Tony Earl, Wisconsin's 41st governor who championed the environment, equal rights, dies at age 86

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Tony Earl, a Democrat who served as Wisconsin's 41st governor, wasn't afraid to do what he thought was right, even if it meant disagreeing with the "voice of the public."

"I have a hard time admiring leaders who lead by keeping their ear on the ground and their finger in the air," Earl once said. "That's a pretty difficult physical posture to be in, anyhow, but it's an impossible one if you expect people to be following you."

Earl, who rose from the state Assembly to top administration jobs and one term as governor from 1983 to 1987, died Thursday after suffering from a stroke last weekend.

He was 86.

Gov. Tony Evers announced Earl's passing and ordered the flags of the United States and the state of Wisconsin to be flown at half-staff.

More:Who's been Wisconsin governor? Here's the list.

“It has been an extraordinary honor and a privilege to know former Gov. Earl, and Kathy and I are heartbroken today to announce his passing,” Evers said in a statement. “A formidable leader and public servant, trusted colleague and mentor, and a good and loyal friend, Tony was well-liked and respected by so many.

"Tony was always a staunch defender of our state’s proud traditions, including conservation, and his passing is a significant loss for our state and for all who had the fortune of meeting and serving with him. His wisdom and wit will be well missed. Kathy and I send our deepest condolences to his daughters and his family during this tremendously difficult time, and we join the people of Wisconsin in mourning the loss of former Gov. Earl.”

Earl's term as governor took place during fraught economic times, with unemployment soaring and Midwestern manufacturing states buckling under fierce competitive headwinds.

On his first day in office, Earl faced a billion-dollar budget deficit. And he had to act quickly.

Earl and the Democratic-led Legislature instituted a temporary 10% surtax on personal income tax and extended by a year a 10% surtax on corporate tax. The surtaxes were removed for the 1984 tax year as the economy began to turn around.

They also made permanent a 5% sales tax that had been introduced by Earl's Republican predecessor, Lee Dreyfus.

The budget hole was fixed but Earl had used a lot of political capital that, at least among voters, may have overshadowed later accomplishments on the environment, education and equal rights.

"He saved the state from bankruptcy and he paid for it," said Tom Loftus, a Democrat who served as Assembly speaker while Earl was governor.

In 1986, Earl was swept from office by one of his political friends, Republican Tommy Thompson. Two years later, Earl made one last run for office, losing to Herb Kohl in a Democratic primary for U.S. Senate.

Tommy Thompson called Earl 'the consummate public servant'

Longtime friends and former colleagues saluted Earl as a gracious public servant who fought hard for his policies and principles yet retained friends on both sides of the political aisle.

During a 2019 celebration of Earl's career, Thompson lauded his one-time political rival as "the consummate public servant" and spoke warmly of Earl's smile, bow ties and enjoyment sharing beers and conversation with Democrats and Republicans at local Madison bars.

"Tony was first a gentleman," Thompson told the Journal Sentinel. "Secondly he was smart, articulate and funny. And he was an individual who remembered his friends and if he could help you he would. He was a wonderful human being who I had the privilege to know in political contests and who I shared many a beer, a couple of cigars and lots of steaks."

"His secret was his charm and his sincerity," Loftus said.

"He was a kind, supportive leader who was truly moved by unfairness of any kind and wanted to use the governor’s office and his voice to support people in need, whether men, women, children or families," said Roberta Gassman, one of Earl's former policy advisers who later became labor secretary with former Gov. Jim Doyle and was in the Obama administration.

"If you define political courage as the capacity to embrace risk then Tony was the epitome of a courageous politician," said former Democratic legislator Dennis Conta.

Anthony Scully Earl was born and raised in St. Ignace, Mich., the gateway to the state's Upper Peninsula. He once recalled "It was a marvelous place to grow up, but not for making a living. You had to like the out-of-doors; there was little else to do."

As a child, he enjoyed swimming, skating and being in the Boy Scouts. His father ran a grocery store and was "always a pretty outspoken Democrat."

Earl made his way to Michigan State, where he graduated with honors in 1958 with a major in political science and a minor in history.

