Bill Kraus, a longtime Republican strategist who was respected by political foes and allies alike for using his intelligence, common sense and grace to orchestrate compromise solutions in state government, died Friday in Madison. He was 92.
“He was a throwback to a different era of politics,” former Gov. Tommy Thompson said.
Kraus was recovering from pneumonia earlier this year but collapsed at his Madison home Friday morning, according to Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause in Wisconsin. Kraus’ wife, Toni Sikes, a Madison entrepreneur, was with him, Heck said.
Although Kraus was never elected to public office, the former Sentry Insurance executive from Stevens Point became one of the most influential politicians in Wisconsin because he knew how to put leaders of both parties together in a restaurant or bar so they could find a middle ground after they had just spent hours arguing on the floor of the state Capitol.
He did it as a member of then-Gov. Lee Sherman Dreyfus’ staff starting in 1979 and continued after he became co-chair of the bipartisan Common Cause in Wisconsin and a member of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign and Heffernan Commission in the 1990s. All three groups led the fight for open government and politicians to serve the people’s interests rather than the interests of those who finance their campaigns. Kraus remained co-chair of Common Cause until 2016.
“He almost never offered a compromise. He just offered a restaurant,” said Tom Loftus, the Democratic speaker of the Assembly in the 1980s. “So there we were in the restaurant together. What are you going to do from there? It was lunch or dinner, then a drink, then you talk.”
Loftus said that some of the most important legislation in the state’s history came together after Kraus made lunch or dinner arrangements at a key point during a legislative debate. For instance, Loftus recalled how the state’s landmark Gay Rights Bill of 1982 became law after Kraus pulled aside Loftus and some other Democrats at lunch and told them that “if you have the guts to pass it, (Dreyfus will) have the guts to sign it.”
“He was the one massaging the whole thing,” Loftus continued. “Somebody had to say to us, ‘Do this and we’ll have your back.’ He was the one who said it.”
Kraus was born in Marshfield and earned a law degree from UW-Madison but never practiced law, Heck said. He teamed with fellow Sentry Insurance executive Bob Williams to head Dreyfus’ low-budget campaign for governor in 1978 that ended with the UW-Stevens Point chancellor’s upset victory over acting Gov. Martin Schreiber.
His first role as a member of Dreyfus’ staff was director of communications. Kraus set up the offices of the governor’s key staff members in the middle of a large room called “the bullpen” where legislators as well as reporters could have access to them.
Michael Williamson, who worked in policy with Dreyfus’ legal counsel Paul Swain, recalled how Kraus worked that to his advantage. “He was a statesman, a pragmatist, a scholar. He knew how to work with anyone. That’s a trait (in politics) that has seemed to have been lost along the way,” said Williamson.
Kraus helped change the Democrats’ perception of Republicans, Loftus said.
“These men from Stevens Point were cosmopolitan people,” Loftus said. “They were a horde of decent people who descended upon Madison and took it over. They were people you wanted to go to lunch with. And Bill was the one who showed us all how to conduct ourselves properly as legislators. He taught me a lot.”
Loftus said much of Thompson’s success as governor working with a Democratic Legislature came from following the blueprint set up by Kraus. As U.S. ambassador to Norway from 1993 to 1998, Loftus said he followed Kraus’ example of how to treat people.
“When you are an ambassador, you are a professional friend in that country where you go to. Bill was a professional friend. And then he became your friend, period.”
Besides Thompson, Kraus counted other former governors including Republican Warren Knowles and Democrats Pat Lucey and Tony Earl and former Democratic Lt. Gov. Barbara Lawton as good friends. State legislators and their staff members and other strategists from both parties also were his friends.
The Wisconsin Institute of Public Policy and Service named its lifetime achievement award for civic leadership after Kraus and made him the first recipient last April.
“I don’t know if there’s a place big enough to hold all the people who’ll want to say goodbye to him (at his funeral),” Heck said. “People loved Bill. He was a gentleman, a classy guy.”
One of Heck’s favorite stories about Kraus was when he bumped into John F. Kennedy outside a hotel in Stevens Point just before the 1960 Wisconsin presidential primary. Kennedy won the primary and it helped fuel his run to the Democratic nomination. He then went on to defeat GOP candidate Richard Nixon in the general election that November.
At the time, Kraus lived in Stevens Point and was gaining stature among Republicans for leading Melvin Laird’s successful congressional campaigns earlier in the 1950s. Heck said when Kennedy told Kraus he didn’t know the area very well, Kraus dropped everything and gave him a big tour of Stevens Point.
“It was a cold day and he introduced Kennedy to a bunch of the lawyers and other key people in town. You can’t imagine anything like that happening today,” Heck said. “But nothing better describes what kind of guy Bill Kraus was.”
Kraus died on the same day that Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, signed into law three lame-duck bills that were anything but friendly to Democrats. The bills limit some of the powers of incoming Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, while strengthening the powers of the Republican-dominated Legislature over issues such as lawsuits, economic development matters like highway projects and administrative rules.
“It’s a sad day because of Bill’s passing. But it’s also a sad day because it’s the passing of the kind of politics that Bill represented,” said Mike McCabe, former executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign who ran for the Democratic nomination for Wisconsin governor earlier this year.
Kraus was “one of the last adults left in Wisconsin politics,” Heck said. “He never had a bad word to say about anybody. He really believed the key was in the fine areas of agreement rather than the opposite, which we have now.”