The Senator with “Avian Flu”


Russ Feingold had yet to utter a word but the crowd at the Harmonie Club on East 60th Street was already on its feet, saluting the Wisconsin senator and possible presidential candidate for his opposition to the Iraq war, vote against the Patriot Act, support for campaign finance reform, and move to censure President Bush for authorizing warrantless domestic eavesdropping. “The only problem,” Feingold quipped as everyone sat back down to their plates of salmon and potato salad, “is there’s a chance it’ll all be downhill from there.”

Not that big a chance. Feingold’s host was Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities, a brainy group that wants to cut wasteful defense spending to fund education, health care, renewable energy, and other programs. The man from Wisconsin was right up their alley: a progressive deficit hawk who’s railed against Pentagon pork and slapped his own party for its spinelessness on a host of issues.

Like those in his party who claim they were snookered by the pre-war intelligence on Iraq. (“I went to the briefings, and I don’t care what anyone else wants to tell you, they weren’t persuasive at all,” Feingold said, particularly the “laughable” evidence of a Saddam-Qaeda alliance.) Or the Democrats who acquiesced when Republicans proposed a law to make legalize the administration’s domestic wiretapping, which Feingold dubbed “a direct assault on our system of government.”

When Feingold opined that the wiretapping was “right in the strike zone of high crimes and misdemeanors,” the Harmonie Club erupted in cheers; people leapt to their feet. But in the Senate, Feingold said, his censure motion led people to treat him like he had the avian flu. It wasn’t the first time the senator’s health has been questioned: Back in ’01, liberals wanted Russ examined after he joined GOP senators to back the nomination of John Ashcroft to be AG.

While Wisconsin is a nice state—it was, after all, the setting for Rodney Dangerfield’s classic “Back to School”Power Plays‘s interest is in Feingold’s presidential aspirations, which if actualized would place him in competition with New York’s own Senator Hillary.

Feingold didn’t stick around to answer questions about whether he’ll run. But Richard A. Abdoo, a Wisconsin business figure who introduced the senator, told the Voice that at the very least Feingold was working to get enough support to influence the Democratic platform—or, since platforms don’t matter anymore, to shape what the eventual nominee promises to do.

FEC records tell us little more: A Feingold presidential committee hasn’t raised funds yet; his Progressive Patriots Fund PAC has about half a million on hand; and Feingold’s senatorial account reports a balance of about $1.1M. There are a couple Draft Russ factions, too.