Oral history interview with Billy Feitlinger

Billy Feitlinger was elected to Madison’s Common Council 3 times in the 1980s. During that time, he served as President of the Council and was instrumental in drafting Resolution #42,209 naming Arcatao, El Salvador, Madison's first sister city. With the help of several passionate alders, hard working social justice activists and a diverse group of citizens wanting to support the people of Arcatao, Billy secured its passage on April 1, 1986.

  • Identifier: madarc-003
    Narrator Name: Billy Feitlinger
    Interviewer Name: Joan Laurion
    Date of interview: 1/13/2023

    [00:00:00] Introductions
    [00:00:41] Path towards running for Common Council
    [00:02:25] Dynamics on Common Council and issues on the table in 1986
    [00:04:57] Working on the resolution to become a sister city with Arcatao
    [00:08:28] Opposing viewpoints about the resolution and getting involved in global issues
    [00:11:26] The choice to name US involvement in the language of the resolution
    [00:14:13] What was most memorable about the experience of working on this resolution
    [00:17:17] Final thoughts: Importance of thinking of community as global


    [00:00:00] Introductions
    Interviewer: Good morning. My name is Joan Laurion. And I am here talking with Billy Feitlinger online. We're in Madison, Wisconsin, today and it's January 13, 2023. So, Billy, you want to introduce yourself just a little?

    Billy Feitlinger: Sure. My name is Billy Feitlinger. I've lived in Madison, Wisconsin, since the early 1970s and became a member of the Common Council, Madison Common Council in 1981, served three terms, and became its president in 1984.

    [00:00:41] Path towards getting elected to Common Council
    Interviewer: So, Billy, you have had a long, long career in public service. You've had so many different roles in Madison's government. Tell us about what made you want to be on the Common Council in the beginning.

    Billy Feitlinger: Sure. When I first moved here, to Madison, I was very active in the community, the sixth district, which is the Near East side of Madison, and took a strong role in the community center neighborhood politics. And out of that experience, I decided back in the late 1970s that I wanted to run for elected office on the Madison Common Council to further my efforts to make a difference in our community. And so that's what got me started and interested in neighborhood politics, and then took the next step and ran for office, first against Michael Christopher, where I lost, and in 1981 when I won. And then as I said, was on the city council for three terms through 1987.

    Interviewer: So does that mean you were the president of the Common Council when this resolution with Madison-Arcatao came about?

    Billy Feitlinger: No. You serve for one-year terms. And then, even though it's not a regulation, the norm was in those days that you wouldn't seek reelection after that. So I was not the president of the Common Council when we passed the resolution in 1986.

    [00:02:25] Dynamics on Common Council and issues on the table in 1986
    Interviewer: So what was it like being on the council in 1986? Was it divided? What kind of things were you addressing?

    Billy Feitlinger: Yeah. You know, as I remember it, it was very, very different than the politics, the national and the statewide politics, not only in our state but our country where conservatives, people like Warren Ocken and Larry Olsen [assumed spellings] I had very good relationships with, even though we disagreed on many, many of the issues. And I think partly, it was us getting together and getting to know each other. And so it was a very different group where you had some factions that were very conservative, and then others like myself who were on the more progressive side. But we were always able to take each issue and then move on to the next issue without having to have this constant fighting, and especially personal attacks, which never occurred or rarely occurred on the city council when I was there.

    Interviewer: Do you remember what kinds of things you were addressing?

    Billy Feitlinger: Sure. As I said, I wanted to make a little difference. So the issues that I worked on were affordable housing, the whole issue of landlord-tenant ordinances, community projects, local development. I was one of the people who helped organize and initiate the Commonwealth Development Corporation, which basically worked on local development of small businesses and housing in our neighborhood. And so there's a whole range of different issues as well as ordinances, such as trying to make improvements to affirmative action and equal opportunity. And one of the first things that I worked on was the whole issue of the city budget and making sure that more dollars were being used for community services, programs, and nonprofits as we put together our budgets. So those are the kinds of things that I worked on.

    [00:04:57] Working on the resolution to become a sister city with Arcatao
    Interviewer: So we get to 1986 and there's all kinds of upheaval and talking and activism, and Madison became a sanctuary city during that period. We had people in sanctuary from Central America. So then it starts bubbling that we would become a sister city with Arcatao, which was not only a local issue but was happening all over the country. So this came about. People must have come to you. Who did you work with on this resolution? Who helped you with wording?

    Billy Feitlinger: When I was introduced to the project, there was a whole range of different people, including Art and Sue Lloyd, who have since passed away over decades, who I became personal friends with. Mark Rosenthal, Mary Kay Baum, Bob Skloot, and then obviously Joe Szwaja and Rose Escamilla. And all those different people reminded me of my political awakening back in the 1960s. And so these folks came to me. And I saw it as a couple things. One, that this was a kind of issue that made sense for the Common Council. And as you ask me further questions, I might have more information to share with you, like why did some people oppose it on the council.

    But basically, I thought two things. One, it was a budget issue, an issue that we are -- the federal government is spending tax dollars that could be better used in other areas of our country than intervening in a military dictatorship in El Salvador. And the second was, as I said, was it reminded me, when all these people came to me, of my political upbringing, basically, which was basically that the war in Southeast Asia was a war that we had a fight against -- anti-imperialism. Why are we spending these dollars and military in Southeast Asia? In the same vein, what the folks who were coming to me were talking about is basically what was going on in the 1980s, where the United States government intervened in this terrible war, Salvadorian Civil War, and put a lot of money and military.

