While nothing is a certainty in American politics today until it happens (just ask President Hillary Clinton), most Wisconsin political observers believe Governor Scott Walker will seek a third term in 2018. First, Walker is giving every indication, without declaring, that he will run again. And equally important is the fact that Democrats don’t appear to have a strong candidate to challenge Walker. There is one name that’s almost entirely unknown to most Wisconsinites(outside of political junkie-dom) but may be worth watching, if not in 2018 then very possibly down the road: Katherine Gehl. So, who is Katherine Gehl?
Gehl is the former CEO of Gehl Foods, which she and her family sold in March of 2015. Gehl has been a steady Democratic donor for years and in 2010 was nominated by President Barack Obama to serve on the board of directors of the Overseas Private Investment Corp. But in recent years Gehl has presented as independent, associating with the group No Labels. The group bills itself as “the voice for the New Center, for the tens of millions of Americans who have effectively been abandoned by Democrats and Republicans alike.”
And Gehl’s own website, while looking very much like a campaign site, gives virtually no clues of any political ideology (with the exception of a Twitter feed that shows re-tweets of President Barack Obama and Senator Tammy Baldwin). Further, it doesn’t appear that Gehl has any interest in running for governor in 2018. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported in November, 2016 that Gehl had “essentially” ruled out running for governor in 2018, but would weigh whether to run in a future election. And at an event in Milwaukee Wednesday, when asked by Mike Gousha, she reiterated that she won’t be a candidate for anything next year.
Despite Gehl indicating she’s not interested in a 2018 run, rumors are circulating that Democrats are attempting to persuade her to enter the race. A prominent Democratic donor who spoke to Media Trackers on the condition of anonymity, said it would be “a fair assumption” that the rumors are true. He also said he considered it very unlikely that the efforts to get her into the race would succeed.
The donor concurred with the assessment that Gehl very well could be the type of candidate Democrats were hoping for when Mary Burke challenged Walker in 2014; a savvy businesswoman with intellectual heft who could go toe to toe with Walker on debating the issues. So, why do some Democrats feel she is worth pursuing as a potential challenger to Walker? And if not 2018, will Gehl take a run at governor or U.S. Senate in 2022? Media Trackers looked for possible answers to that question. What follows is what we found.
Name: Katherine Gehl
Occupation: Various corporate and charitable boards, professional fund raiser and activist
Past Occupation: CEO and President of Gehl Foods, Former Tech Aide to Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley,
Residence: Hartford, WI
Past Residence: Germantown, WI; Lincoln Park, IL
According to Milwaukee Business Journal, Gehl organized an informal meeting of No Labels in 2015. It was also at that time she began to be described by the media as “a former Democrat. And at the moment, No Labels appears to represent Gehl’s political brand, to the extent that she has one. Founded in 2010, No Labels is long on political platitudes but short on substance and even shorter on accomplishments. For example, it’s “national policy agenda” lists four goals:
- Create 25 million jobs over the next ten years
- Secure Social Security and Medicare for the next 75 years
- Balance the federal budget by 2030
- Make America “energy secure” by 2024
Laudable goals, to be sure. But there are virtually no specifics attached to any of those goals. In other words, beyond “both sides” working together, there appears to be no specific policy positions attached to these goals or a strategy from passing legislation to achieve them. As for accomplishments, No Labels seems to tout one after nearly a decade in existence: passage of a bill that withholds pay from Congress if they don’t pass a budget. But even here No Labels concedes that what was ultimately signed into law did not, withhold congressional pay if a budget isn’t passed.
Gehl’s own website appears to be a hybrid of a campaign site and the No Labels site; long on gauzy, big picture goals and short on specifics on how to get anything done:
KATHERINE IS A PRAGMATIC BUSINESS LEADER WHO CARES DEEPLY ABOUT U.S. COMPETITIVENESS AND THE STATE OF OUR DEMOCRACY.
A video that accompanied that defining statement has “been removed by the user.” A section called “Key Issues” is framed with the same vague rhetoric as the No Labels website:
The challenges we face are systemic, and many require policy action at the national level. Among business leaders from all sides of the political spectrum, there’s fairly broad consensus about the top policy priorities that will help reinvigorate American competitiveness: fix the debt and the tax code, enact comprehensive energy policy, invest in our infrastructure, and strengthen our K-12 education system.
Despite widespread consensus on these issues, our political leaders haven’t made any progress. Because of structural factors – like our primary system and redistricting – both our candidates and our elected leaders increasingly reflect the interests of the ideologues and refuse to break ranks and work across the aisle. It’s clear that in order to address any of these critical weaknesses, we have to fix the political system first.
As business leaders, we stand on the front line of this challenge. If U.S. competitiveness suffers because of our broken political system, we’ll see it first. Our growth will slow, our ability to hire and pay good wages will contract, and our ability to innovate will suffer.
Gehl seems to be arguing that it is the two-party system that is holding America back; the same position on which Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump ran for president in 2016. What neither Gehl nor No Labels provides is what legislation crafted by “both sides working together” would look like.
