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Wisconsin Jewish history era to end when Kohl leaves Senate
June 1st, 2011
Washington (JTA) — It was quintessential Herb Kohl: The Democratic U.S. senator from Wisconsin held up the entire U.S. budget — including billions in defense assistance to Israel — over dairy pricing reform.
Sen. Herb Kohl
The hold, lasting through a tense night of deal making in November 1999, might have damaged another senator with the pro-Israel lobby, especially any member of the body’s unofficial Jewish caucus. But Kohl was immune.
A department and grocery store multimillionaire and the owner of the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks, he paid for his own campaigns, for one thing.
More important, Kohl was all about Wisconsin. And Wisconsin sent him to the Senate four times with increasingly large majorities.
“He’s an extremely popular man in Wisconsin,” said former Madisonian Hannah Rosenthal, the State Department’s envoy for combating anti-Semitism. She has known Kohl since her own days in the state’s politics.
In his last election, in 2006, Kohl received 67 percent of the vote in a state that swings between Democrats and Republicans.
Announcing on May 13 his decision not to run for re-election in 2012, he made clear that his age, 76, was a factor.
“I’ve always believed it is better to leave a job a little too early than a little too late,” Kohl said. “The interest and energy I had for this job will find a new home.”
From 1993 until last year — when Democrat Russ Feingold was defeated — Wisconsin was represented by two Jewish senators even though its Jewish population is only about 28,000 in a state with 5.65 million people.
Kohl, elected in 1988, was the state’s first Jewish senator. Feingold has been touted as a possible candidate to replace him in 2012.
In Wisconsin, it never seemed to matter that both senators were Jewish, said Rosenthal. “It was a bigger deal for the Jews here” in Washington, she said.
Kohl was best known for constituency politics, making time for muffins and coffee with visitors between 9 and 10 each morning, recalled a former chief of communications, Brad Fitch.
“Trying to drag Herb for a hearing away from those breakfasts was impossible,” said Fitch, now the president of the Congressional Management Foundation, a nonprofit group striving for better government.
“There was always one constituency that everyone in the office knew was more important to Herb than anyone else, and that was children,” Fitch said. “He would say, ‘They don’t contribute to campaigns, they don’t have a lobbyist.’”
Kohl authored bills that expanded funding for school lunches and mandated child-safety locks on guns.
He also was well known for his advocacy for the aged, authoring bills facilitating access to generic drugs and chairing the special committee on aging.
Those passions drew Jewish groups such as the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the Jewish Federations of North America into Kohl’s circle.
“His focus has been on children and fairness, whether it’s taxation or providing projects and programs to people in need,” said Rosenthal, who directed the JCPA, the umbrella body for public policy groups, in the early 2000s.
Jared Feldman, the deputy director of the JCPA’s Washington office, said Kohl in recent years had accepted questions from the group to be posed to Supreme Court nominees. Kohl was a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Other than those interactions, Kohl’s Jewishness was muted, according to colleagues and associates in Milwaukee and Washington.
“He didn’t talk about his faith much, except for being mindful of the Jewish holidays,” Fitch said.
Kohl grew up in Milwaukee’s Sherman Park neighborhood, once the city’s Jewish redoubt. He maintains close friendships with other Jewish kids from the neighborhood, including Bud Selig, the Major League Baseball commissioner, and Steve Marcus, the board chairman of the Marcus Corp., a cinema and resort giant.
Fitch said a key to Kohl’s appeal was being able to communicate in the straightforward manner of a Midwesterner. He recalled reviewing videotapes when he first took the job running Kohl’s communications and being appalled at the senator’s inability to shape a sound bite.
“My first impression was this guy’s not a polished politician,” he said. But Fitch figured out that Kohl came across more naturally in long-form interviews. “I had never seen someone that authentic in politics,” he said.