November 2017: I’m Really Doing This.

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Monday, November 13.

Last Tuesday, Virginia Democrats did something miraculous. They won seats by being themselves in gerrymandered districts that nobody thought were winnable. This was a test of the political theory that says Democrats need to work a lot harder, and also a lot differently, in response to Trump and Trumpism. It’s a theory that says we need to build from the grassroots up if we have any hope of overcoming the reactionary pressures threatening not just our democracy but the survival of humanity on this Earth.  The theory posits that Democrats need to run in every district, even in districts that appear to be unfavorable turf. We need to talk to people in three broad categories: those who lean Democratic but may be discouraged, those who lean Republican but would consider voting for a Democrat, and those who rarely vote at all.

We need to meet the voters and potential voters where they are, at home. We need to talk to them about the issues that concern them. We need to find the common ground – where their issues overlap with progressive values, even if they are unaware of it –  if we want to have any hope of counteracting the dark forces in modern American life that are dividing us from our neighbors.

Whether people voted for Donald Trump and still support him, voted for him and are now having second thoughts, or voted against him, both sides of the great American polarization seem to agree that the hour is late, the need for change is urgent, and some kind of existential reckoning is upon us. Our binary choice is to either double down on the deepening divisions in our society, or to seek reconciliation. On this, it appears there is no middle path.

It has taken me a full year since the shock of Trump’s election to come to full acceptance of what should have been obvious from the start: that a sincere and purposeful effort at reconciliation is by far the better way forward.

It was the Virginia election results that galvanized me.  It didn’t hurt that on the same day in the election in my hometown of Telluride, where the stakes were not nearly so high, my preferred candidates for Town Council also won.

On Thursday, I went to Denver with my friend Richard Betts to a previously scheduled small meeting of Democratic Party donors. We attended a presentation by Colorado Democratic Party chair Morgan Carroll about how she is working to build the party for the upcoming midterm elections.

The next day, I decided to run for the House of Representatives in the 58th House District in Colorado, the state where I was born and raised, and where I have spent most of my adult life.

In the following days I sent an email to friends telling them of my plan. I received advice and support from Morgan. I contacted the Democratic Party chairs in the four counties of the 58th District, and staff at the state party, notifying all of my intentions.  I filed a statement of candidacy with the Colorado Secretary of State. I set up a new email account, [email protected].  I registered a website domain name,  I started building my campaign website.

I have a lot more work ahead of me, because in the 58th District, the odds are especially long for a Democrat. Montrose Republican Don Coram ran unopposed for State Representative in the last two election cycles. Coram may have been unopposed because, in 2012, the last time there was a contested election in the 58th, he won twice as many of the 35,500 votes cast as his opponent won.  For a rational Democrat, the possible reward of a seat in the Colorado House has been hardly worth the work and brain damage it would take to make a race in the 58th competitive. (This year, Coram was appointed to a seat in the Colorado State Senate. His appointed replacement, Marc Catlin, also of Montrose, has announced he will run for a new term.)

On the other hand, because the district is so small, it would be possible for a candidate to talk to a large number of voters in a year’s time. I suspect that most votes cast in the district for a house representative in the past have been largely party-line, because the candidates haven’t campaigned in such a way as to distinguish themselves as individuals. Therefore, personal knowledge of a candidate could theoretically overcome the Republican predisposition of the majority of voters.

Given all this, in my mind, a campaign strategy quickly formed. I could go door-to-door for the next year and introduce myself to people and talk to them about their concerns. I could ask them if they would consider voting for a guy like me, a secular Jewish liberal Democrat from Telluride. In every conversation, my goal would be to find our common ground. I would record what I learn about everyone I speak to and then stay in touch via email and social media, emphasizing our common ground in every communication. I would do all of this by myself, personally: no need for campaign staff or a big media budget.  Any campaign money I raise would go to modest digital publishing expenses, a little bit of printing, a lot of travel … and maybe a few pairs of sneakers.

Through the campaign, my story, the story of the campaign, would evolve, and I’d record it in this campaign diary, which I will post on my website. The evolving narrative might show how an unlikely progressive candidate won a conservative State House seat in the age of Trump. Or it might be the story of how he tried and failed. Either way, it would be a narrative that conveys some important lessons about our society in 2017, and about whether and how we can hold on to the vision expressed by Wallace Stegner, who wrote, in 1969:

“One cannot be pessimistic about the West. This is the native home of hope. When it fully learns that cooperation, not rugged individualism, is the quality that most characterizes and preserves it, then it will have achieved itself and outlived its origins. Then it has a chance to create a society to match its scenery.”

