Big Shoes to Fill

When Garey Bies started packing his Capitol office to move out after 14 years as the 1st District Assemblyman, he wondered what he was going to do with all the plaques he has received.

Garey Bies at the Oregon Street Bridge in Sturgeon Bay, which was probably the biggest project he worked on during his 14-year tenure.

“My wife said I have to spend money and build a man cave for them,” he said.

Whatever he decides to do with the plaques and other mementoes he has received, Bies leaves the Wisconsin Legislature knowing he made a difference.

“It was an interesting 14 years,” Bies said. “You have to give up a lot of stuff, and it goes so quick. As you get older, you realize how valuable time is. Now I look back, 14 years went by and it seems like only five minutes. The biggest thing working against me is that four-hour ride down and back. It’s a killer. The wife and I are in our late 60s now. Our time is valuable. You have to spend so much time away from home, it just got to the point, maybe we need to spend whatever time we have together more.”

On Feb. 2, 2000, Bies retired from a 30-year career with the Door County Sheriffs Department. A month before that, three-time 1st District Assemblyman Dave Hutchinson announced he would not seek a fourth term.

“Some friends suggested it might be a good idea to take a look at this,” Bies said. “They said, ‘You’re retired. You could run.’ I said, ‘Who in the hell is going to vote for me?’”

Before that, Bies had worked on a couple of local campaigns, including Judge Todd Ehlers and Bob Papke’s successful run for county clerk.

“Bob Papke was with the city police and I was with the sheriff’s office,” Bies said. “He and I rode together back and forth to NWTC to take courses to get our associate’s degree. We had an association that way in addition to being colleagues in law enforcement. So I helped him out.”

“He’s a great guy. He stopped me once when I was in high school and gave me a warning for speeding,” Papke said. “Then I became a fellow officer with the city in the 1970s. Garey chose to get his degree from NWTC because he cared. He’s done a lot of good things that oftentimes are not publicized. He’s a good family man who has done a lot of good things for his community. He’s a tough guy, a fair person and a good guy.”

So Bies decided to make a run for the Assembly in 2000.

“I had no idea what I was getting into. Looking back, I’m glad I didn’t know what I was getting into because I probably never would have run,” he said. “Being naïve to the whole process all the way along and what was required, what the job demands and what the election demands. I went into it blindfolded, but went into it with a simple premise. No. 1, I never wanted to do a negative campaign. I believed in doing one-on-one campaigning. The first election I did well over 11,000 doors, introducing myself to people. I found people were very nice. I had a few people who opened the door, saw who it was, and said, ‘You gave me a ticket’ and slammed the door. In 30 years of law enforcement, I gave out quite a few tickets. I was bound to run into some of those people.”

But there were also those who had good memories of his days in law enforcement.

“One lady told me how I helped her out in her accident. The way I handled it comforted her and helped her from losing her composure. All those type of little stories became so meaningful at the time. Things you don’t think about but just go ahead and do. That was kind of neat.”

He easily won his first election with 4,000 votes more than former Democratic Assemblyman Larry Swoboda, and went on to win a total of seven elections.

Garey Bies speaks at the annual Memorial Day program in Sister Bay.

“Some were close,” he said. “The presidential years were close and the non-presidential years were a little better. We never lost focus. Don’t worry about what the other guy’s doing. Present your story, what you’ve done and what you want to do.”

Bies said his biggest challenge was dealing with the inefficiencies of the Legislature.

“They waste a lot of time. To me, there’s no efficiency with the way the whole political process runs. They say there’s real time and there’s legislative time. When I ran my committees, we started on time. If you ain’t there, I’m sorry. Some people got uptight about that. When I became committee chairman in my second term and from then on, we would lay down the rules, we always start on time. Some committees, you’d sit there a half-hour for someone to show up and start things.

“The other one was learning how to process work. They were telling you all this stuff and you had so much information coming in that first year. OK, they’re telling me all this but how does it work in the real world? Learning, basically, who you had to stroke. How their personalities were. Some people you had to treat with kid gloves and other people came in talking like a sailor. I was a sailor for five and half years, so I had that figured out.”

Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle was in office when Bies was elected.

