December 9, 2003
Ed Garvey on the Progressive Focus on the Heartland: What's Happening in Wisconsin?
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
BuzzFlash.com generally focuses on the national political scene. But what is happening locally to the pro-democracy "American community" movement?
We thought that Wisconsin might be a good state to check in with, so we decided to chat with Ed Garvey, who came upon the national scene a few years back as the attorney for the NFL Player's Union. After all, Wisconsin was the home to one of the great progressives of all time, Fighting Bob La Follette.
Garvey, now an environmental lawyer based in Madison, is, appropriately, the editor and publisher of FightingBob.com [LINK], dedicated to keeping the progressive spirit alive in Wisconsin Democratic politics.
Gore carried Wisconsin by 1,242,987 to 1,237,279 for Bush in 2000, with 94,070 votes going to Nader.
It's a state to watch.
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BuzzFlash: You wrote a column in the October 25 Capital Times and for the Web site you edit, FightingBob.com, entitled, "As Democratic Party Loses Its Soul, It Loses Its Voice" [LINK]. Most of the article was about Wisconsin, but you mentioned the national scene. How does that apply, do you feel, to the national Democratic Party? And then, in a micro-sense, to whatís going on in Wisconsin?
Ed Garvey: I think that once the Democrats decided that they had to go to the same sources for campaign contributions as the Republicans, they began to lose their soul because they no longer could stake out a position representing the working families and the poor and the minorities who were traditionally the Democratic constituency, and instead starting responding only to the cash constituency.
I think if you take a look at the so-called reforms after Watergate, what happened really was that it gave corporate America the idea that if they would form these political action committees, they could raise millions and millions of dollars and provide that money for campaign contributions and use it essentially as a political bribe.
And the Democrats, rather than going to a public finance system, thought they would always be in control of the legislative branch, both in Washington and in Wisconsin and many other states. And so they could say to the corporate interests: "If you want your legislation to proceed, youíre going to have to contribute to our campaigns as well as the Republicans." And of course, thatís where they began then to bend toward the desires of the political action committees, rather than standing up for the principles of the party of a Gaylord Nelson or a George McGovern or a Jimmy Carter -- you name it.
BuzzFlash: Beyond the financing, you point to the fact that instead of trying to take on the Republicans in the debate -- the right wing, which is the Republican Party now -- we try to nip at the edges -- Iím quoting -- you know, modify their program....Hint that we are better managers. This is what BuzzFlash has been critical of the Democratic Leadership Council about. Itís a policy, I guess, of trying to take on the Republicans in increments.
Garvey: I think itís what Iíve argued for a number of years -- that if the Democrats do not make a clear case for a philosophical position -- for example, free tuition for higher education, instead of, say, well, we can support a 15 percent tuition increase but we wonít go to 18 percent -- it leaves the families of those who are paying that tuition out in the cold and saying, "Whatís the difference?" There are no bold initiatives. They want to sort of fine-tune the picture rather than change the channel.
And I think thatís true with the debate over the defense budget. Where is the broad vision of the Democratic Party about a sensible defense budget, when we donít have any credible threat, as we did for years with the Soviet Union, for example? On almost any issue, what you have is the Democratic Leadership Council with Joe Lieberman and those who are supportive of the DLC essentially taking positions that we used to think of as sort of Rockefeller Republican positions. Thatís a far cry from what would get people out to vote because they see a real difference between the two parties.
BuzzFlash: Doesnít it seem ironic to you that the Republican Party, since Barry Goldwater in 1964, has gradually -- and now completely -- been taken over by radical right-wing extremists that control the Party? Everything from foreign policy -- some crazy notion of neo-imperialism -- to internally dismantling Medicare and Social Security. And yet many of the Senate and Congressional Democrats still are afraid that if they stand up for the truth and for working people, they will be considered radical. Isnít there some sort of irony there?
Garvey: There sure is. Itís astounding. But again, if you donít really articulate a strong position, then youíre vulnerable to attack because those who are clear about their position -- namely, the far right that now control the Republican Party -- are always pointing fingers at you. And it seems that the Democratic response, rather than to clearly identify with the Democratic constituency, they try to mute the sound from the right by moving closer to the right. And it drives a person crazy.
