Tony Earl, a Democrat who served one term as Wisconsin’s governor in the 1980s and went on to become a leading advocate of campaign and election finance reforms and a champion of environmental causes, died on Thursday in Madison, Wis. He was 86.
His daughter Julia Earl announced his death to The Associated Press. Mr. Earl had been hospitalized after suffering a stroke earlier this week.
Mr. Earl, a champion of gay rights and a staunch environmentalist, served as governor from 1983 to 1987 before being beaten by Tommy Thompson, a Republican, who labeled him “Tony the Taxer” because of tax hikes Mr. Earl signed in the opening months of his term. His political career ended in 1988 after he lost a Democratic primary race for U.S. Senate to the businessman Herbert H. Kohl.
A sour economy proved to be too tough for Mr. Earl to overcome as governor. The unemployment rate was 12 percent when he took office, and a $1 billion budget deficit led him to push a tax increase through the Legislature, a move that would fuel his defeat.
He attempted a comeback two years after losing re-election, running as a progressive Democrat for the U.S. Senate. One of his campaign slogans was “What this nation needs is more Peace Corps and less Star Wars,” a reference to the missile defense system proposed by President Ronald Reagan and supported by Republicans.
But his campaign got cut off at the knees when Mr. Kohl, fresh off purchasing the N.B.A.’s Milwaukee Bucks, joined the race and poured more than $7 million of his own money into his campaign. He went on to win the Democratic primary and the general election and served four terms.
Mr. Earl never ran for office again. He opened a law practice in Madison and became an advocate for good governance. In 1996 he reorganized Common Cause of Wisconsin, a group that argues for campaign finance and election reforms. He later served on the board of the Joyce Foundation, a Great Lakes region charity.
As a gay-rights advocate as governor, Mr. Earl established, by executive order, a process for gay people to bring discrimination complaints; created a Governor’s Council on Gay and Lesbian Issues; and appointed an openly gay man as his press secretary. Tammy Baldwin, who went on to become the first openly gay person elected to the U.S. Senate, interned in Mr. Earl’s office.
Mr. Earl also appointed the state’s first female Department of Administration secretary, Doris Hanson, and its first Black cabinet member, Howard Fuller, head of the Department of Employee Relations.
“Now,” Mr. Earl said nearly a decade ago, “the kinds of things I was doing are absolutely taken as a given.”
Anthony Scully Earl was born on April 12, 1936, in Lansing, Mich. He graduated from Michigan State University and received his law degree from the University of Chicago in 1961.
After practicing law in the Navy from 1961 to 1965, Mr. Earl was appointed assistant district attorney in Marathon County, Wis.
He was city attorney in Wausau, Wis., for three years before being elected to the State Assembly in 1969. He served there until 1974, including four years as Democratic majority leader. He then spent a year as secretary of the Department of Administration and five years as Department of Natural Resources secretary before running for governor in 1982.
Mr. Earl’s candidacy was seen as a long shot, given that he was poised to face the popular Republican incumbent, Lee Dreyfus. But Mr. Dreyfus decided against seeking re-election after Mr. Earl had begun his campaign, clearing Mr. Earl’s path to a 15-point victory over his replacement as the Republican candidate, Terry Kohler.
“I was sort of an accidental governor in a way,” Mr. Earl said.
His marriage to Sheila Coyle, who was first lady in Wisconsin, ended in divorce. He married Jane M. Nemke in 2011. His survivors include four daughters, Julia Earl, Anne Earl, Maggie Earl Shore and Kitty Earl-Torniainen, and 11 grandchildren.