Traveling around western Wisconsin with John Medinger is like being with a rock star, said his former boss. And she’s a United States senator.
“Everyone knows John,” Sen. Tammy Baldwin said Friday, as she and dozens of community leaders celebrated Medinger’s four-decade career in public service, which included stints as a state lawmaker, mayor and a regional representative for three U.S. senators.
La Crosse Mayor Tim Kabat proclaimed March 10 a day in his honor, telling the gathering at Piggy’s Restaurant that “because of John’s dedication, La Crosse is a better place.”
With his typical reserve, Medinger, who retired Feb. 20 as Baldwin’s southwestern Wisconsin representative, said the retirement party was not his idea. And he insists he’s not actually retiring.
“This is not my funeral,” he said.
But with his 69th birthday looming, Medinger said it was time to step away from a 40-plus-hour-a-week job.
“When you work for a U.S. Senator, you work when it’s demanded,” he said. “I’ve had a life outside of my job, but the job has been a big part of my life.”
A La Crosse native, Medinger began his public service career in 1972 with Volunteers in Service to America, or VISTA. He was elected to the Wisconsin Assembly in 1976 and represented the 95th District for 16 years before stepping down because he “was sick of hearing speeches.”
Over the past 25 years — including an eight-year hiatus when he was mayor of La Crosse — Medinger worked as an aide to Russ Feingold, Herb Kohl and Baldwin. Like him, all were Democrats, and he addressed them each as “Senator,” he said, “out of respect for the office.”
Traditionally, senators did not keep field offices in La Crosse. That changed with Medinger.
While in the Legislature, he became friends with Feingold, then a state senator. Feingold was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1992, and Medinger asked him for a job, with the stipulation he wasn’t leaving La Crosse.
Medinger got the job, but his territory stretched from Grant County to Superior — “the whole west coast of Wisconsin.”
His duties included fielding calls from constituents, meeting with local officials and stakeholders, and representing his bosses at the hundreds of public hearings, award ceremonies and ribbon cuttings they can’t personally attend.
Some days he listened to people angry with the government (and occasionally threatening to kill him). The best days, he said, were when he was with his boss.
“There’s something about working for a U.S. senator,” he said, noting there are only 100 of them. “The fact that you’re part of something special, and you’re doing meaningful work.”
Medinger left Feingold’s staff in 1996 to run for mayor. A decade later, he joined Kohl’s staff.
Baldwin, who was elected to the state Legislature in 1992, said Medinger’s “superlative” relationship survived his tenure there. Later, while serving in the U.S. House, Baldwin bumped into Medinger occasionally with Kohl.
“Everyone talked about John and his impact on behalf of La Crosse,” she said. “He so clearly cares about people.”
When Baldwin was elected to the Senate in 2012, she offered Medinger a spot on her staff. She remains impressed with his persistence and care in handling constituent issues.
“He wants to serve,” she said. “And he does.”
While his run of government work has come to a close, Medinger said he is looking for a part-time job, “something with meaning” — and “hopefully not with a computer.”
“When you’ve been going 100 mph for 40 years,” he said, “you don’t want to go to zero too fast.”