Sunday, April 13, 2014

Looking at the TX GOP and Democratic Primaries - as a candidate in BOTH...

Thoughts from the Texas Campaign Trail

I just finished a run for the U.S. Senate seat now held by John Cornyn in the Democratic primary.  I am the only Democratic candidate who has run in a GOP primary both as a Republican and Independent,  and therefore am the only primary candidate who can compare the parties, then and now. Here is what I saw.

In 2000, the first time I ran for office, I was living in Ft. Bend, Texas, which was in the district held by then Rep. Tom DeLay. The district had been gerrymandered so that it was at least 60% Republican. I went to a Democratic meeting and discovered that there wasn’t really anything going on–just a few people in a small house.  Every Democratic candidate got a maximum of 36% of the vote.

I had supported Democrats since I was a University of Texas senior in Austin during the George McGovern campaign in 1972. I had soldiered on during campaigns by Carter, Mondale, and Dukakis. But I kept having this weird dream that I needed to run for Congress as a Republican! I wasn’t sure if it was a nightmare or a vision but it kept repeating.

For years, Mr. DeLay had not been seen in his district. No one challenged him on the primary ballot and he’d knock down 60 percent plus in November in the general election (the advantage of gerrmandering.) Since he didn’t have to worry about winning his district he focused on beating up Democrats in national politics, including leading the charge in impeaching President Bill Clinton.

So I decided that the only way to challenge Tom DeLay and his policy of scorched-earth politics of personal destruction was to challenge him in the only place where it would have an impact.  In the GOP primary. No one else had dared challenge Tom DeLay in the primary because he had a well-earned reputation for being mean and vindictive.  He didn’t even bother to campaign!  At that time I didn’t have much to lose, so I drove to Austin on the last filing day and paid the $2,500 fee to put my name on the ballot and run.

Suddenly Mr. DeLay was in his district and showing up for meetings in the counties in the district. Officials told me that they had not seen him in years. Now he was in their face all the time, micro-managing them!   In three subsequent primaries I saw three different district boundaries in three consecutive elections. Tom DeLay insisted on a mid-decade redistricting since his CD 22 had become nearly half Democratic.

I also discovered, to my surprise, that even without a budget, without a mailing or a TV ad, I got nearly 20% of the vote! I had people coming up to me–Republicans--saying they wanted to know how to pronounce the name of the guy they voted for. Why? Because that same arrogance of Mr. DeLay, to my surprise, also bothered the less radical people in his own party. I discovered that there are indeed, moderate Republicans. The problem is that most moderates don’t vote until November–it is the radical right that votes in the primaries.

I never fit in with the GOP. I found that it was mostly white people who didn’t like anyone different–different color or religion. I found the “pro-life” rhetoric to sound empty when the same people who claimed to be pro-life were against funding education properly and opposed access to healthcare and food stamps. How ‘pro- life” is it to be against people having insurance and enough food? The party of Reagan didn’t look like America, but a narrow subset of this great diverse nation.

I stopped running when Tom DeLay resigned in 2004 after running afoul of campaign finance laws. I focused on business and founded a new company in 2008 to provide security to buildings from hurricanes, burglars and solar heat.

But then in 2010 the tea party wing of the GOP swept into power–electing Congressional reps who had never been in office or outside their own county seats—all in a rage against America’s first black President, whom I had supported and voted for.  They took over state houses and started to limit the right to vote and gerrymandered districts to give themselves a majority in the House of Representatives. Then tea party hero Ted Cruz took the GOP Senate seat of Kay Bailey Hutchinson away from David Dewhurst. This was no longer the party of moderates like George H.W. Bush. Not even Ronald Reagan could be nominated in today’s GOP–Reagan was willing to reach across the aisle and have a drink with Democratic leaders like Tip O’Neil.  Those days of “compromise” are now considered sacrilegious–never mind that our nation was founded on compromise by our founding fathers.

I saw that the GOP had become even more radical then what I had seen nearly a decade previously. I could not go down that road again. In 2013, Wendy Davis announced that she would run for Texas Governor on the Democratic ticket. I checked around–and no “big name” was going to run for the U.S. Senate seat held by John Cornyn on the Democratic side. A herd of challengers were running against John Cornyn in the GOP primary. But Cornyn is no Tom DeLay. I had no interest in trying to make my brain small enough to fit into the GOP that now spewed venom and crazy subhuman mongrel talk against not just the President but women, gays, Hispanics–just about everyone--including people who were in different country clubs.

