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Herb Kohl, chain-store scion turned U.S. senator, dies at 88

By Stephen Miller, Bloomberg News
Published: December 27, 2023, 6:59pm

Herbert Kohl, who ran his family’s eponymous retail and grocery stores before serving four terms as a Democratic U.S. senator, has died. He was 88.

Kohl died following a brief illness, the Herb Kohl Foundation said in a statement late Wednesday.

While Kohl had a low-key presence in the Senate, he had a high profile in Wisconsin as a philanthropist and owner of the National Basketball Association’s Milwaukee Bucks.

The family-named business, which stood at 65 supermarkets, department and drug stores in the early 1970s, exploded into a giant with more than 1,100 stores after a majority interest was sold to the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Co. about half a century ago.

In Congress, Kohl served on the appropriations, banking and judiciary committees and was chairman of the Special Committee on Aging. He was a strong supporter of public schools and also concentrated on issues of interest to Wisconsin voters, including milk prices.

He was first elected in 1988 with 52% of the vote. The next three elections he won by wide margins. One of the wealthiest men in the Senate, he refused corporate and special-interest campaign contributions and didn’t solicit them from anyone. He spent millions from his own fortune on elections.

Bucks owner

In 1985, Kohl purchased the Bucks franchise for about $18 million, saving the team from a possible move to California. He sold it in 2014 for about $550 million. At that time he pledged to donate $100 million toward the cost of a new arena for the team in Milwaukee.

Herbert H. Kohl was born on Feb. 7, 1935 in Milwaukee, according to his congressional biography. His parents were Jewish immigrants, his father Max from Poland and his mother Mary from Russia.

Max Kohl saved his money from working in a bottle cap factory and in the 1920s became proprietor of a grocery store. By 1938, he had opened a second.

Their son attended public schools and excelled at sports. One of his best friends growing up was Bud Selig, later the owner of the Milwaukee Brewers baseball team and commissioner of Major League Baseball.

Family business

Kohl attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison where he roomed with Selig and earned a bachelor’s degree in 1956. Decades later, he donated millions to his alma mater, including $25 million in 1995 to build a sports arena, known as the Kohl Center. He earned an MBA at Harvard Business School.

Kohl joined the family business, which grew into a supermarket chain and came to encompass pharmacies and department stores. He was named president in 1970.

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Brown & Williamson bought an 80% stake of then Kohl Corp. in 1972. While terms weren’t disclosed, the New York Times said it was for more than $50 million. The tobacco producer bought the rest of the company in 1978, and Kohl left the next year to open his own real estate investment firm.

Kohl’s Corp. went public in 1992, when it had 76 stores in the Midwest. The company, based in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, has grown to more than 1,100 sites across the U.S., according to its website.

Kohl had long been involved in politics and was chairman of the Wisconsin state Democratic Party from 1975 to 1979. In 1988, he ran for the Senate seat vacated by longtime Senator William Proxmire. He stressed his independence and ran under the slogan “Nobody’s Senator But Yours.”

Legislative positions

In the Senate, he championed legislation to help children and, as a gun control advocate, was a primary sponsor of the Brady Bill, which mandates background checks and waiting periods for the purchase of handguns. He was one of the few Democrats to vote for the Balanced Budget Amendment in 1995.

He kept a low profile in Washington, wore old blazers rather than designer suits on the job and seldom socialized with other senators.

“I am not a big hanger-outer,” Kohl told the Wisconsin State Journal in 1993. He held meetings in diners, drove an old Chevy Lumina and never married.

Kohl didn’t seek reelection for a fifth term in 2012 and left government to focus on his educational foundation. The organization had awarded almost $12 million to Wisconsin educators, students and schools as of 2016, according to its website.