I first met Austin King during the sick leave debate. I was a member of the Equal Opportunities Commission, the lead committee on this proposed ordinance. I knew of him, of course, but had never actually met him. He talked to the EOC about why sick leave was an equal opportunity issue. I had some questions, so pulled him aside afterward. Here is the President of the Madison City Council, late on a Thursday evening, cornered by some nobody with questions. He answered every one of them, and didn’t once make me feel as though he had somewhere else to be. I promised to follow-up with an email, which I did. Again, he answered my questions thoughtfully -- not with platitudes or prepared responses, but with specific answers, custom-developed to my questions.
It was hard to have anything but good feelings for this guy. One can certainly argue the merits of a minimum wage increase or mandated sick leave for workers. But one cannot argue, as a January 3rd editorial in the State Journal did, that Austin King has been “ineffective… steering the council into draining and needless fights.”
It may indeed be draining, but it is never “needless” to advance the agenda of poverty, injustice, and inequality. The State Journal editorial argued that state and federal leaders should control these issues, not local alderman. The key word is “leaders.” Because, in an absence of leadership, there are only two paths. The first path is one in which everyone says this is not my problem and effortlessly transfers accountability, and its resultant inaction, to someone else. The second path requires someone, somewhere, to vocalize that there is a problem, demand action, and actually advance an agenda for resolution.
I hope it is mere coincidence that, two weeks before our national celebration of Martin Luther King's desire for a more just world, an editorial would call the advancement of such an agenda "needless."
There are too many excuses in our world. When a solution is offered at the local level, critics counter we are “creating an island.” When a solution is offered at the state level, “unlevel playing field” charges are asserted. When a solution is offered at the national level, it is nothing more than isolationism, protectionism, and standing in the way of free trade and advancement of the global economy. It is so easy to tolerate injustice, because it is so easy to shift blame elsewhere.
Levels of government don’t matter, nor do excuses. When someone stands up and offers solutions, it is never needless. Do you want to honor Martin Luther King's legacy? This is how we do it. Austin King will likely go to law school, graduate, and get elected Senator. If we’re lucky, it’ll be from Wisconsin. Until then, may we be fortunate enough to have strong, passionate voices for those who normally have none.