A pitch to Biden takes cues from FDR — and Wisconsin

Descendants of New Deal architects urge Democratic nominee to look to their forebears

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA: Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at a Super Tuesday campaign event at Baldwin Hills Recreation Center in Los Angeles, California. Biden is hoping his make- (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA: Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at a Super Tuesday campaign event at Baldwin Hills Recreation Center in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

A public appeal for Joe Biden to embrace a “21st Century New Deal” has the pedigree of the first New Deal and bloodlines that include Wisconsin.

Five descendants of people who were part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, crafted to pull the U.S. out of the Great Depression in the 1930s, sent a letter to Biden last week, urging the former vice president and presumptive 2020 Democratic presidential nominee to take up a reimagined version of FDR’s signature policy initiative. They took the campaign public on Wednesday with a full-page ad in Biden’s hometown newspaper in Delaware, the Wilmington News Journal.

“We must fight for a 21st Century New Deal,” opens the missive, atop the signatures of James Roosevelt Jr., Henry Scott Wallace, June Hopkins, Tomlin Perkins Coggeshall and Harold M. Ickes (more on who they all are coming up).

Pointing to Biden’s own recent declaration that if elected, his presidency “must be more ambitious than FDR’s,” the letter writers encouraged him to adopt policies that, they assert, “will restore belief in a government that works for all Americans.”

They enumerated their plan’s features, including a permanent federal transitional jobs program, successor to the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps; a more robust unemployment insurance system; a stronger minimum wage indexed for inflation; broader rights for workers to organize unions and bargain collectively; and expanded tax credits for wage earners, offset by higher taxes for the wealthiest.

The original New Deal “left some huge problems unsolved,” which this new New Deal must tackle, they added: structural racism, gender inequality and voting rights.

David Riemer with book
David Riemer, a former aide and longtime architect of policies aimed at alleviating poverty, has published a new book on how to update the New Deal. (Photo by Erik Gunn)

If the idea of a “21st Century New Deal” looks familiar to Examiner readers, it should. David Riemer — a veteran Wisconsin policy architect who last year published Putting Government in Its Place: The Case for a New Deal 3.0 — was among the people who worked with the letter’s authors to assemble the ideas it advances.

Several of those ideas appear in some form in Riemer’s book, although he’s quick to point out that there are other proposals in the letter that he hasn’t addressed. He does take credit for calling attention to a growing interest in a transitional jobs program, something his book promotes, to help people move “from the welfare roll to the payroll,” he says. Several lawmakers including Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) have offered bills along those lines, he notes.

Riemer “was instrumental in helping draft the letter,” says another member of the letter’s behind-the-scenes team, Stephen Seufert. “His extensive knowledge of the New Deal and his keen understanding of what a 21st Century New Deal could mean for Wisconsin and the country can’t be overstated.”

Seufert worked with Scott Wallace during Wallace’s 2018 Congressional campaign in  Pennsylvania. (Wallace lost by 2.6 percentage points.) Wallace is the grandson of Henry Wallace, who was FDR’s secretary of agriculture before serving as vice president in Roosevelt’s third term.

During the 2018 campaign, Seufert says, he and Scott Wallace connected with some other descendants of the New Deal’s chief architects, including FDR’s grandson, James Roosevelt Jr., and Tomlin Perkins Coggeshall, grandson of Frances Perkins, who was Roosevelt’s labor secretary and the first woman cabinet member.

“Once it became apparent Vice President Biden would be the Democratic nominee, I suggested to Scott we get the group together to remind Biden and the country of the New Deal’s enduring legacy,” Seufert tells the Wisconsin Examiner in an email. “Like David, I cherish our history as Americans and saw this letter as a reminder — even a blueprint — for the country. Over the years, I’ve been particularly inspired by historical organizations like the Living New Deal, which have researched thousands of New Deal projects throughout the country.”

Riemer, meanwhile, teamed up with June Hopkins — granddaughter of WPA administrator Harry Hopkins — to write a commentary published last month in the journal Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity suggesting that the U.S. draw on FDR’s New Deal legacy to grapple with the  massive economic crisis spawned by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Seufert and Riemer crossed paths as Seufert was assembling the New Dealers’ descendants for the letter to Biden, and Hopkins joined the project. Harold M. Ickes, whose father, Harold L. Ickes, was Roosevelt’s interior secretary and who administered another jobs program, the Public Works Administration, rounded out the group.

“If you look at the Living New Deal map for Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, there’s no denying the New Deal promoted what our Constitution calls the General Welfare,” Seufert says. “That’s the positive message the letter tries to relay to Vice President Biden and the country during these difficult times: that through adversity, America learns and grows.”

FDR Bobblehead
David Riemer’s office is decorated with this bobblehead of FDR. (Photo by Erik Gunn)

Wisconsin, Riemer says, has a place both in New Deal policies and in their implementation. When the federal unemployment law was passed, Wisconsin was the first state to implement it because it had moved quickly to pass the required matching state legislation. In Madison, concrete bleachers at Breese Stevens Municipal Athletic Field and a stone wall around the perimeter were the work of the Civil Works Administration, a short-lived WPA forerunner that Hopkins also ran.

The Dairy State owes some of its New Deal role to John R. Commons, a University of Wisconsin economist and a “Wisconsin Idea” advisor to Robert M. La Follette. Commons’ work encompassed civil service law, public utilities, workplace safety and unemployment compensation. Two of Commons’ students created Social Security, one of the cornerstones of the New Deal.

Legend also has it, Riemer says, that in Roosevelt’s first year in office, it was Commons who tracked down a 19th-Century quote from Samuel Gompers — founder of the American Federation of Labor — urging the federal government to be the “employer of last resort” for people who couldn’t otherwise  find work. Riemer suggests that piece of labor history probably helped allay worries in the administration that unions would balk at a federal jobs program for fear that it would displace existing workers.

For the people writing the laws that brought the New Deal into being, “over and over again, Wisconsin played this critical role in laying the political groundwork, providing the technical expertise and providing the actual matching legislation to help create, work out the details and implement the New Deal,” Riemer says. “It’s a remarkable history.”