MINNEAPOLIS — In his first-ever Netroots Nation appearance, former Democratic Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold asked the crowd to take back the Democratic Party and the U.S. government.
"I fear the Democratic Party is in danger of losing its identity," Feingold said, asking the Netroots crowd to redouble its efforts.
Feingold decried shady strategies such as Priorities USA Action, a Democratic Super PAC that does not disclose all of its donors, telling the audience "we can win without selling our soul" and urging transparency.
Much of Feingold's speech focused on his fight to overturn the Citizens United decision, which he referred to as "lawless."
"Speech doesn't corrupt," Feingold said. "Money corrupts, and money isn't speech."
The Citizens United decision, which awarded corporations the same rights as American citizens, was a huge blow to the 2002 McCain-Feingold law that curbed soft money in politics. Feingold said millions of people became engaged and excited about the political process after that law was passed. The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, along with the power of the Internet, allowed college students and young adults to start donating small amounts of money to campaigns they believed in. The Internet showed corporate America the face of democracy, Feingold said — and it terrified them.
Progressives United, the grassroots effort Feingold launched in February to combat the influence of corporate money in politics, is the former senator's answer to the landmark decision — for now.
Feingold's speech, along with his efforts through Progressives United, was to serve as a wake-up call from corporate domination — and he urged President Barack Obama to join him in the fight.
"We can overturn that vote. We can overturn Citizens United," Feingold said as he encouraged Obama to put overturning the decision high on his campaign priority list.
"It is the bottom line for democracy," Feingold said.
Feingold was quick to criticize General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt's role as chairman of the White House's Council on Jobs and Competitiveness. This came on the heels of a speech from American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, who told the audience that General Electric made $5.1 billion in profits in its U.S. operations last year and paid no federal taxes on those profits.
The former senator's speech served as both a history lesson and a political wake-up call. He spoke of Robert "Fighting Bob" La Follette and Paul Wellstone to much applause, as he told the audience how campaign finance laws have changed since the Progressive Era.
"The Progressive Era was the country's clear and emphatic reaction to the Gilded Age," Feingold said, adding that without strong progressive reform, the United States will return to the Gilded Age — but it will be a "Gilded Age on steroids."
Not surprisingly, Feingold stayed true to his Wisconsin roots, opening with a reference to the Packers' Super Bowl win and telling the crowd about the three brat festivals that popped up in Madison as alternatives to the "World's Largest Brat Festival," an event backed by Johnsonville — a Walker campaign contributor.
One thing that wasn't clear from Feingold's speech is whether he will run against Gov. Scott Walker in a recall election, whether he will run for the seat opened by the retirement of Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) or whether he's content at the helm of Progressives United.
This speech was one of a growing number of recent public appearances for Feingold, and the suit he changed into right before delivering it — in addition to the former staffers, including his communications director and finance director, who flanked him — seems a possible indicator of a future run. He has said he will announce his intentions regarding Kohl's Senate seat by Labor Day. There was no shortage of calls for Feingold to run for governor of Wisconsin in the Netroots Twitter crowd, and at the state's Democratic Party convention in June, he won straw polls for both positions.
"Together we can take back our government," Feingold said — and for now, his role in the progressive revolution remains strong but unclear.