By FRANK LINGO
Stealing the show from the Republican and Democratic conventions was one of the goals of the Shadow Conventions, swiping some star power of John McCain and others to do it. An amalgamation of alternative attitudes to the major parties' scripted infomercials, the Shadow Conventions were nothing but a gleam in Arianna Huffington's eye six months ago.
The syndicated columnist, who calls herself "a recovering Republican," happened to have breakfast at a technology conference last February with two internet venture guys, Peter Hirshberg and Michael Markman.
They talked about having some kind of gathering where people who were serious about the issues of campaign finance reform, the drug war, and poverty could try to marshall their forces. They all thought the plan had merit. But then Markman and Hirshberg went back to working on their businesses. After a month or so, they were surprised to hear from Huffington, who was busy enlisting the co-conveners Common Cause, Public Campaign, The Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy Foundation and others.
"Like any father, we put the idea out and left," said Markman. "Arianna's the mother -- she nurtured it and made it happen. One of her great strategies was to involve organizations that have great infrastructure like Common Cause."
Huffington's enthusiasm re-energized the guys. "The same kind of zeal we bring to starting new ventures, we ought to bring to civic involvement for reforming and improving government." said Hirshberg."
The focus on personality all too often fills the news but it's part of this story to consider the columnist's conversion. Although a successful author in her own right, Huffington came into political prominence as the brains and brawn behind her then-husband Michael Huffington's run for the US Senate from California in 1994.
They spent a record $30 million on vicious attack ads against Sen. Dianne Feinstein, only to lose. Not long afterwards, Michael came out publicly as a homosexual and the couple divorced.
Arianna went back to her roots, journalism. Her father had started numerous newspapers in her native Greece, though success eluded him. But Arianna was an instant hit. Her columns started out quite right-of-center but gradually she started to see the fraud and hypocrisy of Newt Gingrich's Republican Revolution, which her husband had narrowly missed attaching to.
For more details, I recommend her new book, How to Overthrow the Government. Suffice it to say that Arianna has gone from social-climbing conservative to crusading progressive faster than most of us adjust to a new job.
This past spring a trio of social and economic justice outfits eagerly joined the challenge: National Campaign for Jobs and Income Support, United for a Fair Economy, and Call to Renewal, a coalition of faith-based organizations working to overcome poverty and re-vitalize politics.
Stitching together funding from foundations such as Pew, Carnegie, ARC and Open Society Institute, these shadow puppeteers put on quite a show in Philly.
Considering the half-million-dollar budget (compared to $63 million for the Republican Convention), the confab came off remarkably well. Arianna declared herself ecstatic with the press coverage, although print journalists were few.
The serious speakers, including McCain, Jesse Jackson, Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.), Scott Harshbarger of Common Cause and many others, gave thought-provoking and action-provoking talks. The satirists, including Al Franken, Harry Shearer and longtime publisher of The Realist, Paul Krassner provided plenty of comic relief.
Coming up, the Democrats are sure to be as substantive as a ceiling full of balloons. But the Shadow folks have another week of intelligent, entertaining approaches to political reform scheduled for Los Angeles. At this rate, the Shadow Conventions could become a pleasant, productive tradition.
The Shadow Convention, Philly version, was cooking up plans to overthrow our way of government. But these weren't anarchists or communists meeting to plot a revolution. No, these folks from all walks of life, young and old, black and white, straight as arrows and wild as Woodstockers, just happened to believe in democracy. And now they were doing something to bring it back.
Back from where? Money. It's not just that the top 1% control more wealth than the lowest 95%. It's the damage they do with wielding that clout. Damage to our water, land and air; damage to our health care, damage to our democracy.
Although the men onstage all wore the usual business suits, they set the stage for some unusual business.
Sen. McCain spoke Sunday, July 30, to the gathering at one of the nation's most venerable educational institutions, the University of Pennsylvania. Although in town for some other shindig, McCain stopped by the Shadow Convention to address the issue of campaign finance reform. To his credit, he has worked hard in the Senate for reform but that has been tainted by his own acceptance of big contributions his eventual support of "Dubya," the posterboy of fundraising overkill.
On Monday, July 31, with McCain back in the fold of the Republicans' party, some speakers came out of the Shadow who were a lot more real.
In the hall at Penn's Annenberg School of Communications, several hundred interested persons heard convincing evidence, anecdotal and statistical, that campaign finance reform is the key to all political progress.
Not to mention some wizened testimonials. Granny D, for instance. Ninety-year-old Doris Haddock in February completed her 3,200 mile walk in the cause of reforming our system. "I cannot properly convey how wonderful it is to walk across America," she said from under her feathered hat. "You should always vote your heart," she counseled. "The only wasted vote is the vote not cast."
