<\body> Stories in America: June 2005

Thursday, June 30, 2005

Reviving Mississippi's Democrats

Thirty-one-year-old Keelan Sanders has been a member of Mississippi's Democratic Party for six years. Last year, Sanders, a Mississippi native, became the party's executive director and only staffer. Earlier this year, Howard Dean promised an overflow crowd in Jackson, Mississippi that he would not concede the South. As part of Dean's 50-State Strategy, he plans to hire staffers in Democratic offices that traditionally run on shoestring budgets with few employees. Sanders has already welcomed one new staffer and is waiting for two more to join his team. I recently spoke with Sanders in his office at the Democratic headquarters in Jackson, Mississippi.

What are some of the major changes you've seen over the years since you first became involved in politics?

We've made many changes with new elected officials for the first time in different places across the state. People of color are taking a more active role. We're seeing the Democratic party as a whole come together and begin working along party lines as opposed to racial lines. There are a lot of positive things taking place in the state.

What was the biggest challenge for you during the Presidential election?

The largest challenge was trying to get the Democratic message out and overcome the smokescreens that the Republicans put up to divert us from what actually matters. It's clear to this day that they were able to accomplish that and take the eye off the prize. The Republicans have used many different ploys in the past, but this past one was the top of all ploys to use to try to sway the people not to vote their conscience, but to vote for certain issues that were irrelevant.

Like what?

Here in the state of Mississippi, gay marriage was clearly defined, but we still had an amendment on the ballot. It wouldn't have been recognized here in the state. It shouldn't have played a role in whom I wanted to vote for in office. Because of my faith in god, I know that he will take care of anything that needs to be corrected. Therefore, I don't need the lawmakers to enact a law just to say that we have to act a certain way.

Whenever I meet religious blacks, they say they're opposed to gay marriage and abortion, but those issues have no impact on the way they vote.

I feel that the government should not dictate to a woman what she can and cannot do with her body. That's a choice that she and god can make. Whatever the consequences are, that's what she has to live with and the government should not try to implement their views on what she can and cannot do. As for the marriage amendment, I feel that we shouldn't use it as a rallying cry to get people to come out to vote or not to vote. It's clear that there are a number of Christians in the party that feel the same way, but it shouldn't be a political issue because that's the privacy of a person in their own home. What they choose to do behind the doors of their houses is their business.

How do you get that into the dialogue? When I interview white Christians, abortion and gay marriage are the first two issues they raise. And many times, they say they voted for Bush because of his opposition to those two issues.

That was part of the smokescreens they put up. They talk about the moral values. Well, is it not morally correct to make sure that the children have the best affordable education and the best healthcare? The Republicans have been neglecting our children. Those are two issues they're using to drive a wedge between American voters.

The media is also focused on those issues. How do you change the dialogue and focus more on education and healthcare?

Unfortunately in the past, we've let the Republican party and the news media define the Democratic party and what it stands for. We're getting to a point now where we can redefine the party so to speak or define what the party stands for. Unfortunately, Mississippi has fallen way below other states with meeting our expected educational goals. We have a president who says No Child Left Behind is helping people, when in fact it's doing quite the opposite. It's leaving children behind. How can you impose guidelines children have to meet if they don't have the necessary resources needed to reach them? We have a serious shortfall of money coming in from the federal level. Our current governor isn't trying to fully fund education on the state level. The children are suffering from that. There's a lot of work we need to do. I feel that we're making some strides. Within the next year or two, you'll see some major strides taking place.

How have your strategies changed over the years? And how do you feel about the fact that Mississippi is ignored during national elections?

The strategy has not really changed. It's just that what's been said all along is finally hitting home. We need to fight in each and every precinct in each and every state as opposed to just writing off a state. I've said for many years, if you look at the number of elected officials in the state, Mississippi, per capita, has one of the highest rates of Democratic elected officials in the state in the union.

What message would you send to Democrats in progressive areas? Do you feel like you're part of the conversation about where to go from here?

