Eco-Hero: Paul Hassett

Paul Hassett has impressive Republican credentials. He's also a solid environmentalist. The former Executive Secretary to Governor Warren Knowles and the one-time President of Wisconsin Manufacturing and Commerce, Paul recently stepped back into the limelight as treasurer for the Wisconsin Stewardship PAC. The bipartisan PAC's has two goals for this fall's election - restore the Public Intervenor's Office and stop Exxon's proposed metallic sulfide mine near Crandon.

At 79, Paul has the kind of perspective that only comes from living through two wars, the Depression and a serious change in the Republican Party he once was so active in. As a high schooler, he was state champion in the mile for Milwaukee's West Division High School. Paul received a scholarship to the UW-LaCrosse and was the first in a family of 7 to attend college. Shortly after college he enlisted into the Air Force, and navigated cargo planes through the Himalayas of China, India and Burma - known as "the hump" for some of the most treacherous flying in the world.

He returned to Wisconsin, taking a position as editor of the Dunn County News. It gave him the opportunity to learn "a lot about everything," he says. From farm issues, to city council, to crime, Paul traveled Dunn county and talked to folks and looked at local life. It was here that he met Warren Knowles, then a young lawyer practicing in New Richmond.

Hassett moved on to the Wisconsin Petroleum Council. His new trail covered all the state's 72 counties, and he met with legislators, dealers and weekly newspaper editors. He maintained contact with Warren Knowles, sending him weekly memos from his travels to "give him a sense of what real people were thinking." It was this type of political insight that later led Knowles to select Hassett as his chief of staff.

"Working for Warren Knowles was a lot different than working for Tommy Thompson," Hassett says. "Tommy likes to run things himself, Warren gave people the authority to run things." Hassett strongly respects Warren Knowles and Republicans like him who firmly believe in Wisconsin's democratic process.

Hassett thinks Governor Thompson's has trampled our state's democratic tradition. "Tommy wants to run everything but this fall, I hope that the Democrats retain control of one house. Without that," he says, "the legislators will do whatever the Governor wants."

"My view has always been that the best system is when you have the houses divided," says Hassett. "This means you can't implement your views without the help from the other side and working out a compromise. Warren was Governor for three terms, and our best session was with a split house. I remember a meeting with the chief of staff for Ronald Reagan who wondered how we got anything done with split houses."

Knowles' love for the outdoors was legendary. "While Warren was Governor we started the Governor's Open, a fishing tournament," Hassett recalls. "We'd invite sports editors from seven or eight states to some big lodge in northern Wisconsin for a week-end. Seventy or eighty people would come."

Once, a reporter from Iowa decided to test Warren's reputation as an outdoors enthusiast and asked to go along. "They were out at 5 am and didn't come back until dark. That guy was exhausted and word traveled. After that, journalists would only go out with Warren for 3 hours at a time. He was too much for them."

During Governor Knowles tenure, the Public Intervenor's Office was signed into law. Hassett remembers it well. "The Public Intervenor's Office was unique to Wisconsin and allowed us to practice democracy at its base. It gave ordinary people a chance to call somebody without paying them to look after their problems. Often the Public Intervenor's avoided legal action was - this was just basic problem solving. "

As President of WMC, Hassett was responsible for working with businesses to implement the changes required by the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. "I preached," he says, "that it was important to keep Wisconsin's air and water clean. It was simple, a clean environment is good for Wisconsin and good for business. Naturally there were arguments, some of these businesses had to make thousands and even millions of dollars of investments. But we worked hard to convince many businesses that changing the way they do things would, in the end, be good for business."

"If we lay the proper groundwork, we have a good chance of defeating the Exxon mine"

Today, Paul works with the Wisconsin Stewardship PAC to develop bipartisan support for the environment. What does the future hold for Wisconsin? "If we lay the proper groundwork, we have a good chance of defeating the Exxon mine, but it will be a long process," he thinks. "But, we will never see the restoration of the Public Intervenor under Governor Thompson. They got in his way and he doesn't like that."

In the future, Hassett thinks land use will be Wisconsin's most important issue. "Wisconsin has a great reputation as a place to visit and now there are all these people coming in, buying land and seeking a beautiful place to live. I don't blame them at all, but we are going to have fight to protect what we have here."

- Pam Porter