Earl worked for JFK in the 1960 presidential election

He went to law school at the University of Chicago, graduating in 1961. He also earned his political stripes as a Chicago political ward captain, working for John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential election.

After serving in the U.S. Navy as a legal officer, Earl followed advice from a longtime friend Daniel L. LaRocque and settled in Wausau. LaRocque would go on to become Marathon County district attorney and would play a prominent role in nurturing Democratic fortunes and candidates in the area.

Earl was assistant district attorney of Marathon County from 1965 to 1966 and then became Wausau city attorney from 1966 to 1969.

After David Obey was elected to Congress, Earl won a special election in 1969 to take over Obey's seat in the state Assembly. Earl was reelected in 1970 and 72 and served as Assembly majority leader for four years.

In 1974, he ran in the Democratic primary for Attorney General and was beaten by Bronson La Follette.

After the defeat, Earl was named Secretary for the Department of Administration, where he spent a year. He then became Secretary for the Department of Natural Resources, a post that he held for five years. The conventional wisdom at the time was that DNR secretary was a dead-end for a politician who harbored hopes of higher office.

But Earl earned high marks for reorganizing the department, restoring morale and opening the agency to the public before he resigned in the fall of 1980.

A Milwaukee Sentinel editorial asked how could someone who led the DNR be considered a potential candidate for higher office. The paper concluded: "He is at once tough, reasonable, decent and credible."

In 1982, he made his play for governor. In the Democratic primary, Earl defeated former acting Gov. Martin Schreiber.

In the general election, he won in a landslide over Republican businessman Terry Kohler.

Among his highlights as governor was pushing marital property reform, making Wisconsin a community property state.

He also advocated for gay rights, and called it one of his most important political legacies in a 2013 interview, the Associated Press reported. He established, by executive order, a process for gay people to bring discrimination complaints, created a Governor’s Council on Gay and Lesbian Issues and appointed an openly gay man as his press secretary. Tammy Baldwin, who went on to become the first openly gay person ever elected to the U.S. Senate, interned in Earl’s office.

Earl also championed "comparable worth," appointing a task force to study the pay of men and women in comparable tasks. Recommended changes were then made among state employees.

"Tony supported changes and we upgraded the pay for men and women in female-dominated jobs," Gassman recalled.

After stabilizing the state's finances, Earl and the Legislature created the the budget stabilization fund. Prior to 1985, the state did not have a rainy day fund that could be used as a cushion during a downturn.

Earl also appointed Howard Fuller to lead the Department of Employment Relations. In more recent years, Earl and Fuller served together on the board of the Chicago-based Joyce Foundation, which focuses on the Great Lakes region.

"Tony Earl changed my entire life in the sense he gave me an opportunity that most people never would have," Fuller said. "By virtue of making me the secretary and everything he did for me positioned me for so many other things I was able to do the rest of my life. Tony Earl took a chance."

"Tony is one of the most decent, caring individuals I've ever met in my life," he added. "The thing that Tony was the best at is he had this deep belief in the people of Wisconsin and to the degree he could he tried to make the best decisions he could for the people of the state of Wisconsin. It was detrimental, in my opinion, to his re-election chances. He'd do the right thing even if it wasn't the best thing politically."

As he approached his re-election in 1986, Earl was considered the favorite even as some derided him as "Tony the Taxer."

Thompson ran a tough, aggressive race. An issue that hurt Earl was his proposal to put a state prison in Milwaukee.

Thompson won by 7 points.

After his political career ended, Earl became active with Common Cause Wisconsin, a government watchdog group. He specialized in environmental law and chaired the Center for Clean Air Policy.

In 2019, the DNR renamed The Peshtigo River State Forest as Governor Earl Peshtigo State Forest.

Earl is survived by his four daughters, Julia Earl, Anne Earl, Maggie Earl Shore and Kitty Earl-Torniainen, and 11 grandchildren.

In a statement, Earl's daughters said: “The family is tremendously grateful for the love and support we’ve received. Our dad would have been honored by the outpouring of gratitude expressed by all. He would encourage anyone he knew to actively engage in positive change.”

Earl's family also expressed "its profound gratitude for the exceptional care he received at the University of Wisconsin Hospital."

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Former Wisconsin Gov. Tony Earl dies at age 86 after suffering stroke