A Tribute to Russ Feingold, 1992-2010.

I first heard about Senator Russ Feingold back in 2004, when I was a high school senior taking AP U.S. Government. We learned about campaign finance law and the pernicious effects of soft money, and studied in particular the reforms introduced by the McCain-Feingold Campaign Reform Act. I knew about the Republican John McCain, of course, from his presidential nomination bid in 2000, but Russ Feingold was a new commodity that I had to research, particularly after I learned that he was a Democrat and had crossed the aisle to co-sponsor this bill. I discovered a politician as exciting as McCain had been in 2000, forged, it seemed, more in the pure fires of the West Wing than on the sooty anvils of politics-as-usual. In his first Senate race in 1992, as a major underdog, he nailed a contract to his garage door, Martin Luther-style, promising to always live in Wisconsin and send his children to Wisconsin public schools, to finance his campaigns with money from Wisconsin voters, and to hold town halls in each of Wisconsin’s 72 counties every year of his term. In one “Home Movie” television ad, a camera followed him around his modest house, where he flung open a closet door and remarked in mock surprise, “Look-no skeletons!” In 1998, he promised to spend no more than $3.8 million, one dollar for every citizen in Wisconsin, despite chiding from Democratic leaders who said he was “putting his career at risk”. Though I thought of myself as a bit conservative back then, I promised my friends that I would become a Democrat and campaign door-to-door if Russ Feingold ever ran for the Presidency. So when I found out that Feingold was behind in the polls for this election, I signed up to phonebank for the first time.

Here was a Senator with charisma and courage, intelligence and integrity, and it showed in the positions he took, which were often politically unpopular. He recognized, and I agreed, that neither party has a monopoly on truth, and that the best policy for this country is probably somewhere in the middle, a mix and match. Toeing the party line will only get you a little better than halfway there–for those who seek perfection, a more nuanced platform is required. Let me borrow from Wikipedia some of his positions that, I think, required both honesty and courage:

Feingold was the only Democratic senator to vote against a motion to dismiss Congress’s 1998–1999 impeachment case of President Bill Clinton. In a statement, Feingold said House prosecutors must have “every reasonable opportunity” to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Clinton should be removed from office on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. Feingold ultimately voted against conviction on all charges.

In 2001, Feingold voted for the confirmation of Attorney General John Ashcroft. This decision was not popular with his party, but Feingold explained that he voted based on respect for the right for a President to choose his Cabinet, not because of his own personal opinions on Ashcroft.

Feingold was the only senator to vote against the USA PATRIOT Act when first voted on in 2001. At the time, Feingold stated that provisions in the act infringed upon citizens’ civil liberties.

Feingold was one of only 28 US senators to vote against H.J. Resolution 114, which authorized President George W. Bush to use force against Iraq in 2002.

He has spoken in support of the interpretation that the Second Amendment pertains to an individual right to own firearms, and in opposition to proposals for handgun bans and mandatory firearms registration. Recently Feingold took this position when he sided with the conservative majority of the Senate and signed the Congressional amicus in District of Columbia v. Heller.

On May 18, 2006, Feingold again made news with his stance on marriage when he walked out of a meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee shortly before a vote on a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.

Feingold is also a well-known advocate for reductions in pork barrel spending and corporate welfare. Citizens Against Government Waste, the Concord Coalition, and Taxpayers for Common Sense, three nonpartisan organizations dedicated to those causes, have repeatedly commended him.

Feingold and Grassley (R-IA) introduced legislation in 2010 that would cap Farm Bill commodity payments at not greater than $250,000 a year for any one farm.  It would reduce the annual cap on direct payments from $80,000 to $40,000 per farm and the annual cap on counter-cyclical payments from $130,000 to $60,000 per farm.

Feingold voted for the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006, co-sponsored by his friend John McCain (who hadn’t yet lost his courage), which would have provided a path to citizenship for roughly 10 million illegal immigrants.

