If At First You Don't Succeed
Will presidential defeat cause the new crop of leftist activists to give up?
Desi Brown has a funny quirk to his dance step; it's an extra little stompy kick that marks not only his swinging, but often the steps of the dancers he teaches every Tuesday night at the Heights Community Center near TVI. For seven years now, Brown and an evolving group of friends, called The Calming Four Primordial Swing Dance Group, have hosted weekly dance practice sessions and lessons. The three dollar donation they collect at the door goes to cover expenses. Brown and his buddies give away the rest; overall they've donated nearly $20,000 to local and national groups, including La Cueva High School Drill Team, Keshet Dance Company and the Red Cross 9-11 Relief Fund.
But during the second half of Bush's first term, The Calming Four's donations became more focused as the group became more politically active. After years of giving money to pretty much any community organization who asked for it, they decided to be more choosy. "Basically, we talked a bit about what was going on," explains Brown. "We had a situation where we could have donated money to some youth group that was doing a music concert or a group that was doing environmental work. We chose the environmental group and we kept going with that."
The Calming Four started doing voter registration on Tuesday nights, eventually registering about 400 voters. They disbursed thousands of dollars to progressive interests like the Albuquerque Center for Peace and Justice, Stop the War Machine, the UNM chapter of New Mexico Public Interest Research Group (NMPIRG), Dennis Kucinich's presidential campaign, Green Party candidate Bob Anderson's city council campaign, as well as New Voters Project and Young Voters Alliance.
"We realized we can make a difference," Brown said. "Every single person can go out and make a difference." That conviction led him to quit his job of 10 years, fabricating exhibits at the BioPark. "When I quit my job I was volunteering for the Dennis Kucinich campaign and was really impressed by the huge number of people who knew nothing about politics, but were willing to donate all of this time and effort." Realizing how important politics had become in his life, Brown decided to go back to school for a degree in political science and communications; he already has a degree in commercial construction management.
But for all The Calming Four's efforts to effect change, the powers that be were barely shaken, much less toppled. "I was saddened," Brown remembers. "I really thought that there was going to be a big enough turnout of new voters on the Democratic side. And there was, but we were blindsided by the number of Republicans who came out." He wants to spend his time now on education. "There are just so many people who don't know what's going on in the world."
Brown's first efforts, part of his UNM studies, will be for a project educating civic groups about same-day voter registration, something a handful of other states have in place. He plans to speak to the state Legislature about how the system works in other states and how it could work here. Brown believes that many of the problems that voters encounter at the polls could be resolved by implementing same-day voter registration, a solution that would eliminate troublesome provisional ballots. Brown plans to expend much of his energy on this project for the next year or so. "It's one thing to feel good about giving to an organization like MoveOn.org," Brown says, "but when you can do it on a local level, you see those results quicker."
For Alan Schechner, the owner of Nob Hill's popular Laru Ni Hati salon, it was reconnecting with Andy Tobias that brought him into politics this year. Tobias, Schechner's friend of 25 years, is now treasurer of the Democratic National Committee. Their visit resulted in Shechner's attendance at an event in Washington, D.C. benefiting legislators who had supported civil unions. "I went and I hung out with people who were in the trenches every day," he says. "It was really interesting." The salon owner said he hadn't previously gotten involved in local politics mostly because he had never been asked.
But not long after his trip to D.C., Schechner hosted a house party for Sen. John Kerry, at which guests listened to a brief talk by members of the campaign's New Mexico staff. "I asked them where they were staying and one of the organizers told me they were scattered all over the place, sleeping in spare bedrooms all over town." Schechner had recently bought a UNM-area house as an investment, but hadn't rented it yet. He decided to loan it to Kerry campaign staffers until the election was over. The house has five bedrooms, four bathrooms and is within walking distance of the former Kerry office. The campaign staff, some salaried and some volunteer, paid the utilities for the house but no rent; Schechner carried the mortgage for four months while they stayed in what the staffers came to call Kappa Kerry.
In the weeks that followed, Shechner went to fundraisers for local candidates and felt optimistic about the future. Until Nov. 2, that is. "I think it reminded me a lot of a funeral, like a death in the family," he says of his reaction to the election results. The worst of it lasted about a week, but even now, "I think you could say I'm still in a funk," he says. But he's not giving up. "I'm going to try to do what I did last time, which was more than I had done before, probably a lot more." For Schechner, as for other neophyte activists interviewed for this story, it's important to do something, even if the effect may be small. To do something, anything, is better than to do nothing at all. "I need to at least feel like I exhausted myself, that I pushed myself and gave up some stuff, whether it be time or money, to try to contribute to making changes that I believe in, and working with people who have similar objectives."
It was this sense of having to do something that prompted Steve Pergam to get politically active for the first time. "There have been administrations that I didn't agree with but there were a lot of things [Bush did] that were against the ideals that I believe in. ... I was concerned about the separation of church and state, and I was really worried about the issue of choice and the Supreme Court." A physician who underwent a kidney transplant this summer, Pergam spent a few months recovering, then poured his newfound energy into defeating Bush.
Sitting on the sidelines was not the option it had previously been for Pergam. In fact, his whole family suddenly became involved. His sister sent handwritten letters to women voters in swing states. His parents canvassed for MoveOn, passed out anti-war fliers at an Ann Coulter event, and sent money to Dean and other candidates. For his part, Pergam wrote checks the size of his rent payment to 527 groups and progressive candidates, including Richard Romero. In October he volunteered with NARAL Pro Choice New Mexico, went to rallies, recruited other volunteers and phone banked, working to get progressive voters to the polls.
Volunteering with like-minded folks perked him up when the news and polls looked bad. "There were 70-year-old women sitting next to me, making phone calls all night, and these college students and people who've taken time off from their jobs just to volunteer. It gave me a sense of hope."
Pergam saw the bad news coming early on election night, but was still surprised that Kerry lost. "Unfortunately,” he says, "there's a sense now that making change in this administration is going to be very difficult. We had the chance to censure them with this election and it didn't happen. So you can see how they would say, ’Why should we listen to people who are unhappy now?' They will continue to do things that I'm not necessarily for. And it's disappointing, but I'm not sure they'll listen to what I have to say because they don't really listen to dissent."
He's discouraged, but the despondency fades as he talks more about the future. "For the time being, I'm just sort of picking up the pieces and trying to figure out what to do." Now that voter registration and mobilization efforts are over, activists like Pergam are searching for someplace to put their efforts. Until then, he pledges to continue to be well informed and keep tabs on local politicians and national representatives. "I think it's important to work on the issues that I care about, like making sure that Roe v. Wade doesn't get overturned," he says. "We've got to really watch the Supreme Court nominations."
For Pergam as for Schechner, a valuable sense of satisfaction comes from feeling like they fought the good fight. The question now is, are they too tired to fight any more? Was all this new grassroots activism and record-setting fundraising just the beginning of a newly vigorous progressive movement?
The difference these past few years has made will be long-lasting, Schechner hopes. "We need to stay organized, keep our sense of humor, and use this energy and disappointment, channel it into something creative," he says. "This is a dark period that could become something constructive, a renaissance."
If glum liberals need inspiration, they should look to the newest members of their movement. The '04 election was a crushing blow, but it did succeed in motivating a whole new crop of activists who spent the past year getting educated, committed and trained. Political organizations on the left are surely brainstorming like crazy on how to keep the momentum of this standing army going (and contributions coming in). Meanwhile, shiny new political machines like Desi Brown will be steadily working towards change for 2008, while activists and donors like Alan Schechner and Steve Pergam will no longer wait for the call to get involved.