Herb Kohl (May 13, 2011)
Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., speaks at a news conference in Milwaukee, where he announced he has decided not to run for re-election after serving in the U.S. Senate since 1989.

Herb Kohl’s announcement last week that he will retire at the end of his fourth term in the U.S. Senate sparked a lot of reminisces about the soft-spoken but crafty Wisconsin businessman and politician.

What I like best about Kohl is his directness. When I visited him at his Senate office in Washington, he never beat around the bush on how he felt about some of my columns or the paper’s editorials, which weren’t always that laudatory of the senator.

He startled me on one such visit by bluntly saying, “I know you like Russ Feingold better than me.”

It’s true that we agreed with Feingold’s positions more often than with Kohl’s. Besides, we knew Feingold better because of his record in the state Senate, where he took up causes that we were deeply concerned about. Kohl, on the other hand, was Milwaukee-centric, yet never a stranger in Madison.

I admired his success as a businessman. He came from a generation of Wisconsin business owners who built their companies from the ground up, paying their taxes along the way and taking a keen interest in their hometowns. His willingness to share his success with the people has been beyond the call.

What a contrast to so many of today’s business elites, who clamor for more tax breaks and more government largesse while threatening to move if they don’t get their way even as they’ve succeeded in shifting most of the tax burden onto the individual taxpayer.

A nice note about Herb Kohl came later in the week from a long ago friend of mine and former Madison alderman, Mike Birkley. He remarked that in his 48 years of working in government relations, he has never been so impressed by an elected official’s recall of people he had met along the way.

As proof, Mike recounted an incident that occurred about two weeks after Kohl was sworn in for his first term. Mike and some members of a Washington lobbying firm were dining at a Capitol Hill hotel in D.C. when Mike spied the new senator dining alone.

“I wandered over to his table, the firm’s partners tagging behind, reintroduced myself, congratulated him on his senatorial victory and began introducing him to the firm’s younger partner, Rob Weigend.

“But, before I could get out the junior partner’s name, Senator Kohl asked the young lobbyist, whom he had worked with for 15 minutes as he was working his way through law school at Kohl’s University Avenue store more than 15 years earlier, ‘So, Rob, did you ever learn to wrap the lettuce properly?’

“ ‘Yes, Mr. Kohl,’ said Rob. ‘Thanks to you.’

“For all that he has done for all of us, I believe Wisconsin owes thanks to this humble, caring and hardworking philanthropist and public servant,” Birkley added.

Indeed.

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. dzweifel@madison.com

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