I worked for an AFT campaign in the mid-90s that successfully organized a diverse group of professional state employees (WPEC), located all over the state. During an organizing trip to Green Bay in 1996, I stopped by a Chili John’s restaurant to partake in some of my favorite traveling comfort food. I’ve always missed the Chili John’s that used to be on Milwaukee's East Side a long time ago and never miss a chance to have a three-way (chili, spaghetti and cheese – now, stop that).
Looking at the menu, I was surprised to see that it was filled with juvenile political cheap-shots against then-President Bill Clinton and anyone else who wasn’t a right wing lunatic. This particular shop in the small chain, you see, had declared itself a "Rush Room"; a place where all the sadly-delusional local ditto-heads could meet to share the Rush Limbaugh experience with others who appreciated the radical-right screeds of the failed DJ from Missouri. I wasn’t there in time to share the joys of Rush with the no-doubt charming pitchfork-and-torch crew that day ("Didya hear that, Maude? He called him ‘Slick Willy’! Hoo-hah!"), but, apparently, the same menu is used all day to entertain others of similar ilk who might stumble in for a little racism and hate with their chili dogs.
Silly me – I always thought maybe restaurants selling good-to-great food might not want to exclude half of their potential customer base with offensive political diatribes. I sat there and read the menu while I reveled in my favorite chili. I don’t remember the specifics, but the menu featured sandwiches named for supposedly unpleasant characteristics of sitting presidents, vice presidents, first ladies, etc. When I was done, I found the guy who looked like he was in charge. "Is there some reason you don’t want me to eat here?" I asked. I explained to him that I didn’t appreciate having Limbaugh’s stupid politics shoved down my throat (so to speak) while I was trying to eat his delicious food. I mean, businesses make choices all the time – draperies, logos, colors – but all of them are trying to get you to come in, not to make fun of your beliefs and keep you out. It’s like walking into a McDonalds and seeing a menu making fun of Catholics or Jews or something. What’s the point? Anyway, it was the first time I had been at the place, so I left and forgot about it.
A couple of month’s later, I found myself back up in Green Bay and back at the same place. I really had forgotten the whole Rush Room thing. Then the manager walked up to me. "See, we fixed it," he said. "Fixed what?" I asked. "Well, I thought it over and figured you were right and dumped the Rush thing," he said. "Really?" I was flabbergasted. The guy got one customer complaint (at least, that’s the impression he gave me) and figured he didn’t want to lose customers to divisive politics. "Good, uh, thanks," I mumbled. He didn’t look happy about it, but, there you go – another place safe for better digestion.
I was reminded of this reading IT’s fine exposition about Judith Faulkner of Epic Systems, who took a principled stand against those companies who support the extreme right-wing agenda of WMC. This (at least) encouraged a major construction firm, J.P. Cullen, to resign from the WMC board and quit the organization altogether. Earlier this year, while WMC was pouring millions of dollars from unknown sources into their unfortunately successful campaign to buy another seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, Madison hero Paul Soglin took the lead on giving WMC board members a head-up about what the renegade staff of the organization was up to. As usual, the most dangerous thing to under-the-rock slugs like those running the WMC political agenda is the light of day.
Given the industry-heavy make-up of the WMC board, it is hard for simple consumers to have the same kind of impact as Faulkner or Cullen. Boycotts as such are tough to organize and tougher to make successful. It gets down to exposing those involved, hoping for better individual choices, ripples creating waves, etc. I do know that I am off of Johnsonville brats. There – I said it. I’ll stop by in a month or two and see if they are still on the WMC board.