If you've ever heard of Sen. John McCain, then chances are you've probably heard of Sen. Russ Feingold as well. The conservative Republican senator from Arizona and the liberal Democrat from Wisconsin teamed up in 1995 to put together a bill hailed as the most sweeping campaign finance reform law since the post-Watergate era. The bill, commonly known simply as McCain-Feingold, essentially put a ban on soft money, or money that is raised by a political party rather than a candidate, making it much easier to skirt contribution limits. For five years the strange political bedfellows waged a war against most other members of Congress to pass the law, eventually succeeding in 2000. The bill was not well-received among members of Congress, who for years enjoyed filling their campaign coffers with giant contributions from the same well-heeled contributors that dominated the process year in and year out.
Feingold, Wisconsin's junior senator and a hero of the left, has made a career out of doing the unconventional. From campaign finance reform, to the conduct of his own campaigns, to the way he runs his office, to his positions on issues, Feingold has had a knack for thinking outside of the box.
Wisconsin voters don't seem to mind. As a matter of fact, they seem to relish the fact that their junior senator is a truth-teller extraordinaire. That's why he gets away with sometimes controversial positions on vital issues. It is also why, despite fierce criticism from editorial boards, business groups, members of his own party and constituents that have drank the "free trade" kool-aid, Feingold has been and remains a steadfast opponent of job-killing trade agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement. He has an unwavering idealism in the goodness of the American worker.
"Our trade policy has been disastrous. It has contributed to the loss of several million family-supporting jobs in this country. It has left communities across [Wisconsin] devastated, and I know the same is true in communities around this country," Feingold said. "Our trade deficit reaches new heights every year, as we send more and more of our wealth overseas, much of it in the form of factories that provided entire communities with decent, good-paying jobs."
Feingold began his political career in 1982 by winning a seat in the Wisconsin State Senate after completing an academic career that included a stint as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University and a law degree from Harvard. Those years in academia also marked the only portion of his life that Feingold lived outside the state of Wisconsin for any significant period of time.
In 1992, Feingold decided to make a run for the U.S. Senate despite being relatively unknown in Wisconsin political circles. To overcome his lack of name recognition, Feingold employed a slew of unorthodox campaign tactics, including writing five promises in large type on the garage door of his home. The promises included vows to live in the state, take contributions mainly from Wisconsin residents, accept no pay raises, hire the majority of his staff from the state and hold listening sessions in each of Wisconsin's 72 counties.
His campaign advertising was extremely low-budget and reminiscent of the advertising campaign of the late Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota. One featured an Elvis impersonator and another a card-board cut-outs of his opponents in a mud-slinging battle. The heavy underdog would persevere and go on to become one of the poorest members of the Millionaires Club that is the United States Senate, with a net worth of $50,000 or less.
Feingold wasted little time rankling colleagues, even in his own party. One of the first battles Feingold fought was against the disastrous North American Free Trade Agreement. Feingold was one of the few Democrats in the senate willing to stand up to his own party and a popular president.
Feingold makes no bones about his avid anti-free trade stance, saying "Until recently, the state of Wisconsin was recognized as the number one manufacturing state in the country. But because of unfair and unbalanced trade and other agreements, many of Wisconsin's jobs have been shipped down the river, over the border, and across the sea. I am hearing this not just from working people as I have for so many years. I am now hearing this from conservative manufacturers, Republican manufacturers, who are saying, 'we need fair trade not free trade.'"
Feingold's record on trade has been consistent throughout his career, opposing job-killing trade agreements with Peru, Oman, Chile, Singapore, the Andean nations and the African Continent.
On the Senate floor, during the debate over the Central American Free Trade Agreement Feingold said "I voted against NAFTA, GATT, and Permanent Most Favored Nation status for China, in great part because I felt they were bad deals for Wisconsin businesses and Wisconsin workers. At the time I voted against those agreements, I thought they would result in lost jobs for my state ... even as an opponent of those trade agreements, I had no idea just how bad things would be."
Much like John McCain, Sen. Feingold has earned a reputation as a straight-shooting maverick of his own party, willing to forsake the politically expedient for what he believes is the right thing to do.
In his first campaign for the U.S. Senate, Feingold hailed the idea of deficit reduction through increased taxes and cuts in military spending, neither of which are popular ideas with voters. In 1998, in his first reelection campaign, he refused to accept soft-money donations and nearly lost. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Feingold voted against the Patriot Act, claiming that the bill made America less free and no safer. During the course of his career, Feingold has returned nearly $50,000 in raises to the U.S. Treasury and typically returns unused office funds as well. More recently, he has introduced a resolution in the Senate to censure the president for his illegal wiretapping of the phone conversations of American citizens.
Feingold has embraced the Wisconsin tradition of its Senators fighting for government reform. And much like those that came before him, Feingold continues the struggle for working-class Americans across Wisconsin and America.
"The model on which our recent trade agreements have been based fundamentally undermines our democratic institutions," Feingold has said of disastrous trade deals that put Americans out of work. "It replaces the judgment of the people, as reflected in the laws and standards set forth by their elected representatives, with rules written by organizations dominated by multinational corporations. Food, envoi mental and safety standards set by our democratic institutions are subject to challenge if they conflict with those approved by unelected international trade bureaucracies. Even laws that require the government to use our tax dollars to buy goods made here, rather than overseas, can be challenged.
The bottom line, he says, is the fact that "Our trade policy is a mess, and it needs to be fixed."