Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2009

Ed Garvey on Fighting Bob Fest (full interview)

By Lisa Kaiser
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Now in its eighth year, Fighting Bob Fest draws more than 10,000 progressives and activists to Baraboo to discuss politics and brainstorm solutions. In this Shepherd Q&A, its founder, attorney and former gubernatorial candidate Ed Garvey, previewed this year’s fest and offered his thoughts on some of the biggest political questions of the day.

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 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.

Health Care Reform

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 disappointing.

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: What about some of the alternatives, such as Paul Ryan’s free market-friendly reform?

Garvey: You just have to ask what Paul Ryan is thinking about. It’s nice for millionaires like Ryan to say the system works pretty well. But I think it’s ridiculous to listen to these Republicans testify as to why we should be different than all other countries in the world. Single payer works in Holland and France and Scandinavia and Canada and Germany. You name the country and it works. It’s so sensible that it’s hard to argue against it. So they have to come up with these phony stories about death panels and so on and so forth and that we’re going to go broke. We can afford to send thousands of more troops to Afghanistan, but we can’t afford national health care? This is an outrage.

Shepherd: Any predictions on how this will play out?

Garvey: If I were forced to predict I would say it’s going to fail. Because I think that the dark forces have put the president in such a position that they can’t win something significant. I think he would be better off seeing it defeated and starting over again next year.

Shepherd: By fail, do you mean passing weak reform?

Garvey: Yes. The idea for example that if the insurance companies behave themselves everything will be fine—it’s almost bizarre.

MPS Takeover Attempt

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 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.

Shepherd: What’s behind the push for mayoral control?

Garvey: I think it’s the ideological view that there’s no role for government to play except to defend corporate interests in peace and war.

Shepherd: But the two folks who brought this forward are Doyle and Barrett, not two conservative Republicans.

Garvey: I’m baffled by Barrett’s involvement. Doyle doesn’t surprise me because he’s been a privatizer in the closet for a long time. But it seems like an odd position for Barrett to be taking. Let’s assume he thinks it would be better for the kids in MPS, that they would do better under this system. Let’s give him that goodwill. But why does he believe that? Shouldn’t he be telling us why? I saw him on “Here and Now” and he said it’s about the money that he might get from Arne Duncan. Well I don’t think that’s an appropriate response.

We ought to have a high-level debate around this state about the role of education, how we’re going to fund it, who’s doing what. The first time the Wisconsin Constitution was submitted to the electorate, they turned it down. The big reason was that the draft said they would get the brightest person from the east and bring him to Wisconsin to run the schools. And the people said, “We’d like to elect our own.” So they did.

And we fought it when Tommy Thompson tried to bring the DPI into the governor’s office. People were up in arms about it. Now they’re back at it trying to do the same thing. So I think it’s an ideological bent to privatize everything you can get your hands on.

Shepherd: How do you think this will play out?

Garvey: I’m kind of optimistic. I think you’ll get the Journal Sentinel and the GMC and the Bradley Foundation boys to talk about this as a great idea. But it think it has so many problems that I suspect that the Legislature is not going to go along with it and I don’t think the people will.

Shepherd: I haven’t heard of legislators going on record saying that they support it.

Garvey: No. I think it would be pretty dangerous.

The 2010 Gubernatorial Race

Shepherd: What’s Doyle’s legacy?

Garvey: Jim Doyle? [laughs] He is living proof of why the governor’s term should be back to two years. People justify going from a two-year term to a four-year term by saying that all you are doing is raising money if you’re serving a two-year term. In point of fact what’s happened is that for the first two years the incumbent raises so much money that no one will challenge him in the primary, and then raises so much money in the next two years that no one can beat him. The end result is that we’re controlled by corporate America. They have Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce dictating to the rest of the state the names of those who will serve on the state’s highest court. It’s pretty outrageous. And Doyle does nothing about it.

Shepherd: What will Doyle do in his last year?

Garvey: Well. [laughs]

Shepherd: Isn’t he free to do the right thing now that he isn’t running again?

