President and CEO of the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities since 2012; formerly, U.S. Congressman (R-WI)
“I’m not a conservative or a liberal, I’m a futurist.”
When he was 23, Steve was elected to the Wisconsin State Legislature where he served three terms. He then served 16 years as a U.S. Congressman (R-WI). In 1994, he was outed on the House floor by a colleague, Rep. Bob Dornan (R- CA). In 1996, he was the only Republican to make an impassioned speech against DOMA.
He writes about this in his memoir, House and Home: The political and personal journey of a gay Republican congressman and the man with whom he created a family. After leaving public service he became senior consultant and managing director of the Washington office of the The Greystone Group. His other books include The New Middle Class: Creating Wages, Wealth and Opportunity in the 21st Century.
Steve tells me about what led to his decision to run for office and the role of money in his own campaigning in the 80’s.
Pleasantville (Wisconsin) in the 50s and 60s was Norman Rockwell’s view of rural America. At that time, literally across the street, we had the operator of the rural telephone system, and we had a two-room country school, a small country church, a general store and a town hall. I don’t think the local tavern moved into town until probably in the 70s. It was, you know, everything that post-World War II rural middle class America represented.
I’ll give you a funny story about that. In 1980, I was elected to Congress from western Wisconsin. In 1982, I was one of the top five targets in America, because I was a Republican representing a Democrat district. So the New York Times, NPR and all the national media came in to cover the district to this race. I’ll never forget them sitting on the porch of the country store and saying, “We heard these places still existed, but we didn’t know!”
One of the wonderful things about growing up in that kind of an environment is it didn’t matter to you what anybody earned. You didn’t know what they earned. As neighbors in a rural area, you take care of each other, period. And there was no such thing as economic strata of wealthy, middle class, lower class, all that kind of stuff. We just never even conceived anything like that. You also didn’t miss anything about a “better life in the city” because you didn’t know what you were supposed to be missing. (Laughs)
I went to a two-room country school for six years. Then I got on the bus and went into town for junior high and high school. There were 97 people in our graduating class. And when I went to the University of Wisconsin wanting to experience this bigger world out there, I actually joined a fraternity. It happened to be the fraternity that had most of the football athletes in it. A couple of them became my best friends during college. And oh my God, if you saw me, you would find that I am 5’9, 155 pounds. When I told them that I started on offense and defense on the high school football team, they just laughed. I was this little guy, and I was a lineman on offense and defense. That’s the beauty of growing up in rural small town America. By necessity, you get opportunity that you would never get in a 5,000-student school.
Life growing up in rural America had an incredible impact on me. I was able to be president of the student council. I was able to play football. I was able to sing in chorus. I had a role in the junior class play. All these are things that you would otherwise never have the opportunity to do in a large urban school where you’d have to pick one area and excel in that.
What did your parents do?
Well, that’s really interesting. My mother was not allowed to go to school beyond the eighth grade. She was a classic housewife. Her mother died when she was very young, but her father and aunts and uncles raised her in rural Trempealeau County. They didn’t believe that women should go to school beyond the eighth grade at that point in time. So, she wasn’t allowed to go to high school. But she became self-taught. Every year from Santa Claus, my siblings and I received books. And if you were to walk into my mom’s house, you would have seen literally bedrooms that had become libraries, with walls filled with bookcases full of books. She taught us the love of learning and the love of books. She was an incredible woman. Unfortunately, she is no longer with us. When my father came home from the war, he joined his father in the local car dealership, and that became the family business. We’re now into the fourth generation of car dealers, both in Wisconsin and California. I have two brothers out in California in the car business, and I have a brother and nephews in the car business back home.
From a small business perspective, we obviously understood the importance of hard work, the importance of free enterprise, but at the same time, my parents were incredibly active in their community. My mother was the president of our two-room community school for many years before we consolidated. My dad was elected and became I think president of the school board of the greater school district, and they just gave and gave and gave to the community, and I think they’ve taught my siblings and I to do the same thing.
I would like to say that, you know, somehow my life can be defined as service leadership in a professional sense. I’m hesitant to say that because that might be judgmental on my own part.
What do you mean?
Well, that’s defining my work in a noble sense whereas other people might not see it that way. Some people don’t look at people in politics as being public servants anymore or interested in the common good versus the personal advancement. So I’m aware of that and I’m a little hesitant to frame my own career in the best possible way. I’ll allow others to do that when I’m gone.
Growing up during the Vietnam War, I attended the University of Wisconsin during the time of anti-war demonstrations. I was fascinated—and disturbed—because one side thought the war was the greatest thing since sliced bread, and the other side blew up buildings and broke windows in the name of peace. Literally, I couldn’t identify with either side. This probably explains how I became that classic political moderate that I’ve been ever since. What really struck me, Mark, during that time, was that we would have all of these demonstrations and fights all week long.
