Balanced between Left and Right
This is a story of how my political orientation has swung between left-wing and right-wing positions in todays ever-shifting environment. I was a left-wing writer and a right-wing activist. Being a writer was more comfortable and fulfilling since it involved articulating what I thought to be a better future. My right-wing activism was forced upon me in the course of protecting my source of livelihood. Yet, I think this combined experience has given me a more balanced perspective than what I otherwise might have had. I hate neither leftist nor rightist since I have been both.
I chose to write about proposals for government to legislature a shorter workweek. I favored such proposals because they seemed to bring a stable and equitable solution to problems of employment. Such advocacy assumed, of course, that government was good; or, at least, it could be part of the solution. But this brought me into a left-of-center position. Historically, the shorter-workweek issue has been a leftist issue. It is what made the labor movement. May Day was born of a general strike for the eight-hour day. Leftist idealists remain committed to such ends.
In my case, I became a shorter-workweek advocate outside the labor movement. I was less committed to class warfare than some others. If business favored reducing work time, I was its friend. But this seldom happened. So I fell into activities involving labor groups. I came to know Democratic political luminaries such as John Conyers, Eugene McCarthy, and Paul Wellstone. I was the theoretical person who wrote about shorter hours, unconnected to any organization that could help bring this about. But the arrangement worked.
Gold Partys system of weighted voting dates from this period. My brother met a young man at a book show in New York who introduced me to Social Credit, a scheme which could make money out of nothing. It was popular in the 1930s. Somehow I project this concept onto the political system. I remember explaining my idea to Neil Kotler, Rep. John Conyers legislative assistant, in a barbershop in the U.S. Capitol. The barber, said to have been a friend of Lyndon Johnsons, just smiled as he said: The higher you climb up the pole, the more easily they can see your butt.
I wrote newspaper articles about the shorter-workweek proposal and self-published a book. Then, when trade became an issue, I followed my labor friends into that area. Activists from UAW Local 879 at the Ford Plant in St. Paul were among the first in the country to take up the issue of NAFTA. International labor solidarity would be an antidote to corporatist free trade. I went to Mexico City as a human-rights observer for a hotly disputed union election. I was a passenger in a van which went from Minnesota to the Labor Notes conference in Dearborn, Michigan - actually two such conferences - and then in another van that traveled through Texas to the Mexican border where the maquiladora export platforms were located. We were getting a glimpse of the new global economy.
My political identity was centered in issues such as this in the first several years of the 1990s. But things were starting to change for me personally. I had inklings that my accounting job of a decade and a half with the metropolitan transit agency might not last much longer. In anticipation, I purchased an older house across the street from the apartment building where I lived. Then, in August 1993, I purchased a nine-unit apartment building next to it. Soon I was immersed in landlord problems, both with respect to maintenance and tenants and to local politics. It was tough being a landlord in a crime-ridden neighborhood; tougher still when the neighbors blamed this on you.
My attention shifted from writing about global economics to dealing with my immediate livelihood. I got married for the second time. Then, in May 1996, my job with the transit authority ended. The shorter-workweek issue went on the shelf. One of my last efforts in that regard was to ask my City Council representative if the city would consider adopting a resolution favoring that proposal. After a few days, she called back to report that, having consulted with her husband who was president of a public-employee local union, the proposal had no support. I argued with her a bit, which made matters worse. Locally, my ideas were dead in the water.
Internationally, however, they were still alive. A group of shorter-workweek enthusiasts, including Ben Hunnicutt, Barbara Brandt, Tom Kehoe, Jeff Platt, and me, formed an organization called NANSHOW (North American Network for Shorter Hours of Work) which we hoped would grow into a full-fledged support group for shorter-workweek legislation.
Our first (and last) project was, as an accredited non-government organization (NGO), to attend the third prepcom for the United Nations Social Summit to be held in Copenhagen, Denmark. This particular event was held in the basement of the United Nations building in New York. We would be participating in an unusual experiment in democracy whereby self-appointed representatives of the people would be allowed to mingle with members of official delegations to the United Nations as they worked on a document, or statement of principles, which the Social Summit might adopt. We would be whispering in their ears, so to speak, suggesting additional sentences or paragraphs that advanced our objectives.
