Three congressional challengers very worth supporting

Three congressional challengers stand out for their independence, integrity, worldview and unique accomplishments

Published March 29, 2012 10:22AM (EDT)

For those devoted to watching the 2012 election, the presidential horse race eats up the vast bulk of attention (which is why I’m not one of those devoted to watching it), but throughout the year there are also party primaries for Congressional seats. Most Congressional contests are boring and largely inconsequential; the vast bulk features certain victory by unnotable incumbents or open-seat races between Party-approved, script-reading, poll-driven, cookie-cutter challengers. But there are a few new candidates for Congress who are both genuinely exciting and viable, and thus very much worthy of attention and support.

My research assistant, Columbia Law student Jessica Lutkenhaus, and I spent the last several weeks examining a dozen or so Congressional challengers, obtaining their answers to a questionnaire we prepared about vital issues that receive far too little attention, and determining as well as we could which were actually viable candidates to win in their districts. The search was not restricted by party affiliation or any considerations other than quality of positions, independence and viability. From that process, three candidates emerged who I really believe are worth highlighting and supporting: Norman Solomon in California, Franke Wilmer in Montana and Cecil Bothwell in North Carolina. All three have a long, established record of genuine independence and outspoken advocacy on difficult issues, and I’m positive that none will simply become loyal foot soldiers to Party leadership or blend into the rotted D.C. woodwork. We took this process very seriously because once you encourage support for a candidate, their future acts become a reflection on you: People who support a candidate based on your recommendations hold you responsible, and rightfully so, for whatever they do in office.

Before highlighting what I find interesting about each — and I encourage everyone to examine what we’ve obtained and form your own judgment about who deserves your support — I want to say a few words about what this process is and is not, and why I think it’s worthwhile to do this. I obviously devote much less time, attention and energy to electoral politics now as compared even to a few years ago, and that’s because I believe that meaningful political change is far more likely to come from work done independent (and outside) of the two-party electoral process than from within it. Supporting specific Congressional candidates does not negate that assessment, nor is it (assuggested by some who take bizarre pride in their own defeatism and impotence) an implicit claim about the comparative Goodness of the horrendous Democratic Party, nor is doing this at odds with the view (which I hold) that political problems in America are systemic in nature and will not be solved through the mere (or even primary) act of voting.

But none of that means that no good can come from supporting specific candidates. It can be very helpful in many ways to have like-minded allies with intellectual integrity, true independence and political courage in Congress. This was the point I was making when I wrote a few weeks ago about why Dennis Kucinich, even in the absence of legislative successes, achieved so much good and why his defeat was a real loss.

It is incredibly valuable when you work on an issue, when you try to bring attention to something, to have someone with a Congressional platform who shares your perspective and will work with you on it. Even if they can’t get bills enacted, there’s a power that comes from even a single Congressional seat that can be quite effective: They can hold hearings, issue subpoenas, use floor time to make speeches, generate media attention, appear on television to advocate, push or even shame their Party, and generally help shape political debates and awareness in a unique way. And sometimes, with some shrewd strategizing and effective messaging, they can actually succeed in enacting truly meaningful bills even when they so cut against the D.C. grain (as, say, Alan Grayson and Ron Paul were able to do when they forced a very reluctant Washington to audit the Fed, resulting in exposure of previously unknown, highly questionable practices).

Below are the three candidates we’ve identified as uniquely worthy of support. Each faces a primary race, and none is the favored candidate of the Party apparatus or its leadership (those challengers favored by the Party machine are invariably corporatist types or poll-shaped, soul-less careerist politicians expected to be loyal Party foot soldiers if they win). For obvious reasons, none of these three candidates is going to receive any real support from the lobbyist and corporate class that typically finances these elections. But polling and other indicia demonstrate that victory for all three is realistic (though far from certain).

