January 9, 2016: I arrived early for a powwow of the Washtenaw County Democratic Party (WCDP), dutifully signed in and then wrote my name in big, bold and blue capital letters on a HELLO MY NAME IS sticker. A smiling Chris Savage (WCDP Chair) and a joyful Tracy Van den Bergh (WCDP Vice-Chair for Resolutions, By-laws, and Policy) were standing just inside the room, positioned like the greeters at the Meijer supermarket on Jackson Rd. But food was first on my personal agenda so I made a beeline to the snack tables. While I ate, I surveyed the room’s geography and acoustics to locate a seat where the background noise would be the least problematic (my hearing is impaired). With another bagel and a glass of apple juice in hand, I moved to the opposite end of the wide room.
I staked my claim to an empty table left of the podium, or ‘stage right’ theatrically speaking. A few minutes later the big, burly Jerry Clayton, the Washtenaw County Sheriff now in his second term in office, joined my table. A curly, red-haired woman, whose name tag was not visible, sat down between Mr. Clayton and me and my table for three was complete.
I’d attended WCDP meetings before. One memorable occasion was in the Pittsfield Township Hall in 1990. I was granted time to address the assembly so I could introduce myself as a candidate for County Commissioner. I was running in what constituted the 9th District, which included Burns Park at the time, where my home was located at the corner of Baldwin Avenue and Wells Street. Some of the Democrats were angry with me because I had aggressively and publicly been challenging the county’s neglect of citizens with serious mental illnesses (e.g. paranoid schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar). I had been raising hell because I saw it as part of my job as the president of the county chapter of the Alliance for the Mentally Ill (AMI). I had also raised a ruckus about the county’s mistreatment of the homeless and/or destitute. Some of my complaints were published as letters to the editor in the Ann Arbor News. My disagreement with county board chair Meri Lou Murray’s characterization of AMI as a “special interest group” was published in the AMI newsletter.
My disputes gave rise to suspicions among Democrats that I must be a Republican. Albert Wheeler, formerly the mayor of the City of Ann Arbor, openly shared his suspicions in a public meeting. I tried to reassure him that I was definitely not a Republican. I said that I was an ally of the Democrats, citing my volunteer work with Focus: Hope in Detroit as a teenager in 1971. In Ann Arbor, I said I helped establish an adult foster care home and a clubhouse for the chronically mentally ill.
Other Democrats participated in a bizarre whisper campaign which insinuated that I was a relative of the notorious KKK “Grand Wizard,” David Duke. The ersatz logic of the smear seemed to boil down to this: If you criticize Democrats’ policies, budget priorities or such like, then you must be an enemy. If A, then B. To no one’s surprise, I was trounced in the August primary election by my rival, Christina Montague, in the race to replace Andrea Walsh.
Fortunately, twenty-six years later, the smoke had cleared. No ghosts from the past materialized to haunt yours truly. The tension in the air on this occasion struck me as appropriate considering the meeting was called to “fight hate and fear in the era of Trump.” The vibe was politically positive and the attitude was ‘can do’.
Chris Savage and Tracy Van den Bergh were upbeat as they called the meeting to order and introduced the ticklish issue of amending the bylaws. The thorniest amendment, which would prohibit the WCDP from endorsing any candidate during a primary, was vocally challenged and scrutinized, to be sure. But the amendment ultimately passed muster with mostly smiles all ’round.
This WCDP was better at holding a conversation in 2016 than the one I knew in 1990. Bernie Sanders, immigrants, African-Americans, Hispanics, Muslims, Buddhists, indebted students, single moms, the LGBT community, the women and men serving in the armed forces, “potheads,” the National Institutes of Health and especially Obama were all feeling the love. The WCDP was moving to embrace diversity that defies categorization. It was safe for me to come out of the closet.
