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Mar 2013: Chavez and our like-minded Wisconsin left

Mike Nichols Mike Nichols

The death of Hugo Chavez, the anti-American socialist who inspired an almost messianic fervor among many Venezuelans – and some Wisconsinites – has a lot of people in Washington pondering what comes next down there.

It has me pondering both Wisconsin’s odd political history and one of its more bizarre byproducts.

Every time I think of Chavez, I think of Michael McGee Jr., the one-time Milwaukee alderman who has been off on a long vacation behind bars. When I went looking for McGee back in 2007, shortly after he was charged with a variety of crimes, I noticed that he had a poster of Chavez on the wall of his campaign office, which wasn’t surprising. He once sent a letter to the Venezuelan president, stating they were both “oppressed brethren of the same corrupt system.”

McGee, of course, would later become familiar with a system of the different sort, the one called Corrections.

Lots of people thought McGee’s attempts to forge a relationship between Milwaukee and Venezuela were idiotic, saying the two are fundamentally different. One has a past firmly rooted in socialist philosophy and governance, after all, while the other is way down in South America.

Others seemed to love McGee’s vision of Milwaukeeans and Venezuelans working together. Some even seemed to wonder why America couldn’t be more like Venezuela – proof that plenty of folks way out left here consider “socialist” a term of endearment.

McGee, who was convicted of taking bribes and other crimes in 2008, was recently released from federal prison and is now serving a stint at the County Correctional Facility-South in Milwaukee County. I couldn’t reach him for comment. But I did reach David Williams, a member of the Socialist Party of South Central Wisconsin, who told me there are now more socialists in Madison than Milwaukee. Knowing Madison, it might have more socialists than China.

If you asked Madison residents, “Would you identify yourself as a socialist in one way or another?” you would probably find several thousand, according to Williams.

There are seven or eight “competing left political groups” in Madison, he said, “that would self-identify as socialists,” including about 50 or 60 people in the International Socialist Organization. Even they, however, are “nothing but a pimple on the ass of imperialism,” he laughed.

The guy has a sense of humor, which has got to be helpful when a capitalist tool like me calls up.

Not all socialists are the same, of course. Williams believes in some small capitalist enterprises in addition to more publicly owned industry. Other socialists in Madison, he says, support the Democratic Party. There are even members of the Communist Party USA walking around, he said.

That’s the party that used its website the other day to express “deep sorrow at the passing of one of the greatest political leaders of our time, Comrade Hugo Chavez.”

Williams calls Madison a “safe zone,” a place where you can put out your socialist literature and not get punched in the nose.

I don’t think too many Americans would punch a socialist in the nose nowadays. I think mostly we just look at them the same way we might gawk at the decrepit, 200-year-old men in the circus tent – and marvel at the fact they’re still around.