Former Gov. Tony Earl Passes Away at Age 86

Tony Earl

Former Gov. Tony Earl (File photo)

By Pat Kreitlow

February 23, 2023

Earl’s lengthy record of military, city, county, and state service was capped by his 1982 election as governor. He is being remembered for environmental stewardship and his pioneering advocacy for gay rights.

Former Gov. Tony Earl, whose lifetime was spent in public, died Thursday after suffering a stroke last weekend, according to a statement released by Gov. Tony Evers.

Earl was 86.

Elected Wisconsin’s 41st governor in 1982, Earl served one term before being unseated by Republican Tommy Thompson in 1986. 

A Michigan native, Earl graduated from Michigan State University and the University of Chicago Law School and served in the US Navy before becoming an assistant district attorney in Marathon County in 1965. Earl also served as Wausau city attorney the following year

In October 1969, Earl won a special election for a seat in the state Assembly after Dave Obey won a special election to Congress. Earl eventually rose to the post of Majority Leader from 1972 to 1974, before working in the administrations of three governors: Patrick Lucey, Martin Schreiber, and Lee Dreyfus—a tenure that included time as secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

Friends and former colleagues are remembering Earl for his stewardship of the Wisconsin environment, his leadership in promoting equality for the LGBTQ community, and his passion for good governance and greater cooperation between Democrats and Republicans.

“We often joked that I thought he should have been a Republican and he was sure I should have been a Democrat,” Thompson said in a statement. “What we both were was Wisconsinites first and foremost.” 

Gov. Evers immediately ordered US and Wisconsin flags to be flown at half-staff through March 3. 

“It has been an extraordinary honor and a privilege to know former Gov. Earl,” Evers said in a statement. “Kathy and I are heartbroken today to announce his passing. A formidable leader and public servant, trusted colleague and mentor, and a good and loyal friend, Tony was well-liked and respected by so many.”

Earl had said he believed his legacy would be his advocacy for gay rights: He issued an executive order establishing a process for gay people to bring discrimination complaints, created a Governor’s Council on Gay and Lesbian Issues and appointed an openly gay man as his press secretary. Tammy Baldwin, who went on to become the first openly gay person ever elected to the US Senate, interned in Earl’s office. 

“Governor Tony Earl was a mentor and friend to me, and I am deeply saddened to hear of his passing,” Sen. Baldwin said in a statement. “From my time as his intern, through his later years, Gov. Earl was always a shining example of what is good about government and the good that government can do, working with Republicans and Democrats to deliver for Wisconsinites and always putting people over politics.”

Democratic US Rep. Mark Pocan said he volunteered on Earl’s first campaign for governor when he was in high school.

“From the first day I met him, he was always the most gracious person, with the goal of cultivating a Democratic bench for the future,” Pocan said in a statement. “Politics was never personal to him, and I’ve taken that lesson to heart. I will miss him.”

Earl also appointed the state’s first female Department of Administration secretary, Doris Hanson, and the first Black Cabinet member, Howard Fuller, as head of the Department of Employee Relations.

“Now the kinds of things I was doing are absolutely taken as a given,” Earl told the Associated Press in 2013.

Earl’s political career ended after he lost a Democratic primary race for US Senate in 1988 to Herb Kohl. Earl then set up shop in Madison as an attorney and advocate for government reform.

“Somebody told me when I was elected, ‘You’re about to embark on a mountaintop experience.’ And it really was in many, many ways,” Earl said in that AP interview a decade ago. “I loved the retail politics. I loved to get around the state. I enjoyed all these little festivals.”

“The family is tremendously grateful for the love and support we’ve received,” Earl’s four daughters, Julia, Anne, Maggie, and Kitty said in a statement. “Our dad would have been honored by the outpouring of gratitude expressed by all. He would encourage anyone he knew to actively engage in positive change.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.


  • Pat Kreitlow

    The Founding Editor of UpNorthNews, Pat was a familiar presence on radio and TV stations in western Wisconsin before serving in the state Legislature. After a brief stint living in the Caribbean, Pat and wife returned to Chippewa Falls to be closer to their growing group of grandchildren. He now serves as UNN's chief political correspondent and host of UpNorthNews Radio, airing weekday mornings 6 a.m.-8 a.m on the Civic Media radio network and the UpNorthNews Facebook page.

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