Russ Feingold Is Emerging as a Significant Force Against Corporate Control of Our Government

It seems like every week another scandal is bringing down one of the high profile "stars" in Congress. After his bizarre press conference this past Thursday, Anthony "That's Not My" Weiner will no doubt be tempted to take the same low road as so many before him and become a high-paid lobbyist, joining the likes of former Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana, who recently signed on with the Chamber of Commerce. Chaos and diversion are indeed running high in our nation's capitol. When will the Hill get back to addressing the people's business? Not anytime soon, it seems. It's much easier to strut and fret over the fools among them than to tackle the real issues dragging our country down.

In contrast to the sideshow on the Potomac turning our collective stomachs, it is refreshing to see former Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold taking the less-traveled high road to become a visiting Professor of Law at Marquette University in his home state, while at the same time building his Progressives United PAC. After 18 effective years in the Senate -- scandal-free, I might add -- we can only hope that his future accomplishments as an organizer and activist will rival those he had in the Senate, as he recruits and builds the progressive movement and inspires new followers to act more boldly in taking back our country from corporate and special interests.

He will begin by working to overturn the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, holding our elected officials accountable for their votes and pushing Congress forward on real and meaningful campaign finance reform -- all issues to which the Senator devoted his political career in Congress. Certainly the passage of the Fair Elections Now Act would go far in cleaning up the "pay-to-play" culture that currently owns elections in this country. Small donations of under $100 from individuals, matched by government funding -- that is the way to real campaign finance reform.

Progressives United is presenting a practical, commonsense mission that all progressive organizations should embrace and unite behind. Campaign finance reform and overturning the Citizens United ruling must be major goals for all progressive organizations in this coming election. Otherwise, nothing in our politics will change and our votes will be meaningless. Candidates must be pressed to step up to the plate on these issues if they want our support, and our President can finally deliver on his 2008 campaign promise to change the way Washington does business by using his bully pulpit to urge action. Imagine how the country would embrace him if he had the courage to publicly put on notice the fat cats and special interest donors that currently rule the day in DC.

The Feingold name and reputation for integrity are already being felt and seen in his ability to pull together over 2,400 small donors from across the country, raising $130,000 in less than a week for Democratic candidates running for office in the recall election in Wisconsin, scheduled for August 9th. This is a vintage Feingold response to those members of the legislature who supported Governor Scott Walker's vicious attack on state and public workers, ending their long-honored collective bargaining rights. Feingold has picked up on a rising anger across the country, which will hold serious implications for the rest of the Republicans governors and legislatures nationwide if they continue their naked power grabs and unbalanced, abusive austerity measures. The mission of Progressives United will also include "... support (of) national, state and local candidates who stand up for our progressive ideals." In short, Russ aims to take back our democracy, one legislative seat at a time.

Russ can also play a role in bringing together leading progressive organizations to overturn the Citizens United decision, organizing the robust, growing movement of millions already working to achieve this historic goal. Organizations like PCCC, PDA, Move To Amend (already a 100-organization strong coalition), Public Citizen, CREDO, DFA, RootsAction and the AFL/CIO can use their organizing talents and resources to take the message right to candidates in their districts. Richard Trumka, president of the AFL/CIO, has already warned Democrats that they will not be supported this time around just because they are Democrats. Perhaps we might even see a resurgence of MoveOn, with its 5 million members joining this growing movement - could we finally see a real, united progressive revolution in the making to counter the Tea Party's buffonery?

This is exactly the right time for coalition building among progressive organizations to unite and work together for a common cause, and I see Russ Feingold as a leader and powerful voice helping to accomplish this. But to really have a national impact, to recruit and build real and sustainable grassroots support and get the message out, all of these organizations must come together under one umbrella, forming a real coalition and raising large sums of money collectively, a concept that is usually foreign to progressive nonprofit advocacy organizations.

20,000 flocked to join Progressives United in its first two months, raising $1 million. Now the former Senator has a real opportunity to place an addendum on the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (better known as the McCain-Feingold Act), which, despite its good intentions, did not place a lid on the out-of-control money influencing elections and the corruption it breeds. But McCain-Feingold was a good start, and the shock to the system it represented was evidenced in the seven years it took to pass it. An important note worth mentioning here is that every dime raised by Progressives United can be viewed on its site.

Of course, one could argue that "da money" has become even more pervasive and corrupting in our politics since the McCain-Feingold Act was passed almost a decade ago. Then again, who could have anticipated an extremist, rightwing majority in the Supreme Court handing Citizens United and its corporate cronies - with their "personhood" status -- the keys to our government. Russ was the Chairman of the Sub-Committee on the Constitution in the 111th Congress, so he can have an authoritative hand in drafting a template for an amendment to overturn this corrosive decision. He can also lobby on behalf of the American people to his former colleagues in Congress, backed by a massive nationwide grassroots movement. Remember, this is the uncompromising, independent Senator who was the lone voice in the Senate to vote against the Patriot Act; who produced the Legislative Transparency and Accountability Act of 2007; who voted against the Iraq War in 2002; and who voted against the "Bush Surge" in Iraq; and who also made every effort to censure Bush and Cheney for their transgressions.

These are just a few of the highlights of a legislator that put his words into action every day that he served the people of Wisconsin and America in the Senate. A great deal of his career was devoted to accountability and campaign finance reform, while still managing to serve on numerous committees. He is a man worthy of a cabinet position, or perhaps even our presidency -- Feingold 2016, anyone? We deserve someone like Russ Feingold, who kept in touch with his constituents by holding 72 town halls in every county in his state, keeping tabs on the pulse of its people. Added to all of his legislative accomplishments is the fact that he was Phi Beta Kappa and a Rhodes scholar. Does anyone else in Congress even come close to those bona fides?

Russ is so respected that when the Wisconsin State Democratic Convention in Milwaukee on June 3-4 ran a straw poll, he emerged as the hands-down winner as the choice for Senator to replace Herb Kohl - who will not seek reelection to the Senate in 2012 -- and as Governor in 2014 when Scott Walker's (hopefully) one and only term ends. For the time being, he has made no public decisions on those possible races, or even reentering politics, though he has offered Labor Day as a time for a decision. I, for one, hope he remains the people's lobbyist and activist, unencumbered by the fuddy-duddy old boys' club in the Senate.

Perhaps President Abraham Lincoln's famous words of hope for a "... government of the people, by the people, for the people..." will yet ring true again -- with a little help from Russ Feingold and his growing movement.

With Jonathan Stone