The Wisconsin State Capitol building is 100 years old this year. To mark the occasion, the Wisconsin State Journal is highlighting different aspects of this remarkable edifice.
Today's installment is all about people, and especially the men and women who have made a lasting impact through their work in our Capitol building.
By MARK SOMMERHAUSER and DENNIS MCCORMICK
'Experiment in democracy' brought leaders who sought change
From Gov. Robert La Follette, who laid plans for the current state Capitol after helping battle the blaze that leveled its predecessor, to the current governor, Scott Walker, Wisconsin's statehouse has produced leaders at the vanguard of movements that stretched far beyond the state's borders.
Forged from different backgrounds and often pursuing widely divergent agendas, these leaders were nevertheless united by a kind of "optimistic faith in self-government," said Michael Edmonds, historian and author of "The Wisconsin Capitol."
"The people who created (the Capitol) envisioned it as a monument to the idea of self-government, a shrine to the American experiment in democracy," Edmonds said.
For the last 100 years, Wisconsin's experiment included the progressive movement of the early 20th century, of which La Follette was a nationally revered leader.
It continued through Gov. Tommy Thompson's welfare and school-choice overhauls of the 1990s, to the seismic shifts accompanying Walker's rollback of collective bargaining starting in 2011.
It included Melvin Laird, who rose from the state Legislature to head the U.S. Defense Department in 1969, becoming the architect of the U.S. drawdown from Vietnam and of the modern volunteer armed forces.
State Rep. Lloyd Barbee was part of the experiment. At a time when Milwaukee's schools were strictly segregated by race, Barbee set out to change that.
So was UW-Madison professor Kathryn Clarenbach, who used her role on a state commission to help launch the national feminist movement.
"These people became not just important nationally, but became leaders nationally," said Ed Miller, a professor and expert on state politics at UW-Stevens Point. "All states can't say that."
Robert La Follette: A progressive champion
Robert La Follette rose from rural Dane County beginnings to become a national voice for the progressive change that marked U.S. politics at the start of the 20th century.
La Follette served in the U.S. Congress from 1885 to 1891, as Wisconsin governor from 1901 to 1906, then in the U.S. Senate from 1906 until his death in 1925. "Fighting Bob" also mounted bids for president in 1912 and 1924. He was a Republican but also launched the Progressive Party, which briefly dominated Wisconsin politics, for his second White House bid.
The progressive movement La Follette helped lead made Wisconsin a laboratory for changes that made government more accountable to voters, tackled political corruption, protected workers and the environment and confronted corporate monopolies.
Of all those changes, La Follette sustained perhaps the most controversy for his sharply antiwar views, particularly his opposition to World War I.
Melvin Laird: War and Watergate
Melvin Laird, a Marshfield native, was a Purple-Heart-decorated World War II veteran who got his political start in the state Senate.
Elected to the U.S. House in 1952, Laird represented central Wisconsin until President Richard Nixon tapped him in 1969 as defense secretary.
The task was daunting. A growing share of the American public sought an end to an unpopular war in Vietnam, and Nixon ran on a platform of ending the U.S. military draft. Laird set footings for both sweeping changes before his departure from the post in 1973.
Laird starred in another moment in U.S. history: He called U.S. Congressman Gerald Ford in 1973, as Nixon's Watergate scandal intensified, to ask if Ford would be Nixon's vice president and succeed Spiro Agnew, who had stepped down.
Ford accepted, and months later he was president after Nixon resigned.
"I thought Ford was the right person to bring the country together after the Watergate fiasco," Laird said later.
Tommy Thompson: A laboratory for change
First elected governor in 1986, Tommy Thompson would become perhaps the most popular and influential governor in Wisconsin history. The Republican and Elroy native was elected a record four times, serving until he took a job in President George W. Bush's administration in 2001.
Thompson's conservative — but also bipartisan — legacy rests on policies that became national models, including his welfare-to-work changes of the 1990s. They helped inspire the national welfare changes later implemented by Democratic President Bill Clinton. Thompson also launched the nation's first school choice program and the state's health coverage program for working families, BadgerCare.
