Tom Nelson isn't licked

Unfortunately, neither is political cynicism

“He can raise public opinion against us—if any part of this sticks…”

In 1939, the average American was beset by economic instability at home as political turmoil brewed overseas. In these rough waters, a film by the name of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington gave those same average Americans a glimmer of hope that a citizen of roughly their means could effect positive change in the United States.

Cut to 2007, and we see Wisconsin facing similar economic uncertainty, surrounded by a vituperative political dialogue. In that environment, Representative Tom Nelson (D-Kaukauna) is a charming anachronism, a real-life James Stewart. No, Nelson isn’t a period movie caricature, nor is he facing the creeping spread of totalitarianism in Europe. He has, however, fought one heck of a fight against a determined opposition as he struggles to do his part to get a budget passed for the state of Wisconsin.

The state budget is, as has been widely covered by state and national media, over one hundred days late. Due on July 1, it has been batted around from committee to committee, from Assembly to Senate, and back again. The bill that met with tentative agreement on the 19th of October was the sixth proposal of the year. As this article is being written, news has hit the press that both houses have finally passed the bill. Representative Nelson can claim a certain, significant percentage of the media attention paid to this debate.

Nelson announced, on October 18th, that he would not leave his desk in the Assembly chambers until the budget was passed. A cot would be wheeled in, and his only exceptions to his vigil were eating and visiting the restroom. The immediate response of Assembly Republicans was that this was nothing more than a stunt.

One might ask how Nelson’s decision amounted to much more than overtime. He described his sit-in to me as the same thing that “any rank-and-file member could do…to show up and do my job.” His temperament on the night the budget passed was something between exasperation and desperation. “There are good things and bad things in this proposal,” he said. “It’s not a perfect document but look, we’re running out of time.”

You could almost hear that same hoarseness of voice that afflicted Stewart’s Jefferson Smith at the end of his filibuster to the US Senate. Nelson’s actions should be as inspiring to us now, as Mr. Smith was to Depression-era moviegoers. Perhaps it is, but the determination on the part of his opponents to deride the sit-in is evidence of a creeping spread of a new player in politics: total cynicism.

At the federal level, we see the Republicans endeavoring to use the same filibuster in 2006 that they threatened to take away from the Democrats in 2005. At the state level, Republicans in the Assembly voted to end the Special Session—called for the sole reason of passing the budget—without having passed the budget. It was Nelson’s promise to stay put, however, that inspired Assembly Speaker Mike Huebsch to intone, “I’m amazed that the Democrats have now gone so far as to resort to sit-ins to call for higher taxes in this state,” as if it was perfectly clear that this, and not the passing of the budget, was exactly what Nelson wanted to accomplish.

Nelson does not appear to be afflicted by that same cynicism. He seems, in fact, to be armed with a healthy dose of northeastern Wisconsin work ethic. He described a recent encounter that illustrates his matter-of-fact attitude about political machinations in the budget process. “I met a tourist from Greece this weekend,” he recalled, “who was touring the capitol and had heard of my sit-in. He asked me what the ‘consequences’ were of my sit-in. I explained to him I did not face the same consequences that my Greek counterparts might face---thrown out of the party, threats on my life. After I tried explaining my situation three or four times to him, I learned that there was not just a language barrier between us.”

Now that the budget has been passed, Tom Nelson can have a proper night’s sleep. He can have an honest-to-God, sit-down meal. He can go back to Kaukauna and talk with his constituents about his efforts in Madison on their behalf. The response from people in his district, he says, was ten-to-one in favor of his decision to stand firm. This, from an area of the state that couldn’t field a Democratic challenger to US Rep. Tom Petri in 2006.

That ratio of support to criticism reveals the truth about cynicism and faith in politics in Wisconsin. The voters tend to recognize genuine hard work, or are at least willing to grant sincere motives to their elected officials. It is the officials who are often unable to accept that each one of them isn’t the only person who cares about the process. The filibuster is batted around like a dead bird between hungry cats. Special sessions to resolve pressing issues are an inconvenience, while month-long vacations are defended to the last breath.

At least there is this one, thin silver lining to the 2007 budget fiasco; the people still appreciate the efforts of their representatives. In Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Senator Smith was almost felled in his quest by the presentation of bins full of letters from his constituents, asking for his resignation. A hopeful citizen could almost believe that, with the support shown to Rep. Nelson, some of his best intentions might just stick.


I wrote this for the Isthmus newspaper here in Madison. I don't think they'll use it, because as I was writing it, the budget finally passed. But I was happy with it, and would have been a little bummed out if no one got the chance to read it. Hope you liked it.