For example: would a “comprehensive energy policy” include fracking? Would it include nuclear? Would it include building more pipelines? Would it emphasize “renewable” sources such as wind and solar?
Media Trackers talked with several conservative activists who were familiar with the rumor that Democrats are courting Gehl as a gubernatorial candidate. Most felt she was a very unlikely choice, for several reasons:
- Gehl opposed the Scott Walker recall election:
“Technically we could recall Gov. Walker over anything we wanted, and I felt just because we can doesn’t mean we should.” (Mitch Teich and Stephanie Lecci, WUWM, “Local CEO Blasts Temporary Debt Crisis Fix, Partisan Politics,” October 30, 2013.)
“I do not believe in recalling a legitimately elected governor over a policy that he got adopted by the state legislature. Instead, you should take your case against him in the next election.” – Katherine Gehl (Kelly Smith, Lake Country Now, “Former CEO wants to reform political process,” Lake Country Now, September 28, 2016)
Gehl did not sign a recall petition against Governor Scott Walker. (Database Search, iVerifytheRecall.com, Website Accessed January 24, 2017)
That position could make it extremely difficult for Gehl to survive a Democratic primary where it would be likely that most or all of her opponents would have supported the recall or been actively involved in it.
- Gehl would have to shed her non-partisan vagueness to run in a Democratic primary. She would have to take specific policy positions. Unless she is going to disavow her No Labels identity of recent years, that would almost certainly mean the rest of the primary field would run to her left. That’s a problematic position when attempting to win over the liberal base that loathes Governor Scott Walker and would have little use for a candidate who pushes for unity among the two parties.
- Republicans would attempt to define her as Mary Burke 2.0. Many Democratic voters were left feeling they had been sold a bill of goods after the 2014 election. Burke, whose family founded Trek Bicycle Co., was presented as a sophisticated business woman strong on policy and with the ability to self-fund her campaign. In the end, none of that was true. Indications are Gehl is much closer to that model than Burke was, but Republicans will attempt to saddle her with the Burke brand nonetheless.
So why, then, would at least some Democrats consider her an attractive candidate to put up against Walker next year? First, let’s look at her history of giving to political causes:
Wisconsin: (All amounts obtained from the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, Website Accessed January 25, 2017)
- Susan Happ ($1,100) – 2014
- Mary Burke ($10,000) – 2014
- Tom Barrett ($3,700) – 2010
- Henry Sanders ($1,000) – 2010
- John Imes ($200) – 2010
- Jim Doyle ($5,000) – 2008-09
- Linda Clifford ($250) – 2007
Nationally: (All amounts obtained from the Center for Responsive Politics, Website Access January 25, 2017)
- Margaret Stock (Independent Senate Candidate, Alaska) – $2,700 (2016)
- Bill Foster (Democratic Congressman, Illinois) – $1,250 (2008-2014)
- Greg Orman (Independent Senate Candidate, Kansas) – $2,600 (2014)
- Democratic Party of Virginia – $440 (2012)
- DNC Services Corp – $32,563 (2000-2012)
- Democratic Party of Nevada – $240 (2012)
- Democratic Party of Colorado -$440 (2012)
- Democratic Party of Ohio – $640 (2012)
- Democratic Party of Wisconsin – $240 (2012)
- Democratic Party of North Carolina – $440 (2012)
- Democratic Executive Committee of Florida – $680 (2012)
- Democratic Party of Pennsylvania – $520 (2012)
- Democratic Party of Iowa – $200 (2012)
- Barack Obama (Presidential Campaign) – $9,316 (2007-2012)
- Elizabeth Esty (Democratic Congresswoman, Connecticut) – $250 (2011)
- Julia Lassa (Democratic Congressional Candidate, Wisconsin) – $250 (2010)
- David Hoffman (Democratic Senate Candidate, Illinois) – $2,400 (2010)
- Joe Biden (Democratic Senator, Delaware) – $1,000 (2006)
- Bill Nelson (Democratic Senator, Florida) – $1,250 (2005)
- Barack Obama (Democratic Senator, Illinois) – $750 (2004-05)
- Jack Ryan (Republican Senate Candidate, Illinois) – $1,000 (2003)
During the 2008 Presidential Campaign, Gehl acted as a fund raising bundler for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign; raising over $1 million for the campaign. (Greg Hinz, “Meet Obama’s bundlers,” Crain’s Chicago Business, August 23, 2008; Investment Watch Blog, “Corruption! – Guccifer 2.0 New DNC Email Leak! If This Isn’t Pay for Play, I Don’t Know What Is,” September 14, 2016)
Besides fund raising for the Obama Presidential Campaign, Gehl fundraised for the 2009 Obama Inaugural as member of Finance Committee. (Julie Johnsson, “There’ll be no quick getaway after Barack Obama’s Inauguration, Chicago Tribune, January 14, 2009)
Democrats may believe that Gehl’s frustration with party politics is no reason to question her liberal bona fides. And contrary to the conservative handicapping of Gehl mentioned above, Democrats may believe that someone who is positioned as a moderate but would govern from the far left may be the perfect anti-Scott Walker weapon. In an opinion piece in January, the Beloit Daily news described Gehl as the type of candidate that ” Democrats also light a candle every four years, praying that a business executive or retired executive willing to spend $5 million or more of their own money will run for governor.”.And even though she isn’t running for anything, Gehl has already received fawning coverage from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
In May, 2016, the paper ran a piece praising Gehl for the decision to reward employees when selling the family business:
Katherine Gehl and her family were the toast of the town when they sold their Germantown company, Gehl Foods, in March 2015.