Co-host Ellen Miller of Public Campaign said we no longer have a representative democracy -- we have a dollar democracy. She asked the audience to stand up, then had us sit by thirds to demonstrate a point. The first third isn't even registered, she said, the second third doesn't bother to vote and the third that does vote doesn't matter that much because they don't give money. Then Miller had one white male stand alone, representing the percentage and pigment of people who pull political power.
Former Massachusetts Attorney General Scott Harshbarger, now head of Common Cause, said the tobacco, alcohol and gun industries have given $65 million to politicians since 1989. That money has bought delays and defeats of legislation that would have protected public safety. Measures like handgun registration, trigger-locks and the long overdue crackdown on the world's deadliest drug pushers, Big Tobacco, all got swept under the rug because the politicians need to keep the gravy train rolling.
As the day wore on, some speakers told personal stories. Rick Reinert, a mustached 40-ish entrepreneur from South Carolina related how his small business had gone under after having a 100% tariff imposed on his goods. Reinert said that US Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky had done nothing to help him despite repeated requests.
Philadelphia activist Asia Russell's group took a more direct approach to dealing with Barshefsky. ACTUP -- the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power -- chained themselves up in Barshefsky's Washington office to protest the US government's long history of punishing poor countries that try to make life-saving AIDS medications accessible. Interesting-ly, a few days later President Clinton relaxed US policy, to the chagrin of the drug companies.
Rev. Carrie Bolton, a black woman from North Carolina, said she had picked cotton and slopped hogs and was stuck in the mud with no boots to pull herself up on by the straps. Bolton exuberantly criticized the corporate thinking that places profit before people, exciting the audience to respond. She concluded her stint at the microphone by exhorting the listeners to sing along in a rousing gospel paraphrase: "Ain't gonna let big money turn me around/ I'm gonna keep on a' marchin,' keep on a marchin' the freedom way."
Author/journalist William Greider told about a terrible 1994 fire in a Bangkok, Thailand toy factory that killed 188 people. The doors had been locked as the workers tried to escape, in a stunning re-enactment of New York's famed Triangle fire of 1911. Greider said that fire 91 years ago led to many reforms and progress in the labor movement. The same hasn't been true since the Bangkok blaze because the owners of the sweatshops aren't compelled to change.
Minnesotan Paul Wellstone gave a brief but exciting speech, The slim, bearded senator said his father, having escaped the Soviet Union at the age of 17, taught him patriotic values but now Wellstone says we view community service as good and political service as bad. Wellstone who won his seat in 1990 despite being outspent seven to one, said that the corruption now isn't just with occasional individuals but is infecting the entire political system. He quoted Wendell Phillips, an abolitionist from the 1840s who was asked after a fiery speech why he was on fire.
"I'm on fire," Phillips said, "because we have mountains of ice to melt."
The Shadow Convention continued Tuesday, Aug. 1, on the issue of the failed war on drugs. Arianna Huffington opened the day by praising Colin Powell's speech at the Repugnicans' convention for his mention of two million prisoners in America. Only problem is, fat chance for the fat cats to change. Huffington also quoted the New York Times as calling the Shadow Convention "an uneasy assortment of the disgruntled."
That's not a real astute assessment by the Times. Sure, there are disgruntled people here, but these activists take the lead in doing something about problems that millions of others agree need to be addressed. It's not like "disgruntled" postal worker going on a shooting rampage. As for the "uneasy" part, everyone's getting along fine.
In fact, it's quite a success, given that the Shadow Convention is new this year and has a miniscule budget compared to the lavish coronation for "Shrub," (much of it coming from us taxpayers).
Incidentally, about $40 billion of Americans' state and federal taxes go in the bottomless pit of fighting the drug war. And it hasn't gotten us squat. According to The Lindesmith Center, a Shadow sponsor, 54% of high school seniors say they've tried marijuana. Drug reformers say that between 1981 and 1998, the price of heroin and cocaine dropped sharply while levels of purity rose.
Lindesmith also cites a Rand Drug Policy Research Center study that shows treatment is 10 times more cost-effective than interdiction for reducing cocaine use. Add the info that every dollar invested in treatment saves society seven more and you gotta wonder why the politicians would still rather be mean than smart.
Up first was the Rev. Edwin Sanders, a black minister from Nashville, Tennessee, with a powerful, passionate style. Sanders said he was asked to give the benediction, which he said normally comes at the end. But he turned the organizers' goof into his theme, calling for the end of the drug war.
