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Ed Garvey: A True Wisconsin Hero

Feb. 28, 2017
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The Shepherd Express family is mourning the loss of one of Wisconsin’s finest progressive leaders. Ed Garvey died Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017. He was born and raised in the small town of Burlington, Wis., and rose to become a leading national figure in the labor movement and the progressive political world. He was a true Wisconsin Original.

Garvey was a successful labor attorney who provided legal counsel to the head of the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA), and after a few years, he was then offered the job as its executive director. After some court battles and two player strikes, Garvey was successful in getting the National Labor Relations Board to formally recognize the NFLPA as a labor union.

In the mid-’80s, Garvey returned to his beloved Wisconsin to serve as deputy attorney general and in 1986, he ran as the progressive candidate for the U.S. Senate seat then held by Robert Kasten and won the Democratic primary. According to the polls, Garvey was headed for victory in the general election when Kasten supporters viciously and falsely accused Garvey of stealing money from the football players union. That false and negative attack changed the course of the election and Kasten won re-election. Years later when this whole episode was brought up in conversation, Garvey laughed and said, “I’m not stupid. What, I supposedly stole money from guys twice my size?”

Garvey also ran for governor in 1998 against the then very popular Gov. Tommy Thompson. Garvey used the campaign to highlight the issue of campaign finance reform by voluntarily imposing a $100 limit on all of his campaign contributions, when he legally could have taken up to $10,000 in donations from any wealthy supporters. Ed was a man of great principle and integrity, and he lived those values every day. 

Despite not winning his political campaigns, Ed had a huge impact on Wisconsin politics. Besides bringing campaign finance reform to the fore, he inspired many bright, talented progressives to run for public office. Ed also started to build an ongoing progressive movement in Wisconsin by creating the annual political celebration Fighting Bob Fest and its website to honor one of his idols, Robert M. La Follette Sr., the early-20th-century progressive Wisconsin governor and U.S. senator. 

Ed Garvey had an impact very close to home for those who love the Shepherd Express. After the merger of the Milwaukee Journal and Milwaukee Sentinel in 1995, Garvey understood what it meant for a city the size of Milwaukee to have just one newspaper and the importance of having a competing newspaper voice to keep the powers that be honest and accountable. He became an investor in the Shepherd, a board member and chair of the board. At that time, the Shepherd was chaotically managed and was on the verge of going under. Actually, one board meeting in 1997 was devoted entirely to the discussion of whether it was time to close up the shop. 

In the weeks prior to that meeting, Garvey would wire his own money to the printer because the printer demanded cash in hand before putting the Shepherd on the press. Also, in order to keep the board from voting to close down the Shepherd at that board meeting Garvey agreed to raise additional money for the Shepherd if the board members would commit to investing an equal amount. Garvey prevailed and the Shepherd lived to fight for a couple more months. At that point he leaned on a friend, Louis Fortis, a progressive economist and former state legislator, who was living in Madison at the time, to come to Milwaukee to be the Shepherd’s unpaid consultant. After a couple of asks by Garvey, Fortis agreed and ultimately became the publisher, editor and owner of the Shepherd.

We will all miss you, Ed Garvey. Wisconsin lost one of its great sons, and we will certainly think about Ed when we pick up our Shepherd Express next week. Thank you, Ed.

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