became a candidate again, running for vice president with independent John Anderson. After that, there were years of teaching, first at Marquette University, then at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.
Lucey remained politically astute and active, endorsing John Kerry in 2004, and was an early supporter of President Barack Obama.
Gov. Scott Walker remembered Lucey as a man dedicated to serving Wisconsin.
"Tonette and I extend our thoughts and prayers to the family of Governor Patrick Lucey. It was a particular joy to be with him last summer for the 40th anniversary of Kikkoman in Fontana. Governor Lucey was a dedicated public servant who loved Wisconsin," Walker said in a statement.
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett called Lucey one of Wisconsin's finest public servants.
"Pat Lucey served our State and our Country with grace and dignity," Barrett said in a statement.
A native of La Crosse, Lucey was the oldest of seven children born to Gregory and Ella Lucey. His great-grandfather, Patrick "Paddy" Lucy, came from County Cork, Ireland, to Crawford County to farm in the middle of the 19th century, later fighting for the North in the Civil War. The "e" was added to the family name around the turn of the century, Lucey once recalled, according to a biography being written by former Milwaukee Sentinel reporter Neil Shively, who covered state politics.
Lucey's grandfather and father both served on the Crawford County Board.
His father had little education but good business sense. With only a fourth-grade education and $500, he opened a grocery store in Ferryville at age 19. The family lived above the store. Gregory Lucey managed to survive the Depression, even buying several farm properties that ended up in bankruptcy.
When he was 19, Patrick Lucey left college to run the family business, Lucey's Cash & Carry. He also served as its butcher. He got involved in politics, serving two terms as a local justice of the peace and on the Ferryville grade school board and DeSoto High School board.
World War II brought service with the Quartermaster Corps, mostly in the Caribbean. In 1946, he earned a bachelor's degree in philosophy from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
He also worked a variety of other jobs both before and after the war -- in wholesale grocery sales and managing the family-owned farms -- before deciding to run for state office. Lucey's first target was the state Assembly. In 1948, he scored an upset victory, defeating Republican Donald McDowell, the incumbent and speaker of the Assembly.
Because of legal restrictions on campaign spending, Lucey's budget was limited. In the final week of the campaign, he placed small classified ads in Crawford County weeklies. One example: "HANDY MAN FOR HIRE: Just place an (X) after my name next Tuesday and you've hired a handy man for Crawford County to have in Madison."
When the media asked about his successful effort, he proudly recalled what one campaign worker had said. "The big shots are against you and the little shots are for you," the volunteer declared, "but there are a lot more little shots than there are big shots."
Lucey never forgot about the little shots.
He was a politician who lived and breathed politics, cracking jokes about it, savoring its historical nuances, moved by the responsibility and the promise.
"I don't really have any hobbies," Lucey said after winning as governor. "I mean, I don't play golf. I guess my hobby has been politics."
When elected to the state Legislature in 1948, Lucey was one of only 26 Democrats in the 100-member Assembly. But Lucey and a small band of Democrats had ideas about the future of the Democratic Party in Wisconsin, meeting in 1949 at the Hotel Northland in Green Bay to strategize political plans.
Others who would become influential in Wisconsin politics also attended: John W. Reynolds, William Proxmire, Thomas E. Fairchild, James E. Doyle, Gaylord Nelson and Henry Maier. So was a young woman from Milwaukee, Jean Vlasis, who would become Lucey's wife. They married at Church of the Gesu in Milwaukee in 1951 and became a political team, touring the state in the interest of party unity and development.
Also a businessman at heart, Lucey ran Lucey Real Estate Service with his wife. They began the business in 1954, operating out of a spare bedroom in the family home. Within three years, it was doing $5 million in business and was the largest such firm in Madison. The firm was later sold to Wauwatosa Realty.
In 1951, Lucey began serving as full-time organizational director for the Democratic Party.
"He lined up Democratic challengers in every Assembly and Senate district in the state," Risser said. "He was a very good organizer."
Not all of those candidates won, of course, but there were Democratic challengers where there once had been none, Risser said. In the next few years, Lucey managed two unsuccessful campaigns -- Thomas E. Fairchild's U.S. Senate bid against McCarthy and James E. Doyle's run for governor. Doyle's son Jim would later serve two terms as Wisconsin's governor.
But Lucey learned and, in 1957, led Proxmire's successful campaign for the U.S. Senate in a special election to fill the unexpired term of McCarthy, who died in office. Proxmire won handily over former Gov. Walter Kohler Jr., in what many consider one of the greatest political upsets in state history. That victory paved the way for candidates including Gaylord Nelson, Robert Kastenmeier and John W. Reynolds.
