Walters: After 30 years, Bugher closing Mr. Fixit toolbox in Wisconsin

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Steven Walters
Monday, October 7, 2013

Mr. Fixit will clear out his UW-Madison Research Park desk Nov. 1.

But Mark D. Bugher won't hang up a “gone fishing” sign.

He's not retiring. He'll spend part of winter in warmer Arizona, sort through all the consulting and professional offers that will be coming, and he and his wife, Kate, will spoil their two granddaughters, ages 7 and 2, even more. He'll continue to serve as a director on corporate boards such as Marshfield Clinic's.

“I want, at this point in my career, some elbow room,” the Eau Claire native said in a WisconsinEye interview.

Bugher, who just turned 65, has earned the time off.

He spent 16 years advocating for—and negotiating with—federal, state and local politicians and unions. Then, when he went off to lead the Research Park, he worked with UW-Madison professors convinced they had the Next Big Idea and needed places to grow their new businesses.

Some of those professors—stem cell pioneer researcher James Thomson, for example—did have that Next Big Idea. Thomson's Research Park company has about 100 employees.

There are four reasons why, if you Google the term “public servant,” Bugher's picture should appear.

-- A fascinating resume:

Ran Eau Claire district office for former Republican Congressman Steve Gunderson, 1983-'87. Executive assistant, Wisconsin Department of Revenue, 1987-'88. Secretary of the state Revenue Department, 1988-'96. Secretary of the state Department of Administration—the most powerful state agency—from 1996-'99. Director of UW-Madison Research Park, 1999-Nov. 1, 2013.

In that period, the number of Research Park jobs increased by 70 percent, and construction will soon start on the Park's second Madison campus.

-- Bugher had to tackle some of the toughest issues for his boss of 12 years, former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson. In those talks, he often struggled to know when he could say yes and when he had to say no. And, if he guessed wrong, he had to deal with a barking governor.

Imagine, for example, one day having to negotiate casino games and profits with all 11 tribal leaders, who each had their own agenda and cultural identity.

Then, the next day, you have to negotiate a state budget with elbows-out leaders of the Legislature when one party controls the Assembly and the other party controls the Senate.

-- Despite the political hand grenades he juggled, Bugher is respected by leaders of both political parties, and even current and former Madison mayors.

Although he was one of Thompson's top deputies, former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle picked Bugher to lead a task force that recommended a new way to pay most of the cost of public schools.

It wasn't Bugher's fault that what the task force recommended—charging the 5 percent sales tax on many now-exempt goods and services—went nowhere.

Bugher still thinks the task force had it right. “Everybody's taxes would be a lot lower, if we fairly distributed the tax load.

“I'm proud of what I did in state government,” Bugher added. “I left with my integrity intact.”

-- Bugher knew himself, and his core values, well enough to turn aside all those who often encouraged him to run for Congress, governor, the Legislature, etc.

Three terms on the Eau Claire County Board of Supervisors in the 1980s, and watching how campaigning and nonstop fundraising changed those he worked for, taught Bugher not to listen to the seductive “run, Mark” pleas of his pals.

“My wife would kill me, if I ran for anything,” Bugher added. “I'd be recalled as a husband.”

Now, Bugher can reflect on the Wisconsin political history he has witnessed.

For example, Bugher said, the “Act 10” law enacted by Republican Gov. Scott Walker and GOP lawmakers in 2011 was needed. Those changes all but eliminated collective bargaining for public employees, except for police officers and firefighters.


State and local public employees were getting increasing salaries and benefits that were not “sustainable,” Bugher added. “History will judge the (Act 10) decision as a fairly good one.”

Bugher may also now find time to complete the credits needed to earn a college degree.

But being the only one in the room without a degree isn't always a bad thing, Bugher said. “It caused me to work a lot harder.”

Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Email stevenscwalters@gmail.com.

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