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Saturday, August 30, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 75.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Wisconsin Democrats must embrace new energy, younger leaders
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We cannot let the old growth crowd out the sunlight for these new leaders to emerge.
We cannot let the old growth crowd out the sunlight for these new leaders to emerge.

Since the Wisconsin Capitol protests started in February 2011, politics has consumed the lives of many Democrats and progressives throughout the state. Now that the recall election is over, it is time to gain perspective -- not only on the devastation wrought by Gov. Scott Walker's agenda, but about the direction of those who continue to stand against it. For nearly a month, I've pondered, brainstormed, discussed, and debated where we go from here.

Last week, while driving through the mountains outside of Eugene, Oregon, I saw peaks that were covered in the tallest trees I've seen in my life. I saw other slopes that had been ravaged by fire, destroying all but a handful of the oldest trees. But amidst that devastation, there was opportunity for renewal. In the heat of fire, pine cones melt away their protective coating and release their seeds. These slopes were not barren. Instead, they were covered with the fresh green of new growth, flourishing in the newly cleared access to sunlight.

As Walker and the Republican Party continue their scorched-earth attack on our progressive traditions, Wisconsin Democrats should think of those pine trees. In our gubernatorial primary, our frontrunners were candidates who had also run for governor in 2002. In the heat of the moment, we were fortunate to have experienced leaders step forward. But now that we are out of the immediate blaze of that fire, we must find a way to encourage new growth, to make room for new voices, to embrace new viewpoints, priorities and approaches -- to grow our party anew.

As we rebuild, we should strive not to simply become the old-growth forest again. We should value the contribution of long-serving party leadership, but we cannot do so at the expense of cultivating a new generation. We cannot let the old growth crowd out the sunlight for these new leaders to emerge. We must cultivate a diverse and committed group of true progressives, both elected officials and activists, who can assist in rebuilding.

Walker's agenda has melted away the apathy of many Wisconsinites. In November, we will see a fresh crop of progressive candidates running for office at all levels of government. This is an amazing start. But while running for offices across the state is an essential step, it is only part of the solution.

The Wisconsin Democratic Party itself must transform from its current incarnation, in which information filters down from the top, and self-reflection or independent thought is met, for example, with social media snark and venom. We need a dynamic exchange of ideas, in which new voices are not just welcome to participate, but encouraged to do so.

I have heard too many leaders naysay contributions that are not directly related to elections. But we should embrace those who contribute to the push for progressive policies in other ways as partners and allies. Within our party, we should use technology to foster more communication about ideas for and connection with the party -- both locally and across the state -- instead of as a one-way message from headquarters to the base of supporters. It is essential that we continue to cultivate the grassroots efforts that have sprung up in all counties of Wisconsin, and provide avenues for more communication between activists and party members in all corners of the state.

If we can build such a party, Walker will find that while he may have set fire to the old guard of Wisconsin progressive tradition, he has only cleared the way for our progressive rebirth: a return to open, transparent government policies that respect our working families; a society that looks out for its most vulnerable; and, an end to the politics of favoring the highest bidder. Embracing new ideas and leaders is rarely easy, but creation of a truly progressive, dynamic, and stronger party is worth the challenge.


Jenni Dye serves on the Dane County Board of Supervisors and is a Madison area attorney. She was actively involved in the protests and recall effort. "Citizen" is an opinion series that presents the views of the author. If you would like to reply, please comment or consider submitting an op-ed in response.

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