Party Politics, the killer of Idealism
As thousands of Bernie supporters are realizing today, party politics and idealism don’t mix. Party politics is about loyalty and pragmatism.
For many people, Bernie inspired something bigger. That’s really the goal, isn’t it? Or so we think.
When I was 25 years old, my idealism was shattered under the painful realization that party politics trumps idealism.
Back in 1993, I decided to run for state representative of the 48th district in Illinois. My district was in a near-west suburb of Chicago that included parts of La Grange, Countryside and Western Springs. Running for office was not easy, I soon discovered. There were no instruction manuals. And the people at the state were not too helpful or knowledgeable about the process. In fact, no one could tell me exactly where the borders of the 48th district were. I finally found a map in some library, but it wasn’t too clear. No matter. I wasn’t going to let that deter me.
I got my papers in order. For hours on end, I stood outside of grocery stores collecting signatures. At that time, I needed the signatures of 300 registered voters within my district just to get on the primary ballot.
So I got 355 signatures or so, just to be safe. And I talked with hundreds of people, sharing my ideas about education, about gun violence. You see, I was going to be the education candidate. After all, I was a teacher and I wanted to increase funding to schools. I wanted to support conflict resolution programs through a state tax on ammunition, believing that giving kids the means to deal with conflict in a peaceful way could cut down dramatically on violence.
Once I collected my signatures, I was told by one person on the phone that I could drop off my packet at the State Board of Elections office in Chicago. So I took a day off of work and traveled to Chicago with my signatures and candidacy forms which, at the time, included a sworn affidavit that I was not a member of the Communist Party.
When I approached the desk in the office in the State of Illinois building, I was told politely, “I’m sorry. You can’t drop that off here. That needs to go to Springfield.”
I explained what I had been told by someone in Springfield, but to no avail. The packet needed to be in Springfield by the next day or I would be disqualified.
So, I went right to FedEx and sent the packet via overnight delivery.
Surprisingly, it got there on time. And once it was processed, I was an official candidate for state representative of the 48th district.
I was running as a Democrat, so I next sought out the endorsement of the Lyons Township Democratic Organization. On November 17, 1993, I was invited to come to their endorsement meeting, to give a presentation and meet the party leadership.
I prepared a speech, highlighting my commitment to education and my plans for creating conflict resolution programs in schools. I felt good about this. I had gained some press. I had even met Senator Paul Simon earlier at one of his campaign events, which was the highlight of the whole process.
Little did I know that it was going to be downhill from here. I was going to come face to face with the party machine.
And I was going to lose.
I dressed in my best suit. I practiced my speech and headed off to the headquarters of the Lyons Township Democratic Party in Summit, Illinois. I hadn’t yet met any of the party leadership, but I was confident that I was going to wow them with my ideas and proposals.
I was led down to a dark basement that smelled of smoke and cigars. A panel of men sat facing a podium, laughing and joking among themselves. They shuffled papers and occasionally whispered to each other. I sat quietly, waiting my turn. There were a few other people in the audience. It seemed as if everyone in the room knew each other. It was like I was invisible.
I wasn’t sure if anyone else was running for the same position, but I scanned the audience looking for someone who was dressed like me. There was no one. So I sat quietly, waiting. Watching.
Finally, someone said my name. Or, what sounded like my name. My name has only four letters, but a lot of people get it wrong.
“It’s Janu,” I said with a smile. “Like January, without the ary.” I was hoping for a laugh or a smile. Nothing.
“Whenever you’re ready,” I was told.
I pulled out my notecards and set them down on the podium. Knowing the speech by heart, I paused and met the eyes of everyone on that panel. They were hard to see through the intense light that shone on the podium. I think there were four or five, if I remember correctly.
And I gave my speech. I killed it, actually. I had facts and figures. I had stories and anecdotes.
I told them that Illinois was 38th in educational spending per student, but when you look at the figures relative to income, we were actually 48th out of 50. I talked about crime. I gave facts and figures in regard to guns. I talked about conflict resolution and my plan to support conflict resolution programs through a small tax on ammunition.
I ended my speech by proclaiming the value of neighborhoods and how “neighborhoods count.”
“Neighborhoods should be given the means by which to make a difference,” I said. “People know what needs to be done. We need to give them a voice.”
I finished. It was silent at first. Then, a couple of people responded with what I would call “courtesy applause.”
I went to sit back down. “Wait. We have some questions, for you,” one of them said.
“Sure,” I replied.
They were like dark silhouettes, ethereal beyond the shimmer of the harsh lights.
“How old are you?” was the first question.
There was a grunt, or a grumble. I am not sure.
Another voice. “Do you know the funding formula the state of Illinois has for education?”
I was puzzled. “The funding formula?”
“Yeah. The actual formula used by the state to meet its obligations to the schools.”
