When Bernie Sanders was barnstorming across Wisconsin in the spring of 2016, just days before the state’s critical presidential primary vote, his schedule was packed with policy addresses, rallies and media interviews.
But he took one afternoon off and went to the Madison home of Ed Garvey to spend time with the man Sanders and the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the late Sen. Paul Wellstone hailed as an ally and an inspiration for their progressive political campaigns.
"Ed was one of the smartest, funniest and most decent people I have ever known," recalled Sanders, when he learned Wednesday that Garvey had died at age 76.
Garvey never held elective office. But his bids for the U.S. Senate and the governorship in Wisconsin framed out a new vision of politics that erased the barriers between grass-roots activism and electoral politics — and envisioned a day when elected officials would spring from movements and make it their missions 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 Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC); 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; 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 — like 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 Sen. 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. Only later, when faced with a libel suit, did Kasten concede 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 — and the warping of American political campaigns by wealthy donors and candidates. His groundbreaking articles for The Progressive still turn up in textbooks on politics. And they still inspire progressive activists and campaigners.
Garvey made his last bid 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 Wellstone, who campaigned at Garvey’s side in small towns and cities across Wisconsin. 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 10 points and played a critical role in helping Russ Feingold get re-elected 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.”