Lloyd Barbee: Challenging segregation
The battle to break down racial barriers in Milwaukee schools had perhaps its greatest champion in Barbee, an attorney and state Assemblyman. The landmark 1954 court ruling Brown v. Topeka Board of Education opened the door for school desegregation nationally, but when Barbee took office in 1965, Milwaukee schools continued to resist it.
Barbee, who moved to Wisconsin from his native Memphis, sued the Milwaukee School Board, alleging it was illegally maintaining segregated schools.
Barbee's efforts culminated in 1976, with a pivotal federal court ruling that found Milwaukee schools needed to desegregate to ensure all children had equal educational opportunity.
Kathryn Clarenbach: Organizing for women
Kathryn Clarenbach, meanwhile, had a knack for making things happen — usually behind the scenes.
That made her what the late UW-Madison historian Gerda Lerner later called "the foremost organizer of the modern women's movement." Gloria Steinem recalled Clarenbach as having already been a national feminist leader when the movement began drawing wide publicity in the late 1960s.
It started with Clarenbach's leadership of the Wisconsin Commission on the Status of Women, which Gov. John Reynolds authorized in 1964.
In 1966 Clarenbach, along with Betty Friedan and others, co-founded the National Organization for Women. A 1995 New York Times retrospective on Clarenbach's life said her "establishment credentials and genial manner... made her an ideal partner for the more truculent Friedan."
"It not only changed my life," Clarenbach said of her involvement. "It has subsequently become my life."
Samuel Pierce: Governor's gatekeeper used clout to champion for black community
As an African-American man in the early 20th century, Samuel Pierce never got to serve in elected office.
But his role as gatekeeper to Wisconsin’s governors, coupled with his striking personal style, helped Pierce leave a mark of his own in Madison.
By the time of his death in 1936, Pierce had become, in the words of a Wisconsin State Journal columnist, “probably the most interesting, respected, and admired member of his race ever to hold an official state position in this part of the country.”
Five governors publicly praised Pierce upon his death, acknowledging the key role he played in their offices.
Gov. John Blaine asked Pierce in 1922 if he would be the governor’s receptionist in the executive office. Pierce previously had worked as a Pullman porter on the route between Chicago and Minneapolis.
The people skills Pierce developed as a porter served him well in the governor’s office. A New Orleans native, Pierce, dressed impeccably and with characteristically southern manners, “gently defended the executive office from intruders,” wrote historian Michael Edmonds in his book “The Wisconsin Capitol.”
But Edmonds notes that what one official called Pierce’s “genius for avoiding offense” masked a starker truth: No one ever got to see the governor unless he said so.
Pierce’s clout within the Capitol gave him influence in Madison’s then-small, but growing, African-American community. He served as an arbiter of community disputes, lobbied for fair hotel accommodations for African Americans in Madison hotels and advocated for creation of a black cultural center, Edmonds wrote.
“When one got to know Sam well, that little barrier that color seems instinctively to create between men of different races would disappear,” State Journal editor A.M. Brayton wrote in a column published shortly after Pierce’s death.
Pierce almost certainly never lost sight of that barrier.
But in a time when the law — and society — treated Pierce unequally, he won his own measure of dignity: the respect of his bosses, his peers and his community.
Charles McCarthy: Give control of institutions to 'voters rather than special interests'
The idea, when Charles McCarthy had it, sought to upend how laws were made.
At the start of the 20th century, many lawmakers were not deeply versed in the law or issues of the day. That meant they often relied on lobbyists and special interest groups to craft bills, according to Michael Edmonds’ book, “The Wisconsin Capitol.”
McCarthy envisioned another way: a library and staff of trained experts that would assist lawmakers in writing bills professionally and impartially.
His brainchild became the nation’s first legislative reference library in 1901, which continues to operate today as the Legislative Reference Bureau.
McCarthy explained this and other pioneering concepts about how government should work in his 1912 book, “The Wisconsin Idea.”
It argued that “efficient government required control of institutions by the voters rather than special interests, and that the involvement of specialists in law, economics, and social and natural sciences would produce the most effective government,” according to the Wisconsin Historical Society. The child of poor Irish immigrants in Boston, McCarthy arrived at UW-Madison to study for a Ph.D. In addition to his studies, he took a job to support himself: coach of the UW men’s football team.