In 1957, Lucey was elected the party's state chairman. He was re-elected until he decided not to run in 1963.
His six years as state chairman saw Democrats win three gubernatorial elections, two U.S. Senate races, elect an additional congressman, plus put a majority in the Assembly. That Assembly majority in 1958 -- a solid 55 of 100 seats -- was the party's first since 1933.
His work on John F. Kennedy's presidential campaign put him in the president's inner circle. Lucey later helped campaign for Robert F. Kennedy and was reportedly with him when news came that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated.
"I worked as hard as I could for Bobby," Lucey said in a 2010 interview. "I met with Bobby on the Sunday before he was killed. He said, 'I want you to come to L.A., because we're going to win this primary, and the next morning we're going to have a strategy meeting on what we do from now until the convention.'"
Lucey was checking into the Ambassador Hotel moments after Bobby Kennedy was shot.
"I heard a commotion in the big ballroom," Lucey said. "As I walked toward the ballroom, two women came out with their mascara running."
Lucey's own political career began to take shape in the mid-1960s. In 1964, Lucey served as lieutenant governor. In 1966, he lost his first race for governor to Warren P. Knowles.
He won in 1970, beginning his first term as governor in 1971, and was re-elected in 1974.
As governor, Lucey set an aggressive and ambitious agenda. He spoke of not wanting an inner circle of yes men and those who would say "what you want to hear."
Owlish in black rimmed glasses, Lucey quickly met with the Republican-controlled Senate in committee of the whole -- a move possibly without precedent in state history -- to talk about the merger of the university system. Despite opposition by both university systems, Lucey got his way. Lee Dreyfus, then the chancellor at UW-Stevens Point, was his point man.
Lucey later considered it one of his greatest successes. On minority access to college, he said administrators who thought that enough had been done "had better think again." He also remained proud of significant changes in the shared tax distribution system and in equalization aid for school districts.
Risser called the tax reforms one of Lucey's greatest achievements.
Lucey advocated a progressive perspective on many issues, consistently opposing gambling and the death penalty. He extended clemency to many convicts, most of whom had completed their prison terms. He appointed the first woman to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, Shirley S. Abrahamson, who later became its chief justice.
Lucey's supporters described him as introspective, cool, purposeful, candid, witty. Detractors called him cold, colorless, calculating.
Lucey acknowledged that he could appear cold or insensitive. "I can't walk into a room and start slapping people on the back and shouting greetings in a loud voice and, you know, reaching for every hand in the room as fast as I can. I don't know whether it's shyness or what, but I just feel that it's so unnatural that it's phony," he said.
"I don't think I would recognize charisma if it hit me on the head, and I've only learned how to pronounce the word in recent years. I just sort of plod along and do what I think needs to be done and hope that it will all fall right."
An outspoken opponent of the war in Vietnam, Lucey refused a role with Humphrey's presidential campaign, saying Humphrey did not have an acceptable position on the war. He later endorsed Humphrey.
In 1972, he called the Vietnam War the No. 1 issue in the presidential campaign and pushed for complete withdrawal. "The war has diverted our attention and resources from the decay of our cities, the destruction of our environment and the neglect of our children," he then said, speaking to midyear University of Wisconsin-Madison graduates.
He later became the first major political figure to call for Nixon's resignation.
In 1977, Lucey resigned as governor and became ambassador to Mexico during the Carter administration. In 1979, he left his position as ambassador and, only four days later, ripped into Carter's leadership ability. On the eve of the 1980 Democratic convention, Lucey said he could not support Carter, calling him "a disaster." He threw his support to Sen. Ted Kennedy as a presidential candidate.
Later in 1980, he became independent presidential candidate John Anderson's running mate.
"In taking this step I have broken with the party to which I have devoted my political life," he said. "John Anderson stands for something, not because it's popular, but because he deeply believes it's right."
After the 1980 presidential election, Lucey worked as a political consultant and taught. He represented the state of Yucatán in its efforts to attract more American firms to Mexico, and worked with firms as a business consultant regarding Latin America.
In 1983, he was named a fellow at the Institute of Politics at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. He also served in advisory roles for Walter Mondale's presidential campaign, specifically on Central American issues.
He later expressed sympathy for Mondale.
"I know what it is to run for office without charisma," he said at the time.
But Risser wasn't so sure about that.
"That depends on how you define charisma," Risser said. "Pat was not a dynamic speaker. He spoke straight and he spoke meaningfully. Maybe he didn't bombast. But his words meant what they said." Former Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Amy Rabideau Silvers contributed to this report.
Lucey is survived by his daughter, Laurel; sons Paul and David; and nine grandchildren. His wife, Jean, died in 2011.
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