Then on Saturday, the establishment and the college kids who were demonstrating would all gather at the same Camp Randall Stadium to cheer on the same University of Wisconsin Badgers. And I realized the incredible role of sports in bringing together and uniting people of very diverse political, economic and social differences. This led me to wanting to become a sports broadcaster. And after graduating from the University of Wisconsin, I went to Brown’s School of Broadcasting in Minneapolis to learn how to do the actual broadcasting of sports games. But then, while tailgating at a Wisconsin football game, some friends encouraged me to run for the state legislature. I thought it would be good experience in public speaking. I would lose and then I would go into broadcasting. Well, I won. And that changed my life and my career. (Laughs) I tell people many times, if I die today at a young age, I would still have had a great life.
What did your friends see in you when they urged you to run?
Oh, I think people have always seen me as somebody who thinks about the future. And I have always told people I’m not a conservative or a liberal, I’m a futurist, and that’s sort of defined my politics. Also, I think I was someone with compassion and the ability to communicate, and that’s served me well in the public arena.
A futurist is one who does things today in a way that prepares for tomorrow, and that will explain to you why I’m such a big fan of education and workforce investment, because it prepares people for a better tomorrow than they otherwise would have. At the same time, I am one who is very concerned about our national financial situation where we are imposing on the younger generation an economic burden that is way too similar to what Greece or Spain and other countries have been experiencing in the last couple years, and that worries me a lot. It’s one of the reasons I think we are seeing that new generations do not have, quote, the quality of life and standard of living that their parents had, so everything is about the future.
History shows that people don’t usually plan for the future during a time of stress, and we’ve been through a dramatic economic stress. That’s what my book is about; the people who fell out of the middle class or fought hard to sustain someplace in the middle class but not at the level of comfort that their parents had. I think we also see stress when there’s war. So economic stress, security stress, those kind of things impact the ability to focus on the future when you’re so busy surviving present day.
Do you have any recollection when you began to recognize the futurist in yourself?
It was probably during my years at the University of Wisconsin. Incredible education, an education that taught me the world was diverse, and yet it was welcoming. Remember, I was an introvert from a two-room country school in Pleasantville, yet through my years at the University, I learned history and I learned the importance of preparation for the future.
What drew you to the Republican party?
That’s a really fascinating question. More than anything else, because I grew up in a small business family I became both a believer in the benefits of personal initiative and the realization that over-regulation can kill such enterprise. The beauty of rural America, Mark, is that from my very first campaign on, we never ran a partisan campaign. I had well-known Democrats, Independents, and Republicans who were active in my campaigns. It was never like the politics of today, which is such polarized ideological, partisan politics. It was literally about public service and solving problems. And if you would look at all of my literature, you’d seldom see the Republican label, not because I was embarrassed to be a Republican, but it didn’t represent me bringing people together in a common mission.
People will say to me yet today, we really need you back in government. And I say, well, the reality is, I could win a general election today, but I could never get nominated because I’m not conservative enough for the Republicans or liberal enough for the Democrats. Through gerrymandering, we have safe political districts, so in a Republican district you have to be ideologically pure on the right and in Democratic district you have to be ideologically pure on the left. I’m a pragmatist. It’s like, we got a problem? Let’s sit down and figure out how we solve it.
Tell me about the role of money in your own campaigning.
I was fortunate to be in politics for 22 years when money was a tool, but it was not the only tool for political success. To give you some sense of that, we used money to pay for some campaign staff and for some paid media, but, and I guess we, by the time I got to Congress, we would do one or two surveys a year, but that would be about it. We literally were known for getting a whole bunch of folks together and taking old bed sheets and converting them into Steve Gunderson banners, and we always scheduled it literally like the weekend before the election or the week before the election, all of these bed sheets would be hung on barns and hung on front porches and things like that. So it was incredibly non-expensive, yet it was incredibly personal and effective.
I think education is the foundation on which we individually and collectively build our future. And there are very few problems that can’t be solved with additional education by those individuals. And I’ll give you a really good example, Mark. You look at the people today who are facing the elimination of their long term unemployment benefits. The reality is that when you’ve been unemployed as long as they have, their jobs are probably not returning, and the only hope for them to get gainfully employed is going to be additional education and skills. And it’s why I’m so passionate about what I’m doing right now with the career colleges, because we literally equip people with those secondary education and skills that give them a bridge to the middle class.
There is no limit to the potential and the benefits of additional education. I can survive and probably even succeed in today’s society. Would I benefit from being better educated than I am? The answer is, absolutely. With that being a key, education is my field too, that’s where I’ve been working. It just seems like there’s so much against us right now.
It seems that a lot is working against education right now.
Well, I don’t think it is against education per se. I think it is against funding what you and I would call ineffective education. Just, you know, I don’t think people are against agriculture and farmers, but they’re certainly against subsidies that exceed a certain level or for non-farmers getting farm subsidies for land they own, in which crops are produced or even getting paid not to produce. So I don’t think people are anti-education. I think they want better education, more effective education than we have.
I recently interviewed a gentleman named Joel Greeno who is a dairy farmer in Kendall, Wisconsin. And Kendall is just decimated now. Joel’s families’ dairy farm had been in his family since 1872, and they lost it , recently. Joel bought his own small farm with his wife, but now they’ve had to sell off their cattle.. I wonder what you’d say to Joel.
