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One woman’s brave stand against those who would steal our democracy
One woman’s brave stand against those who would steal our democracy
Bo Pilgrim is a big-time chicken processor in East Texas, but he wasn’t known to the average Texan until he committed such a faux pas inside our state capitol that he became a political embarrassment. Now, you’ve really got to go some to rise to the level of “embarrassment” in Texas politics, where we often elect embarrassments to high office just for their amusement value (I’ll not stoop to naming any names here, but someone with the initials P.H.I.L.G.R.A.M.M. qualifies).
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What got Bo riled up was a worker’s compensation bill that he did not want to see passed by the state senate, for he feared it could take a dime or two from his chicken plucking profits. So, while they were debating the bill, Mr. Pilgrim went to Austin, stood in a corner just off the senate floor, calling one senator after another to have a brief word with them, give them some materials about the legislation–and a. $10,000 campaign check.
Pilgrim dispersed nine $10,000 checks, all to senators who had been identified as swing votes on the issue. Two senators rejected Bob’s offering outright, and one of them spoiled the party by also blowing the whistle, which led to quite a press scramble to have the other bribees explain themselves. But the real embarrassment was not that money had changed hands over a legislative vote, but that it had been handled so sloppily. “Goodgodamighty” bellowed the professional lobbyists privately; “Don’t this Pilgrim boy know how to play the game? You deliver the check before or after the vote, not during it, and damn sure not on the floor of the senate with God and the Associated Press watching. We need to take up a collection and buy him a brain cell.”
The embarrassment of Bo Pilgrim came back to me in early January, 1999, when I first heard about quite another kind of pilgrim. Doris Haddock is her name, known to her family and now to countless numbers of us who have been touched by her great spirit as Granny D.
At 89 years of age, she has embarked on an extraordinary pilgrimage. Beginning New Years Day this year at the Rose Bowl Parade in Pasadena, California, she set out to walk the entire breadth of this great country, all 3,000 miles of it, to the Nation’s Capitol. Her mission was nothing less than to put a stop to today’s uptown Bo Pilgrims—the slick, suave, sophisticated versions of the chicken plucker, the ones in the corporate suites and lobbying offices who are using their checkbooks to buy legislation, too, and to drown out the voice of the people in American politics. “Call me crazy, call me God-sent,” proclaimed this feisty octogenarian as she began her cross-country journey, “but I am on a crusade to create a groundswell for campaign finance reform, to eliminate the cancer of corporate money that’s killing our democracy.” “I believe the people who make progress for us are crazed” her son Jim told the Los Angeles Daily News. “But there’s a difference between crazy and insane.”
Bingo! Thomas Paine was a crazy. Sojouner Truth and Frederick Douglass, Mary Helen Lease (“The Kansas Pythoness”) and “Sockless Jerry” Simpson of the great populist movement, Eugene Debs and Mother Jones—crazies, one and all. Yet these and so many more are the ones who’ve stretched the reach of our democracy, not the presidents, tycoons, and other “Great Men” of the time, nearly all of whom have fought ferociously to suppress the free thinkers, iconoclasts, political mavericks, visionaries, organizers, and other democrats—like Granny D.
Who is this lady? A widow who has lived a long time in Dublin, New Hampshire, population 1,400. She was a secretary and office manager for a shoe company before retiring some years ago. She is informed and well-spoken, polite, patient, and respectful of others. But don’t mistake politeness for meekness—after all, this is the “Live Free or Die” state, and Doris Haddock has always been a reformer, an agitator, and in the 1930s, she performed one-woman feminist plays.
In 1960, she, her husband Jim, and five friends waged a wild-card effort to stop an insane scheme by Edward Teller, father of the H-bomb, to use thermonuclear weapons to (hold your breath now) dig canals. That campaign went all the way to JFK in the White House before it succeeded in stopping Teller.