The message is already there. We support a good and strong public educational system. If you have parents or grandparents that are elderly, you'll want good healthcare. Our veterans are suffering. They're not receiving the healthcare they need. What type of message is that sending? The message is there. It's clear. It's just a matter of people realizing that the Republicans mean you no good. It's the Democrats that are going to bring us back to where we need to be.

How do you feel now that Howard Dean has said he's going to bring some staffers to Mississippi? He spoke in Mississippi and is talking about Mississippi at the national level.

I feel very good about that. Governor Dean's commitment to the state is really coming true. We're in the process of hiring some staff now. Because of his commitment, we'll be able to increase our staff by 300 percent, so to speak. (laughs) It is definitely helping the state party with much needed resources so we can begin organizing and getting the message out.

Are you the only staffer here?


How do you feel about the new hires?

I'm delighted. (laughs)

What are you able to do on your own?

It depends on what needs to be done. Let's just say that anything that needs to be done happens. I have singlehandedly conducted the state party elections so to speak with the Democratic primary. We have 82 counties in the state and I take care of all of them. I maintain the database. I maintain our Web site. I help to promote and maintain our yellow dog Democrats who are the backbone of the party and the main donors of the party. I've been described at one point as being the Superman of the Democratic Party for Mississippi. (laughs)

Mississippi's only abortion provider often makes headlines. How do you deal with the strong anti-choice community here? Do you have time to even deal with it?

Honestly, you're pitting one group against the other and everybody has strong views. The Republicans and pro-lifers want to have all the rights for the fetus when it's in the womb, but when it comes out, there's nothing in place to make sure the child will grow up and have a productive life. It's a double standard. They can't say you have to have the child and not deal with the issues once it's here. Those issues aren't being addressed by the Republican party. They do not care about the child. If they do, they don't show it. We feel that women should have the right to choose. The government should not dictate what a woman should do with her body. I'm a Christian. I don't know if you're a Christian, but I can't put my beliefs on you and force you to adapt to the way I feel.

Is a woman's right to choose on the state party's platform?


When was it added?

Last year. Every four years we hold our state convention where we adopt a platform. That was included within our state platform.

Who took the lead in adding it?

A motion was made on the state floor from a delegate. We had a cross-group of people: white, black, Native American and religious who all played a role in shaping that platform.

Was there a lot of debate about adding a woman's right to choose to the platform?

There was a lot of debate on every issue. (laughs)

What do you think is going to happen with a woman's right to choose in Mississippi? The group Pro-Life Mississippi says, we don't need Roe v. Wade to be overturned because we're going to outlaw abortion in this state.

I don't think that will happen. I don't see any potential legislation that will address that issue. Who knows what will happen in the near future, but we have a lot more important things to deal with.

What message would you send to the national Democrats as they try to figure out strategies for 2006 and 2008? How do you get Democrats to get excited about being Democrats?

Howard Dean has stood up and defined the party. He's not letting the Republicans define it for him, so he's on the right track. There's nothing I can do but just be a cheerleader and say, go Dean, go! (laughs)

You said earlier that church is a big part of your life. Do you think politics belongs in the church?

There's always a belief that there should be a separation between church and state. As an individual, because of my belief in god and my belief in faith, there can't be a separation between me and god. He will rule and guide me in all my decisions. That said, I don't feel that people should use religion as a means to convert a person. It can be used to pollute a person's mind. The Ku Klux Klan have used the Bible to justify racism. People will use certain issues to get their point across, be it right or wrong.

Have you seen anything that surprised you when it comes to mixing politics with religion?

The strangest thing that caught me off guard was prior to the Presidential election, I was sitting in my church and my pastor said he wanted to play a CD for the congregation. The CD that he played was riddled with undertones of voting Republican, although it didn't come out and say it. It was quite obvious to my grandmother who was sitting beside me in church. We were really surprised and shocked. My pastor happened to be my uncle. (laughs) He's been around politics all of his life as well. It did surprise me to see the levels they would go to sway a person's mind. It's not in the best interest of the people to use certain issues just to get them to vote for their candidate.

