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Commentary: Baseball has been pivotal in politics

Matt Pommer

More than three million fans watched the Milwaukee Brewers this season at Miller Park, and that may have surprised some of the political figures who participated in the 1995 debate on providing taxpayer help to build the ballpark.

The Legislature and then-Gov. Tommy Thompson approved a 0.1 percent sales tax in five Milwaukee area counties to help build the stadium. Thompson has said it was the toughest challenge in his 34 years in Wisconsin elective office.

Baseball had been a factor in Wisconsin’s gubernatorial elections in 1982 and 1986, first helping a Democrat and then aiding Republican Thompson.

The toughest part of the 1995 baseball tax fight focused on the State Senate.

Passage of the baseball sales tax failed twice, but it won a reprieve when there was a “call of the house” shortly after midnight.

Senate rules under a call of the house bar any action until all members are in their seats. A final defeat of the bill was avoided. About 3 a.m., Thompson ducked into the Senate Republican caucus room. Sen. George Petak, R-Racine, who had vowed to oppose the tax, changed his mind. Racine County was one of the five to be taxed.

Petak would become the first and only, to date, legislator to lose a recall election. Racine voters had remembered his earlier promise to vote against the baseball stadium sales tax. Democrats took the seat and the Senate majority. Petak later became a lobbyist.

Baseball played a role in the 1982 and 1986 gubernatorial elections. In 1982, businessman Terry Kohler, a newcomer candidate, won the Republican nomination in the September primary. Former Assembly Majority Leader Tony Earl won in the Democratic nomination in a mild upset. Earl’s name was familiar to many voters.

Kohler had trouble getting people to pay attention.

Veteran sportswriter Bill Brophy wrote of baseball fever, saying “a bad case of the disease had overtaken the state of Wisconsin.” The Brewers lost the seventh and final game of the World Series just 12 days before the November election. Earl was elected governor.

Earl lost a bid for re-election in 1986 in part because he refused to budge from the idea of building a maximum-security prison near where Miller Park now stands. Brewer owners suggested that would hurt baseball attendance at County Stadium, then home of the Brewers. Republican gubernatorial candidate Tommy Thompson used powerful television commercials showing a prison dropping on County Stadium.
Thompson was governor for 14 years.

Matt Pommer worked as a reporter in Madison for 35 years. He comments on state political and policy issues.

One comment

  1. Thanks for the history bit, I’d love to read more articles like this.

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