William Proxmire, the dime-counting, flesh-pressing former senator whose vaulting drive and bucking independence made him a legend of Wisconsin politics, died Thursday morning at 90.
Proxmire, who ended a long fight with Alzheimer's disease at a convalescent home near Baltimore, was remembered as a politician whose persistence and sense for publicity raised him to national prominence and helped him fight government waste, remake the state's Democratic Party and run successful campaigns spanning decades on an eye-popping pittance.
"He was clearly a very dedicated public servant," said former Democratic Gov. Patrick Lucey, 87, Proxmire's contemporary and the chairman of the campaign committee for the 1957 special election that brought the senator to prominence. "It was amazing the way you see money flowing in politics today that he ran his campaigns on practically a zero budget. He was a fiscal conservative about his campaigns. He was also fiscally conservative about the federal government."
Falling on the same day that fellow Democrat and former state Senate Majority Leader Chuck Chvala was sentenced in Madison to jail time for misconduct in office, Proxmire's death comes as another signal of a shift in state politics, from populist barnstorming to pricey TV ads paid for by influential big-money interests, said Dennis Dresang, a political science professor at UW-Madison.
Proxmire "represents the apparent end of an era when people ran for statewide office and didn't spend a lot of money on television or radio but instead really emphasized meeting people face to face," said Dresang, 63, who like seemingly every Wisconsinite of the era shook Proxmire's hand at the senator's legendary greeting sessions at football games and public events. "It was kind of in the old Bob La Follette tradition where if two or three people were gathered together in the state of Wisconsin, there was Bill Proxmire shaking their hand."
The senator's son, Douglas Proxmire, said no exact cause of death had been determined.
Former Madison Mayor Joel Skornicka said Thursday he is working with the Proxmire family to choose a date and plan a public memorial service at the state Capitol where Proxmire once served in the Assembly.
The former senator was perhaps best known for his monthly Golden Fleece awards, which won him both respect and resentment for the way they lampooned government waste along with spending on some other more justifiable programs.
He consistently went after big government spending projects like the SST supersonic jet.
Proxmire first supported the Vietnam War, then strongly opposed it.
After three unsuccessful attempts at winning the state's governorship, Proxmire was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1957 in a special election to fill the seat left vacant by the death of Joseph McCarthy, the Republican senator made infamous for his communist witch hunts. Proxmire was re-elected in 1958 to his first six-year term and again in 1964, 1970, 1976 and 1982.
He shocked many when he announced he would not run in 1988.
U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Menomonee Falls, said that the senator epitomized the state's spirit. "Prox the maverick was the pride and joy of Wisconsin during his reign in the Senate."
At a time when millions were spent campaigning for Senate seats, Proxmire made a point of accepting no contributions. In 1982, he registered only $145.10 in campaign costs, yet gleaned 64 percent of the vote.
"Sen. Proxmire leaves behind an unparalleled legacy as a defender of the American taxpayer and one of the hardest working senators in U.S. history," said Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., considered a current-day maverick.
Former Democratic Gov. Tony Earl said he will most remember Proxmire for his penny-pinching populism, which he cultivated with events like a statewide walking tour.
"He made the case," Earl said of Proxmire, "that personal contact and keeping in touch with the voters was a lot more important than how much money you had. ... We could sure use a lot more of that frugality today."
But there were exceptions. Proxmire won backing from Wisconsin dairy farmers for his support of the costly federal system of dairy price supports -- decried by many as government largesse gone amok. He was also criticized for failing "to bring home the bacon" to Wisconsin with pork-barrel projects and undergoing hair transplant surgery for his baldness, Dresang said.
Proxmire is the second former U.S. senator from Wisconsin to die this year. Gaylord Nelson, a Democrat who founded Earth Day and helped spawn the modern environmental movement, died in July at 89.
"Two giants in a year's time," Earl said.
Longtime state Sen. Fred Risser, D-Madison, who campaigned with Proxmire, credited both men and Lucey with making the Democratic Party a legitimate force in a state that had been dominated by Republicans. "In my opinion, (Proxmire's) election in 1957 is what started the ball rolling for a complete change in the political system in Wisconsin."
Lucey agreed. "It made all the difference in the world," he said of Proxmire's 1957 win.
The son of a wealthy physician in Lake Forest, Ill., Proxmire moved to Wisconsin to begin a career in politics.
He showed his independence on Capitol Hill by introducing amendments without consulting the party heads, filibustering, and even criticizing the dictates of then-Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson.
He held the longest unbroken record in the history of the Senate for roll call votes.
Although he was generally considered a liberal Democrat when he began his political career, Proxmire later said he found such labels useless. He opposed abortion, school busing and deficit spending.
Risser remembered Proxmire as a loner, saying he could think of few people in the former senator's inner circle. "I don't know if he had an inner circle."
Lucey agreed, noting that his friend never became a Washington insider. "He could have been in the Senate another 12 years, and he never would have been one of the boys."
But without that outsider status, Proxmire would have never managed -- with thousands of speeches over many years -- to push the U.S. Senate to sign onto an international agreement against genocide, Lucey said.
"He did things that only a loner could do."