MILWAUKEE – Former Wisconsin Gov. Patrick Lucey, a hard-nosed Democratic politician who later became the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, has died. He was 96.
Lucey, who also ran for vice president of the United States as an independent in 1980, died Saturday night at the Milwaukee Catholic Home after a brief Illness, said his son, Paul Lucey, of Milwaukee. He said funeral arrangements are pending.
“Governor Lucey was a dedicated public servant who loved Wisconsin,” Republican Gov. Scott Walker said in a statement. He called it “a particular joy” to be with him last summer for the 40th anniversary of the Kikkoman Foods Inc. soy sauce plant in Fontana.
Patrick Lucey was elected governor in 1970 and won re-election in 1974, but left midway through his second term to serve as then-President Jimmy Carter’s ambassador to Mexico.
In Wisconsin, he will perhaps be remembered most for pushing to merge the University of Wisconsin in Madison with the state college system, a fierce battle that created today’s system of 13 four-year state colleges.
Lucey was born in La Crosse, Wisconsin, in 1918. He worked as a grocery store manager from 1937 until 1940 and served in World War II in the Caribbean. He was elected to the state Assembly in 1948 and became executive director and later chairman of the state Democratic Party. He served as lieutenant governor in 1966.
Lucey’s biggest legacy was creating the modern UW System. Before he was governor, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, UW-Milwaukee, UW-Green Bay, UW-Parkside, 10 freshman-sophomore centers and the extension system operated outside the chain of nine other state schools such as Platteville and Eau Claire. Each group had its own board of regents.
Lucey felt that was wasteful and called for a merger. But he faced stiff opposition from critics who felt lumping the Madison campus in with the rest of the schools would suck money from it and eat away at the university’s control of its own affairs.
Lucey was able to muster enough support to make it happen. In October 1971, the state Senate gave the final go-ahead to force consolidation by one vote.
Carter tapped Lucey to serve as his ambassador to Mexico in 1977, a year before Lucey’s second term as governor would have ended. In 1980, Lucey turned around and became independent John Anderson’s running mate in a failed bid to defeat Carter and Republican Ronald Reagan, who won the election.
Lucey continued to remain active in politics and every bit as opinionated well into his 90s. He briefly served with former Gov. Tommy Thompson as honorary co-chairmen for Justice David Prosser’s contentious campaign for Wisconsin Supreme Court in 2011 but withdrew his support just before the election because of what he called “a disturbing distemper and lack of civility” in Prosser, though he did not cite specifics.
Lucey, in fact, was responsible for breaking the all-male dominance of the state’s high court when he appointed now Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson to it in 1976.