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Russ Feingold on His Campaign to be Your Next Senator

Democrat wants to raise the minimum wage, help students and overturn Citizens United

Oct. 25, 2016
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Democrats need to flip just a handful of U.S. Senate seats on Nov. 8 to take the majority from Republicans. One of the targeted seats is Wisconsin’s, where Republican Sen. Ron Johnson is facing former Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold. Feingold has led in the polls since announcing his candidacy last year, showing that Wisconsinites aren’t thrilled with Johnson’s brand of tea party obstructionism—if, in fact, Wisconsin voters even know who Johnson is.

The stakes are high. A Democratic Senate, likely with Hillary Clinton as president, will actually move on her appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court. On the other hand, if the GOP maintains its Senate majority, it will continue to block any and all of Clinton’s picks to the nation’s highest court, according to Arizona Sen. John McCain, stretching partisan gridlock into the next administration.

We spoke to Feingold last week about his travels to all 72 counties in the state, why he supports raising the minimum wage and allowing student loan debt to be refinanced, and how he’ll help Milwaukee as senator. Here’s the full interview.

Shepherd: You’ve been very active and productive since leaving the Senate, so why would you want to go back? 

Feingold: It became clear to me as I traveled around the state as a private person, teaching and being in the state as a private citizen, that the people in the state feel very damaged by what was done to them after 2010 by Gov. Walker and the tea party people who sought to divide the people against each other. When I decided to see whether I should run, I went out and visited all 72 counties last year and this year and what I found is that people feel not only bruised and divided but that middle income and working families aren’t able to pay the bills. Even though Wall Street is going great guns, the best ever, and unemployment is low. I felt that I could contribute by having a very different representation in the Senate than what we’re getting now from Sen. Johnson. I felt that it was time for me to do that.

Shepherd: When you were young, college was affordable and there were a lot of job opportunities. Now, though, our current generation of young adults has it much harder. The cost of attending college has spiked and there don’t seem to be a lot of jobs waiting for them after they graduate. What can you do to ensure that our young people have the same opportunities you had? 

Feingold: Yes, there was both the feeling that there were job opportunities and that college was affordable. Now I would say that there are a lot of job opportunities and openings here in Wisconsin, but the problem is that if you start out with a huge student loan debt, it’s hard. You might decide not to get more training that you need to have because of the debt.

Another thing is that if you have a job, if a young couple both have jobs, they might have something like $75,000 in student debt. What happens is that they can’t buy the house they want to buy. They can’t buy a car. Sometimes people just continue to live in their parents’ house because they are not able to enter the economy. This is damaging not only to them and their families, but damaging to the economy. 

I recently met with a realtor to define the major issues of concern to realtors, and the first two made perfect sense for the traditional role that realtors play. The keeping of the mortgage interest deduction, which I agree with, and making sure that state and local taxes, property taxes, are deductible, which I also agree with. Those are classic things that a realtor would say. But the third thing he said was we’re really concerned with the level of student debt. And it’s because not only does a student coming out of Madison have an average of $28,000 of debt, but this affects everybody because a realtor can’t sell a house to people with a huge amount of debt. The painter can’t paint the house, the construction worker can’t build a house. The person who makes the windows in Ladysmith, Wisconsin, can’t make the windows. This has an effect on our economy and our community. 

We have to look at the issue this way: Sen Johnson has a terrible record on student loans. He’s said that students think that it is free money. He opposes [Massachusetts Sen.] Elizabeth Warren’s bill that would allow students to refinance their loans like they can a mortgage. And he simply does not feel that this is a serious issue. He’s even said that people ought to just put [historian] Ken Burns’ tapes in instead of having professors. You’re going to get absolutely nothing from Ron Johnson on this issue if you put him back in the Senate.

Shepherd: When you voted against the Patriot Act and the Iraq war you received some criticism, but then people saw them as heroic votes. Now you have Johnson attacking your votes. Why did you take those votes and are you still proud of them? 

Feingold: Absolutely. And the people in the state still think they were good votes. After I took them they came at me just like Sen. Johnson is trying to do and even though George Bush got re-elected and almost won Wisconsin [in 2004] we won 24 counties that George Bush won. And it had a lot to do with those votes. 

What Sen. Johnson doesn’t understand is that he is listening to his coaches and political advisors because he is a politician and trying to survive and he is listening to Fox News. If he goes around Wisconsin he’s going to find out that people are thrilled that I voted against the Patriot Act. I kind of get a sense that he knows it’s a problem. Usually when he mentions the so called anti-terror bill he doesn’t say the USA Patriot Act because he knows full well that people thought it was a very good thing that I challenged that bill. 