“I got along good with Gov. Doyle. He signed a lot of my legislation and helped me with some things. Probably the biggest thing in my district was getting the money for the (Oregon-Maple Street) bridge in Sturgeon Bay. There were letters to the editor, why aren’t you getting that done? You can’t wave a magic wand and come up with 50 million bucks, you know. Eventually, after five years, it just helped to have the right people in place at the right time. Gov. Doyle, I met with him a number of times. Sen. Al Lasee was the Senate president and he had a lot of clout and great respect from both sides of the aisle, he was a pretty straight-shooting guy. Mark Green was our representative and he had enough clout to get the money in place from the federal side. The stars aligned. It wasn’t Garey Bies who put it together himself, but it was my budget amendment that got it done. Moneywise, it was probably the greatest accomplishment.”

“Garey is a wise person who tackled difficult problems. He reached across the aisle and found bipartisan solutions to important issues,” said Assembly Speaker Robin Vos. “The one example comes to mind is the legislation to require outside review of police-related deaths. It was a first in the nation; he was ahead of his time. It became law (2013 Wisconsin Act 348) last April. On a personal note, he will be missed in the Assembly. He’s a great person, a family man with a strong faith in God.”

“That thing has taken on a life of its own,” Bies said of Act 348. “When we were putting that legislation together, you always look around to see that you’re not reinventing the wheel. We could find nothing. So what we did set precedents for the rest of the country. New York and New Jersey are using our bill as a template right now and we just got a request from a legislator in California.”

[During the interview for this story, Bies took a call from Minnesota Public Radio to set up a time to talk to him about Act 348].

Asked what he’ll miss the most about being an elected representative for his district, Bies did not hesitate.

“Being able to create things that makes it better for living in this state,” he said. “For some people I’m the guy to blame or thank for the mandatory seatbelt law. That was a bill I did for three terms. Finally Gov. Doyle included it in the ’07-08 budget year. That term we were in the minority. I’ll miss those things and helping out with constituent issues. You get a lot of satisfaction out of that when you’re able to assist someone in a bureaucratic quagmire.”

Being a savvy veteran legislator, Bies made a point of knowing the right people in various state agencies that he could contact with constituent problems.

“That’s one thing I was telling Joel Kitchens [Bies’ elected Republican successor in the office]. You’re going to get a lot of this type of contact. Most of the people who come to you have an honest gripe and you’re able to do something for them. I took it as a responsibility. They’re the ones that put me in the office and now they’re in a difficult position and they don’t know where to go. Sometimes it’s just getting them connected with the right people.”

Bies said he also advised Kitchens to get around to as many public meetings in his district as he can to keep the grassroots contacts.

And his ultimate piece of advice: “Don’t be a backstabber. Don’t be a game player. Just be straightforward and honest. I think you gain respect over that.”

“I’ve got all the respect in the world for Garey and the job he’s done for our area down in Madison and his ability to forge alliances on both sides of the aisle,” said Door County commercial fisherman Charlie Henriksen. “Even though he’s a staunch Republican, he would work with the Democrats. He was a guy who went down there and remained just a regular guy. So many people I’ve seen go down there and they’re suddenly getting a lot of requests from people who need things. Some of them, it goes to their head. Garey remained very stable, which is the kind of guy he is. I wish the new representative all the best, but he’s got big shoes to fill, and not just because Garey’s a big man.”

So, what’s the next chapter in Garey Bies’ life? He looks forward to spending more time with his wife, Jeanne, and the rest of his family.

“We start every morning out with a game of cribbage,” he said. “We try to get a daily walk in for a couple of miles. My last day in office is on Jan. 5. My daughter and son-in-law live in Madison. He works for the DOT and they have a conference in New Orleans. My daughter wants to go, so Jan. 6, we’ll be down there for a week watching our grandchildren. We don’t have any real plans, but I do have a 14-year to-do list.”

He mentioned that 2015 will be his 12th season of owning the Carroll House in Sister Bay, “unless we’re lucky enough to find someone interested in buying the business.”

One thing Bies knows he won’t be doing is getting involved in politics.

“At this point, I want to stay away from politics and stay on the sidelines. I don’t know where it will lead me. A lot of people are saying, what are your plans? My canned response is, how do you make God laugh? Tell him your plans, because I can look at my life, every time I made plans, it went in another direction. All of my success is because of God’s intervention. I’m a person with no great ability. I just go with how I believe I’m led to go. I made decisions and went that way and did the best I could and had some pretty good successes in my career, far beyond what I ever believed I would have done when I graduated at the bottom of my class in Lincoln High School in Manitowoc. I like what I did. I enjoyed it and I’ll miss it, but I don’t think you’re meant to be there forever either.”