Ed Garvey: Champion of the People

When a Minnesota college professor named Paul Wellstone was thinking about making a decidedly uphill bid for the United States Senate in 1990, he picked up a copy of The Progressive and read an article by Ed Garvey, who had just lost a Senate race in Wisconsin.


Stories of losing campaigns for high office do not usually inspire others to enter the fray. But the article Garvey had penned—a fierce indictment of the corrupting influence of big money in politics titled: “It's Money That Matters: A Candidate Looks Back In Anger"—captured Wellstone’s imagination. The 1995 book, Mr. Wellstone Goes to Washington, recounted how the professor’s “eyes lit up” when he read Garvey’s populist call to action. Wellstone began to think that “the time might be right for running against money.”

It was.

Wellstone was elected to the Senate in 1990, in the same election that saw another friend and fan of Garvey, Bernie Sanders, get elected to Congress from Vermont.

Both men were among a multitude of activists across Wisconsin and the United States who have credited Garvey with showing them how to forge a new politics combining progressive idealism and a populist demand for clean elections.

Garvey, who has died at age 76, never held elective office. But his bids for the U.S. Senate and the governorship in Wisconsin framed a new politics that erased the barriers between grassroots activism and electoral politics. He envisioned a day when elected officials would spring from movements and make it their mission to implement the programs of those movements.

Garvey was a movement man–a civil rights campaigner who went south in the early 1960s with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, a student activist who served as president of the National Student Association in the turbulent 1960s, a labor activist who was the first executive director of the National Football League Players’ Association; and a courtroom activist who as a lawyer and legal strategist organized the long struggle to apply antitrust laws to the NFL and won major concessions from the owners, crusaded for environmental protection as a deputy attorney general of Wisconsin, and then represented labor unions in their battles with multinational corporations.

In 1986, his bid for a United States Senate seat representing Wisconsin drew national attention as Garvey built a rainbow coalition campaign—inspired by the presidential bids of his friend and longtime collaborator on progressive causes, the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Linking labor and environmental groups, urban workers and farmers, women’s rights campaigners and the LGBTQ community into a mass-movement campaign, he secured the Democratic nomination. Mimicking the populist approach that his friend Jim Hightower used to win election as Texas Agriculture Commissioner in 1982, Garvey appeared to be headed for the U.S. Senate when his opponent, Republican Senator Bob Kasten, launched a heavily-funded smear campaign that lied about Garvey’s background. Kasten, who was supported by millionaire campaign donors and special-interest groups from across the country, narrowly prevailed with what at the time was characterized as one of the bitterest campaigns in modern American history. Later, when faced with a libel suit, Kasten conceded that the free-spending attack-ad campaign was false.

Ed Garvey’s reaction to his setback was to start organizing against the big money that paid for attacks ads. His groundbreaking articles for The Progressive still turns up in textbooks on politics. And they still inspire progressive activists and campaigners.

Garvey made his last run for public office in 1998, securing the Democratic nomination for governor of Wisconsin with a bid that accepted only contributions of $100 or less. With another campaign–finance reformer as his running-mate for lieutenant governor, Garvey outlined a democracy program that inspired a new generation of activists in the state. He also drew enthusiastic support from Paul Wellstone, who campaigned at Garvey’s side in small towns and cities across Wisconsin. Jesse Jackson showed up as well, touring African-American churches in Milwaukee with the man who had been one of the most ardent supporters of the civil rights advocate’s 1988 president bid.

Garvey did not win, but he increased the Democratic share of the vote by almost ten points and played a critical role in helping Russ Feingold get reelected to the U.S. Senate and boosting a young ally, Tammy Baldwin, in her bid for a U.S. House seat.

Baldwin mourned Garvey’s passing by recalling something that was especially true, and especially important, about the man: “Ed understood how important it was to pass on to the next generation our proud progressive tradition in Wisconsin.”

Garvey’s persistence and passion even earned him the regard of the man he ran against in the 1998 contest.

“On a 100 issues, Ed and I probably agreed on 25 – if we were lucky,” said former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson, a conservative Republican. “But he was such a great speaker, such a great writer. I just respected him so much because, even when we didn’t agree, I knew I was debating someone who believed in what he was saying and was so good at saying it.”

Garvey never sought another office, but he never stopped campaigning. A brilliant public speaker with razor-sharp wit and storytelling skills that he credited to his Irish background, Garvey stormed across the state and nation as an impassioned advocate for economic and social justice, criminal justice reform, organized labor, environmental protection, women’s rights, gay rights, disability rights and, above all, democracy. He became, as Wisconsin Congressman Mark Pocan put it, “a Wisconsin icon and a brilliant national champion of labor and progressive causes (who) laid down an admirable path to follow for all of us who believe in fighting for the underdog.”

Garvey organized Wisconsin’s annual “Fighting Bob Fest” celebrations—named for former Wisconsin Senator Robert M. La Follette—which over the years drew tens of thousands of people to hear Bernie Sanders, Jesse Jackson, Jim Hightower and others, as well as the grassroots activists he was inspiring to organize and win races with Garvey-style campaigns.

When Sanders was campaigning last spring in Wisconsin, prior to the state’s presidential primary, he spoke often of the inspiration he took from Garvey. “Ed Garvey is one of my heroes. He is someone I look up to,” said the senator. “There were very few people who recognized the full extent of threat that money in politics posed to democracy. But Ed did. He raised the alarm and he fought back and I can’t tell you how much we owe him—for that, and for a lifetime of progressivism.”

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