MIDDLETON, WIS. -- It was November 1986, and although Russ Feingold had just been reelected to the Wisconsin State Senate by a comfortable margin, he wasn't satisfied. As he partied with supporters, his attention was drawn to an image on the television: Bob Kasten, who'd just won his own reelection to the U.S. Senate.
For a Wisconsin "progressive" like Feingold, Kasten was something akin to the Devil himself, or at least the state's version of Ronald Reagan. After all, Kasten had retired one of the state's liberal icons, Sen. Gaylord Nelson, in the landslide of 1980.
But for Feingold, more than politics was at stake here. Just weeks after the '80 election, his father, Leon Feingold, had died of cancer. A small-town lawyer who had been among the most prominent progressive Democrats in southern Wisconsin -- pals with the likes of Nelson and Tom Fairchild, who once ran for the U.S. Senate against Joe McCarthy -- Leon Feingold had been depressed and bitter, his family said, over the results of the last election he would ever see.
Now his son, still only 33 and a junior state legislator, was beginning to entertain thoughts of avenging that loss. Russ Feingold looked up at the TV set and pointed at Kasten. And he told his friends: "I want him."
Six years later and two weeks out from having fulfilled that audacious promise, Russ Feingold is lounging in the back seat of a dusty blue-and-gray Ford van, oblivious to the passing landscape of emerald dairy pastures and golden corn fields of central Wisconsin. The flecks of gray in his closely cropped black hair are about the only signs of age on a face that would not seem grossly out of place in a college yearbook. He speaks with the casual self-confidence of the high school debate champion he used to be, for the most part folksy -- but with a surprising amount of anti-politician rhetoric, even bile, for someone raised in a political family, educated at such Establishment institutions as Harvard and Oxford (where he was a Rhodes scholar) and clearly gifted in political maneuver.
"I take great pride in the fact that people have never considered me part of a club," says Feingold, who has just been elected to what some consider the most exclusive club in the world. He insists: "I was not elected to a club." And indeed his Senate colleagues might end up agreeing, once they meet the only one among them who claims he was endorsed by Elvis Presley.
On the other hand, there is a calculation to Feingold's irreverence that might just gain him the respect of the craftiest folks on the Hill. Despite his attention-getting approach to politics -- his philosophy: "If you don't do anything controversial, you're not doing your job" -- there's ample evidence that Feingold is no flake and his win was no fluke.
Witness the fact that so soon after the end of his grueling campaign he is back in the van that he used to travel the state, engaging in a time-honored political ritual: paying back favors. "I almost went into shock when I got back in," he jokes -- but Feingold is the consummate retail politician. This time he's going to see an early supporter from the state legislature with a visit to his friend's home district near Eau Claire. On the way, he talks volubly about what one veteran Wisconsin pol calls the "immaculate conception": his incredible last-minute explosion past two better-known, better-financed opponents in the Democratic primary and then, two months later, past Kasten in the general election.
Feingold's is truly one of the great political stories of a year in which incumbency was supposed to be a disadvantage -- but only three incumbent senators actually lost. (The others were Terry Sanford, the North Carolina Democrat, and Democrat Wyche Fowler Jr. of Georgia.) In the primary, Feingold was outspent by about 10 to 1, and he was barely breaking 10 percent in the polls a scant three weeks before he garnered close to 70 percent of the vote Sept. 8. Then he went up against Kasten's multi-million-dollar TV blitz in the last few weeks of the general campaign painting him as a crazy liberal way out of touch with the average Wisconsin citizen. He beat Kasten, with 53 percent of the vote.
Not a politician to feign modesty, Feingold insists that he had actually foreseen his path to victory. "I hate saying this because it sounds like I'm giving myself more credit than I deserve," he says, "but this was the plan. The plan was to take advantage of the fact that I didn't have money, to make every weakness a strength, to be the one guy in the race who didn't look big and powerful and have the big money.
"I believed that approach was a winner," Feingold says with studied nonchalance. "This state prefers to elect somebody who they think is a good guy who's the underdog."
