City Life

The Kenosha Way: Narrowing the party divide

Madison-area Democrat Mark Pocan and his conservative college friend, Jim Pugh, are on opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, but same side of the table

It was a mere eight years ago that a British researcher ranked Wisconsin as one of the most agreeable states in the country. Badger Nice. These days, if PolitiFact Wisconsin tested that notion on its Truth-O-Meter, the rating might be Pants on Fire. America's Dairyland, as confirmed by data and conventional wisdom, is one of America's most politically polarized states.

Not to get all Kumbaya about it—but can anyone around here get along anymore?

If you put two longtime Madison-area residents in a room—Wisconsin's most liberal member of Congress and one of the state's top conservative political operatives—you would think the answer is yes.

Let's be clear. Democratic U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan and Jim Pugh, vice president of the advocacy arm of Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, aren't political allies. They don't play racquetball together on Saturday morning or attend the same fundraising galas on Saturday night.

Just see how Pocan good-naturedly, though pointedly, repeatedly interjects as Pugh goes on a rant about policy in a conversation in Pocan's office in Madison last fall.

Pugh: Taxes are too high. Government's too big. Regulations are too many. Lawsuits are out of control. Trial lawyers are running the show.

Pocan: Talking points there.

Pugh: Radical environmentalists—

Pocan: Radical! Radical!

Pugh: —have gone wild.

Pocan: Gone wild. Sounds like a video. "Radical environmentalists gone wild!"

Pugh: And then we had the big union bosses—

Pocan: Oh, the bosses!

Pugh: —particularly all of the teachers unions, running the government for many, many years.

Pocan: He drank the Kool-Aid!

Stark disagreement.

But also hearty laughter from both men after a little verbal sparring.

In short, in a time when political foes—and sometimes ordinary next-door neighbors—name-call and mud-sling, Pocan and Pugh still hold mutual respect and civil conversation.

A key reason: their Kenosha roots.

Maybe there's a lesson here for the rest of us.

Growing up Kenosha
Kenosha in the 1960s, when Pocan grew up on the city's north side and Pugh on the south, was boldly blue-collar. Fully half of the labor force in the area worked in manufacturing, and cars were king. American Motors Corp. was at its height as the single-largest assembly operation by volume in the country, employing some 16,000 workers around the time Pocan and Pugh were born.

Edwin "Bo" Pugh, who died when Jim was 3, worked as a security guard at AMC. The late Bill Pocan owned a small business—a print shop—but that was blue-collar, too. (Mark Pocan opened and still owns a union printing business in Madison.)

There were other similarities. Pugh served as class president in ninth grade before entering Kenosha Tremper High School for grades 10–12, and Pocan won the same honor as a senior at Kenosha Bradford. But Pocan was political from the get-go, whereas Pugh's coming of age came later.

At 8, Pocan was doing lit drops for his father, a Kenosha alderman who in 1984 came within 31 votes of being elected mayor.

By the time Pocan and Pugh met—in the early 1980s at UW–Madison, where they lived on the same floor at Witte Hall—Pocan was steeped in Democratic Party politics. He did so much campaigning for Gov. Tony Earl that his nickname on the floor was "Tony Earl." Five years out of college with a journalism degree, in 1991, Pocan was elected to the Dane County Board of Supervisors, and later to the state Assembly and congressional seats previously held by U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin.

Pugh's political awareness didn't begin to bud until he got to UW–Madison, where he was a columnist and reporter at The Badger Herald. Pugh earned a journalism degree, which launched him into the news business. He was a reporter for several years, eventually landing at The Capital Times before jumping, in 1990, to the Assembly Republican caucus.

Wait. What? A Cap Times reporter throwing in with the GOP?

"It took a long time to get buy-in, trust me," Pugh acknowledges. "To come from the Cap Times to the Assembly Republican caucus—yeah, I was looked at with suspicion."

But it wasn't long before Pugh established unmistakably conservative credentials, moving to the state Republican Party and then to WMC, where his work has included a stint on Gov. Scott Walker's transition team in 2010.

Pugh acknowledged he was "probably a liberal in college" and only began to embrace conservative ideas in the years afterward. But like Pocan, he also traces his principles to his Kenosha roots, where he says he learned values later championed by President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II.

Agreeing to Disagree
Despite their obvious ideological differences, there's an isthmus-width of issues on which Pocan and Pugh, via WMC, tend to agree: supporting investment in job training, supporting the Export-Import Bank, opposing legislation limiting stem cell research—and hanging out occasionally on Willy Street. But the areas of disagreement are Lake Mendota-sized.

For example: campaign financing.

"You guys come in and purchase—wait, I mean, fund [Wisconsin] Supreme Court justices and people like that," says Pocan, who prefers that election campaigns be publicly financed.

"That's a novel concept, Mark," is Pugh's retort, amid laughter from both men. "We believe in free speech and the First Amendment rights of everyone to participate in democracy."

"Even if that everyone," Pocan jabs back, "is only a hundred people—with a lot of money."

Don't misunderstand the laughter. The policy disagreements are genuine. And style-wise, whereas Pocan typically comes across as amiable, Pugh can flash some charm but just as quickly go brass knuckles if it's a political fight. At the same time, there's no sense of enmity between them, partisan though they both be.

But not Disagreeable
Which brings us back to Kenosha. Pocan and Pugh agree that their roots help them remain civil, at least a good share of the time, even if their political foes might find each of them less than sunny sometimes.

"That's kind of how I operate," Pugh says. "You have to find common ground for what people are trying to achieve and get them to participate based on what they want to get done."

Says Pocan: "To me, there's very much a common denominator, coming from Kenosha. In Kenosha, you learn to be very pragmatic about your politics, because you get stuff done."

So, maybe there's hope for others to get along?

"I think our relationship is an example of how you could fix what we've got going on" among people involved in politics, both statewide and nationally, Pocan says.

"You've got to find out what you've got in common, because a lot of the goals are pretty similar; it's just how you go about them. And then if you can get back to having that conversation, that's how you" get things done.

"Right now, they don't have a conversation." 

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