Sacred Sundays

January 29, 2013

Sunday morning talks shows had to go.

I don’t have cable or the like.  So I didn’t need to give myself the rule of not watching 24-hour news cycle political coverage.  I don’t have regular access to that stuff anyway.  Even less so do I listen to talk radio of any kind.  But I often turn on the TV morning news shows as I get ready to head into my day. So I had grown accustomed to listening to local or national commentators debate while I was getting ready for church.

Nixing George Stephanopolous didn’t mean I had to avoid all talk of politics or public policy.  I still wanted to be an informed, engaged citizen.  I would catch some political headlines on TV morning news shows as I got ready for work.  I was pleased when on rare occasion my schedule allowed me to watch the national evening news.  And my work and volunteer service allowed me to impact public policy.  But as a political junkie, I knew that I needed to pull myself away from the most negative influences—those that most enraptured, irritated, and side-tracked me.

I had grown even more addicted to TV political talk shows during the mayoral campaign I had worked.  I often tuned in to see how our candidate would do during his interview or what opposing candidates had to say.  Being up to speed on the tenor and amount of coverage we were getting on a variety of media outlets was important to our team as we developed policy positions and talking points.

Additionally, I had become so busy during the campaign that I stopped going to Sunday morning services. (It didn’t help that I was struggling to find a church that had what I was looking for.  Nor did it help that my husband had given up on Christianity altogether.  But those are stories for another day.) I had been church-hopping when the campaign started, though I was still connected to a mid-week, Small Group from my previous congregation. But when campaign staff meetings were scheduled for Sunday mornings, and I was busy watching all the local TV interviews in the morning anyway, it was easy enough to disengage from my previous routine of going to church.  (It is my understanding that the busy candidate found a way to get himself to mass at least some Saturday nights. But for the first time in my life, my regular church attendance was interrupted—for about a year.)

Clearly, this politics stuff had contributed to me developing more than one unhealthy Sabbath habit.  Sleeping in a bit and watching political talk shows had become my new Sunday morning routine. Pulling myself away from those shows was going to be quite a doosie. But it was very important to my reclaiming my Sunday mornings for a focus on God.

Having just moved to a new home as my political sabbatical began, I also started looking for a church in my new neighborhood.  It sure was easier to get moving and out the door on my quest for a new congregation when I wasn’t engrossed in Face the Nation.  And once I found a church home, I arrived there in a much better mood and more ready for worship than I did in the past. Lingering aggravation about political commentary no longer ruled my Sunday mornings.

Not watching Sunday morning talk shows has another benefit.  It helps me better honor my husband. He dislikes TV news, generally, and often gets worked up even more than I do over political rhetoric and posturing. He much prefers TV-less and politics-free peace and quiet any morning of the week.

This past Sunday, the intro to Meet the Press appeared on my screen just before I switched the boob tube off.  Old habits die hard. But, all-in-all, I’m doing pretty well in beating back that temptation post-sabbatical.

Now both I and my hubby are in a better frame of mind as we try to enjoy Sundays together and endeavor to make it a true day of rest.

More on that one later.

Me and ObamaWatching President Obama’s second inauguration, I can’t help but think about the advice of one of my professors in grad school.  She suggested that I not work the Obama presidential primary if I wanted to run for office in Chicago as a Democrat. At least not work the campaign back home in Illinois. She said I’d make enemies among local members of the party—folks whose support I would need later down the road when I became a candidate.  This professor used to come to class having just gotten off the phone with the former vice president whom she had staffed during his days in office.  She had played strong roles in Democratic party politics.  So I decided she might know what she was talking about.

It was tough to swallow, though.  Obama had announced his candidacy for president while I was away at grad school.  Being from Chicago, I had long been a big fan.  I could claim a closer-up look at Obama than most of my classmates and professors. I had watched him with great interest since he gave a speech at a conference I attended in Chicago around the turn of the millennium.  He had knocked my socks off.  He was still a state senator at the time. Only later did I learn more about his community organizing background and work with affordable housing residents, with which I resonated.  It was even later that he made that great speech at the convention that put him on everyone’s radar.

When he ran for the U.S. Senate, I jumped on the bandwagon early.  I first met him at a neighborhood rally hosted by three of my favorite Latino elected officials—back when no one thought he had a chance.  I marched with the Latinos for Obama contingent in the Mexican Independence Day parade. I attended a small fundraiser for him, hosted by a church friend who is his neighbor. His staff later included me—then the director of a Latino-focused non-profit advocacy organization—among those who stood with Senator Obama at a press conference announcing his support for an initiative important to Latinos. I later lobbied his office in D.C.

