Friday, October 31, 2008


“Adult Baby” Is Her Identity, Not a “Fetish”


Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Viewers of the 2008 San Diego Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Pride Parade last July were treated to a remarkable sight from one small contingent. It consisted of only three people: a hot-looking man named Brian dressed in adult-sized Buster Browns a large person named Tammy dressed in a scaled-up version of a little girl’s pink-and-white dress; and the central figure, heidilynn, dressed in a frilly top and baby’s panties and being pushed in a giant stroller. People couldn’t get enough of them — before the parade stepped off, a number of folks from other contingents came up to be photographed with them — and two months later heidilynn, who lives in Phoenix, did a phone interview with Zenger’s to give us a further introduction to the world of “Adult Babies” (AB’s, also sometimes called “Advanced Babies”).

heidilynn — the name is spelled about four different ways on her Web site,, but all one word and all lower case is her preference — was born William Windsor over 50 years ago. “I found myself drawn to diapers and rubber pants at a very early age,” heidilynn recalled on her Web site. “”The first time I recall actually putting [them] on is trying on my baby sister Sally’s rubber panties at my grandmother’s house in Middletown, Ohio, when I was four years old. After Regina (the nanny) had finished changing my sister, she hung the rinsed-out panties on the doorknob of the bathroom that faced the bedroom I was billeted in. The lure was irresistible. I held back as long as I could. But ultimately I gave in.”

Those words — “I held back as long as I could. But ultimately I gave in” — describe a good part of heidilynn’s life. How she came to identify not only as a baby but as a baby girl, her struggles in learning to live with her identity and survive in the non-baby world, her experiences with the “mommies” who change her diapers, feed her baby food and take care of her, and the breadth of the adult-baby lifestyle — there are many adult-baby Web sites and several companies making adult-size baby clothes, strollers, cribs, playpens, high chairs and the other gear — all came up in our interview.

Zenger’s: What do the initials “AB” stand for?

heidilynn: There was somebody called Tommy, whom you might call the father of AB/DL. I don’t really remember his last name. He was the first one to bring it to the Internet, and actually it was through the Internet, through an organization called DPF, Diaper Pail Friends. It was Diaper Pail Fraternity at first, because most members were male, or that’s what he thought. He came to find out later that there are as many females into this as there are males. But anyway, to answer your question, “AB” — he called them “Adult Babies.” Not “Aryan Brotherhood.” DL” stands for “Diaper Lover.” They are a whole different segment of the community. They’re attracted to diapers and like to wear them, but that is more of a fetish or an attraction. AB’s are more of an emotional kind of thing.

Zenger’s: Some of the material on your Web site also refers to it as “Advanced Babies.”

heidilynn: That comes from Kathi Stringer. She’s a Transgender advanced baby who came up with that term, and she’s done a whole lot of research into this. You might want to visit her Web site, She came up with the “advanced baby” because she said, “I’m not really an adult.”

I’ve got a little bit of an argument there, because I do feel like I have to be an adult because you have adult responsibilities you have to take care of in your life, regardless of how you feel about yourself. I go with “Adult Baby,” but I think Kathi has done a lot for us to understand why, who and what we are.

There’ve been so many questions over the years since I first really realized I wanted to do this, when I was four years old. There was always a question why, and I know a lot of people who see me say the same thing. I don’t really know what to tell them, because I’m still asking that too. Kathi has brought me a little bit closer to understanding.

Zenger’s: How did you first become aware of this aspect of your life? I mean, age four doesn’t sound that far removed from biological babyhood.

heidilynn: I don’t really know how it started. Just an attraction to it. A lot of psychiatrists and professional people, mental health people, say it was separation anxiety, maybe a transitional object which the diaper becomes, much like a blanket or a Teddy bear or something like that, at that age.

I have a hard time going to Pride events and stuff like that. I’m not Gay per se. I’ve tried it in my life. I was in show business for a while in New York, and it’s hard to escape when you’re in that profession, especially in New York. There were times when I tried it, but I don’t see myself as Gay. I see myself as different. The reason I participate in the Pride events is I’m proud: I’m proud of myself, I’m proud of what I’ve done, and I’m proud of standing up for who I am. So that’s why I participate in Pride events.

I really have a hard time with fetish events. Even though I participate in Pride events, I usually don’t go to fetish events, because it’s not really a fetish. For me, it’s become at this point my lifestyle. I bristle a little bit when I hear it called a “fetish,” even though I understand why. It’s a generic, cover-all description for people who might not know anything about it: “Oh, that’s just a fetish,” It’s like rubber, or latex, or whips, or whatever alternative kind of lifestyle people are into.

Zenger’s: I read about you in one of the articles on your site that you had, quote, “trained yourself to be incontinent,” unquote. When I read that I said to myself, “That is when it became more than a fetish.” So when did that happen, and how did you manage that?

heidilynn: How did I get to that point? Well, to tell you the truth, I’m not totally incontinent. There’s still a little control, if I have to, because it’s extremely inconvenient at times. But in my sleep, or if I’m not within say, two or three seconds of a commode or toilet, at times it just happens. I started using audio recordings, hypnosis-type things, and when you get used to voiding yourself, over a period of time your muscles get weaker. Your sphincter muscles and all that stuff in that area get weaker from non-use. So it just happens. There’s a certain amount of control, but I wouldn’t trust myself without a diaper on, walking around. I wouldn’t trust myself not to lose control.

Zenger’s: How did you get to the point where you realized it wasn’t just a fashion statement or something that felt good physically: that this was something that really an identity: something basic about who you are?

heidilynn: The clothes, and everything like that, came about when I was living in New York City, I think. No, actually it was even before that. It was always there. I just wanted the whole thing, back when I was first interested in diapers. The rest of it came along with it.

Zenger’s: Given that this started for you at the age of four, would it be fair to say that in a real sense you never grew up?

heidilynn: Yes, I try to avoid adult circumstances or adult responsibilities as much as I can. Unfortunately, life doesn’t afford me that luxury all the time. Other writers who have written about this, and one catch word that I thought was kind of apropos was “Peter Pandemonium.” It referred to people who enjoy being a kid again, in whatever way they felt comfortable with. She writes for the Reno News-Gazette. Her name is Siobhan McAndrew — she’s got a Celtic name, and she’s got a really good article there. I’ve got it on the Web site. [Her article also uses the term “rejuvenile.”]

Zenger’s: One of the things that probably surprises people about this is that there seems to be enough of a market for kids’ clothes in adult sizes that there are people commercially manufacturing them.

heidilynn: All you have to do is put “Adult Baby” in your Google box and Google it, and these things are everywhere. It’s obviously a lot bigger than anybody ever thought it was. When I was young, I was sure that I could be the only one in the world that could possibly want to do this. Then I appeared on the Jerry Springer Show with Tommy, that gentleman I mentioned earlier, in 1992.

There was another person, Ken Perry. I was living in San Francisco at the time, doing a show called Hair, a resident company at the Orpheum Theatre on Market Street. I was very young, about 19 years old, and I was constantly checking the underground papers at the time. That was the Internet back then! I think they had the Oracle, and they had the Village Voice — which was considered an underground paper at the time. It’s not anymore; it’s considered mainstream, pretty much.

But anyway, I had always checked the personal ads to see if anybody would have anything there about infantilism. Then one day I ran across this personal from somebody in New York. His name was Ken Perry, and he left a post office box and said he had an interest in this. He wrote that he had an interest in baby bottles, baby clothes and diapers, and just returning to infancy, trying to as much as any adult can; and was there anybody else out there who enjoyed this sort of thing?

So I wrote him back, and we struck up a pen-pal relationship. This was before the Internet, so I was shocked when I saw the personal. I don’t know what possessed me to keep looking through the personal ads, thinking somebody would be in there with this. But, sure enough, there he was one day, and we started trading letters. As luck would have it, I had been on the road with Hair at the time of this, but I had got my draft notice, so I had to leave here for a while.

They were starting to cast Jesus Christ Superstar at the Mark Hellinger Theatre in New York. I had done a production of Hair in Washington, D.C. with Tom O’Horgan, the original director of Hair on Broadway. He was chosen as director for Jesus Christ Superstar, so a friend of mine said, “Look, I’ve got a friend you can stay with in New York and audition for Superstar.” I did get cast in the original cast of Jesus Christ Superstar, so my friend telling me to get my ass back to New York and audition for the show was a good idea. I got Broadway experience, and they ended up offering me the lead in Hair on Broadway. I was the lead in Hair for about a year and a half at the Biltmore Theatre. But I took New York for granted, for some reason. Looking back, I miss it now.

Anyway, as luck would have it, the person I was staying with lived on 77th Street, and Ken Perry lived on 79th Street, right across from the Museum of Natural History off Columbus. So I ended up in New York just three months after I had answered one of Ken’s letters. He had been delving into this a little bit deeper than I had at this point, and he was a little bit older than me — about four or five years — and had just done a stint in the Navy and all. But this has been going on for a long time. He showed me some pictures that really scared the hell out of me.

One was this older guy with sunglasses on, I guess to disguise himself, and a wig and all these other accoutrements. I told Ken, after I looked at that picture, “Oh, that scares me, man. I hope I’m not like that.” Well, I’m not really like that. I don’t wear wigs and sunglasses to disguise myself or anything like that. It still is a part of my life, something I cannot cast off. There’s just no way. I’ve tried and tried and tried for years, and I’ve finally come to the conclusion that if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

Zenger’s: On your site you say it’s just a matter of identity. It’s like being Gay or being Transgender.

heidilynn: It is. I went to see a therapist when I lived in Nashville, Tennessee, at Vanderbilt University. I was going back and forth between what they call a “binge-purge cycle,” like bulimic people who eat, eat, eat, and then they vomit to get rid of it because they’re ashamed or whatever. I would buy all this baby stuff, and then eventually just sit down and look at myself and say, “This is ridiculous. You can’t do this.” I’d end up throwing away hundreds of dollars’, sometimes thousands of dollars’, worth of stuff — a high chair, a large playpen, and all my baby clothes that I’d had custom-made for me by someone in Nashville — that I had accumulated during the time I was in the throes of babyhood, and then and then three weeks, three months, a certain time later, I’d want to have it all back again.

Finally I said to myself, “Look, I’ve just got to talk to somebody.” So I went to Vanderbilt Hospital. It was just down the road from me, just a couple of blocks away. I went in there to see one of the shrinks, dressed in street clothes, jeans and stuff like that, and my next-door neighbor, who’d seen me as a baby, said, “Where’s your baby clothes?”

