Ray Duckler: The biggest political issue of our times, and few care

Last modified: 2/7/2016 12:51:52 AM
The voter waiting in line to hear Hillary Clinton held the pamphlet crumpled in her hand, unread, destined for the trash.

I asked the woman, Melissa Umpierrez of Manchester, for comment on the material given to her by Arnie Alpert outside the middle school, in a cold rain, moments before.

Somewhat embarrassed, Umpierrez began to pull apart the pamphlet’s edges, revealing a discarded apple core inside and information about the corrupting influence of money in politics.

She hadn’t read it, nor did she plan to.

“If it’s something they would like me to think about, they should tell us about it,” Umpierrez explained. “I grabbed it so they’d just leave me alone.”

I told Umpierrez what Alpert hopes to see one day, a political system geared toward helping individuals, separate from the profit motives of corporate America.

“If he took the time to tell me that,” Umpierrez said, “I would have been more interested.”

Such is the life and plight of Alpert, a slight man with huge ideas who’s dedicated his life to fighting for social justice, but who often looks like nothing more than a man standing in the rain holding a giant banner.

He’s co-director of New Hampshire’s American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), and he’s spending this week traveling to political events leading up to Tuesday’s first-in-the-nation primary.

Joined in a motor home by staffers and volunteers, some with long hair and scraggly beards, the group had the look and feel of a counterculture movement from the 1960s, spreading a message, trying to open eyes, hoping to shake up a system that most people know is broken but do little to fix.

“It gives meaning to life, doing this,” Alpert told me as the motor home chugged along 93.

These are not mischief makers, though. There was no drug use inside the motor home, no radical thoughts about shaking up an event with noise and violence.

Instead, Alpert and his crew attend political rallies and forums – I rode with them this week – and hand out their literature, looking to educate voters so they can hit the candidates with hard, tough questions about conflicts of interest.

They want you to know that weapons manufacturers and big donors spend millions on lobbyists and election campaigns to influence public policy, essentially selling their votes.

They want you to know that Pentagon contractors hire retired generals and members of Congress for highly paid lobbyist jobs to land multi-million and billion dollar contracts with their old pals in the government.

They want you to know that the Homeland Security budget includes a provision that mandates the detention of 34,000 immigrants daily, and many of these people are held in for-profit prisons represented by lobbyists who push for stricter laws that are good for “business.”

They want you to know that the Obama administration has agreed to spend trillions of dollars on a new generation of nuclear weapons.

In short, they want you to know what you probably already know, or at least know something about, but instead have been swept up in the celebrity of the candidates, the TV cameras and national press, the spin, the blind faith, Trump’s hair, whatever.

And don’t think this a Bernie Sanders-influenced movement, one that surfaced recently since the Vermont senator began fighting for campaign finance reform and against the conflict-of-interest evils now ingrained in our system.

No. This is Alpert’s life, period. He’s been part of this organization for 35 years. His father was a commercial lawyer, and he says his parents, both deceased, “must have encouraged me to think for myself.”

Rebels with a cause

Alpert has been arrested several times, in Seabrook while protesting against nuclear power, in New York City for protesting against investors sinking money into nuclear weapons manufacturing, even at the Mall of New Hampshire while protesting against products made in overseas sweatshops and sold here, in Manchester.

He and others, including volunteers, have been tossed from events, both Democratic and Republican, for simply handing out literature. They pride themselves on remaining civil.

They want you to vote, but they’re not telling you whom to vote for. They’re telling you to learn the system, its flaws, how it works, shake it up.

“Our focus is on this project,” Alpert said. “It’s educational and it’s not all about who to vote for. We are careful. We encourage people to vote, and it’s about these issues and not about publishing voter scorecards.”

Alpert’s partner in crime, his state co-director, is Maggie Fogarty of Dover; the group’s Southeast New England Director is Martha Yager of Seakonk, Mass.

They are gentle, patient and passionate.

“It’s better than just sitting around and getting mad,” Yager told me.

Others in the group included volunteer Art Desmarais of Northwood, a retired construction worker who donated and drove his 2004 motor home to each event, always mindful that the Secret Service had this huge vehicle on its radar, pressuring him to park in areas far from campaign sites.

Desmarais, like his colleagues, spoke softly and cut an unimposing figure. He once served in the Army Reserve and now works for Veterans for Peace.

“I wasn’t the soldier I thought I was,” Desmarais said.

Eric Zulaski, a former Buddhist monk who’s done humanitarian work in Nicaragua and Mongolia, joined us, too. Sporting a thick red beard and no-nonsense attitude, Zulaski was the obvious field general, a commanding presence who led the motor home meetings so everyone felt involved and prepared.

He even rigged up a makeshift gizmo, with a flashlight on each end that could be hooked onto and illuminate the banners that would be unveiled at each stop.

On the road again

We met at a diner near the Manchester airport and discovered that two key group members were stuck in Washington, D.C., on their way here from Iowa, and we’d have to move on without them.

We hopped in the motor home, with its microwave and stove and couch and booth. The green pamphlets, one of which would later be stuffed with an apple core, were spread on a table, along with other literature, all explaining why money in politics was an unhealthy way to build a government.

