Jerry Petrowski

Retired State Senator Jerry Petrowski wasn’t exactly a firebrand, but he got things done, sources say

Jerry Petrowski

Nobody interviewed about the two-dozen years Jerry Petrowski spent in the state Legislature – first in the Assembly, then the Senate – accuses him of being a firebrand. What they do say, according to former Assembly representative John Robinson, currently a Marathon County Board supervisor, is, “He wasn’t the person looking for the front page, but he was the problem-solver.”

Petrowski last year announced he wouldn’t be seeking re-election as District 29’s State Senator, after more than a dozen years in the position, and State Assembly before that. 

Back in my days as a reporter, Petrowski steered clear of contentious issues such as Gov. Scott Walker’s surprise Act 10 initiative that stripped labor unions of much of their power. Months passed with Petrowski never acknowledging or responding to repeated requests for comment. As a younger man, Petrowski had been a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. 

Robinson says Petrowski, despite being from the opposing party, remained cordial and they kept in touch about the issues over the years. He, “…wasn’t always happy with the demands of party leadership,” Robinson says.

Agreeing with that is Hermening. He’s known Petrowski for decades and can even say when he served in the Army Reserves, 1968 to 1974. He made a name for himself in Madison not as a strident, confrontational politician but as a representative aiming to craft legislation that would solve problems. Hermening says, “Jerry knew how to get the work of legislating and constituent service completed.”

Hermening says that, at least in part due to COVID, vocal Republicans in this part of the state shifted to the right, but Petrowski held to a more middle-of-the-road position. “He saw himself as the people’s senator, not the Republican Party’s senator.”

A father of four, he is now 72. Petrowski attended UW-Stevens Point Wausau campus and Northcentral Technical College. Living on a farm in the Town of Stettin, he was a dairy, beef and ginseng farmer when he ran for state Assembly in 1998. After Petrowski had served seven two-year terms in the Assembly, the incumbent Republican state senator, Pam Galloway, resigned and Petrowski won that seat in a special election in 2012. Because of gerrymandered boundary lines, the district he represented took in a diagonal swath of the state from eastern Marathon County to Sawyer and Rusk counties. The drive from one corner to the other – Hayward to Galloway – is 190 miles.

His most recent committee assignments were Transportation, Veterans and Military Affairs, Agriculture, Revenue and Financial Institutions, Economic Development, Commerce and Trade and the Joint Legislative Council. In addition, he was appointed to two commissions, two councils and a state board. Within District 29 are three Assembly districts; District 85 Pat Snyder, District 86 John Spiros and District 87 James “Jimmy Boy” Edming.

One thing Petrowski was known for was his involvement with and support of the Hmong community centered in Wausau. Early this year he, was among the honorees of the Hmong-Lao Veterans of America and the Hmong American Center. Yee Leng Xiong, director of the center, says, “Other politicians only show up to campaign. He’s committed all the time.” He helped get funding to help with burial expenses of Hmong veterans, like those for veterans of U.S. military.

Xiong says at last summer’s Hmong festival, Petrowski was honored for being a friend and won the center’s Person of the Year honor. He didn’t have to be in the spotlight, Xiong says. “One thing that was remarkable about Jerry was that he would show up, even when he didn’t have a speaking part.”

When Petrowski did speak at an event, Xiong says his remarks were non-partisan. He encouraged the audience to vote, not just vote Republican. Xiong says Petrowski values the relationship with Hmong veterans. “He’s a patriot and appreciates their sacrifice, fighting for American citizens and values. He values them as fellow soldiers.”

Jerry Petrowski – too compliant?

Active Democrats in the district would have liked to see Petrowski buck some of his party’s more extreme positions. Nancy Stencil, who has run for Assembly against Spiros, says, “What motivated others to run against him was Jerry really began to vote lockstep with the rest of the Republicans. Jerry was originally a union guy and suddenly did not stand up for the unions anymore. He would talk the talk and vote the other way.” She says she recalls only once that he voted as unions wanted and in that instance he chose to do it because the Republicans had enough votes without him.

She says Petrowski seemed to work well with Tony Gonzalez on Hispanic issues, but during a legislative action day he wasn’t actually answering constituent questions. Despite that, Stencil says, “Jerry was at least approachable to talk to.”

Wausau Mayor Katie Rosenberg says there were few times when she asked him to do something for the city, so she couldn’t really rate him on that, but he was always willing to chat when they were both at community events. She says it always struck her how much mutual respect there was between him and the Hmong and Lao veterans. “We both attended quite a few Hmong veteran funerals in the last year and without fail, he would show up with a plaque honoring the deceased, signed by the governor, the state representative, and himself. It was incredibly meaningful for the families to have that final honor.”

Another impression had to do with her parents. There’s her dad the extroverted political animal and her mom, who she describes as “an introvert and a house cat.” She says, “He always remembered to ask specifically about my mom. It was always surprising and nice.”

Fellow legislator

Pat Snyder, the former radio broadcaster serving since 2016 in the state Assembly, had an up-close view of Petrowski and wasn’t surprised at his reluctance to be interviewed. ” He did a lot behind the scenes, but I do think Jerry wanted to stay out of the spotlight with the press and the public,” Snyder says Petrowski made clear his conservative views, but, “He was very careful of what he said.”

Snyder recalls one of the first times Petrowski took him into his confidence. “”He told me, ‘I want to get something done.’ You name it, he would get things done if it was helping somebody. He was not one to breathe fire and make enemies.”

Snyder says Petrowski had the respect of Gov. Tony Evers to the point where, “He always takes Jerry’s calls.” Known for his practicality, Petrowski could speak to the governor before starting to work on a bill. 

Some lawmakers go through the motions of introducing legislation just so they can brag that they tried, but Petrowski felt, “If he’s going to veto it, don’t bother.”