I told the psychiatrist about that when I got in for my first visit, and he said, “It sounds to me like you don’t have any trouble with people accepting you like that. I’ve treated other people with this, and it seems to me that everybody has a hard time with it in terms of getting rid of the desire to do this. We could go through months of group therapy and stuff like that, and maybe hypnosis and whatever, regression and stuff like that, but it seems to me your best bet is to just accept it and try to find some satisfaction, some sort of support group, and see if you can’t find a way to integrate this into your life, because it’s not going to leave you. That’s been my experience.”

That’s probably the best advice I’ve ever been given: just to accept it and let it be part of me, and not be ashamed by it or try to deny it, because it’s an exercise in frustration. It really is.

Zenger’s: Some of the stories on your Web site deal with traveling and some of the experiences you’ve had on the road. Do you want to tell a few of those stories?

heidilynn: I’ve taken little short trips here. I’ve been to San Diego once before this trip for the Pride Parade. My father died in 2003 and left me a car, so I flew America West Thanksgiving weekend, with a friend of mine, a lady friend who was kind of my mommy. We flew to San Diego and went down to Seaport Village and rode the merry-go-round and stuff, and had supper down there.

I did take a solo trip back East for a Pride event in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. Somebody who lived close by in Arkansas, another straight Transgender person, had invited me, and I looked forward to meeting with her. This person had been a Marine, and I guess still is a Marine, because once a Marine, always a Marine; had gone through jump school and was a tank commander. He re-enlisted in the Army after he got out of the Marines and was a tank commander, but he calls himself “Little Miss Ruffles.” I went to Eureka Springs to meet with her, and met his mommy and stuff. But he’s not quite as adventurous as I am, so he left the next day. The next night, we were going to tour the town, both of us. I got a wild hair and spent about a week in Eureka Springs. The event only lasted a couple of days, but I liked it there.

Then I decided to go to the end of Spring Break in Panama City Beach, Florida, where I was thrown out of a Holiday Inn. When I went to check in at the front desk, everything was cool. They gave me my room and everything like that. I told them exactly how I dress, and they didn’t have any problem with it. They told me there was a complimentary breakfast they were offering to all hotel guests. I went down to have that, so I was pretty much walking around the hotel there, and I went upstairs to take a nap after I finished breakfast.

I was awakened by a knock on the door, and a security person said, “Look, you’ve got to put on different clothes if you’re going to be out and around the hotel here.” I said, “Why? You’ve got girls in thong bikinis and guys in Speedos drunk out of their minds walking around here.” “Well, this is a family hotel.” I said, “Yeah, anybody who comes to Spring Break and brings their family ought to know what to expect.” I thought it was a little bit ridiculous for security to say I had to leave because they didn’t like the way I dressed. They said, “Well, you can stay here. You just can’t — ” and I said, “These are the only clothes I have. So what you’re saying to me is I have to stay in my room the whole time I’m here, or what?”

But a funny thing happened on the way down, as I was leaving. A Panama City cop asked if he could have his picture taken with me, and I asked this security person who was at the concierge desk as I was leaving if she would take the picture. The cop and I kind of leaned together, into each other, as she took the picture. He said, “O.K., now give me a thumbs-up when you’ve taken the picture, because my wife is not going to believe this.” He told me to have a good time while I was in Panama City, so the local law enforcement people didn’t have a problem with it. It was just the security lady at the Sun Spree Resort at Panama City Beach who didn’t like me.

After that, I’d always wanted to go to New Orleans, so I made my southern route there to New Orleans. I went in April 2006, almost nine months after Katrina, and there was still damage everywhere. It was amazing. I remember going down to the French Quarter and driving by the Superdome, and seeing guys doing the roof. They were still working on the roof at that point, and I was thinking of stopping because I had done roofing at one point in my life. Then I said to myself, “I wouldn’t want that job. Don’t look down!”

I wanted to stay in the French Quarter. I didn’t want to park the car and get out because I was by myself and I’d heard all kinds of bad stories about walking around or even parking in the French Quarter. I wanted to get a hotel close by, and they were still repairing from the hurricane too, so they only had a few rooms available and they were taken up. So I went from New Orleans on a southern route through Homa and then Lafayette, and then spent the night in Winnie, Texas, which is just a little bit east of Houston. I’m sure they got hit by the hurricane.

I went through Houston the next day and then through Austin. I stayed in Austin for about five days, and I’d been in Austin before as a baby. It was a pretty cool time there. I love Austin, Texas. I went through Austin and then through Van Horn, Texas, went that way and then stopped in Bisbee, Arizona. I’ve got some friends down in Bisbee, and Bisbee is a pretty cool town. So I stopped there for about three days, and that was right on my birthday as a matter of fact, and then I drove back up to Phoenix.

Zenger’s: You also mentioned on your site that you had once been married, and that you’d had some interesting experiences in that relationship.

heidilynn: She was into having me go out in public and stuff. She enjoyed doing that. But then my son came along, and we pretty much had to put the brakes on. I was still in my binge-purge mentality back then. I would do it for a while and then get disgusted and throw everything away, and then like I said, about three months later want it all back again and want to do it again.

It was a sexual thing for me at that time, too. Not the whole thing was sexual, but it became sexual. Like if you read Kathi Springer’s stuff, it became sexual during puberty. I was already into it before puberty, when I had no idea what sex was or anything like that. I knew I just wanted to do it. When puberty arrived and sexuality began to raise its head, so to speak, it became a sexual thing too, and it was for a long period of time. But it is no longer sexual for me. It still is sexual for a lot of people that are into this. It just happens. I don’t know why. I guess it’s because it’s a very sensual area down there.

Zenger’s: How do you make your living?

heidilynn: I’m retired. My father died in 2003 and left me a fairly decent sum of money that was in trust. And so I’ve got an investment account that I live on.

Zenger’s: Before your father died, how did you handle dealing with a work life and the need to earn a living while having this lifestyle?

heidilynn: For two years I did phone sales. I wouldn’t really call it telemarketing. We didn’t call people’s homes and stuff. We called businesses, and I sold epoxies and industrial chemicals to companies and cities. One of my biggest territories was wastewater management. We’d sell degreaser to treatment plants and stuff. Since that was phone work and inside, I didn’t have to wear a business suit. I was able to wear diapers. I wore diapers pretty much 24/7. I couldn’t dress the way I wanted to, but I was 24/7 with it then. Before then, I did underground electric. I did whatever I could, basically, to make a living. I was homeless for a while. I think it’s on the Web site, that article. A far cry from Broadway!

Zenger’s: Just one final question: how did the “heidilynn” persona come about? Not just a baby, but a baby girl?

heidilynn: When I first started out, I liked the clothes that baby girls wore better. When I got to New York, I had a girlfriend there whom I made aware of this desire of mine. She was from L.A. but we lived together in New York in a loft down on Chambers Street, about three blocks away from the World Trade Center. Her former boyfriend in L.A. had been a transvestite, and she’d enjoyed dressing him up and stuff. So we kind of fit together that way, and I guess from there and my attraction to baby girl clothes and stuff, because it always seemed cuter to me. I don’t know. I was just more attracted to that.

The name “heidilynn” came from when I was on the Jerry Springer Show in 1992. Before I went on, the makeup lady asked me if I wanted an alias or if I wanted to use my real name. I said, “I’ll use an alias, a different name, something like that.” She had a book of baby names, and when she got to “Heidi” I said, “That’s it. Heidi’s good.” I used “heidi” for a while, and then one of my girlfriends, another mommy that I had, started calling me “heidilynn” because I think she had a girlfriend when she was growing up back in Maryland whose name was Heidi Lynn. She started calling me “heidilynn” and I liked it, so I kept it.



Copyright © 2008 by Leo E. Laurence • All rights reserved

Photo credit: Christine Hill.

Hillcrest — Through the genius of a young, animal-rights attorney who is battling like the biblical David and Goliath, curious kids will be able to continue get to watch the seals at the so-called Children’s Pool (pool) in La Jolla. The seals will soon give birth to their babies when their “pupping” season begins in a month or so.

The clever lawyer is Bryan Pease of Hillcrest, who specializes in a rare field of law involving animal-rights.

He serves as the pro bono counsel for the Animal Protection and Rescue League (APRL), also of Hillcrest; and also spearheaded with Kath Rogers the campaign for Proposition 2 (which would abolish three especially cruel treatments of animals at corporate farms raising animals for food) on the November ballot.

A Long Court Battle

The plight of those 150+ seals, which by nature need the sandy beach at the Children’s Pool their home for birthing their “pups,” has for years been weaving its way through our local state and federal courts.

It even became a hot-button issue in the re-election campaign of City Attorney Michael Aguirre, who is a victim of an unethical campaign by the local mainstream news media – and particularly the Union Tribune – to replace him with a weak, local judge with absolutely no trial experience.

Attorney Paul Kennerson – who has received over $1.25 million in taxpayer money in attorney fees for fighting to get rid of the unique seals – won a ruling some time ago that requires the City of San Diego to dredge the beach at the Children’s Pool in La Jolla. That would permanently destroy the area as a haven for the seals.

And, he wants that dredging done NOW, even though the original court Order which he won does not specify immediate dredging.

Kennerson wants to evict the seal colony out NOW, even before the city can complete the mountain of state and federal permits and paperwork required by federal law before the city can physically evict the seals and dredge the beach.

Kennerson even had the gall to unsuccessfully ask Superior Court Judge Yuri Hoffman to fine the City $10,000 a day for failing to follow the court’s dredging mandate. Kennerson apparently wants to get rich off taxpayers, who are paying now his high fees.

The problem is, the original court Order that Kennerson won does not contain a requirement that the seals be chased out now. Adding that requirement would be a de facto rewrite or revision of the court’s earlier Order.

The court doesn’t have the power to do that, absent fraud or other prejudicial misconduct or dramatically new evidence (not provided).

With Kennerson aggressively trying to immediately kick the seals out of the famous Children’s Pool in La Jolla, the APRL’s attorney Pease filed papers in federal court to stop Kennerson’s pushy tactics to oust the seals.

Pease on Oct. 22 won a federal court order that says, “Defendant City of San Diego, its agents, servants, employees, and representatives, and all persons acting in concert or participating with them, are hereby enjoined and restrained through the hearing date of November 25.”

The federal court Order also prohibits the city “ … from engaging in, committing, or performing, directly or indirectly, any and all of the following acts: harassing or dispersing the colony of harbor seals at Children’s Pool in La Jolla.”