Meanwhile, the Republicans were being pressured by headlines focused on the toxic water in Flint. Governor Snyder somehow lit a fire under Michigan Republicans with his own box of matches. The WCDP party was already riding high on the prospect that Gretchen Driskell could win the 7th Congressional District. Now, with Republicans shooting themselves in the foot, Driskell’s showdown with Tim Walberg (R- Tipton) may get an unexpected boost. Likewise, Melissa Gilbert’s bid to beat Mike Bishop in 8th District may be similarly supercharged.
With the bylaws business concluded, Chris Savage turned the podium over to U.S. Representative Debbie Dingell (D- 12th Congressional District). The Congresswoman from Dearborn pounced on the opportunity to underscore how she differed from people who calibrate their positions to score points with contributors. “I vote the way I do because I believe in something, not because I might win an endorsement from the National Wildlife Federation” she said in full voice, after pointing out that the NWF rated her 100% in agreement with their positions on various votes in the U.S. House of Representatives.
She then skewered the distorting impact gerrymandering was having on congressional districts. She said gerrymandering had made many districts so politically lopsided, or “safe,” that it was a foregone conclusion which party would win, adding that many voters are so alienated by the situation they skip voting altogether because the results are predetermined.
Dingell then focused on some Republicans’ habit of smearing everyone of the Islamic faith whenever some terrorist atrocity provides them an opportunity. She pointed out that a Michigan resident took part in one the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil, the 1994 Oklahoma City bombing, but no one painted Michiganders as a population of terrorists.
Intentionally or not, Dingell’s remark echoed Bernie Sanders. In The Guardian, Trevor Timm wrote, “[Sanders] has proven false the idea that candidates have to drop everything to treat Isis as a threat to America’s existence requiring 24/7 hand wringing, rather than what they really are: a comparatively small problem in the day-to-day lives of Americans that we only exacerbate by doing the terrorists’ PR work for them and upending our rights to supposedly “defeat” them…”
But forget Sanders—the crowd loved the way their homegrown Democratic diva cooked issues down into yummy sound bites. Dingell’s speech was punctuated again and again by energetic applause and shouts of agreement from the floor.
When Congresswoman Dingell finished warming up the room, a panel of four speakers was introduced to discuss how vital tapping into “social media” was to the Democrats’ battle plan to identify young voters and then motivate them to turn out at election time to vote for candidates who embraced their issues.
The panel included Simone Lightfoot, a civil rights advocate and Ann Arbor School Board Trustee; Layali Alsadah, President, EMU Middle Eastern Student Association; William Lopez, immigrant rights activist; and student Isabel Van den Bergh (Tracy’s daughter). Bankole Thompson Op-Ed columnist for the Detroit News, moderated the discussion while providing more than a little comic relief. I should mention here that Nathan Catey, an Oakland University student and social media political activist whom President Obama honored with a meeting at the White House, was also in the room. An Internet phenomenon, Catey punches well above his weight. More importantly, he is also a member of the WCDP social media committee.
‘Social media’ and the ‘online community’ are in many ways interchangeable terms which refer to the worldwide web that is the home away from home of today’s youth—many of whom don’t vote. According to the U.S. Census Bureau: “…Overall, America’s youngest voters have moved towards less engagement over time, as 18– through 24-year-olds’ voting rates dropped from 50.9 percent in 1964 to 38.0 percent in 2012…” In contrast, Census data shows that the 45– through 64-year-olds’ voting rates dropped from 75.9 percent in 1964 to 69.7 percent in 2012.
The WCDP hopes to connect with young voters’ social networks via the Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat apps that carry their conversations. The election of Justin Trudeau in Canada was won in no small part by such a campaign that hammered the Internet during the two weeks preceding the voting—but only after Trudeau made it clear that he embraced their issues.
Some Republicans may also succeed at replicating Trudeau’s success. And I’m not the only Democrat who believes some Republicans are worthy of election. I hope the kinder, gentler ones win, whatever their party affiliation. This country needs a diverse Congress that can talk turkey. It would be an improvement over a Congress with far too many turkeys.