Russ Feingold changed my life, even though I only met him once.
Back in 1984, I was an awkward senior at New Glarus High School. I loved to read and write, and my favorite part of school (aside from art and music, which I adored) was debating political issues in social studies.
I wanted to be president someday. We were decades away from our first non-white male commander-in-chief, and at the time, there were few political role models for me to look up to. As soon as I turned 18, I filed my papers to run for village board in New Glarus. (Since teenage girls rarely do anything alone, my friend Lacy Weiser ran, too.)
The Capital Times ran a story headlined "Can Two Teenagers Run for Office in New Glarus?" A few days later, I received a letter from state Sen. Russell Feingold. He just wanted to let me know how wonderful it was to see young people, especially young women, take an interest in politics. He wished me well on my race and told me to contact him if there was anything he could do.
His letter was well-timed. As seniors, we were supposed to set up a "career day" where we shadowed someone in a job we wanted to learn about. I grew up in a newspaper family, so I had doodled my way through innumerable tedious school board and village board meetings, which my reporter/editor mom covered for the newspaper. But I still had very little idea of what politicians actually did.
I nervously called Feingold's office at the state Capitol and asked if I could spend a day shadowing the senator, since I hoped politics would be my eventual career.
"Of course," said Feingold's aide, Billy Feitlinger. "You're more than welcome. What day works for you?"
I'm sure I didn't make a big impression that day. I was shy, and intimidated by the gleaming Capitol and purposeful strides of fast-talking men in suits. But my feet echoed through those marble halls as I trotted beside Russ (I remember he moved quickly), who continually briefed me on what I was about to see.
We watched the Legislature engaged in some not-so-scintillating debate. Russ introduced me to everyone we encountered, and I felt like a grownup -- with a real future.
Russ spent hours that day responding to constituent calls and letters (this was before email). He advocated for people to get their benefits, helping constituents deal with red tape, hospital bills. And he seemed to relish it, the same way he enjoyed debating the issues. He was not anxious to move on, and didn't seem the least bit annoyed at having to deal with minutiae.
I wish everyone could have witnessed what I did that day: an ordinary man, infinitely approachable, with a formidable intellect and extraordinarily high level of curiosity, charged up about serving the public.
Over the years, Russ hasn't let me -- or the rest of Wisconsin -- down. In our state's independent "Fighting Bob" La Follette tradition, he's held unpopular positions. He was the only vote against the heinous USA Patriot Act and he opposed NAFTA. He fought against capital punishment and voted against allowing George W. Bush to use force in Iraq.
With his feistiness and curiosity intact, Feingold has pursued his own course of public service.
As for my village board race: I think I garnered about 18% of the vote. Looking back, I don't know if I really wanted to be on the village board; I wanted to be noticed, to make my mark on the world.
Through the years, I drifted away from the idea of working on the inside. I spent a couple of years as a political canvasser, fundraising for universal health care and fair taxes. I helped organize senior citizens, interned at Mother Jones magazine, and traveled. I found my place as a journalist, muckraking playwright, mother, and musician.
I still geeked out on politics, but I didn't think I had the stuff it took to compromise and wheedle. It's been easier to have people like Russ and Rep. Tammy Baldwin do that work for me.
A few years ago, I was sorting through mail in the Milwaukee offices of Rethinking Schools, where I worked as managing editor of a quarterly magazine. Buried in a stack of unsolicited manuscripts and bills was a brief letter from U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold. He had noticed an editorial we'd written on education. He was curious about how he could use his position to help create a better system, and wanted our feedback on how to overhaul the law.
At times, I doubted that more than a handful of non-educators were hearing our cries of alarm over the onslaught of standardization and privatization in our schools. Yet here was good old Russ, taking the time to reach out to say he heard us.
I was taken back to the first letter I received from Feingold back in 1984 -- what a powerful experience it was at that time to be noticed for my potential.
Catherine Capellaro is a freelance writer and editor living in Madison. Her musical, Walmartopia, written with husband Andrew Rohn, moved from Madison to Off Broadway in 2007. She performs with disco sensations VO5 and is mother to twin eleven-year-olds, Julian and Leo.