MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Tony Earl, a Democrat who served one term as Wisconsin’s governor in the 1980s and later bemoaned the increasing partisanship in politics, has died. He was 86.
Earl, a champion of gay rights and a staunch environmentalist, died on Thursday “peacefully surrounded by family,” his daughter Julia Earl texted The Associated Press. Earl had been hospitalized after suffering a stroke earlier this week.
“A formidable leader and public servant, trusted colleague and mentor, and a good and loyal friend, Tony was well-liked and respected by so many,” Gov. Tony Evers said in reaction to his death.
Earl served only one term as governor, from 1983 to 1987, before being beaten by Republican Tommy Thompson who disparaged him as “Tony the Taxer” because of tax hikes Earl signed in the opening months of his term.
Earl’s political career ended after he lost a Democratic primary race for U.S. Senate in 1988 to Herb Kohl, but he went on to become a leading advocate for campaign and election finance reforms and a champion of environmental causes.
“He never lost his ability to be good and nice and was never pompous,” said Jay Heck, the head of lobbying group Common Cause Wisconsin and a personal friend of Earl’s for decades. “That may have been one of his political failings. He was never mean enough to go after people others thought he should go after. … He was beloved by most Democrats and got along very well with Republicans.”
Democratic U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan said he volunteered on Earl’s first campaign for governor when he was in high school.
“From the first day I met him, he was always the most gracious person, with the goal of cultivating a Democratic bench for the future,” Pocan said in a statement Thursday. “Politics was never personal to him, and I’ve taken that lesson to heart.”
The sour economy proved to be tough for Earl to overcome during his time as governor. The unemployment rate was 12 percent when he took office. And the $1 billion budget deficit led to Earl’s pushing a tax increase through the Legislature, a move that hung over his tenure and ultimately fueled his defeat in 1986 by Thompson.
“From Day One, I was ‘Tony the Taxer,’” Earl said in a 2013 interview.
Earl attempted a comeback two years after losing re-election, running as a progressive Democrat for the U.S. Senate. One of his campaign slogans was, “What this nation needs is more Peace Corps and less Star Wars,” referring to the Republican-backed missile defense system proposed at the time.
But Earl’s campaign got cut off at the knees when Kohl, fresh off of purchasing the Milwaukee Bucks, joined the race late and poured more than $7 million of his own money into winning the Democratic primary and eventually the general election.
Earl never ran for office again. Instead, he set up shop in Madison as an attorney and became an outspoken advocate for good governance reforms. In 1996, he reorganized Common Cause of Wisconsin, a group that argues for campaign finance and election reforms, and he also later served as a board member of the Joyce Foundation, a charitable organization focusing on the Great Lakes region.
For more than three decades, including his four years as governor, the silver-bearded Earl frequented the Madison restaurant Avenue, located just down the street from the Capitol. There he was known to enjoy a pint or two of LaBatt beer as he talked politics with reporters, former and current politicians, old friends and neighborhood residents who stopped in for the popular Friday fish fry.
Earl, in an August 2013 interview at the Avenue, said he had no regrets about his time in office.
“Somebody told me when I was elected, ‘You’re about to embark on a mountaintop experience.’ And it really was in many, many ways,” Earl said. “I loved the retail politics. I loved to get around the state. I enjoyed all these little festivals.”
Earl said he believed his legacy would be his advocacy for gay rights. He established, by executive order, a process for gay people to bring discrimination complaints, created a Governor’s Council on Gay and Lesbian Issues and appointed an openly gay man as his press secretary. Tammy Baldwin, who went on to become the first openly gay person ever elected to the U.S. Senate, interned in Earl’s office.
Earl also appointed the state’s first female Department of Administration secretary, Doris Hanson, and the first black cabinet member, Howard Fuller, as head of the Department of Employee Relations.
“Now, the kinds of things I was doing are absolutely taken as a given,” Earl said in the 2013 interview.
Earl also said he believed his work on the environment, in particular joining with other Midwest governors to create the Council of Great Lakes Governors in 1983, will be a part of his lasting legacy.
Earl was born and raised in Michigan. He graduated from Michigan State University and received his law degree from the University of Chicago law school in 1961. He practiced law in the U.S. Navy from 1961 to 1965, and he was appointed assistant district attorney in Marathon County in 1965.
He worked three years as city attorney in Wausau before running for the state Assembly in 1969. He served until 1974, including four years as Democratic majority leader.
Earl ran for attorney general in 1974 but lost in the primary. He worked a year as secretary of the Department of Administration, and five years as Department of Natural Resources secretary, before running for governor in 1982.
Earl’s candidacy was seen as a long shot, given that he was poised to face popular Republican incumbent Gov. Lee Dreyfus. But Dreyfus decided against seeking re-election after Earl had begun his campaign, clearing Earl’s path to a 15-point victory over Republican Terry Kohler.
