State News

Tommy Thompson Center kicks off first forum, discusses political leadership

Image By: Leah Voskuil and Leah Voskuil

UW-Madison’s Tommy G. Thompson Center on Public Leadership, a policy center funded both privately and by the state to promote research and leadership training, held its first event Friday, after its controversial inclusion in the state budget.

The event titled “Leadership Across the Branches” featured speakers from top lawmakers, professors, journalists, and experts on Congress. The center, named after a former Republican governor, has received criticism since its inception in Gov. Scott Walker’s 2017-’19 budget, with opponents saying the center is using $3 million state funds to promote a Republican agenda.

University officials in charge of the center have repeatedly stated it won’t be partisan, although its creation, in part, is in response to UW-Madison inviting speakers to come to campus which is largely liberal.

“On our college campuses, we need to hear more than just one side of the debate; we need to ensure every voice is heard,” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said in a May press release. “This center will promote an even more rigorous debate of the current issues and hopefully, bipartisan solutions.”

Despite initial concerns that center’s first event had invited too many GOP speakers without enough Democratic input, the event went on with top state Democratic leaders. There is also future plans to have Democratic U.S. Reps. Mark Pocan and Ron Kind come speak.

“People want to see public leaders from both parties work together in a spirit of trust. We aim to help those leaders in doing so,” Ryan Owens, UW-Madison political science professor and center leader said in a Wisconsin State Journal column.

Both Democrats and Republican state lawmakers spoke at the forum at UW-Madison’s Fluno Center Friday, including Vos, state Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, U.S. Rep. Glenn Grothman, R-Wis., state Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh and former Democratic Assembly Speaker Tom Loftus.

The legislators, along with professors and other academics, discussed leadership skills in three different panels, one on leadership in Congress, one on leadership in state legislature and one on public leadership from the media’s perspective.

A recent piece of legislation that would suspend or expel students who disrupt speakers on campus, called the Campus Free Speech Act, was discussed as part of the panel.

Vos, one of the sponsors of the bill, said the legislation would encourage civil dialogue and expressed a desire for UW-Madison to admit they have a bias, since every person and institution does.

The invited speakers also discussed working across the aisle, what more can be done to improve government and advice for students going into politics.

The center plans to have another forum in spring about criminal justice reform. 

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