Monday, June 12, 2006

Movie explains Ed Thompson mystique

I was one of the many who dismissed Ed Thompson's candidacy for governor in 2002 as a joke, a sideshow at best. And it seemed he must be something of a buffoon to think he could run as a Libertarian and have any impact.

Ed surprised everyone except himself and people who knew him when he got 10 per cent of the statewide vote, about 10 times as much as most of us expected when he first got into the race.

Although he ran as a libertarian, polls consistently showed that he drew roughly equal numbers of votes from Democrats and Republicans, rather than just from the conservative side, as might have been expected. So he didn't swing the race one way or the other. But his 10% seemed to be a clear signal that voters weren't happy with the other choices they had.

A few days ago, I finally got around to watching the DVD, "A Remarkable Man," that one of Ed's campaign people sent me for review. I must say that it changed my outlook and opinion about what happened in 2002. I'm beginning to have a glimmer of understanding about what Ed's campaign was all about.

In the movie, which is done documentary style with live footage interspersed with interviews, Thompson's charisma comes through. He comes across as a decent guy who can be glib and funny, who will fight back when he thinks he -- or someone else -- has been wronged, and as someone who's caring and compassionate.

He has a great story to tell, as a former boxer and Toughman contestant, a professional poker player, and finally as the owner of the Tee Pee restaurant in Tomah, where a run-in with the government launched his career in politics.

When the district attorney and state Justice Dept. agents raided his supper club, and every other tavern in the county with illegal video poker machines, Thompson was outraged. He couldn't see how his nickel games were hurting anything when there were high-stakes casinos operating in two adjacent counties.

While others copped pleas, Thompson refused, despite the best efforts of his high-powered defense lawyer, Steve Hurley, to get him to see the light.

Thompson was going to trial -- except that the judge was unable to find 12 people in the county who were impartial about Ed Thompson or the issue. They either all loved Ed or at least thought the government was over-zealous in charging him. In the end, the DA offered a much reduced fine, like a traffic ticket, which the lawyer ended up paying because Ed wouldn't cough up a cent for tribute.

Ed and the Tavern League found a young lawyer to run against, and beat the DA. Ed became mayor of Tomah. And, eventually, he ran for governor, the job his brother, Tommy, had recently given up.

When you watch Thompson inter-acting with people, whether serving free Thanksgiving dinner in his restaurant or talking with voters on the campaign trail, his warmth comes through, and you can see that people genuinely like him, even on first meeting him. He called himself "the common man" in his campaign, and he is, but he's more than that, too.

I suspect that his personal charisma, as he campaigned night and day, had more to do with his vote total than the Libertarian platform.

Ed seems to be a libertarian with a small l, not someone who's going to sign on to anyone else's positions. He's at his best in the movie when talking extemporaneously on the stump, and at his worst, in an extra "Ed on Freedom" section reading a prepared text at a Libertarian meeting.

The movie has a little too much conspiracy theory about the other political parties, excessive campaign spending, etc. But it is a closer look at Ed Thompson -- who still doesn't have my vote, but who has my respect.

After seeing the movie, it is no surprise that Ed has condemned the Republican-backed constitutional amendment that would prohibit gay marriage and domestic partnerships.

The Wisconsin State Journal:
...The GOP hopes the amendment will help U.S. Rep. Mark Green become governor. But Thompson said he can't support Green, who recently stopped at Thompson's bar, because Green supports the amendment...

Gay couples aren't harming anybody, so Wisconsin should treat them fairly and respect their freedom, Thompson said. That's a Libertarian ideal most people, no matter their politics, can relate to.

If two people want to be together and enjoy the legal and symbolic rights that come with marriage, why should society stop them just because they happen to be two men or two women?

Thompson noted that he lived with his wife, Tina, for years before they married.

That didn't mean they didn't love each other. That didn't mean they weren't good people contributing to society and willing to accept the rights and responsibilities of marriage when they were ready.

"Check your heart," Thompson urged. "What's the right thing to do?"
For more about the movie, to watch the trailer, order a copy, or whatever, go to:


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