After she organized Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 Democratic primary challenge to Lyndon Johnson, around the time she joined Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug and Shirley Chisholm in forming the National Women’s Political Caucus, Midge Miller got herself elected to the Wisconsin Assembly.
In that latter role, she taught Wisconsin progressives that they ought never be cogs in a political machine. Midge Miller, arguably the most activist member of the state Assembly during the years of her service from 1971 to 1985, never hesitated to call out Republican or Democratic governors. She never deferred to legislative leaders if she thought they were wrong. She believed in the great progressive tradition of the state that governing involved moral choices and that, while there was always a place for negotiation, and sometimes a place for compromise, there was never an excuse for going along to get along.
The point of progressive public service, argued Midge Miller, was not to be a cog in the machine run by corporate and political elites. It was to make the machine work for the people.
So when Midge Miller’s stepson, Wisconsin Senate minority leader Mark Miller, found himself leading a legislative caucus that was being asked to rubber-stamp Governor Scott Walker’s attacks on collective-bargaining rights, civil-service protections and local democracy, he thought of Midge. “She believed that it was the first responsibility of legislators to protect the rights of the people,” said Miller. “She would never have been a part of anything that rammed changes like these down the throats of the people.”
Of course, Midge Miller served in the days when the money power was far more constrained in politics. Mark Miller knew that Walker and his legislative minions would not cooperate or negotiate. He saw the schedule that allowed for almost no debate on the most radical assault of basic rights and protections in modern Wisconsin history. So he turned to the rules and found the one that referred to a fiscal quorum. He realized that if all fourteen Democratic senators left the state for Illinois, they could slow the process down long enough to let the people be heard.
On the morning of February 17, 2011, he asked his caucus if they wanted to be cogs in the machine or if they wanted to make the boldest move of their political lives. “There was no hesitation,” said Miller. “We left the Capitol. And the people took it from there.”
It was not easy for the fourteen Wisconsin senators to spend three weeks away from their families and homes. But Miller, a former military pilot whose discipline and determination have always inspired respect, never let legislators forget the mission they were on. “We had to create a space where the people could take back their destiny. And they did,” explained Miller. “We didn’t set out to create a movement. But that’s what’s happened.”
Had the process moved forward on Walker’s agenda, the legislation would have been passed within a week. Instead, it took almost a month. Over the course of the time that the Democratic walkout bought, hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites marched, rallied and organized a movement that would eventually recall two Republican senators and that has now filed 1 million signatures to recall Walker and his legislative allies. In short order, it is likely that Mark Miller will be the Senate majority leader. He says he will be more respectful of the rules, more serious of bipartisanship. And no one doubts this is the case. But he will also respect the movement that is transforming Wisconsin.
“Midge would have loved this uprising,” says Miller. “We’re going back to our progressive roots, to that promise that the people shall rule.”
John Nichols’ new book on protests and politics, Uprising: How Wisconsin Renewed the Politics of Protest, from Madison to Wall Street, has just been publshed by Nation Books. Follow John Nichols on Twitter @NicholsUprising.