top of page

Wisconsin Dems Need A Populist Senate Candidate-- There Is One: Tom Nelson

Since narrowly awarding its 10 electoral votes to Trump in 2016, Wisconsin has turned back towards the Democrats in statewide races. Two years later, progressive Senator Tammy Baldwin swamped conservative GOP posterchild Leah Vukmir by 11 points and voters denied Scott Walker's reelection bid for governor, electing instead a moderate Democrat, Tony Evers. In the 3 non-partisan Supreme Court elections, 2 progressives defeated 2 conservatives and the third race was too nuanced to categorize. And then last year, Biden beat Trump 1,630,866 (49.45%) to 1,610,184 (48.82%), flipping both Door and Sauk counties and winning Green Bay. Along with Pennsylvania, Wisconsin is seen as the best place for the Democrats to flip a red Senate seat blue in 2022, whether the Republican candidate is incumbent crackpot Ron Johnson or another right-wing clone.

With the primary up in the air, former 2020 Bernie delegate and former Assembly Majority Leader Tom Nelson-- current Outagamie County Executive-- is viewed by many as the most electable of the 10 Democrats running. He is running on a platform that includes Medicare-for-All, the Green New Deal, raising the minimum wage to $15/hour, promulgating a wealth tax for the richest Americans, and eliminating the dysfunctional Jim Crow filibuster. He just finished touring all 72 of Wisconsin's counties. (You can contribute to his campaign here.) I asked him to introduce himself to DWT readers with a guest post that helps us understand what he accomplished with that tour and what he hopes to accomplish in Washington.

Just Say No To Corporate Power And Consolidation

-by Tom Nelson

I began my trip with an open mind. I really wanted to know the biggest issues and concerns of the people I am seeking to represent in the US Senate, Democrats and Republicans alike. I learned a lot, but one issue stood above all others: Corporate power and consolidation. Simply put, decades of deregulation, market roll-ups, and unchecked corporate abuses have conspired to crush workers and small businesses alike, from the family farm in Polk County to a main street mom & pop in Grant County.

In Burnett County, a 26,000 head hog farm is being sited in a pristine, bucolic farmland where my family settled 120 years ago. Smithfield Farms is one of the largest pork producers in the country and one of four that control two-thirds of the market. [It is wholly owned by China's WH Group.] They have designs on taking over the entire county, and it’s not because they want to create good-paying jobs in a competitive market. They’re going to pollute the land, drain the aquifers, depress land values, and kill more family farms.

On 5th Avenue in Antigo in Langlade County, there isn’t a single independent bank left. The deck is stacked against local farmers and small businesses that want to get a line of credit, which they need in order to buy a new piece of machinery or expand a business. They’ve been shuttered or bought up by the big banks, some of the same ones taxpayers bailed out 10 years ago.

Instead of grabbing a cup of coffee and talking with a local loan officer, they have to call a regional corporate officer and wait days if not weeks for a response from someone that knows nothing about them. It’s just a numbers game and only the corporate masters control the rules or even see the playing field.

In nearby Forest County, Consolidated Paper and other Wisconsin paper companies sold off forest land decades ago. Now a handful of logging companies control huge swaths of land and, with it, the supply and price of pulp. Just as farmers are at the mercy of a couple of stockbrokers on the floor of the Chicago Commodities Exchange who set corn and milk prices, so too are Wisconsin’s century-old paper mills with pulp pricing.

Verso Paper, itself a corporate behemoth, recently shuttered their flagship mill in Wisconsin Rapids. Doing so kicked a thousand workers out on the street and drained the economic lifeblood of that small city. The “free market” is rigged and yet again, it was working people who lost out.

Even if paper hadn’t become a precious commodity, it wouldn’t have saved the news and publishing industry. Most of the local weekly and daily papers that have been the beating heart of communities across the state have closed shop or been taken over by Gannett or a vulture hedge fund. Not only can you not get balanced coverage, you can’t get any coverage.

The solution is clear: Break up corporate monopolies, aid small businesses, and revive the family farms that fed millions without poisoning the earth. That means strengthening anti-trust laws, instituting new and modern regulations, and stocking the Justice Department with attorneys that will aggressively pursue bad actors.

It’s not magic. It doesn’t require some special spell or mystical powers. We just need to finally gin-up the willpower and guts to stand up to the relentless bad-faith lies funded by billionaires and self-interested business lobbyists.

Before Ronald Reagan (with an assist from conservative Democratic members of Congress) slashed taxes for the rich and big corporations, the highest income bracket was 70 percent and companies were incentivized to plow earnings into higher wages, pension plans and research and development. Stock buybacks that rung out profits and sold out workers on behalf of CEOs and private equity shareholders were uncommon and frowned upon.

The national minimum wage hasn’t been raised since 2007 and the tipped minimum wage, which goes to service workers in restaurants and similar industries, has remained the same for nearly 30 years. Both should be hiked up to $15-an-hour at minimum and indexed to inflation. Workers should be empowered by passing the PRO Act and closing the inherently racist loopholes in the Wagner Act that make it especially difficult for agricultural and domestic workers-- predominantly people of color and women-- to organize and bargain for fair wages and good working conditions. We should also toss out bad trade deals written by corporate leaders and start afresh with the voices of ordinary, everyday Americans.

These all sound like tall tasks, and between the filibuster and the conservative Democrat attempts to sink the already-compromised reconciliation bill, they may seem downright impossible. But we can beat the odds. It’s happening every day, largely in stories that get little to no attention from corporate media. To offer Americans another way requires shining a light on that path, so let me tell you the story of Appleton Coated.

Appleton Coated was a 127 year-old paper mill in Outagamie, where I have served as County Executive since 2012. Though still productive and filled with hardworking union members who represented generations of mill workers, Appleton Coated was pushed into receivership by a big bank-- one that we bailed out to the tune of $7 billion when the market collapsed in 2008. Soon after being pushed into receivership, the mill was sold to a scrap dealer from California.

It looked bad. Hopeless, even. But I joined with the local union and objected to the sale. We prevailed on a judge to give us a second chance. We put together a strong business model, pushed hard, rallied the community, and we won. We brought back 300 jobs and by the third quarter of the following year the workers were getting their profit-sharing checks. (Obligatory plug for my book about the battle. I promise, it’s received only great reviews.)

That’s the power of community. Labor and management and local government working together to beat the odds. Taking on the big banks and the big corporations and winning. saving jobs and growing the local economy the right way. It’s already happening in small towns and big cities across the country. Let’s bring that fight to Washington.

bottom of page