Monday, August 30, 2010

Alexi Giannoulias Fires Up the Vols

On September 28th, volunteers from all over the nation got together to knock on doors on behalf of Democratic candidates. Alexi Giannoulias, Illinois' Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate seat once held by Barack Obama, came to Chicago Heights to talk to its volunteers before heading out the door.

He was introduced by Sen. Toi Hutchinson. Cook County Board of Review Commissioner Brendan Houlihan also joined us.

Volunteers from this location ended up knocking on 1500 doors on Saturday. The enthusiastic send-off by Alexi Giannoulias didn't hurt. It is amazing how well Alexi connects with the volunteers and voters of Illinois. We received a terrific response from voters in reaction to Alexi's candidacy and his focus on jobs for Illinois!

You can donate to Alexi's campaign here or sign up to volunteer here...

Friday, August 27, 2010

Throw the Bums Out

Newsflash: voters are angry. Democrats will try to knock on 200,000 doors tomorrow and I'm betting some of them will be surprised.

I got a glimpse of that today. I was out running errands in my "League of Conservation Voters" shirt -- which almost everyone misreads as "League of Conservative Voters" -- and the check-out lady asks me, "so who do you vote for?"

Now I have to say that I was taken aback. I mean, I don't usually have checkers try to engage me in political discussions and I almost never know what shirt I'm wearing (guy, so who cares what clothes I have on -- I figure I'm lucky when they "match"). But after a momentary pause, I say, "I'm voting Democrat."

And she replies, "I usually vote Democrat, too, but I'm just so frustrated this year."

In one sentence, a nice elderly woman has captured the mood of the electorate here in Illinois.

"when are they going to tell you how they're going to solve all these problems?" she asks.

YES! Now we're on my ground!

"Well," I respond, and then give a brief version of my 'we live in a complex world' speech which always begins the same way: "We've tried all the simple answers, and when those didn't work, we're left with the difficult ones." But what politician is going to tell you that the problems that remain are the ones that earlier politicians couldn't solve because they demand more difficult, and probably more complex, solutions?

Because, you know, politicians avoid telling hard truths like children avoid brushing their teeth or taking their medicine.

Probably for the same reasons.

Now, you want to give away Ice Cream? That always gets a crowd.

Politicians tend to want to be liked. It's part of their genome. So the expectation that a group of people who mostly need to be liked could solve some of the country's most difficult problems -- like unemployment, a sour economy, health care, racism, etc etc -- might be a bit far fetched. You know, if you really think about it.

Which I suspect most people don't.

Don't get me wrong. There are really smart people thinking about solving the challenges we face. One of them, right here in Illinois, ran for an open seat in the Illinois House recently. He talked a lot about issues and how we could go about dealing with some of the greater challenges faced in the state.

And he lost. Which didn't surprise me.

I know of another one who decided to leave the Illinois House this year and run for a different office. When I saw him down in Springfield, I asked if he'd be coming back in the future. "There are other offices where we need your help," mentioning one specifically.

But I'm pretty sure that he got the hell out of Dodge because he was frustrated by the actual pace of change in Illinois' capital. Molasses moves faster. And I know that he's interested in real solutions, in helping real people, not just perpetuating the same ole, same ole down there.

And then there's Toi Hutchinson and Robin Kelly. I'll feign no pretense of objectivity here. I know them both personally, they are very smart women from my little part of the South Suburbs (South of I-80) who care deeply about their jobs in government and how government can help people. Sometimes I wonder if this isn't a novel concept in Illinois.

For their belief that government can and should be used to help people who need its help, both are endangered in the upcoming elections. Here you have two accomplished black women who really believe in government as a force for helping people and they are swimming against the tide of anger that is out there. It's a lot easier to sell a message of fear right now than it is to hype Hope and Change.

Robin Kelly is proud of the work that the Illinois Treasurer's office has done under her leadership (she's Chief of Staff to Illinois Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias). They returned the office to professionals, which meant that they kept the competent Republicans who were brought in by the previous (GOP) Treasurer. But this little bit of professionalism means that Robin's opponent has almost a direct line into what they've accomplished and what her campaign's message would be.

You know, as long as she keeps it positive.

Ah, the moral dilemma of being one of the good guys. Her opponent faces no such qualms. He works for a company that has numerous contracts with state government, and will do very well with one of its own in the Illinois cabinet. Which, no doubt, means that he'll personally profit from his election. Power and money, to boot! Who could want more?

To an outsider, that's what is wrong with Illinois. I used to think that Illinois was just a *lot* more tolerant of corruption, but in the last year or so, it seems to me that Illinois actually prefers the corrupt. Maybe it's just that corrupt politicians are more predictable, leading to that all-important "stable" economic environment. I'm clueless why the electorate would go along with it, but that's Illinois. And we're different!

