Legendary Madison activist Ben Masel died after a battle with lung cancer yesterday. I didn't know Ben well, but I talked with him a couple times and he was an occasional Sconz commenter.
The last time I talked to him was at the Tammy Baldwin victory party on election night. He and a friend were sitting casually at a table in the back of the Brink Lounge, away from all the other Baldwin supporters and media there. The identifiable New Jersey accent and the strong odor of marijuana made Masel's astute analysis of Wisconsin politics even more charming than it was online.
He was a big fan of Ed Thompson, whose Republican campaign for State Senate against Sen. Kathleen Vinehout was surrounded by doubts after Thompson was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer a few weeks before the election. Masel believed Thompson, who ran as the libertarian candidate for governor in 2002, would announce that he was using medicinal marijuana if he was elected.
That never happened. Thompson was defeated narrowly, so he never got the opportunity to make the pro-marijuana statement that Masel knew would be so beneficial to the cause of legalization in Wisconsin.
Instead he got the Capitol protests, which shined the spotlight on the other great cause of his life: Free speech. In this video taken just a month ago, Masel, shows up to the Capitol and to test the restrictions on protest that the Department of Administration had put in place.
Masel was not given a citation that day, very likely because every police officer in Madison knows what kind of trouble that can bring. Masel was a testament to the difference having confidence in the Constitution can make for defendants in the legal system. While many of us who feel wronged by police action simply relent to avoid further trouble, Masel was so good at challenging restrictions on assembly and speech that he made a living off of the lawsuits he filed in response to his many arrests.
More than anybody who has said it in the past three months, Ben Masel knew what democracy looks like.