Former U.S. Senator Russ Feingold broke a lot of progressive hearts when he declined to run in the recall election against Gov. Scott Walker. But even if he had, he says now, the outcome would have been the same.
"I wouldn't have won either," he said Wednesday, to gasps from the audience at a talk organized by the Interfaith Coalition for Worker Justice of South Central Wisconsin.
"That election, unfortunately, was about one thing. It wasn't even about money," Feingold said. "[Voters] didn't think a recall was appropriate. [People] weren't against collective bargaining, it's just the recall mechanism was the problem."
More than 500 people showed up to listen to Feingold speak at the First Unitarian Society about the role of interfaith communities in the labor movement. The event aimed to inform the conversation about the future of labor and social justice in the state. (Complete audio of Feingold's speech is available here.)
Feingold received a standing ovation before he even began speaking, and the applause continued throughout the talk, especially when he discussed the influence of money in politics. He encouraged the audience to keep up the fight to reinstate collective bargaining rights for public workers in Wisconsin.
Feingold said the primary reason he didn't run against Walker was because he had promised his daughter he would "take a break" after his loss to Ron Johnson in 2010.
But Feingold emphasized that he plans to stay involved in politics, drawing the biggest applause of the evening.
"The bottom line is, we've got to look to the future," he said. "There will be regular elections. This governor is going to have to run again, the senator that was elected in 2010 is going to have to run again. There are future occasions, and I'm not ruling out getting involved again."
Feingold said that interfaith groups will play a key role in healing the current partisan divide in the state. He said he saw that dynamic in action while in the Senate.
"Whenever we had a really tough fight," said Feingold, "we'd bring in the clergy. They seemed to just briefly lift us from our egos, our own infighting politics. They seemed to momentarily elevate us to talk more about fundamental values that underlie the political effort in this country."
But most importantly, he noted, faith groups are key to creating the inclusive, interconnected communities needed to heal the state. He said over time, communities around the state have been manipulated into vilifying public workers.
"The idea was first to get cheap labor overseas and ship private jobs overseas through lousy trade agreements," Feingold said. "We were one of the great industrial states in the country," he added, but "much of that was gutted through this process." The next step, he said, was to "start complaining that public employees do get benefits and start blaming them."
Feingold added that both political parties are to blame for this situation.
Echoing other themes he has discussed on his book tour, Feingold also talked about the vilification of African Americans, Muslims and immigrants, and encouraged faith groups to actively work to increase political and social inclusion.
If any hard feelings remained about Feingold's no-show in the recall election, they weren't obvious. The reigning rock star of Madison's progressive community was given a final standing ovation at the end of his talk.