The Badger Herald Editorial Board's vicious attack last week on Dane County Supervisor Ashok Kumar, District 5, is at least useful in one respect: It serves as a prime example of the smug, complacent politics endemic to much of Madison's mainstream liberal establishment. Because I was sure Mr. Kumar felt the same way, I sat down and talked with him about what he feels is the real nature of his brief public service record.
Since the board began its critique with a discussion of Mr. Kumar's record of activism prior to his election in 2006, I'll start there, too. Far from being "akin to a high school student council president," as the board wrote, Mr. Kumar served the UW student body with seriousness and determination — though, as the Facebook profile of John "Sweatshop Chancellor" Wiley demonstrated, there was plenty of lightheartedness as well.
Aside from the anti-sweatshop activity associated with the Student Labor Action Coalition, Mr. Kumar spent two years pushing back against the avalanche of rising tuition at UW. He was also the author of the living wage referendum that the student body overwhelmingly passed three times.
These accomplishments were likely what led to Mr. Kumar's election with nearly 70 percent of the vote. A victory with this margin should have made the board think twice about claiming that Madison needs new "proper representation," though it does, perhaps, enlighten us as to why their only concrete criticism of his county supervisor record was his votes on campus safety.
As Mr. Kumar points out, the crime scare that has hovered over the UW community recently is essentially nonsense. "If you look at the statistics, crime is down," he explained. He adamantly opposes putting more cops on the street, likening recent proposals to the farcical troop surge in Iraq. According to him, an increased police presence would do nothing to prevent the occasional mugging anyway, and would have an adverse affect on poor people and communities of color.
Mr. Kumar is more concerned with addressing systematic racism and inequality than just bringing down the hammer on its effects. It is for this reason that he voted against a variety of so-called crime enforcement measures, including funding for the Department of Homeland Security, which he describes as a colossal waste of money. He also voted against increased crowd control protection for mounted police, citing the Halloween 2005 "police riot" as proof that more cops at the event is counterproductive. His opposition to all the ruinous Halloween measures, undoubtedly popular with most students, deserves mention as well.
Rather than clamping down on the victims of American capitalism, as the board wanted Mr. Kumar to have done, he instead focused his efforts on alternatives to incarceration — an accomplishment for which he has every right to be proud. Starting from the notion that "most people are in prison because they're poor," he successfully fought for more electronic monitoring and rehabilitation for nonviolent drug offenders. And his successful fight to end millions of dollars of prison profiteering, an egregiously exploitative practice, should give comfort to humanitarians everywhere.
Mr. Kumar is also particularly passionate about his fight for immigrant rights. He was the author of a bill that outlawed housing discrimination against undocumented immigrants, as well as ex-felons and transgender people, and increased the penalties for landlords who broke the law. While County Executive Kathleen Falk (the type of tepid liberal the board undoubtedly adores) later vetoed the package, the bill remains exemplary in the struggle for immigrant and housing rights.
Currently, Mr. Kumar is working on the creation of a Real ID program that confronts discriminatory federal law and essentially legalizes the status of undocumented immigrants. His desire to see Madison as a sanctuary city is likely scandalous to law-and-order Democrats, but raises the expectation that Madison really should live up to its progressive reputation.
Authoring a measure that ended Section 8 housing discrimination is another highlight of Mr. Kumar's term. The low-income, mostly black families that constitute the voucher recipients now have greatly expanded access to housing throughout the county, a success that has taken years to realize. Mr. Kumar also authored a proposal that empowers workers and prohibits companies that violate labor laws from receiving county contracts.
Because Mr. Kumar's accomplishments are many, the board also decided to criticize his so-called disengagement from the student body. Nothing could be more misleading. Mr. Kumar acknowledges that, unlike other local politicians, he doesn't communicate with his constituency through a blog ("Social change isn't made through the blogosphere"), instead meeting with students and nonstudents personally, via telephone and through Facebook. (All of this information is listed on his website.)
Mr. Kumar is deeply rooted in UW's progressive community, attending the meetings of the Campus Antiwar Network, SLAC and many other organizations. Here, we get to the core of his philosophy as a politician: He sees himself as an extension of Dane County's social movements, the real agent of progressive change. This explains why he has worked with and included countless student and nonstudent groups in his efforts as county supervisor, ranging from the ACLU to the Madison-area Urban Ministry to the South Central Federation of Labor.
Mr. Kumar's understanding of progressive politics is what ultimately led to his decision to retire from public office. He feels "disengaged" from the real political struggle, and now wants to return to grassroots work and fight the good fight from the meeting rooms and streets of Madison, rather than the Dane County Council.
The board's criticism of Mr. Kumar ultimately stems from an inability to understand a politics to the left of the Democratic Party. Such an alternative demands radical change. It is an alternative that involves the fight against racism and homophobia and inequality, an alternative that champions the rights of the dispossessed in American society. Mr. Kumar is such an alternative, and in my estimation, he has done a fine job in representing it.
Kyle Szarzynski ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in Spanish and history.