No one had filed for the U.S. Senate when I was scheduled to leave on a cruise from Rome to Istanbul during Thanksgiving week in November, except for a young woman attorney from El Paso. We would not get back until the final day to file, so I signed up to put my own policies out there since I have legal negotiating experience in over 50 countries and had written a book, “Better Times Ahead April Fool,” which concluded with a chapter on how to make America No. 1 again. It was entitled “Agenda for American Greatness.”  When I got back from the cruise, three other people had signed up to run in the Democratic primary, including one who wants to impeach President Obama—trying to do to the Democratic primary what I was trying to do in the GOP race against DeLay. None of us had a statewide name. The race was on.

Of course, the first thing I discovered was that my past races in the GOP cast me with suspicion by Democratic primary voters. I couldn’t blame them. This was my first opportunity to see inside the Democratic primary firsthand.

The contrast with the GOP couldn’t be more stark. Whereas the GOP gatherings were nearly all white people, many of them older than dirt, the Democratic meetings looked like America does–a diverse mix of people, colors, religions, gay and straight.  I loved it. I went to Mexican American Democratic meetings; I went to black newspapers; union groups; environmental groups, etc. Each group had a mix of people, religions, colors.

Democrats may look different from one another but all of us share mutual respect and a common bond. We value improving education, justice and equality. I met people who care about the middle class and poor who want an opportunity for an education and better job. The GOP focus is on special deals for the wealthy who pay a smaller percentage of taxes than the common working men and women. They are into denying science while cutting education.  In the Democratic primary I met people who are forward looking and believe America should invest in its next generation of young people and technology to keep us competitive in the global economy.  I even met with numerous gay groups who did not endorse me even when I said I was for marriage equality and for legalization of marijuana but it didn’t matter. I still believe in equality for all–men, women, gays and straight people. It’s what makes America great.

The campaign showed me how narrow the news media has become. Most of the coverage went to the GOP race, so voters had little information about us Democratic candidates. The media was obsessed on the “tea party” candidate Steve Stockman (ironically, I live in his district.) I saw newspaper endorsements for other Democratic candidates totally unrelated to the skills required for the office. Endorsements went to candidates who were “more passionate” or had more money (even when it was a ‘tepid nod’ as described by the Dallas Morning News.) No one seemed to care that a U.S. Senator has to have global knowledge and experience when making international decisions. For example, I said that I had been on TV as a Terrorism Analyst since 9/11 arguing against the Iraq war when Cornyn was voting for it–his mistake cost us trillions and countless lives. As far as the media is concerned a millionaire car dealer with no clue of life outside Muleshoe, Texas ranks above someone with legal negotiating experience in 50 plus countries, or even someone who predicted 9/11.

So, in the end, I came in last in votes but I was still a winner.  At the $1 per vote I invested, I would have been in the primary had I invested $250,000 instead of $23,000. Yet it was worth it. I met tons of new friends and the campaign made me reconnect with old friends I had lost contact with. I put 25,000 miles on two cars in two months (my first car died from exhaustion midway through the primary.) I now know this huge state even better after traveling from one end to the other (from cold sea fog in Corpus  Christi to freezing sleet in Dallas on the same day,) from the Texas Panhandle to the tip of the valley in Brownsville.

From my experience, looking from the inside of the Democratic Party, I saw the future of America. It is a Democratic one--unless the GOP casts off its bigotry and intolerance of those who look different or have a different religion or nationality. That same intolerance is the problem in the Middle East where Sunnis and Shiites hate and kill each other, bringing misery to all. 

We live in a world full of people who have different skin colors and religions, but in America they share common values. Those American values are respect, justice, fairness, tolerance and equal opportunity.  Those are the values of the Democratic Party, and I am home to stay.

These should be the same values of the Republican Party but, unfortunately, I see the GOP obsessed with tilting the deck towards the wealthy, suppressing votes from the 99% to buy elections and picking our Congress “of the 1% for the 1%.” If we follow the GOP vision, America will look like Putin’s Russia where a few oligarchs enrich themselves under a dictator who crushes competition, jails opponents and flogs Russian singers for exercising free speech—while denying the vast majority of Russians opportunity for a better life or free choice.

Michael Fjetland

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