I spent four days in New York in that heady environment. We prepared and distributed fliers stating our position. We formed impromptu alliances with sympathetic organizations such as the Canadian Labour Congress. After Eugene McCarthy unexpectedly arrived, NANSHOW put on a small workshop in one of the basement rooms. We were unable, however, to influence the wording in the document. Not only was our group a novice at this sort of thing, but I sensed that representatives of Third World countries regarded proposals relating to labor standards as an expression of western cultural elitism. So the document was sent on to Copenhagen without any input from us. Still, I felt privileged to have participated in a political gathering at this level.
Returning home to Minneapolis, I learned that the police had visited my apartment building during the week that I was away. Searching for a gun, they had instead found cockroaches. I was summoned to a meeting of a landlord committee associated with Harrison Neighborhood Association. At this meeting, the staff director berated me for tolerating crime in my building and thereby threatening the whole neighborhood. Other landlords accused me of ignoring their complaints. The group demanded that I turn over management of my building to someone else and to tell them, on the spot, when this would be done. I refused.
Then, two days, the city of Minneapolis posted a placard of condemnation on the door announcing that the building had to be vacated by the end of the month for health reasons. A week after that, I learned that city inspectors would be doing a full-blown rental-license inspection on my building, which meant that I would have to comply with a long and expensive list of work orders as a condition of reopening my building.
To cap it off, the neighborhood group was sending out fliers to announce a public meeting at which I would be denounced as a bad property manager. The neighborhood was demanding, again, that I relinquish control of my building and also that the building be kept empty for a minimum of six months to give the hard-pressed neighbors a breather from me and my nefarious ways (and also, I learned later, to put the building into a nuisance category which, according to city ordinance, would give the city council the right to take control of my building and have it demolished at my expense).
I never learned the story of what happened to me behind the scenes, but I do suspect that the neighborhood association was involved and, certainly, the city council representative. Now President of the Minneapolis City Council, she was the same person whom I had approached less than a year earlier on the misguided assumption that the city might encourage a shorter workweek.
All of a sudden, my career as a flaming liberal was ending in an ignominious crash. No longer an idealist who might save the world, I was branded as a negligent slumlord who would be fortunate to save his own business. I might as well have been wearing a dunce cap as one speaker after another, including the City Council President, denounced me for inviting crime into the neighborhood through negligent management of my apartment building.
I knew what had happened. Yes, there were cockroaches, but my building had been in the continuous care of a licensed pest-control firm. The technician and I had recently discussed how to end the problem once a particular messy tenant was evicted. With respect to crime, I had evicted two out of three tenants in a particular family on which suspicions of drug activity centered; and a hearing was scheduled in housing court for the third tenant a week after the condemnation notice was posted.
There had not been repeated complaints from other landlords; only one telephone call had been made to my knowledge, and that was a general complaint, conveying no useful information. I began to realize the true situation when the owner of the apartment building across the street, whose manager had been my chief accuser at the neighborhood meeting, called me up offering to buy me out for a fraction of the buildings worth. He stressed that he would pay cash.
So the guys wearing the white hats were the ones out to ruin me. Luckily, I had sufficient credit to withstand the inspections hit. I did do the work orders and reopen the apartment building, just short of six months after it was closed. Having paid my dues, so to speak, I did not have further trouble with inspections or the police. But my politics had shifted as a result of this incident. I put the politics of shorter work hours aside and embraced the politics of being a Minneapolis landlord.
Fortunately, there was such an organization prepared to do battle with the city. I met some of the leaders at a public meeting less than a month after the neighborhood meeting that had focused on me. I joined this organization and became one of its more zealous members. The organization was Minneapolis Property Owners Action Committee (later renamed).
This has been my main political focus for the past twelve years. There is no need here to describe the groups issues and activities since that is done elsewhere. I characterize its political orientation as right wing since that is how our opponents saw us. A candidate for city council, whom I knew in my previous leftist period, was said by his opponent to have called us fascists. While our raucous meetings may have reminded him of Hitlers unruly mobs, we never committed acts of violence, or indeed were in a position to commit acts of violence, though we did criticize city government quite strenuously. Since the fascists of Italy and Germany carried out their program by means of government power and we landlords were persons opposing abuse of such power, the fascist label hardly fits. Even so, we had to be politically conservative because we were landlords - people with property - and moneyed interests are right wing.
