Profile — One cool customer: Sen. Herbert H. Kohl, Chairman, Senate Committee on Aging
Leaders of the Senate Special Committee on Aging have been known to bring havoc and pain to nursing home operators. They call hearings on touchy subjects, grandstand and seek their next rung on a career ladder with overdone speeches. Often, this can occur at the expense of long-term care operators.Yet the overriding feeling from the chairman of five months, Sen. Herb Kohl (D-WI), is that he is not someone the nursing home industry should fear. A congenial, disarming aura actually surrounds his political work in many areas.
At 5-foot-8-inches tall, the balding fourth-term legislator is often described as "gentle and private" or "modest and cordial."
"I'm not an ogre. I don't want to impose conditions considered to be difficult or undesired or something like that," he says plainly. "I'm not one of those who thinks everyone before me was not good and we have to fix it."
As an Aging Committee chair without a track record, nor a seat on the powerful Finance Committee as some other predecessors have enjoyed, it's not clear how much of an impact Kohl will have on the senior care landscape, notes John Rother, AARP's veteran lobbyist.
"You don't get the sense he's going to be super-aggressive with regard to the industry or the issues. You get the sense he's going to pick and choose areas for involvement," Rother says. "He's not that politically ambitious. He's more content to focus on legislation rather than going for headlines like some others."
Even when it comes to his pet senior-care cause – mandatory background checks for all nursing home employees – Kohl seems to cut operators slack. He says he hopes to expand a seven-state pilot project testing the checks, for the good of the industry. And he adamantly insists that providers realize he doesn't expect them to pay the costs of the background checks.
"I think the nursing home industry does a really good job," the 72-year-old says. "I'm amazed at the level of care that's improved over the years. Today, it's very good. I don't come at it from any other standpoint."
"But at the same time," he quickly adds, "we can do better."
It's an attitude Kohl says he and his three brothers and sisters learned from their hard-working parents. Max and Mary were Jewish immigrants who left Poland and Russia, respectively, in the 1920s. Mike originally worked at a Schlitz bottle cap factory before opening his own small grocery store. That eventually grew into a grocery and clothing empire that still bears the family name. (The Kohls, with Herb serving as company president, sold the retail chain nearly 30 years ago, making them millionaires many times over.)
Now worth an estimated $200 million-plus, the unassuming Kohl is one of the richest members of the Senate. Despite such wealth, he still seems to connect with the common man remarkably well. Also the owner of the Milwaukee Bucks basketball team, he's comfortably won re-election three times using the campaign motto "Nobody's senator but yours." He reportedly accepts campaign donations but, unlike virtually all of his peers, doesn't actively fund-raise.
It is that independent spirit that many find both refreshing and worrisome in Washington.
Although he is a solid Democrat, with a few centrist leanings, Kohl does not fit the mold of a stereotypical, favor-trading politician. Stories of his early days as a senator eating peanut butter on white bread among unsuspecting citizens visiting the Capitol are often repeated.
He has no children and has never been married, but his pursuit of legislation to help children is well-known. His personal largess is revered in Wisconsin, where he has donated millions of dollars to students and other educational endeavors.
He is, as one fellow legislator put it, unlike others, because he listens more than he talks.
"I don't come at it from the point of view as there's an enormous amount of difficulties and scandals," Kohl says, turning to nursing homes. "I think it's a good industry. People who populate the industry sincerely want to, and do overall, a good job. I just want to add on that. I'm restless to always try to do better."
1935 -Born in Milwaukee
1956 - Earns bachelor's degree from the University of Wisconsin–Madison
1958 - Completes MBA from Harvard University
1958-1964 - Serves in the Army Reserve
1970-1979 - President of Kohl's grocery and department stores, until their sale.
1975-1977 - Chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin
1985- Owner of Milwaukee Bucks basketball team
1988 - Elected to first term in the U.S. Senate – his first elected office
2007 - Becomes Chair of the Senate Special Committee on Aging