Friday, May 11, 2012

Wisconsin Badly Needs to Return to Its Progressive Traditions, and Tom Barrett Is the Guy to Lead the Way

Tom Barrett, He's Our Guy!
This sign at the Unity Rally said it all. It was great to see Scott Walker opponents closing ranks behind Tom Barrett. Although he always led in the polls, before and during the primary season, he seemed one of the least favorite candidates of the activists who made the recall happen, many of whom had a hard time giving up their dreams of Russ Feingold stepping in to save the day. But that's all water under the bridge now. Liberals always have been a contentious lot, which doesn't mean they don't know how to unite when it counts. Scott Walker is about to find out just how united they can be.

Nichols gave an impassioned speech about uniting around traditional Wisconsin progressive values, which Scott Walker has so divisively undermined. He also talked about Tom Barrett's record and how consistent it is with those values.  As a 5-term congressman from what had been a liberal district, Tom Barrett voted with Russ Feingold on key progressive issues. He voted against NAFTA. He voted against the WTO and exporting jobs to China. He cast courageous votes against the Patriot Act and the Iraq War.

Judging from the polls, the general public always favored Barrett as the best candidate to run against Scott Walker. They seemed to consider the recall election as a do-over of an election that had been contested under false pretenses. In February, 2011, when Scott Walker dropped his budget bomb, a majority of Wisconsin voters said they would for Barrett if the election were held then.

So why were activists so enthusiastic about Feingold and lukewarm at first about Barrett? It seemed to have everything to do with his having served as mayor of Milwaukee. Being a big city mayor in the 21st century -- especially mayor of a city with an eroding tax base and terrible schools -- is probably the worst job in American politics. You can't please everyone, and if you're trying to do the right thing and make a difference, you constantly have to make compromises and burn your political capital. Over in the legislative branch, Russ Feingold was free to vote his conscience in the chamber of the U.S. Senate. He could vote for the right thing, but he didn't have to implement them, or get his hands dirty with the compromises that need to be made to get anything done. No wonder he seemed like a white knight.

Being mayor of Milwaukee in this day and age is a thankless job. We should be glad that anyone cares enough to take it. But it is also a pretty good preparation for the governor's office at a time when Wisconsin faces the problems it does today. Tom Barrett faced some of the worst impacts of the Walker budget in the entire state. He knows the problems he'll be dealing with as governor, and he knows that Scott Walker's ideological polarization and divide and conquer strategies are not going to get us any closer to a solution. If anyone can end the Wisconsin civil war, Tom Barrett can.

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