At a campaign event this week in Berkeley, gubernatorial candidate and anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan bristled at the mention of an opinion piece that grouped her with filmmaker Michael Moore. “Saw your name in the New York Times today,” an enthusiastic supporter told her.
“They can kiss my ass,” Sheehan said. “I’m nothing like Michael Moore.”
Sheehan believes that Moore’s previous support of President Barack Obama has compromised his liberalism. Sheehan, on the other hand, dropped the Democratic Party years ago and hasn’t looked back. Now she is running for governor with the Peace and Freedom Party, a socialist party whose California gubernatorial candidates have consistently garnered about one percent of the vote. Sheehan, a former Berkeley resident who now lives in Vacaville, California, admits that her victory might be a long shot. But it’s only one of several formidable battles that she has tried — is trying — to fight.
Sheehan became the face of an anti-war movement in 2005, when she set up camp outside a Crawford, Texas, ranch and refused to leave until George W. Bush — who was on vacation there — agreed to meet with her. Sheehan dubbed the site of her protest Camp Casey, after her son, Casey Sheehan, who was killed at age 24 while serving in the U.S. Army in Baghdad, Iraq, the year before. Sheehan blamed Bush for her son’s death and wanted an explanation.
Ultimately, Bush ended his stay at the ranch without meeting Sheehan’s demand. But by then, her protest, unyielding and drenched in grief, had provoked both awe and ire across the United States. Thus Sheehan — now nicknamed “Peace Mom” — began her career in activism.
Sheehan’s foray to the far left has since cost her a slew of supporters. But she considers her views similar to how they have always been.
“I was very young but very impressionable during the anti-Vietnam War movement, so that kind of solidified my anti-war views,” Sheehan said. “I thought when I was growing up that being a Democrat was liberal.”
Sheehan said she used to call her ex-husband’s father Archie Bunker, after a conservative television character, and her former father-in-law would call her Meathead, Bunker’s nickname for his liberal son-in-law.
Now, Sheehan is seeking to make Gov. Jerry Brown her Archie Bunker. To do so, she will have to take at least second place in the June 3 primary. Sheehan considers such a feat within reach — after all, she came in second when she ran as an independent candidate for Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s House seat in 2008, winning about 16 percent of the vote.
But it isn’t 2008 anymore, and not all of California is Pelosi’s San Francisco district.
“This has been a very poor effort financially,” Sheehan said. “It’s a very poor party, the Peace and Freedom party … We’ve been able to do a lot with the little we do have.”
At a phone-banking party in Sheehan’s campaign treasurer’s Berkeley backyard, a total of about nine supporters showed up to call voters in the Peace and Freedom and Green parties in Ventura County. Their polite pleas punctuated the placid afternoon, as did rustling treetops, cackling crows and the sound of yellow jackets on the porch.
In 2005, during Camp Casey, Sheehan saw up to five miles of cars line up for her cause, according to Dede Miller, her sister and manager of the campaign website. Miller remembers a big rally there, when hordes of people drove in to meet at a football field.
“The line of cars went back as far as we could see, and the people just kept coming,” Miller said. “I remember leaning over and telling Cindy, ‘Run, Forrest, run.’ ”
Campaign treasurer Marsha Feinland, who is active in the Peace and Freedom Party and once served on the Berkeley rent board, has herself given up on running for office, after attempts at presidential and congressional positions. She sees Proposition 14, which in 2010 changed California’s election system so that only the top two primary contestants can run in November, as yet another obstacle to third-party candidates.
She also recognizes that her party has smaller battles to tackle than Sheehan’s bid for governor. Attendees of the phone-banking event called in not only for Sheehan, but also for Eric Moren, a Peace and Freedom candidate seeking write-in votes for the state Board of Equalization.
Sheehan, too, wants to help her party. She is running for governor partly out of anger toward Brown, she said, for his “balancing the budget off the backs of those who are already vulnerable.” Her platform primarily advocates income equality, free public education and environmental reform, including an end to fracking.
“We’re battling a lot of things,” Sheehan said. “You never know when there might be a tipping point, when people are going to get fed up and join us in the movement.”
But aside from fixing California, Sheehan’s campaign also aims to increase Peace and Freedom registration so that the party can stay on the ballot.
Sheehan does not know whether she will run for office again. Regardless of what happens in this election, she said, she will keep advocating peace and justice.
She surrendered once before. In 2007, in the face of exhaustion, illness and a recent divorce, Sheehan announced her resignation as the face of the anti-war movement and wrote in a blog post that her son had died for nothing.
The experience, Sheehan said, forced her to better take care of herself. Now she makes sure to take time off. She calls swimming her “Zen” and is close to her surviving family, which includes three children and four grandchildren. Memorial Day this year, which fell close to Casey’s birthday, was a hard day.
“Really nothing’s changed ever since my son was killed,” Sheehan said.