By Tom Still
LAKE MILLS – To some, he’s Lt. Jim Maurer of the Lake Mills Volunteer Fire Department, the guy who’s quick to respond to a late-night fire. To others, he’s Jefferson County Board Sup. Jim Maurer, the fellow who represents the 13th District in Lake Mills. Or he’s Jim Maurer the fisherman who can occasionally be spotted on Rock Lake. Or sometimes he’s Jim Maurer the local handyman, helping neighbors fix what’s broken. Heck, to some, he’s even Jim Maurer the beekeeper.
And until he retired March 31, he was also James G. Maurer the telecom executive and lobbyist.
The popular image of a Madison lobbyist is that of someone whose suit is a little too nice, whose car is a little too fancy and whose smile is a little too disingenuous. Jim Maurer worked hard to combat that stereotype, in Wisconsin and in other stops along the way, by making service – whether to the community or to customers – a part of his everyday life.
Maurer worked for 29 years in the telecommunications business, starting with AT&T when it was “Ma Bell’ and before it was broken up through a federal anti-trust suit, then with Southwestern Bell and SBC. It was through SBC that Missouri native Maurer came to Wisconsin, about the time SBC acquired Ameritech and its generally miserable record of service outages and customer complaints.
His job as a state director was to help fix what was broken and to dramatically improve service for SBC’s Wisconsin customers, who were spread over roughly two-thirds of the state. Based upon records of consumer complaints on file with the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin, Maurer had something of an impact. In 2000, the year he came to Wisconsin, there were 5,630 complaints filed against the carrier; 4,300 in 2001; 2,902 in 2002; 1,350 in 2003; 977 in 2004; 823 in 2005 and 623 in 2006, the latest year on file.
Ask Maurer about the progress and he credits everyone from his bosses to the technicians in the trucks. Those who know Maurer, however, know a significant factor was his insistence on making service central to the corporate culture.
“I was always passionate about service. It’s what motivated me,” Maurer said.
In recent years, Maurer became more involved in lobbying for AT&T positions in the Legislature, including a controversial bill to create statewide franchises for companies that could provide video services, such as television. It was a bill that stands to provide more competition to cable TV companies, although it will likely take some time before phone companies are geared up to fully crack into the market.
It was a heavily lobbied legislative struggle that drew headlines and cost AT&T a reported $360,000 in lobbying costs alone, according to the state Ethics Board. While Maurer wasn’t the company’s lead lobbyist when it passed, he had worked on the measure from the start – and takes pride in the fact he played by the rules and then some.
In fact, almost all lobbyists do. It’s a rare occasion today in Wisconsin (thanks to open government laws and some well-publicized scandals) that lobbyists don’t color inside the lines. The profession has become more transparent as technology and oversight has taken it out of the smoke-filled rooms.
It has also become a profession in which most lobbyists, much like Maurer, enjoy lives outside the Capitol. They give back to their communities and contribute in many other ways, even if their popular image rests on relentless self-interest.
So, what’s next for Maurer? Retirement is something of a misnomer because he’s 50 and still doing consulting work, not to mention responding to fire calls on a regular basis, attending county board meetings and more. Most important to him, he still has a passion for service, which could lead in other directions.
“Whether you’re a big company such as AT&T or a small one, service to your customers is what breeds success. It’s something I never forgot, even as change was happening all about me,” Maurer said. “It always comes back to service.”
It may sound quaint or even cliché, but when you’re a customer, you hope there’s a Jim Maurer somewhere on the other side.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.