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Former Gov. Tommy Thompson speaks during a January press conference at the State Capitol in Madison.

PHOTO BY MICHELLE STOCKER

A new leadership center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison will be named for Republican former Gov. Tommy Thompson, the longest serving governor in the state of Wisconsin.

Republican leaders and UW officials on Tuesday announced plans to create the Tommy G. Thompson Center on Public Leadership, to be funded by a mix of public and private funds. The announcement comes in concert with a series of celebrations and discussions centered around the 30th anniversary of Thompson's first term as governor. 

The center's mission, said Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, is to facilitate research and leadership training.

"We will continue our efforts to have long-term, bipartisan solutions that bring the best in academia together with the best in government to find long-term solutions that continue to move Wisconsin forward," Vos said. 

The Legislature's Joint Finance Committee is expected to consider a proposal to commit $3 million in state funds over the course of the 2017-19 budget, $500,000 of which would be distributed among other UW System campuses to bring in speakers under the center's programming. Private funds will also be sought to support the center.

Thompson, a former state legislator, defeated Democratic incumbent Gov. Anthony Earl in 1986. He is the only Wisconsin governor to have been elected to serve four terms, leaving office in 2001 to serve as Health and Human Services secretary under President George W. Bush.

After leaving that post in 2005, Thompson joined a powerful lobbying firm and served on the boards of several corporations. He made a brief run for president in 2008, then ran against Democrat Tammy Baldwin for U.S. Senate in 2012. Baldwin defeated him by six percentage points.

As governor, Thompson overhauled the state's welfare program with the creation of Wisconsin Works. Thompson also created BadgerCare, a program designed to give health care coverage to low-income Wisconsin residents who made too much money to qualify for Medicaid.

Thompson also signed into law the country's first private school choice program.

"I don’t think anybody loves the state of Wisconsin more than Tommy Thompson," said Gov. Scott Walker. "I don’t think anybody loves the university system more than Tommy Thompson."

Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills and co-chair of the budget committee, quipped that Thompson is Wisconsin's own "master of the 'art of the deal,'" a riff on President Donald Trump's book of the same name.

"We're so excited that we're going to make an investment to have a policy foundation here to further the ideas that Tommy started, and have continued in what we think is the Wisconsin revolution and reform effort," Darling said.

Joint Finance co-chair Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, said the proposal is the "right effort at the right time," noting growing national conversations about diversity of thought and free speech on college campuses. 

Thompson achieved policy goals without the full Republican control of the Legislature and executive the state has seen since 2010, Nygren noted. 

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A commitment to bipartisanship is one value the center will promote, lawmakers said.

The center will embody three main principles held by Thompson, said UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank: a belief in the value of objective, nonpartisan, professional research; a belief that public universities play a central role in public life and a belief in the 'Wisconsin Idea,' that the UW System exists to seek truth and serve people throughout the state.

Despite calls for bipartisanship, Democrats were skeptical of the proposal.

"Why does WI need two public affairs schools at UW Madison?" tweeted Rep. Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, a member of the Joint Finance Committee.

The Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs, named for the progressive Republican former governor and senator, was established in 1983. The school offers master's degrees in public affairs and international public affairs and joint degrees with other schools within the university.

The Thompson center announcement comes amid an ongoing state and national debate over political speech on college campuses. Wisconsin Republicans have introduced several legislative proposals that would regulate campus speech, with the stated goal of ensuring a diverse group of voices are heard on campuses. Vos referenced those efforts at the center's announcement.

The center would be run by a director overseen by a seven-member public leadership board within two UW-Madison departments: the Department of Political Science and the La Follette School of Public Affairs.

The goal is to open the center by the start of the new school year in September, according to a news release from Vos.

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Jessie Opoien covers state government and politics for the Capital Times. She joined the Cap Times in 2013 and has also covered Madison life, race relations, culture and music. She has also covered education and politics for the Oshkosh Northwestern.