Is Ed Garvey One of the Most Compelling Figures in Wisconsin History?

In the book “Ed Garvey Unvarnished,” Madison journalist Rob Zaleski writes about this Wisconsin progressive’s outlook on politics.

An unusual new biography of progressive activist Ed Garvey, written in a Q&A format by Madison journalist Rob Zaleski, is a clarion call for politicians to be fearless about speaking the truth, even to their own party.   

Garvey died in February 2017. Zaleski conducted a series of 17 interviews with him in 2011. In the interviews, Garvey blasted Democratic Party stalwarts. He criticized former President Barack Obama for not coming to Wisconsin to protest Act 10 labor restrictions. Garvey also blistered former Sen. Herb Kohl for being a namby-pamby official and former Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle for letting utility campaign contributions modify his environmental policies.

Rob Zaleski
The utilities, Garvey said, are not giving away money “because they think you’re Mother Teresa.”

Garvey also railed against Republicans.

“It wasn’t that long ago that the two parties got along fairly well – where there were lots of different Republicans who were halfway decent people,” he said. “Now the vast majority are mean as hell. This is the part that’s so discouraging – and drives me crazy.”

“What stood out about Garvey was how brutally honest he was,” Zaleski said. “Garvey didn’t care which way the political winds were blowing. If he felt he was right on an issue, he would push it. He really didn’t care about the repercussions. Garvey never went off the record.”

In Ed Garvey Unvarnished, published by the University of Wisconsin Press ($24.95), Garvey said too many people have given up fighting injustices.

“I mean, the biggest enemy we’ve had for years is that cynical feeling that there’s nothing you can do, so why do it? If you can’t get over that, you just can’t win.”                       

Garvey, an attorney born in Burlington, ran for the U.S. Senate in 1986 against Sen. Robert Kasten and lost 47.4 to 50.9 percent. In the 1998 Wisconsin governor race, Gov. Tommy Thompson beat Garvey by 21 percentage points.

From 1971 to 1983, Garvey was the executive director of the National Football League Players Association. Garvey led two strikes in 1974 and 1982. As a result of the last strike, he negotiated an agreement in which the players got 55 percent of the league’s gross revenues.

Zaleski said he set the interviews aside after Garvey said he planned to write an autobiography about his NFL union experiences, because Zaleski thought two Garvey books would not be marketable. Believing that he would never write a Garvey book, Zaleski deleted the digitally-recorded interviews. “I would wake up every morning and see the interviews,” he said. “It was demoralizing, and I finally said, ‘I don’t want to see those interviews anymore.’”

But after Garvey died without writing his book, Zaleski felt that Garvey “would be remembered as one of the most dynamic and compelling figures in Wisconsin’s storied history.” Fortunately, a University of Wisconsin information technology expert recovered the deleted  interviews.

In reading the book, some of Garvey’s political insights give you the feeling that he was onto something.  It was refreshing to read Garvey regretted that most people running for higher offices were millionaires and said, “There’s such a disconnect between the Democratic leadership and ordinary citizens these days.”

Garvey warned that when you run for office and lose, “unless you were very careful in selecting your parents, all of a sudden, you’ve got to find a job.”

Predating President Donald Trump, Garvey observed, “Most people want to believe their government, and they want to believe that the president isn’t going to lie to them.”

The media, too, incurred Garvey’s wrath. “…if you don’t have $6 million or the ability to raise it,” he said, “they won’t cover you because they know you can’t win. And if you can’t win, why would they waste time covering you.”

In his time, Garvey worried that the parties were too much the same. As a result, he said, “If you can’t make distinctions between the parties, then people slip off into things like right to life or gun control.”

The biography contains a moving epilogue in which seven people, including Mark Murphy, the Green Bay Packers president, remember Garvey as being forceful and sometimes flawed. 

As for the players getting 55% of the NFL’s gross revenues, Murphy said, “I think it’s ironic that that’s what we have now, and yet nobody gives Ed credit for the system we have in place today.”

Garvey reflected that, “For some reason, we lack the ability to reflect on past events – unless it’s sports related.”

Before the book was published, Zaleski let one of Garvey’s three daughters, Kathleen,  read it for factual errors. He said she gave him the best compliment, when she said, “When I read the manuscript, I could actually hear my Dad’s voice.”



Ed Garvey Unvarnished: Lessons From a Visionary Progressive


By Rob Zaleski

Find the Book

At a local library
At Boswell Books
On Amazon