I know I'm supposed to be proud of that. If I could just wrap my brain around it.

Toi Hutchinson is an appointed state senator, replacing Debbie Halvorson, which means she's facing the voters in her district for the first time. In a normal election cycle, we'd say that Toi had the same odds as a non-incumbent, 50-50. You'd be forgiven if you concluded that they are a little worse this year, given the state of the economy. All the challenges of being an incumbent in a "throw the bums out" election cycle with none of the advantages.

Toi is proud of what she's been able to accomplish in her short term. The Illiana Expressway, which will bring jobs to her district. The re-writing of the law to insure that rape kits actually get tested.

But these women stand for election not only in a piss-poor economic environment, but also standing up against the prevailing winds. You see, they believe in government, that government can be a force in our society FOR GOOD, and that government should act as a check and balance against the free market that isn't exactly particular about who profits from the invisible hand or why. Ok, I'm projecting on that last one. I *think* that they agree with me that government should serve as a greater check against the free market, but you'd have to ask them.

Some people think I have radical views. Wouldn't want to project those on politicians I like.

The thing is that they are pretty much standing alone. Oh, sure, there's Barack Obama, but that's not what I mean. What politicians are out there defending government, acting as if they believe that it can be a force for positive change in people's lives, not "the problem?"

More to the point, who among us is arguing the same thing?

Yep, people are angry, and they can't really count on too many people because we've been deceived into the idiom that "government is the problem, not the solution."

The fact is that the free market won't start producing the "small business" jobs that everyone seems to be waiting for because banks are not really inclined to lend them money. Consumers are being more careful with their money, paying down their debts instead of starting up another widespread spending spree. Would-be entrepreneurs -- at least those who can't start off in their garages -- are thinking about if they want to risk exposure to such a crappy economy.

And the one place that could be creating jobs right now? Oh, we don't want no damn government jobs, because that's just wrong. No one knows why (government salaries get spent, too, and spread far and wide into the economy). They just believe that it does.

Now I'm interested in power. I don't worry too much about the wonky stuff, even in the areas I have some expertise in, because it's not nearly as interesting as *power.* I might be one of the few, because it seems to me that we Americans have no problem ceding power to the invisible hand, but we're almost paranoid about governments exercising power, even when it would make us all better off. That's just silly ideology deceiving us.

As a student of power, I don't want the government to have too much, just as I don't want the market to have too much. But there doesn't seem much chance for the government to gain too much power, because of the knee-jerk response the electorate seems to have when even a little bit of power gets exercise. Like bailing out a crashing market. Or the housing bubble. Etc etc.

But we don't have any trouble with the market exercising too much power. Bernie Madoff? Just an aberration (yeah, right). It's ok because every American wants to get rich. And if a few people (*gag*) get ripped off along the way, well, we take great comfort that the bastard's in jail. The fact that the market doesn't adjust itself -- let alone regulate itself -- is far too easy to ignore when everybody is doing it.

Plus, what are drugs and alcohol for?

Nope, better to be suspicious of the only country-wide institution that could actually help us out of this depression-like economy. Just because.

This is a very powerful country and that power is based extensively on the massive free market economy that serves as its foundation. I understand that nothing that powerful ever wants to be checked, let alone balanced, but it's better for all of us if it is. Power should never be concentrated in one set of hands (no matter how many hands they actually are). No, power should be dispersed, not concentrated, and a powerful free market economy *demands* a powerful government that can regulate and right it. If an amoral force like our free market economy is left unfettered, than the Bernie Madoffs of the world have an open season on all of us. But that's not the point.

The point is that voters are angry, and part of their anger is that they feel abandoned. The economy stinks and they think that there is no one there to help them out. Keynesians would argue that this is exactly when the government should be going all out to right the economic ship of state. But Keynesians soiled their argument by overspending during the years of plenty and not paying down the debts incurred during the years of want.

Yep, voters are angry and we're just not taking their concerns seriously. I mean, COME ON! Tell me a single politician's plan for reviving the economy and creating jobs that is not only credible (seems like it could work) AND gets paid for at some point in time? Maybe I missed one.

I have to say that I do get a kick, though, out of the people that keep demanding that Barack Obama get a backbone because at least he's making an effort at the argument. Yes, the president thinks government can be a force for Hope and Change in our country, he really does. But, in the end, he might be one of the few who does. And like Robin Kelly and Toi Hutchinson, he's standing against hurricane-force winds. The only way to withstand that force is to stand together. There aren't enough people, it seems to me, willing to join 'em.

