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Former U.S. Senator Herb Kohl dead at 88

Kohl's death Wednesday was announced by Herb Kohl Philanthropies, which did not give a cause but said he died after a brief illness.
Former U.S. Senator Herb Kohl dead at 88
Posted at 6:54 PM, Dec 27, 2023
and last updated 2023-12-27 20:54:55-05

Herb Kohl, a former Democratic U.S. senator from Wisconsin and former owner of the Milwaukee Bucks basketball team, has died. He was 88.

His death Wednesday was announced by Herb Kohl Philanthropies, which did not give a cause but said he died after a brief illness.

“More than anything, Herb loved Milwaukee and Wisconsin, and that is where he chose to live out his days,” Kohl's foundation said in a statement. “He touched an incalculable number of lives, and those who love him would remark that he is among the most decent people to ever walk the earth.”

Kohl was a popular figure in Wisconsin, purchasing the Bucks to keep them from leaving town, and spending generously from his fortune on civic and educational causes throughout the state. He also used his money to fund his Senate races, allowing to him to portray himself as “nobody’s senator but yours.”

In the Senate, a body renowned for egos, Kohl was an unusual figure. He was quiet and not one to seek credit, yet effective on issues important to the state, especially dairy policy. He was one of the richest members of the Senate, and the Senate’s only professional sports team owner.

“Sen. Kohl was deeply committed to community, kindness, and service to others,” Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers said in a statement. “Wisconsin’s seniors, students, teachers, and schools, and farmers and rural areas, among so many others, are better off because of his life and legacy, the impacts of which will last for generations.”

Kohl was born in Milwaukee, where he was a childhood friend of Bud Selig, who went on to become commissioner of the MLB. The two roomed together at the University of Wisconsin and remained friends in adulthood.

After receiving his bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin in 1956, Kohl went on to earn a master’s degree in business administration from Harvard University in 1958, and he served in the Army Reserve from 1958-64. He helped grow the family-owned business, Kohl’s grocery and department stores, and served as company president in the 1970s. The corporation was sold in 1979.

Kohl also got into Wisconsin politics in the 1970s, serving as chair of the state Democratic Party from 1975 to 1977.

In 1985, Kohl bought the Bucks for $18 million.

“I am pleased, happy and delighted,” he said at a news conference. “The Milwaukee Bucks are in Milwaukee and they are going to stay in Milwaukee.”

The team was in the middle of its sixth straight winning season when Kohl bought it, and it went on to post winning records in the first six full seasons with Kohl as owner, before stumbling through most of the 1990s. The team improved in the late ’90s and early 2000s. In 2006, Kohl, owner of the small-market Bucks, was one of eight league owners to ask NBA commissioner David Stern to implement revenue sharing.

He eventually sold the team in 2014 to New York billionaires Wes Edens and Marc Lasry. He contributed $100 million toward construction of Fiserv Forum to replace the aging Bradley Center arena, helping ensure the team would remain in Milwaukee. Taxpayers contributed another $250 million. The arena opened in 2018. Three years later, Giannis Antetokounmpo led the Bucks past the Phoenix Suns to claim the NBA championship, the team's first since 1971.

Kohl’s civic commitments extended well beyond keeping professional basketball in Wisconsin. He donated $25 million to the University of Wisconsin to help fund construction of the Kohl Center, home to the school’s basketball and hockey teams. It was the single largest private donation in university history.

“I was very happy to be in a position to help build a first-rate, state-of-the-art sports arena,” Kohl once said. “I think it cements the university’s reputation as one of the premier athletic programs in the Big Ten and the country.”

He also used his own money to fund the Herb Kohl Educational Foundation, which donates money for scholarships and fellowships to students, teachers and schools in Wisconsin.

In 1988, Kohl decided to run for the Senate, following the announcement that Sen. William Proxmire was retiring, and defeated then-state Sen. Susan Engeleiter, the Republican candidate. He won reelection in 1994, 2000 and 2006. His considerable fortune helped scare away the Republican Party from mounting a serious challenge in 2006.

Kohl never accepted a pay raise in the Senate; he drew a salary of $89,500 every year, the same pay he got when he entered the Senate in 1989, returning the rest to the Treasury Department.

In the Senate, Kohl tended to home state interests. He opposed the Northeast Dairy Compact, a program opposed by Midwestern dairy farmers, and helped prevent it from being renewed in Congress. Kohl was instrumental in coming up with a replacement program, the Milk Income Loss Contract, which paid dairy farmers cash when prices fell below a certain level; the program especially helped Wisconsin dairy farmers.

As the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations agriculture subcommittee, which controls the budget of the Department of Agriculture, Kohl had a strong say on farm policy. He was also the top Democrat on the Senate Aging Committee and the Judiciary antitrust subcommittee. Kohl served as chair of all three panels when Democrats were in the majority.

Kohl didn’t mind doing things in the Senate without much credit. As Congress became more and more partisan, the diminutive Kohl almost seemed to be a throwback to another era.

“I am a person who does not believe in invective,” he once said. “I never go out and look to grab the mike or go in front of the TV camera. When I go to work everyday, I check my ego at the door.”

He was succeeded by Democrat Tammy Baldwin, Wisconsin's first female senator and the Senate's first openly gay member.

Kohl, who never married, said that being single gave him time to balance the demands of life as a senator and owner. A sign on his Senate office desk said: “The Bucks Stop Here.”


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