In fact, many of us were mavericks who could as easily have voted for Ralph Nader as for George W. Bush. We had our greatest political impact as supporters of Green Party candidates for City Council in 2001. Two such candidates were elected with our help. The greatest victory came when a political newcomer aligned with the Greens defeated the President of the City Council, the same woman who had tried to ruin me six years earlier. We were not Democrats because we were fighting against that partys entrenched power in Minneapolis city government. We were not Republicans because, in the words of the groups leader, the Republicans have left the city. Though mildly friendly to our cause, the Republican Party was too suburban and out state to be much interested in issues affecting the inner city. As property owners, we were strictly small time. The large political issues swirled above our heads and what happened to us went unnoticed.
In my opinion, the rich-poor dichotomy no longer applies to U.S. politics. The Republican Party (with some notable exceptions) may still be the party of the rich but the Democratic party cannot continue to claim to be the party of the poor. It is instead the party of demographic interest groups belonging to the Rainbow Coalition, cultural elites, nonprofit agencies, foundations, lawyers, the dwindling labor movement and, increasingly, well-heeled individuals who do business with government. Some of the worst atrocities against poor people have been committed by Democrats holding office in city government. We landlords often find ourselves in the middle of this fight, forced to do the politicians dirty work in fighting crime by denying potential criminals a place to live.
I have come to the conclusion that both major political parties thrive by public-private partnerships or by using the power and money of government to aid private interests. The idealism has long since gone out of bipartisan politics. In reality, government bureaucracies aligned with rich business interests take advantage of small business people. As in the days of the Robber Barons, the rich beat up on the poor. The big overpower the small. Whether were left-wingers or right-wingers makes no difference in that respect. Political idealism is passe. Money alone has respect in the political process.
My involvement with the Minneapolis Property Rights Action Committee falls into several periods. In the first period, from 1995 to 1998 or 1999, we were a small but exuberant group that was operating on the fringes of Minneapolis politics. In the second period, from 1999 to 2001, we became a significant political player, culminating in the municipal election of 2001. In the third period, from 2002 to 2005, we retained some recognition and respect but gradually lost our focus as a protest organization. Our main activity was to hold regular monthly meetings and, from the videotapes, produce a cable-television show. Then, at the end of 2005, the organization ran out of money and folded. I revived it six months later. As the new groups co-leader along with the publisher of a free-circulation newspaper, we are slowly moving back to what we had seven years earlier.
The pivotal year was 2001. At the beginning of the year the groups leader was Charlie Disney. He was the man who had founded the landlord group and provided the energy and organizational skills to build it up to an impressive size. A number of us thought that Disney should run for Mayor that year as a platform for airing our views. He did enter the Mayors race but soon withdrew when expected campaign support from the groups members did not materialize. At the same time, he had two major heart attacks. Charlie Disney not only quit the mayors race but also stepped down as the groups leader. Eventually he withdrew from it altogether. This happened in the summer of 2001.
The remaining members decided to pick a female landlord, Eve White, who was a relative newcomer to the group, as its leader. She was an attractive figure on camera who was able to tell funny stories about her experiences as a landlord. (In Minnesota, if your organization consists mostly of middle-aged white males, you need to have a woman represent you to stand any chance of gaining political sympathy.) Most of us admired Eves spunk. While lacking Charlie Disneys personal presence and organizational skills, she performed credibly as the moderator at the monthly meetings.
The irony was, therefore, that under Eve Whites leadership the group reaped what Charlie Disney and others had sowed. An incumbent City Council member was removed from office on bribery charges. This set the stage for the 2001 city elections in which the mayor and more than half of the city council were replaced. Our political friends were the winners.
I soon recognized that this victory was a mixed blessing for our group. Our reason for being was to fight against abusive city government. Now that the familiar ogres were gone, what would we do? If we had hopes of becoming political insiders, they quickly vanished as the new city administration, while appreciative of our help in the elections, slighted us with respect to housing-policy boards and the like. Even so, they were an improvement over the old city administration.
