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Coffee with...Ben Masel

Post by Nathan J Comp on 8/8/2006 9:08am

ben_masel080806.jpgWalking the fine line between activist and troublemaker has earned Ben Masel, since the early 1970s, a fair amount of time in court. A boundary pusher, Masel’s legal tussles often stem from his leafleting and sloganeering where such activities are prohibited. Businesses see these anti-campaigning policies as protection for their patrons. However, Masel sees them as impositions on his civil liberties.

Most recently, Masel was gathering signatures on July 3, at the Memorial Union in a restricted area of the terrace. Masel, 51, was gathering signatures in his effort to get on the Sept. 12 Democratic primary ballot. When told he was in violation, Masel challenged the policy, was pepper-sprayed and then arrested. His signature drive, if not his arrest, paid off. Just days after the Union scuffle, Masel turned in nearly 2,200 uncontested signatures, effectively pitting him against Democratic incumbent Herb Kohl (D-Madison) later this summer.

Admittedly, Masel doesn’t stand much chance of winning. He’s OK with that. Sporting a T-shirt with the word “Vote” transposed over a marijuana leaf, Masel seems to like shaking the system more than playing by its rules. He’s had an axe to grind since facing the Vietnam draft and his soon thereafter expulsion from UW-Madison for anti-war shenanigans.

It’s an axe he grinds well.

Masel is in many ways a relic of the Liberal idealism that has at various times managed to inspire rebellion against its conservative counterparts. Masel seems not yet disillusioned by the reality that his generation’s utopian visions were actually delusions used to cope in a world short on hope. Once it was clear the system was largely protest-proof, many of his contemporaries ingratiated their selves in the spoils of that system. Masel, however, had no intention of selling out so easily.

But this isn’t to say Masel hasn’t contributed meaningfully. He is a literalist when it comes to civil liberties, defending them aggressively when they’ve been stomped upon. In 2000, he sued Sauk County over an unlawful arrest, netting $95,000 in settlement money. He has also successfully sued Dane County, the City of Madison and Madison Area Technical College over political leafleting. He’s sued Kansas City for free speech violations stemming from an obstruction of justice charge. Former Gov. Tommy Thompson instigated a lawsuit against the state after denying Masel a festival permit. A lawsuit in response to his handling at the terrace is forthcoming.

Furthermore, Masel has led Wisconsin’s drug-reform movement for more than a generation. As organizer of the Great Midwest Marijuana Harvest Festival, Masel has for 35 years assailed American drug policy, bringing to Madison many distinguished speakers to shed light on the drug war’s countless atrocities. And he has tirelessly advocated the innumerable benefits of the hemp plant.

Masel has also headed the state and local chapters of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). Likewise, he has endlessly lobbied for the relaxation of Wisconsin’s drug laws and rallied against efforts by some to strengthen them.

Needless to say, Masel’s heart is somewhere left of left, though past attempts to infiltrate the system have caused him to campaign as Republican (against former Gov. Tommy Thompson), Libertarian (for Dane County Sheriff), a write-in candidate (also for sheriff) and now as Democrat for U.S. Senator. None were very serious campaigns, but they gave him reason to go out and school people in little issues that could potentially solve big problems.

Currently, his broader campaign strategy is confined largely to a MySpace profile, some scattered blog posts and word-of-mouth marketing. His campaign is financed by a pittance rather than a war chest, which will leave many voters outside of Dane County wondering, come primary day, ‘Who is Ben Masel?’

Masel, a perpetual anti-hero, underdog and irascible champion of the people, may not be a quality candidate in any election, but the same could be said of many current holders of high office, including his opponent, Herb Kohl. In that regard, what a treat it would be if – by some wonderful misfortune – voters let Masel bring his 35-year-old rebellion to Washington. There, he could team up with Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Madison), to form a dynamic duo in a chamber of cowards, together pushing back the tide of retrogressive legislation sweeping the nation.

(Interestingly, Masel and Feingold began college at UW-Madison the same year, both occupying dorms in Sellery Hall.)

Masel recently sat with Dane101 to discuss – in as much detail he could muster – his candidacy, the issues he’ll pursue if elected and why he hasn’t, after all these years, co-opted the middle-American life.

Dane101: Why does Herb Kohl need to be unseated and more so, why are you the guy to unseat him?

BM: Herb’s doing the best job he knows how, but I just don’t think he’s up to the 21st Century issues. He’s pretty good at hiring staff.

Dane101: If elected, what issues would you take on?

BM: Certainly the drug war, but I don’t want to talk about that, because everyone has heard what I’ve got to say on that. Freedom of privacy issues, the first one being cell phone location tracking. I would amend the War Powers Act, such that we would only have future wars by a formal Congressional declaration and only with other governments. You can’t declare war on abstractions, because they can’t surrender.

Dane101: Why have you chosen to run for U.S. Senate rather than the Legislature?

BM: One, because I happen to like the people we’ve got representing us locally. On a more personal level, I wanted the opportunity to run around the state more. I haven’t actually gotten out as much as I’ve wanted. I just bought a car a few days ago. I’ve been using loaners.

Dane101: You only accept $1 campaign donations, billing your self as the “Senator You Can Afford.” How much have raised?

BM: $746. Total expenditures: $136.26.

Dane101: So, going up against a multi-millionaire like Herb Kohl, isn’t a $1 donation limit a little self-defeating?

BM: I don’t think I was ever able to raise the kind of money needed to by T.V. spots to compete with him at that level. The difference is that I have something to say. As far as I can tell, he has been ducking everything where he doesn’t control the edit button. For instance, he got an invite to Wisconsin Public Radio, which wanted all four candidates on in sequence: He passed. Same thing with Channel 12 in Milwaukee.

Dane101: Do you think he feels vulnerable?

BM: I think he feels invulnerable. It doesn’t look like there will be any debate. He hasn’t debated since his first one. He has a very good staff that covers for him very well.

Dane101: Has MySpace helped you get the word out?

BM: For only having it up a week, it’s been really good.

Dane101: You’ve been assailing the system for as long as most of Madison’s voting public can recall. Growing up, was there an incident that drew the battle line?

BM: I was looking at the draft, but it was the first draft they didn’t use. But they didn’t tell me that until after I turned 18. After I got kicked out of school I went to Miami where the Republican Convention was being held. And, as far as I could tell, I was the only teenager on the White House enemy’s list.

Dane101: Over the last 30 years, what has prevented you from joining the mainstream and getting a 9 to 5?

BM: Certainly, on one level, I burned a lot of those bridges. I wasn’t about to get a security clearance type job.

Dane101: You don’t seem to take your campaigns very seriously. Let’s say you get elected. Then what happens?

BM: (Laughs) Well, it then makes for some interesting relationships within the Senate. For one, the rest of the country will know that Russ Feingold is not actually a flaming radical; he’s actually pretty moderate. I can imagine situations where the leadership goes to Russ and says, ‘Feingold! What can we do to shut Masel up?’

Image from Ben Masel's MySpace page: http://www.myspace.com/ben_masel