Feingold was the liberal maverick. He demonstrated his allegiance to principle by breaking with his party in allowing an impeachment of his own party’s leader to go forward, voting to confirm a very conservative Attorney General that was and would be hated by liberals, and supporting gun rights. He has also shown a knack for being on the right side of history before it was popularly recognized, as one of only 28 senators to vote against the Iraq War, and the ONLY senator to vote against the Patriot Act. Feingold opposed deregulation of Wall Street in 1994, and also opposed the TARP bank bailout when that deregulation turned out to be a mistake. He has even introduced The Control Spending Now Act to end TARP and reduce the deficit by half a trillion dollars–a fact no doubt missed by many Tea Party supporters of his opponent. Of course, being a maverick didn’t prevent him from unapologetically voting for liberal issues when it counted: he supported the stimulus, and health care reform. What you got from a maverick like Feingold is not random flip-flopping, or blind loyalty, but the assurance that the vote he cast was one that he believes in, not one improperly influenced by moneyed interests or political ambition.

Of course his calling card was campaign finance reform and getting rid of the corrupting influence of special interests in politics. Since 1993, Feingold’s office has returned $3.2 million from his allocated office budget, and $70,000 in personal pay raises to the U.S. Treasury. 6 months after his election in 1992, his office had already accumulated 201 gifts from lobbyists valued at tens of thousands of dollars–everything from candy to Waterford crystal obelisks. He donated it all to a local charity. Feingold forbade his staff from taking anything, even food, paid for by lobbyists. Susanne Martinez, a Feingold aide hired in 1992, recounted this story in Sanford Horwitt’s 2007 book Feingold: A New Democratic Party:

I remember going late at night to some committee meeting… I walked in, and they had Chinese food. They asked if I wanted some. I said, “Did you buy this? I’m not allowed to accept something except if it’s from another staff person.” They laughed and said, “Don’t worry; we ordered it. You [Feingold] guys are such pains in the butt.” So I took an egg roll. And after I ate it, they started laughing. It was actually sent up by some restaurant association or some lobbying group. They were just cracking up. “You’re contaminated,” they said. “Taking food from lobbyists.” So I took a dollar out and laid it on the table. “Here’s my dollar for my egg roll,” I said. It was an interesting illustration…of how it was a threat to their culture.

Despite the Court’s dismantling of much of McCain-Feingold in the recent Citizens United decision (covered here on Stone Soup), Senator Feingold remained true to his beliefs. Ron Johnson poured $8 million of his own money in his Senate Race, and outside groups sent in another $3 million. Feingold, on the other hand, resisted outside support, and it showed. 92% of the outside money in the Wisconsin Senate race supported Johnson. Feingold explained his refusal of DNC and DSCC advertising help: “It’s because these are almost always inherently attack ads based on cookie-cutter notions of how you should talk to the people of Wisconsin… I don’t want that kind of help… I consider it to be outside help of a kind that is uncontrolled and tends to believe in a philosophy of slash-and-burn politics. That’s frankly not who I am. I don’t want to win that way.” He didn’t.

On Monday, John McCain was asked on Fox News if he felt bad when his Senate colleagues lost their races. Working up some of his former individualism, he broke with party line to say, “Yes, and if I may say so, I’ve grown to have the greatest respect and affection for my friend, Russ Feingold. He’s an honest man, a man of great integrity, and I’ve grown to appreciate him more than ever. And it looks like he might be a casualty tomorrow.”

A few hours ago, Wisconsin voted out Russ Feingold in favor of a Tea Party-supported candidate, Ron Johnson, by a margin of 52-47. They voted for a candidate who railed against the federal stimulus plan when his own company accepted $75,000 from that very same stimulus package, while he served as the company’s accountant. They elected a typical hypocrite who, as treasurer of the Grand Opera House in Osh Kosh, inquired about the availability of stimulus funding to help with the $1.8 million repair bill. Johnson didn’t hold true to the one policy position he had, and he certainly didn’t have any others, once responding to a reporter’s question: “When I interview people, I don’t expect them to come into that interview and say here are the problems and how to solve them.” No, that would be too much to expect from a Senate candidate. For these reasons, and more, every major newspaper in the state endorsed Russ Feingold, even those who opposed him in previous elections. In the end, money trumped idealism. This is, for me, the biggest loss of the 2010 Election. I would trade a dozen arrogant Boxers and spineless, ineffectual Reids; and a hundred corrupt Charlie Rangels; for just one independent voice in Russ Feingold. He was a hero who would rather lose his seat than, in winning, sacrifice his integrity. How many other politicians in Washington, in our governors mansions, in our state legislatures, can say the same? No doubt all of them will say the words, but none would actually do it.

Thank you, Russ, for your many years of honest public service. I hope you’ll return to politics in the 2016 presidential race, and give this New Jersey native the opportunity to vote for an honorable politician.