WASHINGTON -- The Democrats had a nickname for Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson when he was in the state assembly: "Dr. No."
"He was against everything," said Paul Offner, a former Wisconsin Democratic assemblyman who served with Thompson during the early 1970s. Thompson automatically seemed to oppose any program put forth by the Democrats, Offner recalled.
And when -- in 1986 after 20 years in the assembly -- Thompson decided to run for governor, Democrats were gleeful.
"They thought he would be easily defeated," said Tom Corbett, associate director of the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin. But the people of Wisconsin handed him yet another victory.
"And here we are," Corbett said, "14 years later."
The nation's longest-serving governor, Thompson, 59, was tapped Friday by President-elect George W. Bush to become secretary of Health and Human Services. An abortion opponent, he is best known nationally for pushing his state to overhaul its welfare system even before Congress and President Clinton undertook national reform of the program. Under his leadership, Wisconsin has reduced its welfare rolls by almost 90 percent, cutting welfare spending but increasing investments in child care and health care, especially for low-income working families.
A story told less often, however, is that much of Wisconsin's welfare population has remained well below the federal poverty line and, despite the state's efforts, slightly more of the poorest children lack health insurance than before the welfare overhaul, according to the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation, a health policy think-tank.
While his roots are deeply conservative, the positions Thompson took on many social programs are a complex, often progressive amalgam, particularly in the area of health care, where he has made a great effort to reach out to the working poor and people leaving welfare.
"Tommy is a funny mixture -- very conservative but very pragmatic," said Offner, now a Georgetown University professor. "Once he became governor, his pragmatism came out. ... He really tried to be bipartisan."
If, as expected, he is confirmed by the Senate, Thompson will have direct influence over some of the biggest policy challenges in the federal government. He will walk into a raging partisan fight over how to revamp the $210-billion-a-year Medicare program so that it covers prescription drugs and the debate over whether to push more seniors to join health maintenance organizations.
Thompson will be on the hot seat on ethical issues such as whether to continue the current federal policy that permits research on embryonic stem cells -- research that offers the promise of therapies, even cures, for a wide range of diseases, but fervently is opposed by anti-abortion advocates. He would help shape the administration's policies on family planning -- especially the controversial effort by conservatives to expand abstinence-based sex education and reduce funding for programs that teach contraceptive techniques.
Thompson also would determine the administration's position when Congress reauthorizes the welfare successor program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families in 2001.
And he would face a fight over how tightly to regulate the tobacco industry. In Wisconsin, Thompson was a friend to tobacco interests, accepting tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions as well as taking trips at the expense of Philip Morris.
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