Hunter Gray (John R. Salter) Papers, 1889-1992, 1996-2000

Biography/History

Edward G. Jackamonis, one of the most powerful Assembly speakers in Wisconsin history, was born in New Britain, Connecticut, on October 19, 1939. After attending local schools he received a B.A. from Northeastern University in 1962, then continued his education at the University of Wisconsin where he received an M.S. in political science in 1964. In 1966 Jackamonis accepted a position as instructor of political science at the University of Wisconsin's Waukesha Center.

In Waukesha Jackamonis was active in local Democratic politics, but only gradually did he become interested in seeking elective office. As part of a coalition of political activists and Eugene McCarthy supporters who attempted to revitalize the Waukesha County Democratic Party, Jackamonis made an unsuccessful attempt at winning the county chairmanship in 1969. Only a few months later, however, he announced his candidacy for the Assembly and this time was successful as part of a general Democratic resurgence in Waukesha County.

Jackamonis quickly emerged as one of the leaders among his contemporaries in the Assembly. In 1973 he was selected as chairman of the State Affairs Committee and vice-chair of the Environmental Quality Committee (an appointment which took advantage of his strong interest in environmental issues) and of the Legislative Council's Committee on Lobbying Laws, another special interest. As chairman of the State Affairs Committee he earned a statewide reputation for his support of legislation for state regulation of cable television. The full extent of his committee assignments is listed in the 1982 Blue Book.

In 1975, in addition to being reappointed to leadership posts on Environmental Quality and State Affairs, Jackamonis was voted speaker pro tem, the second highest statutory post in the Assembly. Although the duties of the position were chiefly honorary, Jackamonis often presided in the absence of Speaker Norman Anderson. In 1976 Anderson was defeated in the primary election, and Jackamonis moved up to take his position. At the same time James Wahner was elected majority leader, thus giving the large Democratic majority an entirely new leadership. The very size of this Democratic majority posed problems for the new leadership, but after some initial difficulties Jackamonis was able to overcome the difficulties due to his mastery of scheduling procedures and his strict adherence to agendas. He also began efforts to streamline Assembly administrative and management procedures. Throughout his term in the Assembly Jackamonis was a fierce defender of the authority of the legislative branch of government, and he was partly responsible for the implementation of innovative procedures for legislative oversight of executive agencies. By the conclusion of the 1977 session political columnist John Wyngaard termed Jackamonis “one of the most effective speakers” in Wisconsin history; Frank Ryan of the Capital Times described his authority as “olympian” and called him the single most influential member of the Legislature. In 1978 the Jackamonis-Wahner team was reelected without contest.

However, Jackamonis' second term was troubled, as the state elected as governor the maverick Republican Lee S. Dreyfus with whom the Democratic legislators found it increasingly difficult to work. After Wahner resigned in 1980 Jackamonis moved into a more challenging and prominent position as he attempted to act as the spokesman for the opposition to Dreyfus' administration. Until this time Wisconsin Assembly speakers had been relatively anonymous, wielding their power through committee appointments and control of floor discussion, while the majority leader managed partisan debate. Although Jackamonis was able to unite Democrat factions on crucial votes, he was not personally popular within the Democratic ranks. Jackamonis' position became increasingly more difficult within the caucus after the presidential election of 1980. At the start of the 1981 session an effort by conservative insurgents to oust him as speaker as a result of what they saw as his favoritism was narrowly defeated, and then only at the cost of relinquishing some authority. The 1981-1982 session during which Democrats were beset by doubts over party direction and fearful of taking stands on controversial issues proved a difficult one for the party leadership. No doubt this situation, coupled with personal and financial considerations, prompted Jackamonis' June 1982 decision not to seek reelection.

Since leaving the Legislature Jackamonis has served as head of the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority.