Tommy Thompson
Former Governor of Wisconsin; Former Secretary, Health and Human Services

Great Advice

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Life lessons from a small town.

Tommy Thompson

From 1987 to 2001, Tommy Thompson served as the 42nd Governor of Wisconsin, having been elected to an unprecedented four terms. Thompson's initiatives during his 13 years as governor of Wisconsin included his Wisconsin Works welfare reform program and school choice program, which allowed low-income Milwaukee families to send children to the private or public school of their choice at taxpayer expense. He also created the BadgerCare program, designed to provide health coverage to those families whose employers don't provide health insurance but make too much money to qualify for Medicaid. Through the federal waiver program, Thompson helped replicate this program in several states when he was appointed Secretary of Health and Human Services by President George W. H. Bush in 2001, a position he would hold for four years. Thompson began his career in public service in 1966 as a representative in Wisconsin's state Assembly. He was elected assistant Assembly minority leader in 1973 and Assembly minority leader in 1981. Thompson has received numerous awards for his public service, including the Anti-Defamation League's Distinguished Public Service Award. In 1997, he received Governing Magazine's Public Official of the Year Award, and the Horatio Alger Award in 1998. Thompson has also served as chairman of the National Governors' Association, the Education Commission of the States and the Midwestern Governors' Conference. Thompson also served in the Wisconsin National Guard and the Army Reserve. Currently, he is an independent senior advisor of the Deloitte Center for Health Solutions and a partner at the law firm of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld.

Question: What is the best advice you ever received?

Tommy Thompson: My mother always taught me, “Always say hello. Always have a smile on your face. And always be nice to people.” That was my mother’s way. She said . . . She was very outgoing and she was involved in everything in the community. Everybody knew my mother. My father was on the county board, so all the people from . . . from the city would come in on Friday night. The grocery store stayed open seven days a week in order to make a living for the family, and the business community would stop into the Thompson Grocery store on Friday evening and talk politics – local politics. And my father was on the county board. So they came in to talk about roads being . . . if they needed snow plowing or if they needed grading . . . upgrading. And they always came in and discussed those kind of current events with my father. And I was absolutely enthralled by these kind of Friday night meetings, and I think it really got me interested in politics at a local level; but more, it whetted my appetite to get involved in politics. And my father also had a saying. He said, “You have two ears and one mouth, Tommy. You use them in that proportion and you’ll get along just fine.” So my mother was the outgoing. My father was the more disciplinarian, and an individual that was much more on task. So I had the . . . I had the best of both worlds. I enjoyed life, but at the same time learned how to work very hard. And these are the kind of things, you know, that brought me, I think, to the forefront. Because all of my elections – every single one of my elections that I ran for – people said I couldn’t win. And I always outworked my opponent and always had a way of getting along with people. And people liked me. And so even though the political pundits said I couldn’t win when I ran for the state assembly at the age of 23 . . . the youngest person elected to the state legislature that year; and when I got elected as governor at the age of 43; and even when I went away to Washington everybody said, “It can’t be done.” And I always have been able to measure up and actually defy the political pundits and do well.

Recorded on: 7/6/07