Ed Garvey speaking truth to power, Fighting Bob Fest 2009.
Ed Garvey, the great lawyer, activist, and founder of the annual progressive gathering, “Fighting Bob Fest,” has passed away, at age seventy-six. Ed was a longtime friend of The Progressive magazine, and of the progressive movement nationally. He was a hilarious, fearless, and brilliant advocate, defending people against big-shots with too much money and power. A happy warrior, he fought and won many battles on behalf of little guys everywhere.
Garvey wrote articles for The Progressive about his shoestring, populist campaigns for Senate and for governor, about working with Bernie Sanders to save the Democratic Party, and about the dangers of a campaign finance system that closes off ordinary people’s access to our democracy.
In his groundbreaking work as executive director of the National Football League players union, Garvey went up against billionaire team owners, representing the athletes who made them rich and transforming the landscape of professional sports.
He served as deputy attorney general in Wisconsin under Bronson La Follette, specializing in environmental issues. Later, in his private practice, he helped defend local citizens against large corporations seeking to seize their land, pollute their water, or pull up stakes and leave town without compensating workers.
“I will always remember him for his sense of justice and his sense of humor,” says Garvey’s former law partner, Michael Bauer. “But most of all for his sense of humor.”
In Garvey’s many successful negotiations on behalf of his clients, “He’d just eviscerate some pompous hospital lawyer or hockey lawyer,” Bauer recalls with satisfaction.
Bauer especially remembers Garvey’s advocacy for a group of professional hockey players who had been pushed around by a corrupt union leader. “Despite being professional athletes, they were not well paid—they were mostly Canadian farm boys being bullied by this corrupt union head,” Bauer says. “Whenever they’d ask anything about the union he’d say, ‘Shut up—you’re just a dumb farm boy.’”
Garvey came in to meet with the union and immediately took up the players’ cause. “Within minutes, Ed had this guy whipped. And to see the glow in their eyes to see someone was taking their side was just great,” Bauer says. “That was the quintessential example of Ed taking on the powers that be.”
Other examples included Garvey’s battles representing landowners who pushed back a pipeline project that threatened to ruin their farms, displaced workers who fought for compensation when an auto plant left town, and prisoners incarcerated under appalling conditions in a “supermax” correctional institution. More than invoking the letter of the law, Garvey won by rallying large groups of outraged citizens, Companies would pay settlements just to make the trouble go away.
“He would always tell people, the system is set up to take you on one by one and crush you,” says Bauer. “If you fight together as a group, you have a lot more leverage.”
Together with Jim Hightower and Paul Wellstone, Garvey conceived and launched the annual Fighting Bob Fest—the largest outdoor gathering of progressives in the country.
Fighting Bob Fest, named for Fighting Bob La Follette and now hosted by The Progressive magazine and The Capital Times, has become an important annual organizing event for progressives, helping to launch the presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders and bringing back national progressive speakers year after year, including Bill McKibben, Amy Goodman, Tammy Baldwin, Cynthia McKinney, Granny D, and many more.
At a massive rally in Madison, Wisconsin, during the 2016 presidential campaign, Bernie Sanders called out Ed Garvey from the stage, thanking him for all of his work for the progressive movement and for launching Fighting Bob Fest.
Ed Garvey’s legacy lives on.