Feingold's victory has frequently been compared to that of his fellow Midwestern liberal Democrat, Paul Wellstone of Minnesota. Like Wellstone did two years ago in ousting incumbent Sen. Rudy Boschwitz, Feingold made a virtue of his low campaign budget, airing the "endorsement" from Elvis and other quirky, humorous ads while at the same time emphasizing issues -- in Feingold's case, he presented an 82-point plan to bring down the budget deficit -- that few other candidates were talking about.
And like Wellstone, Feingold displayed a real flair for the populist gesture. On his garage door in Middleton, he had painted in bold black letters his "contract" with "the people of Wisconsin": that he will rely on Wisconsin citizens for most of his campaign contributions; that he will continue to live in Wisconsin and send his kids to the public schools here; and that he will accept no pay raises during his six years in office.
But well before Wellstone became even a blip in the consciousness of national political reporters, Feingold had already crisscrossed Wisconsin several times and had begun setting up a formidable grass-roots organization throughout the state. Says Feingold: "I would be completely remiss to say that Wellstone wasn't an inspiration -- he was a total inspiration. But we were already well into this fantasy about how we could do it."
Indeed, Feingold's politics are actually patterned less after Wellstone and more after Wisconsin's own long line of mavericks that goes back to Robert La Follette and makes it tricky to read too much national significance into his upset victory. His heroes are men like former senator William Proxmire, who ran campaigns for a few hundred dollars and railed against the Washington status quo. Typically, Feingold's brand of populist politics is hard to classify on the ideological spectrum. An advocate of both abortion rights and deep cuts in Pentagon programs, he also espouses fiscal conservatism and has sponsored a constitutional amendment in Wisconsin guaranteeing the right to bear firearms.
However, others in Wisconsin say his politics are just a slightly eccentric version of traditional liberalism that's out of touch with the new Democratic centrism exemplified by Bill Clinton -- and could end up giving the new president fits in Congress. "Bill Clinton's biggest problem in Washington is going to be the Russ Feingolds," predicts Bob Williams, a GOP public affairs consultant.
The senator-elect laughs off the characterization, claiming that while there are a few issues -- the death penalty, among them -- on which he and the president-elect disagree, they agree on much, much more. "I see Bill Clinton as much closer to the progressive tradition," he says. "Bill Clinton is talking about taxing foreign corporations. Bill Clinton is for a national family leave bill. He's talking about putting pro-choice people on the Supreme Court." Indeed, even on the death penalty, which Feingold opposes, he claims there is a pragmatic mutual willingness to agree to disagree.
Feingold recalls that he met Clinton at a political function in 1987, and says he told the governor that he disagreed with his support for capital punishment. Clinton replied that he's from Arkansas, and Feingold said he's from Wisconsin: "We understood each other."
'If Kennedy Loses ...'
Sylvia Feingold readily remembers her son's first political act. It was 1960; Russ was in second grade, and he came home from school in tears one afternoon after his class held a mock presidential election: Feingold was the only student to support John F. Kennedy.
"He said, 'If Kennedy loses, I can't go back to school tomorrow,' " she recalls. Of course, the rest was history. "After Kennedy won, Russ was on top of the world, and that was the moment I think he decided to go into politics."
The second-grade balloting reflected the reality that Feingold's home town of Janesville, a prosperous town in the middle of southern Wisconsin farm country, was Republican territory. His father was a respected lawyer whose roots in the Progressive Party placed him out of the mainstream of his neighbors: When he tried to run for district attorney in the 1930s, he was trounced. Leon Feingold turned his energies to helping other progressive politicians and passed on the tradition to his four children, all of whom were overachievers like Russ. His younger sister Dena, for instance, became Wisconsin's first woman rabbi.
"Our house was steeped in politics," says David Feingold, his elder brother and a lawyer as well. "We talked about it all the time."
Despite Leon's evident appetite for politics, Russ says his father was actually uncomfortable with the notion that his son would get in the electoral arena himself. Wary of the draining impact politics can have on family life, the father shared a vision that Russ play the political game just as he had, from the outside, perhaps as a partner at a big firm, perhaps as a federal district judge. When Russ said that after Harvard Law School he wanted to return home and eventually run for office, his father simply shook his head.