We stopped at the Village Trestle Food and Drink in Goffstown for a Ted Cruz event. Alpert and his crew held huge green banners attached to long poles, with sayings like “Power People Over Corporate Power,” and “Governing Under The Influence,” and “We Pay For The Revolving Door Between Government and Corporations.”

Cruz, fresh off a third-place finish at the Iowa caucuses, had momentum, and a crowd gathered outside in the cold rain as Cruz’s bus pulled up outside the restaurant.

“Cruzin’ To Victory” was written in big red letters on the side of the bus, against a shiny black background. Former House Speaker Bill O’Brien and former senator Bob Smith exited the bus and hurried through the rain toward the restaurant door.

Alpert greeted Smith before he could get too far, handing him some material and telling him it contained information on the trillions of dollars earmarked for nuclear arsenal expansion.

Smith glanced at the pamphlet looking confused amid the crowd and disappeared inside with O’Brien.

By then, we’d met another AFSC volunteer, a pony-tailed man named Jack Straw, which also happens to be the name of a popular Grateful Dead song. Straw claimed he was a Dead insider, close friends with one of their guitarists, Bob Weir.

Forty-five minutes later, with the sound of rain tapping the top of the bus and awnings at nearby businesses, Cruz and a TV crew left the bus.

Through a picture window on Main Street, Cruz’s face grew smaller and smaller as the crowd encircled him and microphones were thrust forward.

Outside, Alpert was interviewed by an independent film crew out of Boston and a reporter from the New York Times. This was something he’d hoped for, a vital piece to his public relations puzzle.

Answers, questions

Sure, Alpert brings solutions to the issues that lie close to his heart. He’d like a constitutional amendment to change the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which allows unlimited, anonymous campaign contributions into the political landscape.

He’d also like to scrap the quota system that requires the lock up of immigrants, and he’d scrap the privatization of the prison system.

But, Alpert said, he wants to draw attention to the open corruption, first and foremost.

“If we’re able to drive the discussion,” Alpert said, “in a way that helps get politicians and other voters and citizens to say, ‘Yes, these are problems that need to be solved,’ that is a big step toward solving them. We don’t have a menu or detailed policy brief that say how to solve these problems.”

One of the group’s methods is called bird dogging. Seminars are held to educate voters on the core issues connected to money in politics. From there, participants fan across the state, to town halls and open forums, and ask candidates tough questions, steeped in knowledge, deliberately putting them on the spot.

Those questions were written on the backs of the pamphlets the group handed out, allowing voters to bird dog without the formality of a structured workshop.

“What specific steps will you take to make sure the military-industrial complex doesn’t unduly influence our nation’s national security policies?”

If the question is dodged, at least the audience and press heard it. Sometimes, Alpert said, candidates research what they’ve been asked and later add it to their platforms.

That, Alpert said, is what happened when Clinton was quizzed about the mandatory incarceration of immigrants.

“Six months later she gives her first major speech to a Latino group and one of the things in her speech is how outraged she is about the immigration detention quota,” Alpert said. “Then Bernie (Sanders) says he’ll do one better and he introduces legislation in the U.S. Senate.”

“The questions might get dodged, but then they might be posted by groups on Facebook,” added Yager. “Then at least they could get some traction later on.”

At the Henry McLaughlin Middle School in Manchester, convincing voters on their way inside to read what Alpert and his crew were handing out was a chore, to say the least.

It was raining and cold, and few people, with their heads covered by hoods and coats, their glasses dripping, were in the mood to stop and listen.

And who really wants to greet a stranger, anyway, at an event in which it seems everyone has an agenda?

Before Clinton’s appearance, a line stretched down a hallway, bent right, then left. That’s where I met Umpierrez, the woman with the apple.

Kristie Henderson of Nashua stood nearby. She hadn’t looked at her pamphlet, either.

“I put it in my pocket,” Henderson said. “Maybe it’s not a priority for me to read it right now, but when you tell me what it’s about, yes, money in politics is ridiculous. There are enough problems without having the influence of money in politics.”

And Patricia Parker of Candia added, “I do think it’s an important issue, to raise the awareness. We should be talking about this.”

The motor home left at 6:15 p.m. for the Derry Opera House, our last stop, where Clinton would join Bernie Sanders later for an open forum. Alpert set up cold cuts, grapes, chips and water bottles to his hungry and tired crew.

Zulaski went over the duty roster, already planning for the next day, looking at paperwork by the light of his cell phone. Who’s available to work? What events need to be covered? Who’s bird dogging?

At the Derry Opera House, the feeling outside changed. Clinton and Sanders would be at the same event, bringing supporters of both Democratic candidates together in one final frenzied gathering before the final debate.

With increased Secret Service and police presence, blue lights bounced off downtown buildings as CNN and Fox commentators spoke to cameras, adding to the energy we’ve already felt for months.

The rain stopped and the temperature rose sharply. The wind began pushing people up and down the street, snapping AFSC banners like American flags at windy ballparks and inverting umbrellas like a cruel joke.

We boarded the bus at 7:30 that night, the road trip over until the next morning, with a lot more work to do before Tuesday’s primary.

And afterward, too.

“We’re frustrated that things don’t go further and pleased with the progress we’ve made,” Alpert said. “This is an organization with a long view. That’s the way it works.

“Look how long it took to abolish slavery.”

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304 or rduckler@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @rayduckler.)

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