It was an election that brought me back to college last year. Actually, it was two.
Though I have voted in every presidential election since 2000, I had never been one to put much faith in electoral politics. Voting, argue many on the left, does not change anything: In important ways, the Democrats aren’t significantly different from the Republicans.
Yes, Bill Clinton gutted welfare and stuffed our prisons with poor people of color. Barack Obama let white-collar criminals roam free after the financial crisis while ramping up surveillance, deportations and secretive drone wars.
While I understand the hypocrisy of the Democratic Party, that does not stop me from voting, especially for arguably more impactful local races. To my most cynical friends, I say this: If somebody offers to kill you with a bullet to the head or by slow torture, would you not make a choice? Even the most compromised choices have real impacts on real people.
But then, on occasion, candidates come around who actually do inspire. They have politics that motivate you and give you hope. Suddenly, you don’t have to choose between a slap in the face and a shit sandwich. For me, that candidate was Jesus “Chuy” Garcia.
His was the first campaign that brought me into the electoral fray. It took place in one of our nation’s epicenters of intractably corrupt politics: my hometown, Chicago. It was 2015, and Chuy — a progressive, teachers’ union-backed reformer was challenging the corporate finance-backed Rahm Emanuel. Chicago was fresh off a teachers’ union strike, mental health clinic closures and a flood of inside real estate deals, and a lot of Chicagoans, such as myself, were pissed.
I had already moved to the Bay Area, but my heart was still in Chicago. Chicago had been governed for half a century by the Richard Daley father-and-son dynasty. It was cartoonishly corrupt: My brother knows a fellow who, as a youngster, allegedly delivered bags full of cash to a City Council member in his district. No-bid contracts were common, and family connections were everything.
Chuy offered a fresh chance at different politics. I knew that, if elected, the machine would swallow him. But I also knew he would have a chance to make waves in the process. I returned to Chicago to canvass for him in the cold winter of 2015. He brought Emanuel into a runoff, but it ended as the winter of our discontent. Chuy lost by 10 points.
The national media watched that election in anticipation. They treated it as a litmus test of the struggle between the liberal and progressive wings of the Democratic Party. It was the preamble for what was to come in the nail-biting Democratic presidential primary, as evidenced by Bernie Sanders’ endorsement of Chuy in the days leading up to the mayoral election. It turns out I had merely been dipping my toes in.
Bernie Sanders, for many of us, was seen as the first and last chance for bold, people-centered politics to take a powerful national platform. There had been no Democratic presidential candidate for decades advocating so relentlessly for working people and the poor, and it seemed doubtful that the chance would arise again anytime soon.
I got swept up in the campaign. I took a semester off of community college to campaign in Arizona, Nevada and California. For months we hosted a weekly phone bank at our home where community members made hundreds of calls to potential voters. I filled my car with volunteers and canvassed in rural Winnemucca, Nevada. I knocked on doors in Tucson, Arizona.
I rarely followed the script. My favorite part of the process was connecting with people and hearing their concerns, their views, their hopes and doubts. It was such a refreshing way of unplugging from polarizing mass media narratives and impersonal, misguided and often toxic social media clickbait. It was, you could say, political therapy. Hard to imagine, I know.
By autumn my political energy allotment had run its course. Bernie had lost the primary, and I started attending school again full time. Before these campaigns, and throughout my adult life, I had volunteered at countless events, attended conferences and marched in protests. I was a member of many organizations, but had never taken a leadership role. When I saw the passionate dedication of campaign staff and volunteers working 60-hour weeks (though I don’t condone it) to reach the finish line, I finally realized that it was time to step up my game.
I had been part-time at community college. Now, I made a full commitment to harnessing all the privilege, resources and institutional connections that I could to make positive change in the world. As an outnumbered minority, activists and organizers, I realized, have to work every bit as hard as the plunderers and profit-chasers of our world if we hope to create life-affirming, sustainable alternatives.
Ironically, in this vital midterm election, I have had to put activism on hold in order to succeed with my coursework. In my late 30s, for me school is a brief, precious moment to be nurtured.
But on graduation day, it’s pedal to the metal.
Mark Shipley writes the Thursday column on his experience as a Gen X transfer student. Contact him at [email protected] .