If you look at the whole question of the war and the invasion of Iraq, there are very few clear voices saying this is absolutely ridiculous. Here was the United States of America thumbing its nose at the entire world and the UN, and saying weíre going forward. And there was, at that time, no justification. Itís nice that we can now say it with certainty that it was a ruse, but, even then, there was no justification from the UN inspectors and others to permit Democrats to somehow apologize for the President, and say, "Go ahead and send in our troops." So I think that Bush gets off the hook on some of this. They say, well, the Democrats were in favor of the war, too. Now there were many who were not, but there wasnít that concerted effort that I think was needed to stake out a different position.
BuzzFlash: The Democrats seemed, for the most part, to spend their time being defined rather than defining the opposition.
Garvey: Right. I was in Washington from 1972 until 1983, and that was sort of the beginning of the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the CATO Institute -- all these right-wing foundations and so-called think tanks that started defining the issues and setting the terms of the debate. And what we used to have -- we, meaning the Democrats -- used to have the universities as sort of laboratories of ideas and those who could set the agenda.
Now, we are sort of just responding to these crazy right wing initiatives. For example, in Wisconsin, it was Welfare to Work (W-2) while Clinton puts forward welfare reform. Get people off welfare. Well, why did he think of that? Itís because he wanted to respond to the challenge of the right wing saying Democrats only want to give money to welfare queens, and so on and so forth. And that somehow this would take a big issue away from the Republicans -- that Democrats were trying to give money to poor people -- when the fact is the Democrats ought to be raising hell about the fact that there are so many poor people.
Theyíre poor for a reason: Itís the way the tax system is structured. Itís the way the minimum wage has remained low. Itís a variety of things from NAFTA to the World Trade Organization. Yet instead of dealing with the root cause, they go to "Letís get these people off welfare and get them to work." Theyíre sort of keyed in to the Heritage Foundation and to the Pat Buchanans of the world, rather than offering a clear alternative.
BuzzFlash: Youíre an expert in Wisconsin politics. Your law firm is in Madison. Youíre an environmental attorney. You represented the NFL playersí union. Youíre a union guy. You write a lot about Wisconsin, and in the commentary we mentioned, and others that youíve had in Capital Times and on FightingBob.com and elsewhere, youíre very critical of the Democrats in Wisconsin.
Letís take it down to micro level. The Republicans control both houses in Wisconsin. You barely got a Democratic governor after 16 years of Republican governorship, including the current Secretary of HHS. You do have two Democratic U.S. senators. But whatís wrong internally with the state party?
Garvey: The fact is that weíve gone Democratic in the presidential elections, I think, since Reagan -- I think every year. Weíve only had two Republicans win statewide campaigns in the last 12 years or so -- Tommy Thompson and sort of an unknown state treasurer. And yet the Democrats at the local level are not doing well, in part because theyíre going to the same source of money as the Republicans. And business here is throwing the switch. Theyíre just giving the money by the buckets full to the Republicans. And theyíre not contributing large amounts to the Democrats.
Secondly, the Democratic Party in Wisconsin, on these state issues, seems befuddled. For example, weíre now spending more money in Wisconsin on prisons than we are on the University of Wisconsin system. Weíre paying the lowest percentage of the Universityís budget in history. And this is one of the great land-grant universities, created during the Civil War, and it has been the unifying institution in the state of Wisconsin.
So tuition goes up by 18 percent. The average student is leaving college with a $25,000 to $30,000 debt. If you talk to the law students, as I do, some are $80,000, $90,000, $100,000 in debt. And yet the Democrats in the state of Wisconsin have gone along with the idea of higher tuition and setting back on enrollment, and cutting back on salaries for professors.
And so their position is almost indistinguishable from the Republicans. They ought to be pushing for much greater support. Look at taxes -- Governor Doyle (a Democrat) has gotten himself caught in this whole no-new-taxes mantra, despite the tremendous structural deficit created by Tommy Thompson. So the end result is you have to cut back on special education and on funds for all sorts of things in the state and raise property taxes and user fees in order to maintain that pledge.