Why walk? Well, in January, 1998, not long after her best friend had died, Doris was being driven by her son to Florida. Along the way, she noticed an old man standing by the highway as they roared past. She recalls that “He was leaning against his cane . . . miles and miles from any town or house. ‘What’s he doing way out here?’ I asked my son, Jim. ‘He’s on the road again, mother,’ he replied.” She and Jim then talked for awhile about the road, about Kerouac’s book and Willie Nelson’s song. “It occurred to me that I should go on the road for the political issue I cared most about: campaign reform.” She had been speaking out on the issue in Dublin, and getting signatures for Common Cause’s petition drive to pressure congress. “I looked at my son as he drove us along,” she writes . . . “and I knew I was about to change our lives when I spoke. I told him that I would walk across the U.S. for campaign finance reform.”
“Oh, boy” sighed Jim.
Doris began training on the streets and hills of Dublin, working her way up to10 miles while carrying a 25 pound back pack, sleeping on the ground, ready for a year on the road.
On January 1st, she put on her special reinforced corset for her back, her hiking boots with steel supports, her orange vest proclaiming “Granny D—Pilgrim for Campaign Finance Reform,” her backpack, and her floppy, broadbrimmed straw hat— then she followed the Parade of Roses past Sierra Madre Boulevard . . . and headed east.
She was never alone. Stepping out of Los Angeles with her the first day was Ken Hechler, himself 84 years old. Once a speech writer for Harry Truman, Hechler has been a terrific, hell-raising political leader and reformer from West Virginia, having served in congress and presently serving as West Virginia’s Secretary of State. Hechlers has walked with Doris for some stretch of the road in every state and he’s running for congress again—” If Granny can walk at 89, I can run at 84,” he said.
It was hard traveling at first, for the press coverage was sparse, the helpers few in number (though strong in energy and heart), and the road was ever so long. But things quickly picked up as people heard about her. The first big media break was an article by Michael Coit’s in the Los Angeles Daily News, which went on the AP wire and put Granny’s trek on the national radar. That’s how I learned about her, and my “Chat & Chew” radio talk show began on January 14th to have a weekly chat with Granny D, usually via her trusty cell phone.
The routine was for her to be up and out early, walk the ten miles of the day, mark the spot where she left off, then be driven by volunteers for a lunch, nap, event, or whatever people arranged for her in a nearby town. After an overnight in a home, B&B, motel, or the best deal she could get, she’d be driven out to her marker the next morning to start another ten mile leg. No fudging for Granny—her odometer is true.
What a trip. Cars, pickups, and 18-wheelers would honk at her little group, some would stop to sign the petition or join the troupe for a while. “Go Granny Go!” became the common greeting, mayors and high school bands met her at the city limits, parents brought their children out to walk with her, town after town proclaimed Granny D Day, she got enough keys to the city to start a locksmith shop, she was welcomed into a Tucson biker bar (where she was told that the word would be spread among bikers to keep an eye out for her on the road), she lectured at colleges, rode in rodeo processions, threw out the first pitch in a minor league baseball game, spoke from the steps of state capitols, got blown down a couple of times by the wind in West Texas.
Ultimately, the real story is not Granny D’s march, but her message, and the fact that it resonates so clearly with such a broad majority of Americans. The need for reform really doesn’t need much explaining, whether talking before a local chamber of commerce crowd, in a union hall, on a college campus, in a church, or with folks sitting in a booth at a cafe. Also, Granny says it so plainly?asked by a reporter what keeps her moving, she replied, “I have 11 great-grandchildren, and I want them to grow up in a democracy.” At that Tucson biker bar that embraced Granny, the manager, known simply as Kuzzton, says his regulars understand the problem with campaign financing: “Most of the customers know that issue real well. It seems like it takes too much money to get elected, and a regular person can’t do that.” As of mid-November, Granny D was in TK, TK00 miles into her journey. Her intention is to arrive on the Capitol steps, January 24, 2000?her 90th birthday?where she’ll present petitions to some members of Congress. In the better world that Doris Haddock is doing so much to help build, however, she would not be on the outside of the Capitol building, but be brought inside to the House Chamber, escorted up to the Speaker’s podium from which presidents deliver their state of the union ramblings, and from there be asked to speak to a joint session of congress in a nationally-televised address. I know what she would say, because she has said it again and again from sea to shining sea, and I’ve never heard a better speech in my life, delivered with such honest passion. Here is the speech, only slightly condensed, as she delivered it last year to the national convention of the Reform Party in Dearborn, Michigan.
Granny D’s Speech
“Ladies and Gentlemen, I have been involved in reform fights through most of my adult life, but I have saved the most important for last.
