Remarks by Wisconsin Democracy Campaign Director Mike McCabe

At 6th Annual Fighting Bob Fest September 8, 2007

September 12, 2007

We come together with many different hopes and dreams, but it’s safe to assume that we gather here today with at least one common wish – an end to one of the biggest foreign policy blunders in our nation’s history. I add my voice to those hoping for an end to this descent into national madness that John Nichols has so rightly called both a tragedy and a farce. I wish for peace.

WDC Executive Director
Mike McCabe’s Remarks

Fighting Bob 2007
Video courtesy of
On The Earth Productions

I know it takes much more than wishing. You’ve heard the old saying…. If you want peace, work for justice. It’s true enough, there will be no peace without justice. But there will be no justice as long as our democracy is in the shape it’s in.

There is no justice when money is speech. There will be no justice as long as politicians get $12 from big business for every dollar they get from working people. There is no justice when the First Amendment right to free speech is slowly but ever so surely transformed into a privilege, a commodity that must be purchased and is sold to the highest bidder.

There is no justice when secrecy is freedom. There will always be daggers in politics. But there should not be cloaks. There’s no justice when voters are blinded in the name of free speech, when the public is kept in the dark about the source of millions spent by phony front groups to buy elections. Yet lawmakers and judges alike have shamefully bought what these groups are selling…. Never mind no one is telling these fly-by-night outfits they can’t speak. We’re not telling them to surrender their daggers. We’re just demanding they take off their cloaks. There will be no justice until they do.

There will be no justice as long as freedom is so often confused with privilege.

There is no justice when a Supreme Court justice checks her gut and not the state ethics code.

There will be no justice when most all the politicians look – and act – like game show hosts. They don’t govern so much as they just primp for the cameras, introduce the contestants and announce what prizes they’ve won.

There will be no justice when so many of our elected officials exhibit the one characteristic that should disqualify them from holding power…. And it’s not what they do with their feet – or any other body part – when they’re in a bathroom stall. It’s their canine desire for power. Power for power’s sake. It should be denied to anyone who wants it so badly.

There will be no justice when so many of us fail to expect more of our representatives, when so many of us seem incapable of distinguishing between politicians and leaders. And there will be no justice . . . and no democracy unless we act less like consumers and more like citizens.

There will be no justice when the term “investigative journalism” is increasingly for all intents and purposes an oxymoron. There’s no justice when journalists value ratings and other signs of commercial success more than they value the truth.

There will be no justice if the Internet becomes a place where the best ideas are less accessible and less celebrated than the best-funded ideas.

There will be no justice….

There will be no justice . . . and there will be no health care reform . . . and the growing gap between rich and poor will not be narrowed . . . and global warming will not be arrested . . . if we do not rescue democracy.

There will be no peace, no justice and no democracy if we forget history. And there will be no justice right here in our backyard if we overlook the fact that all we need to know can be found in Wisconsin Dells.

You heard me right. Buried deep beneath all those waterparks and tourist traps is the story of our salvation.

It’s the story of what was once known as Kilbourn City . Named for Byron Kilbourn. It’s the story of Honest Amasa Cobb. And Coles Bashford.

In 1856, railroad baron Byron Kilbourn wanted a land grant to build his La Crosse and Milwaukee Railroad. In return for the legislation, he offered 13 senators $175,000 and 59 members of the Assembly $355,000. Only one senator – "Honest" Amasa Cobb – refused the bribe. Kilbourn paid Governor Coles Bashford $50,000 to sign the legislation. Keep in mind that unskilled laborers were earning well under a dollar a day at the time, and the daily wage of trained craftsmen was less than $2. Kilbourn got the gift of free land, and he built his railroad, crossing the Wisconsin River at what is now Wisconsin Dells. They named the place after him.

The corruption of that era led to a citizen revolt. Crusading journalist S.D. Carpenter’s Wisconsin Patriot splashed these headlines across its front page when Alexander Randall (for whom Camp Randall is named) defeated the corrupt Coles Bashford by 118 votes:

TEN MILLION CHEERS! CROW, OLD ROOSTER! CROW!! THE FORTY THIEVES CLEARED OUT! RANDALL ELECTED GOVERNOR! HONESTY TRIUMPHANT! THERE IS A GOD IN ISRAEL !

This is our inheritance. It’s also an antidote to the cynicism that has grown like a cancer in so many of our souls. We can take comfort and draw inspiration from our history. We face nothing today that hasn’t been faced – and defeated – before. Right on this soil.

