Feingold sets sights on old seat

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Deb Biechler

A conversation with Russ  Feingold as he readies for a rematch with Republican Ron Johnson.

Middleton Times:  You’re considered a champion of Progressivism.  Some of Wisconsin’s more conservative voters have a negative impression of that word.  What would you like to say to those people?

Feingold:   I find that when I’m talking with people around the state, most of them understand the Wisconsin progressive tradition as a very positive one.  I think part of the problem is that the word progressive has a different connotation nationally than it does in Wisconsin. 

Here in Wisconsin, it’s always represented a sense of community, but also fiscal discipline. It includes honesty and anti-corruption.

I believe that those aspects of progressivism that are central to my view, are very appreciated by the voters in the state. 

Most Wisconsinites know Progressivism as an important part of our history and as a guide to the future.  Progressivism means that everybody is part of this community.

You don’t divide people against each other.

What’s happened in the last few years is a deliberate attempt to divide people in this state.  Progressivism says that we’re a community.

What’s upset the people who I’ve talked with in Wisconsin are the changes that have come very quickly and being driven by our current governor, the Koch Brothers, and the corporate right that’s dominating the state right now. 

Their fast and damaging changes have destroyed the sense of peace that we had between labor and management and between private and public employees.  It’s driven by the Right-wing and not by the Progressive and Moderate elements in the state.

Middleton Times: The economy has recovered somewhat since the 2008 recession, but has not reached pre-recession levels.  What are your ideas for continued economic recovery?

Feingold:  I can’t think of a better or more needed jobs program than rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure. Everyone knows our nation’s infrastructure is an important investment and it is in need of attention.

It also means prioritizing access to broadband internet, which is critical to starting and growing so many of our small and rural businesses.

Broadband internet access has become fundamental to our lives – banking, applying for schools, medical care, distance work and education – but it is still maddeningly inaccessible to far too many Wisconsinites, especially those in rural or disadvantaged communities.

With all of our wealth, the United States still ranks just 20th in the world in access to broadband, over 50% below the best nations. Study after study proves that when we invest in broadband access, job creation and economic growth follows.

In the 1930s, electrification brought America’s rural communities into the future – dairy products could be refrigerated and production increased. But it took our investment, and it took a partnership between the federal government and local stakeholders.

Today, we must do with broadband access what we did with electricity. Broadband should be treated like a public utility that opens the door to a new future. So farmers have direct access to worldwide market for their crops. So Wisconsin’s small business owners don’t have to rely on the whim of a corporation to provide the kind of reliable and affordable internet access that lets them expand their local businesses or start new ones.

It’s not enough that the unemployment rate has come down dramatically.  It’s good that it has, but it’s not enough.  It’s not even enough for people to have a job.

You have to be able to pay the bills.  The job has to include that kind of wage. 

What I’m hearing around the state is that people might have a job or the opportunity to have a job, but can’t make ends meet, let alone, take some time to go out once in awhile and enjoy time with their families. 

This is the way that we have to look at economic growth.  It’s not just “jobs.”  That’s so narrow. It’s people and their lives and their families.  It’s about being able to pay the bills and get through those extraordinary expenses like college and day care and weddings.

We need to address all of that and make sure that people are rewarded for their hard work.

Middleton Times:  There’s a long list of both Republicans and Democrats who have served in Washington much longer than you have. Yet, your opposition puts a negative spin on your service negatively calling you a “Washington Insider.” 

How have your years of representing Wisconsin citizens in Washington taught you?

Feingold:  First I want to say that unlike my opponent, I’ve lived in Wisconsin all of my life, with only a portion of that in political office.*  I don’t quite understand how “Career Politician” isn’t applied to people like Scott Walker or Paul Ryan.  It’s just game playing and accomplishes nothing.

The truth is that the incumbent senator is the one who is in Washington, lives in Washington, and wants to continue to be a politician.  There’s nothing wrong with that.