If nothing else, it will be my privilege this coming year, to meet a lot of those rugged individuals, hoping we can find a path to cooperation, against the backdrop of southwestern Colorado’s magnificent scenery.

Saturday, November 18.

You can decide to devote yourself to a cause, but life intervenes, and I spent most of the last week in Florida spending time with my elderly parents. My father has been recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and this, of course, presents many challenges for both him and my mother. I’m trying to help. I was reminded that most of life is not about politics; but by the same token, politics and the policy that emerges from it, can help, or hurt.

I found time while in Florida to work on the campaign. I set up a MailChimp account and I sent out an email updating  the status of my effort. I’ve been heartened by encouragement from recipients who have told me they would like to donate and help. Nobody has said I’m crazy, at least not to my face.

From my new perspective as a candidate, the world already looks different. I’ve always been a news junkie, and have closely followed politics, but now I’m reading stories about the sorry state of American politics and I imagine myself, personally, trying to improve things. Deciding to take a concrete action to make a difference changes one’s psychology. It may be an illusion, but I feel a renewed sense of agency. I don’t have to be just a cranky observer of things that upset me. I can try to fix things that upset me, most urgently the frightening divisions in American civic life.

I’m reading Masha Gessen’s book, The Future Is History, about the return of totalitarianism to Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The theme is the unimaginable damage that is inflicted on the citizens of a society run by kleptocrats, where few citizens can envision a better future for themselves or their children. In Gessen’s telling, the drudgery of life without hope has been a fact of life in Russia for more than a century and it has created a population whose despair has become embedded in their character.  It is no stretch to think that something similar is happening to large numbers of Americans, to tens of millions of working class people who feel like hamsters on a wheel.  American society is breaking in two, with an ever-widening gap between the haves and have-nots, and, inevitably, growing resentment among the have-nots. The terrifying thought starts to form: What if we are heading not toward a more perfect union with liberty and justice for all, but instead toward a dystopian society modeled on Russia – a place where the motions of democracy are observed with rigged elections, state controlled media feed the population a constant diet of lies and distractions, and the primary purpose of the government is to concentrate most of the wealth in the hands of the very few.

This may sound grandiose, but running for state office to represent a remote corner of Colorado feels, to me, like it can help turn the tide, perhaps even if I fall short of victory. If I can ran a viable campaign here, then thousands of others can do it elsewhere, and I am confident that those thousands, or even tens of thousands, are giving it their best shot, just as Democrats in Virginia did it this past year, and just as I intend to do it this coming year.

A few months ago, when I was thinking about helping a candidate run for Congress in Colorado’s Sixth Congressional District, I received a tutorial in community organizing from my friend Gabriel Lifton-Zoline. Gabe worked in both Obama campaigns, and went on to work for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. I learned a lot from Gabe, but one thought in particular has stayed with me: a political campaign is a social movement. It is through the campaign that voters, citizens, become energized by a vision of a better tomorrow. A successful campaign, perhaps more than the processes of government that take place in between campaigns, is what recharges democracy. To invite citizens to participate in a campaign can instill hope to replace the fear, apathy and despair so many Americans are now feeling. I personally am already feeling a surge of hope, one I hope I can share with enough voters to win an election.

This next week I’ll be laying more of the foundation for a campaign. I will set up a mechanism for accepting campaign contributions, and the proper bookkeeping for filing accurate campaign finance reports. I will acquire voter data for the 58th House District from the state party, and learn how to work with that data. I will plan my first journey into the field, going door-to-door in one of the two population centers where the election will be won or lost, Cortez and Montrose.

This will be when I start to understand how hard my year-long path to the election will be. I am under no illusion that community organizing to build a better society will be easy. But I have faith that there will be enough encouragement out there to keep me going strong.

Friday, November 24.

Much of the foundational work is done: paperwork filed, website up and running, email list growing and several emails sent, system in place to accept credit card donations, press release announcing my candidacy sent, first media interviews done, first $500 raised.

So, now what?

I’ve been a runner, on and off, most of my adult life. In every run, even if I’m in a long stretch when I’ve been running daily, there’s a moment after the first five minutes or so when my mind starts to betray me. An inner voice says, “You can stop now.”  It’s after the energy I had stored up before I started to run is spent, breathing is starting to be labored, and the run starts to feel like work. At that moment, to stop and catch my breath seems more appealing than continuing. That’s when I have to tell myself, “Just keep running,” and after a few minutes the discomfort fades and I get into the meat of the run. That’s the point I’m at now, in this campaign. My initial burst of energy was productive, but now I have to shift gears to keep going. It’s no accident that the language of campaigning – you “run” for office, the campaign is a “race” – is the language of running. Based on my experience as a jogger, I anticipate there will be a moment near the end of this campaign when I am near the finish line and I tell myself I can stop. Because I will have already gained what I was seeking and I’ll be exhausted, and the finish – election day – is an abstraction, an arbitrary date on the calendar, just like the distance or length of time I’ve set out to complete on a given day.

