As Gaylord Nelson returned from the Pacific war theater, Wisconsin’s political sands were shifting.
The Republican Party had enjoyed near-exclusive rule of the state since before the Civil War, with partisan battles taking place within the party or with ephemeral third parties. However, the Republican’s progressive wing felt increasingly uncomfortable as the conservative stalwarts took control of the party platform.
Philip and Robert “Young Bob” La Follette, sons of the legendary Progressive firebrand “Fighting Bob,” had led their followers out of the party in 1934, but several stinging electoral defeats convinced them to return in 1946. The stalwarts’ dominance became undeniable that November, when “Young Bob” lost his Senate seat in the family since 1906 to the conservative Appleton judge Joseph McCarthy.
A New Dawn for Wisconsin Democrats
Nelson, carrying the progressive Republican torch in his bid to represent Clear Lake in the state assembly, lost in 1946 alongside “Young Bob.” Leaving behind his hometown and old party, Nelson returned to Madison, where he offered legal counsel to unions and spent time ruminating with law school friends about the prospects of a rebranded Democratic Party.
They foresaw a new coalition, linking the party’s base of Milwaukee workers with disaffected progressives among both the Madison intelligentsia and rural residents.
Running what the Capital Times called a “rip-snorting, hide-tearing kind of campaign,” Nelson in 1948 won a seat in the state senate, where he championed government reform and civil rights.
When not legislating, he worked tirelessly as party co-chair, seeking out supporters in all corners of the state. Those grassroots efforts paid off when, after making several state-wide races competitive throughout the 1950s, Democrats managed to replace the late Joe McCarthy with William Proxmire in 1957.
The following year, Nelson, pledging to revive “the philosophy and the purpose of the Wisconsin Idea as Old Bob LaFollette envisioned it,” ran a successful campaign to be only the state’s second Democratic governor of the century and its first governor ever from northern Wisconsin.
Joining the Liberal Revolution in Washington
During his decade in the state senate and his two terms as governor, Gaylord Nelson remained an ardent and outspoken liberal. He believed in using government to address problems that the nation’s growing affluence appeared unable to solve. Nelson envisioned “the creation of a social structure founded on quality instead of quantity and moral might instead of military might.”
Calling for unprecedented levels of public spending, Nelson asked in his first speech as governor, “Are you willing to give up a few personal luxuries in exchange for a creative investment in our future?” Such a request, Nelson believed, could be made only by a trustworthy government. To that end, he championed restrictions on lobbyists as a state senator and consolidated a sprawling bureaucracy as governor.
Racial discrimination represented for Nelson the worst blight on America’s promise. In the state senate, he led the effort to integrate Wisconsin’s National Guard, and as governor he made it illegal for companies contracted by the state to discriminate on the basis of race or religion.
Upon arriving in the Senate in 1963, he immediately signed on as a cosponsor of President Kennedy’s civil rights bill and participated in the March on Washington intended to speed its passage.
In 1965, he chided Lyndon Johnson for not doing enough to stop the “lawlessness,” “terrorism,” and “economic coercion” in the Jim Crow South perpetrated against civil rights activists, for whom Nelson went on to secure federal protections in his amendment to the Civil Rights Act of 1968.
Nelson spearheaded ethics reform in the Senate and was an early and impassioned critic of the Vietnam War as a misappropriation of public funds needed for crises at home.
Bringing his environmental experience from Wisconsin, he convinced President Kennedy that a national conservation tour was required to open up an agenda on environmental protection.
He kept his resolve amid the urban unrest of the late 1960s. He attributed the deadly Milwaukee riot of July 1967 to “thousands of citizens with inadequate educations, low incomes, poor housing, and poor job opportunities.”
As a soldier in Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” his fervor often exceeded the President’s.
He proposed a $10 billion program of public works projects and job training, to be administered at the local level. While Johnson committed merely a tenth of that sum, several of Senator Nelson’s projects took off, notably his National Teachers Corps, which trained new educators — the majority of whom were people of color — to join the faculties of impoverished schools.