In Political Opponents We Trust

In an era of politics gone wild with exorbitant spending and toxic rhetoric, Ed Garvey and Bill Kraus recall the bygone days of trust, friendship and civility

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The last time Ed Garvey ran for office, as a Democrat against incumbent governor Tommy Thompson, he had an open-door policy for Republican Bill Kraus. His campaign staffers knew Kraus was most likely a Thompson supporter, but they also knew that whenever he showed up at the campaign headquarters on the corner of University Avenue and Whitney Way, across the street from the now-shuttered Irish Waters tavern, they were to let him in and answer his questions.

Clad in oversized glasses, khakis and running shoes, Kraus dropped in about once a week, unannounced. He asked the
communications director about the message strategy and the plans for paid media. He asked the campaign manager if Garvey was
difficult to work for. He asked the field coordinator if there could possibly be enough direct mail and literature dropping to keep all of the volunteers busy. He asked many of the dozens of volunteers if they honestly believed Garvey could win. They said they did.

In Garvey’s mind, Kraus, the lead architect of Lee Dreyfus’s improbable gubernatorial campaign twenty years earlier, who then served as communications director after the campaign prevailed over incumbent Democratic governor Martin Schreiber, had earned the right to ask tough questions and get honest answers. He trusted Kraus’s motives: a curiosity quest whose findings could turn up in a column he wrote for Milwaukee’s Shepherd Express newspaper but wouldn’t be distorted, or used later as a provocative attack in a thirty-second TV campaign commercial.

If Garvey happened to be in the campaign office during Kraus’s impromptu visits, the two men cleared away the fast-food wrappers and old newspapers from a corner of the volunteer table, sat down and talked.

This is worth remembering now, as we struggle to recover from the fall 2010 campaign season (the most expensive, negative and ubiquitous in history), make sense of the state legislative budget showdown and collectively hold our breath in hopes that the final weeks of this spring’s off-year campaigns will not bring more of the same. Kraus and Garvey, two of Wisconsin’s sharpest political minds, are watching and waiting with the rest of us: outsiders looking in.

Different Strokes

The state’s current leadership might also look to Kraus and Garvey as a model for political civility and productivity. They are able to get things done even when they disagree.

“We like each other,” Garvey says. “And as we have gotten older we have in common that time has passed us by. The independent voice is gone, but we have been around long enough to have one, and neither of us has lost it.”

If the two men have their independence in common, it would be a mistake to say they are the same or even all that similar in their political views. They are instead two members of an endangered species: political adversaries who are friends.

Garvey, a veteran of the civil rights movement who participated in sit-ins and voter registration drives in the Deep South in the 1960s, says the only way his three daughters have ever disappointed him is in failing to even once get arrested during political protests. Kraus, who spent his career as an insurance executive, public relations professional and Republican Party activist, expresses no such paternal disappointments.

Both men have devoted much of their time in the last two decades to campaign reform, but they don’t always agree about that either. Kraus thinks campaign disclosure laws and incremental campaign finance reform can shield us from enough of our current political system’s excesses to be worthwhile and worth pursuing. Garvey believes our democracy can be saved only when private money is shut out of the process and campaigns are fully financed with public dollars.

Kraus lives on Madison’s near east side and is slender, with not much hair and an easy grin. Garvey is stockier with wavy white locks, a quick temper and an even quicker laugh, and he lives in Shorewood Hills.

Getting on the Bus

At the time of Kraus and Dreyfus’s 1978 campaign for governor, Garvey was living in Chevy Chase, Maryland, and working in Washington, D.C. He was the executive director of the National Football League Players Association, the union he helped found. A native of Burlington, Wisconsin, and a graduate of UW–Madison and the UW Law School, Garvey still watched Wisconsin politics closely. He remembers being impressed with the Dreyfus campaign that Kraus created, and he had it in mind when he moved back to Wisconsin in 1983 to take a job as Attorney General Bronson La Follette’s deputy attorney general and consider his own future in politics.

Throughout that ’78 campaign, Dreyfus rode around the state in a converted school bus, painted to call to mind his penchant for wearing red vests under his suit coats. Dreyfus’s “Red Vest Whistle Stop Tour” served as inspiration when Garvey ran grassroots campaigns for the U.S. Senate in 1986 and 1988 and undertook a statewide RV tour when he ran against Thompson in 1998. Garvey limited campaign contributions to $100 that year, eventually raising just more than $1 million ($400,000 from the state’s campaign fund). The campaign spent more on postage than it did on advertising.

“Get on the bus with Lee Dreyfus,” Garvey says. “I thought, ‘This is what politics should be. Do something innovative. Make a difference.’ It didn’t matter that much that Dreyfus and Kraus and I didn’t agree about some of the issues. I trusted their sincerity and integrity.”

By the time Garvey came back to Wisconsin, Kraus had himself moved east, to New York City, to become a vice president for the Equitable Life Insurance Company. But the two would eventually connect and form a lifelong bond that crosses political boundaries, differences of opinion and diverging ideologies about public policy.


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