He's staking his position as Pied Piper of the Proletariat. Ed Thompson, Libertarian candidate for governor, added politics to his lengthy and colorful resume of working-man jobs - from boxer to gambler to prison guard to bar owner. He easily won election as mayor of Tomah. So is the Ed Thompson mystique genuine, or is the reality best reflected in the Libertarian party line?
The truth is that Thompson has the ability to sound convincing in both contexts. Thompson is a "people person," as reflected by long-standing friendships and warm interaction with strangers. His former boxing coach (and current driver), Jim Meckstroth, has been through many of Thompson 's previous battles. "He fought as a heavyweight professionally until he was 40," Meckstroth said. "He won his last fight, but when I asked 'how many fingers,' he said he couldn't even see my hand." Thompson translated that scrappiness to his bar business. "Anyone who got out of hand, he'd literally pick 'em up and throw 'em out," Meckstroth said. Thompson has also been winning another well-publicized battle. "He's been sober for eight years now." But perhaps Meckstroth's most telling observation of Thompson was from the boxing ring. "Ed was the kind of boxer who would take three punches to land one good one."
Thompson has been taking some punches through this campaign, and he realizes it would take a "perfect storm" to earn a four-year trip to Madison. "I think the perfect storm is already coming in," he said. "We have two candidates that are not really strong, and we've got corruption going on in Madison. It's the career politicians versus the common man. It happened in Minnesota, and I think it will happen in Wisconsin." Another recent blow has been the decision of the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association to exclude Thompson from debates, a decision he's challenged before the Elections Board as constituting a campaign gift to the Jim Doyle and Scott McCallum campaigns. "A debate without me is just going to be an infomercial for 'republicrats,'" he said. "It's like an in-kind contribution of $43,000 in time - them giving and the 'republicrats' accepting." The dispute is over Thompson 's support - in the September primary, voters did not give him 6% of the total votes. "I've qualified in every category except the 6%," he said. "In an uncontested primary for a third party, with all the county races…we worked very hard to get the votes we got." Voters who wanted to cast votes for republican or democrat in county elections couldn't vote for Thompson on the Libertarian ballot. "We got the same numbers that Governor Ventura got in the primary, and that's given us new hope. They let him in the debates in Minnesota…I wonder if they're afraid of what I'll say?"
Another concern of third-party candidacies is that the Jesse Ventura example in Minnesota led to legislative gridlock in that state. How can one governor successfully battle 132 legislators? "They can't get a thing done now," he replied. "There's no other way but a third party, an alternative…a mediator. It's just fight, fight, fight; gridlock, gridlock, gridlock - unless you bring in an outside force, it'll never change. It never has changed. Two years in a row they couldn't pass the budget, and when they did it was the worst in the nation. And Wisconsin has the third highest taxes in the nation, and that's not acceptable."
Thompson abides by key Libertarian principles of self-reliance and self-discipline. "Self-discipline is essential to every aspect of our lives," he said. "I think there is a higher moral code within each and every one of us - it's who we have to answer to. If you answer to it, I really don't think you have a problem in your life. If you go against it, that's when all bad things happen. The person inside me is the one person I would never betray."
That philosophy is consistent with his most publicized act of civil disobedience, the installation of video gambling machines in his Tomah nightclub. "When the state has a monopoly on gambling, and (tribal) casinos have their monopoly, and church bingo halls have their piece, then you have golf bets on every hole, and every fifth frame at the bowling alley, and at every pool hall - what a joke it is to say to a bar owner that they will go to prison for having a nickel video poker machine," he said. "Wisconsin has legalized gambling - it has opened the door. When you allow it everywhere else, I need it just to compete." And where are the machines now? "We went for two years without them," he said, "but they're back in there now."
With daily news stories on ethics violations in politics and business, Thompson is disturbed by these violations in trust. "That's the reason we're in the mess we're in…the corruption of caucuses…our leaders have betrayed that trust." But rather than turn to government for solutions, Thompson asserts that people must ultimately take responsibility for ethics in leadership. "I think that the common people should rise up, and say we've had enough of this nonsense. It's not a class of aristocracy - you're sent to represent us, and you're not doing it - you're representing your own careers. We have to rise up within our own society…our priorities are not in order."
To distance himself from any potential allegations, Thompson has pledged to not accept contributions from political action committees. "It seems the ones our government takes care of are the ones who donate the most in campaigns. I'm not for sale - I won't take any special interest money. I think that's what we have to do to have real campaign reform - no PAC money and term limits. Until that comes about, we'll have business as usual - money will run our government, not honesty." Thompson delineates the election as a choice between status quo and change. "If (campaigning) can be done the old-fashioned way, we're gonna win it. But if it can be bought, we don't have a chance. We have to do it the right way - to be determined. First, we need to get one of ours in office - someone who is dedicated to…the down-to-earth people. Career politicians will take care of their careers first and foremost."
So what should the role of government be? Thompson offered the conventional Libertarian tenets. "The government should ensure safety - make sure we're well-protected. It should support infrastructure and a good court system," he said. "As far as all the government programs, they're just a way to keep more bureaucrats in power. We have to shrink the size of government." That would be one of the hallmarks of his early initiatives as governor. "First, I would push to change the campaign laws so that you could vote for anybody you wanted in the primary; you wouldn't be forced to vote for a party. Then I'd get on top of this incredible spending. I plan to decrease the governor's budget by 10%, and the same thing holds for the cabinet. Any taxing agency that requires money will have to prove to me how they spent it last year."
Who does Thompson see as his constituency? Certainly, his appeal to the "Joe Six Pack" voter will be tested. But his campaign has also focused on younger voters. "It's time to take our state back for the young people," he said. "We have strong backing amongst college students, and I think that the young will be a big part of the campaign." He's had a rapport with younger generation long before his political career. "I used to have a rock & roll bar in Elroy," he said. "Music has been a big part of my life - music defines the ages," he said.
But perhaps Thompson 's most natural base of support, the Tavern League, is tacitly supporting Governor McCallum. "It's insane - I don't know where their courage is," Thompson said. "He's thrown the booze out of the Governor's Mansion, he supports lowering the (OWI) limit to .08, and has said he won't allow an expansion of gambling - yet their leadership says that they need to endorse him. If they get him, they're supporting someone who isn't for them."
One key Thompson ally is not quite a supporter…but not quite an opponent, either - his brother (and former governor) Tommy Thompson. Tommy Thompson has verbally endorsed McCallum, "but he promised me that he would vote for me, and also promised me $500 towards my campaign," Ed Thompson said. So…has "big brother" come through? "He's given me $200 so far - I'm still waiting for the other $300," he said. "He told me he'd give it to me on an installment plan - we've had a few words about it." But does Ed Thompson really think his brother is good for his promise? "He better be," replied Ed.