Special to the Catholic Herald
MADISON — In a 1993 interview less than a year after he became executive director of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, John Huebscher remarked, “I like going to work in the morning, and the range of issues we deal with. It may be health care in the morning, gambling at noon or using william hills mobile betting app for it, education in the evening, and abortion the next day.”
Asked last week if he still felt that way, Huebscher answered, “Yes.”
Huebscher retired Jan. 15 from the WCC, the public policy voice of the state’s Catholic bishops.
Huebscher, a native of Williams Bay in the Green Bay Diocese, earned a bachelor’s degree in education from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1972, and a master’s degree in educational administration in 1979. He worked for many years as a legislative aide, and was a legislative liaison for the state Department of Health and Social Services before joining the WCC in 1987.
One of the three state senators Huebscher served, Clifford “Tiny” Krueger, made a lasting impression. Krueger was a onetime circus fat boy and a Merrill tavern owner who served more than three decades before retiring in 1983.
“I always had an interest in Wisconsin history. (Krueger) bridged the gap from the politics of the 1930s to the politics of the 1980s,” Huebscher recalled, noting that Krueger made his first race as a candidate of the Progressive Party. “Tiny never thought of himself as anything but a Republican, but he thought legislators had a responsibility that transcended party.
“He was not a really partisan guy,” Huebscher said of Krueger. “He considered himself a professional politician, and he told his colleagues to be proud of that because politics is a noble profession. He had a great capacity for listening. When I came to work for the bishops, I had already worked for a saint.”
In 1987, Huebscher joined the WCC as associate director, working with its founding director, Charles Phillips. He became Phillips’ successor in summer 1992. In the 1993 interview, Huebscher said, “Chuck left a very good legacy in the legislature. He burned no bridges; there is no ill will. The WCC is very well regarded.”
Sharon Schmeling, executive director of the Wisconsin Council of Independent and Religious Schools, said Huebscher “took over from the guy who built the organization, and did a tremendous job. So he had big shoes to fill, and he more than excelled.”
In 1993, Huebscher said WCC’s “approach has always been to make your point with quiet dignity. The WCC is not the kind of interest group that makes its point by cajoling and threatening people.”
Schmeling, who worked for WCC in the 1990s and was the first person Huebscher hired, said he maintained that dignified approach, even in a more polarized era when there was much more money in politics.
“When you don’t electioneer or fund campaigns, you’re always at a disadvantage compared to groups that do those things,” Schmeling said. “He has an approach of working across party lines and finding creative solutions. That kind of approach is sorely needed in Madison, among lobbyists and legislators.”
Huebscher said a legislator once told him, “‘You guys elevate our debate.’ We try to elevate the debate and improve the discourse. We are truer to our mission when we do that. We represent the church and, more fundamentally, her values.”
Advocacy is only part of the WCC’s mission. The conference seeks to keep bishops, Catholic institutions and citizens informed about issues in Madison. Huebscher has written his “Eye on the Capitol” column for diocesan newspapers, and Schmeling said he began producing a newsletter and helped spearhead the development of Catholics at the Capitol, the biennial gathering where Catholics from around the state come to Madison to learn about issues from experts and meet with their legislators.
“Any lobbyist does two things,” Huebscher explained. Besides advocacy for those they represent, “they have to explain the workings of the process and policies to bishops, diocesan leaders and people in the pews.”
Schmeling said Huebscher “is modest. You’ve got to work to get him to talk about his accomplishments.”
Instead of naming a top accomplishment or biggest disappointment of his tenure, Huebscher preferred to discuss the political trendlines with which he was happiest and most disappointed.
“We played a small but constructive role” in establishing Wisconsin’s school choice program, Huebscher said. “We developed the case for vouchers in a way that did not demean public education.”
Conversely, “I’ve always felt disappointed that nationally and in Wisconsin we’ve backed away from the notion that the poor have a moral claim. We religiously advocated for the poor and vulnerable in state budgets,” and in interfaith efforts to oppose predatory financial practices. “Poverty is not a character flaw, and sometimes we forget that.”
Huebscher has a perspective on the political polarization many observers point to nationally and in Wisconsin.
“We can never lose sight of the fact that this is a representative government,” he remarked, wondering if changes in popular media have helped fuel political polarization. He recalled several of the most popular radio personalities in Chicago, Milwaukee and Madison during the 1960s and 1970s.
“No anger was being stoked, there was rarely any shouting,” he said of those programs. “We all know what shows are popular now, and we can’t blame politicians. If we’re concerned about our discourse, we have to look in the mirror.”
Kim Wadas, associate director of the WCC since 2007, succeeds Huebscher.