“I was sort of an accidental governor in a way,” Earl recalled in 2013, laughing as he took a sip of his beer.
MADISON, Wis. (WXOW) – Former Wisconsin Governor Tony Earl has passed away at the age of 86.
Earl was the 41st governor of the state serving one term from 1983 to 1987.
He had suffered a stroke over the weekend and was in palliative care since that time.
“The family is tremendously grateful for the love and support we’ve received,” said former Gov. Earl’s four daughters, Julia, Anne, Maggie, and Kitty in a statement released by Gov. Tony Evers’ office. “Our dad would have been honored by the outpouring of gratitude expressed by all. He would encourage anyone he knew to actively engage in positive change.”
Governor Evers’ office said he signed an executive order that the flags of the United States and Wisconsin be flown at half-staff immediately to honor Earl’s service to the state. The flags will remain at half-staff until sunset on March 3.
The full text of Governor Evers’ statement on the passing of former Gov. Earl.
MADISON — Gov. Tony Evers today announced the passing of former Gov. Tony Earl, the 41st governor of the state of Wisconsin. After suffering a stroke this past weekend, Gov. Earl was hospitalized, spending his remaining days surrounded and loved by his daughters and close family. Former Gov. Earl passed away peacefully surrounded by loved ones on Thurs., February 23, 2023, at the age of 86. Former Gov. Earl is survived by his four daughters, Julia Earl, Anne Earl, Maggie Earl Shore, Kitty Earl-Torniainen, and 11 grandkids: Lucy, Eamon, Jack, Ben, Ash, Henry, Deirdre, Will, Silja, Aili, and Kai.
Gov. Evers today also signed Executive Order #187 ordering the flags of the United States and the state of Wisconsin to be flown at half-staff effective immediately as the state of Wisconsin honors former Gov. Earl’s service and contributions to the state.
“It has been an extraordinary honor and a privilege to know former Gov. Earl, and Kathy and I are heartbroken today to announce his passing,” said Gov. Evers. “A formidable leader and public servant, trusted colleague and mentor, and a good and loyal friend, Tony was well-liked and respected by so many. Tony was always a staunch defender of our state’s proud traditions, including conservation, and his passing is a significant loss for our state and for all who had the fortune of meeting and serving with him. His wisdom and wit will be well missed. Kathy and I send our deepest condolences to his daughters and his family during this tremendously difficult time, and we join the people of Wisconsin in mourning the loss of former Gov. Earl.”
“The family is tremendously grateful for the love and support we’ve received,” said former Gov. Earl’s four daughters, Julia, Anne, Maggie, and Kitty in a statement. “Our dad would have been honored by the outpouring of gratitude expressed by all. He would encourage anyone he knew to actively engage in positive change.”
The Earl family also expresses its profound gratitude for the exceptional care he received at the University of Wisconsin Hospital.
Former Gov. Earl was the 41st governor of the state of Wisconsin, serving as governor from 1983 to 1987. A Navy veteran and graduate of Michigan State University and the University of Chicago Law School, Gov. Earl served as an assistant district attorney in Marathon County from 1965 to 1966 and as the Wausau City Attorney from 1966 to 1969. In October 1969, Gov. Earl was elected to serve in the Wisconsin State Assembly via special election and was reelected in 1970 and 1972. While in the Wisconsin State Assembly, he served as majority leader beginning in 1972 through December 1974. Following his time in the Wisconsin State Assembly, Gov. Earl served as secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Administration from 1974 to 1975 and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) from 1975 to 1980, serving under the administrations of Govs. Patrick Lucey, Martin Schreiber, and Lee Dreyfus.
Former Gov. Earl’s lasting legacy is marked by his devout support of stewardship and conservation during his time both as governor and as secretary of the DNR. In addition to serving on several boards and commissions, including the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s Subcommittee on Energy, Clean Air and Climate Change, the Center for Clean Air Policy, and the Great Lakes Protection Fund, in 2019, Gov. Earl was honored with the renaming of the Peshtigo River State Forest as the “Governor Earl Peshtigo River State Forest.”
Former Gov. Earl was a Wisconsinite through and through—known for his authenticity, his wit, and his kindness, he has remained revered and respected by colleagues throughout his long career in public service, even decades after his time in office concluded. He was also known for pursuing pragmatic policy solutions with comity and respect despite party affiliation, his passion for and commitment to good governance, his leadership in promoting diversity and inclusion, especially for LGBTQ Wisconsinites, women, and communities of color, and being an outspoken critic of polarization and money in politics. Former Gov. Earl was also an active and engaged community member, including serving with distinction on the Board of Directors for the Joyce Foundation.
Executive Order #187 is available here and effective immediately until sunset on March 3, 2023. Executive Order #187 also orders flags to be lowered to half-staff on the date of former Gov. Earl’s future celebration of life. Details for the celebration will be released by former Gov. Earl’s family at a later date.