Second, the housing market was changing. The vacancy rate was rising in rental properties. The price of real estate was also rising. Many of our members, who had previously been trapped in bad investments, were deciding to cash in. They no longer owned real estate in Minneapolis and therefore had no need for our organization. I saw the combination of declining membership and loss of our core issue as significant threats to the organization despite its recent success.
There was another consideration. Despite the groups political success, it remained largely invisible except for the image presented on the cable-television show. We were effective players in local politics, but, with a few exceptions, the newspapers failed to mention us or our political role. People did not think of us in connection with politics. They thought we were a trade organization - a rump version of Minnesota Multi-Housing Association was how one newspaper reporter described us. But actually we were a good government group.
All we ever wanted was for local government to stop abusing its powers of inspections and police and start acting as local governments should. We were for fair and honest government. Let the police be police and let us be landlords. City inspections should not be tied to police work but should instead be focused on the condition of buildings. But if we should start to criticize local government and suggest that it had abused us, then, of course, we were whiners. We were a bunch of middle-aged, mostly white-male property owners who hated local government because it insisted that we keep up our properties. Everyone knows that Minnesota is a good government state. How dare a group of slumlords malign the reputation of the states political leaders or utter the word corruption in the same breath.
I started to realize, in other words, that the stereotypes were just too thick and too strong for us to have any lasting impact. With great effort, we might experience a victory now and then, but then the same old political weeds would grow back and the process would start over again. We landlords just could not win. The culture was filled with derogatory references to our type. Fire your landlord said the ads of realtors and bankers wishing to turn our customers, the tenants, into home buyers. In an ownership society, self-respecting people are not content to live in rented apartments. For no money down and interest-only loans, we can get you out of the greedy landlords clutches and into a place of your own.
In this environment, our vacancy rates rose along with the local property taxes. Landlords started to lose money. Only suckers stayed in this business, apparently.
My thought was that, no matter how successful we were politically, landlords would never gain respect. Despite the justice of our cause, people were just not interested in releasing us from the negative stereotypes that shaped their image of us. However, our victory in the 2001 elections sparked an idea. Even if people do not like landlords, the Property Rights group had shown how a small group of people can successfully fight City Hall. Our group offered a model for successful political action. It was a model which could be used for any cause by any group of people.
That was a thought which now intrigued me. Our best option, then, was to go beyond landlord politics. We had to enter the realm of Big Politics. Once successful in that arena, the media would be unable to ignore us. All those lazy stereotypes would have to drop away if we could score a knockout victory in the arena of Big Politics.
The essence of our model was the combination of regular meetings with our own media. We were an activist group which did things rather than talked about them. But since the commercial media seldom reported our deeds, we needed to have our own newspaper and cable-television show to spread our message to the broader public. Some groups do enjoy extensive media coverage. As for the rest, they could follow our model. We could convert our organization into an umbrella group for protest. It could become like a political party.
Even if some people were not interested in housing and crime issues or took a different position than we on those matters, the different interest groups could work together to put on a show. Ours was a free-speech forum in which anyone could step up to the microphone and say anything. Minneapolis Property Rights Action Committee had pioneered this model in the Twin Cities. Now, perhaps, it could be expanded to become a force in Big Politics.
At some time in the spring of 2002, I decided to take action to propose and, hopefully, create this organization. I produced a flier and a web site for an organization called Orange Party. Its agenda was purposely left blank. The idea of Orange would provide a certain image, a color, which would be a unifying element. On orange-colored paper, I printed a two-sided flier which explained the purpose of this party. Two friends of mine from the Property Rights group distributed this flier outside the DFL (Democratic) state convention in the Minneapolis Convention Center while I was on a trip to China. Then, when I returned to Minnesota, I distributed the same flier to persons attending the Republican state convention at the Xcel Center in St. Paul. The purpose was to float this idea to political activists, start a conversation, elicit feedback, and go from there to create such an organization.