Did that tape resonate with people in the church?

I didn't talk to individuals about it because I don't play politics at church.

How should Democrats address religion? A lot of progressives are uncomfortable with religion.

I have a good friend that's a strong Democratic activist who happens to be a minister. In our last primary, a number of ministers came out and endorsed one of the Democratic candidates, so yes, religions does play a role, but they do understand what role it should play. Jesus Christ went around healing people, helping people and saving people. That's what Democrats do. The Republicans have yet to show that they care for the people. Their whole agenda has been about money.

Tell me about the churches here. I've found some that do a lot of outreach to poor communities and others that spend a lot of money on new buildings.

Yes. We have quite a few churches that are very active politically and assist with voter registration drives. At times they will invite candidates in to address the congregation. Those are the ones that want to make sure voices are heard without sending a political message that says, go out and vote because you hate the other person. They're preaching to love and get out there and make it better for the people.

What are your plans over the next couple of years and what are your hopes for this state? Do you think it'll ever turn Democratic again?

Yes. Jimmy Carter was the last Democratic candidate to carry this state. I feel Mississippi will go blue in a surprising fashion. We will also elect two new Democratic Congressmen to replace the Republican Congressmen. It can be done.

Who Supports the Troops? - Part I

We decided to spend the day in Jackson to do a few more interviews and work on a story about the government's failure to support the troops and provide them with adequate medical care. Back in February, I wrote an article about the lack of government funded programs in place to deal with problems facing the troops, including healthcare, posttraumatic stress syndrome, housing and employment. At the time, Linda Boone, executive director of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, told me: "The message our government is basically sending our troops is, 'Once you take off that uniform you're on your own.' To say the Department of Defense isn't doing an adequate job of preparing the military for civilian life would be an understatement."

That was almost five months ago. Unfortunately, nothing has changed. Last week, the Department of Veterans Affairs admitted it is short $1 billion for the current fiscal year, which ends September 30. The Washington Post ran an extensive article on the issue last Friday, but placed a key sentence near the end of the article: "Leaders of the American Legion, the Paralyzed Veterans and the Disabled American Veterans all noted a striking partisan division in Congress on veterans issues, with Democrats giving them much more support than Republicans."

When we were in Dallas, we stopped by the Paralyzed Veterans of America center and sat down with legislative director Jack Richardson. Jack is in a wheelchair and often drives to Washington DC to lobby Congress to increase funding for healthcare. Here is part one of that interview:

What services do you provide here?

We take vets out of the hospital and to the movies or out to eat. I often take one breakfast up. Biscuits and gravy. They don't like the hospital food here. We do anything they want us to do. We go to the store.

How many people do you serve?

We have a 30-bed unit here.

Have these patients been here for long periods of time?

We have people like Stone here who just got back. He was here for a few months and he was cured of an ulcer. He was home for three weeks and he's back because his ulcer opened up again. They come and go. We had Brian who served in the army in Iraq. He was blown up in a humvee. It shattered his legs. We had him in here for several months for therapy. I told him not to sign a deal to get out of the army. I said, stay in and don't make them kick you out. He'd been in the army for nine years. He was a sergeant. He had a wife and three kids. So he kept going with his therapy here. Last time I saw him, he came down from Oklahoma where he was training artillery. He said he running three miles a day and getting ready to be shipped to Germany. He's gonna stay in the service. We had a young lady that was in the navy come in with a broken neck. She left after about five months on a cane and went back to the navy. But then we got someone like Tyler here who got shot in the spinal cord and the only thing that's gonna save him is stem sell research. He doesn't look too good.

What is the process involved when someone is badly injured in Baghdad?

