Meet Steven Olikara, the only UW-Madison alum running for U.S. Senate and working to unseat Sen. Ron Johnson this fall. Olikara graduated from UW-Madison in 2012, becoming one of the university’s first environmental studies degree holders.
Olikara sat down with The Daily Cardinal to discuss how his time at UW-Madison shaped his career and campaign for U.S. Senate.
Can you provide a brief overview of your time or memorable moments at UW-Madison?
I had three biggest highlights on campus. One was when the Badgers football team beat the number one ranked Ohio State Buckeyes, and we rushed the field afterwards. That was really fun. The second was when President Obama came to visit campus in 2010. I was given the opportunity to be an opening speaker for that rally, which had almost 30,000 students in the library mall and I was looking out to East campus mall, there was just a sea of people that went on seemingly indefinitely. Then, the third one was when I was graduating as part of my role as senior class president. I invited Neil deGrasse Tyson, the astrophysicist, to campus and this was actually somewhat of a protest against the campus administration for not bringing all graduates together in one giant event. So we created a new event called Senior Day, and Neil deGrasse Tyson came in and spoke (for what was), I believe, the second largest event ever on the Memorial Union terrace. And that was the precursor to now in all graduates' commencement ceremony at Camp Randall. That was what we were advocating for [an all graduate’s commencement ceremony], at the time, and finally got it done, but the following year.
What was it like being one of the first environmental studies majors?
I remember being on campus and talking with my not only Democratic friends, but also my Republican friends who believed we need to be taking climate action, and they wish that their political party would be more proactive on it. So I saw on campus that this is a generational issue. Taking on climate change is an interdisciplinary activity, you need a background in economics, environmental policy, politics — you know, business. There was an emerging conversation about how we [could] expand the Environmental Studies Certificate, which already had been one of the most popular certificates, and turn it into a real major. We were able to get funding for that. I love how we structured it, because it is intentionally cross-disciplinary, and the environmental studies major has to be paired up with another major on campus, which I like.
The story of how I became the actual first environmental studies major is kind of a funny one. I was getting close to graduating and I sat down with the advisor, and I was pretty close to having a lot of their requirements for this major. She's like, ‘do you want to be the very first one to sign the paperwork?’ I was like, ‘I would be honored to.’ So yeah, my class was the first environmental studies major class.
What motivated you to run for office?
The biggest motivation is changing the business model of our politics, creating a new lane, a new way of doing politics, to make our government work for all Americans and all Wisconsinites. Right now, that's not the case. You have a whole business model of politics that profits on fear and hatred and division. As a result, our country is more divided than ever in our lifetimes and we're not solving problems. All of these big issues that we've been talking about from climate change to economic inequality just keep getting kicked down the road. For me, it was really important to do what my mentor told me a long time ago, which was if you think someone ought to do something, that person's probably you.
Can you talk a little bit about your “Millennial Action Project''?
I saw that there's this worsening polarization, but also an opportunity to bring young people to the table and get some things done, and translate the major movements around climate change and gun violence and all of these grassroots movements that weren't passing, that Congress was ignoring. I wanted to be a bridge between that grassroots energy and legislative change. We grew to be the largest organization of young elected officials in the country. We've trained over 2000 young leaders, we have chapters in Congress and 30 state legislatures, including here in Wisconsin.
One of my favorite accomplishments here in Wisconsin, was successfully advocating for voting reforms leading up to the 2020 election to ensure that people had equal and secure access to absentee voting during that time of the pandemic. We only got those things done because we actually created the only bipartisan coalition of sitting elected officials in the state to support these improvements to the absentee voting system.
If you could tackle anything in Washington D.C. right now, what would be your most pressing issue?
My first piece of legislation in the U.S. Senate will be getting big money out of politics. I think that money is at the root of why we see so much corruption, why we see so much inaction, why we see so much hate and why working class people aren't represented in our politics. This is the root issue. I think for young people, this is just common sense stuff. But in Washington, D.C., this is totally radical. Why would you want your congress members to be funded by the most entrenched, incumbent special interests in this country? Maybe you're a farmer, maybe you're an entrepreneur, maybe you're a small business owner. You know, you don't have millions of dollars for lobbyists in Washington. I'm really here to advocate for those communities that don't have lobbyists in Washington, and I want to cut off that funding mechanism between lobbyists and members of Congress.
Anything else you want to add about your time at UW-Madison?
I was asked at the UW-Madison campus’s forum for Senate candidates, ‘what's something you like to do for fun,’ and I said, ‘pitchers on the terrace,’ and everyone kind of laughed. But you know, for me, there's that time after exams, spring exams, and the weather just turned nice to be able to sit outside, have pitchers on the terrace with your friends. That is one of the absolute happiest moments of my life.