Shortly after Bronson La Follette's death was announced March 15, a friend who spent most of his working career away from Wisconsin asked me if Bronson had been a good attorney general.
Yes, I answered, he was. He served in a different time and it was politicians like him who made those times different. No attack ads during elections, a willingness to work with those in the other political party, a principled desire to do what was right for the people, not the special interests.
Democrat La Follette served two-year terms from 1964 to 1968 while Republican Warren Knowles was governor. For sure they had their political differences, but rare was the occasion when they came to loggerheads over an issue.
It was during those two terms that Bronson established his credentials as a leading advocate for consumers. His office's work investigating consumer fraud and his willingness to challenge unethical business practices by bringing charges soon gained national attention. The Consumers Union (publisher of Consumer Reports) named him to its board and President Lyndon Johnson appointed him chairman of his Consumer Advisory Council.
He took on the owners of the Milwaukee Braves in an unsuccessful effort to keep them from moving the team to Atlanta. He was a leader among state officials to push for more open government and he jealously guarded Wisconsin's longtime anti-gambling tradition. He walked in the footsteps of his grandfather and father — "Old" Bob and "Young" Bob — in pushing to strengthen the state's environmental protections, using the AG's enforcement powers to improve water and air regulations.
After he ran for governor against Knowles in 1968 and lost, he practiced law privately until 1974, when he ran again for AG, beginning a string of three straight four-year terms highlighted by a rigorous fight to reform Wisconsin's probate laws and several more opinions backing stronger openness safeguards. His popularity peaked in the 1982 election when he became the first statewide candidate in Wisconsin to win more than a million votes.
The only blemish on a distinguished career as the state's chief law enforcement officer came near the end of the third four-year term when, sadly, his friendship with a longtime Wisconsin lobbyist thrust him into a series of alleged ethical lapses. It proved to be his undoing in the 1986 election when he ran for a fourth term.
Bronson La Follette was much more than a politician, though. He loved being with people and he loved to have fun. I got to know him and his fantastic wife Barb well through our mutual interests in traditional jazz music and it was this love of jazz that convinced Bronson and state Treasurer Charles Smith to take a Dixieland Band with them on their joint statewide election campaigns. To say the audiences got "jazzed up" by the Riverboat Ramblers is an understatement.
He was a huge Packer fan, but the Braves' move to Atlanta soured him on baseball. He loved and always had dogs. And his sense of humor had no bounds.
More than once his Irish Setter "Cutter" escaped his leash at the La Follette home in Maple Bluff and was nabbed by the dog catcher. Bronson hired legendary prankster and lawyer Eddie Ben Elson to defend Cutter. First, Elson demanded that Cutter be picked out of line-up and if he were eventually brought to trial, that he be judged by a jury of his peers — 12 Irish Setters.
During one of his campaigns, Bronson ordered a bunch of campaign pins with Cutter's picture on it above the words "Bronson dog gone it."
I'm sure there will be more stories like this at the Saturday, April 7, remembrance of La Follette from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the Madison Elks Lodge on Madison's east side at 711 Jenifer Street. He will be remembered for being, well, Bronson, and for being a damn good attorney general.
Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @DaveZweifel.
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