Bernie Sanders in Madison

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders smiles after announcing he had won the Washington state caucus during a campaign rally last Saturday in Madison. PHOTO BY SAIYNA BASHIR

PHOTO BY SAIYNA BASHIR

In the very different presidential race of a year ago, Scott Walker was a front-runner in the race for the Republican nomination and Bernie Sanders was an asterisk in the race for the Democratic nomination.

Back then, Walker paid little attention to Sanders but the senator from Vermont said he relished the notion of running against the governor of Wisconsin — especially if it involved debating about labor rights.

A year on, Walker is a footnote who quit the Republican competition before it really began and Sanders is an insurgent contender who has won 15 primaries and caucuses and secured more than 1,000 pledged delegates. He’s still in an uphill race — Hillary Clinton has won more states and more delegates — but he’s a contender on his side of a race where Walker is history.

As the presidential race veers into Wisconsin for the April 5 primary, however, Sanders is still running against Walker — and against the anti-labor, anti-public education, anti-public services austerity agenda of a Republican Party so toxic that it has become a host for the likes of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.

“I think that Scott Walker is a symbol of almost everything that we are opposing,” Sanders told The Capital Times in an interview before his big rally last Saturday at the Alliant Energy Center's Exposition Hall.

“This is a guy who has been vehemently anti-union at a time when we need unions to grow — so they can provide decent wages, working conditions for people. This is a guy who has been very much into voter suppression — making it harder for people to participate in the political process at a time when we need to increase voter turnout. This guy has been an ally of the Koch brothers — one of the great reactionary forces in America, (billionaires) who are trying to move this country in exactly the wrong direction. So you see in Scott Walker what is exactly wrong in the direction that (conservative Republicans) are moving.”

In February of 2011, Sanders was one of the first national figures to announce his support for the mass protests against Walker’s policy, declaring as the protests grew: “On, Wisconsin!” Walker’s attack on labor rights, Sanders declared five years ago, “is part of a concerted attack on the middle class and working families of this country by the wealthiest people in America. These guys want to return us to the 1920s, when working people had virtually no rights to organize or to earn a decent living.”

Sanders credits the Wisconsin uprising with inspiring progressives nationally to rally against austerity. He also hailed the coalitions that were built during the uprising. “The fact that so many tens and tens of thousands of people in Wisconsin came together — the trade union movement, environmentalists, women, progressives — creates a strong progressive base in general, which I think is going to be useful in the fight forward for the middle-class and working families of this country, for environmental sanity, for equal rights for all,” he told The Capital Times.

But Sanders noted that Wisconsin’s progressive movement has roots that go back to the days of Robert M. La Follette and the progressive movement of the early 20th century. “Wisconsin has a very rich history of progressive politics, of people who have taken on the establishment, of people who have sent representatives to Washington who took on folks who wanted war rather than peace; who were prepared to support working families rather than oligarchy,” he explained Saturday. “So, yes, this state has one of the most impressive progressive traditions in America.”

The La Follette progressives often allied with the Socialist mayors who ran Milwaukee for much of the 20th century. Sanders recalled Milwaukee’s Frank Zeidler, who led the city from 1948 to 1960 and was internationally recognized for his integrity, his fiscal responsibility and his advocacy for racial justice.

Zeidler lived long enough to follow the Vermonter’s career as the democratic socialist mayor of Burlington, Vermont. Another Wisconsin mayor, Madison’s Paul Soglin, did the same. On Saturday, Soglin was one of the speakers who welcomed the senator to Wisconsin, with an address that focused on the understanding of urban issues that he says Sanders has brought to this year’s presidential race.

Another Wisconsinite who was enthusiastic about Sanders long before the senator entered presidential politics was Ed Garvey, the veteran labor leader and candidate for the U.S. Senate and governor. Like Sanders, Garvey was a civil rights activist in the early 1960s who became a leading advocate in Wisconsin and nationally for campaign finance reforms to get big money out of politics.

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“Ed Garvey is one of my heroes. He is someone I look up to,” said Sanders as he talked about Wisconsinites who have influenced his own activism and politics. In the days leading up to the primary, he said, he will focus a good deal on his differences with Walker. But he says he will also talk about the state’s progressive leaders and movements.

“It’s clear that Wisconsin has a great history and we will talk about that history,” he said of his plans for campaigning around the state.

“In general, where we are today is that we are running a campaign which says that — in America today — it is not acceptable that so few have so much both economically and politically,” the senator explained as he reflected on La Follette and the progressive movement, which still takes inspiration from the Wisconsin senator. “The issue of today is to try to prevent America from moving toward an oligarchic form of society, in which a handful of billionaires control our economy and our political life. And I am sure that (this fight) is very similar to the kinds of battles that were waged here in Wisconsin many, many decades ago. In certain ways, that has not changed. That fight continues.”

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. jnichols@madison.com and @NicholsUprising

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Associate Editor of the Cap Times