Snyder says he has tried to model his legislative efforts after Petrowski’s. He says when he saw Petrowski wade into a messy issue, his thought was, “Here comes Mr. Fixer. I want to pattern myself after that.” Like Petrowski, he says party affiliation should not be the important thing in Madison and he just wants to work with people who will help things. 

Snyder also shared that, when Petrowski decided not to seek another term, he offered to campaign for Snyder if he ran for the Senate seat. Snyder says at age 66, he decided not to take that on, but he said he didn’t notice Petrowski campaigning for Tomczyk. Snyder says though Tomczyk is now the senator for the district, it’s nice to know if he needs a consult with a legislative veteran, he can still call Petrowski. 

Hermening says north-central Wisconsin benefitted from Petrowski’s work. He said Petrowski worked to safeguard funding for the veterans’ home in King, sponsored a bill to get a new juvenile facility built in Milwaukee and provided a way for sexual assault victims to get permanent restraining orders against their assailant.

Petrowski deserves a big salute for his years of service, Hermening says, and he’s working with Robinson to stage a recognition dinner for him in September. When it comes down to it, Hermening says, “I can’t think of anything bad to say about Jerry.”

Jerry Petrowski chose not to be interviewed

Former State Sen. Jerry Petrowski chose not to be interviewed for this story about his career. 

He took several days to respond to phone messages early in the year and, when he did call back, he asked to be given two months to think about what he’d say if he decided to say anything. It was a busy time, he said, with lots of unpacking to do. 

Petrowski did mention that a month earlier, as activity in his Senate office was coming to a halt, he had started writing a letter to his grandchildren. “Right now, I’m up to 220 pages,” he said.

Unknown is why he stopped attending meetings of the Republican Party of Marathon County. Kevin Hermening, recently re-elected to chair the group, says he does not think Petrowski stayed away in recent years because of any trepidation of getting flak for things like COVID restrictions and election suspicions. A bigger factor, Hermening says, was just that it was an extra meeting that could mean greater risk from COVID.

Petrowski spoke to a reporter only briefly about his focus in Madison, more about producing legislation he thought would be helpful than it was on political posturing. He said, “I did a lot of bills, Pat. I probably set a record for any two-year cycle.”

He described one memorable piece of legislation as “the judges bill.” It was complex, restructuring the circuit court system, and his colleagues were getting nowhere in their attempts to write it. Party leaders asked him to take over and he finished the job. 

That was as close as he came to an interview, but others had lots to say. Petrowski’s successor, state Sen. Cory Tomczyk, declined a request to either be interviewed or respond to e-mailed questions.

Missing e-mails

Sometimes the efforts to get information for a story become an offshoot of the story. That’s what happened when a reporter doing a story on a just-retired state senator started to wonder about that senator’s relationship with the citizen who became his successor. 

Given Wisconsin’s open records law, it seemed like a straightforward matter to ask for e-mails Jerry Petrowski had received in the past several years when he was in the state Senate from Cory Tomczyk, the Mosinee man who declared his candidacy almost immediately after Petrowski announced he would not seek another four-year term. The idea would be to find out if Tomczyk had pushed Petrowski to be more outspoken about causes Tomczyk has embraced, such as the legitimacy of the election Joe Biden won against Donald Trump and whether national health leaders were providing good guidance when it came to COVID-19.

It would be a way to find out if pressure from vocal constituents like Tomczyk played a role in Petrowski leaving the Legislature after 24 years. 

Using the required legal language, an official open records request was made Feb. 21 and a response came the next day saying Petrowski’s former office for Senate District 29 had no such records. Surprised by that, I asked who would have them and on Feb. 23, Mitch Sands, Tomczyk’s chief of staff, repeated that people in his office have no access to those materials.

“Sen. Petrowski didn’t turn any records over to us,” Sands wrote. “What you’re requesting doesn’t exist.” He explained that state lawmakers wrote into the open records law an exception for themselves. Administrative staff must keep records of their communication, Sands said, but legislators do not. 

It turned out that was not the full story. Legislators must retain records while they’re serving, according to an aide in the office of Gov. Tony Evers, but when they leave office there is no requirement that their records must be kept or passed along to a successor. The exiting lawmaker can leave instructions to retain the records, but the aide said that in most cases that doesn’t happen. 

“The successor pretty much will never have access to those records,” she said. It is not a matter of animosity – making the new senator start from scratch – as it is just common practice. 

The governor’s aide said the originals of the requested e-mails might still be available in the offices of the Legislative Technology Services Bureau. An employee there said the records exist, but he could not share copies. Lawmakers had acted to stop that from happening, he said, allowing that office to only release information on the functions of that office, not on any records from any other state office, like those of legislators. 

One person could grant that permission, he said, the Senate chief clerk, Michael Queensland. Dealing with his e-mails on a Sunday evening, March 5, Queensland acknowledged the request. About two weeks later, he provided six e-mails, the contents of which are described elsewhere in this story package. 

It does not appear that e-mails from Cory Tomczyk were much of a factor in Jerry Petrowski’s decision last year to not seek another four-year term in the state Senate. 

Tomczyk wrote in March 2020 urging his support for a bill that would bar the UW System from investing in businesses controlled by the Chinese government. In April 2020, he wrote to ask for support for reducing COVID restrictions on businesses. In July 2020 Tomczyk wrote to strongly oppose a proposal to identify businesses with employees who have had COVID. He called it “a blatant attack” and said, “The COVID pandemic is really a scamdemic.”

Tomczyk wrote to Petrowski in December 2020 inviting him to attend and speak at a rally Jan. 9, 2021, to “save the republic” and talk about election reform.

Written by Pat Peckham, retired City Pages news editor and writer.

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