Lisa G

Public Affairs Reporting

Candidate story

October 29, 2000


Rawhide Boys Ranch founder in senate race against incumbent Herb Kohl

John Gillespie, Appleton, is a man with a mind for reform. As the Republican Party of Wisconsin’s Senate candidate, Gillespie aims to push for reforms in education, social security, and the tax code. His plans, however, show a conservative bent. He advocates traditional values such as respect for teacher authority as a means to end violence in the schools, for example. Education is an issue close to home for Gillespie: in April he retired as founder of the non-profit Rawhide Boys Ranch in New London. 

Gillespie, 63, was born and raised on a family farm in Outagamie County. He received a bachelor’s degree in agriculture from UW-Madison and married his childhood sweetheart, Jan, 43 years ago. Gillespie and his wife have two sons, Tim and Steve, and three grandchildren as well. Gillespie served as a captain in the U.S. Army and also owned a landscape company. 

In 1965, Gillespie and his wife Jan, along with and Bart and Cherry Starr, founded Rawhide Boys Ranch to help troubled young men. Since then, Gillespie and his wife have cared for more than 350 boys in their own home and about 70 boys currently live at the ranch, according to a John Gillespie For U.S. Senate campaign brochure. 

Gillespie has served on Wisconsin’s Juvenile Justice Commission and on the United Health Board of Waupaca and Shawano counties, according to the biography on his campaign Web site. In 1979, Gillespie and his wife received the St. Francis Xavier Award for outstanding citizenship, the Web site said.

In his campaign for Senate, Gillespie has contested several issues with Kohl, including education, taxes, and Social Security.


To ensure that Wisconsin’s schools are safe and prosperous, Gillespie advocates bestowing control and decision-making powers on local community authorities.

Gillespie is no stranger to making school decisions. He is one of the founders of Starr Academy, an alternative high school he and former Green Bay Packers quarterback Bart Starr founded 15 years ago as an addition to Rawhide Boys Ranch. The school was set up to assist the young men there, many of who have delinquent records.

Gillespie said that to improve schools the federal government should give local administrators, parents, and teachers the authority to make decisions about children’s education. 

“We need to protect administrators and teachers from frivolous lawsuits,” Gillespie said, using the example of a student athlete suing the school when punished for drinking alcoholic beverages.

UW-Eau Claire junior Haley Harper, 423 Chancellors Hall, agrees with Gillespie’s stance.

“Schools are local, so the control should be local,” Harper said. “The people in the community that see what the children's needs are should be the ones making the decisions. We need to allow teachers to make decisions in the classroom and encourage them to create better schools.”

Gillespie said that federal control is hurting Wisconsin’s schools.

“There’s too much government involvement in setting requirements for the schools,” Gillespie said. “We need to cut down on the red tape.”

Gillespie said the key to improving the nation’s schools and ending school violence is respect.

“Empower teachers to be in control in the classroom,” he said. “Make sure teachers have the authority to remove a student from the classroom.”

“We need to teach respect and kindness from kindergarten on,” he said.

Gillespie also favors school choice: allowing parents to use the voucher system to choose their child’s school.

“I believe that parents should be able to control what their children are taught and where their children are taught,” Gillespie said. “Parents should have the option to choose (the school) like they do with college.”

Gillespie said he believes most parents would choose to send their children to public schools. The federal government needs to spend more money on public schools, he added. 

The voucher system is a means of implementing school choice in which parents are given a voucher of taxpayer money by the school to use for private or public school tuition, according to, a Web page on Issues 2000. Issues 2000 is a not-for-profit, non-partisan Web site dedicated to helping citizens for candidates based on issues rather than personality or popularity, according to their About Us page at

“Giving parents a choice makes the schools more accountable for the quality of education the students receive.  If a school is not meeting the needs of a child, parents should have the opportunity to send their child to another school, without having to pay a lot of money for it,” Harper said. “The education of the students should be the top concern, and we should give parents control over where they believe their child's needs can best be met.  

