Where Are You, Paul Wellstone?

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I miss liberals. After living in Minnesota for more than 20 years, I miss the pitter-patter of Birkenstocks, the vegan potlucks, the scent of patchouli, and the campaign fund raisers where people in earth-toned sweaters swill 3.2 beer and argue for the right of 14-year-olds to vote. It’s difficult not to get nostalgic about such […]


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I miss liberals. After living in Minnesota for more than 20 years, I miss the pitter-patter of Birkenstocks, the vegan potlucks, the scent of patchouli, and the campaign fund raisers where people in earth-toned sweaters swill 3.2 beer and argue for the right of 14-year-olds to vote. It’s difficult not to get nostalgic about such things.

My own political views are confused, at best. I see myself as a moderate with quasi-Republican views and relatively Democratic leanings. In my first political foray, I worked tirelessly, feverishly, for the Nixon-Agnew re-election campaign in 1972. I knocked on doors in our St. Petersburg neighborhood and explained with near-evangelical glee that the Watergate incident was just a little over-zealousness on the part of well-meaning people who understood why it was important for our president to be re-elected. "No harm done," I’ d say. "What’s the worst that could happen? It’s not like the President could be impeached for something like that."

I was 14 at the time. This makes me an authority on why 14-year-olds should not be able to vote.

Through the years, I’ve worked for several candidates, including Republican Congressman C.W. Bill Young and Democratic Sen. Bob Graham. I’ve had dinner with Jimmy Carter when he was just a peanut farmer with a dream that had nothing to do with grape jelly. And, most recently, I shared a doughnut with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in Miami. Politically, I get around.

Still, in the scope of Minnesota politics, I’m considered a conservative–which is not a good thing when you’re Sen. Paul Wellstone’s neighbor, as I was for quite some time. Before his tragic death in a plane crash in 2002, Wellstone was a Democrat whose voting record made Ted Kennedy look like a conservative slacker. I first met Paul in my days as a television reporter, and I knew him pretty well. He was a small man with a big heart and a Harpo Marx hairstyle. He was adamant about everything. Every time we’d bump into each other there would never be any small talk. It was always about universal health care or middle-class tax cuts for college or homeless veterans. Paul was a tireless crusader. "The future will not belong to those who stand on the sidelines," he once said. And even though we sometimes agreed to disagree, we had real discussions about things that really mattered. He was, unapologetically, a liberal. He challenged your ideas and made you think.

Now I live in Sarasota. I spend a lot of time talking about pool filters and hurricane season. I have yet to meet anyone who says they’re a liberal. In fact, "liberal" seems to be a dirty word here. If you type the words "Sarasota" and "liberal" into an Internet search engine, you’re directed to a Web site that features a 1998 Katherine Harris campaign ad. At the time, Harris was running for Secretary of State against Karen Gievers. According to this Web site, the ad uses the word "liberal" six times in 30 seconds—-and not in a flattering manner. Apparently, Gievers once worked as an unpaid lobbyist for foster children, the Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers, a local bar association, and Operation SafeDrive, a group she formed to push for tougher traffic safety laws after her first husband was killed by a teen-age motorist. Based on this record, Harris accused her of being a "liberal lobbyist."

Given the outcome of the election, this apparently is a lot like saying, "your cooties have cooties." If you don’t believe me, try introducing yourself as a "liberal lobbyist" at the next Sarasota cocktail party you go to.

Of course, I haven’t seen a lot of Democrats, either. My neighbor, who is Canadian and likes to talk about sailing, tells me that most people register as Republican because they want to vote: "Democrats don’t run candidates in all the elections, so if you want to be part of the process, you have to be a Republican."

This sounds like an urban myth to me. Something akin to the girl in the violet dress you pick up hitchhiking who turns out to be a ghost who died on prom night.

I call the head of Sarasota’s Democratic party, Harold O. Miller, for a comment on my neighbor’s theory. He agrees that many Democrats are indeed registered Republicans, but says it has nothing to do with prom nights gone wrong, or voting. It’s all about money.

