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Instead of a CEO, How About Electing a Labor Leader? | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

Breaking news and analysis of politics, the economy and activism.

Instead of a CEO, How About Electing a Labor Leader?

When you think about it, the whole idea of running local, state or national government “like a business“ makes a lot less sense than running things like a labor union. Unions are democratic institutions that have a responsibility to watch out for their members and to the broader community. They are invested in the cities and states where they work because they can’t pull up stakes and relocate overseas. And they have a dramatically better record of evolving with the country—toward an embrace of women’s rights, civil rights, gay rights—than the robber barons and their monopolies.

Union leaders manage major organizations and deal with negotiations, contracts, budgets and the challenges of balancing economic and human demands. The difference is that they tip the balance toward humanity, as opposed to the false construct that says “corporations are people, my friends.”

Once upon a time, the idea of electing a union leader as a legislator, a member of Congress, even a president, was commonplace. Both Eugene Victor Debs and Ronald Reagan learned their leadership skills as union leaders. Unfortunately, as the years passed, the political and pundit classes embrace of MBA presidents (George Bush) and CEO contenders (Mitt Romney). It has not worked well for the republic or its component states.

So perhaps it is time to get back to electing officials who come from the union movement, and who have the requisite respect for democracy and concern for the people government is supposed to serve.

And where better to begin the process of getting politics right than in Wisconsin, the state that said “no” to Wall Street’s austerity lie a year ago and that has kept pushing back ever since?

As the recall elections that seek to remove Governor Scott Walker and Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch approach, challengers are stepping up. And, on Monday, Professional Frefighters of Wisconsin union president Mahlon Mitchell stepped up as a Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor.

In Wisconsin, candidates for governor and lieutenant governor are nominated separately in party primaries and then run together as a ticket in the general election. In the recall elections, however, Walker and Kleefisch are being recalled for their specific actions. So they face specific contests. The primaries are expected on May 8, followed by an expected June 5 general election between a Walker and his Democratic challenger and Kleefisch and her Democratic challenger.

Several candidates are in the race or are expected to enter the race for governor on the Democratic side, including former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk (who’s in with union backing), State Senator Kathleen Vinehout, Secretary of State Doug La Follette and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett (the party’s 2010 candidate). Mitchell entertained the notion of running as a guberantorial candidate, but opted—as a first-time contender—for a run at the state’s number-two job.

The enthusiasm for Mitchell as a contender is real, and it’s based on the fact that he has been a tireless advocate for the labor-farm-community coalition that has emerged to oppose Walker’s agenda. Firefighters and police officers were not targeted in Walker’s assault on collective-bargaining rights for public employees. But, when the olice and fire unions pdecided to stand in solidarity with their fellow workers, Mitchell (a veteran Madison firefighter) emerged as one of the primary faces of that commitment.

Dynamic and determined, the younger-ever and first African-American leader of the firefighters union toured the state on behalf of candidates seeking State Senate seats in last summer’s recall elections. And he has been a steady presence at union rallies. “When firefighters see an emergency, we respond,” declared Mitchell, who argued that Walker’s austerity assault on unions and the middle class was an economic emergency that demanded the immediate response of solidarity and the long-term response of the recall and removal of the governor and his cronies.

Entering the race Monday, Mitchell carried that theme forward, declaring that: “We live in a time in our state where our decent Wisconsin values are being trumped by corporate interests. We live in a time where leaders say our state is broke but we are balancing the budget on the backs of working citizens of the state. That is why, today, I have decided to announce my candidacy for lieutenant governor of the state of Wisconsin.”

“Last February, Scott Walker told us to stand down from an emergency because we don’t have anything to worry about. Because firefighters were protected. But we saw the emergency facing the state of Wisconsin and our middle-class families. We did not stand down,” said Mitchell. “I’m running because Scott Walker and Rebecca Kleefisch have destroyed and divided Wisconsin by catering to corporate special interests instead of the working men and women of this state. Now, we need to bring our state back together and work to create the jobs tens of thousands of Wisconsinites need.”

John Nichols’s new book on protests and politics is Uprising: How Wisconsin Renewed the Politics of Protest, from Madison to Wall Street, just out from Nation Books. Follow John Nichols on Twitter @NicholsUprising.

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