WASHINGTON, Jan. 9 – If there’s a politician who lives up to the title “compassionate conservative,” it may be Tommy Thompson.
He has spent the past 13 years as governor of Wisconsin crafting creative and controversial bipartisan solutions to deep-rooted social problems.
If the United States Senate gives him the nod, this Bush Cabinet nominee will soon head the Department of Health and Human Services.
HHS tackles such disparate issues as health care for the elderly and approval of new medicines. It includes such high-impact programs and agencies as Medicare and Medicaid, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Jewish leaders around the Beltway and in Thompson’s home state point to pluses and minuses in his record.
“He has been innovative in terms of looking at different options,” said Nita Corre, chair of the Washington-based Association of Jewish Aging Services, as well as the president of Milwaukee’s Jewish Home and Care Center. “He has been daring in some of the things he has done.”
Michael Blumenfeld, executive director of the Wisconsin Jewish Conference, a statewide public affairs group, lauds Thompson’s responsiveness. “His door has always been open to us.”
Yet many in Wisconsin’s Jewish community were uneasy with a school voucher program in Milwaukee that seemed to hold public schools to a higher standard than private schools.
“Appropriate oversight was not built into the system,” said Barbara Beckert, assistant director of the Milwaukee Jewish Council for Community Relations. “Private and religious schools which received aid had to do very little in terms of accountability.”
And feminist groups worry about the governor’s record of restricting abortion rights.
“To have someone at the head of the FDA and the NIH and the health infrastructure of this country who is opposed to a women’s right to abortion, stem cell research and fetal tissue research is a concern for us,” said Sammie Moshenberg, Washington office director for the National Council of Jewish Women.
It was his version of welfare reform, however, that propelled Thompson to national stature. Known as Wisconsin Works (W-2), it is also one of his most hotly debated legacies.
In August 1997, just before W-2 was launched, the state had 34,948 families in the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program, according to the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development and the Department of Health and Family Services.
By December 1999, the last month for which there are solid figures, the total number had shrunk to 18,800 families in the three welfare programs that took the place of AFDC. That amounts to a drop of 46 percent.
Some start counting in 1987, when Thompson became governor and welfare rolls stood at 98,000. Most of the much-touted decrease, often erroneously reported at 90 percent, happened before W-2 began.
“How do we judge success?” asked Beckert. “In this case, success was [measured] by getting people off the welfare rolls, not by providing people with the training and support they needed to be in jobs that pay a living wage.”
Beckert points to a substantial increase in the use of emergency shelters and food pantries. “Many of those off welfare are now dependent on the nonprofit safety net to provide for themselves and their families,” she said.
Marcus White, associate director of the Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee, which includes Jewish congregations, bears out her concerns.
“What we know anecdotally and what we know from running a shelter for women with the Red Cross is that there are a lot more homeless women and homeless families than there were a few years ago,” said White. He points to a women’s shelter that began three years ago with 12 beds as a winter-only facility. Now it serves 35, year-around.
On the other hand, several Wisconsin observers credit Thompson with investing in child care, training and transportation along with his welfare cuts.
White and Blumenfeld also hail Badger Care, a Thompson program that extended a federal children’s health insurance program to cover parents.
“We are hopeful about health insurance with him at HHS because we did something in the state which seems to have worked,” said White, noting that with the inclusion of parents, more children became insured and overall enrollment swelled.
Moreover, some see Thompson’s welfare reform as a crucial paradigm shift in public policy.
“What Gov. Thompson has done in Wisconsin is break the myth that people are on welfare permanently,” said Republican Jewish Coalition board member Marshall Breger, a professor of law at the District’s Columbus School of Law, at Catholic University and a former special assistant and liaison to the Jewish community under President Ronald Reagan.
“A large majority of people on welfare can work and will work if they have the training and they need to appreciate that they’re expected to work,” added Breger. “There’s nothing in this approach that goes against the Jewish point of view.”
Others remain cautious in their assessment of how Wisconsin Works is working.
“The bottom line is that the caseload reduction is impressive and there were people who could work who didn’t and this program gave them a push and some help to find jobs,” said Anne Arnesen, executive director of the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, a child advocacy group.
However, some people fell through the cracks of reform, she argues.
“At the same time, there are a lot of people now on the caseload who have alcohol and drug abuse problems, mental health problems and limited skills,” added Arnesen. “I think to believe all people can work full-time, full-year … that expectation is too high.”
Simon Greer, spokesperson for Jews United for Justice, a Washington activist group concerned with poverty and justice, contends that Thompson’s welfare reform addressed the wrong end of the problem: moving people off the rolls.
“The problem is that there aren’t enough good jobs out there, there isn’t adequate training and there isn’t sufficient public transportation,” argues Greer. “Real welfare reform will be born of taking seriously what it takes to create jobs and linking people to these jobs.”
As for other clues to Thompson’s approach at HHS, Corre and Beckert point to Wisconsin’s partial success in addressing its nursing home shortage, one of the highest in the nation.
The governor introduced Family Care, a pilot program in several counties to provide home health care for the elderly.
“Family Care is a a terrific concept and sorely needed and hopefully this is something he will bring to the national level,” said Beckert, who said the program had received a favorable review from an independent auditing firm.
At the Milwaukee Jewish Council for Community Relations, executive director Paula Simon notes that Thompson backs charitable choice, a contentious issue among American Jews.
“He hasn’t taken a position that I think is as strident as [Attorney General-designate] Ashcroft,” said Simon, adding that, “He likes charitable choice he sees it as a major incentive in connecting public and private sector in addressing social issues.”
Indeed, for the past year and a half, the state has had an advisory committee for faith-based organizations in the Department of Health and Family Services much like a similar body the president-elect has proposed.
As for reproductive rights, Thompson signed five different laws limiting abortion during his terms as governor, but has stood behind family-planning and comprehensive sex education. State employees gained contraceptive coverage during his tenure.
“Wisconsin has the most restrictive anti-abortion legislation in the country,” said Judy Mann, former executive director of the Milwaukee Jewish Council and former CEO of Wisconsin Planned Parenthood. The state’s 24-hour waiting period law requires no less than three separate visits to an abortion provider.
Nevertheless, Mann contends that Thompson is no extremist.
“He ain’t no John Ashcroft,” she said. Faced with proposals such as placing gag orders on abortion providers or linking abortion to breast cancer, Mann added, “I think the governor will not deal with these issues in an ideological way.”
On the plus side of the ledger, Blumenfeld hails Thompson’s sensitivity in helping to plug a much-lamented loophole of welfare reform. Federal legislation locked refugees and legal immigrants, such as Soviet Jews, out of the food stamp program.
“We were one of those states who fought and, in the end, got the support of the governor for full restoration of food stamp benefits,” noted Blumenfeld. “It wouldn’t have happened without his leadership.”