“School choice will help the good schools become more effective, and encourage not so good schools to improve so more students will attend,” said Harper, who is majoring in communication disorders and is planning to become a speech pathologist at the elementary school level.

Eau Claire resident Jeremy Neff, 7822 S. Blue Valley Drive, said he was not sure whether he was in favor of the voucher system. “I’m basically in favor of local control in schools, that is, to continue what’s presently done,” he said.


Another issue in the campaign is tax reform. Currently, each taxpayer pays a marginal tax rate (the amount paid on each taxable dollar earned above the deductible base). “The current marginal tax rates are 15% on the first $42,350 of taxable income, 28% on the next $60,000, and 31%, 36%, & 39.6% above that (those are the ‘Married Filing Jointly’ rates. The same marginal rates apply to singles, but at different break points),” according to Issues 2000 Background on Tax Reform Web page,

In his response to a Sept. 27, 2000 Issues 2000 questionnaire, Gillespie said he favors making income taxes lower and flatter. He proposes to do this using a system of modified flat taxes. A flat tax would replace the current progressive marginal rates with a single flat rate, applied after a deductible base.

“(A modified flat tax is) more fair for everybody but encourages home ownership, business ownership, and charitable giving,” Gillespie said. 

“The flat tax is a good Republican proposal,” Neff said.

“There is so much wasteful spending practices that politicians have,” Gillespie said. “We are the 19th most taxed state. We get back $5 billion less than we send in. Kohl and Feingold aren’t fighting hard enough.”

Gillespie also wants the tax code to be simplified.

“Ninety percent of citizens and businesses should be able to do their taxes with a minimum of outside support,” he said.

“If the government is going to take money away from the people, the workers should know where it is going,” Harper said. “The tax code should be simplified so people will be aware if their money is going towards ineffective and wasteful government programs. Taxes shouldn't be something that only people with a doctorate in accounting should be able to figure out.”

Gillespie also wants to abolish the marriage and death taxes, which he said promote double taxation. 

Neff, owner of The Strip Shop, 510 Water St., a furniture refinishing store, said he does not agree with Gillespie that the inheritance (death) tax should be done away with.

“I don’t believe in inherited property,” Neff said. “It’s not one of the rights to have family aristocracy in this country.”

“I don't think that people should have to pay an extra tax for getting married.  Two parent families should be encouraged, not punished,” Harper said. 

“An inheritance tax is also not fair to the deceased and their loved ones,” Harper said. “I don't believe that the government should get any part of a person's money or belongings when they die.  It is their money and they should be able to give it to who they want to.”

Social Security

The final major issue in the campaign is the Social Security system. 

Gillespie said he favors Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush’s stance on Social Security: to privatize the system to take advantage of the stock market.

“I favor privatizing, allowing workers to invest in private pension funds,” Gillespie said. “The federal government would make sure you’re putting money into a safe investment but you personally invest it.”

Gillespie added that a spouse would get money remaining in the fund after the investor dies. The new program would not reduce benefits for those now on Social Security, said Jerry Hamill, Republican Party of Eau Claire County volunteer. 

Kohl, on the other hand, opposes privatizing Social Security.

“His (Kohl’s) ads say he is the friend of seniors but he will not support Social Security,” Gillespie said. 

On April 22, 1999, Kohl voted against Amendment 254 to S. 557, that would have provided a Social Security lockbox and limited the national debt, according to Issues 2000’s Web page, Herb Kohl on Social Security, The ‘Lockbox Bill’ aims to protect the future Social Security surplus by removing it from the control of federal budget makers. The same Web site also said Kohl also voted against Amendment 2339 to H.R. 2676 allowing Roth IRAs (tax-free retirement accounts) for retirees on May 6, 1998.

Neff said privatizing Social Security is a bad idea. “The stock market doesn’t always go up,” he said.

Harper said she is in favor of preserving the Social Security system. 