Sanders made a point that it's time for the faith community to take its position. He's right -- for far too long, religious leaders have been timid about condemning the war on drugs. "Too many people have been relegated to the scrap heap of life," he railed, as "profiteers mine a new black gold" in the business of prison-building.
With applause nearly drowning him out, Sanders said "We are writing a new declaration of independence. It was this day Aug.1, 2000 that we said 'the end'."
Borrowed from the right-wing wing-ding, New Mexico's Governor Gary Johnson (R) came on to say that it's drug prohibition not drug use that is tearing this country apart. Johnson called for legalization of marijuana.
Between speakers there was a brief slide show, with family pictures of people now prisoners and their sentences such as 17 years, 23 years, 30 years, life -- mostly on a charge of drug conspiracy. There was a palpable sorrow in the hearts of hundreds as we watched the parade of ruined lives.
Putting more of a human face on the horror was Gus Smith, telling of his daughter, Kemba Smith. Ms. Smith was a college freshman when she got romantically involved with a drug dealer who posed as a student. Although the prosecutor said Kemba had never sold or used drugs, the pregnant student was convicted of conspiracy, money laundering and making false statements. Kemba was sentenced to 24 years, a term exceeding what many killers serve. She gave birth to her baby in prison.
A group of kids all the way from Detroit and St. Paul, whose families have been imprisoned for drugs, came out to sing and read poems. Hearing their stories from these young sweet faces made for more heartbreaking moments. It surely put a cold light on Colin Powell's claim that George W. Bush cares about people.
Time for a little star power! America's top black leader, Rev. Jesse Jackson, took the podium to wild applause. Jackson was low-key at first, contrasting the struggle between the political center and the moral center. Very gradually he built momentum as he spoke of the fear and greed driving the jail-industrial complex. "The war on drugs is beneath the dignity of the American dream," he said. Talking about inmates who come out of jail sicker and slicker and go back quicker, Jesse's tone soon reached fever-pitch amid continuous applause.
"Your vote matters," shouted Jackson. "We have the power to change course. Stay out of the Bushes and [of course] keep hope alive."
The third day's theme of the Shadow Convention, after a day each for campaign and drug reform, was the problem of poverty persisting amid prosperity.
While the delirious Republicans nearby claim a big tent for everyone, it's hard for the rest of us to fit when the elephants take up all the space.
And as the Fortune 500's wheels roll on, sometimes they roll right over us. According to United For A Fair Economy, an advocacy group and co-convener, between 1989 and 1999 the number of US billionaires quadrupled while those living in poverty rose by 3 million to nearly 35 million people.
Boom For Whom? is a popular phrase at this alternative gathering where people are actually working on issues instead of just smiling for the camera.
Ain't no boom for the average American worker, whose pay in the '90's increased only 28% -- and most of that eaten up by inflation. Ain't no boom for 44 million people, many holding a job, who haven't got health insurance.
Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, a towering figure for social justice, focused on children. "Given the huge buildup of wealth at the top in the '90's, and the desperate need for better schools and pre-schools for low-income kids, we should have a national wealth tax -- a tiny percentage on the net worth that is dedicated to education. The schools of poor and working class families are not up to the challenge of helping them gain a foothold in the new economy," said Reich.
One key to rising out of poverty is access to getting loans -- like how the rich use other people's money to get richer.
Attempting to level the playing field is Melissa Marquez, general manager of the Progressive Neighborhood Federal Credit Union of Rochester, N.Y. One strategy for building assets is the Individual Development Account, an incentive-based savings program that actually increases every dollar a member saves by three more. You save $1,000, the program adds $3,000. Now operating in at least 10 states, says Marquez, it's funded by banks, the states and the federal government. Members must complete home-buying education classes -- a reasonable requirement.
The private organizations meeting here are helping each other learn to get things done. Though sometimes it settled for being a pep rally for progressive politics, the Shadow Convention also presented solid solutions to its participants, and to the public through the press.
And the conveners were not blind to their own shortcomings. Jim Wallis, director of Call To Renewal, said: "The liberal side sometimes services poverty instead of overcoming it." Wallis challenges the candidates: "If Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore want to be our partners, they need to put poor people on the agenda."
Another tool for fighting poverty is the Campaign For A Living Wage, springing up across America. By requiring companies that do business with state and local governments to pay their workers above the poverty level (about three bucks over minimum wage), the campaign has helped thousands of people get on their financial feet.
By daring to face the enormous, unpopular topic of poverty, the Shadow Convention came into the light.
Frank Lingo is a columnist for the Kansas City Star. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Sample Lingo's novel at earthvote.net.