But it’s when the end of a run is in sight that a successful runner will pick up the pace and sprint to the finish.

In my first two media interviews, with my hometown Telluride radio station (KOTO) and newspaper (The Telluride Daily Planet), I was asked how I can win in a heavily Republican district. The interviewers anticipate I’ve signed up for a marathon, maybe an ultra-marathon, an Iron Man. It won’t be easy, they were telling me, and they were right in asking me the obvious tough question. I was pleased to have what I think was a good answer and this is because in laying the foundation for the campaign, I’ve had to think hard about the logic behind the run for office.

The original impulse to run comes, I said, from the strong sense I have (along with millions of others) that this is no time to stand on the sidelines of American politics. And then there is a practical reality that we can fight best where we live and I live in the heart of a conservative district that has gone largely uncontested by Democrats. But there’s something more. If I lived in a more liberal district, my running for office would not be about fundamental change. If I lived in Boulder or Denver, I could run for office, but most likely I’d be competing with others who feel more or less the way I do about the issues. Those offices are mostly already held by Democrats. If the goal is to change the direction of our society, to build support for progressive policies, then the only way to really accomplish that is to bring folks who are not already there into my camp.

Yes, for a Democrat, the 58th House District is a challenge. But that challenge is, perhaps, not best understood as a problem to be solved. If you think of it as a problem, your first instinct might be to move to the center or the right to try to pick up votes in order to get elected: to put on a costume that you think better fits the district. Then you might rationalize you’ll do good things once you are in office, even if you sacrifice some values to defend others. But that would be completely contrary to the deeper purpose of running, which is to move people. The goal of being a progressive should not be to change as much as necessary to accommodate the electorate.  It should be to move the electorate to embrace progressive values and ideas. Otherwise the deeper motive for running is a thirst for power, not a hunger for social change.

Thus, the journey (the campaign) is the destination (to bring about social change), and an improvement on previous election day results (maybe even a victory!) is a marker that some degree of social change has been accomplished.  Then it will be time to start laying the groundwork for the next campaign.

In this framework, the conservative political makeup of my district, which is closely tied to its demographics, is not a problem so much as it is one end of a polarity. The opposite pole is that the 58th House District represents an opportunity to accomplish real change, and that opportunity is precisely equal in scale, or weight, to the challenge.  The purpose of my campaign is not to solve the problem of winning votes from voters who are conditioned to be suspicious of what I represent by virtue of my being a Telluride Democrat, because that sort of political victory is often achieved by some combination of deception and self-betrayal, and is the opposite of progress. The purpose is instead to understand that the concerns and problems of the conservative-leaning voters in the district are real and are precisely what progressive politics should be speaking to. If I can show enough voters that progressive solutions are a better response to their issues than conservative prescriptions, then any victory will be based on a solid foundation and thus represent real progress.

I would like to think that voters have the instincts to favor candidates whose motive is not fundamentally a thirst for power. The hunger for real change should be more compelling, as it was in the election of Barack Obama. His campaign and his governance always conveyed his sense of social purpose. Obama’s political opponents tried to tarnish his authentic character by, for example, promulgating the birther nonsense, trying to paint him as un-American. Those sorts of attacks did damage, but not enough to make him unpopular. Then came Donald Trump, whose motives were nakedly self-serving, and yet he was elected anyway, in part because his crudeness was a proxy in the minds of many voters for authenticity. In this, he seemed to compare favorably with Hillary Clinton, who many voters saw as the epitome of the inauthentic, scripted politician.  If every election is essentially binary, then the Trump-Clinton polarity was tragic for America, pitting two candidates who lacked essential credibility as agents of positive change against each other.  It was negative change on one side of the polarity and no change on the other.

In politics, character is destiny, both in terms of electability and behaviors in office.

What about me and my character, in the microcosm of the polarized 58th House District? Will voters see me as credible when I tell them I want to work to improve their lives?

That will be the measure of my campaign, and I will only start to find out when I hit the trail.

It seems relevant to note here that on Thanksgiving morning I received my first threat to attack my character to hurt my election chances. It came from someone I know very slightly, via Facebook messenger:

“I will fight your candidacy as hard as I fought against _________.  Letters are going out Tuesday to alert orgs how you refused to stop the online bullying of me by ___________.  How you lied and protected him until he resorted to violence. You are scum Cagin and always will be. I know more about you and your sordid life than you may think.”

No wonder people think twice before deciding to run for office, right?