“The underlying purpose of the (federal) temporary restraining order is to preserve the status quo and prevent irreparable harm before a preliminary injunction hearing may be held,” the federal Order of the Court reads.

City Attorney Helps

City Attorney Mike Aguirre, who is fighting the whole downtown establishment’s massive efforts to unseat him in the Nov. 4 election, has personally appeared in court adding the prestige of his office to help the seals.

Aguirre believes the state legislature should amend the arcane law being used by the state court to force the City of San Diego to take extreme measures to evict the seals.

But, which state legislator will act?

“(State Senator Christine Kehoe) is not initiating anything,” Kehoe spokesman Sean Wherley bluntly told the Union Tribune.

It is unknown why Sen. Kehoe does not want to help save the seals in La Jolla.

Lawyers for all sides will be back in state court on November 14 after the judge has had time to read the city’s voluminous papers filed in the case.

Those filings argue that the City of San Diego needs until September 2009 to comply with a re-quired environmental review of the dredging project.

The city also needs, according to the city attorney’s office, permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the California Coastal Commission and the Regional Water Quality Control Board. Anti-seal attorney Kennerson is trying to get around those federal and state requirements.

The legal maneuvering in federal court is to determine whether the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act – which might pre-empt state laws – also requires a permit before the city can disturb the seals, which are on the verge of their annual pupping season.

A hearing in federal court is set for November 25.

It is highly unlikely that a state court would issue any Order that might be in conflict with federal laws or pending federal jurisdiction.

For comment, contact Leo Laurence at (619) 757-4909 or at


Copyright © 2008 by Leo E. Laurence • All rights reserved

Mormons dramatically lead the campaign to pass Proposition 8, to ban Gay marriages with a state Constitutional amendment. They gave a staggering 77% of all the money raised as of October 1.

The Wall Street Journal reported that Mormon Church members were told that “their souls would be in jeopardy” if they did not donate money to support Proposition 8.

Over 60,000 Mormon families have succumbed to the pressure by their church, and have given over $20 million.

Non-Mormon donations are over $6 million since July 1, including nearly $2 million from Howard Ahmanson of Newport Beach and other private sources.

Threatened “Outings”

Meanwhile, leaders of the Yes-on-8 campaign are threatening to “out” businesses that have do-nated to the “No on 8” campaign.

Give us money or we will identify you as opponents of traditional marriage, says offers made to do-nors of the opposition.

“Make a donation of a like amount to,” reads the letter.

“Were you to elect not to donate comparably” to your donation to Marriage Equality, the name of your company will be published.”

In other words, they will be “outed.”

The Mormon Church, however, has a skeleton in its “closet.”

A former Mormon bishop, Antonio A. Feliz, who was excommunicated by his church for being Gay, gave Zenger’s Newsmagazine an exclusive interview in 1995. He revealed that he had seen documents in the official Mormon Church archives that suggest that the church’s esteemed founder, Joseph Smith, had actually performed same-sex marriages.

TV ads by the Yes on 8 campaign are blatantly false, factually. They claim that same-sex marriages will be taught in elementary schools unless Proposition 8 passes.

That’s not true, says Professor Morris A. Thurston of Brigham Young University, a Mormon school.

“Prop-8 has nothing to do with education or teaching,” Prof. Thurston said.

The outcome of the battle over Proposition 8 is expected to be very close, largely because of the mas-sive and distorted campaign by the Mormons.

For comment, contact Leo Laurence at (619) 757-4909 or at
Chicago in 1968: Politics as War Zone


Copyright © 2008 by Leo E. Laurence for

Massive youth involvement changed political conventions/campaigns back in 1968, and continue in 2008.

Forty years ago, the massive youth mobilization at the Chicago Democratic Convention turned the Windy City “into a war zone,” as one CBS war correspondent told me. And I was there!

Today [October 23], Sen. Barack Obama is mobilizing the nation’s (world’s) youths in an unprecedented way, and some national polls say he is now the front-runner for president. (But that can change.)

While working as a reporter/producer at ABC-KGO News in San Francisco in ‘68, I took a short vacation back to my hometown in Monroe, New York. While returning to the Bay Area, I stopped off in Chicago to check out the convention, then in the news daily as massive youth demonstrations protesting the Viet Nam War, racism, poverty, etc. had taken over the city.

The ABC News producer at the convention hall gave me a set of official media credentials. They let me go anywhere in the convention itself. But, more importantly, I could go anywhere in the city — with the ability to pass police and army MP lines — which were everywhere near the convention site.

So I went everywhere.

The news media were transported everywhere in special school buses that also could go through police and army MP restricted lines. During one trip, I sat with a CBS News foreign correspondent who was on special assignment.

“The police and army MP’s have turned Chicago into a war zone,” he told me, obviously surprised — and he had had experience covering real wars.

KPBS-TV on Wednesday (10/22) carried a 2-hour documentary on those Chicago riots and the later, famous “Chicago Seven” criminal trials. Those shows captured the raw rage that filled the city; and the gross injustice of the show trial by federal district Judge Julius Hoffman.

He threw the “Chicago Seven” into jail, but all charges were later reversed by a federal appellate court.

I remember being in one of Chicago’s city parks on a warm afternoon when the park was filled with flower children of the hippie/yippie era.

I noticed three singers with guitars performing under a tree and surrounded mostly by youths, but also youthful seniors. I didn’t know who the performers were — thinking they were probably some local group — so I asked one of the kids.

“Peter, Paul and Mary,” he said with a proud smile.

My God, really? Big-time musical stars were here, with the demonstrators? As a journalist, I thought that was absolutely incredible!

The very bloody riots that I witnessed were actually created by the massive numbers of police who repeatedly attacked the peaceful, youthful crowds.

But, there were also some strange lighter moments.

I remember watching one short teenage boy walk up to a long line of army MP’s standing firmly at parade rest. In that position, their rifles are leaning forward at an angle.

The boy quietly and slowly placed a single flower into the end of the barrels of each of the line of rifles.

The equally youthful MP’s didn’t object. Indeed, several smiled at him.

If they could have taken off their uniforms, I’m convinced those young army MP’s would have joined the demonstrators.

I had never seen anything like the militarization of Chicago in ‘68. Working for a very conservative broadcasting company, I was then a solid Republican conservative myself.

But when I returned to San Francisco, I realized that my experience in Chicago had radicalized me.

I joined the New Left.

By day, I worked for ABC-KGO News in San Francisco.

By night, I was the first, regularly published Gay journalist in the nation, working at the Berkeley Barb. That widely read weekly underground newspaper was largely responsible for Gay Lib’s success today. Without it, we may not have the LGBT Center or the Gay & Lesbian Times in Hillcrest today. Yet, oddly neither acknowledge the role of Gay journalism in launching Gay Lib 40 years ago.

Together with 12 other young homosexuals (the word Gay didn’t become common until later), we launched the Committee for Homosexual Freedom, the first Gay Lib organization, five months before the famous Stonewall Riots, which many today incorrectly consider the birth of Gay Lib. That’s a myth.

Today, Sen. Obama is successfully using the power of the massive mobilization of youths — along with their Internet — to transform the current presidential campaign into one of historic proportions.

While seniors have historically been the people marching to the polls on election day, this month that may change as youths march massively to vote in unprecedented numbers — just as they marched in Chicago in ‘68.

Compass’s Britannicus: Neo-Classical Masterpiece


Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Photo: Jenna Selby as Junia and Rich Carillo as Nero. Credit: Paul Savage.

Compass Theatre — formerly 6th @ Penn and located, as its earlier name suggested, at the corner of 6th Avenue and Pennsylvania in Hillcrest — has had successes with some pretty unlikely material. They’ve done productions of the classics from ancient Greece in new translations (as well as a sometimes funny, sometimes grim quasi-autobiographical play about their translator!) and, leaving the “marquee” works of Shakespeare to better-heeled companies like the Old Globe, just mounted a flawed but fascinating production of one of the Bard’s least-known plays, Troilus and Cressida. Now they’ve delved into an even more obscure dramatic realm with a surprisingly effective production of Britannicus by French playwright Jean Racine, originally premiered in 1669 and presented here in a new translation by Howard Rubenstein.

There’s a major obstacle to producing anything by Racine or his rival French dramatists today, and it isn’t the language barrier. While comic playwrights like Molière could use the French language flexibly and approach the way people actually talked, for centuries serious French plays were written in alexandrines, a tight, restrictive poetic form that would sound unnatural to modern French audiences and almost totally defies translation. French drama was so stuck on this verse form that in 1830, when Victor Hugo’s Hernani opened with a scene in which one actor interrupted another in mid-alexandrine, the audience literally rioted in protest. Rubenstein’s adaptation, as he explains in his program note, ignored the alexandrine form and “focused on the play’s content expressed in clear standard American English in free verse” —thereby giving the actors a tough but flexible text through which they could create characters and express emotions.

Britannicus deals with a slice of Roman imperial history in the first century C.E. The backstory will be familiar to anyone who’s read Robert Graves’ novels I, Claudius and Claudius the God or seen the 1970’s BBC-TV miniseries based on them, but just to recap: after the death of the notoriously corrupt, libertine and psychopathic emperor Caligula he was succeeded by his uncle Claudius. Claudius governed wisely and rehabilitated the standing of the empire, but he had rotten luck with women. His third wife, Messalina, cheated on him so spectacularly and recklessly that when he was away, she actually challenged the best-known prostitutes of Rome to a contest to see how many men each could have sex with consecutively — and she outlasted them all. When Claudius returned and heard about this, he had Messalina executed and afterwards married Agrippina, a politically ambitious widow determined to make her son Nero the next emperor.

There were thus two rival claimants for the Roman throne — Nero and Britannicus, Claudius’s son by Messalina — and Claudius stunned his biological son and the Roman court by not only adopting Nero but officially proclaiming him the heir. Why Claudius did this remains an historical mystery — in Robert Graves’ version, it was because he wanted a bad emperor to succeed him and smash the credibility of imperial government so Britannicus could lead a revolution and re-establish the former Roman republic — but in the play, which takes place after Agrippina has poisoned the already terminally ill Claudius just in case the old emperor wanted to change his mind, Britannicus is a sympathetic but immature young man who hangs around court and pouts a lot.

