Steve Gunderson served as a Republican congressman in Wisconsin's 3rd Congressional District from 1981 to 1997. There he focused on agriculture, education, health care and human-rights issues. He came out as a gay man while in Congress but won reelection nevertheless.
After leaving Congress Gunderson worked at a Washington, D.C.-based communications consulting firm and as president of the Council on Federations. In January he was appointed president of the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities. He lives with his longtime partner in Alexandria, Va., but considers Pleasantville, Wis., where he was born and still has family, his home. "I already have the burial plot," he says.
On Wednesday, Nov. 14, Gunderson will be back at UW-Madison, his alma mater, to give a talk on "The New Middle Class: Creating Wages and Wealth in the 21st Century" (5 p.m., UW Pyle Center, 702 Langdon St.). It is the topic of his latest book, due out in February. In a phone conversation, he discussed the bipartisanship of his political era vs. today's intensely polarized environment.
Do you miss the life of a politician?
I was back in Wisconsin two weeks ago and visited two schools with [U.S. Rep.] Ron Kind in his congressional district. The Eau Claire Leader-Telegram interviewed me and asked, 'So do you miss Congress?' I said I was glad I was there and glad I'm not now. I am glad I was there in a time when people worked in a bipartisan way to solve problems - not during the polarizing politics of 2012.
Does it sadden you to see the polarization in Wisconsin?
Absolutely. It doesn't matter which side you're on. The reality is that Wisconsin has had a long tradition of working out its differences, and the polarization of state politics is reflective of the polarization of national politics.
The truth is, when election night is over we're still going to be a 50-50 polarized nation. We have to figure out how to govern in this. The public and the press are simply going to have to demand that the liberals and conservatives understand that the number-one obligation is to work together to produce solutions. It takes compromise.
Are you still a Republican?
There is no question I am one of the remaining moderate Republicans. I am a fiscal conservative and a social moderate. As Ronald Reagan once said, 'I didn't change; the party did.'
How has the environment in Congress changed for gay and lesbian lawmakers?
Human-rights issues advance over time. This issue is no different than any other. It's no different from racial issues. The American people deserve a lot of credit. As they come to understand issues, they judge people for what they represent and not simply by who they are.
In hindsight, did former U.S. Rep. Bob Dornan do you a favor by outing you on the floor of the House of Representatives?
He didn't out me. I came out in The New York Times. The truth is you don't issue press releases about sexual orientation whether you are gay or straight. You just let people come to know who you are. People over time came to know who I was.
Given your new position, what kind of outlook do you see for college students, especially when so many are graduating with significant debt?
The reality is until you have an economic recovery that re-creates jobs, you're not going to have college graduates of any level of education finding jobs. Tony Carnevale, who is head of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, says, 'Jobs create training. Training doesn't create jobs.' In other words, when the job demand is there, students will pursue the education and training for those jobs.