12/31/2010 11:10 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Thank You, Russ Feingold

I happened to be in the Charlotte, North Carolina, airport on the eve of election day, and an older gentleman was seated next to me. The flow of passengers included a number of soldiers; as each one passed my neighbor thanked them for their service. It was a gracious gesture, one I'd like to make to someone who has dedicated his career to serving his community: Sen. Russ Feingold.

For most of our elected representatives in Washington, D.C., the notion of public service has been tarnished. The Potomac has become a river of special interest money, the amounts so obscene and sources so opaque it's difficult to fathom who the beneficiary is. Are corporations bribing Congress, or is Congress shaking down corporations?

Further fueling the public's cynicism are the legions of former elected officials who successfully negotiate six- or seven-figure jobs as lobbyists or "consultants." It's no wonder public approval of Congress has plummeted to new lows.

"Where's the outrage?" Bob Dole famously asked. Not in Louisiana, where they just reelected a senator who admitted to frequenting a prostitute. Not in Connecticut, where they just elected a senator who repeatedly lied about serving in Vietnam. So much for higher standards.

"I believe politics can be, in the words of Robert Kennedy, an honorable profession."

I first heard Russ Feingold say these words in 1992, when I was working on his Senate campaign. I had the privilege of working for Russ for several years, starting as a college intern in his state Senate office, then on his "Little Engine That Could" Senate campaign of 1992, and eventually as a senior legislative aide during his early years in Washington.

The height of this dizzying experience for me came at age 24, when Russ and John McCain forged their infamous partnership on campaign finance reform. Helping Russ on that venture became the experience of a lifetime.

I won't lament the results of the recent election. These are difficult times for many people in Wisconsin and across the nation, and the voters wanted something different.

Something similar happened in 1994, when a new GOP congressional majority rode into office on its "Contract with America," pushing forward a number of "reforms" that polled well. The Senate became a battleground for such issues, including calls to amend the Constitution to require a balanced budget, to prevent flag burning, and to require term limits for the House and Senate.

Overnight, the Constitution had become the most flawed document of the millennium. And while a number of senators opposed such measures, few were willing to voice their concerns and risk incurring the public's wrath. But for Russ Feingold, it was all about the policy, not the politics.

I remember one of his signature lines: "We already have term limits, they're called elections!" And so, ironically, the system worked in 2010 just as Russ believed it should.

Working for Russ was both demanding and rewarding. You could expect the days to be long. You could expect the Harvard Law graduate and Rhodes Scholar to be in his office early in the morning and well after the dinner hour. You could expect him to challenge your every assertion and idea.

It wasn't argumentative; it was Socratic. Russ did not scorn dissension, he welcomed it. And always the teacher. "Stop splitting your infinitives!" he wrote across one speech I wrote for him.

Early on, I was tasked with designing a campaign-finance reform bill that included partial public financing. I remember briefing Russ on it and confidently boasting the bill would easily pass. Russ, amused, calmly explained the political realities to his young aide. Many of us were young and hopeful, if not a bit naïve. But our idealism and optimism were welcomed in Russ' office. Cynics needn't apply.

After a number of years with Russ, I made the difficult decision to accept a more senior position with another senator. I remember interviewing with my future employer, a moderate Democrat from a conservative state. He looked at my resume and exclaimed, "You worked for Russ Feingold? I would stand on my head for Russ!"

Make no mistake: While Russ was widely respected, his refusal to alter his approach to legislating proved to be a thorn in the side of many in our institution. I remember sitting in the Senate chamber with other staff while the Senate was working late into the night to finish a spending bill. Someone had offered an amendment, and Senate leaders were pushing for a vote.

But the leaders had to wait for one junior senator from Wisconsin, who was quietly sitting at his desk studying the proposed language. "Oh, great," grumbled the staff member next to me. "This one reads bills."

On another occasion, early in Russ' first term, the Senate was debating a massive anti-crime bill, parts of which were worrisome to Russ. We were sitting in the private lobby off the floor, discussing the bill, when the then-chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which Russ had recently joined as the most junior member, swept by us with an entourage of aides, pausing to ask, "Are you going to vote with me on this bill?"

"I'm thinking about it," Russ replied good-naturedly. The chairman glared at him. "Stop thinking, just do it." And then he walked away. Russ turned to me and said, "He doesn't know me very well."

I wish to tell the people of Wisconsin that, whether you voted for Russ or not, we were all privileged to be served by a man of such substance and fiber. A man who believes government can be an agent of good if guided by decency and prudence, or a threat to our values and our freedom if guided recklessly and without restraint.

With every issue and every piece of legislation, Russ Feingold's first consideration was not, "Is this in my interest or that of my party?" but "How will this help the people I am here to serve?"

Since the election, I've been asked many times what I believe the future holds for Russ Feingold. The only certainty is that he's going to follow a much different path than so many of his predecessors. Lobbying for an oil and gas company or calling his former colleagues to plead for a meeting for a well-heeled client is probably not on the horizon.

No, I think he has another calling. I hope he finds a classroom somewhere. Political science needs to be about so much more than policy and politics; it needs to be about civics, civility and the lost art of true public service. Being a legislator is about more than having political skills, persuasiveness and even intellect. It requires integrity, honesty, graciousness, passion and compassion, and of course, the courage to stand by your convictions.

Elections come and go, but Russ' legacy will be his character and integrity. And I know I speak for so many others, particularly those of us who were so fortunate to serve on his staff, when I say to him, "Thank you for your service."

Andy Kutler was a federal employee for 14 years and resides in Arlington, Virginia.

This post appeared first at The Daily Page.

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