    And basically, the same -- it's not exactly analogous, but exactly what happened in Southeast Asia, it was going on again here in a particular part of our world, that I was opposed to -- let alone, we shouldn't have been involved in.

    Interviewer: So was there much -- oh, go ahead, Billy.

    [00:08:28] Opposing viewpoints about the resolution and getting involved in global issues
    Billy Feitlinger: A whole range of people were instrumental in coming to me and we had several meetings to make sure we had the crafting of the resolution. And then also knew the political pitfalls that there were certain people on the Common Council who didn't believe that we should be involved in global affairs. And I disagreed. But going back to a point I made before, was -- I think people at least had enough respect for each other, even if we disagree politically, to allow things to be done in a very rational way versus -- and, you know, we had disagreements. And like I said, basically, people who felt either they didn't understand why I was so strongly opposed to what was going on. And why we needed to build an important friendship and an ally, like the sister city of Arcatao, and also why it was important for us to take a clear stand and a public awareness of what bad things our government was doing in the civil war that was going on in El Salvador.

    Interviewer: So did you negotiate with those people that were opposed to this happening, or?

    Billy Feitlinger: Yeah, I would say this would not be a good example of some of the things that I did over the years that I was [inaudible] negotiating on tenant-landlord. This was an issue that was a moral imperative for my work. And my belief was that there really wasn't any way to negotiate. And by the way, I don't mean this in a derogatory way or critical way of people who felt -- predominantly, it was the smaller faction of the council that was opposed to this. And I would guess I classify them as people who were very conservative. But it was more not so much an ideological -- from my perspective, as they believe that we shouldn't be spending our time talking about global issues. That was the main public reason given. And so there really wasn't a whole lot of negotiations around it.

    But I felt very strongly that we had a responsibility, and that it was part of our business. And obviously the majority of council members agreed with me on that.

    [00:11:26] The choice to name US involvement in the language of the resolution
    Interviewer: So I'm going to read that line. There's a lot of "whereases" in the resolution. And two of them are: " -- whereas the assault on non-combatants has received scant attention in the US media as of late," and "-- whereas the United States government is intimately involved in the conflict in El Salvador and our tax dollars are funding the war there." So it would have been really easy to not even put those "whereases" in. But you all decided to do it. And that was a very brave decision to just kind of --

    Billy Feitlinger: At that time, I didn't see it as a brave decision. I thought it was a moral imperative that we want -- part of the purpose of the resolution -- you know, it's not going to make a gigantic difference, but hopefully made a little difference in the Greater Madison area -- the public awareness that our government, that my name is a part of, and all our names are a part of as taxpayers and as elected officials, that I wanted to make sure that as many people as I could convey that to -- the public awareness that this was a very bad thing, that the American government was intervening with money and military [inaudible] country and a people that we should not have had anything to do with. In fact, we had our own local trainings in our country, like in Georgia, where it was [inaudible] called that, but it was called the School of Americas.

    The training of our -- using our military to train the military government that was running a dictatorship and basically hurting the people of El Salvador, and in particular the peasants that were pushing back against their government, or supposedly their government, with the help -- intervention of our government. And I wanted to make sure that if a little way that we as a community, through the Common Council, can make people more aware of this bad intervention and basically pushing back on imperialism that we had done exactly the same thing throughout the world in different parts of our history, including times that I first got involved in politics, which was against the war in Southeast Asia back in the '60s.

    [00:14:13] What was most memorable about the experience of working on this resolution
    Interviewer: Well, thanks to people like you, it did happen. The resolution passed, and we've been sistered with Arcatao in El Salvador for thirty-seven years now. As you look back on that time, what was one of the most memorable experiences that kind of jumps out at you?

    Billy Feitlinger: I think -- two things that jump out at me: One, the people, the decades and decades of people who came to me who were longtime activists, who I had the good fortune of getting to know. And the younger generation, like Joe Szwaja and Rose Escamilla, versus the people that, you know, the Lloyds, Mary Kay Bomb, Bob Skloot, and others like that. So on one hand, it was part of the reason why -- the Common Council -- I enjoyed my six years was engaging with people who I either had known for years and years, versus new people I got to know [inaudible], and how we worked together to make sure that we at least made an attempt to make the public more aware of this important effort that we were making and making sure that they understood what our government was doing in El Salvador.

    And then the second, to be quite frank, it was a reminder of my political roots, what got me going. And it was a reminder, again, of -- to make our country great, truly great, we must be able to criticize it and improve it and people more aware and make sure that if there are people who are not listening to us, that we have a responsibility to make the public aware of that so that they themselves could do what they can do to make things better in our country and our world.

    Interviewer: Wow. It's just so impressive to me that it took all different parts of our community. It took activists, it took the faith community, it took people like you that were involved in government and public service; it took all those folks, including the people in sanctuary who told their story over and over and over again. It just took everyone to pull together and say, We want to say something about this. And then this resolution came as an option and got passed, and we've had this relationship ever since. It's -- I'm just -- it's very remarkable, and I want to thank you for your part in it.

    Billy Feitlinger: Thanks so much.

    [00:17:17] Final thoughts: Importance of thinking of community as global
    Interviewer: Is there anything else you'd like to say, Billy, before we close?

    Billy Feitlinger: I mean, just basically that as we look at our community in Madison and our state Wisconsin and our country, I think it's really important that we look at a community being global. And even though there's only so many things that we can do as citizens or elected officials, in our communities we want to make sure that people are aware that it is a global community and that it's important for us to be aware of what goes on in other parts of the world. And how our government responds is really important as citizens of our country.

    Interviewer: Right. You've said it so well. Thanks so much, Billy.