Also published on CommonDreams.org and Voice4change.org
I’ve always been an activist. I’ve always seen the purpose of a life as changing the world for the better, not observing it or recording it or drifting through it or playing it for my own gain, but altering it so it’s a better place with less hardship, destruction, humiliation, and hunger. I used to be a reporter, and I found that I was able to do some good, but that too often I had to write about things I didn’t care about or about things I did care about but in ways I could not support as honest or helpful.
Three years ago I took a job as the national communications person for an organization called ACORN, or the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. ACORN is a grassroots organization of low-income families who pay dues and elect their own leaders and work to improve their communities themselves with assistance from ACORN’s small staff. ACORN members speak at government hearings, hold sit-ins in corporate lobbies, negotiate with banks, speak to the media, and use a wide range of tactics to raise wages, create affordable housing, fight off loan sharks, improve public schools, lower utility bills, and clean up neglected neighborhoods. Finally I was able to devote the money-earning part of my life to something I cared passionately about. Finally my writing was never edited to make it more right-wing or corporate friendly or respectful of authorities who had proved themselves unworthy of respect. Very quickly I had no other life but ACORN, and I lived and breathed ACORN for three years.
I was privileged to play a role in passing living wage and minimum wage laws and in a long campaign that won a half a billion dollars for borrowers out of a company that had engaged in predatory lending. I was able to help empower people who had been shut out of our political process. I saw people develop leadership skills and use them to pass laws and force corporate reforms, and even get themselves elected to public office. Who cared that I wasn’t finding time to sleep?
When I got in touch with the Dennis Kucinich for President campaign, I already knew about Dennis. ACORN had worked with his congressional office, and he had always been supportive of working families. He himself had grown up in the inner city of Cleveland. ACORN members had met with him and related to him as someone who shared their experiences. And, of course, I had read his “Prayer for America” speech and Studs Terkel’s article urging him to run for president. I knew that if we could get Dennis Kucinich into the White House, groups like ACORN, as well as labor and environmentalist groups, peace groups, human rights groups, everyone struggling for a better world, would no longer have to push little snow balls up hill against an avalanche. No longer would we declare falling national wages that we’d addressed with a higher wage standard in a few cities a “victory.” No longer would we call it a success to block the privatization of schools but not win any funding for them. No longer would we celebrate some crumbs for the working poor in tax bills that radically shifted the burden onto their backs. Never again would we be content to ask for smaller cuts than the Republicans in health care, schools, or housing while the Pentagon budget skyrocketed.
I heard Dennis speak (at that point I still called him Kucinich) at a presidential candidates forum held by the Children’s Defense Fund, and I was underwhelmed. I noticed that the moderators asked him particularly mean and nasty questions, but I thought he could have done a better job answering them. I was more impressed by Rev. Al Sharpton’s sparkling wit and by the seeming straightforward confidence of a guy I’d never seen before: former Vermont Governor Howard Dean. Before long I had read enough about Dean to know I couldn’t trust or respect him. While he couldn’t possibly be as bad as George W. Bush, he wouldn’t turn this ship around. He would slow the destruction, little more. And he would only do that if he could manage to beat Bush in the general election running on a DLC Bush-lite platform, an approach that had worked for Clinton-Gore but not for Gore-Lieberman and not for the Democrats in Congress.
I heard Dennis speak again and was blown away. I had the reaction that hundreds of people have since described to me who have met Dennis or heard him speak at a campaign event: I was inspired. I came away from this speech, which he gave to a gathering of supporters in San Francisco, ready to do whatever I could to win him the nomination.
Now I know him and work with him every day and am more inspired than ever. I managed to get myself hired as his campaign press secretary. I quit ACORN, the only job I ever loved, for a job the hours and duties of which make working at ACORN seem like a relaxing stroll on the beach.
What confuses me is why anyone in this country would do anything other than work for Dennis Kucinich at this time, especially if you’re lucky enough to be paid for it. We have thousands of unpaid volunteers devoting long hours to this movement, because that’s what they understand it to be. This campaign is the peace movement, the environmentalist movement, the labor movement, the feminist movement, and the community organizing movement, not just combined, but with a chance to actually WIN.
The Democratic primaries, which begin in January, offer us a unique opportunity to nominate a candidate who will present the American public with a clear choice between the Republican and the Democrat. People will have the option of voting for more wars, more terror warnings, more unemployment, homelessness, pollution, debt, and lies, or of voting for a Department of Peace, health coverage for every American, free pre-kindergarten and college tuition, a jobs program unlike anything since FDR, replacing NAFTA and the WTO with trade agreements based on workers’ rights, human rights, and environmental quality principles, repealing the “PATRIOT Act,” protecting the right to choose, and returning the Social Security retirement age to 65. None of these proposals are fantastic. None of them require a larger investment than we are now pouring into wars, tax cuts for the super wealthy, and waste at the Pentagon.
More than that, if we nominate Dennis in the primaries, we will have a chance to elect a truly good and caring and honest man. His political success, his record of defeating incumbent Republicans, is not just based on his courage, on his willingness to stand up to corporations as he did as Mayor of Cleveland in refusing to sell Cleveland’s municipal electric system, saving consumers hundreds of millions of dollars at the risk of ruining his own career. (It was 15 years before the wisdom of what he had done was widely recognized and he made a political comeback, being elected to the Ohio State Senate.) No, Dennis’s success is based on the same approach taken by the late U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone: meeting, knowing, and respecting many, many people.
When people meet Dennis they talk in tones of amazement. When we flew in a small plane from Iowa to D.C. with a Rollingstone reporter recording an interview of Dennis the entire trip, the reporter commented when we were on the ground that he’d never before gone so long without an interviewee asking to go off the record. Dennis couldn’t understand that. He has nothing he’s trying to hide.
When we met with the editorial board of USA Today, they asked why Dennis didn’t follow Clinton’s third way. Dennis told them that to do so would be a tactical approach. He meant that as a stinging condemnation, though the expressions on some of the editors’ faces suggested a reaction on their part of “Yes, and