They get processed. Then from Baghdad, they usually go to Germany and get transferred to another aircraft. Then they go to Walter Reed. From there, they are processed out to all 50 states in different hospitals and bases. When I was up in Washington, I asked Congressman Chet Edwards how many wounded they had so far because the count I got the year before was over 15,000 wounded and maimed. He said it was into the 40 thousands. Now this is accidents, trucks, everything. That includes mortars and roadside bombs. We were talking about VA hospitals and one congressman got up and said, it makes no sense to have a VA hospital on one side of the street and a regular hospital on the other side of the street. I challenged him. For one thing, the hospital across the street is a profit center. The VA hospital is a cost center. You want to send your veterans to a profit center. The hospital across the street can't buy its materials, equipment and supplies from Canada or Mexico, but the VA's equipment and material comes from Mexico.

Who makes those decisions?

I have no idea, but it says, "Made in Mexico" on the materials that I get. He shut up. When we finished, he was gonna get back to me with some answers to questions I had. Over the next five days, I saw him three more times in the halls of Congress and he turned and ran every time he saw me. I never got an answer to anything. I just got the back of his shirt going down the hallway. (laughs)

How does the funding process work? We always hear about VA budgets and government grants. It's a little confusing.

It's very confusing. What they're talking about doing now is taking the VA healthcare funding away from the Department of Defense and putting it under another department, which has less money available. Right now, in the Department of Defense, there's always a place where in an emergency, they can generate more revenue. But if they move it, there would be no money for an influx of veterans. Medical care for this year was cut to $27.7 billion for all the veterans. Fiscal year 2006, Bush sent over a budget making it $27.8 billion. The independent budget for 2006 requires $31.2 billion just to maintain the status quo, which means they're not gonna get it. They're gonna have to close down hospitals. The budget includes a $250 enrollment from the veterans who are the poorest of the poor. Now they want to get them to pay $250 just to be in the program. It also calls for an increase in prescription drug co-pay from $7 to $15. When I came in here in '95, the co-pay was nothing because I was a veteran. Congress has soundly rejected these proposals in the past. These proposals are intended to discourage veterans from enrolling in the health care system. In fact, the VA estimates these fees could result in more than 213,000 disenrolling. In 1996 and 1997, Clinton wanted all the veterans that served this country to have access to adequate healthcare. He felt they deserved it. Bush's program is to eliminate it. Each year, they've taken stuff out. They've eliminated programs that have been there since 1944. Category A was put in there so all veterans could have access to the VA healthcare system. Effective January 17, 2003, the VA no longer enrolls new veterans. Out of 25 million veterans in 1996, they went from 1.7 to 9 million after they ok'd the enrollment. Sixteen to seventeen million vets are no longer able to enroll unless they have a service connected disability. My friend Don Nelson from Walnut Creek, California, could not get healthcare because he went in and applied after January 17, 2003. He used up all his insurance from his teaching career at Stanford. So he went home and they saw what it was gonna take for him to survive and it was gonna eat up all the savings they worked for 40-something years. He stopped eating and starved himself to death.

What kind of injuries did he have?

He had a brain tumor and was left paralyzed on one side. He needed therapy. I told his wife to try to get him in the system and they told her no. She had been taking care of him for about five years and it was destroying her health and his. So that's what he did to keep from bankrupting the family, which I thought was a pretty damn brave thing to do. This country turned its back on him. It don't make sense to me. He's not the only one. We get 'em coming in here everyday. They try to get into the healthcare system and they're turned away at the gate because that January 17, 2003 provision locked them out.

When was the 2003 rule implemented?

In 2002.

What was the reasoning behind it?

You'll have to ask Mr. Rumsfeld and Mr. Bush about that.

Did it get a lot of media attention?

No, not at all. None of this stuff gets media attention. Remember he said he was gonna give all the troops free medical care? Read this and tell me how much free medical care that is. How many GIs will read that? They'll listen to Bush. Ninety-nine percent of the stuff on TV is all bullshit. He's hollering about medicare. OK, so what do they do? They double the medicare bill. I get social security. I get $1600 a month. They raise my premiums for medicare from $38 to $78. Very quietly, under the cover, I get a bill. My property tax was raised seven times in the last four years. You don't hear about that. They're gonna tax you out of your possessions and into total poverty so that the billionaires can have a $174 billion tax break. All this money and all this crunching of the numbers can be totally eliminated by eliminating that tax credit to the wealthiest billionaires.

