You'll need some background if you want to understand why I plunged into one race for the United States Senate in 1986 and another in 1988: I was raised in a small Wisconsin town by parents who assured me that every boy could grow up to become President of the United States. They taught me that it was a great country because it wasn't just for the rich: Everyone with an education had an equal chance to succeed. In those days, our state legislators were from the people and decidedly part-time. They were farmers, small businessmen, town lawyers. They went to the Capitol in Madison, did their business without staff, and then came home to earn a living.
When I was growing up, we sometimes heard stories about too much drinking at some of the legislators' favorite bars—but that was about the extent of any scandal. When state or national politicians passed through town, we had breakfast gatherings at a local hotel. The cost was what breakfast cost on any other morning. Sometimes there were political bean feeds; the $5 went to pay for the beans, and any profit went to the local party. If anyone had invited my father to a $100-a-plate dinner, he would have asked, "What in the world could they serve for that amount of money?"
Our Senator, Bill Proxmire, had made a career of running for office without spending any money. Election campaigns were based on ideas and personal contact. Any candidate who didn't get around the state to the small communities had a pretty good chance of losing.
So when a group met to discuss the possibility of my running in 1986 against Wisconsin's Republican Senator, Robert Kasten, I was excited. Kasten stood for almost everything I have opposed in a lifetime of activism—from student-body president at the University of Wisconsin to board member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and union leader taking on the National Football League.
Kasten is a big-business Republican who has rarely disagreed with his most reactionary Senate colleagues, Jesse Helms and Orrin Hatch. I was eager to take him on and articulate my progressive agenda: Stop funding the contras; tie aid to El Salvador to the peace process; stop nuclear testing and Star Wars research; bring U.S. troops home from Asia and Europe so that we could spend the money to build adequate housing for all our citizens; enact national health-care legislation, and pursue excellence in education the way Ronald Reagan pursued military spending.
God, it would be exhilarating, I thought, to revive progressive politics in Wisconsin.
Right after I decided to make the race, I had a talk with a farmerone of the old LaFollette progressives you still find in Wisconsin. He told me that the most important thing I could do as a candidate was educate the voters. "After all," he said, "few people have the chance to learn what you've learned. So, like Bob LaFollette, you should judge your campaign on how well you teach, not on the number of votes you get."
It was basic progressive doctrine. LaFollette, Wisconsin's great progressive Governor and Senator, had pushed the open primary so that people would be able to choose from candidates who addressed the issues, not from those selected for them by the lumber barons and railroad magnates who dominated the state's economy in his time.
And would wage a campaign on the issues. My first step would be to assemble the best minds in the state to help figure out solutions to the problems facing us. During a long campaign trip for Walter Mondale in 1984,1 had become conscious of the fact that I wasn't talking about what Mondale was for—because I didn't know. Maybe he didn't know. My campaign would offer specific answers. The press would criticize my answers, my opponent would accuse me of advocating too much spending, but all that would just stimulate debate. I couldn't wait.
I knew I would need help with "the media"— everyone agrees this is the television era, but most of us don't know how to use television—so I went looking in Washington, where I had lived for thirteen years. I talked with the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, but it showed no interest in me. The committee wanted winners, and incumbent office-holders are more likely to win.
My first contacts with professional campaign consultants were more encouraging; they thought I could win—with their help. I assumed that their confidence in me was based on a calculation that the sun was setting on the Reagan years and it was time for a return to progressive politics. Not so. They didn't care about my politics. The only thing that mattered, they said, was how much money I could raise. One consultant, an old friend, put it this way: "Your job is to raise money. I want you to spend 75 per cent of your time raising money and the rest of the time on the campaign."
"Look," I said, "I'm running because I have a mission to educate, not just to win an election." And I added, "In Wisconsin we don't have expensive races, and anyone who spent a lot of money would lose." The consultants told me that Wisconsin was no different from any other state, and that every first-time candidate said what I was saying.