Surely he has no idea who I am.  But I felt connected to him and was quite tempted to seek an opportunity to work for his campaign for president.  Various of my grad school friends got jobs with Obama for America (which in some cases, led to jobs in the White House or elsewhere in the administration.  Yes, I’m jealous.)

It turns out that it didn’t take too long for the Chicago powers-that-be to put their weight behind Obama over Hillary Clinton. I might have been able to work the campaign without endangering my own future as a politician. But regardless of the ultimate relevance of my professor’s advice, I was no longer a spring chicken with tons of energy and a willingness to live on the cheap with scarcely a place to call home.  The fact that I met the man I would marry just as the presidential campaign season was getting into high gear also influenced my thoughts about how much of myself I could pour into a national campaign. So I let that boat sail without me.

As I settled back into my hometown after school, it was a different race that tugged at me.  My state senator—the highest ranking Latina in the state senate and one of the politicians whose event had first introduced me personally to her then-colleague Obama—was being attacked from three sides in her own party.  Partly because she was a woman who didn’t “know her place.” That really got my goat. Despite any wisdom associated with my professor’s advice, I jumped into a fight pitted against other Democrats.  To make a long story short, we saved that campaign. That was 2008, and my reputation as a kick-butt campaign volunteer was cemented.  And my addiction to politics was set into full gear.

Some of my colleagues from that state senate race parlayed that experience into roles with the Obama campaign.  One even went off to work in the White House.  But I stayed local, nurturing a new marriage while growing my political network in Chicago.  I did tiny little bits of work on a county commissioner campaign and a state representative race.  I launched an exploratory committee and started raising money to lay the groundwork for my own run—for alderman—but then decided it wasn’t the right time.  Then the Illinois politician I have held in highest regard asked me to direct the policy team for his mayoral bid.  Of course, I said yes.  That last one nearly ran me into the ground. (In all of these cases, the main battles were Democrat vs. Democrat, by the way.  So much for me listening to my professor’s advice.)

No wonder I was run down.  I get tired just writing about it!

My sabbatical kicked off just as four local races that I cared about got started.  The state senator was up for re-election again, and she had asked me to join her leadership team.  I went to a couple of meetings and then backed out—for a number of reasons.  But a strict sabbatical from all campaigns for the sake of my physical and emotional health was the most important reason and a good, legitimate, truthful excuse.  In the end, the state senator didn’t have a challenger, so an active team wasn’t necessary.  Nonetheless, with other candidate friends running in the cycle, I couldn’t say yes to one without opening the flood gates to other requests.  So it was good that I had said no.

As for the other races, in one case, the candidate and I went way back.  And he represented the community’s long-term struggle. Years ago, his father had been an aldermanic candidate and was murdered as he challenged the status quo.  In another, the candidate and I had worked side-by-side on two previous races that we both found extremely meaningful.  In the other, I didn’t know the challenger personally. But I knew the incumbent had to go.  I had to turn all three of these challengers down when they asked for my help.  I admit that I gave two of them money and one of them pointers.  But I didn’t work the campaigns.

They all lost.  Two of them by slim margins.  In one case, the vote was so close that I felt particularly guilty. I figured I had enough influence with long-time friends and neighbors in that district to have personally delivered the number of votes needed to change the outcome of the race.

But I had genuinely needed the rest and the perspective.  A number of things were easier to see from outside the fray.

Including that it’s not all about me.

When I’m on a politics-induced adrenaline high or doing something because it makes me feel valued, I may not be able to see straight.  And if I was thinking that the success of any particular campaign hinged on my involvement, then at least one of two things was probably happening:

  1. I was thinking too highly of myself;
  2. There weren’t enough of and/or the right people committed to this candidate or campaign for it to be tenable.

The first point is especially significant because some people in my community were already suggesting that I was arrogant because I had the audacity to consider running for office myself.  I’m convinced that some of those comments came from jealousy, a concern that I was a real threat, and gender and/or generational issues. But I indeed have to monitor myself to make sure I’m not getting a big head or accidentally coming across as such.

And I need to be careful to participate in a campaign because it is one that I truly believe in, not just because I want to perpetuate my profile and power.  Not to mention, I get star struck with certain politicians (as you can tell from my recounting of my very minor interactions with Obama.) The danger of wanting to feel important by association always exists.

