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Battleground State: Wisconsin and the 2004 Elections

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We take a look at how Wisconsin could impact on the elections in November with Ed Garvey, perhaps the best-known rebel lawyer in the state, and John Nichols, editorial editor of the Madison Capital Times.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Next week, the Bush and Kerry campaigns will intensify their campaigning for the November presidential elections. Both men will travel extensively across the country. Television and radio will see an unprecedented number of advertisements. The amount of money spent in this election is expected to break all previous records, particularly the Bush administration, which has amassed the largest campaign war chest in the country’s history.

At least at this point, the polls point—put Kerry and Bush more or less in a dead heat, and some observers believe the race will come down to a few battleground states, among them Wisconsin, where we’re broadcasting from today and Monday. We’ll be broadcasting from Milwaukee. We’re going to take a close look at this state, how it could impact the November elections.

We’re joined by John Nichols, editorial editor at the Madison Capital Times and a correspondent for The Nation magazine. We’re also joined by Ed Garvey. He is perhaps Wisconsin’s most well-known rebel lawyer, rose to prominence as head of the National Football League’s players’ union. In '98, he was the Democratic Party's candidate for governor. He lost that race, in which he was outspent nearly 13 to one by his Republican opponent, Tommy Thompson, who is now President Bush’s health and human services secretary. Garvey heads up a law firm that for years has gone up against large corporations and the state of Wisconsin.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now!

JOHN NICHOLS: It’s great to be here.

ED GARVEY: It’s great to be here. Thanks.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Ed Garvey, you have been particularly taking on the state around the issue of prisons. Can you talk about this?

ED GARVEY: Federal Judge Barbara Crabb appointed me to represent all the inmates at the supermax prison, which was built by Tommy Thompson, as he said, for the worst of the worst. And he had sent a delegation around the country to figure out how he could make, in essence, the worst prison available. And so, when I went down there, I could not believe it. In essence, people are isolated.

AMY GOODMAN: Where is it?

ED GARVEY: In Boscobel, Wisconsin. And they never see the light of day. They never get outside. They’re in total isolation. The food is, as you can imagine, not exactly good. And they had a number of seriously mentally ill inmates. So, our first line of attack was to get an injunction to remove the seriously mentally ill from these conditions, and they now have been removed. But there are still other problems. For example, the temperature gets up to 100 degrees in the cells. And so the judge has ordered that they air condition to reduce the temperature to 84. But the state of Wisconsin has appealed that, saying that they can cool off by eating ice chips and wearing short pants, which is quite remarkable.

AMY GOODMAN: Who said that in the state of Wisconsin?

ED GARVEY: Well, that’s the official position now of the governor, the Department of Corrections, that this is the way they’re going to deal with it. And they’re afraid that if there’s air conditioning, that somehow other prisoners in other prisons would like to get into supermax. But believe me, they’ve never been there, if that’s what they like. But this is, I think, part of the Thompson legacy. Wisconsin, believe it or not, is now spending more money on prisons than on the entire University of Wisconsin system. And that, I think, is such a tragedy, because we’ve had great schools, a great university, and now our resources are being diverted simply for punishment.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re taking on a number of corporations, from Wal-Mart to Perrier. Explain.

ED GARVEY: Well, the Perrier fight was to come into Wisconsin and take millions of gallons of spring water. And a citizen group was organized, and we were able to stop them, and so they decided finally to leave the state. You would have enjoyed the first meeting. They had a public meeting, and about 200 people came. And they said, "We want to be good corporate citizens, so if you don’t want us here, we’ll leave." And 200 people said, "Leave." And they said, "Oh, you can’t be serious." Well, we kept up the battle, and they did have to leave.

We’ve also been fighting Wal-Mart, which is, in essence, trying to take over the state of Wisconsin’s retail outlets. They’re just building these supercenters everywhere. And, of course, the impact on small merchants and small bookstores and so on is disastrous.

And finally, I think one of the important battles is fighting against factory farms that they want to have in Wisconsin. We’ve been able to stop four or five of those, and hopefully we’ll keep going.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean by factory farms?

ED GARVEY: These would be like 10,000 hogs in one location, 2,800 cattle, you know, 2 million chickens, without regard for what it would do to the groundwater, the air, the introduction of antibiotics into the system. So, we’ve been saying, "Listen, these are not stewards of the land. These are just profit-oriented companies that could care less about the groundwater or the environment, the air, the smell and so on and so forth. So we’ve been reasonably successful in getting citizen groups into the process. We can’t do it at the state or national level, largely because of the amount of money that these big corporations put into the campaigns. So, we’ve been doing it at the grassroots level, and rather effectively.

AMY GOODMAN: John Nichols, what does it mean to say that Wisconsin is a battleground state?

JOHN NICHOLS: Well, what it means is that the political powers that be in the country have decided that this is where they’re going to have their fight. It’s based on some reality. Wisconsin is a relatively closely divided state. We have two Democratic senators, one of whom is probably the most progressive guy in the Senate right now, Russ Feingold. He’s up for re-election, and he’ll get re-elected easily. But we also have a Republican-controlled—

AMY GOODMAN: The only one who voted against the USA PATRIOT Act as senator.