McCarthy’s zeal and work ethic were legendary but may also have been his undoing. He died in 1921, just 47 years old, of what Edmonds called “exhaustion and overwork.”
What’s more, not everyone warmed to McCarthy’s methods. Conservative Gov. Emanuel Philipp introduced legislation in 1915 to shut down the bureau, which he considered “merely a progressive bill factory,” Edmonds wrote.
But the bill faltered and the Legislative Reference Bureau, as it was by then known, ultimately was replicated in states across the country.
McCarthy, meanwhile, always viewed Wisconsin as the place where his work found meaning.
“I, a wandering student, seeking knowledge, came knocking at the gates of the great University of Wisconsin,” he wrote in “The Wisconsin Idea.”
“And it took me in, filled me with inspiration, and when I left its doors, the kindly people of the state stretched out welcoming hands and gave me a man’s work to do.”
Sol Levitan: Campy self-promoter, 'Uncle Sol' was early master of retail politics
Sol Levitan’s route to becoming one of the most beloved Wisconsin politicians of his day involved a genius for self-publicity and for capitalizing on what some saw as his liabilities.
The first Jew to hold statewide elected office, Levitan, who emigrated from Eastern Europe in the 1880s, didn’t downplay his heritage.
Instead, he played it up, cracking Jewish jokes and emphasizing his Yiddish accent. Wisconsinites responded by electing “Uncle Sol,” as he called himself, state treasurer from 1923-1933 and 1937-39.
Jonathan Pollack, an instructor and expert in American Jewish history at Madison Area Technical College, said retail politics was where Levitan was most gifted.
“He was a tireless self-promoter,” Pollack said. “He really seemed to love connecting with the public.”
After winning his first term as state treasurer, Levitan had a huge sign made and hung over the door of the office: “Uncle Sol welcomes you.”
After emigrating to the U.S., Levitan was an itinerant peddler before landing in New Glarus and opening a store there in 1887, according to Michael Edmonds’ book, “The Wisconsin Capitol.” Along the way he met another local resident — he sold him a pair of suspenders — who would become Levitan’s foremost political ally: Robert La Follette.
Wisconsin Jews were ambivalent about Levitan, Pollack said. Some felt pride in his accomplishments; others, unease about his campy, self-effacing treatment of his Jewishness.
As Levitan neared the end of his career, some criticized him for not ceding the treasurer’s office to someone younger. Edmonds wrote that Levitan, as usual, turned that critique on its head.
“It might be good to let an elderly man handle your money,” Levitan said, according to Edmonds.” “He’s looking for the golden gate, not the golden calf.”
Lew Porter: Capitol a monument to its tireless construction chief
Wisconsin's history books don't say much about Lew Porter.
But the witness to his memory towers over downtown Madison, the most visible symbol of Wisconsin's Capitol city.
Although designed by architect George B. Post, "We owe the Capitol as much to (Porter) as to any other person," historian Michael Edmonds said.
Porter, a Madison architect, was superintendent of the Capitol's construction from 1906 to 1917. He oversaw most every detail of the project, earning a reputation as a tireless taskmaster.
He inspected the work of countless contractors and contended with politicians' and bureaucrats' ceaseless demands for the project. Even the original Capitol power plant, built six blocks away, was Porter's personal design.
"As he walked about observing what was going on," recalled a man who watched the project from his father's nearby store, according to Edmonds, "in his stoop-shouldered carriage of body and his slow but very cautious watching of what was going on, it seemed nothing escaped his eyes — that many workmen told me."
Porter had his own architectural firm when he took the superintendent job. He already had influenced another young Wisconsin architect who had worked as the firm's intern, Frank Lloyd Wright.
But for all of Porter's past accomplishments, the Capitol was something new. So too was the range of headaches accompanying the high-profile project, with no end of people to please.
And Porter's days were spent ensuring people were happy with every last detail: from the paintings in the Executive Chamber to the height of the bench in the Supreme Court chamber to the design of the toilet seats.
