MILWAUKEE— Former Wisconsin Gov. Parick Lucey believed that he was a man without charisma, but whatever he may have lacked in that department he made up for as a tenacious organizer.
Lucey moved in political circles for more than four decades— he was chairman of the state Democratic Party in the 1950s and became friends with John F. Kennedy after helping JFK win the state’s key presidential primary over Hubert H. Humphrey. In the era of Joseph McCarthy, Lucey was credited with the rise of the Democratic Party in Wisconsin. And as Wisconsin’s 38th elected governor, he won the first four-year term as a Wisconsin governor in 1971.
That victory gave him the political clout to push for what was considered sweeping change, including the 1972 merger of the state’s two university systems.
“He’s going to be remembered as one of Wisconsin’s most influential citizens,” said Democratic State Sen. Fred Risser, who served in the Legislature during Lucey’s two terms as governor. “He turned Wisconsin into a two-party state.”
Lucey died Saturday night after a brief illness at the Milwaukee Catholic Home, where he had lived for several years. He was 96.
A liberal governor who took a fiscally conservative approach, Lucey considered political capital something meant to be spent.
“You’re making decisions every day that cut two ways and every time you do something that favors one group, you antagonize another,” Lucey said in a 1974 interview. “If you’re going to be effective, you just have to accept that and let the chips fall where they may.”
Twice elected governor, Lucey later was ambassador of Mexico under President Jimmy Carter. In 1980 he became a candidate again, running for vice president with independent John Anderson.
After that, there were years of teaching, first at Marquette University, then at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.
Lucey remained politically astute and active, endorsing John Kerry in 2004, and was an early supporter of President Barack Obama.
A native of La Crosse, Lucey was the oldest of seven children born to Gregory and Ella Lucey. His great-grandfather, Patrick “Paddy” Lucey, came from County Cork, Ireland, to Crawford County to farm in the middle of the 19th century, later fighting for the North in the Civil War.
His father had little education but good business sense. With only a fourth-grade education and $500, he began a grocery store in Ferryville at age 19. The family lived above the store. Gregory Lucey managed to survive the Depression, even buying several farm properties that ended up in bankruptcy.
When he was 19, Patrick Lucey left college to run the family business, Lucey’s Cash &Carry. He also served as its butcher. He got involved in politics, serving two terms as a local justice of the peace and on the Ferryville grade school board and DeSoto high school board.
World War II brought service with the Quartermaster Corps, mostly in the Caribbean. In 1946, he earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
He also worked a variety of other jobs both before and after the war— in wholesale grocery sales and managing the family-owned farms— before deciding to run for state office.
Lucey’s first target was the State Assembly. In 1948, he scored an upset victory, defeating Republican Donald McDowell, the incumbent and speaker of the Assembly.
Lucey managed two unsuccessful campaigns— Thomas E. Fairchild’s bid against Sen. Joseph McCarty and James E. Doyle’s run for governor.
But Lucey learned and, in 1957, led Proxmire’s successful campaign for the U.S. Senate in a special election to fill the unexpired term of the late Sen. Joseph McCarthy.
Proxmire won handily over former Gov. Walter Kohler Jr., in what many consider one of the greatest political upsets in state history. That victory paved the way for candidates including Gaylord Nelson, Robert Kastenmeier and John W. Reynolds.
In 1957, Lucey was elected the party’s state chairman. He was repeatedly re-elected until he decided not to run in 1963.
His six years as state chairman saw Democrats win three gubernatorial elections, two U.S. Senate races, elect an additional congressman, plus put a majority in the Assembly. That Assembly majority in 1958— a solid 55 of 100 seats— was the party’s first since 1933.
His work on John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign put him in the president’s inner circle. Lucey later helped campaign for Robert F. Kennedy, a favor RFK returned. He was reportedly with him when news came that Martin Luther King Jr. has been assassinated.
“I worked as hard as I could for Bobby,” Lucey said in a 2010 interview. “I met with Bobby on the Sunday before he was killed. He said, ‘I want you to come to L.A. because we’re going to win this primary, and the next morning we’re going to have a strategy meeting on what we do from now until the convention.’ “
Lucey was checking into the Ambassador Hotel moments after Bobby Kennedy was shot.
“I heard a commotion in the big ballroom,” Lucey said. “As I walked toward the ballroom, two women came out with their mascara running.”
Lucey’s own political career began to take shape in the mid-1960s. In 1964, Lucey served as lieutenant governor. In 1966, he lost his first race for governor to Warren P. Knowles.
He won in 1970, beginning his first term as governor in 1971. He was re-elected in 1974.
In 1977, Lucey resigned as governor and became ambassador to Mexico for the Carter administration. In 1979, he left his position as ambassador and, only four days later, ripped into Carter’s leadership ability. He joined the organization supporting Sen. Ted Kennedy as a president candidate.
On the eve of the 1980 Democratic convention, Lucey said he could not support Carter. “Carter is a disaster,” he said.
That year, he became independent presidential candidate John Anderson’s running mate.
In 1983, he was named a fellow at the Institute of Politics at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. He also served in advisory roles for the Mondale presidential campaign, specifically on Central American issues.
He later expressed sympathy for Walter Mondale in his 1984 campaign.
“I know what it is to run for office without charisma,” he said at the time.
Lucey is survived by his daughter, Laurel; sons Paul and David; and nine grandchildren. His wife, Jean, died in 2011.
Former Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Amy Rabideau Silvers contributed to this report.
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