So we began with a basic conflict: My campaign director and our consultant wanted me to spend at least five hours a day on the telephone, raising money, while I wanted to visit every senior home, union hall, church, and public forum in the state. I instructed my scheduler to accept every speaking invitation, even if it meant driving across the state on two-lane highways in a single day—never, never to pass up a student audience, a peace group, an opportunity to debate. But soon I was being given three-by-five cards with names and telephone numbers to call between speeches and news conferences.
I tried it. I would place a credit-card call to someone in California or New York, introduce myself, explain how I got the potential contributor's name, and ask for $1,000. Imagine that: I had grown up with the conviction that money and politics didn't mix, that $5 bean feeds were the guts of Democratic politics, and here I was calling strangers from pay phones in restaurants and filling stations, asking for thousand-dollar contributions to my Senatorial campaign.
The notion my parents had drilled into me was, "The Garveys don't ask for things. We earn our way by working hard. We give; we don't ask." But now, at the age of forty-six, I was asking people I didn't even know to help me get elected. And who were these strangers? What did they do for a living? Where did they get their money? Would I be embarrassed if a newspaper ran an exposé of the contributors to the Garvey campaign? There were no answers to these questions. There was no time to ask them. The names came from one or another liberal group, one or another candidate. We assumed they were okay. If not, we could always return their contributions later, but right now we needed the money.
And what did the strangers ask of me when I called? Were they concerned about El Salvador or Star Wars? No—what they wanted to know was how I stood in the polls. When I answered that we had no poll results yet, there was usually no way to persuade them to write a check. It's as simple as that: Out-of-state people who give to candidates for the House and Senate want a good investment, not a long shot. As a rule, they will only contribute to an incumbent—especially in the primaries. "Call me after the primary," 150 or so strangers told me.
What is true for individual givers is doubly true for political-action committees. Individuals might be persuaded by a friend or a particular argument, but PACs pride themselves on "smart giving," and it just isn't smart to give to a candidate challenging an incumbent or to a progressive in a primary fight. The line I heard ad nauseam was, "We have too many friends in the race."
Senator Kasten spent about $4 million in his successful bid for reelection in 1986. In 1988, my successful opponent spent $4.25 million in the Democratic primary, and 90 per cent of that was his own money. Bear in mind that an individual may contribute no more than $1,000 to someone else's primary campaign and another $ 1,000 in a general election, and that PAC contributions are limited to $5,000 per contest. So where is a progressive candidate supposed to find his campaign funds?
I was certain I'd be able to raise all I needed because I had headed a union of football players for thirteen years, had brought it into the AFL-CIO, and had lots of friends in the labor movement. My stand on peace issues was sure to bring me contributions from peace PACs. And because I had been deeply involved in protecting the environment while running the Wisconsin Department of Justice, support from environmental groups would be there for the asking.
I was wrong across the board.
Labor unions rarely get involved in primaries; they usually wait to support the official Democratic candidate—even if he's lukewarm or worse on issues affecting union members. If the state AFL-CIO breaks with tradition and endorses you in the primary, that does not bind any of the international unions and their political directors, who control the money. As a general rule, you must spend hundreds of hours with the state board, attend the AFLCIO annual meeting in Florida, have coffee with the union political directors, and convince John Perkins, who heads the AFL-CIO Committee on Political Education (COPE), that you could win.
Even if you turn out to be labor's perfect candidate, are running against an antilabor "new Democrat," can show poll results predicting that you will win the primary, and receive every penny any union can afford to put into your campaign, you wind up with contributions totaling no more than $200,000. In the 1988 primary campaign, my successful opponent wrote out personal checks for more than that every week for three months.
What about the peace groups? I remember my meeting with peace PACs at a small restaurant on Capitol Hill in 1986. On the way to the session, I said to my campaign manager, "It sure will be refreshing to talk issues instead of money, polls, and why this or that group can't support anyone in a primary campaign."