Feingold did practice law for a few years at one of the state's blue-chip firms, but he gave it all up in 1982 to run for the state senate in a race that has eerie similarities to this year's upset of Kasten: People gave him little chance against a longtime incumbent, and friends advised him against running, telling him to bide his time and make some money.
"That just hit me as completely wrong," Feingold says. "I wanted to give the years of my greatest energy to politics. I had this fear that if I didn't do it now, at a young age, that somehow the comfort, the ease of an easier life would make it so I would never do it."
Feingold ran a classic grass-roots campaign, knocking on doors throughout his district in the suburbs west of Madison and -- in another precursor of this year -- avoiding the harsh personal attacks on the incumbent that some of his advisers advocated. "It would not have been worth it to me to have won that way," he says, adding with a bow to pragmatism that such attacks usually backfire in Wisconsin anyway. He also got a vivid lesson in the value of courting votes one at a time: After a recount, he was declared the victor by 31 votes out of a total of 47,000 ballots cast.
By many accounts, Feingold was never an insider in the state legislature, a fact which he trumpets as a badge of honor, given a series of ethics investigations that snared some of his colleagues but left him unscathed. He won't even accept a cup of coffee from a lobbyist, friends say. "He has not let himself get sucked into a lot of special interest, insider kind of deals," says Chuck Chvala, Democratic state senate colleague.
Publicly, Feingold's image has been that of a lone wolf who came to attention through astute manipulation of several high-profile controversies: an unsuccessful campaign -- some might say quixotic -- to prevent out-of-state banks from coming into Wisconsin; and a more successful fight to impose a moratorium on the use of synthetic hormones in cows to increase milk production, a hot issue in this dairy state.
Opinion is divided in Madison over how effective he was in his outsider pose. Don Holderman, a former president of the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, wrangled with Feingold over the hormone issue and came away with a sense that, at times, Feingold "is more interested in what the issue can do for him than what the issue can do for the public." Feingold and his allies argue that he gets too little credit for such things as writing into the state budget a steady stream of valuable social programs for the elderly.
Whatever you think of Feingold, the reality is that by this year, he had effectively positioned himself to run the outsider campaign he dreamed about -- which some suspect was the point all along. "You have to decide where you want to make your mark," says Tim Cullen, a former state senate majority leader. "Russ decided he wanted to make his mark in the U.S. Senate. If you spend all your time being Mr. Inside in the state senate, it may make it hard to get to the U.S. Senate."
His two major opponents in the Democratic primary, Rep. Jim Moody and Milwaukee business executive Joseph Checota, played right into his hands, cutting each other to shreds with an unusually intemperate series of negative television ads. In a year in which going negative seemed particularly counterproductive in Wisconsin and elsewhere, their strategy was suicidal. Although Feingold was well behind in the polls only weeks before Election Day, he sprinted past the front-runners after he began running his own ads fashioned by Eichenbaum/Hemke, a Milwaukee advertising agency that had never handled a political campaign.
The ads had the feel of corny home movies, kind of like "Roger & Me," the low-budget documentary that spoofs General Motors, and they reveal an impish humor seemingly at odds with Feingold's super-serious public image. The most important was an unusually long two-minute spot introducing Feingold. In stark terms, it drew the difference between Feingold and his opponents by having the candidate visit Checota's mansion, knock on the door and then hold up a tourist brochure on Jamaica, where Moody has a vacation house. Then the audience is invited on a tour of Feingold's modest ranch home in the Madison suburbs, where he and his family have lived largely on his $33,000 state senator's salary and his wife's part-time jobs.
As he opens the door to one closet, Feingold turns back to the camera and quips: "Look, no skeletons."
Message: Feingold is the regular guy in the race. Result: Feingold became an overnight media sensation. "It was incredible," says adman Bob Hemke. "People were coming up to him all the time. He was just besieged, and it transcended party lines."