The second point is poignant for me because I tend to rush in to stand in the gap when I see a situation that lacks resources or leadership and for which I have appropriate skills and experience.  I need to think more about whether every gap is there for me to run in and fill it.

Finally, taking a step back offered a good opportunity to discern who my real friends were.  I tend to let people get close quite easily. Sometimes I forget that some of them may just want to use me or may abandon me when we find areas of disagreement.  I need to figure out which people are my “friends” only when I am doing their political bidding. And who values me regardless of which side of a political fight I come down on.

I still fight with myself over how much energy to put into political campaigns that I care about.  Once again, I had to consider whether I wanted to work the Obama campaign.  My sabbatical ended just a few months before the 2012 general election, and I had friends making weekend trips to other states that were in contention.  About the same time, just days after my sabbatical officially ended, I got a call from a woman I appreciate asking for help on her campaign for local office.

It can be hard to sit out and watch all the action from the sidelines—especially on days like today.  But it felt like I was an alcoholic about to take a drink after being sober for a while.  I had to say no to both.

I don’t actually love working political campaigns. But I love community empowerment. And I love it when the underdog wins. So I’m especially drawn to local politics.  And the independent (read: non-Machine-politics) candidate.  And the rare politician who both looks out for the underdog and has tons of integrity. Let’s just say that I don’t actually work that many campaigns, because those qualities are hard to find. But I find myself pulled strongly toward those I’m passionate about.

My first up-close look at a political campaign came in the late 1990s in Chicago. I was working for a local community development corporation. We were struggling to gain approval from our alderman (city councilman) for a proposed affordable housing development that would take the form of a co-op. Low to moderate-income residents of the co-op would purchase affordable shares of the cooperative corporation. This model would provide residents with more stability and stake than simply renting. It was particularly important for low- and moderate-income families in a gentrifying community where many couldn’t afford traditional homeownership and were getting priced out of their long-term neighborhood as rents rose dramatically.

Though the alderman had been elected on the promise that he would support affordable housing, he changed his tune upon taking office. He also said out loud that poor people didn’t vote, so they didn’t count. And he went around the neighborhood blaming all of the gang problems on affordable housing.

That inspired a number of affordable housing residents and advocates to launch voter registration drives, hold candidate forums, and volunteer on the campaign of the challenger when the next election came around. But my employer didn’t allow me to work the campaign. My position in the organization was too high-profile. My participation might be seen as an endorsement of a particular candidate by our non-profit. So I watched intently from the sidelines as many of my friends and colleagues volunteered on their own time.

I finally was allowed to do a tiny bit of volunteer work—on election day. It was my job to give rides to the polls to those who couldn’t get there on their own. I picked up an elderly woman and accompanied her to the door of her polling place. We were stared at by a uniformed police officer who was wearing on his shirt a button supporting the incumbent alderman. He was standing right in front of the door—not beyond the perimeter where one must stand if one is displaying campaign paraphernalia. I was a bit intimidated. I can only imagine how the elderly voter felt. As I waited for her, I thought about all of the ways that cop was breaking the law on behalf of that campaign.

Unfortunately, inappropriate and illegal behavior was not uncommon during the campaign of that incumbent alderman—whose power was reinforced by an endorsement from the mayor. Businesses along at least one commercial strip were harassed if they chose not to display a sign in support of the alderman. One day a campaign worker came by insisting to businesses that they hang a sign in the window. Those who didn’t comply received multiple building code violation notices the next day. On election day, friends and colleagues who worked the polls reported numerous irregularities—too many to explain here. Late into the night, after the polls had closed, a campaign volunteer’s car was firebombed in front of her house. It was that of one of my friends from work, a community organizer, who had volunteered a lot of time on the campaign. It couldn’t be proven who perpetrated that explosion, but the police were sure it wasn’t an accident. Some folks later came out of the woodwork to say that they recognized the handiwork.

Affordable housing residents and advocates won in that we turned out a higher percentage of low-income voters from our affordable housing units than the percentage of all registered voters who voted in the ward. But the community otherwise lost that day. The incumbent alderman came away with 300-plus more votes than the challenger. I hesitate to say that the incumbent won. To this day, many of us are quite convinced that the incumbent stole the election.

It took us four more years, but we finally took that alderman out of office. I got to work that next campaign a bit more as I was no longer working for the same organization. During the same election cycle, I also volunteered for another challenger who unseated another mayor-backed incumbent. Two Chicago wards, side-by-side, in my life-long neighborhood, had stood up to the Chicago political Machine and won.

