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Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2009

Fighting Bob Fest Rallies Progressives on Sept. 12

A Q&A with founder Ed Garvey on Wisconsin’s one-of-a-kind political gathering

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Now in its eighth year, Fighting Bob Fest draws more than 10,000 progressives and activists to Baraboo, Wis., to discuss politics and brainstorm solutions. In this ShepherdQ&A, founder Ed Garvey, an attorney and a former gubernatorial candidate, previewed this year’s fest and offered his thoughts on some of the biggest political questions of the day. To read the complete interview with Garvey, as well as an interview with Bob Fest headliner Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, go to the Daily Dose blog at www.expressmilwaukee.com. For details on Fighting Bob Fest, check out the Event of the Week in Expresso.

Shepherd: What does it mean to be a progressive?

Garvey: I think it means that we get back to the idea that people should control government, and that government should control business, so that we have some sort of rational method of dealing with problems, whether it’s a shortage of gasoline or the housing crisis or the educational crisis. It’s a belief that the grassroots still should rule.

Shepherd: This is the eighth Bob Fest. What effect has it had on individuals or on the political debate?

Garvey: A number of people have told me that they decided to run for office after being challenged at Bob Fest. We’ve given voice to the progressives, and we’re able to get to thousands of people that we otherwise would not be able to communicate with. It’s a broad-based group from all over the state. I think it’s had an impact, but not enough. We haven’t succeeded in a lot of things that we have pushed for in the past.

Shepherd:Like what?

Garvey: Public financing of campaigns. Here we thought we were right on the verge of success when Doyle was elected because he said it would be one of his top priorities, and he’s just done nothing. He’s been the poster boy for the current system because he raises more money than everyone else and therefore goes unchallenged. I think that’s been a big disappointment for us, because so many things flow from that.

One of the things we’re constantly confronting is a kind of defeatist attitude where people say, “My god—the amount of money in politics,” and they watch the insurance lobbyists screw up the health care bill or they see how the utilities are getting their way in the Legislature and they think there’s nothing they can do. I think our mission is to say there is something you can do about it. For example, regarding public finance [of campaigns], perhaps it’s time for civil disobedience until we get it.

Shepherd: In addition to its headlining speakers, Bob Fest also features a number of breakout sessions on specific topics, including health care. What are your thoughts on the health care debate?

Garvey: It’s been tremendously disappointing. No matter who I talk to, they’re disappointed that the president didn’t really come out swinging on this because it really required a detailed plan, something to be for, not just a slogan. Public option— what does it mean? So it’s been very dis appointing.

And to have meetings behind closed doors at the White House with the big pharmaceutical companies. It was one of those things that could really destroy people’s faith in you. It’s a very dangerous thing to do, it seems to me. If you’re running a campaign to make things different in Washington and then you meet behind closed doors with Big Pharma and agree not to import drugs from Canada, or negotiate for lower fees with drug companies, that’s a pretty serious blow. I look at these things and think, “What would we say if George Bush did it?” We’d be screaming from the rafters.

Shepherd: Another breakout session is on the MPS takeover. Is it really just about the kids, as advocates claim?

Garvey: No. I think when you take a look at the Bradley Foundation and what they’ve achieved over the years, with Charlie Sykes and Howard Fuller and so on, it’s about privatization of everything, including schools. They have to come up with reasons to privatize public schools. So they say, “Well, we have a plan that’s going to make things a lot better.” What’s that plan? It’s to put somebody in charge of the entire system who has no background in education. It’s to gin up the idea that the MPS board has wasted hundreds of millions of dollars. If that’s true, then somebody at DPI [Department of Public Instruction] should have been  held accountable.

What could be more destructive than the governor, the mayor of Milwaukee and the state superintendent of public instruction talking behind closed doors about taking away the elected school board, eliminating the teachers’ union and all benefits? It may be that there is a better answer than electing the school boards the way we do. Who knows? But there ought to be a public debate about it. And not just the nodding of the heads and saying that it will be better. I see no reason to believe that it will be better.

To read the full interview, including Garvey’s thoughts on Gov. Jim Doyle’s legacy and the $40 million to $50 million campaign to succeed him next year, go to the Daily Dose blog at www.expressmilwaukee.com.