Lefty Parent

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Circle of equals

Politics 101

February 13th, 2009 at 23:40

voting-precinct-28_t460]Several years after she divorced my dad, my mom threw herself into local politics as a Democratic Party precinct co-chair and campaign manager for a couple local candidates. She was motivated initially by, among other things, trying to keep her son (me… still a handful of years from draft age) out of the Vietnam War, and later by the growing movement for women’s rights and particularly the campaign for the Equal Rights Amendment. It took her into a new world of people, passion and polemics… dragging me not so unwillingly along with her…

The initial event I recall in this emerging thread was a cocktail party at the home of Franklin Pierce, a acquaintance of my mom’s who was running for the US Senate on an anti-war platform. Jane Fonda and Daniel Ellsberg were there, Ellsberg fresh off his Pentagon Papers revelations and Fonda still yet to embark on her visit to North Vietnam. I recall meeting Fonda and Ellsberg and being duly impressed by these big-time political celebrities. It may have been this event, or some other consciousness-raising “click”, but my mom took on the persona of dedicated political activist. It was certainly a better self-image than divorced, semi-suicidal, forty-something homemaker.

I recall my mom taking her precinct chair job pretty seriously. She was given the list of all the registered voters in our precinct. Since at the time in Michigan (unlike other states) there was no political party registration, one of my mom’s initial tasks was to identify all the Democrats and the other people in our precinct that were likely to vote for Democrats. This involved telephoning people on the list, if possible, or even going door-to-door to try and gather this information.

She methodically worked through the list, identifying each voter with a “D” (Democrat), “R” (Republican), or “I” (independent) or some combination like “ID” or “IR”. She even recruited me (maybe thirteen or fourteen at the time) to make these canvassing calls and ask people which party they supported. It was tough work for a shy kid like me, being on the wrong end of an occasional call where I got chewed out by someone that their political party affiliation was “none of your damn business”.

Once the potential Democratic vote in her precinct was identified, another key task was making sure they all got out and voted on election day. At about 5pm, three hours before the polls closed, she would go across the street to our polling place in the Burns Park recreation room and check the voter roll for who on her list had not voted yet. Then she would get back on the phone, try to reach these people and make sure they got out to vote. For some of this subset who could not be reached by phone, she sent me out on my bicycle to knock on their doors and deliver the reminder in person. Again I was shy and at times intimidated by this task, but I recall moments of pride after being thanked by someone for the reminder and acknowledged for my youthful civic participation.

Since as early as I can remember, my hometown of Ann Arbor has been a very liberal political hotbed, a sort of “Berkeley of the Midwest”. Even when I go back there today to visit Mary Jane (See “My Feminist Aunts”) I see “Impeach Bush” and “Peace” yard signs scattered allover the town’s neighborhoods.

The next episode of my mom’s involvement in local politics was functioning as a sort of campaign manager for two male acquaintances that lived in our neighborhood, one running for Ann Arbor Mayor and the other City Council. My mom organized bake sales and cocktail parties to raise money for their campaigns, with me invariably behind a card table selling home-made bake goods including “Roberts Fudge” (see essay by the same name) or mingling with the party guests and participating in or eavesdropping on all the best political arguments/converstions. She also set up card tables in front of local grocery stores to hand out campaign literature along with going door to door in our precinct.

Ann Arbor during this time period of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s was fairly equally divided between Democrats and Republicans, but both my mom’s candidates won their elections, thank in no small part to the diligent work of Jane Roberts Zale. What pride and growing self-confidence I saw in the face of this woman, who in her weaker moments could still be found crying on her bed surrounded by unpaid bills, but who I was coming to know as a human being rather than some iconic parental figure. I got caught up in this drama of local politics, exemplified by the later dramatic mayoral races that I recall from 1972 and 1974.

In 1972 the Ann Arbor Mayor’s race featured a three-way contest between a white male Republican, a black male Democrat, and (to really spice up the mix), a white female out lesbian (way Berkeley right?) running as the candidate of the recently formed radical-left “Human Rights Party”. I was 17 and not quite old enough to vote, but consistent with my radical flirtations of the time (see “Bakunin and the Sub-basement of the Graduate Library”), I was supporting the HRP candidate, to my mom’s disgust. Though at age 17, to have your mother disgusted with you about something other than laziness or personal appearance was actually quite satisfying.

To accommodate the three-way race, the city council had approved an experimental (still controversial) preferential voting system, where each voter could indicate a first and second choice on their mayoral ballot. Election day came and the votes were tabulated. My recollection is that the Republican candidate got something like 49.9% of the votes on the initial count with the Democrat at 40.0% and the radical lesbian HRP candidate (with a mostly University student vote) at 10.1%. Since he did not get the requisite 50% to avoid the redistribution, the ballots for the third place HRP candidate were recounted for their second choice. Virtually all of them now went for the Democrat giving him the narrowest victory by a handful of votes.

This victory did not sit well with the opponents of the new preferential voting system, most of whom were also supporters of the Republican candidate. So they filed suit against the election results on the ground that this was not “one person one vote”. It was a huge local drama filling the newspaper and dominating many of the kitchen conversations at my mom’s parties. In the end the court ruled that the election would stand and the Democrat was confirmed as mayor, the local Republicans promising to be back in two years to right this wrong.

So two years later in 1974, including me as a newly registered voter, the radical chic HRP and preferential voting was now defunct, and Ann Arbor’s African-American mayor ran for reelection in a rematch with his Republican opponent from 1972. My recollection is that the sitting Mayor won reelection by literally less than a handful of votes. In the process of recounting those votes it was discovered that two young women who lived just outside the incorporate boundary of the City of Ann Arbor had voted in the election. The local Republicans sued again, and the way it was told to me, the judge called these two women into court and demanded they reveal who they voted for. Consistent with a classic tale of Ann Arbor politics, the two refused to reveal their secret ballots, and I believe were held in jail for contempt for at least several days. In the end the sitting Mayor’s reelection was confirmed by the court, and a budding political junky like me was hooked.

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