The result is a terribly unfair, regressive tax system in the state of Wisconsin because Democrats are afraid to say that those who have benefited the most from our economic system should have to share more for the common wealth, instead of just for their own wealth. So I donít think thereís a compelling reason for many people to get out there and vote Democratic as they see how things are going in the Legislature and with the Governor. There is compelling reason on social issues -- abortion, concealed weapons, gay marriage, and so on -- but not on economics. And when I ran for office, most people never asked you about abortion. They all wanted to know about minimum wage, and pensions, and health care.
BuzzFlash: You also know a bit about Minnesota politics -- a neighboring state which also has had a liberal tradition -- the Democratic Farm Labor Party, Hubert Humphrey, Mondale -- yet it elected Jesse Ventura. Now it has a Republican governor. Norm Coleman beat Walter Mondale after Paul Wellstoneís tragic death. Again, I think people who are outside of Minnesota, Democrats sort of scratch their heads like: Whatís going on in Minnesota?
Garvey: As Iím sitting here and talking to you, Iím looking at a picture of Paul and Sheila Wellstone I have in my office. Paul Wellstone was doing well and would have defeated Coleman. He was up by eight points when that tragedy occurred. I think itís a Democrat like Wellstone, who makes no bones about where he stands with working families, and for the poor, and for enforcement of anti-trust in agriculture and so on -- that gets people out to vote, whereas a Walter Mondale was kind of a throwback to old politics. It was sort of like: Oh, my God, weíre going back to Fritz Mondale. He was sort of DLC before there is DLC. Heís a nice guy, and everybody trusts him, and he has integrity. But there wasnít any spark to say to people that he really was going to be another Wellstone. So I think the message of Paul Wellstone -- the message, frankly, of many of the successful Democrats who run--like (Wisconsin Congressman) David Obey who makes no bones about his progressive views and he wins comfortably every election ó is that itís okay to stand up for working people and poor people and to demand more from big business.
BuzzFlash: What area does Obey represent in Wisconsin?
Garvey: The northern part of the state -- Wausau, Stevenís Point, and all the way up to Superior. Itís an area that, if you think in terms of a gubernatorial race, would be largely Republican. The Republicans do very well in his area. And yet Obey does extremely well, and he makes no bones about the fact that the wealthy are not paying their fair share, and there should be more for education, and there should be more for special education. And heís opposing privatization of Social Security, and he has stood up on damn near every issue, and I think people appreciate his honesty. But also they realize he is with them in terms of economics.
BuzzFlash: As a point of information, if I recall with Wellstone, he was nip-and-tuck with Coleman until the vote on the Iraq war, and he shot up several points after he voted against the war and was looking like the winner.
Garvey: Right. In fact, I was with him in October. We had a fundraiser for him in Milwaukee, and we spent a couple of hours talking about what was happening. And one senator said to him: Donít commit political suicide by voting against the war. And he said, "I would commit moral suicide if I voted for it." And he said, "I think that what weíre seeing is people flocking to this position."
Again, I think most people who vote feel that thereís nobody honest enough to go out there and vote for. I think that John McCain did extremely well four years ago because people thought he was telling the truth. I think that Dean is doing well because -- not necessarily how he is on Medicare, or how he is on the war -- but they think heís telling the truth. Wellstone was telling the truth, and they think, Letís get somebody who will take on the powers that be, and tell the truth about it.
BuzzFlash: Wisconsin, particularly in the Milwaukee area and some of your smaller industrial-based cities, has a significant blue-collar population, whatís left of blue-collar industry. According to one national poll at the beginning of this year, almost 50 percent of blue-collar white males, at the beginning of this year, said they would vote for Bush in 2004. And thereís a lot of speculation about why Bush is holding 50 percent of their vote.
How is Bush able to, as he nips away at every aspect of the economic well-being and future of the children of the blue-collar worker, as he dismantles their future and their present economic infrastructure and possibilities for jobs, and eliminates requirements for overtime, eliminates health care, works toward dismantling Medicare and Social Security -- why are these guys voting for Bush? Why canít the Democrats lock up 90 percent of that blue-collar vote?
Garvey: It astounded me that any member of a union or any blue-collar worker whoís not a member of a union could vote Republican. Itís sort of like a small farmer or a woman -- how can they possibly vote for the party thatís against their best interest? I think itís because the Democrats have not articulated the message nearly as well as you just did in your question.
