'Progressive Dane' Provides Winning Model

By John Nichols

Published on Thursday, April 5, 2001 in the Madison Capital Times

E.J. Dionne Jr., who some years back penned a brilliant book titled, "Why Americans Hate Politics," joined me for a round of visits to election night parties Tuesday. And I think it’s fair to say he found a lot to love in the way Madison does politics.

Dionne, who earlier in the day had delivered the University of Wisconsin School of Journalism’s Nafzinger Lecture, enjoys election nights, as any good political reporter does. And we had a fine night, running into likely candidates for governor -- Attorney General Jim Doyle and Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk -- dozens of state and local officials, labor leaders and a healthy cross-section of Madison political characters.

Dionne was appropriately intrigued by Progressive Dane’s party at the Orpheum Theatre. What better place to get a taste of Madison’s distinctive politics than at a victory party for what may well be the most successful homegrown political party in the United States?

As outgoing District 5 Ald. Jose Sentmanat told Dionne, "This is a great night for PD." Every single Progressive Dane-endorsed candidate won, and the party/movement flexed its electoral muscle as never before. In the city’s three most tightly contested City Council races, Progressive Dane-endorsed candidates -- newcomers Brenda Konkel in the 2nd, Jessy Tolkan in the 5th and Todd Jarrell in the 8th -- easily prevailed over contenders of more moderate Democratic or Republican stripes. Those wins mean that Progressive Dane now has eight council members who are committed to its activist social and economic justice agenda -- a record total.

Especially satisfying for Progressive Dane was Jarrell’s landslide victory over incumbent Ald. Mike Staude in the student-dominated 8th. Staude got himself in a load of trouble with the PD crew by cozying up to bar owners, landlords and other business interests. This spring, Staude threw everything he had at Jarrell, including last-minute ads attacking the challenger for having backed Green Ralph Nader over Al Gore in last fall’s election. But Progressive Dane, which has been working closely with the Greens, countered with a grass-roots, issue-oriented campaign that dispatched Staude by a 2-1 margin.

Progressive Dane also played a critical role in electing Shwaw Vang to the Madison School Board. Vang, the first Hmong to win local elected office, faced an equally able and appealing opponent, Teresa Tellez-Giron. In a contest between a pair of newcomers with little money, the dozens of Progressive Dane activists who delivered more than 25,000 Vang leaflets to doors across town have to be seen as a critical factor in the race -- as was the presence of Progressive Dane stalwart and all-around good guy Andy Heidt as Vang’s campaign manager.

As Dionne said when we walked away from the Orpheum, "There’s so much talk about how young people are disengaged from politics, but here you’ve got all these people in their 20s working on campaigns, running campaigns." Dionne wondered whether the Madison model for independent progressive politics could be reproduced nationally.

He’s a good journalist and that’s a good question. There’s no doubt that unique political factors -- a progressive tradition, a highly energized multigenerational activist community, a large student population -- have aided Progressive Dane’s rise. But similar groups allied with the New Party have made breakthroughs in Missoula, Little Rock and other towns; the Greens are in charge of Santa Monica and several other California cities; Vermont’s independent Progressive Party is dominant in Burlington. In addition, left-wing Democrats are pushing the limits of their party in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, Minneapolis and dozens of smaller cities.

I am convinced that issue-based, grass-roots progressive politics represent a vital force in American politics -- posing a serious and necessary challenge to the rightward drift of the national Democratic Party. And I’m glad I got a chance to show one of the finest political writers in the country how that force is reshaping Madison politics.