When I interview Republicans about budgets and healthcare, they always bring up the importance of personal responsibility.

Personal responsibility. OK. You went out and bought $200,000 worth of stocks and get ready to retire. It's worth $10. Then what do you do? Talk to Enron. A guy who has been at Enron for 30 years was on TV and said, yesterday I had $3.2 million. Today I got $9,000. I'm too old to get another job. He's 60 years old. If he didn't have social security to go with his $9,000, he'd have nothing. I lost over $100,000 in the stock market. I have 401Ks, I have IRAs. Everyone can have those. That's personal responsibility, right? I've been paying social security since I was 10 years old. To me, that's another nest egg.

What's interesting to me is that the government doesn't pretend to help the homeless; it doesn't pretend to help the poor. But it does say that it helps the troops.

It doesn't. Tell me how? Why are 1,000 who came back from Iraq heading for Canada? You hear about that on the Canadian news, but you don't hear about it here. Sixty percent of those are officers. Republicans control the media. You think that Dan Rather and all those guys just decided to all of a sudden walk out the door? Do you think the general in the war quit in the middle of the damn thing because he felt that he was doing the right thing? Adios, I'm outta here. Twenty-six admirals and generals left. For a while, all you saw on TV were three-star admirals. That's all they had because the rest of them quit. They got out from under this regime because it is a bad regime. I don't know of any one group that has done as much damage to a country in a shorter period of time as this bunch has done here in the United States. Republicans say, you don't like it, tough. The head of the Republican party in charge of the committee that works with the VA said, that's just the way it is. Too bad.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Let Freedom Ring

Just when we get to know a city and become friendly with the locals, it's time to leave. We're off to the Mississippi Delta for a week or so. We stayed in Jackson longer than expected because yet again, we found a diverse group of people and organizations to interview. Over the past week, I met with:

*Members of the Young Republicans and Young Democrats of Mississippi
*Hinds County Sheriff Malcolm McMillin
*Young inmates at the Raymond Jail in Raymond, Mississippi
*The Mississippi Democratic Party
*The Mississippi Republican Party
*A doctor who works at the only abortion provider in the state
*Pro-Life Mississippi

We've also been spending quite a bit of time attending church, which is an integral part of the community's history and culture. At the more conservative churches, the question is not, "Do you go to church?" The question is, "What church do you go to?" After telling a woman at a progressive African-American church that not everyone at home goes to church, she jokingly asked, "What do San Franciscans do on Sundays?"

I haven't gone to church regularly for a very long time and am not used to seeing churches on every corner, but after spending two months in the so-called Bible Belt, I've become interested in finding out what draws people to a particular church and comparing and contrasting religion and sermons. Some churches have left me feeling like a hopeless sinner trapped in a dark confession box, while others have left me feeling inspired and hopeful.

This past Sunday, we attended services at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, Anderson United Methodist Church and First Baptist Church (most churches have three services per day). First Baptist, a predominantly white church, had a special evening service called, "Let Freedom Ring," complete with a 30-piece orchestra and 200-person choir. Songs included "America, I Can Still Hear Your Song," "Stars and Stripes," "Salute to the Armed Forces," and "I Believe in America."

The 3,000 seat church was packed with patriotic families wearing red, white and blue. Thomas Hamill, author of "Escape in Iraq: The Thomas Hamill Story" joined Pastor Stan Buckley on stage to talk about his kidnapping ordeal in Iraq. "This isn't about the weapons of mass destruction," he said. "It's about the kids. Hopefully they'll grow up to be free." After thanking President Bush for having the courage to spread freedom, the crowd gave Hamill a standing ovation.

