Thursday, January 23, 2014

Iowa Caucuses in the Snow

The Iowa Caucuses were held Tuesday night. No national cameras or crowds, just a dark night, snow and below-zero wind chills.  (We had finished shoveling out at noon as the storm headed to the East.) Our caucus met at the E.B. Lyons Interpretive and Nature Center, just south of Dubuque, a beautiful place . . . in the summer in the daylight!

But it was Iowa Caucus Night, so we needed to go! We started out early, knowing the roads would be safe but snow covered after we crossed Highway 151. Arriving 15 minutes early, the parking lot was almost full. We walked up the trail, guided by the warmly lit building ahead. People were already surrounding tables, signing sheets  that would place candidates’ names before the electorate, first the primary in June and then the general election in November. Our U.S. Representative would be running for an open Senate seat and our state Representative would be running for that U.S. Congressional  seat. And there would be a governor’s race this year. More sheets for state offices. The atmosphere was calm, congenial. We knew we were just one small caucus, but that voices matter, everywhere.  Governing the people begins here.
Right at 7:00 the leader in the front suddenly said, “If you vote at the Methodist Church, go to this corner of room; If you vote at the firehouse, go over there; if you vote at Theisens –that was us—go to the center back, and so on. Five precincts met that night at our Caucus site, from the city of Dubuque, and those from Dubuque Country, just to the south: Key West, Swiss Valley. Because city and country precincts were in two different state legislative districts, we would sign petitions for Iowa house and senate candidates at our respective tables. All was well prepared, orderly, organized

Before we moved to our tables, a candidate for the Iowa House stood to introduce herself. It was her first time running for office. A 25-year-old-woman,   who had been working since her youth as a volunteer, legislative aide, and congressional page, quoted her father, “Where there’s work to be done you say “’Yes.’”
Denise led our Precinct 2 group. The first task was to elect a permanent chair. Denise was elected. Delegates and alternates to the county convention which would be at Northeast Iowa Community College were selected. Almost all said, “Yes.” At first I thought the meeting might be perfunctory.  The head of the caucus had said, “When you finish what you need to do, you can go.”  People may have wanted to.  After all, it was cold!  This day the government buildings in Washington D.C. were shut down because of the snow.  Gov. Christi’s inaugural party was cancelled. 

But then something happened.  The groups at the table started talking.   There were ten of us, well 13 counting the three grade-school girls one father brought along to listen and learn.  I know, I know, people think there is little connection between what is said at caucus level and what actually moves through country, district, state and finally onto the national party platform.  But this snowy night we started here.
“Anyone have any resolutions to send along to the platform committee when they meet?”  Denise asked.  One man raised an issue, with wording ready to fill out the required form.  That prompted the woman beside him, “We need to urge support for the Affordable Care Act. I’m in the insurance business and I see the need for people with pre-existing conditions and insurance policies that don’t meet their needs.”   An elementary school teacher across the table, the father who had brought his daughters, spoke up about standardized testing and the anxiety of teaching to the test. Another woman spoke about economic inequality and support for public community schools so that children of all social economic backgrounds have access to quality education.  Issues and ideas were flowing.  We ran out of white resolution forms.  The chair said that was all right. (I shared sheets of my yellow note pad.)  A man said he was concerned about Citizens United and anonymous funds pouring into our state with the open U.S. Representative and Senate seats.  Another mentioned that gun violence has grown not lessened with a school shooting almost every day now: New Mexico, Philadelphia and this day at Purdue University, so regularly “it soon won’t make the news anymore.”  Another added, “We need stronger words than ‘concern.’”  People talked, helping each other with wording.  We voted.  Eight resolutions came from our group of ten, by consensus. 

As we drove home, had anything changed? It was still bitterly cold. We could hardly see the entrance  to our driveway between  six-foot piles of snow.  More snow and cold on the way. But things were different. Participatory democracy!

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Power, People and the George Washington Bridge

There was other news the day Chris Christie held his almost 2-hour press conference saying he had been humiliated because he had been lied to, but one could hardly notice it among the cameras and commentators surrounding the George Washington bridge scandal.  Not that creating cultures of retribution is not a very important detriment to democracy. But President Obama's announcement that same day of "Promise Zones" in the midst of economic disparities received less than 30 seconds on evening network news broadcasts. No drama, no coverage! But beyond that fact, I think the stories are connected, metaphorically and more . . . unless we believe the current interest in income inequality is merely a political issue this election year. 

Obama named the five zones -- rural, urban and tribal communities -- that have already shown promise, each working not only in bi-partisan ways, but as neighbors, educators, business leaders, faith communities, together with local, state and federal government. Obama drew on his own community organizing past as he announced the first five Promise Zones in San Antonio, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, southeastern Kentucky, and the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. "We've got to make sure this recovery -- which is real -- leaves nobody behind," he said. "And that's going to be my focus throughout the year."  He called for a year of action.

My mind went back to the thousands of people stranded in traffic in Fort Lee for hours, their "being stuck" recurring day after day last September because of the lane closures to the bridge leading into NYC. Fort Lee, of course, is not southeastern Kentucky. I'm speaking metaphorically here about people being stuck because of the intentional lack of concern on the part of others. Being stuck in poverty, not being able to move in any direction, with no power to change the situation also results from the intentional or naively unintentional lack of concern on the part of people with power. Stay with me here for a minute.

Having lived near NYC for nine years, I have crossed that bridge often; I can see the lanes, Fort Lee, and the traffic. I wonder how those who haven't, but who cross other bridges every day think about this. "What's the big deal about a few lanes being closed?"  For fifteen years our family lived across another river, not the busiest bridge, but no small river, the Mississippi.  Traffic from many lanes on the Dubuque side flowed seamlessly from the north, south, and west, into one lane, for the one mile drive home across that mighty Mississippi.  When the bridge closed for a year for construction, driving to work from Illinois to Iowa (four miles) meant going around through Wisconsin.  But still, we weren't stuck. The point is: People across the country who have never driven across the GW or had an entire town stuck, "get it."  It's about power, and the misuse of power to keep people stuck in their place, unable to move or do anything about their situation. 

The Harlem Children's Zone, that Obama celebrated  last Thursday, is across the GW Bridge in NYC, ironically. Poverty and wealth can be on both sides of the "tracks," both sides of a bridge, inner cities, small towns, some suburbs, rural and tribal areas. Poverty and Promise zones can be large or small, 97 square blocks of Harlem. Of course we need more than 5, or 20, zones. We need promise not just through charter schools but for children in all public schools. We need to make that promise to each other.

We mark the 50th anniversary of President Johnson's announcement of the War on Poverty. Johnson spoke of communities on the outskirts of hope. Maria Shriver delivers her report to President Obama on poverty this Tuesday afternoon. There is so much to be done. And together, we can. If, that is, we aren't caught in a traffic jam where all of us are stuck politically.  Gov. Christie gives his State of the State address today.  The questions about the GW Bridge and Fort Lee will continue. And news coverage will continue. Will we continue our interest in Promise zones as well as traffic zones?

I'm going to simply ignore the rhetoric that contends "Poverty won" the war on poverty.  Of course poverty will be with us always, as will war. But we are called continually to work together to create communities of care and opportunities of hope, and call people out when they deliberately keep people stuck, particularly children stuck on the bus on the first day of school, or on every day of school without prospects for directions for success. We can perpetuate cultures of retribution or we can turn  our attention to a year of action of real concern for all.