Herb Cole is a former Democratic U.S. Senator from Wisconsin and former owner of the NBA Milwaukee Bucks, is dead. He is 88 years old.
Her death was announced Wednesday by Herb Cole Philanthropies, which gave no cause but said she died after a short illness.
“More than anything, Herb loved Milwaukee and Wisconsin, where he chose to live out his days,” the Cole Foundation said in a statement. “He touched an incalculable number of lives and those who loved him will refer to him as one of the most dignified men to ever walk the earth.”
Cole was a popular figure in Wisconsin, buying bucks to keep them from leaving town and spending liberally from his wealth on civic and educational causes throughout the state. He used his money to fund his Senate races, allowing himself to be portrayed as “nobody's senator but yours.”
In the Senate, a body known for egos, Cole was an unusual figure. He was calm and not a credit seeker, but effective on issues important to the state, especially milk policies. He was one of the wealthiest members of the Senate and the only professional sports team owner in the Senate.
Cole was born in Milwaukee, where he was a childhood friend of Bud Selig, who became the commissioner of Major League Baseball. The two roomed together at the University of Wisconsin and remained friends throughout their youth.
After receiving a bachelor's degree from the University of Wisconsin in 1956, Cole earned a master's degree in business administration from Harvard University in 1958, and he served in the Army's Defense Department from 1958-64. He helped grow the family-owned business, Kohl's Grocery and Supermarkets, and served as the company's president in the 1970s. The company was sold in 1979.
Cole entered Wisconsin politics in the 1970s, serving as chairman of the state Democratic Party from 1975 to 1977.
In 1985, Cole bought the Bucks for $18 million.
“I'm happy, happy, happy,” he told a press conference. “The Milwaukee Bucks are in Milwaukee and they're going to stay in Milwaukee.”
The team was in the midst of its sixth straight winning season when Cole was acquired, and posted winning records in each of Cole's first six full seasons as an owner before stumbling through much of the 1990s. The team improved in the late 90s and early 2000s. In 2006, Cole, owner of the small-market Bucks, was one of eight league owners who asked then-NBA commissioner David Stern to implement revenue sharing.
“There is no question about his extraordinary commitment to the franchise he loved and the city, and his vision and unparalleled financial contribution to a new arena in Milwaukee will forever be remembered,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement. “My deepest condolences to the family, friends and Bucks organization of Senator Cole. He will be greatly missed by his NBA family.
He eventually sold the team to New York billionaires Wes Edens and Mark Lasry in 2014. He contributed $100 million to build a new arena, the Fiserve Forum, to replace the aging Bradley Center. The stadium opened in 2018. Three years later, Giannis Antetokounmpo led the Bucks past the Phoenix Suns to capture the NBA Championship for the first time since 1971.
“He's done a lot of things for the city of Milwaukee, a lot of things for the Milwaukee Bucks organization,” Antetokounmpo said of Cole after the Bucks beat the Brooklyn Nets on Wednesday night. “He will certainly be missed.”
Cole's civic responsibilities extended beyond keeping professional basketball in Wisconsin. He donated $25 million to the University of Wisconsin to fund the construction of the Cole Center, home to the school's basketball and hockey teams. This is the largest private donation in the university's history.
“I was very happy to help build a first-class, state-of-the-art sports arena,” Cole once said. “I think it cements the university's reputation as one of the premier athletic programs in the Big Ten and in the nation.”
He also used his own money to fund the Herb Cole Education Foundation, which donates money for scholarships and fellowships to students, teachers and schools in Wisconsin.
In 1988, Sen. Following William Broxmire's announcement of retirement, Cole decided to run for Senate, defeating the Republican nominee, then-state Sen. Susan Engelator. He won re-election in 1994, 2000 and 2006. His considerable wealth helped him fend off a serious Republican challenger in 2006.
Cole never accepted a pay raise in the Senate; He was paid $89,500 each year, the same salary he received when he entered the Senate in 1989, and returned the rest to the Treasury Department.
In the Senate, Cole tended to favor home-state interests. He opposed the Northeast Dairy Compact, which was opposed by Midwestern dairy farmers, and helped block its renewal in Congress. Cole was instrumental in introducing an alternative scheme, the Milk Income Loss Agreement, which paid milk producers cash when prices fell below a certain level; The program specifically helped Wisconsin dairy farmers.
As the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Agriculture Subcommittee, which controls the Department of Agriculture's budget, Cole has strong opinions on farm policy. He was also the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee. Cole served as chairman of three panels when Democrats were in the majority.
Cole isn't worried about getting things done in the Senate without too much debt. As the Congress became more and more partisan, the small goal seemed to be returning to another era.
“I'm a person who doesn't believe in penetration,” he once said. “I never look to go out and grab a mic or get in front of a TV camera. When I go to work every day, I check my ego at the door.
She was succeeded by Democrat Tammy Baldwin, Wisconsin's first female senator and the first openly gay member of the Senate.
Cole, who never married, said being single gave him time to balance the demands of life as a senator and owner. On his Senate office desk was a sign: “Bucks stop here.”
Former AP correspondent in Washington Frederick J. Frommer is the primary author of this obituary. Andhra correspondent Todd Richmond reported from Madison, Wisconsin. AP basketball writer Brian Mahoney contributed from New York.
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