Former Senator Turns Sights To Africa

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MTT News Desk's picture
Matt Geiger
The ever-busy Russ Feingold, pictured here at his longtime home in the City of Middleton, recently sat down for an interview with the Times-Tribune.

One sweltering summer day in 1982, a young Middleton resident picked up a clipboard, walked out his front door and embarked on a political career.

He climbed into his Chevy Nova, the busted trunk of which was secured by a swath of tape, and drove out to Black Earth. There he went door-to-door, telling people why he wanted to serve in the state legislature.

Thirty-one years later, Russ Feingold – sitting in his backyard on another hot summer day – is preparing to set out again. This time, however, he’s embarking on his new job – one with the State Department. Feingold has been appointed and confirmed as special representative for the Great Lakes region of Africa. His goal is to bring peace to the war-torn region commonly associated with the terror of Idi Amin, Rwandan genocide and bloodshed in eastern Congo.

“I’m ready to serve,” said Feingold, who became a resident expert on African affairs during his eventual tenure as one of Wisconsin’s United States senators. “The position won’t be based in Africa, it will be based out of Washington, but my main residence will continue to be right here in Middleton. Just as it has been all these years.”


Sitting at a metal café table in his small but lush backyard, Feingold tapped the sides of his chair and spoke about his 2012 book, While America Sleeps: A Wake-up Call for the Post 9/11 Era.

“I wrote most of it right here,” he said. “I’ve been all over the world, but this is my favorite spot and here the ideas flowed best. I’d wake up, drink a cup of coffee, then walk the Pheasant Branch Creek. While I was walking, I would work through the ideas in my mind. When I came home and sat down to write, the ideas just flew.”

Many political figures release autobiographies after they leave office; Feingold instead decided to offer his take on what he called the “failure of America to adapt to the post-9/11 world.”

At the notion of penning an autobiography, Feingold chuckled.

“I have a political ego but it hasn’t expanded that big yet,” he offered. “I don’t think too many people would be interested in reading a whole book all about me.”


Feingold, who won his bid for the Wisconsin State Senate in 1983, then went on to serve in the U.S. Senate from 1993 until 2011, will now spend much of his time trying to prevent arms dealers from supplying central African militants with weapons. But his legacy is inexorably intertwined with another effort – his work on campaign finance reform.

When it became law in 2002, the McCain-Feingold Act marked a bipartisan victory for those who hoped to limit the influence of special interest groups. The legislation imposed limits on both conservative corporate interests and liberal labor unions.

Eight years later, however, the United States Supreme Court struck down sections of McCain–Feingold.

“If the First Amendment has any force, it prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for simply engaging in political speech,” wrote the court’s majority, suggesting money equates to speech. Specifically, the Citizens United decision struck down campaign finance laws as they relate to corporations and unions.

“We had this genie in the bottle,” Feingold reflected. “McCain-Feingold had a system in place to prevent unlimited political contributions from corporations and unions. It was only a dumb Supreme Court decision that changed it. I know what we had in place can work because I’ve seen it work.”

In response to Citizens United, and after losing his senate seat to Republican newcomer Ron Johnson, Feingold founded Progressives United. The 501(c)(3) organization, which discloses all of its donors, has a stated mission to “ensure individual rights and democratic principles are upheld to the highest standards, even in the face of the lawless Citizens United Supreme Court decision.”

“I’m confidant Progressives United will continue to grow,” Feingold said.

But he won’t be an active part of that growth – at least for a while. “As a diplomat I can’t be involved with it anymore,” Feingold said. “I founded the group but it will go on without me. It’s a possibility we talked about early on.”


To some, Feingold achieved oracle status during the recent National Security Agency (NSA) scandal. When secret documents leaked by former NSA contract worker Edward Snowden revealed the agency has been collecting metadata from the phone records of millions of Americans and had the ability to surveil Internet activity, Feingold’s worst fears about the 2001 USA Patriot Act appeared to be coming true.

Feingold, who was the only member of the senate to vote against the initial legislation, said at the time the sprawling act would infringe upon Americans’ civil liberties.

Specifically, Feingold took issue with Section 215, the portion of the Patriot Act that authorized the NSA to collect cell data and more for its PRISM electronic surveillance program.

“This is precisely what I was talking about,” Feingold reflected last week. “This right here – this sucking up of information.”


When liberal critics of Republican Governor Scott Walker mounted an ultimately unsuccessful recall election last year, Tom Barrett was tapped to challenge the sitting governor. But Barrett, who had already lost to Walker just two years earlier, didn’t gain any traction the second time around.

At the time, many supporters of the recall effort suggested Feingold would have made a more viable opponent. In fact, Public Policy Polling in February of this year reported that Feingold was the only major Democrat in the state who matched up favorably against Walker, in 2012 and in 2013.

But Feingold, who was teaching law, rolling out his new book and working with Progressives United, showed no interest in entering the recall race last year.

“I had no intention to run for governor,” he said last week. “I had just finished 28 years running for office and I told my family I would take some time off to be a human being.”

Would Feingold consider running for elected office again someday? Possibly.

“Maybe someday I’ll try to come back,” he said. “Maybe. I will say that it’s incredibly gratifying when, after 28 years in public life, some people aren’t sick of you yet and even want you to come back.”


Feingold’s defeat by Johnson came during the 2010 election in which the Democratic Party lost 63 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and six seats in the U.S. Senate. President Obama called the entire thing a “shellacking.”

Johnson’s campaign successfully tapped into a tidal wave of anger directed at Democratic incumbents. Despite Feingold’s well-documented history of going his own way – often to the chagrin of his party – voters ousted him, decisively,  along with his colleagues.

Feingold said teaching law classes – at institutions including Stanford and Marquette – offered a welcome respite from partisan mudslinging and bumper sticker politics.

“It encouraged me,” he said. “The students are hopeful and respectful. I actually think the students I got along with best were the conservative ones because we enjoyed taking part in a real dialogue.”

It was while chatting with a law student that Feingold received a phone call from John Kerry. The secretary of state wanted Feingold to help lead an international effort to stabilize one of the most volatile regions on the African continent.


“I think most people in my age group remember [Africa’s Great Lakes region] as the setting for massive tragedies,” Feingold said. “We immediately think of people like Idi Amin, one of the biggest monsters in history. It’s a myth that every country in Africa is like that, but in this region the problems are very real.”

Feingold, working with the United Nations, said he plans to cutoff arms suppliers and encourage legitimate governments.

“The goal is to see the militias withdraw,” Feingold continued. “We’ll use economic incentives to do it.  The other component has to be holding people accountable; it’s important for people who perpetrate war crimes to know they could end up in a cell in The Hague.”

Feingold will converse with presidents and other visible elected officials in the Great Lakes Region, but in places like eastern Congo he will also face players nebulous and nefarious.

“This is right in the heart of Africa,” he said. “It’s a huge mess and it needs to get resolved.”


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