Given how outstanding (and rare) the views are of these three candidates, even enabling a more effective campaign can itself achieve great good, but that takes support. Moreover, the way to liberate political candidates from subservience to lobbyist and corporatist interests is to create an alternative base of support. In sum, when one complains about how horrible, corrupt and rotten our political class is, these are the kinds of people you wish were empowered within it, so when they try to enter it, it’s incumbent upon those who voice those complaints at least to support them as fully as possible:

Norman Solomon

The long-time anti-war activist, co-founder of the great media criticism group FAIR, and author of “Made Love, Got War: Close Encounters with America’s Warfare State” – a critique of America’s decades of militarism and the role which its media plays in perpetuating it — is about as close to a perfect Congressional candidate as it gets. He’s written 11 other books, including “War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death”: the title speaks for itself. He’s running in the heavily Democratic California district being vacated by the retiring Rep. Lynn Woolsey. A newly released poll from an independent Democratic pollster shows him with a serious chance to win (there is an open primary in June, and the top two candidates, regardless of party affiliation, will then face each other in a November run-off).

In 2002 and 2003, Solomon led three trips to Iraq to try to avert the war (trips that included former and current members of Congress), and was one of the most widely featured media voices during that period opposing the attack on moral, legal and prudential grounds. Though he was an Obama delegate to the 2008 DNC convention, here’s what he told us about President Obama’s civil liberties record, including the Awlaki assassination and the President’s signing of the indefinite detention bill (NDAA):

I am opposed to the expansion of White House authority to detain without charge or assassinate on presidential order. Here we have President Obama extending presidential power even beyond Bush. Many had expected Obama – a constitutional law professor – to rein in presidential authority, but that hasn’t happened. This is not the country we believe in. I would have voted no on NDAA, vehemently explaining my vote in a wide range of public venues. As for the Holder speech, it was deservedly mocked by Stephen Colbert: That “due process” doesn’t have to be a “judicial process” —  just any “process that you do.”

Regarding the Obama war on whistleblowers, WikiLeaks and the treatment of Bradley Manning, Solomon proudly touted the vigorous support he’s received from Manning supporter Daniel Ellsberg, who lives in his district, telling us: “The Obama administration has prosecuted more whistle-blowers than all previous presidents combined. That is sad.” He added:

I was outraged but not surprised to see so much of mainstream media focused more on Julian Assange and the “rightness” of WikiLeaks’ release of documents, rather than the explosive revelations about U.S. overseas abuses (war crimes, interfering in the judicial processes of democratic countries, etc.) contained in those documents. I was appalled to see the literally “naked” mistreatment of Bradley Manning. In Congress, I intend to speak out for the due process rights of all, including those being tarnished as traitors and terrorist-abettors by the right wing. Dan Ellsberg was called every name in the book and was prosecuted – but now he’s widely seen as an American hero.

Solomon demands diplomacy, not threats of military force, to resolve the current disputes with Iran. He decries the lack of criminal prosecutions for Wall Street defrauders and Bush torturers as a violation of the rule of law: “I thoroughly reject the convenient notion that we can’t look forward if we are also looking back to prosecute official crimes committed in the previous administration. On the contrary, our nation cannot move forward unless we address the crimes and abuses of the past.” He supports the legalization of marijuana, same-sex marriage,”significant” military cuts, and vocally opposed the Wall Street bailout before it happened. Simply on principle, he has refused to take a dime of corporate PAC money or accept contributions from lobbyists.

When it comes to Congressional candidates, it just doesn’t get any better than Norman Solomon. If you have any residual doubt, just look at this remarkable 2007 TV appearance he did on CNN with Glenn Beck, which he wrote about here, when he used the opportunity to detail and denounce the effect of corporate ownership of America’s establishment media (including CNN). He’s been doing this for 30 years and there’s zero chance he will change or compromise any of it if he wins. I can’t even imagine what it’d be like to have Norman Solomon in Congress, but I’d certainly like to see it. You can — and, I hope, will — support his campaign here.

