Money & Politics Blog: Tommy’s rich, but not a lobbyist

Tommy Thompson has been called many things, not all of them flattering. But there’s nothing he hates worse than being called a “lobbyist.”

The former Wisconsin governor and current U.S. Senate candidate takes umbrage at the term, which he gets tagged with all the time. He’s been branded a "Washington lobbyist,” a “super lobbyist,” even a “corporate-welfare lobbyist.” Eric Hovde, one of Thompson’s unsuccessful rivals in the GOP primary, called him a “big corporate lobbyist.”

PolitiFact Wisconsin, the truth-seeking media missile, has deemed such claims “Half True.” A more accurate label would have been “False,” since it found no supporting evidence.

Yes, after leaving his post as George W. Bush’s secretary of Health and Human Services, Thompson worked for a Washington, D.C., law firm that engages in lobbying. But, as PolitiFact acknowledged, this “proves nothing,” since Thompson was not registered to lobby.

Similar trails also led to dead ends. Thompson once called a North Carolina lawmaker about a bill, but said he did so on behalf of a friend and not a paying client. His occupation was listed as “lobbyist” on a benefactor’s campaign filing, but this could have been a mistake.

Thompson’s role at the firm, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, was described as “strategic adviser.” That’s different from being a lobbyist. If words matter, and they ought to, “lobbyist” is not the right one to apply to Tommy Thompson.

Democrat Tammy Baldwin, running against Thompson in the Nov. 6 election, apparently takes these nuances to heart. Her recent campaign ad rips Thompson for making “millions working at a Washington, D.C., lobbying firm.” Her website accuses him of “cashing in on his special interest connections.”

Thompson’s financial disclosure filings show he was paid $771,000 last year by Akin Gump. He was a partner there for nearly seven years, before leaving in January to focus on his Senate run. Akin Gump’s lobby clients have included Bain Capital, Mitt Romney’s former firm.

In fact, Thompson lists multiple sources of mega-income, including $254,000 in salary and $3.1 million from the sale of Logistics Health, a La Crosse-based corporation, $471,000 for his role as a “self-employed consultant,” and another $149,000 in speaking fees.

Thompson is also on the board of about two dozen mainly health-related corporations and a few nonprofits. Some pay him, including $132,000 from CR Bard, a New Jersey-based medical manufacturer, and $125,000 from Centene Corp., a Missouri-based health insurer. Some have contributed to his campaign.

Thompson’s filings list about 500 investments worth between $18.6 million and $45 million. He owed between $3.1 million and $9.3 million. He told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel his net worth is about $13 million, and that he makes no apologies for his financial success

Baldwin’s relative pauperism — between $500,000 and $1 million in assets against $200,000 to $500,000 in mortgage debt — lets her make an issue of her opponent’s wealth.

She accuses him of planning to “actually cut taxes for millionaires like himself while increasing taxes on the middle class.” Her ad blasts Thompson’s refusal to release his tax returns, as she and other candidates have done. “What’s he hiding?” it asks.

But Thompson’s wealth gives him a trump card of his own — the ability to substantially finance his own race. Federal Election Commission filings show he’s already chipped in $132,500, including a $100,000 loan, making him his own single largest contributor.

Republican Ron Johnson invested $9 million of his own stash ousting Sen. Russ Feingold in 2010. Hovde spent $5.1 million — 10 times his take from all other sources — on his second-place finish.

So far, FEC numbers show, Baldwin has outraised Thompson, $7.2 million to $2.5 million. He could make up that difference with a stroke of his pen, and still be a multimillionaire.

Bill Lueders is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism ( The project, a partnership of the Center and MapLight, is supported by the Open Society Institute.

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