Former State Rep. Midge Miller defied the political status quo and defined what it meant to be a "West Side Liberal." Her death Friday morning at age 86 ended a life noteworthy for its accomplishments and remarkable for its generosity of spirit.
Marjorie Leeper didn't come to Madison to change the world, but that's what she ended up doing. Widowed with four children when her missionary husband, Dean Leeper, died in a shipwreck, Midge's Madison life began as an assistant dean and coordinator of religious activities at the University of Wisconsin. But as soon as she started volunteering for then-Governor Gaylord Nelson's successful 1962 U.S. Senate campaign (where she met UW professor Ed Miller, a widower with five children, including current State Sen. Mark Miller) a political force was born.
That force reached its first full flowering in 1967-68, when Midge helped recruit U.S. Sen. Eugene McCarthy to challenge President Lyndon Johnson as an overt anti-war candidate, then helped run his Wisconsin campaign -- an insurgency so successful that Johnson dropped out of the race just days before the Wisconsin primary. Miller, McCarthy later said, was the critical component in that campaign.
Two years later, it was Midge herself on the point, elected to the Assembly in the forefront of a new generation of liberal state leaders. Most of Wisconsin's progressive legislation that doesn't date from the La Follette era came during Midge's seven terms, 1971-1985.
And even as she was serving as an effective state legislator, Midge was both an insider (nine years on the Democratic National Committee) and agitator (as a co-founder of the National Women's Political Caucus). She also helped found the progressive think tank, The Madison Institute, in 1982. But whatever her position, her purpose was constant -- to work for peace and social justice and ensure clean and open government.
Miller, whose post-war missionary work in Japan made her an unswerving foe to the notion of nuclear weapons, wrote the "nuclear freeze" referendum that Wisconsin approved by better than 3:1 in 1982. And if arms control advocate Sen. Alan Cranston had gotten the Democratic presidential nomination instead of Walter Mondale, it might have been Midge Miller, and not Geraldine Ferraro, who made history as the first female vice presidential nominee for a major party.
Midge stepped down from the Assembly in 1985 (in a mournful coincidence, her successor, Becky Young, died five months ago), but she didn't stand still. If the cause was peace or social justice, or the candidate one with more commitment than money, that's where you'd find Midge Miller.
May her memory be for a blessing.