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His sincerity, his integrity, his complete devotion to his ideal, were indubitable; no one who heard could suspect his singleness of purpose or his courage. The strange contradictions in him were that he was a fighter - for peace; he battered his fist so terribly in one great speech for peace during the World War that he had to be treated and then carried it in bandages for weeks.

-- Lincoln Steffens

Wisconsin has a rich tradition of progressive politics and iconoclastic politicians, perhaps foremost among them is Fighting Bob La Follette. In the late 1800's and early 1900's, Robert La Follette served Wisconsin variously as a congressman, governor, and senator. He eventually founded the Progressive Party and received 17% of the presidential vote in 1924 as a third party candidate.

La Follette, a Republican, built a populist agenda of tax reform1 and corporate regulation. He maintained that his political role was to "protect the people" from the "selfish interests" -- what we today call special interests. He claimed that the nation's economy was dominated by fewer than 100 industrialists. He believed they used their power to completely control the political process. La Follette supported the growth of trade unions as a check on the power of large corporations.

As Governor, La Follette increased spending on education and used the knowledge and expertise of the state universities to draft legislation and greatly championed a professional civil service. In opposition to the party bosses, La Follette led the fight to make Wisconsin the first state to adopt the primary system for nomination to state office.

As Senator, Fighting Bob supported President Woodrow Wilson's social justice agenda - but he opposed Wilson's decision to join World War I. LaFollette voted against declaring war. When he continued to criticize the war, many called him a traitor. An attempt was even made to expel him from the Senate for disloyalty. He also opposed the Treaty of Versailles at the end of World War I. Yet, in 1957, the Senate voted LaFollette one of the five outstanding senators of all time.

Robert Marion La Follette was born in the tiny township of Primrose - near Madison, Wisconsin. He worked on the family farm before enrolling at the University of Wisconsin -- where he demonstrated his oratorical skills winning numerous scholastic competitions. He met his wife, Belle, at the university -- she too excelled at speaking. After he left the governorship - and before he became senator - they founded La Follette's Weekly Magazine (changed to The Progressive in 1929). They used this as a forum to campaign for women's suffrage, racial equality and other progressive causes.

After his death in 1925, sons Robert and Philip kept the La Follette name prominent in Wisconsin politics. Robert La Follette, Jr. succeeded him in the Senate, where he served with distinction for 21 years. -- before losing to Joseph McCarthy in the 1946 Republican primary. Philip La Follette served three terms as governor -- where he led passage for the nation's first unemployment compensation act.

1 Unlike Republican tax reform proposals today, La Follette was a champion of the graduated income tax or progressive tax. As a result, Wisconsin became the first state in the union to have one.

Sources:

http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/USAlafollette.htm
http://gi.grolier.com/presidents/ea/side/lafoll.html
and 42 years of being a cheesehead

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