JOHN NICHOLS: Former state legislator Frank Nikolay embodied the best of Wisconsin's progressive tradition

December 21, 2011
By: 
John Nichols

Frank Nikolay learned his New Deal Democratic politics the hard way, as a poor kid in the Great Depression. He knew what it meant when a family fell on hard times and he knew what the government — yes, the government — could do to help them get back on their feet and on the road to prosperity.

Nikolay, who would become one of Wisconsin’s most respected lawyers, a leader in the state Legislature and a contender for statewide office, had no taste for those who suggested that government was the problem. He said they were either lying to themselves or lying to the people.

And Frank Nikolay was no liar.

He spoke the plain truth, even when doing so entailed political risks.

Frank battled Sen. Joe McCarthy in the 1950s, openly, unapologetically and aggressively.

Frank embraced civil rights, for African-Americans in the South and also in Milwaukee, for Native Americans in Wisconsin, for immigrants, and for gays and lesbians. He made all these commitments before many of Wisconsin’s most prominent Democrats stepped up.

This was significant because Frank did not come from the west side of Madison or the east side of Milwaukee.

He was from Abbotsford in Clark County. And his was the progressive populist politics of the north — a politics that was purer and frequently more radical than that of his urban contemporaries.

Frank Nikolay, who has died at age 89, used to send me notes about politics. But he never looked back on his days as U.S. attorney for the Western District of Wisconsin or majority leader of the state Assembly. He was always opposing a new war or an attempt to impose the death penalty, outlining a plan to help working farmers, or supporting a labor struggle.

Along with Fred Risser, Frank was one of the legislators who voted in 1959 to make Wisconsin the first state in the nation to extend full collective bargaining protections to public employees. Frank was proud of that vote, and rightly so. He knew that the right to organize a union and to raise the voice of working people on the job and in the political life of the state and nation was essential to making real the promise of American democracy.

Frank taught me, back when I was very young, that democracy was not real unless the poor kid in Abbotsford had as much of a say in the politics of Wisconsin as the millionaire in Mequon — or the billionaire Koch brother in New York City.

Much will be said to honor Frank, and rightly so. But we will honor him best — and in the way that he would have chosen — by decrying those politicians who would sell our state out to the highest bidder. Frank Nikolay’s Wisconsin belonged to every Wisconsinite, not just those who could pay to play. And that is the Wisconsin we fight to restore and renew.