As I mentioned last week, my friend and co-worker Pakou Hang lost her bid to unseat an incumbent on the City Council. I had a chance to talk to her yesterday about the election and she is pretty devastated. But the disappointment is not so much in the fact that she lost, but how it happened. Pakou managed her campaign the old fashioned way - true grassroots organizing. For an election that only produced about 5,000 votes total, she had over 400 volunteers on the ground working to get out the word and the vote. This was extremely encouraging in that just a few weeks before the election, no one had seen or heard much from her opponent, the incumbent.
But just a week before the election, things began to look a little more dark. You see, her opponent had two significant groups in his camp: the city's police federation and the local Chamber of Commerce. We're talking money and muscle. The first sign of what these folks had planned was a radio ad that broke just days before the election saying the police federation backed her opponent because he was the candidate who was "tough on crime." We'll never know who paid for the ad, but I think its pretty clear that the only folks who can afford that kind of media is the Chamber. While our community has its problems with crime and it is the top concern of most voters in local elections, overall this is a pretty safe city, as urban centers in the US go these days. The tone of the ad was definitely designed to "gin up the fear" about this issue though.
But the most disturbing turn of events happened on election day. Pakou reports that several precincts in her ward were circled by police cars all throughout the day with some officers challenging voters and election judges. This is even more significant than it might have been in other areas because, as you can see, Pakou is Hmong and was mobilizing the very large Hmong community in her ward. They are even more intimidated by a police presence than other communities because of the ways they were traumatized in Laos prior to immigrating to the US.
We'll never know if these activities were the reason Pakou lost the election, but its clear that while she was organizing the grassroots, her opponent had other tactics in mind for winning the election.
As I talked to Pakou yesterday about all of this, it came to me that this could be the lesson she and other progressives need to learn. I think its natural for people to project their own values and beliefs onto their opponents in political races. We see this all the time with the rabid right accusing the left of all of the things they are actually doing.
I also think that progressives, who believe in grassroots politics, tend to assume that their opponents do as well. We can be naive in too often believing the best about the opposition and don't prepare for the low blows they are capable of using.
I think its time we learned our lesson and wise-up a bit. That doesn't mean we need to join the opposition in the gutter. We just need to loose the naivete that tends to hold onto believing the best about people and prepare as best we can for the low blows.
During this Bush administration, we've seen that no matter how much we try to comprehend the depths to which they are willing to go, they continue to surprise us with their capacity for evil. That's why I embrace alot of what passes for "tin foil hat" theories. We've never been wrong when we've thought the worst. I think our errors are usually in the other direction.