Herb Kohl, former Democratic senator and Bucks owner, dies at 88

Milwaukee Bucks owner Herb Kohl is acknowledged by fans during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Atlanta Hawks, Wednesday, April 16, 2014, in Milwaukee. Herb Kohl, a former Democratic U.S. senator from Wisconsin and former owner of the Milwaukee Bucks basketball team, has died, an email from his foundation said Wednesday, Dec. 27, 2023. He was 88. (AP Photo/Morry Gash, File)

Former Sen. Herb Kohl (D-WI), who spent four terms in the U.S. Senate advocating for progressive causes such as health care expansion and gun reform, died Dec. 27 at his home in Milwaukee after a brief illness. He was 88.

Kohl earned his fortune as heir to the Kohl’s supermarket and department store chain, which he took over from his father in 1970 and expanded before selling it in 1978. A few years later, he purchased the Milwaukee Bucks NBA team, which he owned for 29 years before selling it in 2014 to new owners who assured him the team would stay in Wisconsin.

He was heavily involved in Wisconsin Democratic politics, serving as chair of the state Democratic Party from 1975 to 1977.

In 1988, he used his personal fortune to run for U.S. Senate in Wisconsin, a race he narrowly won with 52% of the vote. He went on to win three more times by increasingly larger margins, taking 67% of the vote in 2006. 

During his time in the Senate, Kohl sponsored the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990, which made it “illegal for any individual to knowingly possess a firearm in a school zone.” The bill was folded into the Crime Control Act of 1990, which President George H.W. Bush signed into law in November of that year.

He advocated for the elderly, helping pass the Supportive Housing for the Elderly Act of 2010, which expanded access to affordable housing for low-income elderly residents. 

Kohl also spoke against the growing influence of outside money on lawmakers, saying that having his own personal wealth allowed him to not take special interest funds.

“I think I was the only person in Washington that didn’t solicit money,” Kohl said in a 2016 interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “I stopped taking money from people because it detracted from my ability to do my job well. We need a system that gets the ugly money out of it.”

Kohl retired from the Senate in 2012 and was succeeded by Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin, who is up for reelection this year.

Aside from his career in the Senate and his ownership of the Bucks, Kohl was a philanthropist, donating millions of dollars to the University of Wisconsin to help expand the university’s public affairs school and build a basketball arena that bears his name. Kohl also created his own nonprofit that focuses on “Education, Economic Opportunity, and Quality of Life” in Wisconsin, according to the charity’s website.

President Joe Biden, who served with Kohl in the Senate, called Kohl “a kind and principled man of integrity and character” and “one of Wisconsin’s greatest-ever advocates.”

“As a Senator, he always chose work over the limelight and responsibility over ego, serving not for credit, but for the common good,” Biden said in a statement.