MLK Day 2021

Martin Luther King Jr. Day feels different in 2021. Following a tumultuous year and coming just two days before the inauguration of a new administration, this year’s MLK Day reminds us that freedom is never guaranteed and must always be defended.

Events of the past year have forced us to confront our nation’s complicated racial record, which has been filled with both great and sordid things. It seems that every step toward freedom has been followed by a setback.

  • The Founders created the freest society in history, with a durable system of governance; but to make it happen, they permitted the institution of slavery to be written into its Constitution.
  • A civil war split the nation, primarily over the issue of slavery. The nation abolished slavery with the Thirteenth Amendment, guaranteed equal protection under the law to all races in the Fourteenth and suffrage to all races with the Fifteenth. Then that same nation permitted those rights to be denied during Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era.
  • In 1954, Brown v. Board of Education desegregated the nation’s public schools, only to give rise to segregation academies, which continue to be enabled by today’s voucher programs and charter schools.
  • A series of legislation including the Fair Housing Act of 1968 desegregated housing, and white flight re-segregated communities.
  • In 2008 voters elected our first African-American President. Eight years later they elected a blatant white supremacist who did his best to reverse the policies of his predecessor. And then in November the largest popular vote turnout in American history elected a ticket which included the first black woman Vice President.

In two days, we will witness an unusual Presidential inauguration, celebrating the peaceful transfer of power in a city locked down following the first armed occupation of the Capitol building in over two centuries. State capitals across the country will resemble occupied cities.

Our nation’s seal proclaims e pluribus unum: from many, one. The testing of that ideal doesn’t mean it should be abandoned. One of our greatest challenges as a nation is to permit our diversity to be a source of strength and not division. We need to find our way to each other.

On this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, let us all pray for our country and commit ourselves to work for a future of justice, equality, and peace.

Election Workers

August 2016: Lynn and I at the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections, dropping off my candidacy petitions for State Board of Education.

At a time when people are waiting–patiently or not–for election returns from a few key states, this seems a good time to mention election workers.

For several years, our mother was a Republican election judge. Each party had to have three (I think) judges at the polling place. Since this was in Chicago, the Democrats had the only party apparatus in our area, and the task of recruiting the Republican judges fell to Tally Giaccone, the Democratic precinct captain.1 It wasn’t until later, when I began to have my own experiences with elections workers, that I really began to appreciate the work that they do, and how important our bipartisan election system is.

Beyond the people staffing their polling places, few voters ever interact with our elections apparatus and the people who make it work. I’ve had the opportunity, and it has been pretty inspiring.

As near as I can remember, I’ve been on the ballot six times.2 Four of those races were in Democratic primaries, and two were for public office. For all of them, I needed to visit the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections. For one of them, I needed to work with the Secretary of State’s office, which, as the name implies, serves as the main election office for the state.

Back when I was working for NEOEA, I frequently contacted our eleven county boards of elections and the Secretary of State’s office to research school levies, political boundaries, and electoral schedules.

In every case, I have found these folks to be dedicated public servants. They don’t seem to care what party I belong to, and it doesn’t seem to matter what administration is in power: they have been as helpful as could be.

These folks make it their mission to make the system work for all of us. Candidates (most, anyway) are patriots.3 Running for office is hard, and these folks try to make it as positive as it can be. Even when you’re running for a relatively minor position, they give you professional attention and make you feel like your race is the most important one they have to deal with.

In this election year, these folks have gotten a lot of attention; and in some states, they are getting a lot of pressure. They are the unsung heroes of American democracy. Eventually we will get past the present electoral suspense, and one reason will be the dedication of local and state election workers.

Notes:

  1. Some years later I served as his Republican counterpart–Tally was still there. You can imagine the surprise at the few Republican households when a high school junior wearing a flag lapel pin knocked on their doors and introduced himself as their new Republic precinct captain!
  2. I haven’t been notably successful: I’ve won three elections and lost three.
  3. I know, politicians are supposed to be rapacious cretins. But the system starts at the bottom, with people running for city council, or school board, or party central committee. If you want to improve the system, stop whining and run for something.

Joe and Me: Chicago, 2011

Sometimes you hear that there’s a lack of enthusiasm for the candidacy of Joe Biden. Not for me: I’ve been waiting for this opportunity since 2011. That’s the year we met.

To be fair, he probably doesn’t remember me: there were about 10,000 other people in the room, and I never got closer than a hundred feet or so. But it was a memorable experience,1 and I became a Biden fan that day.

Northeast Ohio friends Jim and Sarah wait patiently in line to see VP Biden in July 2011.

Like most Democrats, I admire Barack Obama personally and politically. But just as sometimes a beloved family member disappoints us, I was disappointed with his education policies.2 In 2011, he sent Joe Biden to the NEA Representative Assembly in Chicago on a fence-mending visit, and I thought Biden was terrific.3

You can see some of the reason why in the condensed YouTube video NEA published. I blogged about it at the time in my position at NEOEA. The passion we’ve seen on the campaign trail this year is evident there, along with the commitment to public education.

But what also comes through is this, and I recall it even more strongly from the speech as a whole: Biden spoke of policy issues as disagreements. It didn’t make the recording, but I recall him saying explicitly: the people on the other side believe what they believe. They’re not bad people, they’re just wrong. You can, and should, disagree strongly with your opponents without showing contempt for them. You need to win the argument, not give in or give up.

Most Americans would like to feel like one nation again, but we all know that won’t happen without conscious effort. Honest, passionate disagreement is legitimate, and American. I am enthusiastic for Joe Biden because he understands that. I know, because he told me so nine years ago.

Notes:

  1. I’ve heard a few past, present, and future Presidents speak live, and it’s remarkable how much more powerful the in-person experience is from the mediated experiences we’re all exposed to from ads and news coverage. Maybe it’s the fact that you have to invest time and energy in hearing them speak live; maybe it’s the enthusiasm of the crowd; maybe it’s the feeling that the experience is something you can tell your children.
  2. We shouldn’t have been surprised: in Philadelphia in 2007, he told NEA delegates that he thought merit pay was worth considering. And although his education policies were better than the alternative, by 2011 a lot of educators I know were furious with his Race to the Top initiative.
  3. As I wrote at the time, it was the first time since 2000 that a sitting President or Vice President appeared at NEA in person.