Porter had little time to bask in the architectural masterpiece he brought into being. Just a few month after construction was completed, Porter died at 56 from kidney disease and hypertension — having literally, according to Edmonds, worked himself to death.
"In his long service in connection with the building of our Capitol he has left a monument to himself which will live to his credit and memory through the years to come," Gov. E.L. Phillip wrote to Porter's wife shortly after his death, the Wisconsin State Journal reported.
A century later, it's hard to argue with that.
Wisconsin a state of firsts for rights of women, LGBT
In the civil rights struggles of the last 100 years, some notable firsts occurred in the Wisconsin state Capitol.
In 1982, Wisconsin became the first state to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The law, sponsored by state Rep. David Clarenbach and signed by Gov. Lee Dreyfus, barred discrimination against gays and lesbians in employment, housing or public accommodations.
Its passage, for a time, earned Wisconsin the title of "The Gay Rights State." Seven years passed before the next state, Massachusetts, followed suit.
Clarenbach, in a recent interview, said "laws unto themselves don't effect social change, but they're a necessary prerequisite."
"As a result, Wisconsin is a lot more tolerant today because of what the Legislature did 35 years ago," Clarenbach said.
Wisconsin also was the first state to pass an equal rights law for women, signed by Gov. John J. Blaine in 1921. It called for women to have equality with men in voting, contracts, holding office, property and child custody rights and other matters.
This followed the ratification of the 19th Amendment in which women obtained the right to vote, which Wisconsin became the first state to ratify in 1919.
One of the staunchest advocates for those causes was Belle Case La Follette, an attorney, activist and wife of progressive icon Robert La Follette.
Wisconsin also has led the way in electing LGBT people to office. It started with Jim Yeadon, a Madison City Council member who became one of the first openly gay elected officials in the country in 1976 — before Harvey Milk was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.
Former U.S. Rep. Steve Gunderson was the first Republican to serve in the House while openly gay. Democrat Tammy Baldwin was the first openly LGBT U.S. senator as well as Wisconsin's first woman U.S. senator.
"For LGBT people, Wisconsin really has been a laboratory for democracy — about how they can engage the political system to result in a better society and better lives for themselves," said Dick Wagner, a former Dane County supervisor and a scholar of LGBT history in Wisconsin.
A state political structure that encourages new blood and a traditionally LGBT-friendly Capitol city of Madison helped lay the footings for the state's firsts, Wagner said.
Clarenbach, a Madison Democrat, was the Legislature's most steadfast champion of the law barring discrimination against gays and lesbians.
But a group Republican legislators supplied the decisive votes to pass the measure, and it was signed by a Republican governor, Dreyfus, a political maverick and former UW-Stevens Point chancellor.
"It is a fundamental tenet of the Republican Party that government ought not intrude in the private lives of individuals where no state purpose is served, and there is nothing more private or intimate than who you live with and who you love," Dreyfus said when he signed the bill.
In the area of women's rights, Wisconsin also was ahead of its time, with the state's progressive movement of the early 20th century leading the way.
Belle Case La Follette, described by her husband as his "wisest and best counselor," was the first woman to graduate from UW-Madison Law School.
Her work paved the way for the state's first female lawmakers: Mildred Barber of Marathon, Hellen Brooks of Wautoma and Helen Thompson of Park Falls all elected in 1924. Then came Mary Kryszak of Milwaukee, who was first elected in 1928 and served, intermittently, until 1945.
As the center of Wisconsin politics, the Capitol has also served as the backdrop to a number of memorable visits by presidential candidates over the years. Richard Nixon stopped by in 1958 while he was vice president, and again during his successful 1968 presidential campaign. Republican nominee Barry Goldwater drew about 10,000 to Capitol Square in 1964, including a large, unruly contingent of UW-Madison students who repeatedly interrupted his speech.