As the play opens, Agrippina (Glynn Bedington) is complaining to Burrus (Neil McDonald), whom she had picked during Nero’s boyhood as his tutor, that Nero (Rich Carrillo) never wants to see her any more and she actually has to make appointments for an audience with her son. Next we meet Britannicus (Bayardo de Murguia) complaining to his confidant Narcissus (played by Compass Theatre founder and executive director Dale Morris) that Nero has had his fiancée Junia (Jenna Selby) kidnapped and brought to the imperial palace. It turns out that Nero originally did this just to spite Britannicus, but since then he’s become infatuated with Junia and wants to dump his wife Octavia — an advantageous political marriage arranged, like just about everything else in his political career, by his mom — and marry the even more highly connected Junia, a direct relative of the late emperor Caesar Augustus. (The Roman royal family were a notoriously inbred bunch — don’t even try to keep track of who’s related to whom — but they did such a good job of killing each other off that Nero was the last biological relative of Julius Caesar ever to rule Rome.)

A modern-day playwright, especially one of Left-ish politics, might have taken this story and made it a critique of imperial government and politics in general. (One could easily see a parallel between this family and the Bushes, with Claudius as the first President Bush, Britannicus as Jeb and Nero as George W.) That wasn’t an option for Jean Racine, who was writing during the era when France was ruled by the so-called “Sun King,” Louis XIV, whose imperial pretensions and ruthlessness against anyone who questioned them rivaled those of the Roman rulers who were Racine’s dramatis personae. Instead he concentrated on the private lives of his public figures, creating a story that might well be called Sex and the Empire — though even here he’s decorous enough to ignore such well-known facts about Nero as his bisexuality. (In addition to all the women he bedded and sometimes wedded, Nero had a eunuch slave named Sporus with whom he went through a marriage ceremony — which led some Roman wags to joke about how much better off Rome would have been if Nero’s father had made that sort of marriage.)

What Racine and Rubenstein, in his adaptation, were especially good at is creating an atmosphere of moral corruption and ruthlessness around the court, with spies everywhere, people afraid to disclose true facts or feelings — in one scene Junia has to pretend to have fallen out of love with Britannicus because Nero is spying on them and has threatened to kill Britannicus if she doesn’t fall in line — and all loyalties are uncertain and up for grabs. Narcissus poses as Britannicus’s confidant while simultaneously plotting with Nero to kill him. Nero is shown as a psychopath in the making but also as a desperately weak mama’s boy — director Miriam Cuperman seems to have been influenced by Laurence Olivier’s 1948 film of Hamlet in the way she stages their scenes together — and Britannicus, the supposed hero of the piece, is too whiny and immature to make us want to root for him either.

The acting in Compass’s Britannicus production is uniformly excellent. Glynn Bedington plays Agrippina as a weird combination of Lady Macbeth and Auntie Mame, whining like the stereotypical “Jewish mother” as she reminds Nero, “After all I’ve done for you … ” Bayardo de Murguia perhaps overdoes the pouting as Britannicus, but he’s a good enough actor to make us feel sorry for the guy as a victim even while doubting he’d do much better as emperor than Nero would. Neil McDonald as Burrus suggests a man who’s all too aware that to survive at court he has to act in ways contrary to his own sense of integrity, and who’s accepted that as a grim reality of his life. Dale Morris achieves a chilling coldness as Narcissus (aptly named after the mythological Greek who fell in love with his own image and drowned in pursuit of himself). But the standout performance is given by Rich Carrillo as Nero: short, dark and handsome, he’s able to make the character believable in all his various and rapidly changing moods. The strongest part of his remarkable rendition takes place at the end of the first act: skulking around an empty stage, with no dialogue, he manages to suggest through body language, fleeting changes of expression and sheer stage presence that Nero the spoiled-brat mama’s boy is dying and Nero the psychopathic monster is being born.

Director Miriam Cuperman’s main contribution is in sheer swirling energy. Aided by Rubenstein’s easily speakable translation, she’s able to get refreshingly naturalistic performances from her actors and keep the play moving even through such awkward conventions of antique drama as the announcements, built into the script, of which character is going to enter next. She’s especially effective when she moves the action off the stage and into the theatre auditorium at the climax. Another hero of this production is set designer Brian Redfern, whose version of the Roman palace is enviably solid and far above the community-theatre norm. Abigail Hewes’ costumes are credible but a bit too new-looking (a common failing in period plays and films), and Mitchell Simkovsky’s lighting design is evocative and bright: it’s nice to be watching a play lit by someone who doesn’t equate darkness with “depth.” Rob Hurlbut is credited as “musical coordinator,” and while it’s unclear what that meant, the recorded music is deployed effectively and is more complex and better suited to the action than the relentless kettledrums that punctuated Compass’s Troilus and Cressida.

Britannicus is intense drama, powerfully adapted by Howard Rubenstein and vividly staged by Miriam Cuperman and acted by Rich Carrillo and the rest of her marvelous cast. In a small theatre that’s already gained a reputation for its performances of the classics, Britannicus stands out even for Compass.

Britannicus plays every Thursday through Sunday through November 23 at Compass Theatre (formerly 6th @ Penn), 3704 Sixth Avenue in Hillcrest. Performances are Thurs.-Sat. at 8 p.m. and Sun. at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20 to $23 and are available by calling (619) 688-9210 or online at

Backwater Blues: Second in Compass’s “Q Plays” Series


Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Photo credit: Paul Savage.

Running in repertory with Britannicus at Compass Theatre, 3704 Sixth Avenue in Hillcrest, is Backwater Blues, second in the theatre’s ongoing “Q Plays” series of productions with Gay, Lesbian or Transgender themes. An original musical composed by Michael Thomas Tower, with book and lyrics written by Tower and David M. Newcomer, Backwater Blues isn’t what you might expect from the title — a biomusical of the great 1920’s Black Bisexual blues singer Bessie Smith (“Backwater Blues,” a song about the 1927 Mississippi River floods — the Hurricane Katrina of the time — was one of her biggest hits) — but a light, campy musical about five men thrown together in an unlikely attempt to mount a touring musical production in the tiny town of Toad Lake, Texas (population 233).

It’s really a show about love and dreams, in particular about whether to stay stuck in Toad Lake and lead the straight (in both senses) life or to go to New York and pursue your show-biz ambitions. It’s also built around the usual romantic complications. J.D. (Andy Collins), the show’s director, once was married to a woman and had a son, and he’s trying to remain a part of the boy’s life while also handling the loss of his most recent partner (deported by ICE). He’s been embittered by all these experiences to the point where he simply doesn’t notice the torch his star performer, Marvin (Tom Doyle), is carrying for him.

Meanwhile, young Toad Lake native Arnie (Shaun Tuazon), a protégé of local high-school teacher Miss Melnor (Grace Delaney), is being cruised by the mysterious Rock (Anthony Simone), who’s hiding out in the troupe to try to avoid the long arm of the law. Said long arm is Sheriff Fetch (also Grace Delaney, and in this character she’s the only performer who actually does a Southern accent), who’s hanging around the company and is convinced Arnie is shielding Rock. Actually, Arnie’s romantic interests are fastened on Joe (Trevor Bowles), whom he “played around” with in high school and never forgot — only Joe’s decided to settle down in his father’s business and marry a girl named Chrissy (whom we never see).

Seen in dress rehearsal October 26, Backwater Blues didn’t break any new ground in Queer theatre (the stated goal of the “Q Plays” series) but it was a lot of fun. It’s occasionally more than that, particularly in the remarkable performance of Trevor Bowles, who’s as convincing here as a man torn between straight and Gay as he was as an already “out” Gay man torn between his friends and a problematic new partner in the previous “Q Plays” production, Hairdresser on Fire. Andy Collins is also convincing in his bitterness as J.D., and Tom Doyle is the best singer and dancer of the bunch and has a spectacular number at the start of act two that doesn’t have anything to do with the plot but is one of the most entertaining parts of the show. Shaun Tuazon looks barely past the age of consent — it’s hard to believe he and Trevor Bowles went to high school at the same time — but he’s good at conveying Arnie’s confused desperation.

Director Lindsey Duoos Gearhart paces the play effectively, and choreographer Alisa Williams gets the performers to dance with more exuberance than grace. (If you sit in the first row you risk getting kicked during the more high-stepping numbers.) During the dress rehearsal music director and arranger Rick Shaffer sometimes drowned out the cast members with the accompaniment, but that’s a glitch that won’t be hard to fix. Brian Redfern’s set is a series of simple panels that hang in front of his elaborate construction for Britannicus (Nero’s throne can be glimpsed in the background, house left) but that’s all this show really needs. The music is pretty basic Broadway wanna-be stuff, but it strikes the right sprightly tone for a show that doesn’t take itself seriously — despite a few surprisingly poignant moments — and made the dress-rehearsal audience laugh hard. You will, too.

Backwater Blues plays through Wednesday, November 26 at Compass Theatre, 3704 Sixth Avenue in Hillcrest. Performances are 7 p.m. Sundays and 7:30 p.m. Mondays-Wednesdays. Tickets are $17 to $20 and are available by calling (619) 688-9210 or online at

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Zenger’s 2008 Election Endorsements


Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

For President and Vice-President:


First, the 2008 Presidential campaign has lasted too damned long. It’s always amazed me that France and other European countries can elect a President in two months, and it takes us a year and a half. I’ve had people who were planning to vote for Barack Obama tell me that they’re already tired of seeing him on TV and wish both he and John McCain would go away. Alas, at least one of them won’t after November 4; indeed, a number of people have theorized that a lot of American voters choose for President simply on the basis of who they think they’ll feel more comfortable seeing on TV for the next four years.

If that’s a criterion this year, Barack Obama would probably get most of that vote. It’s hard to think of the last two debates — in which McCain seemed utterly incapable of concealing his total scorn for his opponent while Obama responded to the slashing Republican attacks on him neither by ignoring them or sinking to their level, but explaining their absurdity in the manner of a patient grade-school teacher dealing with an unruly class — and think that anybody would rather see McCain as Obama as star of the series The American President for the next four years. McCain has come across as quarrelsome and barely in control of himself and his emotions, while Obama has seemed almost preternaturally calm.

Indeed, that’s one of the most powerful reasons to hope Obama will be the next President. He’s shown his ability to discomfit politicians far more experienced and seasoned than he — Hillary Clinton in the Democratic nomination campaign and McCain in the general election — and I can’t help but think, despite the Republican horror that Obama would be willing to talk to presidents Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, Kim Jong Il of North Korea, or Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, “without preconditions” (a persistence of the Bush administration’s attitude that we only talk to people who already agree with us), Obama is precisely the sort of person I would want representing my country across the table from these foreign heads of state.