However, what’s important is who is going to spend time in Wisconsin and really listen to the people of our state and then really represent them?

A senator shouldn’t lecture his or her constituents.  He shouldn’t come to meetings saying here’s the score, this is what we’re going to do and now I’m going to go back to Washington to work on it. 

I think that Johnson is confused about his role.  A representative is not a CEO.  It’s a person who listens.

Every year I went around to all 72 counties.  And this year I’m doing that again, even though I’m not yet the Senator.

I’m having a wonderful time listening to the people of Wisconsin in all different settings, businesses, farms, the freshwater science lab at the UW Milwaukee, a high-tech firm with job generating capacity in Oshkosh, and the list goes on.

Middleton Times:  What has your recent time, serving the U.S. in Africa added to what you’d bring to office if elected again?

Feingold:  My time in Africa was very special. It gave me a lot of insights on how the United States is perceived and how we might be missing some opportunities to improve our relationships there.

People in Sub-Saharan Africa, in the Great Lakes region where I was, are very positive about the United States. But, they say to us, “You’re not very involved.”

The Chinese are extremely involved in Africa.  Sometimes it is in a way that irritates the Africans.  The Chinese will come in to build a soccer stadium, but use Chinese workers to build it.   So, the African’s don’t get job opportunities out of it.

We could have a much stronger relationship with countries that deserve to have their own resources for themselves.  It gives us an opportunity to have a good economic relationship with them, as well as a humanitarian one.

Being there confirmed my fear that the United States doesn’t have a broad, thought-out foreign policy.  We tend to focus on the latest hotspot.  It’s called stove-piping, when you look at one thing at a time but are not looking the connections. 

There are many connections in the world.  Some are between groups that are making threats, like ISIS.  But there are also connections for us to be aware of that are positive ones.

One of my roles in Africa was to help stop the violence that was occurring in Eastern Congo.  I spent a lot of time in negotiations with opposing factions and helped to avert further war.

I learned a lot of good lessons there that I will use if I’m elected to serve as Senator again.

Middleton Times:  There’s great political polarity in the state right now.  How do you plan to address that?

Feingold:  I’ve always been known for my bi-partisan initiatives.  That’s important to me and I plan to work that way again.

Middleton Times:  Ron Johnson has been asked to sign the Badger Pledge, along with you, in an attempt to keep special interest money out of the US Senate Race.  Has he responded yet?  And, if not, will you have enough money to run a winning campaign?

Feingold:  First of all, he hasn’t signed the pledge yet.  Secondly, I’ve run against big money every time that I won and the one time that I did not win.  People are coming forward to generously support my campaign.

It would be good to have special interest money out of the picture. But, if it isn’t, I’m not worried.

Middleton Times:  What, specifically, would you like the Middleton Times-Tribune readers to know? 

Feingold:  I love this community. I’ve lived here since 1979.  I see a real model here of how we can bring back the spirit of Wisconsin to the whole state.

This good neighbor thing is not just a slogan.  It’s a feeling and a way of life. 

The community came together to build this wonderful new Kromrey Middle School overlooking the incredible Pheasant Branch Conservancy.

The fact that more than twenty years ago, people in this community, on there own, came together to preserve the land around Pheasant Branch Creek, instead of letting it be developed, is amazing. 

When corporate interests dominate the system, they want to grab up places like that for profit. They want to carve them up into big fancy plots to sell to individuals and then the public can’t enjoy it.

When you think about it, the school, the conservancy, the Middleton Outreach Ministry, the small businesses that have been here forever like Fitzgerald’s, are actual representations of the good neighbor theme.

My wife and I just love it here and hope to live here a very long time.

*Editor’s note: The print version of this article misquoted Mr. Feingold regarding his time in office. A review of the reporter's recording showed that he never claimed to have spent a "small" portion of his time in office. The correct quote is as follows: “First I want to say that unlike my opponent, I’ve lived in Wisconsin all of my life, with only a portion of that in political office.” The Middleton Times-Tribune regrets the error.

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