Historically, the area has been friendlier to Democratic candidates. In 1959, John F. Kennedy met with state leaders, returning to the state during his successful 1960 run for president. Democrats Eugene McCarthy (1968), George McGovern and Edmund Muskie (1972), Mo Udall (1976), John Anderson (1980), Walter Mondale (1984), Bill Clinton (1992), Al Gore (2000), John Kerry (2004) and Barack Obama (2008 and 2012) all found favorable receptions in speeches and rallies either at the Capitol or nearby. California Gov. Jerry Brown staked his 1980 Democratic primary challenge to Jimmy Carter on weeks of campaigning in the state that culminated in a Francis Ford Coppola-produced "Live From Madison, Wisconsin" event on the grounds of the Capitol.
Cheney cut his political teeth working as an intern for Gov. Warren Knowles in the late 1960s. He spent six months in the Wisconsin Capitol before working his way into the White House during the Nixon and Ford administrations. Cheney was chosen by Republican Presidential nominee George W. Bush as his running mate in 2000.
Evjue served just one term in the Assembly, from 1917 to 1919, but his political influence in Madison and Wisconsin was profound. A newspaper job at the Wisconsin State Journal brought Evjue to Madison in 1911, where he worked for editor Richard Lloyd Jones. The two became fast friends and colleagues based largely on their affection for Gov. Robert La Follette. But World War I split their allegiances toward La Follette, and Evjue ventured out on his own and founded The Capital Times in 1917, which was at the forefront of the Progressive movement.
Philip La Follette
Wisconsin's 27th governor and the son of the Progressive leader and governor Robert La Follette, Philip La Follette served three terms as governor in the 1930s. As governor, he asked for greater control over banks and the electric power industry, increased public works projects, especially highway building, and helped pass the Unemployment Compensation Act and the Wisconsin Labor Relations Act.
In 1970, Miller was elected to represent the 77th Assembly District on Madison's West Side. During her seven-term tenure, she championed a number of causes on behalf of peace and women's rights, and was a founder of the National Women's Political Caucus and the Madison Institute, a progressive think tank.
After serving three terms in the state Senate, the Democrat Nelson was elected governor in 1958, serving two terms during which he reorganized state government, creating a Department of Economic Development and Department of Administration and helped pass the Outdoor Recreation Act. Elected to the U.S. Senate in 1964, Nelson served there until 1981. One of the leading environmentalists of the 20th century, Nelson was an early voice for conservation and environmental protection, and was the founder of Earth Day.
A Wisconsin Public Radio host and lyric baritone, his nonprofit company produces the annual Capitol event, "Tribute & Ceremony" honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It is the oldest such state ceremony in the nation.
The 1960s-era civil rights activist was the first African-American woman to get a law degree from the University of Wisconsin in 1951, and the first to be elected to the Milwaukee City Council, where she led the fight for open housing. Phillips would build on her list of firsts, becoming the first African-American woman to be named a judge, a post she was appointed to in 1971 by Gov. Patrick Lucey. And then the first woman, and first African-American, elected to a statewide office, winning the election for secretary of state in 1978.
The New York architect designed the Capitol in 1906, after a fire in 1904 destroyed the previous building. Post's credits included the New York Stock Exchange building and the World's Fair Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building, then the largest structure in the world. With an emphasis on symmetry, classically inspired sculpture and modern innovations, the Capitol is considered his finest work. He died in 1913 before its completion.
A member of the Wisconsin State Assembly from 1951-52, Proxmire was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1957 and re-elected until retiring from politics in 1988. Widely regarded as a political maverick, Proxmire was known for his devotion to curbing governmental waste and mismanagement, issuing a monthly Golden Fleece Award for that month's most "wasteful, ridiculous or ironic use of the taxpayers' money."
The former Capitol Police Chief emerged as a steadying influence and prolific negotiator during weeks of protests against Gov. Scott Walker's anti-union legislation in 2011. Criticized by some for not taking a stronger stand against the occupation, Tubbs' calm — some would even say paternal — approach toward protesters was widely credited with preventing violence and serious property damage.
The dean of the Capitol press corps, the pipe-smoking Wheeler spent 40 years covering the statehouse as founder of The Wheeler Report, a daily digest of political news. A fierce defender of the press, Wheeler didn't suffer fools lightly, and demanded access and accountability from public officials who sometimes preferred to do their work in the dark. The Capitol pressroom, which he fought to maintain on the second floor between the Assembly and the Senate, was named after him following his death in 2011.