Reading Time: 3 minutes

Tommy Thompson has been called many things, not all of them flattering. But there’s nothing he hates worse than being called a “lobbyist.”

The former Wisconsin governor and current U.S. Senate candidate takes umbrage at the term, which he gets tagged with all the time. He’s been branded a Washington lobbyist,” a “super lobbyist,” even a “corporate-welfare lobbyist.” Eric Hovde, one of Thompson’s unsuccessful rivals in the GOP primary, called him a “big corporate lobbyist.”

PolitiFact Wisconsin, the truth-seeking media missile, has deemed such claims “Half True.” A more accurate label would have been “False,” since it found no supporting evidence.

Yes, after leaving his post as George W. Bush’s secretary of Health and Human Services, Thompson worked for a Washington, D.C., law firm that engages in lobbying. But, as PolitiFact acknowledged, this “proves nothing,” since Thompson was not registered to lobby.

Similar trails also led to dead ends. Thompson once called a North Carolina lawmaker about a bill, but said he did so on behalf of a friend and not a paying client. His occupation was listed as “lobbyist” on a benefactor’s campaign filing, but this could have been a mistake.

Thompson’s role at the firm, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, was described as “strategic adviser.” That’s different from being a lobbyist. If words matter, and they ought to, “lobbyist” is not the right one to apply to Tommy Thompson.

Democrat Tammy Baldwin, running against Thompson in the Nov. 6 election, apparently takes these nuances to heart. Her recent campaign ad rips Thompson for making “millions working at a Washington, D.C., lobbying firm.” Her website accuses him of “cashing in on his special interest connections.”

Tommy Thompson

Thompson’s financial disclosure filings show he was paid $771,000 last year by Akin Gump. He was a partner there for nearly seven years, before leaving in January to focus on his Senate run. Akin Gump’s lobby clients have included Bain Capital, Mitt Romney’s former firm.

In fact, Thompson lists multiple sources of mega-income, including $254,000 in salary and $3.1 million from the sale of Logistics Health, a La Crosse-based corporation, $471,000 for his role as a “self-employed consultant,” and another $149,000 in speaking fees.

Thompson is also on the board of about two dozen mainly health-related corporations and a few nonprofits. Some pay him, including $132,000 from CR Bard, a New Jersey-based medical manufacturer, and $125,000 from Centene Corp., a Missouri-based health insurer. Some have contributed to his campaign.

Thompson’s filings list about 500 investments worth between $18.6 million and $45 million. He owed between $3.1 million and $9.3 million. He told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel his net worth is about $13 million, and that he makes no apologies for his financial success

Baldwin’s relative pauperism — between $500,000 and $1 million in assets against $200,000 to $500,000 in mortgage debt — lets her make an issue of her opponent’s wealth.

She accuses him of planning to “actually cut taxes for millionaires like himself while increasing taxes on the middle class.” Her ad blasts Thompson’s refusal to release his tax returns, as she and other candidates have done. “What’s he hiding?” it asks.

But Thompson’s wealth gives him a trump card of his own — the ability to substantially finance his own race. Federal Election Commission filings show he’s already chipped in $132,500, including a $100,000 loan, making him his own single largest contributor.

Republican Ron Johnson invested $9 million of his own stash ousting Sen. Russ Feingold in 2010. Hovde spent $5.1 million — 10 times his take from all other sources — on his second-place finish.

So far, FEC numbers show, Baldwin has outraised Thompson, $7.2 million to $2.5 million. He could make up that difference with a stroke of his pen, and still be a multimillionaire.

The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism ( collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Popular stories from Wisconsin Watch

One reply on “Tommy’s rich, but not a lobbyist”

  1. I strongly disagree with the central assertion of this article, though I appreciate being given all the background information.

    To me, there is no worthwhile distinction to be made between Thompson directly lobbying in person, or using all his knowledge and experience to advise and develop lobbying strategies for an entire lobbying firm.

    If anything, his role was WORSE and much more intense than simple personal lobbying, because his influence was multiplied and magnified through all the lobbyists working under his direction.

    Thompson wasn’t just a casual, occasional “advisor,” as he pretends. He was a grossly over-paid PARTNER in the firm, putting him in a powerful leadership position. He was an integral part of that firm’s lobbying process and lobbying team, whether he personally contacted his chosen targets or not.

    For 7 years, Thompson grew rich leading teams of lobbyists while they pressured our government decision-makers to take actions serving wealthy private interests, often to the detriment of the public’s best interests.

    That makes Thompson “a high-paid Washington lobbyist” in every sense that matters to the public voter and taxpayer.

    From another perspective: If a husband hired, instructed, and encouraged someone else to shoot his wife, and police could prove it, we would call that husband a “murderer.” It doesn’t matter whether his hands were clean, he had never shot a gun in his life, and he had a rock-solid alibi the night of the murder. The husband caused the crime and the word “murderer” fits.

    For 7 years, Thompson has been a powerful, negative influence-peddler Washington. He was a traitor to the public interest. Now, he expects voters to believe he will instantly “flip sides” and be OUR champion in the U.S. Senate if we elect him.

    Why help Thompson muddy the Senate race with confusing split-micron semantics? Why help him hide the central truth of his actions from voters?

    Furthermore, does anyone really believe that Thompson NEVER personally contacted ANY of his extensive political or agency acquaintances as part of ANY of his firm’s lobbying strategies during that 7 year period? Who could be so consistently perfect? Does Thompson possess super-natural powers of self-control?

    Put yourself in his shoes. If Thompson had carefully planned and orchestrated a major lobbying campaign for an important client, and the lobbyists working under him were failing to get results … imagine how tempting it would be to make just a few little phone calls or visits himself. There were bound to be key lobbying targets (decision-makers) who only Thompson could reach or affect. He would know that no one could prove he’d contacted them.

    Also, since leaving public office, Thompson has been a big paid speaker at special events. I’d be willing to bet he incorporated some of his firm’s lobbying language into at least some of his speeches.

    And who could possibly believe that Thompson said nothing to promote his firm’s client’s interests at Republican events or in private discussions with his Republican colleagues? Many of those colleagues were elected officials, such as Congress members, with real power to serve Thompson’s clients.

    And given Thompson’s position on “about 2 dozen” Boards for private corporations and a few non-profits, wouldn’t he also have access to an amazing number of additional power-brokers?

    Imagine Thompson’s social life in Washington D.C., rubbing shoulders with the rich and powerful at private parties and public events. Wouldn’t he be tempted to briefly buttonhole his friends at these events? Wouldn’t he just naturally use lobbyist campaign catch phrases during small gatherings when issue discussions and debates developed? Wouldn’t he be tempted to drop a few suggestions now and then to acquaintances with key influence? Can you imagine Thompson NOT doing these things?

    Lobbying is all about connections like this.

    Of course Thompson would never admit to making inappropriate contacts for his firm, because he wasn’t registered as a lobbyist. He would have to admit that he broke the law.

    I don’t understand how ANYONE in a leadership role at a lobbying firm could be legally excused from registering as a lobbyist. If clients pay them to develop or lead lobbying campaigns, they ARE lobbyists. It shouldn’t matter if they use surrogates to deliver their message. It’s still THEIR message and presented with THEIR name, reputation and credentials backing it up.

Comments are closed.