Voters have every reason to be angry at all of us. The easy answers have been tried. The one's that remain are real bitches. Just like FDR in the great depression, we got to start trying things and, when those fail, try some more. Except that FDR didn't have a sceptical electorate who had been "trained" to think of government as the problem. And that's where we got to start. Change starts by changing minds. It's really the only hope that good government types like Robin Kelly and Toi Hutchinson have.

Tomorrow, Democrats want to knock on 200,000 doors across the country. Some of the canvassers are going to be in for a rude awakening. But, then, some people who open their doors to us will be, as well. But it's a conversation that we have to have. This is our moment. This is our time. And we *are* the change we've been waiting for. I heard that someplace...

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Reflections on Growing Old

"The more things change, the more they stay the same." I don't know who said that, but it does seem that change is hard to come by. I suppose that depends on how we define change.

I am the grandson of a Methodist minister (and proud that my brother took up the profession, because I always felt like I was expected go into the ministry -- until my mother corrected me decades later!) and the son of civil rights activists in Florida. My grandfather once said in a sermon that we were lucky enough to attend that "you change the world one heart at a time."

I've never forgotten that. And I really believe that.

Having fought for Hope and Change for two years starting in 2007, I won't ever forget the euphoria in electing the first black president in our history. And, despite the warnings from Barack Obama, many of us are disappointed at the progress -- or lack thereof -- that's been made.

Change don't come easy. You change the world one heart at a time.

It's a lifelong project. But I'm a baby boomer, and we want immediate gratification. Hell, it took years to mobilize people, to get them excited enough to take a chance -- to risk the country, even (according to some) -- to "get what we want."

But nothing's changed. You change the world one heart at a time.

I don't agree that nothing has changed. It seems to me that this president has been extraordinarily successful, pushing through major elements of his campaign agenda, tackling health care, Wall Street reform, instituting equal pay for women, beginning the drawdown of forces in Iraq, instituting transparency in the federal government, signing the stem-cell bill, rescuing the economy from the Bush recession, and working on climate change (and accepting it as a credible threat to the country). Our standing in the world has increased, and people can start to feel good about America again.

But not everyone agrees. You change the world one heart at a time.

I got into an argument this morning with someone here in Illinois, in part because I'm proud of the small part me and my family played in the civil rights movement in Florida. I can't pretend to understand the discrimination that others have felt because I've led an incredibly blessed life. I get how lucky I am. But that doesn't mean I don't understand how others have been effected.

When I was a freshman in high school, we had race riots at my school. For a week that fall we had policeman around campus. Our coaches told us to stay out of it, and I suspect most of us did. But during that week, a cross was burned in the front lawn of one of my teammates and ended up damaging his home. I went to the varsity coach to tell him about it, expressing my concern. My (freshman) football coach was none too pleased, but that's life. The next day, the "cowboys," as we called them, beat up a football player, and our coaches told us to "end it." We did and the police left.

I understand what it's like to fight for change. I can't claim to be a pacifist or a believer in non-violent solutions to all the world's ills, but I understand that violence should only be used as a last resort. More importantly, I understand that those who resist change can -- and have -- resort to violence a lot quicker than those who work for it. And it's not always appropriate to just stand by.

During the Pennsylvania primaries, we had one African-American volunteer calling for Barack face two nasty barrages of racist rhetoric in one day. I'm convinced they didn't realize that she was black because I seriously doubt that you could have told from her voice. A nice Philly suburban housewife who lived in a pretty good neighborhood, she didn't deserve that. "This country isn't ready for a (black) president," one of the callers told her (using the pejorative for black).

You change the world one heart at a time. It's a long frickin' process.

I'm not sure I would have wished any of this upon Barack Obama. But, then, sometimes it takes a tectonic shift to rest people out of their slumber. I'd like to think that we were doing that, but it seems that the forces of good are exhausted, disappointed and uninterested. I've even heard one (black) Democratic party "leader" express greater disappointment in the president than you'd hear from Tea Party leaders, because he didn't immediately make everything better for black women.

Man, that's a lot of expectations to carry while one is burdened with leading the country. But you change the world one heart at a time.

Last night, I had another political activist call me a radical. "It's not necessarily a bad thing," he mentioned. Hadn't heard that since high school -- and it probably got me thinking about things. I guess I stand out, although I can't say I meant to. But I'm fairly certain I don't see myself the way others do. Thank god for my wife, who often interprets the world for me. (Only one reason why I adore her!)

I tend to think of things on a continuum. Things don't always go the way we want, and generals like to say that all battle plans fail once contact with the enemy is made. It's the ability to adapt to a changing environment that makes one successful.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. You change the world one heart at a time. It don't come easy. But it's worth the fight...