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Senator Russ Feingold
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December 5, 2008

As one of the most progressive voices in the Senate who campaigned for President-elect Obama, what does Russ Feingold (D-WI) expect of the next four years? Bill Moyers sits down with the Wisconsin Senator to find out his perspectives on progressive government and its role in the new administration, and to ask him what changes he'd like to see in the Obama Presidency. Expected to be among Feingold's top priorities: "restoring the rule of law" and trying again to take big money out of politics.

Feingold the Senator
Senator Russ Feingold may deserve the name maverick. Though now a deputy whip in the Senate, charged with enacting the Democrats' agenda, he is not known for hewing to party or prevailing opinion. He was the only Senator to vote against the Patriot Act and one of a few who opposed the 2002 Iraq War resolution; he introduced a measure to censure President Bush in response to warrantless wiretapping. Those votes won him many progressive supporters. However, he also bucked the party trend and voted to confirm John Ashcroft as attorney general and was the lone Democrat not to vote to dismiss the articles of impeachment against President Clinton.

Battling Big Money
Federal election campaigns have long been costly affairs. But the 2008 campaign cycle was another record-setting year, with an estimated $5.3 billion spent across the country. The cost of the average winning Senate campaign was almost $6.5 million, and over $1 million for a House seat.

Few members of Congress question a system that gives such a wide advantage to incumbency and Senator Feingold's dogged advocacy for campaign finance reform hasn't always endeared him to his colleagues. Feingold fought a long battle against politics as usual, working with Senator John McCain for six years to pass the Bi-Partisan Campaign Finance Reform Act (BCRA). Even before they succeeded in passing what is commonly known as the McCain-Feingold act, Feingold ran his 1998 campaign according to its principles.

But the battle to end the reign of money in politics is a long from over and doesn't just include election-year contributions. Feingold uses his position in the Senate to draw attention to the issue, listing as one of the "top ten" things that citizens should know about him:

Russ has given the "Calling of the Bankroll" on the Senate floor more than 30 times, in order to highlight the campaign contributions of major interests involved in legislation the Senate was considering.
The Grassroots Model
Feingold's belief in eschewing big money donations is fundamental to his style of politics. In 1992, few gave then-state senator Russ Feingold good odds of ascending to the United States Senate. He faced two well-funded challengers in the Democratic primary and a two-term Republican incumbent in the general election. He prevailed with off-beat advertisements and grassroots organizing. Since 1992, he has built his popular base with over 1,000 townhall "listening sessions" around Wisconsin and has founded the Progressive Patriots Fund, a political action committee that trains and dispatches progressive campaign workers and funds progressive candidates.

It is no coincidence that his tactics recall those of the late Senator Paul Wellstone, a pioneer of the new wave of grassroots politics. The two men knew one another before either was elected to Congress, and while they both served in the Senate, their names often hung together in news stories, two Midwestern progressives at odds with the party and Washington establishment. The two follow in the tradition of Wisconsin maverick and progressive "Fighting Bob" La Follette, Wisconsin's Governor, Senator and Progressive Party presidential candidate in 1924, who said:

"America is not made, it is in the making. Mere passive citizenship is not enough. Men must be aggressive for what is right if government is to be saved from those who are aggressive for what is wrong."

Published December 5, 2008.

Guest photo by Robin Holland

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Published December 5, 2008

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