17 September 2014

Door Jam = Democracy

We didn't start out poor but then it became that way, pretty much immediately after Mom and Dad broke up. First there was the expected additional strain of two homes, followed by Dad losing his job, which precipitated what I often refer to as the Great Unraveling. It happens to people and it happened to him. The trip, stumble and fall of his mid-life was, in two years, his father dying, his divorce and the loss of his job. Eight years later he'd be knocked out cold by a heart attack and that was that.

I write these words all these years later in part to remember how quickly one's life actually can fall apart; how what one once expected to be the rhythms of life to set a watch to can become, in the seeming split of an eye, the challenging darkness of the Trial. Some make it past the Judge. Others don't. For some there are those to pick you up; for others, luck runs out. For some, there is a regenerative well of persistence and optimism; for others, a debilitating depression, a rendering of essence to dross.

Whatever the answer, the reality is we were poor but hadn't started out that way. Mom went right to work in the time leading up to the divorce and during the hardest parts, worked two jobs, doing whatever was necessary to make ends meet. One job she had was as scheduler for a local politician named Lynn Adelman, a brilliant lawyer from Milwaukee's East Side. His whole team was smart--a bunch of young Jews interested in policy and reform-minded Democratic politics. They were trying to knock off the golden boy of Milwaukee's ├╝ber Gentile community, Robert Kasten, a conservative who was seen as very much the voice of the city's business and commercial elite, such as it was. The son of Milwaukee dry-cleaners, Lynn went to Princeton and Columbia Law (where he had defended students in the anti-war protests as a law student) then came back to Milwaukee and did legal aid work before going in to private practice. When he ran against Kasten in 1974, it was the first of three unsuccessful runs for the U.S. Congress. Mom (and I) worked on all three campaigns. He eventually served in the Wisconsin State Senate (where, as a college freshman I worked in his office in Madison) and in 1997, President Bill Clinton appointed him as a federal judge.

Even though we were newly poor, we had three cars. Ours was a temporary condition and we somehow knew it. Dad's car, Mom's car and then, as was the trend in those days, the kids had a car.  I think it was an AMC Gremlin. Might have even had the Levi's jeans interior. You can guess the decade.

The point is, we had a car. And the adults had drivers' licenses. Which were used to drive the candidate to his appointments and campaign stops. One time Mom picked up Lynn for a day of campaigning and he got into the car dressed in a suit and tie but he wasn't wearing socks. So they stopped at the dry cleaners and as the son of the owner, he took the liberties. His campaigns were filled with stories like that.

Or like this:  One summer, when he was running for re-election in a newly re-districted and more decidedly conservative part of southwest Milwaukee, I was campaigning for him door-to-door and encountered a vehemently hostile constituent. The vituperations flew through the screen door.  "Communist.  Socialist.  Jew." That kind of thing. I was shaken and needless to say, this was not a vote Lynn was going to win. Dejected, I walked down this man's driveway and out to the street where I saw Lynn coming up the block. I told him what happened and he said, "Watch this."

And in an instant, he had bounded up the walk, knocked on the door, and then, with the persuasion of a persistent prophet, stuck his foot in the screen door so the man couldn't shut it. "Don't say things about me that aren't true," Lynn said. "Now tell me, really, what do you know about my views? Let's talk!" And for the next several minutes they argued positions--taxes, education, spending on the poor. No names, no accusations. Just two citizens disagreeing.

"Did you change his mind?"  I asked.  "No," he said, "but that doesn't matter.  The process was as important as the outcome."  That's what he told me back at his house where we went for lunch that day.  He made me a sandwich, we talked about my classes at UW, my interest in going to Israel, my ideas for the future.  "I guess a rabbi is kind of like a politician," he said. "Come on," he continued, his mouth full. "Let's go knock on some more doors."

In that district Lynn's constituents were mostly white. And had cars.  So we walked down streets with no sidewalks and up lots of driveways.  Knocking on doors.  Pushing for votes.

But there was another job that Mom had in those years, where she was an office staff member in the Community Development Corporation, which in the 1970s on into today was devoted to enhancing the economic position of low-income communities. The people who came to CDC, most of whom were black, took buses or walked to where they needed to go. Their economic scene was in serious distress; schools were rough; and there certainly wasn't a lot of kids in high school drivers' ed classes.
This means that, like thousands upon thousands of similarly disadvantaged people today, those folks didn't have drivers license which was once a burden if you wanted to drive but certainly wasn't a burden if you wanted to vote.

Until recently.

As the New York Times reminded us on Tuesday morning, electoral chaos is about to occur in Wisconsin, primarily among the more than 300,000 poorer citizens of the state who will not be able to vote because of a conservative appellate court's decision to overturn Judge Lynn Adelman's stay of the Wisconsin Voter ID law, which Judge Adelman argued last April contained several serious violations of the federal Voting Rights Act.

Several commentators appropriately, I believe, have criticized this decision of the appellate court to overturn Judge Adelman's sound reasoning, particularly in light of the fact that Governor Scott Walker and his Republican legislature passed the initial voter ID law precisely to protect an electoral advantage they had hoped to use to govern. Except that Governor Walker has recently begun to trail Democratic candidate and businesswoman Mary Burke (whose family makes the much beloved Wisconsin gem, Trek Bicycles). And what better way to climb back into the lead with less than two months to go in a gubernatorial election than to be aided by a panel of judges to undo the constitutional work of defending the right to vote.

I got half a mind to head out to Wisconsin after the Jewish holidays this Fall and spend the second half of October knocking on doors for Mary Burke. To cover more territory in the limited time available, perhaps I'll take my Trek.

I'm sure I'll meet my share of Republicans, as it should be. Who doesn't like a good argument?

I'll even stick my foot in the door, insist on engaging, and if the power of persuasion doesn't work, we'll agree to disagree.

But what I won't do is suppress someone's right to vote just because they're poor and don't drive.


No comments: