Democrats beware. Progressives will not settle for the lesser of two evils.
Or so claimed the many featured guests -- including one gubernatorial candidate and several likely ones -- who spoke before roughly 200 activists at the "People's Legislature" on Wednesday. The event was sponsored by FightingBob.com, a progressive website founded by Cap Times contributor Ed Garvey, who described the convention as a means to "develop a road to a wide-open primary" race to nominate a challenger to Gov. Scott Walker in a potential recall election.
Mike McCabe, who heads the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a group that monitors money in politics and advocates for campaign finance reform, started off the event by urging opponents of the governor to eschew money-fueled campaigns in favor of grass-roots movements powered by people. In particular, he ridiculed labor unions for trying to compete with businesses in raising campaign cash.
"Among Democrats, businesses give $6 for every $1 unions give," he pointed out. "Businesses have capital and unions have people. And yet for the last 30 to 40 years unions have operated in a capital-intensive system ... and resist [campaign finance reform] changes!"
"We elected somebody who never spent more than $300 on a race," he said, referring to longtime U.S. Sen. Bill Proxmire. "Could Prox win again?" he asked rhetorically.
Pointing out that bribery was not illegal in Wisconsin until 1897, he urged progressives to field a candidate who would go "cold turkey" on the "legalized bribery" from monied interests.
At least one member of the audience was impressed enough to propose McCabe run for governor. Trudi Jenny, a Madison activist who I approached between speeches, said a McCabe candidacy based solely on the issue of getting money out of politics would be appealing.
"I would prefer a new face who is not beholden to anybody," she explained.
Gaylord Oppegard, the chair of the Jackson County Democratic Party, struck a similar tone as he explained his support for state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, who he suggested would be an appealing candidate to many because of her rural Wisconsin roots. Although he vigorously insisted that he did not object to Madisonian candidates (read: Kathleen Falk), he conceded that "people from [his] area want a fresh face, an outsider."
Vinehout, who is rumored to soon announce her candidacy, and Falk, an official candidate, clearly took heed of the crowd's expectations for rabble-rousing populism. Falk, the former Dane County executive, addressed skepticism of her statewide credentials head on: "They say a Dane County liberal can't win! Have they ever heard of Russ Feingold?" she asked, referencing the former U.S. senator who was defeated in the 2010 Republican wave but remains a darling of the Wisconsin left (as well as an oft-requested candidate to challenge Walker).
Vinehout brandished her progressive credentials during a later question and answer session as she boasted of the role she played in drafting a bill to establish a single-payer health care plan in the state. More significantly, she expressed disgust over the role fellow Democrats played in killing the measure.
"We ran into a brick wall in the [Democratically controlled] Assembly and with our Democratic governor," she said.
Secretary of State Doug La Follette and Assembly Democratic Leader Peter Barca also gave speeches. Recently, La Follette, a longtime officeholder with an iconic Wisconsin name, has entertained the idea of running for governor, and has criticized the media for ignoring him. According to leaked notes of interviews between potential recall candidates and unions, Barca has indicated he is still pondering a bid.