After a round of introductions and handshakes and a quick sandwich order, we got down to business. The first question put to me was, "What do the polls show?" For an hour we talked about the polls, whether I could raise enough money, who my media consultants were, and whether I could use the organizations' membership lists. When the meeting broke up, we hadn't spent five minutes on the issues; no one there could have explained to any member why he or she should back Ed Garvey for the Senate. As for money, they didn't have any. You may have the ardent support of every environmentalist in your state, but environmental groups won't contribute to primary campaigns and often they stay away from a challenger even if the incumbent's record is bad on everything except Brazilian rain forests. The environmental lobbyists want to preserve their access to the bad guys—but they'll give you lots of nice words.
And women's groups? After all, my 1986 Republican opponent was against Roe v. Wade, against the Equal Rights Amendment, bad on comparable worth and day care—a real Neanderthal. I received the state endorsement of the National Organization for Women, and no money.
How do you cope? You have no income because you and your spouse have been campaigning full time, but you give another personal loan to the campaign so the staff can get paid and a mailing can go out. You spend a lot of time at fund-raising parties that may generate, if they're great, as much as $5,000. The all-wise media consultant calls to find out how the money is coming in. Your campaign manager asks, "Did you make your calls?" Nobody asks, nobody cares how you feel about anything—labor-law reform, comparable worth, Star Wars research, right-to-work, minimum wage, El Salvador, Nicaragua.
But somehow, friends of twenty years, campaign volunteers, staff members come through and some money starts coming in. You can pay the staff, pay for the direct mail, pay for the posters, yard signs, issue papers, bumper stickers. You even have some money for television—not much, but you are on the air. You win the primary— and now you're really up against it, because an incumbent Republican Senator will get all the money he needs. So you go back to the same strangers, the same unions, the same peace groups, and you say, "Okay, I won the primary, now it is safe to give." And it is easier: They still ask, "What do the polls show?" but they're more likely to give something. And invariably they say, "Call me in late October when we should have more money," which means, "If you have a real chance we'll send more and if not, forget it."
If you score every possible endorsement, you can add another $100,000 or so from peace PACs, women's organizations, environmentalists, and liberal groups to your $200,000 from labor. Then the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee will kick in with an amount scaled to the size of your state and the amount of money you have raised for the DSCC—so you get to go back to all of your new "friends" and ask them to send contributions off to the DSCC in Washington.
I wound up with $290,000 from the DSCC and a total of less than $600,000 from all identifiable Democratic or progressive- liberal sources—a small fraction of the campaign funds at my opponent's disposal. It suddenly hit me that I was way over my head in a high-stakes poker game. All I could do was hope for miracles. One miracle is the availability of "free media time." You know that you're better on television than your opponent, that you can kill him in debates, that you can outperform him at news conferences, that you have clearly defined positions while he doesn't know where he stands on anything. You'll make the most of free media opportunities and win on the issues.
But the reality is that your opponent won't debate, won't hold news conferences, won't attend candidate forums, won't talk about the issues—and the media will let him get away with all that. Campaigns aren't won today by use of the free media. Campaigns are won today by paid thirty-second television spots. Your opponent's message reaches every voter in the state two, three, five, ten times a day. His name becomes a household word. Suddenly, he's a celebrity, recognized on the streets. He's Vanna White, Pat Sajak, Oprah, Donahue. Your staff becomes demoralized. They, too, watch your opponent's television spots and get the feeling that you have lost momentum. People ask, "When are you going on TV?" You may just have received a standing ovation for the best speech you've ever delivered on health care, but suddenly you feel you've let down your staff and your volunteers. You haven't raised enough money. You ask yourself, "Should I have made more calls and fewer speeches?"
It hit me when I had just finished shaking hands outside a Packers football game on a cold October Sunday. I had been there from 10 A.M. to 1 P.M., had shaken 2,000 or 3,000 hands, had received lots of encouraging comments. It was hard work, but it was fun, too. As the game started, we went across the street to relax—and there on the television screen was Kasten, attacking me for spreading false rumors and using "Watergate tactics." I realized that if I could have shaken the hands of all 53,000 people entering Lambeau Field that day, I wouldn't have reached a tenth of the people watching that commercial at that moment. I did some quick arithmetic on my pocket calculator: If I averaged 2,000 handshakes a day—a practical impossibility, what with fund-raising trips and callsit would take me 1,600 days to reach the 3.2 million potential voters in Wisconsin. One television spot could reach them all in a day—not once but over and over again.