JOHN NICHOLS: Yeah, and the only person in a competitive race this year who is an outspoken foe of the war and continues to say it was a bad idea. I mean, but so we have that. But at the same time, we’ve had Tommy Thompson as governor for a long time. We now have a Democratic governor, titularly. And we have a Republican-controlled Legislature. So it’s a closely divided state.

But to be a battleground state is something more than that. What it means is that the Republican and the Democratic power brokers in Washington have picked 17 or 18 states around the country that they say are, you know, the places where each of them have a chance of winning. So they’re pouring all of the money into these states. And your listeners in a lot of states in this country would be shocked to know that this presidential race is, you know, in full force. In fact, interestingly enough, in Wisconsin, both the Kerry and the Bush campaigns have already spent millions of dollars on TV. We see TV ads every day here, whereas people in states like Illinois, New York and California see no ads whatsoever. So, choosing out the battleground states is, in my view, A, terribly undemocratic—it’s a horrible, horrible thing to do, because it cuts most of the country out of the debate—but, B, it is a way to telescope the fight. And the fight has been telescoped here.

If I can add one final thing, it’s important. Wisconsin wouldn’t be a battleground state if the Democratic Party stood for anything. And this is a really big deal. In 1988, when Michael Dukakis was the Democratic nominee, he was hardly a great left-winger, but he had a good foreign policy, pretty good industrial policy. He was pro-labor. He was against the death penalty. He was against U.S. policies in Central America. He won 55 percent of the vote in Wisconsin—pretty close to a landslide victory. This state would vote for a progressive Democrat. The problem is, when you give us a Bill Clinton or an Al Gore, they don’t even get—they barely get to the 50 percent range. And this is John Kerry’s challenge. If he were to run as a progressive Democrat, he’d win Wisconsin easy. If he runs as kind of a murky Republican-lite, he’ll have a fight.

AMY GOODMAN: We were talking about the echo chamber earlier—with John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton—the right-wing media in this country. Ed Garvey, you’ve written a very interesting piece in The Capital Times, John Nichols’ paper, headlined "Right Wing Now Hijacking PBS by Moving to Control Content." Can you talk about what’s happening?

ED GARVEY: Well, last summer, or, actually, last fall, John and Bob McChesney held a conference here at Wisconsin on media reform. And at that conference, I spent some time with Chuck Lewis of the Center for Public Integrity, and we talked about how Dennis Hastert and other Republicans were pressuring the PBS to have a co-host with Bill Moyers on his wonderful program Now, and they wanted either Newt Gingrich or Tucker Carlson. Tucker Carlson is this fellow on CNN that I don’t think anyone takes seriously. Predictably, Bill Moyers refused. But now what’s happening, with Moyers retiring in November, this summer they’re going to have a magazine program hosted by Tucker Carlson. They’re adding a program hosted by Paul Gigot, the editorial page editor of The Wall Street Journal, not exactly a liberal newspaper. And they’re forcing some people onto the PBS board, one of whom was the former GOPAC director for Newt Gingrich’s efforts to implement the Contract on America—or, for America. I never remember which one.

JOHN NICHOLS: It’s "on."

ED GARVEY: So, I’m worried about PBS, because, for years, the Republicans claim it’s left-wing, but of course we know it’s not. Most of the people they interview are very establishment and, if anything, lean toward the Republican side of things. But it is the—you know, in addition to what you’re doing here, a source that at least we can hope we’re not going to get the Fox News slant.

AMY GOODMAN: You call on Wisconsin Public Television to jump into the void by balancing this new programming of PBS.

ED GARVEY: I do, but—

AMY GOODMAN: At the state level.

ED GARVEY: —I’m not very optimistic about it. Even Wisconsin Public Radio, which is quite good in Wisconsin, is nervous. And, for example, they think your program has a particular point of view, and that would not be permissible. They won’t—or, Public Television here will not allow a union, for example, to sponsor a program, because they think that unions have a point of view, whereas the corporations are only interested in profit. Well, that’s going to be hot news to people listening here. So, I do think, however, that it has awakened a number of people in Wisconsin, put some pressure on Public Radio and Public Television to take up the challenge. I don’t want to see PBS becoming a mirror image of Fox News. And that’s what I’m afraid the Republicans are pushing for.

AMY GOODMAN: John Nichols, last comment?

JOHN NICHOLS: My last comment is that Wisconsin is a great state, and I’m sitting next to a guy who should be the governor of Wisconsin.

ED GARVEY: Sounds like he’s running for governor.

JOHN NICHOLS: And did pretty well. No, but people should know that in Wisconsin, there was a tremendous amount of antiwar sentiment. People here aren’t that surprised by all the things that are coming out now, because I think this is still a very skeptical, very challenging state. And I’m glad that John Kerry and George Bush are going to be forced to have to come and talk to Wisconsinites, because they’ll hear a lot more sensible ideas and comments than they would in Washington.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us, John Nichols, Capital—Madison Capital—The Capital Times based here in Madison, and Ed Garvey, rebel attorney.

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