One of the most peculiar aspects of this campaign is that as it’s rolled on (and on, and on) I’ve come to like Obama more and more each day. (That’s not usually how I’ve felt about major-party Presidential candidates in the past — even ones I’ve voted for.) This shouldn’t be confused with political agreement; I’m still disappointed with his moderation and his oft-cited willingness to reach across the aisle and work with Republicans. I fear Obama’s commitment to broadening the war in Afghanistan, his wimpy formulation that he’d bring about “a responsible end” to the war in Iraq (sounds an awful lot like Richard Nixon’s “peace with honor” in Viet Nam to me!) and his willingness to vote for a bad energy bill and an even worse grant of blanket immunity to telecommunications companies for spying on their customers at government behest.

At the same time, though, I’m finding myself more in awe of Obama’s personal qualities and how he’s managed to get through the end of a grueling presidential campaign without evincing a sense of bitterness — again, in sharp contrast to McCain, who as the campaign has rolled on seems to have become all bitterness. The McCain of this campaign isn’t the one who wrote a successful campaign finance reform bill with Russ Feingold and an immigration bill with Ted Kennedy that was shot down by the nativist Yahoos of his own party. He’s become an ardent Right-winger whose sole economic platforms are more tax cuts for the rich and making people pay more for less health care.

What’s more, in the final stages of the campaign McCain himself has started to sound more and more like a radio talk-show host. Usually Presidential candidates hold themselves aloof from the nastiest partisan attacks; they try to look aloof and, well, Presidential, and leave the dirty business of attack campaigning to their running mates and other surrogates. Sarah Palin, like previous Republican vice-presidential nominees Richard Nixon, Spiro Agnew and Dan Quayle, has been superb in this role — at times, especially when she starts talking about who is and who isn’t a “real American,” she comes off as Joe McCarthy in drag — but McCain has been playing it himself as well, as if he (like Hillary Clinton before him) is so intimidated by the fact that this tall, exotic geek has come between him and the presidency he feels an irresistible compulsion to lash out.

About the only thing McCain has going for him in the last weeks of the campaign is that old Republican standby: fear. Fear of terrorists. Fear of taxes. Fear of socialism (it’s an indication of how ridiculously Right-skewed our politics have become that a government program to use the tax money of working people to bail out America’s biggest financial capital firms and save them from their mistakes is being denounced as “socialism”!). Fear of feminists. Fear of Queers. Fear of an opponent who’s “elitist” and out of touch with “real America” — an argument they made successfully against Walter Mondale, Mike Dukakis, Al Gore and John Kerry but which takes an even more effective racist edge against Obama because there’s a very obvious visual difference between him and what Republican propaganda regards as “real America.”

The days when America’s Right actually offered a positive alternative — the days when Ronald Reagan famously proclaimed, “It’s morning in America” — are long gone. McCain is running the same sort of campaign that elected George W. Bush, and if the economic boondoggles of the last two decades hadn’t caught up with American capitalism McCain would probably have this thing won in a landslide. Instead, in the final weeks it was Obama who took the lead in the polls, less from any of his own qualities or promises (McCain and the Republicans are absolutely right when they say that Obama can’t possibly enact everything he’s promised without raising taxes, but they’re wrong when they make the leap and say, as a claim of fact, “Obama will raise your taxes”) than simply the hunger for something different.

Just how different an Obama-led America will be — if that indeed happens — is uncertain. For all the hope among America’s surviving liberals and progressives that an Obama administration would mean the end of America’s 30-year experiment with deregulation and lassiez-faire economics, his staff of economic advisors is packed to the gills with finance-company executives and the economists who advised them. Lassiez-faire is in the DNA of the U.S.A. — the year this country was officially “born,” 1776, was also the year Adam Smith published his treatise on capitalism, The Wealth of Nations — and in order to shake our national faith in “the Market” it takes not only an economic crisis on the level of 1873, 1893 or 1929 but also a mass movement challenging the very existence of capitalism itself and forcing the capitalists (or some of them) to compromise in order to save their system and their fortunes.

Instead, thanks to their artful manipulation of the racial and cultural anxieties of the 1960’s, the Republicans have made the white working class one of their core constituencies. Talk radio is the voice of the working class in the U.S. mass corporate media — the home of what labor activist and scholar Bill Fletcher calls “right-wing populism” — and the talk-radio response to the current economic crisis has been a call for more deregulation, more lassiez-faire, a “market-based solution” no matter how many working-class and middle-class people get hurt by the loss of what little they have. “Joe the Plumber,” the working-class talisman McCain and his campaign hoped would salvage their hopes in the final stages, turned out to be Samuel Wurzelbacher, an unlicensed plumber and a Right-wing anti-tax fanatic who wants to see Social Security abolished and who has put his money where his mouth is by racking up a $1,200 lien in unpaid Ohio state income taxes.

When Bill Fletcher spoke to Activist San Diego and the Socialist Unity Network October 24, he declined to make a prediction on the election but hinted at how he thinks it’s going to turn out when he said, “I don’t trust the white electorate.” I’ve heard what’s coyly called the “N-word” used about Obama in my own home, and I won’t feel confident that he’s home free until he’s at least 10 points ahead in the polls — the kind of lead I think he’ll need to overcome the so-called “Bradley factor” (whites who are too racist to vote for an African-American but too ashamed of their racism to tell pollsters they won’t) and the likely vote-counting shenanigans the Republicans are likely to pull given that highly partisan Republicans control all three of the companies that make America’s election equipment.

For U.S. Congress:

50th District: NICK LIEBHAM

51st District; BOB FILNER

52nd District: MIKE LUMPKIN

53rd District: SUSAN DAVIS

Just about any Democrat is better than just about any Republican in Congress. Democrats don’t always vote for Queer rights but Republicans have been almost unanimous against us since the evangelical Christian community became such a key part of their coalition. Nick Liebham and Mike Lumpkin are kamikaze candidates running in heavily Republican districts but deserve your vote anyway as a protest. Bob Filner is a thoroughgoing progressive who’s been right on just about every issue, and Susan Davis’s record, though spotty enough that we endorsed her primary opponent last June, is strong enough on issues like repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell” that she deserves re-election.

(Zenger’s associate editor Leo Laurence dissented on the Davis endorsement, backing Libertarian candidate Edward Teyssier and calling Davis “a Republican in Democratic clothing.)

For California State Senate:

39th District: CHRISTINE KEHOE

A former colleague and employer of mine on the San Diego Gayzette from 1984 to 1986, Christine Kehoe impressed me then and still does. She hasn’t always been as progressive as I would like but she’s still a strong voice for Queer rights and social issues in the California legislature.

For California State Assembly:

76th District: LORI SALDAÑA

78th District: MARTY BLOCK

79th District: MARY SALAS

80th District: GREG PETTIS

Four proven progressives with proven records in public office. We don’t usually endorse outside of San Diego County, but we’re joining the San Diego Democratic Club in endorsing openly Queer candidate Greg Pettis for the Palm Springs/Desert area seat.

For San Diego Community College District:



William Schwandt is an acceptable, caring incumbent who deserves re-election. Dwayne Crenshaw is an openly Queer African-American who has sought several offices (his candidacy for the San Diego Unified School District was sandbagged by opposition from the business community and former superintendent Alan Bersin) and deserves a chance to serve.

For San Diego Unified School District:




Evans’ opponent, incumbent Mitz Lee, served her purpose in voting to end the evil, inefficient regime of Alan Bersin over the city schools, but now that Bersin is gone it’s time to look to the future. We’re going with the San Diego Democratic Club and the teachers’ union in supporting Evans and incumbent Jackson, and Barrera — who ran against County Supervisor Ron Roberts in his last re-election bid — would have our support even if he weren’t running unopposed.

For San Diego City Attorney:


Aguirre has become the most vilified politician in San Diego in the corporate media because he’s stood up for the people against the efforts of the Mayor, City Council, public employee union leaders and pension fund board members to break the law. Electing his opponent, Jan Goldsmith, would return to the days when the city attorney’s office enabled public-official lawbreaking instead of blowing the whistle on it.

For San Diego City Council:




San Diegans in the three City Council districts still up for election (Carl DeMaio, a Republican but not an establishment candidate, got more than 50 percent in the District 5 primary and won the seat outright) have a clear choice. They can go with the good old person’s network and vote for candidates who will faithfully follow the wishes of big developers, sports-team owners — Republicans Phil Thalheimer in District 1 and April Boling in District 7, and Democrat-in-name-only Todd Gloria in District 3 — or they can vote for the anti-establishment progressives we’ve endorsed.

California State Propositions:

Proposition 1A (High-Speed Rail Bonds): NO

Proposition 2 (Treatment of Farm Animals): YES

Proposition 3 (Children’s Hospital Bonds): NO

Proposition 4 (Abortion: Parental Notification): NO

Proposition 5 (Drug Offender Sentencing): NO

Proposition 6 (Criminal Penalties and Laws): NO

Proposition 7 (Renewable Energy Generation): YES

Proposition 8 (Banning Same-Sex Marriage): NO

Proposition 9 (Limits on Parole): NO

Proposition 10 (Alternative Fuel Bonds): NO

Proposition 11 (Redistricting Reform): YES

Proposition 12 (Veterans’ Home Bonds): YES

THE BOND ISSUES: Ordinarily we’d be pushovers for helping state-of-the-art public transportation systems, children’s hospitals and alternative energy programs. But these aren’t ordinary times. The State of California is deeply in debt and shouldn’t be taking on any more bonded indebtedness — which is just fancy political-speak for borrowing money at a time when the state’s credit cards were maxxed out even BEFORE the recent economic nosedive, which will further deplete state revenues. So we’re opposing all but one of the bond issues on the ballot — Propositions 1, 3 and 10. (There’s another reason to oppose Proposition 10: because it’s a Trojan-horse measure that bills itself as an alternative energy measure but is actually designed to enrich its author, Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens, by spending borrowed state money to push sales of cars that run on natural gas, a nonrenewable fossil fuel Pickens happens to own a lot of.) We’re supporting Proposition 12, the extension of the Cal-Vet program, partly because it comes with its own funding stream (it’s paid for by the people it helps, not by the state’s general tax revenues) and partly because, with the federal government treating today’s veterans like worn-out auto parts, vets need all the help they can get from the state in return for serving their country (however dubious the wars they’ve been obliged to fight have been).

