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Herb Kohl remembered for roles in Wisconsin sports as much as politics

Former four-term senator and Milwaukee Bucks owner died Wednesday

Former Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., seen in April 1994, died on Wednesday.
Former Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., seen in April 1994, died on Wednesday. (Laura Patterson/CQ Roll Call)

As the tributes poured in following the death of former Sen. Herb Kohl, it was clear the Wisconsin Democrat was much beloved as a legislator but perhaps more so for his work to keep the NBA’s Bucks in Milwaukee.

Kohl died Wednesday at age 88.

Kohl, who bought the Bucks in 1985, faced allegations that he was buying his way into politics in 1988 by tapping the personal wealth amassed from his family’s chain of department stores and self-fund his campaign. He responded with the campaign slogan, “Nobody’s senator but yours,” and won an open Senate seat by 4 percentage points. He went on to serve four terms — winning his last election in 2006 by nearly 38 points — and won praise from Republicans and Democrats alike.

Offering condolences Thursday, President Joe Biden said Kohl’s “humility was always an immense source of strength.”

Biden served with Kohl in the Senate for two decades, notably on the Judiciary Committee.

“We worked together to pass the most significant gun safety bill in history; to boost funding for community policing; and to support juvenile justice programs that helped to significantly reduce juvenile crime, while giving millions of young people a better shot at life,” Biden said. “Throughout his career, Herb was unafraid to stand up to the business community that he’d come from, seeking to level the playing field for workers and make our economy more efficient and fair.”

“As I worked closely with Herb over the years to hold big pharmaceutical companies accountable and make it easier for Americans to save for their retirement, it was clear that his heart was always with the people of Wisconsin,” Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a statement after Kohl’s death. “His gentleness and Wisconsin nice is something that is very missed in the Senate.”

“We worked together to pass sunshine payment laws in the health care industry & beef up competition with generic drugs in the marketplace. Barbara & I are praying for his family,” Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, said on the social media platform X about his work with Kohl, who was the longtime lead Democrat on the Judiciary subcommittee that handles antitrust policy.

Minnesota Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who currently chairs that subcommittee, was among many to cite Kohl’s commitment to sports.

“Herb was known for his generosity, his fierce devotion to Wisconsin sports, and his steadfast commitment to serving the people of his state,” Klobuchar said in a statement. “Herb was never one to seek the spotlight, but he never had to — his accomplishments, from his philanthropic contributions to his work supporting dairy farmers and improving access to affordable healthcare, speak for themselves.”

Chairman Kohl and actor Mickey Rooney arrive for a Senate Special Committee on Aging hearing on elder abuse on March 2, 2011. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

In a statement, the Bucks noted that Kohl’s “generosity led to the building of Fiserv Forum, which is on Herb Kohl Way.” Kohl sold the NBA franchise in 2014, contributing $100 million to the cost of the current modern arena that will host to the 2024 Republican National Convention. Famously, Kohl was also a childhood friend and college roommate of Bud Selig, the owner of the Milwaukee Brewers baseball team and commissioner of Major League Baseball.

Kohl’s philanthropic efforts at the University of Wisconsin are highlighted by the name of the multipurpose arena in Madison, too, which is the Kohl Center.

“UW athletics, in particular, is forever in his debt for the arena on campus that bears his name and for his countless other acts of support that have enriched the lives of generations of student-athletes, staff and coaches,” Chris McIntosh, director of athletics at the University of Wisconsin, said in a statement. “We have lost a true legend.”

On Capitol Hill, Kohl was a generally reserved character who, in addition to leading the antitrust panel, was a senior member of the Appropriations Committee, serving as chairman of the Agriculture Subcommittee.

“Everyone’s different, and being in front of cameras is not something that I seek, let alone enjoy,” Kohl said in a 2008 CQ Profile. “I do it as a necessity. I don’t seek it.”

Kohl’s successor in the Senate, Democrat Tammy Baldwin, said in a statement that she considered Kohl her “role model.”

“It didn’t matter how powerful the opposing forces were or how long the fight was, Herb was willing to take on any challenge if it meant a brighter future for Wisconsin,” Baldwin said. “Herb was as generous as they come — with his resources, his knowledge, his time, and his heart.”

Kohl, D-Wis., reads a statement at a Jan. 30, 2001, Judiciary Committee hearing outlining his reasons for opposing the confirmation of former Sen. John Ashcroft, R-Mo., to be attorney general, as then-Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., looks on. (Scott J. Ferrell/CQ Roll Call)

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