Editor's note: This contribution by the late journalist I.F. Stone first appeared in our January 1975 magazine.
Matthew Rothschild, the editor of The Progressive, conducted this interview on January 26. It will run on progressiveradio.org starting on January 30. This is an edited transcript.
Q: Uppermost in people’s minds here in Wisconsin is the recall of Scott Walker and who is going to run against him. Your name has been mentioned. Are you going to run?
Dave Obey: Well, first of all, let me simply say that what’s happened is this state is incredibly sad. I served in the legislature in the Precambrian Era when dinosaurs still roamed the land. We had personal friendships across the aisle. We’d fight like hell from 9:00 in the morning to 5:00 at night and then we’d go over to the Congress Bar, and once in a while we’d buy each other a drink. We were adversaries, but not enemies. It’s not a happy time for the state because politics has become almost a snake pit. And I think the governor, though he doesn’t bear exclusive responsibility, bears a lot of responsibility.
In terms of my own desire to run, I don’t really want to run. And I have told people from the start that even if I were to consider it that I’d only consider filling out the governor’s term and wouldn’t in any way even think about running for reelection. But I’ve made quite clear that my preference by far is to have Herb Kohl run. Anyone with an ounce of observation ability knows that Herb Kohl is the most popular political practitioner in the state.
My other choice as to who would make the best candidate is Tom Barrett from Milwaukee. He’s got a sense of balance; he’s got guts; he’s got independence; and I think he’d bring the civility back to Madison that we so desperately need.
Q: Herb Kohl wasn’t involved really in the uprising here. Do you think that’s a disadvantage for him? I know some protesters would say, “Where was Herb when we needed him?”
Dave Obey: No, anybody who knows Herb knows where his sentiments were on that. I think Herb would bring a healing atmosphere to this town, and that’s very important. And with his business background it would be very hard to demagogue him as being somebody who doesn’t know how to deal with the business community.
And Tom Barrett would be a great governor just because of his personal qualities. Sometimes Tom is criticized for being too nice. But you can’t be too nice in politics, provided you also have a tough edge, which he has. But in terms of staying power as a candidate, those are our best shots if we want to win.
Q: What about Kathleen Falk, the former Dane County executive who is fast out of the gate? She seems to have some of the unions and the Democratic Party establishment behind her?
Dave Obey: I think she’s a fine person, but I stand by my judgment that Kohl or Barrett would be the strongest candidates.
Q: Why do you think about the recent poll that says 51 percent are for Walker?
Dave Obey: All I can say about that poll is I certainly haven’t met the 51 percent whom the poll claims are for Walker. I have never seen such depth of anger and frustration on the part of so many people. I’ve been in more than 20 counties in this state—north, south, east, and west. And I just find people immensely disappointed in the governor because he was elected at a time when they were looking for cooperation and teamwork and instead they got an architect of massive confrontation the likes of which I’ve never seen in my lifetime.
Q: What do you make of his all-out assault on collective bargaining for public sector workers?
Dave Obey: It’s ideology, front and center, and it’s a political power play. He’s determined to weaken politically any organization that represents people whom he thinks aren’t likely to vote for his party. In terms of national attention, the defining issue has been workers’ rights. But there are two other issues that really stick in my craw even more.
The first is what the governor has tried to do to the state by way of voter ID. He pretends he’s taking these actions to protect the integrity of the voting process. But there’s been far more fraud in the way he’s presented that issue than has been at the ballot box. What he’s done in practical terms, he’s making it much more difficult for senior citizens, for college students, for lower income people to actually have their votes count. Not everyone in the state has a picture ID or a driver’s license. It’s just a fancied up way to hide what he’s really trying to do, which is to weaken political opposition. And when you start messing around with people’s right to vote, you’re going right to the guts of our democratic system. That’s not only recallable; that’s impeachable.
My second point is he has brought on this snake pit mentality. And we desperately need somebody who sees politics in a different light.
Q: And he’s been bad on just about any issue you can think of on top of those two, like the environment and the social safety net.
Dave Obey: I agree with that, but I don’t think that’s enough to justify recall. I don’t like the recall process; I would prefer that people who get elected serve out their full term. But when those same people abuse the privilege of their office to such an extent, and when they mislead the public about their intentions, then I think they’ve crossed the line, especially when they start messing with people’s right to vote.
Q: What would be the impact if Walker were to prevail?
Dave Obey: It would demoralize the progressive forces in the state and would add to the general sense of detachment and disappointment about politics as a whole. I know there are people who think that just about anybody can beat Gov. Walker, and I would say that is simply not the case. The governor will take advantage of people’s basic determination to be guided by goodwill and he will try to take advantage of that and turn people’s concern about the recall process into an endorsement of Walker and his programs, and that would be a real corruption of what this has all been about.
Q: Plus, he’s going to have a ton of money.
Dave Obey: He ought to have a ton of money from his rightwing money friends because he’s been their local water boy. They’re trying to protect their investment, everybody from the Koch Brothers on down.
If you liked this story by Matthew Rothschild, the editor of The Progressive magazine, check out his story “In Obama’s State of the Union, Troublesome Passages for Progressives."
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