People overwhelmingly agree that the Iraq war was a mistake. I led the fight against the Iraq war. Sen. Johnson doesn’t even have the guts to say what his position is on that. He is one of the few who hasn’t said he was against it or that it was a mistake. He simply won’t take a position.

Shepherd: A secretly recorded video captures you talking about what you think Hillary Clinton will do about guns. What were you saying and what do you want to do?

Feingold: Whether it was secretly recorded or not, it doesn’t matter because I say the same thing no matter where I am about this issue. I am very clear. As I said in that video and as I say all over Wisconsin, I follow the common sense of the people of Wisconsin. I want legislation passed that would allow for background checks on Internet sales and at gun shows. There is a bipartisan bill in Congress that would do just that but Ron Johnson voted against it.

So when I was asked the question how else can this be done, I merely mentioned that possibly Hillary Clinton could do an executive order, but I believe the best thing would be to pass a bill. And if I’m elected I think we’re going to have enough votes to pass it and send it to Hillary Clinton so she can sign it. It’s far better to do this through legislation, and that’s what I’m for.

Shepherd: On the campaign trail you’ve been highlighting pocketbook issues, such as your support for paid family leave and raising the minimum wage and cracking down on the big banks’ worst practices. Don’t you think these policies will be too onerous for employers in an economy that’s recovering but still weak? 

Feingold: Of course not, otherwise I wouldn’t support them. I actually think that they will be beneficial to the economy. I’ve always been very strong on pocketbook issues. Every time I run I try to respond to what I’m hearing from people in the state by listening first.

This is different than any other race I’ve seen in terms of the intensity of people’s concerns about whether they can make ends meet. Obviously everybody was concerned in 2010, it was sort of across the board. This time it’s the central issue because that’s what the people in the state say is the central issue.

I think it’s nonsense that raising the minimum wage above $7.25 is going to be devastating to businesses. Even small businesses admit that it’s a ridiculously low level. If you are a family of more than one person, two to four people, that’s below the poverty level. This is not the way to have an economy for people who are working. We want to put money in the hands of people who will go out and buy things. So whether you are down in Bay View in the shops there or in Stevens Point or Chippewa Falls, all of which I’ve toured, the most important thing to small businesses is that somebody can walk in the door in a floral shop or candy store or dress shop and have a little extra money to spend. If they don’t have that, nothing else matters. I believe that what I’m talking about here is exactly what we need to stimulate the economy and make sure that everybody can participate in the recovery.

Shepherd: You’ve always been against big trade deals. Do you want to scrap the Trans-Pacific Partnership altogether or can it be amended to your satisfaction?

Feingold: It’s always possible to have good trade deals but all of the trade deals I’ve seen since Bill Clinton pushed NAFTA were corporate handshakes. In other words, campaign contributions make it so that both parties say well, in order to get elected I’m going to say I’m for these trade deals because that’s where the money is. What happens is instead of negotiations that are based on the needs of the people and the workers in the countries that are going to be in the deal, what happens is that the corporations cut the deals. It’s a corporate handshake. That’s the truth. NAFTA, CAFTA, the China deal, GATT, you name it. And I think it’s completely true about the Trans-Pacific Partnership, TPP. So yes, in theory you can have agreements that respect workers’ rights and respect the environment, that don’t basically beg our employers to go overseas. But that’s not what these are.

I have stood as an independent not only against George Bush but against two Democratic presidents, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, when they have pushed trade deals that are gifts to corporations that don’t respect the need to keep jobs here in Wisconsin and in America. So yes, in theory you can have a good deal and I would be delighted to see that. But until they change the way these deals are negotiated in secret by corporations, that’s not going to happen. 

Shepherd: The next president is going to be able to appoint at least one Supreme Court justice. If we can get even a moderately progressive justice confirmed, what kind of changes would you like to see in terms of decisions that need to be tweaked or overturned? Most people would say Citizens United.

Feingold: They should say Citizens United. That’s the first thing that comes to mind. It’s one of the worst decisions in the history of law, basically. There have been some real clunkers over the years—Dred Scott, obviously, Bush v. Gore—some really bad decisions. But this decision, Citizens United, is really a piece of legal garbage. There is no record to justify it. It goes back and overturns a 1907 law signed by Teddy Roosevelt saying we can’t have the robber barons running our politics as well as our economy. It was a perfectly good law until the court said 5-4 wait a minute, why shouldn’t corporations be able to spend? That’s why you have Sen. Johnson in this position where he has had $11 million worth of outside ads, four times more than I’ve had, and people don’t even know where it’s coming from.