And still, our private poll showed me slightly ahead of Kasten in early October. He must have known it too, because suddenly his campaign started a television blitz to tell Wisconsin voters that $750,000 had vanished from the NFL Players Association treasury when I headed the union, and "Ed Garvey didn't know where it went." The implication that I was a thief—or, at best, an incompetent—had incredible impact. My family and I were stunned, and my friends in the Players Association (where no money was missing) were furious.
I said I would sue for libel, and counted on the free media to set the record straight. They didn't; the electronic media continued to take in thousands of dollars a day for running the false commercial while refusing to comment on it in their newscasts, and the print media ignored it altogether. The voters had it driven home that Garvey was a crook. In the polls, we dropped thirteen to fifteen points within one week. And when those strangers who were getting my fund-raising calls heard about the decline in the polls, the money stopped coming. And that was that.
My 1988 campaign was different. I wasn't up against a right-wing Republican with lots of money and no scruples who waged a negative campaign filled with libelous television spots. Instead, I faced a political unknown who announced, "I will spend whatever it takes to win." And he did. And he won. In a state with only 4.8 million people, he spent $6.1 million of his own money, and today they call him Senator.
When Herb Kohl, the multimillionaire owner of the Milwaukee Bucks basketball team, announced he would seek the Democratic nomination for the Senate seat Bill Proxmire was vacating, the chairwoman of the Wisconsin Democratic Party was elated. "This proves that rich people can be Democrats," she proudly exclaimed. It was a comment that reflected the attitude that prevails today in the higher reaches of the Democratic Party: At last we've gotten out of the union halls, out of the soup kitchens, and into the better restaurants. If it takes lots of money to get elected, how sweet to have a candidate who has lots of money to spend.
Kohl, too, ran a campaign based on thirty-second spots. First, his pollsters determined what people wanted to hear him say. Then his media consultants produced commercials in which he said it. Like Kasten in 1986, he refused to attend all but a handful of candidate forums and participated only in the most tightly structured League of Women Voters debate, while I took part in more than sixty forums and debates and gave hundreds of speeches. Even the thousands of people I met and talked with were more impressed by the thirty-second spots that bombarded them hour after hour, day after day, than by a quick handshake with a live candidate. And, predictably, as Kohl rose in the polls, our money dried up.
Kohl won the primary in a walk. He won in a landslide. He carried almost every county in the state. When my campaign manager asked, "How could an entire county of Native Americans vote for Kohl?" I replied, "They watch television, too."
This is what I learned: The rules now make it ever more likely that our choice for high offices will be between multimillionaire Democrats and corporatesponsored Republicans. Senate seats have become so expensive that only incumbents or the wealthy can hope to hold them. Many races for the House of Representatives already cost more than $1 million, and in California Tom Hayden spent that much to win a seat in the state assembly.
The money is spent on thirty-second television spots. That's no way to educate the voters, but it is the way to get elected. Once again, as in the days when Bob LaFollette and the progressives recognized that the wealthy were dominating both political parties, money is the way to win public office. No longer can any boy or girl aspire to the Presidency, or to a seat in Congress. No longer can a rational stand on the issues determine whether a candidate wins or loses.