“I think it is important for people who have worked hard their entire life to have money to live on once they retire,” she said. “People have been paying into Social Security their entire working lives. It is only fair that they are rewarded with the benefits once they too reach retirement.”

Regarding privatizing Social Security, Harper said investing in the stock market should be an option.

“I think that giving people the option to save their social security money is giving people more control over their lives.  It is important for people to have responsibility over their own money, and not let the government control everything,” Harper said. “If the money is invested wisely, an individual could have a much larger retirement fund, while helping the stock market.”

Other issues

Some of the other discussion items that have been brought up during the campaign include foreign policy and Wisconsin dairy farmers’ troubles with milk prices.

Regarding the terrorism in Israel in recent weeks, Gillespie said he believes President Clinton is doing the right thing. 

“I’m of the opinion that the U.S. has to sit down and negotiate with other countries. You can’t force (peace),” Gillespie said. “(When) we try to stick our noses in too fast, we’re not appreciated.”

“We have to be an encourager, not an enforcer,” Gillespie said.

On an Issues 2000 Sept. 27 questionnaire, Gillespie said he favors continued foreign aid to Russia, Israel, and other countries provided the needs of the U.S. are met first (

During an Oct. 6 debate in Madison, Gillespie and Kohl sparred over whether the senator has done enough to help Wisconsin dairy farmers.

Kohl said he had recently helped Congress agree on $450 million in new aid for the nation's dairy farmers, with $100 million to go to Wisconsin farmers, which Gillespie called a “Band-Aid” solution, according to an Oct. 7 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article, “Candidates spar over schools,” by Steven Walters.

Gillespie said the dairy farmers’ problems with milk prices originate with an approximately sixty-year-old dairy law that pays dairy farmers more milk shipping compensation the farther they live from Eau Claire. 

“Wisconsin farmers get the least amount of money back,” Gillespie said. “Senator Kohl promised to filibuster until senators agreed to examine milk prices but gave it up after three days because it irritated his fellow Democratic senators. He couldn’t take the pressure.”

“If Senator Kohl had been born and raised on a farm like I was he wouldn’t have given in,” Gillespie said. 

Neff, who owned a dairy farm in Eau Claire County from 1978 to 1985, said the old dairy law does not make sense any more. 

“When we were getting $12 they were getting $15 in California,” Neff said of price rates when he was a farmer. 

Neff said the $100 million Kohl secured for Wisconsin’s farmers is only a temporary solution. “The farmers need a fair price, they don’t need welfare,” he said.

Neff said one solution to the problem might be a quota system, which he said works in Canada. “They need to have less milk sold to keep the price up,” he said.

“Kohl has had a lot of years to do something about the dairy situation,” said Hamill. “Kohl has not done anything to change the price reimbursement to farmers in the state of Wisconsin.”

Rodd Freitag, a UW-Eau Claire assistant professor of political science, said that in his opinion issues have not been central to the campaign thus far.

“I think it’s entirely been an issueless campaign, really,” Freitag said. “It’s not driven by issues. Even Kohl’s ads are not about issues. It’s more about ‘I’m on your side.’”

In the race for the U.S. Senate, Gillespie has had to deal with certain campaign disadvantages. 

Freitag said Gillespie’s biggest disadvantages are poor name recognition and financing. 

“He’s running against a very popular incumbent, and you’re just not going to win against a popular incumbent,” Freitag said. “If (Kohl) wasn’t so popular the Republicans would have set up a stronger candidate to run against him.”

“Gillespie is being outspent about 10-to-1, which is affecting his media advertising, which is all-important, especially against an incumbent with recognition,” said Hamill.

As of Oct. 20, campaign reports filed showed that Kohl personally gave his campaign $3.4 million in the first nine months of the year, and individual gifts totaled $70,595, according to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article on that date entitled “Republicans running TV ad for Gillespie,” by Steven Walters. “That was about 10 times the $354,999 in contributions reported by the Gillespie campaign over the same period,” the article said.

