If Ed Garvey came to the proverbial fork in the road—with the fork on the right leading to an ice cream truck serving up unlimited flavors of free cones, and the fork on the left leading directly into a raging political brawl—Ed would go left. And, of course, he would always side with the underdogs, asking, “Is this a private fight or can anyone join?”
It is my good fortune and joy to have known, learned from, and teamed up with this populist people’s lawyer for more than thirty years. Not only was Ed spirited and scrappy, he was also smarter than a tree full of owls, with a unique instinct for organizing, energizing, and mobilizing grassroots activism. Moreover, he was a fun-loving and mirthful warrior for economic, social, and environmental justice, always bringing the power of storytelling and laughter to even the hardest struggles.
While the loss of such a powerful presence is a heartache for all of us in the progressive cause, we will never lose the spark of democratic rebelliousness that Ed imbued in others. As we carry on without him, we do so with his fighting spirit in our hearts. I count myself among the multitude of his apostles, spreading the Essence of Ed, including the core political principles he preached and practiced:
The issue is power. While progressives are engaged in myriad struggles, Garvey saw that each one comes down to what Fighting Bob La Follette called “the supreme issue, the encroachment of the powerful few on the rights of the many.”
Populist justice. Ed understood that building a true progressive movement means forging a shared campaign that combines our separate fights for justice into an integrative struggle for human dignity. For example, when the Muslim community is attacked, we non-Muslims need to realize that it’s an attack on all progressives, from union members to climate change activists. The power to harm one is the power to harm all, so all must rally as one, for all.
The historic continuum. America’s struggle for democracy and an egalitarian society did not end with the defeat of King George III in 1783. Rather, our people’s democratic history is written, generation after generation, by those who dare to stand up to the power elites. We are directly connected to those who came before us, and who will take over from us. Ed applied this truth by constantly mentoring and nurturing the next generation of fighters
Live your principles. Not only did Garvey oppose Big Money’s control of politics, he refused it in his own campaigns, rejecting any political donation over $100. Yes, it hurt him in the money race, but it distinguished him as—OMG!— a candidate with true values and actual integrity. Last year, his close friend Bernie Sanders stunned the political establishment by following Ed’s ethical lead, leveraging small donations from regular people to mount a viable, boldly populist campaign for President. From Ed to Bernie to us—that revolutionary political movement is now on the move all across the country.
Make it fun. I campaigned with Ed in his 1986 and 1998 runs for Senate and governor, respectively, and can attest that both were joyous journeys, where good humor leavened his serious and hard-fought campaigns. Then, with a group of other Wisconsin progressive activists, Ed created the best annual political gathering in America—Fighting Bob Fest. Now in its sixteenth year, this delightful festival of politics draws thousands of people for a day-long hoorah that includes hot speeches, cold local beer, terrific music, games for kids, a cornucopia of food, political workshops, and, well, fun. As Ed put it, “We’re putting the party back in politics.”
Ed was both a preacher and a teacher of the populist arts, and we need to embrace the lessons of his remarkable life. We suddenly find ourselves caught up in a swirl of trumpery, ruled by a corporate kakistocracy (government by the very worst people in society). But as Ed would say, this is no time to wring our hands; it is a time to join hands. The good news is that people everywhere are doing just that, spontaneously coming together in mass rebellions against Trumpism.
I hoped my friend Garvey would never die. And I don’t think he will.