I spent a full day standing outside the Xcel Center in June 2002. A future U.S. Senator, Norm Coleman, and a future Governor, Tim Pawlenty, were being nominated at this convention. It soon became clear that mine was a confusing message. Was I someone from a rival political party trying to lure Republicans away from their party? What was Orange Party if it had no predetermined program of issues? Who would want to join such an organization? What, exactly, was it? I tried my best to answer questions such as these.
Most convention delegates were good natured in their response. A few made jokes about it. However, only one person bothered to contact me on the basis of the information given in the leaflet. She was a member of the Constitution Party who had a radio show. Once the concept of Orange Party was explained more fully, she could see the logic. But we never did follow up with a radio interview or in other ways since the general response to this party was disappointing.
Eventually, I took Orange Partys web site down. The remaining fliers sat in a box. This became just another dormant scheme. Instead of chasing vague ideas like this hypothetical party, I decided to enter real politics.
After Charlie Disney had withdrawn from the Minneapolis mayors race in 2001, I entered the race. It was a busy time for me since my new wife and step-daughter had just arrived in this country. Having about a week to campaign, I walked around city streets with a campaign sign and fliers. In the mayoral primary that took place on September 11, 2001, I finished twelfth among twenty-two candidates. A mere 143 voters in the city had cast votes for me. This was clearly a bad day both for me and for the nation. The results of the general election in November were better from my point of view. Landlord-backed candidates triumphed.
In the next two or three years, I made two other bids for elective office. Since the voters had turned me down for Mayor, why not try to be elected U.S. Senator? After attending the state convention of Minnesotas Independence Party in July 2002, I decided to challenge the party-endorsed candidate in the Senatorial primary. Over a two-month period, I researched issues, produced literature and photographs, and traveled the state by car to seek publicity for my candidacy. I campaigned on a deliberately provocative set of issues: a shorter workweek and dignity for white males. The primary election was held on Tuesday, September 10, 2002. In a three-man race, I finished second with 8,482 votes, or 31% of the total.
I was now 0-for-2 in electoral politics but not the least bit discouraged. Now it was time to try for the big one, the U.S. Presidency. While opposed to Democratic officeholders in the city of Minneapolis, I was even less impressed with the performance of the Republican President, George W. Bush. I therefore decided to enter the race for President as a Democrat. Only three states - New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Louisiana - allowed a candidate such as me to get on the primary ballot. I missed the filing deadline in New Hampshire. I did file in South Carolina but the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Terence McAuliffe, had my name removed from the ballot in that state because he did not consider me to be a good Democrat. That left Louisiana.
The political highlight of my life was the five weeks or so that I spent traveling the state of Louisiana in search of votes in the 2004 Democratic presidential primary. My sole issue was that the U.S. government check outsourcing of jobs to foreign countries through a system of employer-specific tariffs designed to equalize production costs and encourage upgraded wages and working conditions abroad. Apart from the underfunded, understaffed campaign, my problem was that John Kerry effectively sowed up the Democratic nomination a week before the Louisiana primary, which was held on March 9, 2004. In a contest among seven candidates, I finished fifth with 3,161 votes or 2% of the total.
My forays into electoral politics were, of course, unrealistic in terms of being elected to the office sought, but they did serve a useful purpose. They gave voters an opportunity to express support for issues that would otherwise not have been presented. They gave me an opportunity to observe the electoral process first hand and to form certain conclusions about democracy in this age of big media. I was ever more convinced that small groups and underfunded candidates, who could not compete in that environment, needed their own media. Again, it was what the experience with the landlord group taught me. The key to political success is communicating with the public, and big-media gatekeepers sometimes try to control the discussion to further their own agendas.
The Orange Party idea was sitting dormant all this time. I continued to be involved in the landlord group, though not in a leadership role. I published books about each of the two political campaigns. Ultimately, however, it would not be productive to wage solo campaigns for high office. To win, one needed to build political organizations.
I took part in what appeared to be a potentially winning third-party campaign for U.S. Congress. In 2006, the Independence Party candidate, Tammy Lee, gained 21% of the vote - about the same as the Republican candidate - while the Democrat, Keith Ellison, won by a large margin. The Independence Party candidate for Governor, Peter Hutchinson, won only 7% of the vote despite a large and well-funded campaign organization and impressive performances in the debates. So even good candidates and lots of money could not break the bipartisan lock on electoral politics.