PROPOSITION 2: Most of the campaign on this issue has been over the treatment of farm animals and humanity vs. economics. But there’s an important health reason why this simple measure should be approved: the more animals are crammed together in factory farms, the faster they spread diseases to each other. The faster they spread diseases to each other, the more antibiotics they’re given to control their infections. The more antibiotics are given to farm animals, the more they end up inside US at the end of the food chain — and the more quickly the germs evolve resistance and the antibiotics become useless in treating human diseases. So if you won’t vote for Prop. 2 for the welfare of the animals, please, please, PLEASE vote for it for the welfare of ourselves!

PROPOSITION 4: This has been on the ballot twice before and has been wisely rejected by voters. Just to recap our previous arguments against it: yes, parents should be involved in their children’s decisions as to whether or not to have sex and how to protect themselves against pregnancy and STD’s. But the people who most need this kind of information from their parents are the least likely to get it. Surveys have shown that children of evangelical Christians are more likely to have premarital sex and get pregnant than children of other, more understanding, less judgmental religious traditions — and it’s for the protection of the girls who CAN’T tell their parents that they’re pregnant, for fear of punishment, ostracism or disownment, that we need to protect the right of teenage girls to have abortions safely and confidentially.

PROPOSITION 5: I would have voted for this if I hadn’t read two books recently, David Sheff’s “Beautiful Boy” and his meth-addict son Nic Sheff’s “Tweak,” lately. Those should be required reading for anyone on the Left who still believes that “treatment” is the panacea for the drug problem. The blunt fact is that “treatment” rarely works — one researcher quoted by David Sheff puts the success rate of “treatment” for meth addicts as less than 10 percent — and though some addicts may not be moved by the threat of jail time or criminal sanctions in general, others (including, by his own account, Nic Sheff) are. We supported Proposition 36, which likewise attempted to move the emphasis on dealing with drugs from punishment to treatment, and we don’t regret that endorsement — but Proposition 5 would push the balance too far in the “treatment” direction and deprive state and local authorities of the threat of criminal sanctions which just might be the game-changer to make some addicts take “recovery” seriously.

PROPOSITIONS 6 AND 9: More so-called “victims’ rights” measures that will make California’s already harsh, punitive criminal justice laws even harsher and more punitive. In addition, some provisions of Proposition 9 (notably the denial of legal counsel to convicts in certain proceedings) are probably unconstitutional. We need to shift the balance of California’s criminal justice policy towards rehabilitation — not even farther towards retribution, as these two measures would do.

PROPOSITION 7: Don’t be fooled by the multi-billion dollar campaign being waged against this by California’s largest private utilities — or by the misguided opposition of some environmental organizations who are letting the perfect be the enemy of the good AND are oblivious to the political reality that the defeat of both Propositions 7 and 10 will be taken as a sign that Californians are against alternative energy in general and support the Republican strategy of “Drill, baby, drill!” The requirements of Proposition 7 are tough and probably will increase energy costs short-term, but they HAVE to be tough so the big corporations can’t weasel out of them the way they did out of federal and state fuel-efficiency standards for cars — and in the long term both our pocketbooks and the earth will benefit from Proposition 7.

PROPOSITION 8: This is the measure from the radical “Christian” Right to invalidate the thousands of marriages of same-sex couples performed in California since the state supreme court’s decision allowing them became final June 15 (including mine) and write into the state constitution that only marriage between one man and one woman will be recognized in the state. (One particularly irksome aspect of their campaign is they claim this is the “Biblical” definition of marriage — which it isn’t; marriage in the Bible is defined as between one man and as many women as he can support financially, which in practice made polygamy a luxury item for the rich.)

I had thought the presence of so many same-sex couples who had actually got married — and whose marriages would be annulled en masse by the passage of Proposition 8 — would have changed the dynamics of the campaign from what we’ve seen when this issue has been on the ballot in other states (all but one of which, Arizona, have voted against same-sex marriage, usually by overwhelming margins). It hasn’t made a damn bit of difference at all! Instead, as Jonathan Rauch noted in a commentary in the October 26 Los Angeles Times, actual Queer folk have been almost totally invisible in the campaign. The No on 8 people did polls that said having actual Gay and Lesbian couples appealing to voters to preserve their marriages would just turn people off; what would work, said the pollsters, was having their straight relatives make that appeal — while the Yes on 8 campaign has based itself on fear and in particular has made the claim that if same-sex marriage is allowed to continue in California, the public schools will (gasp!) be forced to teach about it!

The official response of the No on 8 campaign — and the line I was told to use if this came up when I was doing phone-banking for No on 8 — was that this claim was based on a case in Massachusetts and California law is a lot tougher on parental consent: that no schoolchild in this state can be taught anything about family life without their parents’ O.K. But if same-sex marriage is a reality, it’s an obligation for the schools to teach it. Isn’t that one of the reasons we wanted the right to get married on the same basis as straight couples — so that kids who know at 5 or 7 or 9, even before they have much of an idea about what love or marriage or sex are, that they’re going to want such things from people of their own rather than the opposite gender won’t grow up thinking that there’s something wrong with that?

The battle over Proposition 8 isn’t just a fight over same-sex marriage: it’s a moral Armageddon for the heart and soul of America. The explicitly theocratic appeals in favor of Proposition 8 — the statement that California’s civil marriage laws ought to represent the so-called “Biblical” definition of marriage (which, as I noted above, Proposition 8’s advocates have wrong) — and the millions of dollars contributed to the cause by the Knights of Columbus, the Mormon Church, Focus on the Family and other openly religious organizations signify as much. Passage of Proposition 8 will mean the open repeal of the separation of church and state in California and throughout the U.S. — the end of a process that began when the words “under God” were added to the Pledge of Allegiance and every atheist and agnostic in the U.S. was told in so many words that they were at best second-class citizens, unable to swear true loyalty to this country because they refused to buy into the concept of a Big Daddy Sky God ruling over us all and enforcing moral judgments on our souls after death.

PROPOSITION 11: This isn’t a perfect measure, but it’s a damned sight better than what we’ve got now — which is state legislators from the Democratic and Republican parties getting together every 10 years to design districts that preserve their current shares of legislative seats and are so imbalanced in favor of one major party or the other that insurgent candidates have no hope of getting elected. Every time I write about redistricting, I quote Bertolt Brecht’s famous quip about the East German system — that they’d figured out a way for the legislature to dissolve the people and elect another — and note how successful state legislatures have been in doing just that. While this measure doesn’t go far enough — not only does it not apply to members of Congress, but quite frankly we’d prefer to see the elimination of winner-take-all geographical districts altogether in favor of proportional representation and European- (or Iraqi-)style “list” systems that would allow alternative parties to compete fairly — it’s an important step towards restoring democracy to California.

(Zenger’s associate editor Leo Laurence dissented from several of the above recommendations. He took no position on Proposition 1A and endorsed Yes on 3, 5 and 10. For more information on Leo’s endorsements, consult his blog at

San Diego Local Propositions:

Proposition A (Fire Protection Agency): NO

Proposition B (Port District Development): NO

Proposition C (Park Lease Revenues): YES

Proposition D (Beach Alcohol Ban): NO

Proposition S (School Construction Bonds): YES

Proposition A is a giant boondoggle to create a centralized San Diego County agency for fire protection. There’s not a damned bit of evidence that it will make any difference in terms of the county’s ability to fight fires. In addition, it’s based on a flawed financing scheme in which working-class people from urbanized areas of the city will be subsidizing the fire protection needs of affluent homeowners who have deliberately put themselves in danger by building in fire-prone areas and therefore should bear the brunt of paying for fire protection.

Proposition B is an even worse boondoggle: a mad scheme by a profit-hungry developer to build a massive something-or-other on top of a working port. You do that, and you don’t have a working port anymore — or the tens of thousands of jobs a working port creates. This is one of the most blatant examples in recent memory of a private capitalist trying to use public money for his own profit (and goodness knows, San Diego has seen some pretty blatant ones already!).

Proposition C is frankly confusing, but its basic intention — to make sure that the money generated by hotels and other commercial development on city parkland is actually used to maintain the city’s park system — is good.

Proposition D was a tough one for us. We acknowledge the statements of beach-area residents who say their lives have been safer, better and more comfortable since the city enacted the temporary ban on drinking at the beaches, which this measure would make permanent. At the same time, though, we don’t see any reason why the ordinary citizen who just wants to kick up his or her heels on the beach and have a cool one while watching the sunset should be penalized for the actions of a few drunken hooligans who rioted at one beach one year. More targeted law enforcement, and maybe a holiday weekend-only ban, would work better than a draconian 365-day-a-year law.

Proposition S — a measure to extend the former Proposition MM to build and repair schools in San Diego — was the one part of the ballot, aside from the Cal-Vet program, on which we broke our resolution not to support any more bond issues. This is going to create jobs locally and help our educational system equip students for the jobs of the 21st century.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Bill Fletcher Speaks on Labor at Activist San Diego

Promotes “Social Justice Unionism” to Heal the Labor Movement


Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Organized labor in the United States is in its death throes as a movement, and the only way it can save itself is to renounce virtually all the core principles on which it was founded, said former AFL-CIO education director and presidential assistant Bill Fletcher at the Joyce Beers Center in Hillcrest October 24. There to promote a new book he wrote with former UCLA professor Fernando Gapasin, Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path Toward Social Justice, Fletcher said in no uncertain terms that America’s capitalist ruling class is committed to the utter destruction of the U.S. labor movement, and organized labor in this country will die within the next decade unless it takes radical steps to reform itself and regain relevance to ordinary working people.

“In the 1930’s, an important segment of the owning class saw a need to ally with labor in order to save capitalism,” Fletcher explained. “Today the capitalist class is unanimous about the need to destroy all organizations of labor. We are in a fight for our lives. Their objective is our total destruction. Those labor leaders who call for a ‘new New Deal’ are missing the point.” Fletcher unwittingly offered a measure of just how desperate labor’s situation is when he explained that his co-author Gapasin was also supposed to be at the meeting, but he’d had to cancel because he’s in the middle of fighting a decertification campaign in Oregon. One of the audience members asked what a decertification campaign was. It’s an attempt by workers — supported in this case, Fletcher said, by Right-wing religious groups — to hold an election to get rid of the union that currently represents them.

In his talk and his book, Fletcher presented a provocative historical analysis of where labor went wrong and the dramatic steps he feel it needs to take to regain its former influence and build a mass American Left. Surprisingly, his principal villain isn’t a capitalist or a politician. It’s Samuel Gompers, the late 19th century unionist who started the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and is generally considered the founding father of this country’s union movement. But, Fletcher said, Gompers built the U.S. labor movement on a set of principles that made sure it could never contend for real power in society or challenge the inequities of capitalism.