The good thing is that it’s not 5-4 anymore, it’s 4-4. I think Hillary Clinton is going to be president and the next two or three justices will be appointed by her and I am overwhelmingly confident that Citizens United will be overturned. I think it will be overturned in the next few years and we can get back to where we were in 2004, 2006 and 2008 when McCain-Feingold [campaign finance bill] was more effective, and it will become effective again, because it won’t be possible for these super PACs and corporations to do what they do now.

Shepherd: When you declared your candidacy last year, it seemed like this year would be a normal presidential election cycle. But it’s turned out to be anything but normal. What do you make of where we are politically and as a society? What are you hearing from voters and how do you make sense of this moment?

Feingold: What I’m hearing first and foremost is the economic concerns of Wisconsin families, middle income and working families who can’t make ends meet. But what I am hearing is a new level of concern, which you just referred to, completely correctly, nobody anticipated that we would have such an awful campaign period at the federal level that would be so lacking in civility, so insulting, so childish. It embarrasses people. It makes them feel bad about their political process. And the people who feel worse are the people in the Republican Party who are responsible, good people, who are so embarrassed that Donald Trump is their nominee.

A number of Republican senators have pulled the plug on him, including Republicans who are up for re-election, in Ohio and New Hampshire and Alaska, but not Ron Johnson. Ron Johnson is still supporting him. That’s because he is desperately trying to get re-elected. He is a politician who is worried about his re-election.

But what I am hearing is that people want that to stop. They want the Republican Party to go back to being a straightforward, rational party. And they want civility. They want bipartisanship. They don’t want hatred, they don’t want ethnic groups being demonized, they want people to work together. And that’s exactly what I did in the Senate. Even though I’m a progressive, a very progressive senator when I was there, I was also known as one of the most bipartisan.

Shepherd: What do you think are the biggest differences between you and Ron Johnson? 

Feingold: It’s pretty clear that we have a completely different view of whether a senator from Wisconsin should stand with working families. I consistently would vote to do things like raise the minimum wage, providing family and medical leave, do something to make sure that prescription medicines are not expensive, make sure that social security stays as a public program that’s properly financed, and do something serious about the student loan program. He’s an extremist against all of this.

He doesn’t believe that there should be a minimum wage at all. He opposes even raising it from $7.25. He said in the other debate that he’s against family and medical leave. He thinks it’s a terrible idea. He doesn’t want to do anything about the prescription drug problem because he votes with the pharmaceutical industry virtually every time or every time. I support the idea of allowing the federal government to negotiate for lower prices through Medicare. He has of course done nothing with any seriousness regarding the federal student loan program. He said it shouldn’t even exist, that it would have been better if it had never existed. He opposed Elizabeth Warren’s bill that provides the opportunity for people to negotiate a lower interest rate on their student loan, like a mortgage. 

On every one of those counts he stands against middle income and working families, with the corporations and billionaires and multi-millionaires and everybody knows that I would stand with families, because I have in the past. Including being against trade agreements that shift our jobs overseas while Sen. Johnson has never found a free trade agreement he didn’t like. He even said NAFTA was a good thing. Even though he didn’t have to vote on it, he would have adopted it. Those agreements cost Wisconsin 75,000 manufacturing jobs.

Everybody agrees—the differences between us are clear. Who do you want to be your senator, somebody who works with middle class and working families or somebody who essentially always votes with the corporations and billionaires and multi-millionaires? That’s the choice on Nov. 8.

Shepherd: What else do you want our readers to know about your plans in the Senate if you’re elected? 

Feingold: I think a senator from the state of Wisconsin should seek to be a senator for the whole state. That means making sure that our community is including the City of Milwaukee and the central city of Milwaukee and giving them the attention they deserve. That has not been happening. That is why we have these incidents like we had in Sherman Park. It’s also why I had a barbecue event in Sherman Park a month after the tragedy there.

I want it to be clear: We have got to be in those communities, we have to focus on those communities, not just when there are tragedies, but all the time. There has to be communication, constantly. There has to be community policing. There has to be a new commitment of resources to public education. There has to be a commitment to businesses actually being in that community, not shipping people two hours away, but in the community. We have to make sure that people have the ability to get a home loan without being discriminated against.

I’m determined that if I become senator the whole state will be engaged, finally, in trying to help us try to improve this part of Milwaukee, because the people in that community deserve a community like everyone else. I think it would be great for the whole state if we could improve that situation. 

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