First Mate

One of the state’s shortest-serving governors, Scott McCallum knows what it’s like to take over in a power vacuum.

No one knows the scrutiny that could come Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch’s way quite like Scott McCallum. After longtime Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson became U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services in 2001, McCallum settled into the governor’s chair for a two-year stint that ended in 2002 with a 45-41 percent defeat at the hands of Democrat Jim Doyle. McCallum’s fate was to take over a governorship long enough for something to go wrong but not long enough to fix it – a record-squeezing scenario that could befall Kleefisch if another Scott, Gov. Walker, wins the presidency, or a cabinet position, or simply refuses to come home.

Now 65 and living in Lodi, Wis., McCallum wryly compares being lieutenant governor to warming the bench for Aaron Rodgers. “There are always things you don’t know, but you are always prepared,” he says. “It was a little difficult in my case because I took over right as the budget was being introduced, and I had one week to revise an unbalanced budget.” McCallum wasn’t the first lieutenant governor to take over on short notice: Lt. Gov. Martin “Marty” Schreiber, a Democrat, traded the slumberous post for the hot seat in 1977 after Gov. Patrick Lucey’s resignation.

Parts of Schreiber’s time, McCallum wanted to emulate, and others he wanted to discard. “I always felt comfortable with who I was, even though it wasn’t always the politically safe way,” he says. However, “It was complicated … Tommy had been in for so long.” He’d given McCallum about a month of lead time before going public with his plans to decamp for D.C. Kleefisch would likely have about the same interval before Walker announced a similar plan, according to McCallum, who suspects she’s already prepping.

“If she becomes governor, there will be no shortage of people who think they are her best friend and will have no shortage of advice,” he says. “There is a kinship among lieutenant governors. I’ve been there, and I’m willing to help if she needs it; but I’ll let her come to me.”

‘First Mate’ appears in the September 2015 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
The September 2015 issue is on newsstands August 31.

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Corrinne Hess is a former newspaper reporter living in Milwaukee.