Franke Wilmer

This Montana candidate’s biography is almost as impressive as her views on key issues. In the 1980s, Wilmer was a single mother raising her daughter, working as a waitress and a carpenter while putting herself through college. Typically working two jobs at the same time, it took her 16 years to finish. Now she’s a full professor at Montana State University, a third-term state legislator, and an author who specializes in solving international problems without resort to war. She spent substantial time in the former Yugoslavia as it was falling apart. Here’s Howie Klein with more on her background:

She was elected to serve as Speaker Pro Tempore in her second term and from 2005 to 2007 she was Chair of the Montana Human Rights Commission. She’s also a Full Professor at Montana State University teaching courses on International Human Rights, International Law, International Relations Theory and the Politics of War and Peace. She also taught Indigenous Peoples’ Politics at Montana State University and Blackfeet Tribal College in Browning, Montana. She’s written three books and has traveled to 56 countries as either an invited guest lecturer or for her field research, including five trips to the former Yugoslavia beginning during the war there in 1995.

She’s running in a Democratic primary against two corporatist, Blue-Dog-type candidates of the kind that has helped make so much of the Democratic Party worthless or worse. She wrote an essay for Klein about the basis of her worldview and why she’s running that’s as provocative and smart as it is inspiring. As soon as I read it, there was no question for me that she’s an extraordinary candidate and person; as but one example, she explains that her work in the middle of the horrific war in Yugoslavia led her to devote herself to an examination of “the question of dehumanization (and psychoanalytic explanations for it) as a political dynamic that rationalizes political violence,” both domestically and internationally.

Wilmer told us that she’s ”very concerned and deeply troubled by the notion that the policy that led to the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki essentially defends the practice of extrajudicial execution,” and added that the “suspension of habeas corpus for American citizens [in the NDAA] is equally troubling.” She cited to us a remarkable op-ed she wrote in The Great Falls Tribune on September 12, 2001 — less than 24 hours after the attack, when most people were in full-on panic and vengeance mode — that calmly warned of the dangers of excessive reactions. The whole op-ed is amazing: it describes her experience with war in Yugoslavia to warn how brutal and savage it is, and ends this way: “Only by the rule of law, only through a just response which punishes the individuals responsible, can we preserve what cannot be destroyed through violence, our commitment to democracy.” There are all too few people demonstrating that perspective even now, more than a decade later; she was urging this on the day after the 9/11 attack.

Wilmer compares current threats to militarily attack Iran with the attack on Iraq, arguing that both are examples of invalid “preventive war” dogma; “instead,” she argues, “what we need is to invest time and resources in the development of an effective and enforceable international non-proliferation regime based on the Non-Proliferation Treaty.” She questions the legality of unmanned CIA drones (“Under international law weapons must be able to discriminate between civilian and military targets and drones do not do that“), and argues that drones are “military weapons” and thus “should only be used in military operations, and military operations, in turn,necessitate a declaration of war by Congress.“ She decries the lack of Wall Street prosecutions: “I don’t believe the investigations have been rigorously pursued, nor have those responsible been held accountable.” And as former Chair of the Montana Human Rights Commission, she has worked extensively, in a not-very-friendly environment, to secure equal rights for LGBT citizens and same-sex couples.

Truly, she’s not just an extraordinary Congressional candidate but an extraordinary person. She combines impressive academic research and theory with all kinds of practical, brave real-world activism. But she’s also been an accomplished legislator, which means, as she explains in that Klein essay, that she’s quite strategic about enacting legislation. There would literally be nobody like her in Congress. You can support her campaign here.

Cecil Bothwell

Bothwell’s western North Carolina political career is nothing short of amazing. An avowed atheist (he actually prefers the term non-theist), he was told he had no chance to win a seat on the Asheville City Council. When he won, coming in first place in the at-large race, religious activists tried to bar him from taking office based on the (obviously unconstitutional) North Carolina law disqualifying anyone from holding elected office who “shall deny the being of Almighty God.” When he announced his candidacy for Congress, he originally decided he would run as an Independent, and expected that he would be challenging the right-wing, Blue-Dog Democratic incumbent Rep. Heath Shuler, but when a poll showed Bothwell within striking distance if he ran in the Democratic primary, Shuler suddenly announced his retirement (to take a job as a lobbyistof course). That leaves Bothwell, now running as a Democrat, with a real chance to win.