The First Baptist Church itself is larger than most places of worship, but unlike mega-churches, it actually looks and feels like a church rather than a stadium. First Baptist offers something for everyone, including children's ministry, college ministry, women's bible study, activities for singles, international mission trips and day camps. The church employs over 100 people.

Following the "Let Freedom Ring" event, I interviewed Senior Pastor Stan Buckley and a few attendees.

Stan Buckley, 38, First Baptist Senior Pastor

Do you bring politics into regular church services?

We have two former governors, a Supreme Court justice and lots of other state and federal officials in our church. We don't focus on politics. We would never try to endorse a political candidate. That's not our focus; our focus is to proclaim the gospel. We have people of all political persuasions here. As a church, we don't ever try to push any type of political agenda, particularly from the pulpit. I would never do that, but I will speak on social issues certainly.

Like what?

Abortion. Not what I think, but what I believe scripture says about abortion. What does scripture say about racism? Whatever the issue may be, what does scripture have to say about that? If scripture addresses it, we'll say it. Wherever that falls on someone's political platform, who cares? I don't care.

Was this an unusual event tonight? Or do you often talk about the war, the troops and supporting President Bush?

This was our annual July 4th presentation. It's a pretty conservative group obviously here in the south. We don't talk about that every week. Our main issue is not to support President Bush. I think Tommy Hamill who was a guest speaker said something about President Bush. You would never hear anyone from our pulpit say anything about politics or a candidate other than to pray for him which scripture tells us to do. We have a lot of people who are serving in the National Guard in Iraq and Afghanistan, so sure, we want to show support for them. The idea is not that God loves us more than other countries, but we believe we do have certain freedoms and that God was obviously instrumental in the development of this country. We're just trying to teach the word and I don't care whose platform that falls down on. The reality is, what we believe scripture teaches on issues such as abortion would tend to fall in line with the Republican platform, but if it was a Democrat, that'd be fine too.

And many Republicans are pro-choice and many Democrats are not.

Exactly. We believe what the word says and that's what we teach. Period.

How does that influence your politics?

Again, as the pastor of a church, I would never in eight million years, preach from the pulpit. This church, in particular, has a strong history of being non-political. We don't do voter guides and all of that. A lot of churches do, but that's not gonna happen here. Again, we've got governors and Supreme Court folks of all persuasions.

Did you vote for Bush?

Oh certainly.

I've heard a lot of people say they voted for Bush because he's a "good Christian man," but I don't know of any president that wasn't Christian.

Well, he's a little more open about his faith and in the south that's important for a lot of folks because faith is not just something you do on Sundays. It's who we are. Before I was a pastor, I was a lawyer, but I was a believer point blank. That's appealing to a lot of people. He (Bush) talks about his faith and believes that his faith is real and so that's attractive to them.

Did you like Clinton? He often talked about his faith.

Yes he did. In fact he was a Southern Baptist as we are, but what he did on social issues didn't seem to match up with what he professed to believe and that was really bothersome. The whole adulterous and abortion issue was bothersome. Don't claim to be a Southern Baptist and hold to those items of faith, but do something else and say, well it's OK because this is politics.

Some would say the same about Bush considering he's pro-death penalty and pro-war.

I believe scripture addresses that. Scripture, I believe, allows for the death penalty. In fact, in Romans Chapter 13, Paul said it's the government's responsibility to wheel the sword against evildoers. Not for me to do it. Not for you to do it. But that's the role of government. I know you get into all those issues of who usually gets the death penalty based on who they killed and race issues, but scripture allows for it. If Jesus had said no death penalty, guess what I would be? I would be no death penalty.

There are many different interpretations of the Bible. Divorce is a sin according to the Bible. Slavery was justified by using the Bible.

Sure, but just go to scripture. Scripture allows for divorce for two reasons: adultery and if you have an unbelieving spouse. So that's what scripture says so that's what I believe.

What about the war?

