Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI)
Each month, Hillel Campus Report highlights a prominent Jewish personality from a variety of fields. HCR approached a number of elected officials across the political spectrum. We are pleased that Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) agreed to be interviewed. HCR hopes to interview additional lawmakers in the months to come.
With his name attached to one of the most talked-about pieces of modern legislation – the McCain-Feingold Bill – Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) is well known for his work on campaign-finance reform, as well as his opposition to the USA Patriot Act and the war in Iraq. But fewer people know about his connection to Judaism and the role it played in leading him to a career in politics and public service. Feingold recently spoke with HCR about the role of faith in the public sphere, the issues he has been advocating in the Senate and a possible presidential run in 2008.
At Hillel, we often talk about helping students have meaningful Jewish experiences. What was your most meaningful Jewish experience?
One of the most meaningful Jewish experiences I've had is celebrating the first and last nights of Hanukkah at my parents' house. Those nights spent with my family represent the best things about Judaism to me. As we lit the candles those nights each year, I was reminded of how powerful and important our connection was to Jews around the world. It is a memory that will stay with me forever.
What were your college days like? UW-Madison in the '70s was definitely an interesting place.
It certainly was an incredible time, but I managed to get my studying done.
What are your perceptions of college students today?
College students have the ability to engage in the political and legislative process like never before, particularly in part to the use of the Internet. The Internet has been so important in political organizing and exchanging ideas. I was impressed with the role college students and young adults played in all of my campaigns, and especially in 2004. I very much hope college students will play the same active role again in the 2006 and 2008 elections. College students bring an energy to the process that we sorely need, and I encourage them to stay engaged and help others to become engaged as well.
Did your Jewish upbringing influence your decision to pursue social justice and politics?
It certainly had an impact on my career decision as well as my interest in civil rights. My Jewish upbringing taught me how important it is to protect the rights of all Americans, especially those in a minority.
Why do you think many politicians place such an emphasis on their faith while running for office? If our country has a separation of church and state, why should a candidate's religious practices be a factor?
While it is every American's right to practice their faith as they choose, I am a strong supporter of the separation of church and state. Personally I'm very comfortable discussing my faith. It is something that is very important to me and my family. I just choose not to wear my religion on my sleeve. I'm from Janesville, Wis., and we were brought up that you didn't bring up your religion every time you got together. That was considered a bit impolite. But certainly people want to know what a candidate's values are, and there's nothing I'm more comfortable with than the wonderful religion and culture that has sustained me throughout my life. Also, I'm very proud of the fact that my sister was the first woman rabbi in the state of Wisconsin.
Your name is attached to one of the most well-known pieces of legislation in recent years -- the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance-reform act. Looking back now, do you think this law has accomplished what it was intended to do? In what ways has it fallen short?
I'm very proud of what was achieved though the bill I worked on with Sen. McCain. Campaign-finance reform affects every other issue – health care, energy, you name it. Before the bill was passed, senators and representatives were able to solicit huge contributions from unions, corporations, and very wealthy individuals, and then turn around and vote on legislation directly affecting them. That is now a crime. Our bill was a big first step in returning political power to average citizens. But it by no means fixed the whole system and we still have a long way to go. Ultimately, I believe that we must have public financing of federal campaigns, but until then, McCain-Feingold was an important step and I believe it has been successful in what it tried to do.
As a member of both the Senate Foreign Relations and Intelligence Committees, you have intimate knowledge of global terror threats and our country's role in world affairs. How our today's challenges different than those of 10, 20 or 50 years ago? Are we truly prepared to meet them?
Today's challenges are much different than they were before because our nation is facing a very different kind of threat. We are no longer facing a Cold War situation but rather a fight against an enemy that feeds on instability, poverty and corruption throughout the world. Because this administration had developed an Iraq-centric view of foreign policy and our national security, we are failing to pay sufficient attention to other critical threats and challenges globally. We need to meet these challenges by fixing our Iraq policy and engaging constructively with our international partners. We also need to develop strong partnerships with Muslim nations and help them develop their economies, moderate political structures and a strong and transparent rule of law so that they can be effective partners in fighting terrorism. We are in a race against terrorist groups like Al Qaeda to reach out to disaffected populations. Our national security and foreign policy must be based on a foundation of human rights, the rule of law, and strong partnerships. It is with these principles and relationships that we will be able to overcome the changing nature of threats and challenges our country faces in the 21st century.
You've been known as somewhat of a maverick in the Senate – you cast the only vote against the Patriot Act in 2001 and recently called for a censure of the president over the wire-tapping scandal. In a place like Congress, where resolutions often need the support of several co-sponsors before being brought for consideration, what prompts you to go out on your own on issues like these?
Over the past couple of years, as I have traveled around Wisconsin as well as all over the country, I've been hearing one question over and over -- When will the Democrats stand up? Many Americans want to hold the president accountable for his illegal wiretapping program. Many Americans agree that the government shouldn't be snooping through the library and business records of innocent Americans. So I'm not really going out on my own on these issues because so many Americans are already there. But I've never been afraid of casting a lone vote or taking an unpopular position on an issue if I need to. Usually when I do, I find that most people appreciate the fact that I follow my conscience and stand up for what I believe is right.
Were you surprised about the lack of support you've received from your colleagues on the proposed censure?
When I first proposed censure, I knew that my colleagues would need some time to consider the measure and hear from their constituents on it. The measure is continuing to gain support, including recently being co-sponsored by the 2004 Democratic nominee for president, John Kerry. Holding this president accountable is a long-term project. I had no illusions about that when I introduced the censure resolution.
What are a few important issues in America today that the public isn't talking about?
The public has actually been ahead of Congress on a lot of key issues, including its growing opposition to the war in Iraq and the excessive power grab by this administration. Congress should really be listening more to the public on these issues, as well as important issues like health care and energy independence. Since I was elected to serve as a U.S. senator in 1992, the No. 1 issue on the minds of Americans has been health care, yet Congress has done very little to work toward making sure every American is covered. The public should continue to demand solutions from their elected representatives on these issues.
When will you make a decision about running for president in 2008?
That's something I'm not really going to think about until sometime after the elections in November. But I am flattered by the talk and what it tells me is that there is strong support from Democrats and others for some of the positions I've taken on issues like censure, Iraq and health care.
Would you encourage students to get into politics? What other forms of social-justice work would you recommend -- direct service, advocacy?
I encourage students to get into any kind of public service. It is incredibly rewarding. I especially encourage students to engage the international community by learning a foreign language, taking part in an exchange program or working with an immigrant or refugee group. By being what I call a "citizen ambassador," we can help shape the view people in the international community view Americans.