"It’s more advantageous for people to be Republican because you’re doing business with Republicans and working in a town run by Republicans," he explains.

"But wait a minute," I say, "how do people know what you’re registered as? That just doesn’t seem like the kind of thing that would come up in casual conversation."

Miller takes a deep breath. "People do check on these things. If you’re running a business in town or deal with government, you have to be a little careful," he says.

This does not seem like the Sarasota I know. At the heart of it, this is a circus town. People here seem to be what they are-artists, promoters, tattoo artists, adult entertainment specialists. Just two days ago, I stood behind a bearded lady at the post office. I can’t imagine her being worried that somebody may find out she’s not a Republican. Still, Miller is right about one thing. There just aren’t a lot of Democrats, let alone liberals, sunning themselves in this part of the world.

According to the Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections’ office, there are 226, 573 registered voters in Sarasota County. 68,857 are Democrats. Nearly twice as many, 113, 323 are Republicans. I am also told 6,672 people identify themselves as "Independents" and 4,581 people say they are members of the Independent Party. The helpful woman on the phone cautions me that some of these people may be confused about the difference between the two.

"How could anyone not know the difference?" I wail. It’s not surprising that I would become upset over this. My vote helped professional wrestler and Independent candidate Jesse Ventura become the first Governor in Minnesota’s history to wear a pink boa in public.

"People get confused," she says.

Of course, she could be right. There isn’t even an office for the Independent Party in town.

"So how many liberals do you think there really are in Sarasota?" I say. "Off the record?"

The woman hangs up, laughing.

It’s then I remember seeing some literature for the Green Party at the Farmer’s Market. I pick up my phone book and there’s a number for them. I can hardly believe it. The phone rings twice and a pleasant voice says, "Good afternoon. Green Party. May I help you?"

"Where can I find a liberal in Sarasota?" I ask without hesitation. I have a habit of blurting when excited.

Julia Aires, local coordinator and co-chair of the Green Party of Florida, clears her throat. "We’re actually closer to the Republicans," she says. "We really are quite conservative."

"But didn’t you run Ralph Nader for President in the last election? Isn’t he kind of liberal?"

Silence.

Right about now that I realize that I’m not a very tactful political reporter-or a very good one. The only thing I can remember about Nader is that he once said that Chevrolet’s Corvair was unsafe at any speed, and I loved that perky little car.

Aires explains that the party is interested in creating a grassroots democracy, with an emphasis on ecological issues and nuclear disarmament, but that message often gets lost because the press focuses on Nader as a man, not party stands. "We are being disappeared," she says. "We’re an important voice that has a very difficult time being heard."

Still, a recent USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll stated that nearly one in four voters wants Ralph Nader to run for president again in 2004. It’s unclear if any of them owned Corvairs, or had ever driven in one-but that’s a pretty telling number. The Green Party, whether you know what they stand for or not, does seem to be a player.

Aires points out that the party, which has about 300 members locally, recently helped organize a coalition of several groups, which successfully lobbied the City Commission to repeal some aspects of The Patriot Act. For a town with such an overwhelming number of Republicans, that seems surprising. But Aires disagrees. She says that some aspects of the law, especially those that encourage suspicion of other races and allow law enforcement officials to search your home and seize whatever they want without a warrant, go against the basic values of citizens of every political viewpoint in this city.

"Sarasota has traditionally been a welcoming community," she says. "We have been home to all sorts of people that didn’t fit other places. But since 9-11, there’s been a lot of fear. The Patriot Act encourages people to spy on one another. That’s just not Sarasota. We want to be an accepting community again."

"So could this be considered a coalition of liberals?"

"Well," she says, "there were Republicans involved, too."

"Were any of them wearing Birkenstocks with their Brooks Brothers suits?"

She hangs up on me. I make a note to stop blurting when excited.