According to a year-to-date report filed Oct. 23, Gillespie’s campaign had raised $441,807.24, said Sue Gillespie, John Gillespie’s Appleton campaign office manager.

“He doesn’t have a lengthy background in Wisconsin politics,” Freitag said. “This guy kind of came out from nowhere and isn’t really generating a lot of attention.”

As a Milwaukee business executive and owner of the Milwaukee Bucks, some people say Kohl is better known than Gillespie. 

“Kohl is a mainstay in our government, he is a name that you can not escape from,” said Michael Richards, a senior at UW-Eau Claire and founder and president of Students for Bush. “His name is on many stores that he owns, on the building that the Badgers play in, and he owns the Milwaukee Bucks. He has money to push around to make it seem he is doing something.” 

Gillespie’s supporters say his possible lack of recognition does not make him any less qualified to be a senator.

“He has been the chief executive officer of a not-for-profit organization. It’s a Christian non-denominational compassionate organization,” Hamill said. “(It) has turned around many troubled young men.”

Hamill said the three things that impress him about Gillespie are he has a very compassionate heart, fiscal sense from running his business, and that he has proven he is accustomed to being a chief executive.

“Kohl is a person who votes for most spending bills whereas Gillespie is a true conservative and would be more conservative in fiscal matters and spending,” Hamill said.

“Gillespie is not as qualified as Kohl in terms of experience, but he has been involved in politics his entire life,” Richards said. “He seems to know a lot about the issues and is not caught up in the politics of Washington that Kohl has become used to. I believe that Gillespie is a person that seems to want to get things done.”

“Gillespie seems to be very aware and on top of the issues, but it doesn't seem that he has had much experience in the political arena,” Harper said. “Lack of experience may hurt him in the election as well as in the Senate.”

Freitag is more skeptical about Gillespie’s qualifications.

“There’s the argument that you only need to be a citizen to run, so if that’s your view, then he’s probably fine,” Freitag said. “He’s running to get his message out. He obviously feels strongly about what he has to say so the best he can do is say it.”

Gillespie and Kohl have had two scheduled debates thus far. A third one was planned but was canceled by Kohl. Another debate may be unlikely at this point. 

“It’s to the detriment of Herb Kohl to have (another debate),” said Hamill. “I think he can stay busy enough in Congress to avoid it.”

“My sense is that Kohl’s not going to do it,” Freitag said. “It can’t hurt him if he doesn’t debate.”

Freitag said that Kohl will probably win the election with 65 to 75 percent of the vote. 

“It seems to be so lopsided,” he said. “The outcome doesn’t seem to be in doubt for anyone.”

“The reason (Kohl) doesn’t want to debate is because I talk about his voting record over the last 12 years,” Gillespie said. “I’ve never criticized him, but his voting record.”

“It would be nice to see another debate but I think that it would not be necessary, because there are so few people who would be influenced by it,” said Richards. “These debates are not on national television, so it would not affect that many people.”

Gillespie’s supporters have different opinions of how he should use the remaining days of his campaign. 

Hamill’s advice is “to just continue to speak at every large organized event that he can about the differences between himself and Senator Kohl,” especially in relation to the fiscal and dairy farming issues.

Richards also says speaking out would help Gillespie.

“I would tell (Gillespie) to push his ideals and stress the little that Kohl has done in Washington for his constituents,” Richards said. “He must try to get his name out more to the people, so they can recognize it at the polls. He needs more ads.”

Gillespie’s campaign will be running a radio commercial during the last weeks of the campaign, which Richards said is a good strategy.

“I think that (the radio commercial) is his only chance,” Richards said. “In past elections Kohl has always started his campaign early to try to get the other (candidate) in a spending race so they would run out of money before the summertime. I think that Gillespie is using his money wisely so he can influence voters at the right time, before the election. It is a good idea for the amount of money in his campaign.”