“Hey Russ, I hope you’ll be unemployed soon, just like the rest of us,” a middle-aged man yells out to Feingold as he walks onto the State Fairgrounds in Milwaukee on a sunny Saturday morning in August.
Feingold’s opponent, Ron Johnson, an Oshkosh businessman who has the backing of tea party groups including Liberty Central in Alexandria, Virginia, has been running ads tying the three-term Senator to job losses in the state, 82,000 of which, Johnson points out, have gone away since Feingold voted for Obama’s stimulus bill.
In August, the Cook Political Report moved the Wisconsin Senate race into the toss-up column. Ron Johnson, the little-known owner of a plastics manufacturing plant, has not made many public appearances, but he has sunk $1 million of his personal fortune into the race, and he is running a formidable television ad campaign, with more than $2 million in ad buys over the summer.
But when it comes to meeting the voters, or reeling off the names of obscure towns and the people who live there, no one beats Feingold. He travels to every county in the state every year to hold listening sessions, and he seems to genuinely enjoy talking with people.
At the State Fair, he tours the cow barn, introducing himself to voters and shaking hands, then makes a beeline for the Flower Pavilion to stand on the same spot where Bill Proxmire, the legendary liberal Senator from Wisconsin, used to meet the voters, shaking hands all day until his fingers bled, and earning a reputation as a man of the people.
Lee Woz of Oak Creek runs over to meet Feingold. He is going to put up a sign in his conservative town, which Feingold says is “courageous.”
“He’s for the working man, the poor people, and what else is there?” Woz, a retired power plant worker, says of Feingold.
“I’m not a gazillionaire,” Feingold says as he strolls through the fairgrounds. “I think in these times having someone in the Senate who can relate to what it means not to have unlimited resources is useful. . . We in Wisconsin don’t believe that those who have a lot can just look at those who have nothing and say, ‘Hey, unemployment compensation? That’s just because they’re being lazy.’ ” (In June, Johnson told Wisconsin Public Television that extending unemployment insurance reduces people’s incentive to go out and get a job.)
“Keep sticking it to those guys in Washington!” another passerby calls out as Feingold greets people at the State Fair.
Feingold smiles. That’s what he hopes to do.
This is but a small excerpt from Ruth Conniff's article on Russ Feingold in the October issue. To read the full article, and the entire October issue, and to subscribe to The Progressive for just $14.97 (a 75% discount!), simply click here.