As a City Councilman, Bothwell has been pushing for the de-militarization of the local police force, and proposed a sweeping civil-liberties resolution that would include clauses against racial profiling, surveillance of political advocacy groups and helping federal officials in immigration enforcement.” He also advocates subjecting America’s political and military leaders to the International Criminal Court’s jurisdiction.

He unequivocally supports an “end to the war on drugs,” arguingright on his campaign website: “Prohibition has failed and failed again for more than a century. Our drug war has destroyed lives, destroyed families, wrecked communities, increased crime and increased the quantity and availability of the drugs it supposedly intends to eliminate. I concur with the international panel on drug policy which has just submitted a report to the United Nations recommending an end to the global war on drugs.”

His views on Israel are as brave and commendable as any Congressional candidate in a long time who has a real chance of winning. Again, right on his own website, he vows that he “will not accept donations from AIPAC or any other organization lobbying for any other nation’s interest.” Then again, it’s highly unlikely he would receive any such donations, given his stated position on U.S. policy toward Israel:

We need to make our aid to Israel contingent on ending expansion of Israeli settlements in occupied territory, recognition of Palestine as a nation, and provision of adequate water to the Palestinian state. (The Six-Day War was principally a water grab.) We must sharply curb our military support for Israel as well. As I mentioned in an answer above, “the peace process” is a meaningless euphemism. As long as Israel is heavily dependent on U.S. aid, we have the leverage and the right to demand a swift resolution of Israeli/Palestinian issues. Obviously, we have not done so to date, or this question would be irrelevant.

He advocates that “we could do with far fewer bases for actual defense”; argues that “mostly we maintain foreign bases to project our influence, i.e. to impose our will on others”; and predicts an imperial collapse for the U.S. similar to the Roman and British empires if we do not significantly curtail our imperial aggression. The top of his website features a moving clock counting the cost of U.S. wars since 2001.

With regard to whistleblowers, WikiLeaks and Manning, he told us:

Let’s remember that history holds Daniel Ellsberg in high regard. Sometimes crimes are committed in the name of a larger moral responsibility. If we claim to be a democracy, we must insist on transparency in both the military and in foreign policy. How can we promote ourselves as a beacon of justice and human rights (and criticize other countries for violating human rights) when we deny justice to a simple soldier, and imprison him under conditions that an inspector/investigator from the UN decried as inhumane? . . .

Wikileaks is the modern Toto dog which pulls back the curtain on the Great Oz. Together with other crowd-sourced networks, it is working to clear our path toward a fully participatory democratic future. Secrecy easily leads to non-democratic control. Wikileaks has made excellent and generally responsible use of new technology to increase transparency in government while making every effort to protect those whose lives might be jeopardized by such releases.

Concerning Iran, he flatly states that he is “opposed to the policy of ‘preventative war,’” and adds: “I would never assume that our possession of nuclear weapons gives us some sort of moral authority to dictate which other countries should be permitted the same technology. If we want to hold the moral high ground, we should lead the way toward nuclear disarmament.” He demands far greater efforts to hold criminally accountable both Wall Street officials (“There are clear criminal elements at work on Wall Street, and we should prosecute banksters to the limit of the law”), and Bush officials (“Those who committed torture should be subject to prosecution, including the national leaders who sanction torture, up to and including administration officials”). He is also “opposed to the use of predator drones in any case,” arguing: “What is the moral argument that we have a right to randomly kill those we arbitrarily decide are culpable for unmentioned wrongs? Our democratic governance relies on accountability. Anonymous accusation and imposition of death sentences is antithetical to our entire philosophy as a nation. . . .  I believe our use of those drones will, sooner or later, come back to haunt us.”

Bothwell has been a leader in advocating for the rights of same-sex couples, but an anti-gay-marriage referendum placed on the ballot in North Carolina, on the day the Democratic primary will be held, threatens to bring out many social conservatives who would vote against him. That, along with the fact that Bothwell refuses to “accept corporate or corporate PAC donations,” means his campaign needs as much support as possible. He can win, and I am confident that his record and positions speak for themselves and will lead many readers here to want to support him. You can do so here.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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