“Samuel Gompers represented a radical break from the union movement that preceded him,” Fletcher explained. “He abandoned socialism and introduced some very distinct ideas about unions. For Gompers, ‘class’ was a concept to be eliminated. His type of union represents only its members, not the working class as a whole. Gompers coined the slogan, ‘We have no permanent friends, no permanent enemies, only permanent interests,’ which sounds radical until you realize what a limited concept he had of who ‘we’ were. For ‘we,’ Gompers meant only those workers who were in AFL unions. It wasn’t Blacks, it wasn’t women, it wasn’t Asians, it included only a handful of Latinos, it didn’t include most European immigrants and it didn’t include unskilled workers. For Gompers, ‘we’ meant white male skilled workers.”

Fletcher said that Gompers’ narrow definition of his constituency meant that the U.S. labor movement would become a handmaiden for capitalist power instead of a significant challenger. “Gompers’ framework said ‘class’ is an irrelevant and almost un-American idea,” Fletcher explained. “Gompers rejected not only the idea of a labor party but any independent political operation for labor, aside from lobbying. Gompers’ view was that labor should unconditionally support U.S. foreign policy as a matter of patriotism, which in the 1950’s came to mean working with the CIA to destroy communist and socialist labor unions in other countries. On race and gender, Gompers could have taught Hitler some things. In the early 1890’s he had talked about cross-racial solidarity, but by the 1910’s and 1920’s he saw the willingness of Blacks to break strikes as genetically determined. He was also not a friend to women, though he tipped his hat to the Women’s Union League.”

The legacy Gompers left to the U.S. labor movement, Fletcher said, was a concept called “job-centered unionism.” It meant that unions service only their members — and in practice it meant at best “anemic” attempts to organize unorganized workers. There were competing unions with different philosophies, Fletcher explained — the Knights of Labor in the 1880’s, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in the first two decades of the 20th century and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s — but all of them were smashed by an unholy alliance of the government, American capitalists and the AFL. According to Fletcher, the last real competition to Gompers-style “job-centered unionism” ended in the late 1940’s, when on orders of the U.S. government the CIO purged itself of communists and socialists, and the AFL absorbed what was left of the CIO in 1955.

What this meant historically, Fletcher argued, was that the AFL-CIO and the American labor movement as a whole were pathetically ill-equipped to withstand the steady erosion of the percentage of America’s private workforce that belongs to unions. For a long time, Fletcher said, they weren’t even aware of this as a crisis because the exodus of U.S. workers out of unions began as a trickle in the 1950’s and 1960’s, and only turned into a flood in the 1970’s and 1980’s. In the 1990’s, Fletcher said, American labor leaders finally woke up to the depth of the crisis they face and started looking for a way out of it. But, he explained, “one trend was to look to history and try to apply things that had succeeded before — without any historical context.” For example, he said, unions decided to put money into major organizing drives — but without the mass socialist and communist movements that had poured shock troops and volunteer energy into the great organizing campaigns of the 1930’s, labor’s new efforts failed.

Fletcher’s argument is that the labor movement needs a sweeping new paradigm, which he calls “social-justice unionism.” He said that he became aware of this in June 2001, when he attended a meeting in Johannesburg, South Africa between leaders of the U.S. Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the South African National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (NEHAWU) — whose members work in jobs similar to those represented by SEIU — and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), South Africa’s far more radical equivalent to the AFL-CIO. When one of the SEIU representatives said that the purpose of a labor union is to represent its members, a NEHAWU delegate to the meeting replied, “Comrades, the role of the union is to represent the interests of the working class.” To Fletcher, that is the key difference between a dying labor movement and a vibrant one.

“The focus of unionism can’t be just about the job, but about what is happening to the class,” Fletcher said. “You can talk about cities like Camden, New Jersey; Detroit and Flint, Michigan; East St. Louis, Missouri; or Youngstown, Ohio, where major industries [that once employed thousands of unionized workers at good wages] left and devastated those towns. The foreclosure crisis was irrelevant to Camden because there are no jobs there, and if it doesn’t have to do with jobs, who speaks for Camden, or East St. Louis, or the de-industrialization of California?”

What “social-justice unionism” means to Fletcher is bringing together various social-change organizations, not simply to work together as a “coalition” aimed at producing a single event, but on an ongoing basis. He cited the meetings Right-wing activist Grover Norquist holds every week or two to build communication and networking opportunities and give everyone “a good idea of what’s going down” as a model the Left should follow as well. “When we get together, we try to start ‘the mother of all coalitions,’ and when we want to share ideas we’re denounced as ‘armchair activists,’” Fletcher complained. “We’ve got to end this idea that we always have to do an action. Sometimes the most powerful thing we can do is talk — or listen.”

One of Fletcher’s ideas is to hold “workers’ assemblies,” which would be called by unions but not be limited to unions or labor issues in general. “The Central Labor Council would reach out to PTA’s and soccer clubs to have discussions — not just the top leaders but all the groups within the organization. The price of entry is not to insist that you do or don’t work with the Democratic Party, but that your organization has these discussions towards developing a platform for working people in your city. It goes to the issue of building a real movement, not just getting our lobbying points together.” Among Fletcher’s requirements for this kind of organizing is that everybody, including the rank-and-file workers conventional unions tend to regard as passive consumers rather than potential activists, involved in the deliberations over what the broader movement should stand for and try to achieve.

Fletcher even cited one AFL-CIO campaign as a model for what he wants the U.S. labor movement to accomplish. It took place in Stamford, Connecticut in the 1990’s and is discussed on pages 172-173 of his book (but oddly, given the importance Fletcher attached to it, it’s not mentioned in the index). What made the Stamford campaign unique was, said Fletcher, it was about “not simply organizing union members but organizing the community, including investing union pension-fund money in new housing and telling people in Stamford that unions are about raising the living standards of the class.”

But, Fletcher added, “What’s missing” from efforts like these is a new “overarching narrative” of labor’s role in society, “a new way of doing things and new leaders.” What’s more, he said, social-justice unionism isn’t really a possibility “in the absence of a mass Left. Unions have thrived when there was an active Left, which not only brought shock troops but tied together movements, including farmers and unemployed workers, so people could feel they were part of a movement, not just an organization or a campaign.”

One of Fletcher’s fears is that in the absence of a mass Left and an alternative “narrative,” America’s working people will grab hold of what he calls “Right-wing populism” and seize on that as the explanation for the current economic crisis. “In the middle of an economic crisis, it’s easy to confuse people’s anger and despair with an anti-capitalist consciousness,” he explained. “Part of what our role in the Left has got to be is to unpack capitalism.” What that means in the current context, he explained, is to show that the collapse of the housing market and the resulting meltdown in the U.S. economy isn’t just the work of a few unusually greedy “bad apple” capitalists, but the inevitable result of the structure and workings of capitalism itself.

If that isn’t done, said Fletcher, the Right-wing populists will successfully get working people to blame their economic predicament on traditional scapegoats: people of color, immigrants and Jews. “In periods of severe economic downturn, Right-wing populism can be very effective because it draws from a narrative that has told people in the U.S. — white people, at least — ‘If you work hard, you will succeed, and your children will have a better life than you.’ The Right-wing populists step into that narrative and say, ‘You have been betrayed, and who has betrayed you? It’s the Jews; they’re behind this financial crisis like they’ve been behind every financial crisis. You’ve been betrayed by the people who let in all those immigrants — especially brown or yellow immigrants — who’ve been let in and aren’t giving anything back. You’ve been betrayed by Black people who are always complaining, and by women who should be staying home and not competing for jobs with men.’”

Fletcher cited one example of an economic crisis — the epidemic of farm foreclosures in the 1980’s — where the Left ceded the field to the Right and white supremacists successfully convinced a lot of dispossessed farmers that Jews and the so-called “Zionist-Occupied Government” were at fault. “We have underestimated Right-wing populism and not created a narrative to compete with it,” he said. “Right-wing populism, like fascism, grabs hold of issues of the Left and twists them around. Pat Buchanan and Lou Dobbs can use Left themes, and then a few minutes later they flip. The construction of a different unionism means the construction of a different narrative. If we don’t change what our members think about, the change of our leaders won’t matter.”

Happy-Go-Lucky: Optimism or Craziness?


Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Photo: Simon Mein / Miramax Films

On one level, Mike Leigh’s new film Happy-Go-Lucky looks like a great movie. It begins with Gary Yershon’s bouncy theme for the main character, played at first on bassoon and moved around to other instruments as the film progresses. She’s Poppy (Sally Hawkins), who teaches elementary school in modern-day London, lives with a roommate named Zoë (Alexis Zegerman) and seems to be having so much fun in her life that when her bike is stolen — she parked it to go browse in a bookstore and tried her damnedest to get a rise out of its ludicrously taciturn clerk — her only reaction is to be sorry she didn’t have a chance to say goodbye to it.

Even conflicts with other people can’t seem to dampen Poppy’s infectious high spirits. When she’s not bringing paper bags into her classroom and inviting her students to paint them and wear them on their heads to make believe they’re birds, she’s coping with Scott (Eddie Marsan). He’s been sent by the Axle School of Motoring to teach Poppy to drive a car, and he’s a bundle of obsessively repeated mnemonics (like “En-Ra-Ha,” which is supposed to make Poppy remember the sequence of looking at the side-view and rear-view mirrors before she goes anywhere), neuroses, conspiracy theories and everything else Leigh can throw into his characterization.

The conflict — if you can call it that — between irresistible force Poppy and immovable object Scott is at the center of Happy-Go-Lucky, but there’s a lot of other stuff in this film as well. Just about every scene is intended to establish Poppy as the fal parsi — Arabic for “perfect fool” — determined to see the best out of every situation. Even when Nick (Jack MacGeachin), one of Poppy’s students, starts beating up on the other kids and she has to report him, she gets something nice out of it: an affair with the hunky young social worker Tim (Samuel Roukin) who came to her school to investigate Nick’s case and see what he could do to help.

Happy-Go-Lucky is a beautifully made film, sensitively directed by Leigh and vividly photographed by Dick Pope, who mercifully avoids the dank green-and-brown color scheme of most recent movies and actually makes London look bright and vibrant. Leigh, whose trademark is to work without a script and develop his characters in collaboration with the actors playing them, has given us a fascinating cast of supporting characters and a story in which things just happen, with the randomness and unpredictability of real life instead of the carefully thought-out progression and three-act structure one expects from a movie.

