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New governor, new party for Wisconsin

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Gaylord Nelson's first inaugural address reflects the energetic spirit and novel ideas he had brought to the governor's race.

Nelson campaigned for a year and a half before being elected only the second Democratic Wisconsin governor in the 20th century. In the hundreds of speeches and appearances he made throughout 1957 and 1958, he worked not only to introduce himself to voters across the state and convince his fledging party to support a candidate who had never run in a statewide election before, but also to present a new vision for Wisconsin and the nation.

"Our great liberal, progressive tradition has been destroyed," he thundered from the podium, promising that only a resurgent Democratic Party could restore the bygone strength of Wisconsin politics necessary for the challenges of the future.

As evidenced by this inaugural speech, Nelson grounded lofty notions of the great promise and perils of the modern age with proposals fixated on the structure and functioning of government bureaucracies. In the postwar era, he argued, as the nation's booming population and prosperity put unprecedented pressures on schools, parks, roads, urban space, and natural resources, a better structured and better-funded state government was required to ensure the public good.

Nelson claimed that since wresting power from its progressive wing, conservative Republicans had run an "archaic" state government destined, like a log overcome with "dry rot," to crumble into dust. Nelson promised his constituents that the Democrats, who in 1958 gained control of the state assembly as well as the offices of lieutenant governor, attorney general, and state treasurer, would "make Wisconsin once again the proud pioneer in the quest for a more abundant and more significant life for all our people, whatever their race or color or creed."