You know what they say . . . history is prologue.

So here we are . . . in the midst of a disastrous war, in the midst of the biggest political corruption scandal in our state’s history. There’s no better place than these fairgrounds to ask ourselves: What would Bob do?

Is there any doubt? Bob La Follette would fight.

Fighting Bob would barnstorm the state. He’d reach out to people just like those who raised me up. Working people. Simple farmers. Plain folks. People like Les Sturz.

Let me tell you about Les Sturz. To appreciate him, maybe knowing a little about my family would help. We were dairy farmers. Like most all farm kids, we wore hand-me-down clothes. We had no health insurance. One time, when my brother had finished filling a cart with cow feed, he threw the pitchfork he was using before noticing I had grabbed the cart to wheel it away. The fork went straight through my hand. I wasn’t taken to the doctor. They wrapped my hand with a poultice of Epsom salts and hoped for the best. Another time my leg had an encounter with a barbed wire fence and the fence won. Ripped it wide open. More Epsom salts. My first trip to a dentist was at age 22. My family let my teeth grow crooked, but made sure my soul was straight.

By today’s standards, we didn’t have much. But compared to the Sturz family, we were well off. Decisions like foregoing health insurance kept our farm profitable. Les’s family wasn’t so lucky. As they faced foreclosure, his father was found hanging from a rafter in a shed.

His dad took his own life at harvest time. The rains wouldn’t stop that year, leaving the fields so muddy it was next to impossible to harvest the crops. One day we had a tractor hopelessly buried in a corn field, up to its axles in mud. We tried pulling it out with another tractor and got that one stuck too. The next thing we see is Les Sturz racing down the road to our rescue with his family’s biggest tractor. He pulled us out of our rut, and proceeded to pull us around the field the rest of that day until our corn was harvested. We returned the favor on his farm in the days to come, of course, but that sight of him coming down the road that day – just days after his father committed suicide and just months before the Sturz family had their farm taken from them – is forever burned in my memory.

There will be no justice without that sense of the common good. There will be no justice unless we follow Les Sturz’ example and think we first instead of me first.

Think about the fact that after 9/11 Bush told us to go shopping. Talk about your metaphors. Talk about your sharp contrasts. On the heels of the Great Depression, my parents’ generation rallied to defeat Nazism. Gas and rubber and sugar and butter and cloth were all rationed. There were scrap metal drives and victory bonds. The whole country was called upon to sacrifice.

What has our whole country been asked to sacrifice this time? We were told to go shopping. You know and I know that this war would already be over if we weren’t paying for it on a credit card and our taxes were being raised. Or if there was a draft and all of our families faced the possibility of having a draft-age child sent away to die.

Instead of rallying the whole country as my parents’ generation was rallied, our president has cynically manipulated us. How we respond to such crass ploys is the great challenge of this moment in time. Our biggest fight is the fight against the greatest enemy of peace, justice and democracy – cynicism.

We only have to remember our own proud history. It is our inheritance. And it is the antidote to the cynicism that has grown like a cancer in so many of our souls. We face nothing today that hasn’t been faced – and defeated – before. Right on this soil.

And we only have to look at what is happening today. We’re winning.

We can’t buy politicians. We can’t even make a good down payment. We can’t peddle influence. We have no $200-an-hour lobbyists working the halls of the Capitol on our behalf. We can’t buy public opinion. We have no PR firm to do polling and craft state-of-the-art marketing campaigns. No 30-second paid advertisements to spread our message. Yet we’re winning.

Earlier this year, we won a landmark ethics reform law that replaces elections and ethics boards that were missing in action with a new politically independent enforcement agency under the direction of a nonpartisan board with an unlimited budget for investigations. Then we got three campaign reform, judicial reform and lobbying reform bills passed in the state Senate.

And we’re just getting warmed up. Ten days from today, on September 18, the People’s Legislature will storm the Capitol to tell the Lobbyists’ Legislature what those bosses at the Capitol most need to hear. We’re calling it the “Storm for Reform.” I hope you will join us.

In the last sentence of the very last column Molly Ivins wrote before her passing, she left us with this thought: “We need people in the streets, banging pots and pans and demanding, ‘Stop it, now!’”

May Molly’s spirit be alive and well in us . . . and on prominent display on the 18th. Storms are noisy. Don’t forget your pots and pans.

And don’t forget…. We will win.

Do you hear that echo? It says crow, old rooster, crow!

WDC Executive Director Mike McCabe
Mike McCabe
WDC Executive Director
2000-2014

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