There’s only one thing wrong with this movie: I don’t believe in Poppy as a character for more than about 10 seconds, and neither will you. She’s so determined to see the bright side of absolutely everything that pretty soon her “optimism” begins to look like imbecility. Neil Jordan’s 2005 film Breakfast on Pluto (his revisit to two of the territories — Transgenderism and the Irish revolution — at the center of his biggest hit, 1992’s The Crying Game) had a similarly clueless central character, but somehow s/he was a bit more believable in the darker context of Jordan’s story than Poppy is here.

Though Poppy is most often reminiscent of Audrey Hepburn’s role in the 1962 film Breakfast at Tiffany’s — where she was saddled by Truman Capote, who wrote the story, with the even more ridiculous character name “Holly Golightly”! — Leigh’s dark reputation (his most recent film, also with Sally Hawkins as his star, was Vera Drake, which cast Imelda Staunton as an illegal abortionist in 1950’s Britain and Hawkins as a woman in need of an abortion) sometimes make this film seem as if Ingmar Bergman decided to try directing It’s a Wonderful Life.

There are a few points of confusion in this story that may be the inevitable result of Leigh’s working method — like are Poppy and Zoë Lesbian lovers (they’re shown sleeping in the same bed and doing physical horseplay, but they also both cruise men) — but overall the big problem with Happy-Go-Lucky is it’s too, well, happy-go-lucky. In one scene, Poppy is walking at night when she confronts an obviously crazy homeless person (Stanley Townsend) who’s as fearsome as life, the elements or Leigh’s makeup department could make him: sunburned red skin, tousled hair, grizzled beard, clothes so dirty one thinks they could stand up by themselves. After some convoluted attempts at conversation in which this gentleman spits out incoherent ravings that will be all too familiar to anyone who’s tried to talk to one of his real-life counterparts, he turns away to pee — and does Poppy do what any normal person would do in this situation, namely turn away from him and leave? No-o-o-o-o, she sticks around and tries to talk to him again after he’s finished.

In any realistic context, someone as guileless and insufferably cheery as Poppy wouldn’t last five minutes on the streets of a major city. She’d be beaten, robbed, raped or killed without so much as a thank-you, ma’am. Maybe my writing that means I’m too cynical for Mike Leigh’s delightful fantasy of a life lived not only “in the now” but in the should-be — or maybe Leigh hasn’t convinced me that a person like Poppy could even exist, much less manage to maintain her sunnyside-up outlook on life through everything she goes through in his film.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Elections Expert Sal Magallanez Speaks at Activist-San Diego

Warns About How Easy It Is to Rig a Computer-Counted Election


Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

While the Right-wing media fuss about the voter-registration campaign of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) and the forged registrations paid ACORN street employees allegedly turned in for Mickey Mouse and various football stars, progressives remain concerned about the real threat to election integrity: the use of computer voting systems running proprietary software and the ease with which they can be “hacked” to alter the outcome of an election. Activist San Diego featured this issue at their regular monthly meeting Monday, October 13 at the Joyce Beers Community Center in Hillcrest, presenting the film Hacking Democracy — a 2006 HBO documentary featuring Bev Harris and her fellow activists in the Black Box Voting group — and live speaker Sal Magallanez, a local election consultant for the Democratic Party.

Magallanez has quite a résumé on elections-related issues, having worked with or consulted for national organizations like Save Our Vote, Verified Voting Foundation and Help America Audit. He also joked that he spent 2 1/2 years in Berlin with the Royal Air Force and the Luftwaffe — “I call those my spy years,” he said — but his current affiliation is with the Election Integrity Institute, a local group that monitors San Diego elections and meets once a month with San Diego County Registrar of Voters Deborah Seiler. After a movie particularly exposing the flaws of Diebold Elections Systems hardware and software, Magallanez opened his presentation with an exposé of the connections Seiler and her chief deputy, Michael Vu, have with Diebold and the so-called “successor company” they spun off their elections division to in 2007, Premier Election Solutions.

“Deborah Seiler, our registrar of voters, was previously the salesperson who sold these machines on behalf of Diebold,” Magallanez explained. “Michael Vu, who was the registrar in Cuyahoga County, Ohio in 2004” — where, many progressives believe and the film Hacking Democracy strongly suggests, John Kerry was done out of the presidency by faulty and misallocated Diebold voting machines — “decided that no votes would be counted at individual precincts.” The reason that’s important, according to Magallanez, is that by eliminating the vote counts at individual precincts, Seiler and Vu deprived the system of an important check on the accuracy of the final count from the Registrar of Voters’ central computer.

Instead, he said, “you voted, and the only thing they reconciled at the precinct level was how many ballots they issued versus how many came back. They brought all the ballots to the Registrar of Voters and ran them on their scanners, recording the votes on memory cards which they took into a computer room where we are not allowed to enter. Then they announced what the votes were by precincts. We demand that the ballots be counted at the precincts first. That doesn’t happen.”

Magallanez listed other abuses in San Diego County under both Seiler and her predecessors, which he’s seen as an official observer for the Democratic Party. In 1996, he said, he saw the computer running GEMS— the proprietary software program at the heart of Diebold’s (now Premier’s) vote tabulation system — crash six times in half an hour. “The person in charge told everyone to take a lunch break while he fixed the computer,” Magallanez recalled. Later they found out that the reason the computer had crashed was that GEMS was simply overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of data coming in at once as the ballots were counted and the results sent from precincts to the GEMS computer.

Last February, he said, an even more serious potential breach of vote security occurred. The boxes containing the actual ballots are supposed to be sealed in at least three prominent places — not to keep anyone from breaking into the ballot boxes but at least to make it obvious if someone has tried. “In February 2008 I saw the ballot boxes coming in unsealed, and there were no signatures on them to tell which people had handled the boxes,” Magallanez explained. “There are 1,650 precincts in San Diego County and during the early returns, in which about 100 precincts came in, 24 boxes came in without signatures, seals or both. There’s no procedure to handle a box without a seal any differently from a box with a seal. We don’t know where the ballots inside those boxes came from.”

Another abuse Magallanez reported is going on in San Diego County is “voter purging” or “caging.” “Caging,” Magallanez explained, is illegal if done by political parties but legal if done by elections officials. It means mailing out cards to the addresses of registered voters, with instructions to send them back either to confirm their registrations or to apply for vote-by-mail ballots. The trick behind it is that the cards are marked “Do Not Forward” — so if any of the cards are returned by the post office for any reason, the registrar assumes that the person no longer lives at that address and therefore can legally be dropped from the voter rolls.

“We’ve already had three rounds of voter purging,” Magallanez said. “They did a purge in September 2007 and another one in February 2008, and in February 2008 there were 15,000 fewer voters for the Democratic Party even though we’d been doing a major registration drive. They deleted 100,000 names before the February primary and another 35,000 before June. Postcards have just gone out, so expect to have another 30,000 people thrown off the rolls before November.”

According to Magallanez, many of the victims of caging and purging are college students, whose votes the Democrats are trying to protect. “The Registrar of Voters is setting it up so students who live in dorms have to re-register if they’re in a different dorm room this semester from last,” he explained. Another problem with student voters is that many are still registered in their parents’ home cities or counties rather than in San Diego. Magellanes’ recommendation to them is to get a vote-by-mail ballot from their home city or county, and to make sure they mail it before October 30 to ensure that it gets back by election day — as it must in order for it to count.

Magallanez criticized the San Diego County Registrar of Voters for encouraging students to vote on campus with so-called “provisional ballots.” Provisional ballots, a creation of the “Help America Vote Act” passed early in the Bush II administration after the fiasco of Florida, 2000, are given to people whose registrations are in question on the day of the election. People can vote these ballots and have them set aside to be counted if they meet the registration requirements after all — but Magellanez warned that 13 percent of all provisional ballots will never be counted. In Ohio in 2004, he explained, “180,000 provisional ballots were not counted. They said it didn’t matter whether they counted them or not because John Kerry still wouldn’t have won the state.”

The San Diego County Registrar of Voters is making some minor improvements in security for this November’s election, Magellanez said. “We’ve been told the poll workers will not be able to take the voting machines home overnight the day before the election,” he explained. “They’re locked in a security cabinet, but the ‘lock’ is just a piece of plastic. They’re putting chemical seals at all the most sensitive points that will void the machines if they are touched.” But Magellanez remains suspicious of the overall accuracy and reliability of the machines, as well as whether or not they’re part of a network.

The last point is important because registrars and other elections officials who use computerized systems say they can’t be hacked into because they’re not connected to the Internet. But, Magellanez said, “I asked all the elections officials what each cable at the end of the machine is connected to, and they wouldn’t explain where one cable — a USB cable — went.” What’s more, he added, “in 2004 we found in the logs of the GEMS computer the name ‘Everett’ and a phone number. Everett, Washington is the location of the headquarters of Microsoft. We said, ‘You guys said this wasn’t on a network, and this looks like a modem calling Microsoft.’ Deborah Seiler said, ‘That’s just the phone number of a guy named Everett who works in this office.’”

Another security issue Magellanez has raised with San Diego County’s elections office is the location of the “spoiled” check on the absentee ballot. Right now there’s a check box on the outside of the envelope that you can mark if you spoiled your ballot and want another one so you can fill it out correctly so you can still vote. Magellanez wants that box on the inside so that elections officials can’t just check the “spoiled” box themselves and have an excuse not to count ballots from a part of the county not likely to be for their favored candidates.

Former San Diego City Councilmember Floyd Morrow attended the meeting and said he’d lost a close election because the Registrar of Voters certified the result — i.e., declared it official — before the recount was finished. “That shifted the burden of proof on me to prove they were wroing, which would have been a $50,000-$80,000 lawsuit,” he said. “So I abandoned it, and then they sued me for the $28,000 they spent on the recount.” He won the suit but didn’t win the election, even though the recount showed that he should have. Morrow, who ran for Mayor of San Diego in the primary earlier this year, said that in that election “the Registrar of Voters sat on the same numbers most of the evening” and announced the winners in the city election when only one-third of the precincts in San Diego’s city limits had been counted.

Magellanez said that things like that happen because “the Registrar of Voters says their job is to please the media. The law says they have to certify the election within 28 days, but they say they need to certify the result the very next day for the convenience of the media. It’s our vote, not the media’s, and it’s our rights they should be protecting.” He closed by saying his presentation “was not designed to discourage people or make them feel demoralized,” and suggested that voters concerned about their registration status order ballots by mail, fill them out before the October 20 registration deadline and turn them in personally to the Registrar of Voters’ office, “so if there’s a problem with your registration, you find out about it before you can’t re-register.”