I’m nearly ready to give up hope on my hunt for the elusive liberal when an invitation arrives via e-mail from a Sarasota group called Forum 2004: The Truth for a Change. The group describes itself as a non-partisan organization of "like-minded people" who are concerned about a whole lot of things including "an apparent thirst for war at the top level of the government, a dramatic erosion of basic civil liberties, and the growing chasm between rich and poor." Both the invitation and Web site (www.Forum2004America.org) promise an evening of "truth" for "Progressive Floridians." This is their first meeting. It’s a fund raiser.

This must be the mother lode of liberals, I think. Plus, there’ll be cocktails. So I’m in.

The event is held at a private home that’s built to resemble a Venetian villa. The house genteelly wraps around a courtyard and sits on the edge of the bay. The view is spectacular. The sun is as pink as shrimp as it sets into slate-gray waters. I feel like I’m in a photo shoot for Architectural Digest. There’s a stray greyhound nuzzling the guests and a golden retriever asleep in the foyer. The group, which hopes to be a think tank, is led by Paul Duke, the longtime moderator of Washington Week in Review. The silver-haired Duke is insightful as ever, and charming. Organizers tell me 200 people have sent in RSVPs. I believe it. The place is wall-to-wall with "like-minded people." One woman is wearing a couple of campaign buttons. One reads, "Dean." The other, "Beat Bush." When I ask her if she’s a liberal she won’t comment. In fact, every time I ask someone a question, they won’t comment. I’m not quite sure what to make of it.

Finally, a well-coiffed blonde in her early 50s says, "I’m here to help the Democrats grab power again," and then she whoops, something I don’t often hear outside of football games, and people nearby turn. When I explain that this isn’t a Democratic event, the woman looks panicked.

"There are Republicans here?" she says. "I better leave."

The only other person who will talk to me is a 16-year-old boy dressed in a suit. His hair is combed straight back, which makes him look a little like an extra on The Sopranos. When I ask him what he’s doing at the event he says, "I want to be an informed voter."

"But you’re only 16."

"I register in January."

"You mean pre-register?" I say, but he doesn’t answer, just smiles a Cheshire cat kind of smile. He reminds me of a politician, so I ask him if he wants to run for office someday, and he smiles again.

"No comment," he says, as if it’s a press conference. Now, I’m officially unnerved, so I keep trying to tease information out of him, but he won’t answer. He won’t even tell me what party affiliation interests him.

"Why not?" I say, exasperated. "What’s it going to hurt?"

Then he leans into me, nearly whispering, and says, "You know Abbie Hoffman?" I nod. Who doesn’t know Abbie Hoffman?

"I want to be him," the kid says.

I flash on a visual of Hoffman in his day. The wild tangle of dark curly hair, the gypsy clothes, the courageous eyes. I don’t even think he owned a suit.

"You do? Abby Hoffman, the Yippie?" I can hardly believe it, but the kid nods.

"There are many ways to attack an issue," he says. "You use the style that fits the occasion."

I look around at the crowd. Not a single pair of Birkenstocks. The air reeks of Chanel. The buffet is lavish with shrimp, tiny quiches, meats and cheese–no soy products, no gluten-free crackers. Nobody has mentioned the "L" word all night. Still, they are talking about a revolution. "Fire Bush!" somebody shouts and others chime in in agreement. The organizers promise to create a public discourse by bringing in "controversial speakers"-and that’s something, even without the tofu.

Maybe the kid is right. You use the style that fits the occasion-or the community. Perhaps the liberals of Sarasota are the true radicals. They aren’t interested in the clothes or lifestyle associated with liberals. They’re interested in subversion. They form coalitions with conservatives. They become Republicans to make change from within. If the Green Party, which enthusiastically advocates the redistribution of wealth, can position itself with Republicans and find 300 people to sign on in Sarasota, then it must be on to something. I just wish one of them would ask me out for a beer.