It is my belief that a worthy American ought to be able to run for a public office without having to sell his or her soul to the corporations or the unions in order to become a candidate. Fundraising muscle should not be the measure of a candidate’s ideas, character, track record, leadership skills: those ought to be the measures of our leaders.
. . . I have traveled as a pilgrim, and Americans have taken care of me through each of my 1,800 miles. If you knew, as I know from these last seven months, what a sweet and decent nation we live in, you would be all the more determined to raise it out of this time of trouble?this sewer of greed and cash that we have slipped into.
I have walked through a land where the middle class, the foundation of our democracy, stands nearly in ruins. Main streets have given way to superstores. Towns have died. Family farms, family businesses and local owners have given way to absentee owners and a local population of underpaid clerks and collection agents. People are so stressed in their household economies, and in the personal relationships that depend on family economics, that they have little time for participation in the governance of their communities or of their nation. They struggle daily in mazes and treadmills of corporate design and inhumane intent. They dearly believe their opinions matter, but they don’t believe their voices count.
They tell me that the control of their government has been given over to commercial interests. They cheer me on, sometimes in tears, but they wonder if we will ever again be a self-governing people, a free people.
With the middle class so purposefully destroyed—its assets plundered by an elite minority—it should not surprise us that the war chests of presidential candidates are grotesquely overflowing….
The privileged elite intend to elect those who have helped them achieve this theft and who will help them preserve their position of advantage. That is what accounts for the avalanche of $1,000 checks into presidential campaigns.
Walk through [any] city and mark the doors of the families who cannot afford to give $1,000 to a presidential candidate or to a senator or two. For those who live behind these millions of doors we do not have a democracy, but an emergency?a crisis that deeply threatens our future as a free people.
. . . It is said that democracy is not something we have, but something we do. But right now, we cannot do it because we cannot speak. We are shouted down by the bullhorns of big money. It is money with no manners for democracy, and it must be escorted from the room.
While wealth has always influenced our politics, what is new is the increasing concentration of wealth and the widening divide between the political interests of the common people and the political interests of the very wealthy who are now able to buy our willing leaders wholesale. The wealthy elite used to steal what they needed and it hardly affected the rest of us. Now they have the power to take everything for themselves, laying waste to our communities, our culture, our environment and our lives, and they are doing it.
If money is speech, then those with more money have more speech, and that idea is antithetical to democracy. It makes us no longer equal citizens.
Corporations are not people. They are protective associations that we, the people, allow to be chartered for business purposes on the condition that they will behave.
We must look to whether we can still afford, as a people and as a planet, to give these little monsters a birth certificate but no proper upbringing, no set of expectations, no consequences for antisocial behavior.
We are simply tired of the damage they do and we are tired of cleaning up after them. If they are to be allowed to exist–and they are indeed important to us– they must agree to be responsible for their own activities, start to finish, without requiring public dollars to be used to clean their rooms up after them. The era of corporate irresponsibility must be ended immediately, particularly in regard to the degradation of our political and cultural and natural environments .
Friends, does it matter if it is Rupert Murdoch or Michael Eisner, instead of Marshall Tito or Nikita Khrushchev, who owns everything and decides everything for us, even if, through the stock exchange, we all have a powerless piece of this new, mass collective? The soul of democracy is diversity, not concentration …
General Eisenhower said, “Pessimism never won any battle” He was right. Pessimism visualizes defeat. What we visualize, we bring forth. Carl Sandburg wrote: “Nothing happens unless first a dream.”
To the reformers, then: learn optimism if you would have the endurance to succeed, and endurance is required.
Where to find optimism? Well, I have found it for you out on the road, and I give it to you now.
I give you the Americans I have met. Without exception, they deeply love the idea of America. It is an image they carry in their hearts. It is a dream they are willing to sacrifice their lives for. Many of them do. There is no separating this image of democracy from their longing for personal freedom for themselves, their family, their friends. To the extent that our government is not our own, we are not free people.
On the road so far, these Americans have taken me into their homes and fed me at their tables—shown me the children for whom they sacrifice their working lives and for whom they pray for a free and gentle democracy. And I will tell you that I am with them.” Thank you all.”