I really had no idea what he was talking about. Education is mainly funded locally through property taxes. I said as much, but admitted that I didn’t know the actual formula the state uses to allocate funds.
“If you are running for this position, don’t you think this is something you should know?” It was more of an accusation, than a question. I should have asked if he knew the funding formula, but I didn’t.
There were some other questions. This went on for a good 15 minutes or so. It became a blur. These guys were asking me questions that I am sure they could not answer themselves. It felt like an interrogation scene from some old film noir: black and white and nihilistic. I could feel the sweat trickling down my forehead. I think I may have even loosened my collar.
“Thank you,” someone finally said. And I sat down. It felt like I had been punched in the face.
It turns out there was another candidate there that night. His name was Jack and they called him up by just his first name. He was dressed in jeans and a button down shirt. He was about 10 years or so older than me and he knew everyone on the panel. Jack talked about the children of one of the panel members. They laughed. It was like they were old friends.
I don’t remember specifically what Jack said, but he had no notes, no plan. He started with something like, “You guys know where I stand.” He said a few other things and then said, as a throw-away, “Yeah, I’m for education, too.” There were some chuckles.
And that was it.
Ask him the state funding formula, I said to myself.
But they didn’t. Jack was given just one question, and I’ll never forget it: “Are you prepared to wear out a pair of shoes walking the district?”
I remember sitting there, seething as Jack laughed and said something about how he’s already worn out several pairs of shoes over the years.
I knew Jack was going to get the endorsement; that was a forgone conclusion before I even left that evening. I learned later that he had been endorsed in 1992, but lost the general election that year. He would lose again in 1994.
I just faded away that night, out of the building without a word — no doubt forgotten by the time they locked the doors that evening. I drove home, determined to fight in the primary the following March.
But that was not to happen either.
In January, I received an official notification from the state regarding my candidacy. I had to sign for the package, actually. This was official.
I tore open the large, thick envelope only to discover that I had been sued by someone. Someone I didn’t know.
The lawsuit was a challenge to many of the signatures on my petition. As a result of the lawsuit, the state went through the signatures with an attorney. They removed several signatures they claimed were illegible. They removed several other signatures, too, of people not residing in the 48th district.
Here’s the kicker: the eastern boundary of the 48th at the time was Harlem Avenue. Several people on the petition had addresses on Harlem Avenue, but, according to the lawsuit, on the wrong side of the street.
Those signatures were disqualified.
I no longer had 355 signatures. I now had 294 valid signatures. Not enough to remain on the ballot.
I was disqualified.
Of course, I could have hired a lawyer and responded accordingly. But I didn’t.
I was exhausted; disgusted by the whole process.
To this day, I don’t know who got a lawyer to go through my signatures. I don’t know if it was the Democrats or the Republicans. Most likely it was the Democrats, though.
Jack ran unopposed in the primary. I didn’t vote for him. The Republican, Anne Zickus, won the seat that year.
This was not a national campaign; just a drop-in-the-bucket state race. But that is how party politics works. Loyalty is rewarded. Independence is punished.
I hadn’t paid my dues with the party apparatus. There was no way they were going to endorse me or help me, especially since I hadn’t done anything at all for the party.
This is the reality of party politics in both the the Democratic and Republican parties. My experience was minute compared to what happens on the national level, but its roots are the same. Hillary Clinton paid her dues, worked very closely with the party apparatus. Bernie Sanders is not a Democrat; he only joined the Democratic Party in 2015 in order to run for president as a Democrat. He could have run as an independent or for the Green Party, but he chose the Democratic Party because it would give him a large audience. And I am sure he wasn’t naive about the way the party machine works. Over the course of his career, Bernie has sided with the Democrats on many issues, but he has also run afoul of party leadership on more than one occasion.
This is true also for the Republicans, in spite of the Donald Trump phenomenon this year. In fact, the Republican leadership rigged the delegate process this election cycle in hopes of getting a nominee in the likes of Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush early in the process. And this year it backfired spectacularly. The Republican Party has a candidate they do not want. It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out.
But Bernie’s campaign demonstrated quite clearly how parties change. Parties don’t change from the outside. They change from the inside. Bernie, with his loyal supporters, helped change the dialogue. The Democratic platform reflects Bernie Sanders and his ideas.
And that is a huge accomplishment. Many people have tried to change the Democratic party over the years: Bobby Kennedy, Gary Hart, Howard Dean. But Bernie got the farthest.
For those wanting to change the Democratic Party, abandoning it is not going to help. Same for the Republicans. Due to the Electoral College, a third party is not going to make a difference. It rarely has in American politics. Third parties have only skewed American elections, drawing votes away from the main candidates but never enough to win elections.
Realism and pragmatism are the key. As Otto von Bismarck famously remarked, “Politics is the art of the possible.”
Bernie Sanders proved what is possible in spite of the party politics of the Democratic National Committee.
And that is inspirational.