I know that when Iím talking to factory workers, and Iím running for office, I can get damn near everyone in the room to support me because of a progressive position on the great issues that you just talked about, whether itís taxation or education or what weíre going to do as far as Social Security and the minimum wage are concerned, and on the issues that really affect them.
But for some reason -- and I think itís largely the social agenda -- those wage issues that the Republicans hammer away at -- where if you take a fairly large Catholic population of Milwaukee among blue-collar workers, and you hammer away on abortion and gay marriage and so on, it tends to divide the worker from his real economic interests.
And the Democrats havenít been clear in saying, Look, this is exactly what theyíre doing. We havenít been able to find that messenger, as it were. And I think thatís going to change, because there was hope. Now weíve lost 70,000 manufacturing jobs in Wisconsin in the last three years. I think people are beginning to panic. And I think youíre going to see a wide swing away from Bush by those blue-collar workers who now realize that their jobs are in jeopardy, or that the jobs are gone and theyíre not going to be replaced.
BuzzFlash: FightingBob.com takes it name from Fighting Bob La Follette. A lot of people, particularly the younger people, donít know who he is. Could you tell us a little bit more about him and the website?
Garvey: Bob La Follette ran as a Progressive for President of the United States. And La Follette began his career at the turn of the last century -- the 1900s. He realized that the lumber barons and the railroad owners controlled the political process in Wisconsin. As he put it so well, these corporate barons would go into Room A and select the Republican candidate for governor. And then they go into Room B and select the Democratic candidate for governor. And then turn and say: Let the people decide.
And La Follette said if they can set the table in the field, then they canít lose. And thatís whatís happened in national politics as well. What he proposed was an open primary where the people would nominate the candidates and get it outside of the smoke-filled rooms.
And that open primary worked for more than half a century. We had people who could run for office on very little money because they were the nominees of their party based on the people.
The problem, of course, came when big money figured out that with television spots, you could substitute Room A and Room B with Studio A and Studio B in terms of the political commercials that they would run on television.
But La Follette also was the first to propose a public service commission to reign in the power of the utilities, and he was really doing whatever he could to regulate the insurance industry, and to bring about workersí compensation and a social safety net that ultimately ended up being Social Security. He was taking on the robber barons, as it were, for a long time, and he did succeed and became our governor and a U.S. senator, and then ran for President. His brother became governor of Wisconsin as well. His son was a senator, and unfortunately he lost to Joe McCarthy, which was sort of the ...
BuzzFlash: ... the dark side of Wisconsin politics.
Garvey: Yes, the dark side is right.
BuzzFlash: Whatís the site's mission? And what would people find on it?
Garvey: Well, weíre trying to be the progressive voice in Wisconsin for those outside the traditional mainstream media, because so much of our media is controlled by those huge corporations. Gannett, for example, owns 13 daily newspapers in Wisconsin. Where once we had 13 reporters looking at a story, now we have one, reporting for 13 papers. We have the enterprise that controls three major dailies plus a lot of the smaller newspapers -- The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel monopoly in the Milwaukee area.
And what I found in running for office is that the way the establishment kills you is not with bad publicity, but with no publicity, so that if youíre running as a progressive, you simply are dismissed, sort of like Dennis Kucinich is. "Iím not going to interview you because I consider you outside the mainstream, and therefore Iím not going to give you any time." So if youíre running as a progressive, you canít get any traction with the media, and people have no idea what your campaignís about.
We felt that if we could develop a website where people all over the state and all over Minnesota would feel comfortable checking us out on a daily or weekly basis, read articles that are dealing with everything from school vouchers, right or wrong, to the prison population, then at least we can start to frame the issues for progressives; whereas we couldnít possibly do that with the mainstream media.
Our goal is to involve progressives around the state of Wisconsin and in the Midwest to find out whatís happening, and to understand that, if you take the energy bill, for example, what it means at the state level when you start talking about ethanol and things of that nature.
FightingBob.com has been very successful in terms of attracting readers and subscribers and contributing writers, and even though we are less than a year old we have already had a measurable impact on public debate inside and outside the state Legislature.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
otherwise noted, all original