In progressive Wis., Brown looks for another upset But his flat tax proposal draws increased criticism

March 29, 1992|By Jules Witcover | Jules Witcover,Staff Writer

MILWAUKEE -- Here in Wisconsin, where Robert La Follette launched American progressivism, former Gov. Jerry Brown of California is carrying the banner high, hoping the state will give him another upset over Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton in its April 7 primary.

Wisconsin Secretary of State Douglas J. La Follette, who says he is a descendant of the great man, is supporting Mr. Brown, who tours the state preaching a revival of progressivism to enthusiastic, overflow crowds.

And the primary election reform that the original La Follette achieved -- permitting crossover voting without party registration -- would appear to give Mr. Brown a chance to buck the Democratic establishment here, which is lined up strongly behind Mr. Clinton.

But one prominent Brown proposal is encountering increasing criticism in Wisconsin as distinctly not progressive -- his call for a flat 13 percent income tax and a 13 percent national sales tax to replace virtually all other taxes on individuals.

Mr. Clinton zeroed in on it before the Wisconsin Legislature on Friday. He charged that the scheme would triple the tax on the poor, hit families with children hardest by killing off deductions, increase taxes on the middle class and give a "huge break to the top 1 percent" of income earners.

Furthermore, Mr. Clinton said, the proposal in eliminating deductibility of state and local taxes paid "would be a killer for Wisconsin, Minnesota and New York -- the states that have relatively high state tax burdens and progressive investments in their own people."

The Arkansas governor charged that the flat tax would abolish the Social Security trust fund and "repeal the single most successful social program achieved by the national government in the 20th century." He warned that America must "avoid ideas which are deceptively simple and sound great but make things worse."

Mr. Clinton repeated the charges in a televised debate Friday night, but Mr. Brown dismissed his criticisms as "a total diatribe" against "a fantastic idea" that would shift the tax burden from poor to rich.

The matter of deductibility of local and state taxes poses a political problem for Mr. Brown not only in progressive Wisconsin but in New York, which also holds its primary April 7. New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo has made the issue a cause of his own.

Former Wisconsin Gov. Anthony Earl, a Clinton supporter, said Mr. Brown would be formidable in this state if the primary were held "sooner rather than later." When voters learn the dimensions of Mr. Brown's flat-tax proposal, which the Clinton campaign intends to tell them between now and April 7, his support among progressives will slip, Mr. Earl said.

In the meantime, Mr. Brown refuses to back off the flat tax and continues to press his campaign against the whole political process, labeling it corrupt and calling Mr. Clinton the embodiment of what is wrong with it.

With the departure from the race of Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, much of Mr. Harkin's strong support from organized labor and liberals in Wisconsin has lined up with Mr. Brown. The fact that Mr. Harkin on Thursday endorsed Mr. Clinton did not stop 25 of the 28 members of the old Harkin steering committee here from signing up with Mr. Brown.

On college campuses and in union halls, Mr. Brown has been wowing overflow crowds with his blunt rhetoric, perhaps best summed up in a line to students at the University of Wisconsin branches in Kenosha and Milwaukee: "Many of the people who are in it [the system] don't get it. They're like people working in a fish factory. They don't know it stinks." It is going to take people from the outside, he said, to tell them and to clear the air.

This assault on the system in the wake of the recent congressional scandals, and on Mr. Clinton after the slew of allegations against him, could pay off for Mr. Brown in Wisconsin. Erwin Knoll, editor of the Progressive magazine published in Madison, said there is "a lot of mistrust of Clinton. The 'Slick Willie' stuff works more in this state than others because of the squeaky clean tradition here." At the same time, he said, voters here will be taking a closer look at Mr. Brown's flat-tax scheme.

Ed Garvey, the former National Football League players' lawyer and one-time Democratic senatorial candidate who supported Mr. Harkin, has become chairman of the Brown campaign. He says the very large crowds Mr. Brown has been drawing are generating "an excitement this time greater than anything I've ever experienced, except Jesse Jackson in 1988."

Four years ago, Mr. Jackson drew similarly large and enthusiastic crowds, but on primary day he lost out to Michael S. Dukakis -- a reminder that crowds are not the most reliable index of voter support at the polls.

Wisconsin has had to vie with New York for the candidates' time and inevitably is coming up on the short end, although Mr. Brown hTC has worked the state harder so far. Wisconsin will have 82 convention delegates at stake in its primary to 244 to be decided in New York.

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