When the Wisconsin Uprising began in 2011, after Gov. Scott Walker launched his assault on labor rights, Cory Mason threw himself into the fight as the most ardent advocate for working families. Raised in a union household, Mason had worked with the American Federation of Teachers before his election as one of the youngest members of the state Assembly. Walker was creating a "Which side are you on?" test for legislators and Mason knew he was not going to side with the Republican governor.
In the months and years that followed, Mason emerged as one of the steadiest and most impassioned critics of Walker's anti-labor agenda — and the threats to public employees, public schools, public services and working families that extend from that agenda. Though he made his name with his fights on economic issues, the assemblyman battled for women's rights, racial justice and environmental protection, earning a reputation as what the group Wisconsin Progress identifies as "a tireless advocate for the progressive movement."
There were a few wins and many defeats as out-of-state money flowed into Wisconsin to shore up Walker and his Republican allies. But Mason kept on fighting — no matter what the odds — for the values he learned growing up in the union town of Racine.
When Racine's mayor stepped down earlier this year, Mason saw an opportunity to stand up for those Wisconsin values in a new way, not as an opposition lawmaker in a gerrymandered Legislature but as the chief executive of the state's fifth-largest city. He took it, explaining, "I’ve been in the Legislature for 11 years, two in the majority and nine in the minority, and I can tell you that the amount that you’re able to accomplish is limited."
That's not an uncommon sentiment at a moment when an awful combination of big money, bad media and gerrymandering has warped politics in Washington, D.C., and in statehouses across the United States. Many of the ablest young elected leaders of the moment are turning their attention to municipal politics — recognizing that this is where immediate action can be taken to address the economic, environmental and social challenges that are going unaddressed by the Congress and by legislatures that are in the grip of special-interest money. That's especially true in the states, where conservative Republicans have purged moderates from their ranks and fully embraced the dictates of corporate-funded groups such as the American Legislative Exchange Council.
"Many people have asked me, 'Why do you want to leave the Assembly to become mayor?' Because this is where the fight is. Our battle to rebuild the middle class in Racine begins here," Mason explained as he launched his campaign for the top job in a city that has been hard hit by deindustrialization, and by the scorching neglect of state and national officials toward older cities in the Great Lakes region. "While Madison and Washington continue in their partisan paralysis, it is at the local level, in cities, where real change can happen. Together, we can accomplish more good for the people of our community, right here in Racine. Together, we can create more opportunity, right here in Racine. Together, we will lift up more workers and families, right here in Racine."
Mason will get a chance to prove his point. Last Tuesday, he won 55 percent of the vote after a campaign that began with a multi-candidate primary and finished with an intense contest between Mason and a veteran Racine City Council member who drew conservative support. The race was officially nonpartisan, but Mason pulled no political punches. Running in one of the largest cities in House Speaker Paul Ryan's congressional district, and in a region that will be figuring out how to deal with the opportunities and challenges posed by the Foxconn development, Mason campaigned as a progressive who highlighted the support he had drawn from labor unions, the local Democratic Party and the Working Families Party — a national organization that has gained a significant following in Wisconsin with its advocacy for an uncompromising economic and social justice agenda.
The Working Families Party backed Mason as part of its “Progressive Heroes” program, which the organization says "seeks to elect the progressive leaders in municipal races across America in 2017. To date, the Working Families Party has endorsed nearly 1,000 local candidates nationwide — progressive organizers and leaders like Mason — who are already making a difference in their communities and stepped up to run for office this year."
While many of those contests will be decided on Nov. 7, the busiest day of the off-year election season, a number of Working Families Party candidates have already won — including progressive new mayors such as Chokwe Lumumba in Jackson, Mississippi, and Randall Woodfin in Birmingham, Alabama. And now Mason.
Noting that Mason won "in Paul Ryan’s backyard,” Wisconsin Working Families Party Executive Director Marina Dimitrijevic said: “In the next year, Southeastern Wisconsin will decide whether to re-elect Paul Ryan or support insurgent candidate and WFP member Randy Bryce. Wisconsinites will also elect a new governor. Mason’s victory is a signal for these races and the strength of progressive voters in the region.”
Mason recognizes the linkages between local, state and national politics better than most. He'll remain a sharp and effective critic of the failed policies of Republicans in Madison and Washington. But he is not waiting any longer.
"The fight for the middle class is really happening in cities and local levels, that’s where it’s really (at)," said Mason. "And for me, public service is about doing the most to help your constituents and there’s real work to be done here."
Cory Mason takes office Nov. 7. On that day, he said, the work of "rebuilding the middle class" begins — from the ground up.
John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org and @NicholsUprising
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