Feingold shot out of the primary like a heat-seeking missile, with a momentum that Kasten, never hugely popular in the state anyway, couldn't counteract. On some issues -- his opposition to term limits and a balanced-budget amendment, for instance -- Feingold was probably out of step with mainstream voters. It didn't matter. "He carefully and methodically took advantage of the situation," says Bill Kraus, a former aide to ex-governor Lee Dreyfus. "He's very likable, and of course he got to play to his likability by not falling into the trap of negative campaigning. He had the right momentum, the right timing, the right approach."
Who's the Boss?
The Feingold van pulls up in front of Our Town Cafe in the middle of Blair, Wis., population 1,200. The senator-elect pops out, radiating the nervous energy of a perpetual pol who seems at a loss for what to do when presented with 15 minutes of free time. So he does what comes naturally -- return to campaign mode.
Walking down the street, Feingold pops into a hair salon, a car dealership, a chiropractor's office, all the time smiling and extending his hand. "Hi, I'm Russ Feingold, your new U.S. senator. ... Hi, I'm Russ Feingold ..." Even before he gets his words out, his entrance stirs a buzz of friendly recognition: "Hey, you're some famous person," exclaims the bartender as Feingold strides into the town saloon.
"We speak the same language," says Howard Turk, president of the town bank and an organizer of a small lunch for Feingold. "He's for the little guy. Bob Kasten -- I don't think he's ever been in Blair. You couldn't talk to the guy." Pointing at Feingold, now holding court at the cafe, Turk adds: "He's here. To me, that shows he has an interest in being with the people."
Back in the van, on the way to another appointment, Feingold talks of these encounters and of yet another codicil in his "contract" with the people of Wisconsin, one that he didn't have room to put on his garage door. Every year, Feingold says, he plans to travel to each one of the state's 72 counties and hold some kind of session to "listen" to the people.
It's just one more step to try to insulate himself from the PAC money and special interests that are lining up to knock on his door. "If I'm here listening," Feingold is saying, "it means I'm spending X number of hours listening to the people. It means I'm spending X number of hours less listening to lobbyists.
"I get this overwhelming feeling that those who either by choice or by necessity are forced as U.S. senators or congressmen to become immersed in Washington as their whole life lose something fundamental -- which is believing that the boss is back home. That may sound corny, but I don't think it's just corny."
Feingold says, for instance, that a proposal for a middle-class tax cut (advocated, by the way, by one Bill Clinton) is a classic example of "how out of touch Washington is. ... I can just see all the insiders in Washington saying to each other, 'Let's get together and get the lunch-bucket vote.'
"Well I talked to the lunch-bucket people, and when I asked them if they want a tax cut, they said no," Feingold says. "They said, 'We want you to get the deficit down. We want you to use any money available to get jobs.' The reason people proposed that kind of thing, I think, is they don't spend enough time listening to people back home and posing that question."
That's important to Feingold because of the high-minded way he seems to regard his campaign, as just one small blow against the insanity of the system. "My opponents were too taken with the power of their own money," he says. "They didn't realize that constantly talking about how much money they had, that they would be good candidates because they had more money, was essentially an offensive thing. It's offensive! I wanted to show that there was another way to play the game."
But is there? A number of Wisconsin politicians, on both sides of the aisle, suspect that having now attained his life's ambition, Feingold's natural inclination will be to compromise, to move to the middle in an effort to get programs passed and show some effectiveness. "I think there's a good chance he will do that. He's smart, and he realizes now he's where he wants to be. Now make sure you can make a difference," says Cullen, the former state senate majority leader who grew up in Janesville and has known Feingold from an early age.
Feingold offers mixed clues about his intentions, in one moment seeming to hold out the possibility of a more pragmatic approach, talking of his desire to forge close relationships with like-minded legislators. But in another breath, he talks about the need to make points on principle, even if it is likely to result in defeat.
"You should never let your main activity be only losing battles, but I think it's important to fight battles you know you're going to lose for a future day. Once in a while, there will be those kinds of issues where I do believe it is important to go to the public."