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Herb Kohl, former U.S. senator and Milwaukee Bucks owner, dies at 88

The son of immigrants, whose family founded the Kohl’s department stores, loved his hometown so much he bought its basketball team to keep it there.

(JTA) — Herb Kohl, the longtime Jewish senator from Wisconsin who loved his Milwaukee hometown so much he bought its basketball team to keep it there, has died at 88.

Kohl was known for his soft-spoken, unobtrusive approach as a philanthropist, a retail mogul and a senator, an outlook he said he learned from his Jewish immigrant parents.

Kohl died Wednesday after a short illness, his namesake foundation said.

Elected to the first of four terms in the Senate in 1988, he became an influential member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, where he was a must-meet for pro-Israel lobbyists advocating for defense assistance for Israel. He was a leader on advocacy for children and the elderly, chairing the Senate Aging committee and authoring bills that expanded funding for school lunches and mandated child-safety locks on guns.

“There was always one constituency that everyone in the office knew was more important to Herb than anyone else, and that was children,” Brad Fitch, a one time spokesman for Kohl, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in 2011, after Kohl said his fourth term would be his last. “He would say, ‘They don’t contribute to campaigns, they don’t have a lobbyist.’ ”

He was also a leader in the Jewish community, helming a campaign that raised millions for Israel in a relatively small community in an emergency campaign after the 1967 Six-Day War.

Yet he abjured attention until his middle age, buying the NBA Milwaukee Bucks franchise  in 1985, when he was 50, in order to keep them in the city, and then running for the Senate when he was 53.

“He loved sports, he loved Milwaukee and Wisconsin,” Bud Selig, the Jewish former Major League Baseball commissioner and a childhood friend of Kohl’s, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “I think his career is so really unusual in this day and age.”

Kohl was born and raised in Milwaukee. His parents, Max and Mary, had immigrated to Milwaukee from Poland and Russia, respectively, in the early 20th century. Max Kohl opened a grocery store before Herb was born; by the time he reached adulthood, Herb Kohl, one of four siblings, had helped build an extensive chain of grocery and department stores. Kohl left the management in 1979 of a company that now has over 1,000 stores nationwide. 

Kohl said his father instilled in his children a strong work ethic — Herb Kohl started work in the chain as a bag boy. He said he also learned from his father to keep his emotions in check.

“My father was a person who had a very strong control over his ego and his needs,” USA Today, in its obituary, quoted Kohl as once saying. “He was a very driven man, but he was not a person who had the need to belittle people or fight with people or reduce them. He learned to control those impulses, which we all have, I think. He was a very controlled, disciplined person, and he was very influential on me in that respect.”

In 2016, speaking to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Kohl said his father taught him to give back to a community that had welcomed them.

“My father once said, ‘Money is like manure. It’s not good unless you spread it around,’” he told the newspaper. “Maybe the day I die all the money will be gone. Whatever. I’ve had a productive life. A happy life. A healthy life. And I never forget it. I’m very grateful for all the good luck I’ve had in my lifetime.”

His Jewish expression was low-key but had significant effect. Kohl asked Ray Allen, a star player with the Bucks, to accompany him in 1998 on a tour of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and it changed the player forever. He was soon urging fellow players to join him on tours whenever they were in Washington to play the Wizards. Allen joined the museum’s council in 2016.

Kohl was for a period in the 1990s and 2000s part of an anomalous group of Jewish senators elected from northern midwestern states with small Jewish populations. Russ Feingold served as the junior Wisconsin senator from 1993-2011, and there was a rotation of Jewish senators in neighboring Minnesota in the same period.

In the Senate, the Democratic politician’s focus was on oversight and keeping spending within budgets. “I’m running as a businessman,” the Journal Sentinel quoted him as saying in its obituary. “I’m a person who hasn’t spent a nickel until he made a nickel.”

Kohl self-funded his campaigns so he wouldn’t be beholden to others, and he did not take kindly to the super-rich.

“The one thing I’ve never appreciated is when I meet people who are successful and some of them think it’s all about them, that they’re the ones who made the success and they deserve all the credit,” he told the Sentinel Journal in his 2016 interview. “Big egos. Dominating personalities. That’s a bad way to be. I don’t like people who are overweening in their self-esteem because they’re wrong and it doesn’t bode well for people around them. Too often, they’re also selfish and greedy. It’s a bad characteristic and I’ve always worked as hard as I can not to be suffused in that kind of thinking.”

President Joe Biden said his former Senate colleague, one of the richest men in Wisconsin, did not keep easy company with fellow multimillionaires.

“Throughout his career, Herb was unafraid to stand up to the business community that he’d come from, seeking to level the playing field for workers and make our economy more efficient and fair,” Biden said in a statement Thursday. 

His passion was Wisconsin, where he was familiar with the minutiae of its dairy farms, holding up the budget in 1999 for hours until he got through the state’s farmers’ desired dairy pricing reforms.

The best part of Kohl’s day was meeting constituents. Each day between 9 a.m. and 10 a.m. was coffee and muffins with Wisconsinites.

​​“Trying to drag Herb for a hearing away from those breakfasts was impossible,” Fitch said in 2011.

Kohl bought the Bucks in 1985 when it was rumored that their ailing owner was set to sell the team to buyers who would move the franchise. He dumped millions into the struggling team to keep it in Milwaukee, and when he sold it in 2014, he offered a discount in part to extract a promise that the new owners would keep the team in Wisconsin, and he pledged $100 million to build a new stadium to clinch the deal.

He also gave out $10 million to Bucks employees in bonuses.

“Every day I remind myself how fortunate I’ve been because so much of life is luck,” Kohl said told the Journal Sentinel in 2016. “I was born into a great family, had a great opportunity at Kohl’s, and on and on. I’ve had many, many great experiences and very few bad experiences. So what more can you ask for?”

Kohl, who never married, is survived by his siblings and their children. A nephew, Dan Kohl, helped found J Street, the liberal Jewish Middle East policy group, and ran for Congress unsuccessfully in 2018.

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