After all, the Gehls did not just cash in and walk away. Instead, they gave each of their full-time employees an envelope containing a card worth $10,000, including $5,000 for their 401 (k) plan and $5,000 for their next paycheck.
In total, the company’s 470 employees received more than $3 million when the family business was sold to Wind Point Partners, a Chicago private equity firm.
So, the obvious $3 million question here is: Why?
“I simply cannot imagine not doing it,” Gehl says with a shrug. “If this family does well, then it’s really important that all of the people who worked alongside my father (John) and me also benefit. We wanted to share our appreciation with the people who helped build this company. It was so phenomenally fulfilling.” The backstory here is Gehl’s journey to arrive at a point where she could walk away from the family company and leave it in good stead.
Steve Jagler’s piece also offers a glowing appraisal of how Gehl transformed the management paradigm at the family business and her successful leadership style:
The company was changed from a “culture of activity” to a “culture of performance,” Gehl says.
She encouraged all of her employees to be “players on the court,” rather than spectators at the game.
Gehl built a leadership team of “highly talented” people at the company. Equally important, she empowered them.
In the end, because she had built such a strong corporate culture and an emboldened leadership team, she made herself expendable. Ironically, that’s what great leaders do, according to John Stahl-Wert, leadership coach and author of “The Serving Leader.”
“Her commitment to serve. Every great leader knows they’re not there for themselves. They’re there for their people. They’re serving their customers. They’re serving their values,” said Stahl-Wert, president of the Newton Institute and director of its Center for Serving Leadership in Claysville, Pa. “She is another fantastic leader. There are many, many beautiful Katherines out there who understand what their real job is.”
Stahl-Wert added: “That’s the biggest key to great leadership. Give it away. Pass it down the line. Grow those below you. Teach them to follow your lead. Make yourself expendable. And reap the harvest of a life of incalculable worthiness.”
Jagler also reported that “the next chapter in her career could very well involve politics, but Gehl says she has no specific plans.” Jagler quoted Gehl as saying “We’ll see.” Jagler ended the piece by advising “don’t bet against her.”
Gehl also helped fund the lawsuit that resulted in a court striking down Wisconsin’s legislative maps. The ruling was seen as a victory for Democrats. Gehl’s participation in the challenge could provide her with a lift with liberal primary voters. Gehl did, however, tell the Journal Sentinel her reason for helping fund the suit was that it could transform the way states draw political maps — not because it helped Democrats.
As mentioned above, the current conventional wisdom in conservative circles is that Gehl meant it when she said she wasn’t running and that she wouldn’t be a terribly strong candidate if she did. Republican insiders we spoke with see the following list as the most likely contenders to challenge Walker:
- Dane County Executive Joe Parisi
- Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele (Since this story posted, Abele has told WTMJ Radio in Milwaukee he will not be running for governor in 2018)
- Jefferson County District Attorney and former Attorney General candidate Susan Happ
None have significant statewide name recognition, with Abele perhaps the best known, despite a previous statewide run by Happ. Provisions in Governor Walker’s proposed budget to raise K-12 school funding and cut UW tuition are seen by both Democrats and Republicans as moves that would help him in a bid for a third term. Walker, in an interview with Media Trackers on Friday, all but announced he was seeking a third term and said that a Flat Tax proposal offered by the MacIver Institute recently would almost certainly be the centerpiece of his campaign if he runs.
Despite Walkers currently low approval ratings , it appears at least some in the Democratic party feel they need a candidate that breaks political orthodoxy. If they can persuade Gehl to change her mind about running, it will be interesting to see how many of the above mentioned names decide to enter the race. Democrats may also remember how they fared with “clear the field” strategies for governor in Wisconsin in 2014 and president in 2016.
At a Marquette University event moderated by Mike Gousha Wednesday, Gehl toyed with the audience when asked about whether she’s considering a run for office. After composing herself Gehl responded by saying she “might run,” to anxious applause from the crowd. Applause which was quickly muted by Gehl herself when she added the words, “but not anytime soon” stating she had no plans to ‘be a candidate for office in 2018.” Opting instead to tell the Marquette crowd that she currently wished to ‘work systemically to bring these reforms forward’ in the coming years. Regardless, for at least the next two election cycles, Katherine Gehl is a name to watch.
Kevin Binversie provided research for this article.