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Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Warner Woos Wisconsin: Founder's Day Dinner Wrap-Up

All photos, unless as noted, by my friend and fellow blogger Scott Feldstein, who has them at much better resolution at his place.

It is no secret that former Virginia governor Mark Warner is running for president. So he's doing what candidates do--particularly candidates who are "unemployed," as he kept reminding us during his speech--he's talking to any assemblage of Democrats he can get his hands on. And trying to drum up all the buzz he can.

The buzz is where I come in: A couple of weeks ago I got an email from Warner's Forward Together PAC--and, yes, in introducing Warner, Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle did joke about Warner's use of Wisconsin's motto ("Forward!") in the name of his PAC. Nate invited me to attend the Democratic Party of Wisconsin's Founder's Day (née Jefferson-Jackson) Dinner as a guest of the PAC and to blog the event. So here we go . . .

Events like this are always a who's who of the state Dem party, so it was a lot of fun to get to meet or get re-accquanted with some of the big names in the party from around the state. And then it was also good to see my state representative and a few of the candidates for the open Congressional seat in Wisconsin's 8th CD, including Dr. Steve Kagen and Nancy Nusbaum (I also saw but didn't talk to Jamie Wall). There were tables full of goodies, too, including some great merchandise from Russ Feingold's PAC, like a t-shirt with a snake-like phone cord and the tagline "Don't Spy on Me!" (I can't find those online.) I got hit with so many stickers I felt like a race car.

And the place was packed, too, sold out. It shouldn't be that big of a surprise in an election year, but everyone seemed quite overjoyed that that many tickets were sold. It was a good night for the DPW's coffers, I guess.

How much of those full coffers were due to Warner, I don't know. I joined up with him and Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle (that's them on the left, in a photo I took) as they left the extra-special VIP reception before the main event. Warner was mobbed even then, as Doyle tried to get him introduced to some more of the movers and shakers in the party. The speaking part of the night started almost half an hour late, in part because Doyle and Warner couldn't get into the room.



As I ate my buffet meatballs, veggie sticks, and cheese (it is Wisconsin, you know), the speakers for the night got up and did their thing: In order, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett (not pictured), Congresswomen Tammy Baldwin and Gwen Moore, Senators Russ Feingold and Herb Kohl, and Governor Doyle.

The speakers all made a big deal both about the high attendance at the event (Barrett credited Wisconsin's dissatisfaction with Bush and Republicans, though I doubt any real swing voters were in the room) and the great successes Democrats have had in the state. In particular, they highlighted two results from last week's spring municipal elections: 24 of 32 communities voting to start bring troops home from Iraq now passed, some overwhelmingly (see my take on that) and the election of Democrat (in a non-partisan election against a Republican state representative) Larry Nelson as mayor of Waukesha. That's Larry smiling there in the right in a picture I took; I've known him for a few years, and he's a teacher, a labor leader, and a strong progressive. What makes this important is that the city of Waukesha is the red center of one of the reddest counties in the country, and Larry was able to win with a strong populist message. I do think that bodes well for this fall, and in particular, the campaign of Bryan Kennedy, running for the congressional seat that includes Waukesha, currently held by Jim Sensenbrenner.

But you didn't click on this diary to hear about all of that: You want to hear about Mark Warner. Yes, well, first I want to tell you what Russ Feingold said, since the two were the two presidential candidates in the room. You're probably pretty familiar with Feingold's message, which started and ended with the notion that Democrats need to "stand up" to Bush. He called again for censure (something Herb Kohl conveniently forgot to mention), and for a timetable to bring our troops home from Iraq by the end of this year. And, of course, he talked about the NSA spying scandals and administration stonewalling, although, I will tell you, the best line of the night on that actually came from Tammy Baldwin, who said, "It cannot be a government of the people if the people are kept in the dark."

Warner, as the keynote speaker, was able to do a lot more in his speech, including the biography bits necessary to introduce himself to an audience that didn't know him. In contrast with Russ, he spoke with less fire and passion, but with an equal desire, it seemed, to rid the country of its current leadership and put us back on track. In that way, I think he hit a strong message several times. He kept talking about "seeing further down the road," while Republicans, he said, "put posturing and posing ahead of foresight and follow-through." Part of that biography that Warner stressed is that he was able to look forward in business, starting up the company that went on to become Nextel. He also stressed that as governor of Virginia, he looked toward the future, including strong investments in education and bringing technological development in to replace fading manufacturing ("If they can build it in Bangalore, they can build it in Lebanon, Virginia"). "Politics," he said, "should not be about Left versus Right, but about the future versus the past."

Warner also struck some familiar Democratic foreign-policy themes, saying that "no one thinks it is more important than Democrats to keep America safe," and reminding us that a sound energy policy is a key element of national security. He lamented what has happened in Iraq.

He also said a few things that, I think, shows the influence that Howard Dean's run in 2004 will be having all over the 2008 race. I can't tell you how many times I heard Dean's stump speech in that cycle, so I know it well enough, and in Warner's stump here I heard the familiar themes: "Being called a 'red-state governor' makes me cringe," Warner said, "because the Democratic Party needs to be competitive in 50 states." Even in the foreign policy section, Warner talked about how we need an attitude that will "unite our friends and scare our enemies, not the other way around." Mostly, I was very surprised to hear Warner end with a call to "take our country back."

As it was the DPW's dinner, Warner made sure to reinforce several things. One, of course, is how important it is to re-elect Jim Doyle this fall. He helped to frame some things that will be very important to that race, including Mark Green's identity as a member of a very do-nothing Congress and the importance that the issue of stem cells will play in the election (at least, if Doyle's smart, they will be the campaign issue). He also took the time to remind of why he is a Democrat, even if some might be tempted to call him a "centrist" or "moderate." "I'm a Democrat because," he told us, "the Democratic Party has never stood for the status quo, but for hope and optimism." And he's right, you know; the Republicans have monopolized fear and distrust, and we must get that message of hope and optimism across in all races, at all levels, in all fifty states.

Warner left the stage to a standing ovation (about equivalent to Feingold's standing O earlier), and was immediately mobbed afterwards, by every elected official in the crowd, and a whole lot of everyone else (including civil rights pioneer Vel Phillips). I asked Warner's people how much of this sort of thing--traveling around the country talking to roomsful of Democrats--he was doing. "A lot," I was told. I tried a little bit to gauge the sentiments of the crowd afterwards as well, and everyone seemed to like Warner's message. It's hard, of course, for Wisconsin Democrats to talk about anyone but Russ as a favorite for 2008, but I didn't find anyone who said they hated Warner.

I know that Mark Warner has a strong following on the internet, and now, having met him and heard what is clearly a compelling story, it is easy to see why. Certainly, with a field including the likes of Feingold and Warner, 2008 will be a great year for Democrats.

***

Two last things: The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has a fair take on the event here. I should also point out that the dinner was live-blogged by Zach Corey at CampusTavern.com. All that time taking notes in class must have paid off, because he's got a pretty accurate rendition of all the speeches: Mark Warner, Jim Doyle, Herb Kohl, Russ Feingold, Gwen Moore, and Tammy Baldwin.

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