By Ruth Conniff
Every year Senator Russ Feingold holds listening sessions in all of Wisconsin's 72 counties. Under dreary midwinter skies, two hundred people crowded into the Mazomanie Community Center in rural Dane County, Wisconsin, on February 22 to chat with their junior senator.
I caught up with Feingold before the session started. (In fact, I may have been the only member of the press there until Molly Stentz, news director at WORT-FM, Madison's community radio station, showed up.)
The Progressive: What are you hearing at your other listening sessions?
Feingold: Most of the comments at 27 listening sessions already this year have been about health care, but not exclusively. People are asking about cap and trade, about government spending, but health care is still the biggest.
The Progressive: What's your opinion on the recent Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United case?
Feingold: Terrible decision. One of the most lawless decisions in the history of this country and of the Supreme Court. It throws open our political process to huge corporations including foreign money. Unfortunately the only thing that basically is still standing is the McCain-Feingold bill that I wrote. But that's not enough. That just has to do with direct contributions. This creates a massive transfer of power to large corporations. It's a real threat to our democracy. In fact, I am noticing that people all across the political spectrum, other than apparently the Republican Party, agree that it's a bad decision.
The Progressive: How will this affect your re-election campaign?
Feingold: I'm not concerned about that. I've been outspent every single time. That's not the issue. The issue is the taking away of democracy from the average citizen.
The Progressive: What do you think of the Move to Amend group, the people who are organizing to change the Constitution to address issue of campaign contributions?
Feingold: I don't think the way to do it is by amending the Bill of Rights. I oppose that and I think that's unwise but I certainly understand the sentiment. The best thing to do is to get new justices, different justices, who will do the right thing. They completely ignored the judgment of the Supreme Court from two years ago. So, really, this is a lawless thing by people who pledged to follow precedent. I also am open to legislative changes that will help. But in the end we need these decisions reversed back again.
The Progressive: When will the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq end?
Feingold: Iraq is under way; it's not as fast as I'd like, but it's starting. And Afghanistan I'm very worried about. I think we're moving in the wrong direction. I'm very concerned about that and we need to push hard against the [Obama] Administration on that particular thing.
It's too bad that no television crews were around to capture this animated town hall. It was an older crowd, though some young women wearing bright pink T-shirts stood out in the back. Mazomanie lies about 45 minutes northwest of Madison, but that didn't stop a contingent of AARP folks from the state's capital from showing up.
Health care dominated the debate. Person after person stood up and talked about the dire need for reform. One woman said she was at the point where she had to choose between food and medicine. An unemployed architect was worried about COBRA running out. We need help now, he said, adding he was dipping into his 401(k) to pay for his insurance. Robin Transo runs a free clinic in Crawford County and she talked about the need for preventative care. Her clinic served 850 people last year and gave 450 kids access to dental care.
The majority of attendants supported single payer and asked the Senator to be a vocal advocate for it. Feingold said that he is fighting for public option in closed door meetings. "Frankly, something as big as this, we're much better off if we're bipartisan," said Feingold. He admitted that single payer is a better option "but we don't have the votes."
A few people said it was time for the Democrats to "start playing tough," which was met with applause. There's a growing sentiment across the country that government can't do anything, one guy said. Where is the push back from the Democrats?
"I do push back," said Feingold. "And I'm not a big government guy. I think government should stay out of things unless it has to get in. But for me to have to listen to people who are on Medicare saying that 'it's terrible that the government wants to get involved in health care,' and 'don't touch my Medicare,' is absurd. That's what we've had to put up with. And here's the other thing I really find fascinating. People are saying they are so worried about big government. Where were these people for eight years when I was trying to point out the big government intrusion in our lives through the Patriot Act and warrantless wiretapping?" [more cheers]
"Why was there no interest in the abuses of big government then?" he asked. "When a government abuses its power and goes into areas it doesn't need to belong in, I'll be the first to call them on it. But I will defend the VA, I will defend Medicare, I will defend Social Security. There's a serious proposal out there being endorsed by many Republicans, led by Paul Ryan, that saying anybody under 55 will no longer be eligible for Medicare and Social Security as a public program That is their agenda, honestly stated. And I disagree."
While health care seemed to be on everyone's mind at this listening session, people brought up other concerns, including the need for strong environmental protections, the plight of local dairy farmers, and unfair trade practices. When asked about President Obama's commitment of $8 billion for new nuclear reactors, Feingold said he was "not a fan" of Obama's position, noting that Wisconsin could be a disposal site for radioactive waste.
Dr. Gene Farley, 83, has been a staunch advocate for universal single-payer health care for decades. He asked the first question: "How do we get health care reform passed this time, even though it's not necessarily the one I want? We have to have it."
"I think single payer is much better than the current system. I don't back off from saying that. But obviously we do not have the votes to do this now," said Feingold. "Gene Farley is my test. If Gene Farely is willing to say we're going to do something less than single payer, and he doesn't want to say it, I'm going to say it too. I'm worried only a comprehensive system can actually provide the savings and controls that we need."
I spoke to Dr. Farley afterward. "I'm a great admirer of Russ. I don't always agree with him. I feel he's very ethical," said Farley. "Most of the time I support him. Sometimes I'd love to push him. His strength is he's not always pushable; his weakness is he's not always pushable. But he's good."
I asked him if he wanted health care legislation to pass. "Obviously I'm for single payer," he said. "I feel strongly that we have to pass what's there now.... If we can pass this bill, however incomplete it is -- it has a lot of good things in it -- then we get a building permit. Once you have a building permit you can start building and you can modify the blueprints as you go along and make improvements. My goal is the nearer single payer we get, the better. I want that building permit."
Elizabeth DiNovella is Culture Editor of The Progressive magazine. To subscribe for just $14.97 a year, just click here.