This recent Labor Day weekend, I took my kids and my camera to the Oakland Pride Parade. We walked with our Episcopal Church and several other religious groups. Many mayoral candidates, including Mayor Jean Quan, attended the parade. I took pictures. (HERE is my photo gallery!) While I was walking around before the parade, somebody asked my affiliation. Perhaps the person wanted to know if I worked for a publication or politician. I interpreted their question differently, “How did I become a member of a church group at a pride parade?”
Here is the oversimplified version:
I joined a political campaign, because a politician offended me by something she said in a church.
I joined a church because of something my candidate said while campaigning for Congress.
Yesterday was Labor Day. Besides being an official holiday, Labor Day Weekend is the unofficial last weekend of Summer. When I was a kid, Labor Day was the last day before school. In 1994, when I worked in political campaigns briefly, Labor Day was the unofficial start of the campaign season. So much has changed since I was a kid. So much has changed since I worked for Walter Capps‘ first Congressional campaign.
Please read more in my Notes on a Blog section on my old blog.
I lucked into working for Walter. Everyone called him by his first name, even though he was a UC Santa Barbara professor whose popular course on Vietnam had been featured three times by 60 Minutes. I met the Capps’ family through my friend Reza Garajedaghi. Reza, who fled Iran as a child, spoke at Walter’s Voices of a Stranger course. I did not trust politicians, but since Reza trusted the Capps family, I kept giving them another chance. The Capps family was so gracious, they allowed me to stay around despite my continual lack of trust.
You know how most Congressional seats are uncontested? This was one of the Congressional races that decided which party would control the House of Representatives. Supposedly, our campaign had the most volunteers of any campaign in the country. It was electric.
Still, I hesitated to quit my full-time job to join the campaign until I heard the tape. Someone played the tape for me before it went public. At first I thought it was a joke. Andrea Seastrand was already a state representative when she spoke to the church about all of the evil that existed in California. Seastrand said, “I think California has been given so many signs” and referenced the recent Northridge earthquake as an example. Twenty years later, I struggle with her comments. Her explanation might be worse than her initial speech.
“God is not punishing us, he is just not blessing us.”
Did Seastrand just say that God is not blessing California? Look, if you are not religious and you are not from California, this is not an issue, but … as the shirt says, What?
High pressure political campaigns are strange. West Wing actually is close to reality, except that there are not that many close Congressional Campaigns. In 1994, PAC’s, or Political Action Committees would send candidates questionnaires. Someone on the staff would research the questions and discuss them with the candidate and campaign manager. I remember there was one from a beer political action committee. It might have been called 6 PAC.
When our campaign received a questionnaire that asked our position on gay marriage, some of the staff wanted to avoid answering. We even hoped to have a party line response that said something about respecting rights but not marriage. In 1994, a candidate could pass with this answer, especially when the other candidate was Andrea Seastrand. Since I had been hired to coordinate more liberal constituencies, including the LBGT community, I asked that we take the question to Walter.
Walter attended church regularly. He was a religious studies professor. He knew theology better than most Congressional candidates in 1994. He also understood the political risks. I believe that he made his decision about gay marriage based on his belief that “Democracy is born in conversation.” Lois Capps, his wife and the current US Representive, refers to his philosophy during her remarks in the Coming Home video.
Walter talked to people. He was not necessarily a great public speaker, but he was an excellent public listener. He encouraged conversation and he actually listened, so that when he chose to speak, he knew what to he wanted to say. At one campaign event, he spoke to a group of mostly gay men. When he was asked about gay marriage, instead of equivocating about civil rights, he used the civil rights question to emphasize his support for gay rights. Walter said that gay and lesbian Americans should have equal rights under the 14th Amendment. Gay and Lesbians should have the same rights that straight people have. When someone asked if he meant civil unions instead of marriage, he said no. Why should it be different?
I do not remember the phrasing exactly, but I remember it changed Central Coast politics. Some people might say it caused the earth to shake. Walter’s support changed the way many people saw politicians. It changed how I saw politicians and how I saw church people. Soon after the election, I found a church that welcomed me by supporting my friends right to marry… and twenty years later on Labor Day weekend I think about the work that Walter has done and the work left undone and I think about the long shadow Walter Capps cast on my life. When life gets difficult, as it often does, I try to remember to Keep Calm and March On.