Both of these fights were (independent) Democrat vs. (Machine) Democrat, Latino vs. Latino. So this wasn’t about the party or race of the candidate. It was about democracy and justice. And community empowerment. Now we believed it was possible. We would fight to do it again and again.

Maybe now you can understand why it might be hard for me not to work political campaigns that I find meaningful. The powers-that-be and the purposeful scheduling of Chicago electoral seasons to coincide with cold and snow can’t stop me and my community from organizing to struggle against oppression and corruption.

The Rules

January 8, 2013

Many of us talk about getting a fresh start with a new year.  Some of my friends are currently framing new beginnings in the context of a post-Mayan calendar “new world.”  Regardless of the frame of reference for starting anew, I often am not good at making—or keeping—resolutions.  (But one thing’s for sure: this Puerto Rican doesn’t even try to start a post-holiday diet until after January 6—Three Kings Day or Dia de los Reyes, an important Christmas-season holiday in our tradition.)

Just as I am now returning to the very restrictive Phase I of the South Beach Diet to beat back the carbohydrates that periodically take over my life, I knew I had to go cold turkey if I was going to break my addiction to politics. The rules of my self-imposed sabbatical from politics were few.  But they were pretty rigid. I usually think of rules as principles and guides more than as confining, unbreakable regulations.  But I definitely needed a strict framework to help me break my addictions and allow myself to rest and heal.  Here are the limitations I placed upon myself:

  • No volunteering for any political campaign.
  • No watching Sunday morning political talk shows.
  • And the hardest one of all:  No participating in political debates or promoting any political candidate on Facebook.

I must admit that I occasionally broke my own rules.  But they gave me a good excuse to say “no” to a lot of things and to help me resist temptation, especially during the early months of withdrawal.  I also must admit that, after much consideration, I allowed myself to watch re-runs of my beloved “West Wing” television show; I liken that to using a nicotine patch to try to quit smoking.  And it is important to note that I distinguished between party politics and discourse about public policy—fuzzy as the line may sometimes be.

Now that I’m officially off my self-imposed sabbatical and allowing some of the above back into my life, I’m constantly having to hit the reset button.  I sometimes find myself on a slippery slope, getting too easily sucked back in to unhealthy habits and unhelpful interactions.  Other times I feel a bit repulsed, just wanting to scream and completely disengage from civic participation as I listen to politicians, pundits, and people on my Facebook feed argue about the fiscal cliff, gun control, immigration, etc.  But I am committed to finding a way to avoid the extremes and to be an informed, useful citizen of this country and this world.

In the next few weeks, I’ll share a bit about each of the rules and how trying to follow them for a year helped me begin to reshape my life. I invite you to join this recovering political junkie on a somewhat erratic journey toward a more balanced and healthy political and personal life.

Hell Froze Over

January 3, 2013

It was time to get ready to collect petitions if one wanted to run for a state level office. Some folks were encouraging me to run. We had collaborated on a mayoral campaign in recent months, and it seemed to make sense to continue the momentum of working together for change.

But I was tired. Running the policy shop for the (unsuccessful) campaign for mayor of a major American city while working a full-time job had left me spent. I had taken a long vacation after that political season came to a close. I thought that would re-energize me. But I was still exhausted.

So I did the unthinkable. I moved out of the neighborhood I had called home for 40 years and into political districts where no one knew me nor expected me to run for office. I withdrew from the re-election leadership team of my long-time state senator whose last campaign I had helped to save in the face of stiff competition. I told another friend who was running for state representative that I would write him a check, but I couldn’t co-host an upcoming fundraiser. And I put myself on a year-long sabbatical from politics.

My sabbatical started on September 1, 2011. It ended the following August, just in time for the height of the 2012 presidential race. Friends and colleagues kept asking me if I was going to jump in as a campaign volunteer as my sabbatical came to a close. I chose not to seek any formal engagement. The irritation that arose in me as I participated in political discourse on Facebook alone was enough to remind me why I had put myself on sabbatical in the first place.

This blog journals some of what I learned during my year off and what I continue to learn along the way. Some of it will be about politics very particularly. Much of it is about how one’s life might change when one fights off one’s addictions or gives oneself more time and space to think, play, and pray. Regardless of your political persuasion or even interest in party politics, I pray that you’ll find useful (and maybe entertaining) some of my reflections and that they may stir you to re-examine your own priorities.

I promise to keep the entries short and sweet. I expect that they will come in weekly installments throughout the year.

Happy 2013!

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