Well, first of all, I spent my entire career in government, serving the farm community, and was known on the expert on dairy policy in the U.S. Congress. So my passion for the noble work of dairy farmers is incredible. What we have to do is, we have to both celebrate who they are and what they’ve done while recognizing that we cannot stop change. And the challenge is to manage change in a positive way, and when we do that, we call it progress. And I’m not saying we’ve done that, but I will tell you that we have moved from what you and I would call farming as a way of life to farming as an economic enterprise. And that changes all the rules.
And that’s what we’re witnessing, is that transition?
Yeah, there’s no question about that. And you know, really interesting story. When I grew up and when I was in elective office, Trempealeau County was absolutely a dairy farm county. Today, Trempealeau County, believe it or not, has transitioned into a manufacturing county. It is the home of Ashley Furniture, which started literally in our home county and is now, you know, worldwide. We have other high-tech manufacturing in my hometown of Ossio and other places, and the unique thing about that is that, while it has changed who we are and what we do, if you would look at the average income, it is actually better today than it’s probably ever been.
And one of the things, Mark, I always try to preach to people is, and it’s my whole focus on the workforce area. The average person has five different careers in their lifetime, and that’s part of this changing dynamic. I grew up in a time when someone would leave high school and they would go to work at the GM assembly plant, and that’s all they’d do the rest of their life. Or they would take over Dad’s farm and that’s all they would do the rest of their life. That, today, is the exception. It’s not the rule. And I’m a good example of that. I spent time in state legislature, I spent time in the Congress, I was a consultant, I was the CEO of the Council on Foundations, and now I’m the CEO of the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities. Very quickly, five different careers.
And so I’m wondering how we help folks manage that seismic transition then.
Yeah. It gets back to education. There are, you know, soft skills and hard skills, so to speak. What are some of those soft skills? I had a professor at the University of Wisconsin who said, the most important thing you will learn at the University of Wisconsin is how to think. And he was absolutely right, because what I’ve been able to gain from my education is the ability to know how to learn on my own. And so I’ve been able to take some basic skills that I got out of my high school. I didn’t have kindergarten, so we had 1 through 12 plus four years of college plus the year at a career college and broadcasting. I’ve been able to take all of that and keep up with the pace of change on my own in a way that enables me to continue to manage in a very changing world.
You said that you, if you ran for Senate today, you wouldn’t get in, ‘cause you’re not conservative enough or liberal enough.
Wouldn’t get nominated. No, I think I could win a general election, yes. I mean, the point you made, Mark, is the exact point people make to me all the time. God, we wish you were still in office. The public wants people like us, but the political system today doesn’t allow people in the Senate who can work regardless of party lines to get something done.
If we could plunk you down in the Senate, though, what do you think you might be working on?
Education. No question.
And how would you do that?
I’m doing a lot of it here at APSCU, and access and affordability are important, but we also, and my greatest concern is that all of the analysis today judges schools by inputs rather than outputs. In other words, we criticize a lot of our career colleges because they get a lot of financial aid through their students from the federal government. And the reality is, that’s exactly the wrong way to look at it. What you ought to do is, you ought to judge these schools on retention, graduation, and placement, but don’t criticize a school if it serves a lot of students on financial aid. Don’t criticize a school if it has to provide remediation courses as well as basic education and skill. Don’t criticize a school if it has too many veterans who are coming to school on the GI Bill. What you want to do is, you want to criticize schools that don’t have good graduation rates, don’t have good placement rates, and don’t have good outcomes.
Can you characterize the role of money in your own life?
Money is only one of many resources that I have been given to chart my future. I just finished an interview with someone who was writing a book on giving and I explained to him the difference between personal giving, charity, and philanthropy. Personal giving, Mark, is something you and I do for a brother or a sister in need, for a neighbor in need. It may be an in-kind gesture like mowing the yard. It may be giving them money we’ll never get back, you know, giving them a loan you know you’ll never see repaid. Charity is obviously when you give of your heart, more than your head. For example, giving to your church or your local volunteer fire department or any cause that is important to you is charitable giving. But once you make a charitable gift you don’t look at it to see what the outcomes are going to be. You get a tax deduction for it, but that’s, it’s really a gift of the heart. Philanthropy is a gift of the mind. That’s a strategic long term investment in social change. So there are three different ways of giving. I would like to think that in some ways, I do at least two if not three of those. I’m not sure I have enough money to be considered a philanthropist. But I do give substantial gifts to some organizations and accordingly I monitor those gifts to ensure that some outcomes reflecting my values are met. I see money as a tool that enables me to do other things, but it’s not any more important than my education or my health or my ability to communicate and other resources that I have.
It sounds like your upbringing is a big part of that, too.
No question. I tell people that I am so fortunate because I was given all the values of a middle class family in rural America, and yet I’ve been given all the opportunities of serving in the halls of government in both our state capital and our nation’s capital and now using those experiences to continue my work nationally if not even internationally.