Garvey: I don’t think he has a clue about the right thing. It baffles me. His father was one of my idols as a law student and as a lawyer. I worked for his mother in the law school. Jim was my lawyer at one point. And I can’t figure it out. I don’t know why he wants to be governor. There just don’t seem to be any burning issues that get him excited.

Shepherd: Why is he leaving office?

Garvey: I think he’s bored. It’s not like he’s taking on a big fight and can’t win it.

Shepherd: Who do you think will be on the ballot for the Dems next year?

Garvey: My assumption is that Barbara Lawton will be. That Ron Kind will be. And his new party of militant neutrals. [laughs] I’m sure there will be some surprises of people who have done poorly in some field or who have done well in some field who say they can do better as governor. But I just don’t—beyond the two of them—somebody will come out of the Legislature because they will say they want that body to be represented.

Shepherd: Who would you like to see jump in?

Garvey: I’m being honest about it. I’m not ducking it. Obviously I ran for office with Barbara Lawton and I think she’s a very bright, intelligent woman. But lieutenant governor is not necessarily a training ground for anything useful. But I think she’ll be a formidable candidate. I don’t know who else, to be quite honest with you. I think that one of the things I’m looking forward to after Bob Fest is talking to groups around the state and saying, “What are we going to do around here?” There ought to be some input from people other than those with big checkbooks.

Shepherd: Why don’t the Democrats have a bench, or more up-and-coming politicians who can fill in for the starting line-up?

Garvey: I think it’s money. First of all, we don’t have a party. I travel around the country with Jim Hightower for public financing and this woman said, “Mr. Hightower do you think we need a third party?” And he said, “I’ll settle for a second one.” You go to the Democratic Party convention and it’s nine incumbents giving speeches and then going to the hospitality suites to do a few breakfast meetings in the morning and then everyone goes home. They don’t have a platform that they insist candidates stand on. They don’t raise any money for the candidates. They don’t staff the candidates. So they have no role in the election or defeat of a candidate.

So where’s the bench? Let’s say Spencer Coggs wants to run, or to think about it. What would be wrong with his going before the convention and saying, “I’d like to consider this, would you want to get involved in the campaign and help out?” But the decision, like the decision behind closed doors on the MPS schools, the big money boys get together behind closed doors and say it should be A, B and C. “We like Doyle, we don’t like so and so.” They loved me. But they liked me so much they wanted me to stay home. [laughs]

It’s a sad fact but all kinds of people ask me if they should run and of course I try to encourage them. They say, “What do I have to do?” I say, if you want to run for state Senate, you’ve got to raise a million. If you’re going to run against an incumbent like Jim Sensenbrenner, you’d probably need about $40 million. They look at me like, I don’t have that kind of money and I don’t know people who do. It’s just pathetic, the number of people who simply say “I can’t run.” It’s sad because there are some really good people who I think should be considering it but who give up right at the starting line.

Shepherd: Who do you think is going to win the Republican primary?

Garvey: I think they’re going to call it all off and bring back George Bush. It’s such a pathetic crew that it sure could get people excited about the Democratic Party. This guy [Scott] Walker is just frightening, and the guy to his right [Mark Neumann] is the guy who ran against Feingold. Which is the reason why I ran against Tommy, to keep Tommy from campaigning for Russ’ opponent. And Paul Ryan—I like him, he’s a nice guy. He seems to be getting farther and farther away from real people.

What’s Ahead

Shepherd: What’s imperative to work on in the coming legislative session?

Garvey: I think we need to throw down the gauntlet and say you will pass publicly financed campaigns or else. Or else we’re not leaving this building or something else. But we’re certainly going to discuss it at Bob Fest.

Then I think all sorts of possibilities open up. How do we fund our schools? Are we going to continue with this voucher nonsense or are we going to focus on the public schools and helping them do better? Bring back the public intervenor to protect the environment. Get the DNR out of the governor’s office and declare it independent again. Stop these huge animal containment operations—10,000 hogs, 20,00 cows, and so on—that threaten our groundwater and our air and the spreading of antibiotics that build up immunities all over the map.

What’s happening right now is that big business sets the agenda, they elect people who vote on the agenda, and they get the benefits.

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