When I casually discussed Orange Party with a friend, he said it reminded him of Irish politics. Orange men were the Protestant stalwarts of Northern Ireland fighting the Catholics in that country. Such associations were not helpful. So I thought of some other possibilities and came up with the idea of Gold Party. Back up went a web site under the new name. Most of the pages pertained to the landlord organization. I posed most of the landlord horror stories on this site. It became a factor in discussions and debates of landlord-related issues, especially in St. Paul, throughout 2006. Then, I decided to create a new web site, landlordpolitics.com, for all the landlord-related materials. Much of it was created in the late summer and fall of 2006. Goldparty.org, in six languages, continued to sit idly on the web.
In the late spring of 2007, I decided to get more serious about Gold Party. By now, the landlord group was back in business. I was kept busy by this and by my own rental-property business. Even so, I had a nagging desire to do something about the big economic problems affecting our nation. My scheme of employer-specific tariffs had relevance to our nations widening trade deficit. Even the shorter workweek seemed not entirely dead.
From time to time, I had thought of my old friend, Tom Laney, former president of UAW Local 879 at the Ford plant, who had been the catalyst for many trade-related activities in the early 1990s. He had also been a close friend of Paul Wellstones. As the landlord group had Charlie Disney, so labor activists concerned with trade had Tom Laney. I tried to call him at his old number, but it was disconnected. Had Laney perhaps died? Had he moved out of the area? Fortunately, the latter was the case. A computer search turned up someone by that name in a small town in western Wisconsin. I called the listed number and there, on the line, was my long-lost friend.
I had lunch with Tom Laney and then, in June, attended a conference sponsored by the G.K. Chesterton Society at St. Thomas College in St. Paul. Laney was still interested in changing the world but was somewhat disillusioned with what the labor movement had become. Chesterton, a British novelist and thinker of the early 20th century, favored wealth redistribution in line with teachings of the Roman Catholic church. Laney himself looked fondly on enterprises in which skilled craftsmen both owned the enterprise and did the work. This, he thought, was an alternative to destructive capitalism, featuring the sale of large companies and their subsequent dismantling.
I told Laney that I had come up with a new political scheme, Gold Party, which could take over the government by assembling a winning mass of voters. He listened politely but did not seem convinced. Among other things, I think that the idea of voting according to a point system that mimicked the mechanisms of business did not appeal to him. Tom Laney was more into cooperation and equality. For him, the labor movement represented a means of realizing such ideas.
Even so, this contact with an old friend got me started thinking about Gold Party again. As I had spent several years of running for public office, maybe I could devote similar effort to creating a political organization. The first step was to revamp the web site. All existing pages were rewritten and several new pages were added. Then, too, I had to make definite decisions about certain things.
First, it now seemed that presenting a completely blank set of issues wouldnt work. Even if few people agreed with my views, I had to offer something as a starting point. The core of my program was the shorter workweek and the scheme of employer-specific tariffs that would promote reduced work hours and other labor-related improvements in nations where our imported goods were produced. The economic discussion went into a newly created web site, shorterworkweek.com, which linked to the issues page of Goldparty.org. The remaining issues could be treated more generally. It was understood that Gold Party members would have the final say in the partys platform. Decisions would be reached by votes according to the point system.
The other decision was about the point system. I had some general ideas of how that system might look, but no definite proposal. Again, I felt I had to suggest something specific as a starting point for the organization. I therefore filled in the blanks for two types of points, membership points and recruitment points, with the idea that once the organization got started, the members could revisit this subject. Gold Party also needed to engage the services of some computer programmers to write software to compile and administer the points, but that too was in the future.
Now the web site, GoldParty.org, outlining an idea, is almost finished. Its time to move on to the phase of implementation. We need to register this organization with the Minnesota Secretary of State (who, incidentally, is an old friend from my days of trade-related activity). Beyond this, however, we need to take the enterprise beyond communication by print (on the Internet and elsewhere) to communication in person. We also need to move into new forms of video communication, which is where the action is now. Good ideas are a dime a dozen unless the implementation and support systems are in place.
It will take many different people with many different talents to make Gold Party a success. But this is still in the future. Not much more can be said.