Friends tell me, "So what? Money has always dominated American politics," to which I reply, (1) not to the extent it does today, (2) that doesn't mean we have to accept it, and (3) television has changed all the rules. The thirty-second spot means more than the "walking-around money" politicians used to dispense on election day, more than the money that used to buy posters and fliers and phone banks; it means absolute control over the electoral system. That message has not yet hit home. Right now, two state senators in Wisconsin are telling their friends that they will soon start campaigning for the nomination to oppose Senator Kasten in 1992. They seem to believe that if they start three years ahead of time, raise money, get around the state, meet people, they'll be able to overcome the media blitz. I can imagine what these would-be candidates are telling their friends:
"If Garvey could meet 300,000 people in eighteen months, I can meet 600,000 in thirty-six months, and that will assure me of winning the primary." They haven't figured it out yet: If another millionaire decides to spend "whatever it takes," they will not get the early endorsements from labor, peace, environmental, and women's groups—and even if they do, they'll lose. You can't raise $5 million or more even if you start five years in advance; the big boys won't give serious money to a progressive candidate in a race against a right-wing incumbent. And if you work eighteen hours a day shaking hands and giving speeches, the television spots will still make the voters forget everything you said. Well, maybe the television networks will all be cooperatives by 1992, and the newspapers will be devoted to the people's agenda, and miracles will happen. . ..
Do we just give up? I must admit the thought has occurred to me. But I'm not willing to throw in the towel. I want my children and their friends to be able to run for office in the next century. And I believe we will lose on all the other issues we care about unless we deal with the electoral crisis. So long as 99 per cent of the members of the House of Representatives are reelected—mostly because of the large PAC donations they receive— Congress will not give us a progressive income tax; we'll get higher gas taxes instead. Congress will not deal with minimum wages; it will take care of its own wages. Congress will not get serious about the state of the environment so long as the chemical industry pours millions of PAC dollars into the Democratic Party.
And what happens in Washington filters down to the state houses. No longer does Wisconsin have a legislature made up of small-town lawyers, farmers, and smallbusiness proprietors who travel to Madison, transact their business, and then go home to earn a living. Now we have fulltime legislators with large staffs, computers, pollsters, media consultants, legislative committees to help with re-election efforts. They cozy up to the lobbyists and PACs just like their big brothers in Washington. And they almost never lose.
If we're going to change the system, we must start some place other than Congress or the legislatures. And we must not be fooled by phony "reform" efforts like the pending bill to limit PAC contributions to $3,000 rather than $5,000. Real reform will require a great public outcry, referenda, talk shows, letters to the editor, demonstrations, and anything else you can think of. Groups considering endorsements ought to demand a written commitment from every candidate on a specific publicfunding plank, elimination of PACs, and a limit on individual spending. No commitment, no endorsement.
We should outlaw thirty-second television spots. If the constitutional lawyers say that can't be done, we should push for public financing and an absolute ban on expenditures that exceed the limit. And if we must have television spots, let's have a public Panel of Fairness that can point out that $750,000 wasn't missing from the Football Players Association, that George Bush's Willie Horton spot was filmed in Utah, that the scenes of polluted Boston Harbor didn't show Boston Harbor. Simple fair comment from an independent body will go a long way toward cleaning up the mess we have.
We should select a national coroner to determine whether the print media are brain-dead and whether the electronic media were born brainless. In Wisconsin's largest city, one monopoly owns the two daily newspapers, the largest television station, and the number one AM and FM radio stations. Their coverage of politics is abysmally bad. They trumpet poll results but ignore the fact that those results have been bought by thirty-second spots.
My low point came in Green Bay, our state's second-largest media market. I had scheduled a news conference on the Friday preceding the Tuesday primary, but one of the local television stations refused to cover it; they said it was too close to election day. However, they offered to sell me some commercial time. We must get a handle on this monster we call television. We must do more than fine-tune the picture; we must change the channel. If we allow the present system to continue, our choices are bound to become worse and worse. Last year, Michael Dukakis became the Democratic Presidential candidate because he had more money than any other Democrat seeking the nomination. George Bush had more money than any of his Republican rivals. In 1992, the Democrats will nominate Sam Nunn or Chuck Robb, depending on whom the bigmoney people prefer. The current leadership of the Democratic Party won't be content until it finds a candidate so far to the Right that he can accuse the Republicans of being liberals.
But this is no time for despair, nor is it time to start arguing about 1992. It is time for action. Let's stop the show before Vanna White gets elected President.