If we believe that they are harboring terrorists or doing something that can bring us harm, that's the big debate. Were they really? Everybody agrees on the Afghanistan issue because that's where the Taliban was. This one is a little more difficult. Bush has some problems on this one. There's no question and people who support him will acknowledge that. There were no weapons of mass destruction. Was Hussein a great guy? No. Was he destroying people? Yes. Did Bush know there were no weapons of mass destruction? Well if he didn't, that's highly problematic. Most people around here would probably say we want to support the troops regardless. Because they like him on the social issues, they want to give him the benefit of the doubt on this. Because he's your guy. You want to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Have you heard about the Downing Street Memo?

Sure, sure.

So you're open to considering that Bush didn't tell us the truth about the war?

Certainly. Certainly. I want to be objective about that. Either he did or he didn't. I just haven't been convinced yet. I'm open to being convinced.

As far as the troops goes, the VA just announced a billion dollar shortfall for healthcare and many groups have found that this is a bipartisan issue. Democrats vote to increase benefits and Republicans vote against it.

That's a fiscal issue. They probably see it as more taxes and more money being spent.

Well with a $200 billion military budget, you'd think they could set aside money for decent healthcare.

I agree. I'm saying maybe that's their thinking. Maybe it just hasn't resonated. Have you heard much about this? Are people talking about it?

It's not getting much attention.

I guarantee if you let people know about it, they'll rally for the veterans.

Where do you get your news?

I'm a voracious reader.

Do you have any favorite sources?

I'm a fan of Fox news obviously, but I read our statewide newspaper. I go from USA Today to Fox News to more conservative radio such as American Family Radio.

How many members does this church have?

Between 8,000 and 9,000. They don't all show up obviously every week.

How many does the church seat per service?

About 3,000. This is extraordinary. Back in 1989, they did a $22 million renovation and expanded it tremendously. Across the way, there's a $14 million, 160,000 square-foot Christian Life Center complete with basketball courts, with racquetball, with a three-story climbing wall, workout facilities and 40-something aerobics classes each week. We have a 13-person counseling organization. We have two full-time PhD Christian counselors on staff, plus about 10 or 11 part-timers. They're all certified by the state.

Counseling for individuals?

Drug, alcohol, marital...any subject that you can imagine. Any need you would have, this church would hope to meet it regardless. We do a lot of inner city ministry as well. In the downtown area, we went in and took over an apartment complex that turned into a crack house. The owner turned off the electricity. There was no running water. There were six murders in seven months in this predominantly African-American community. We went in and at first, they wouldn't sell it to us. So we'd pray and pray and pray. He still wouldn't sell. Finally, after intense prayer, he called and said, I won't sell it, I'll just give it to you. On the bottom half, there's now a dental clinic. On the top, they built dorm rooms. We have groups that come from all over the country. About 500 to 1,000 come and do mission projects. We've teamed with Habitat for Humanity. We've redone 60 homes down in that area. In addition to that, on the other side of the apartment complex, we have an after school program with brand new computers. We're not just doing what I call parachute missions, where you show up, give everybody a turkey, feel better about yourself and leave. We've invested about $2 million in there so far. We just finished a brand new multi-purpose building complete with a gymnasium and a full-time kitchen. We have six people who work full-time down there so we're committed to being down there. This church elected to stay downtown and be a downtown church whereas most leave and go out to the suburbs. We have a half a million-dollar budget every year, just for that alone. When we decided to build this $14 million facility over here for our Christian Life Center, the pastor before me had the wisdom to say, if we're going to do that, we're going to dump a million downtown. We go all over the world. We hit every continent. We hit Antarctica this past year on mission trips. We send 400-500 of our own people out. I led a team of 29 down to Trinidad. We took two dentists and dental students and did all kinds of dental work and worship services. We go to Africa, Asia, you name it. We go all over the world doing mission work with people of all political persuasions.

Where does your funding come from?

Our people give. We don't do fundraising. This just happens to be, for whatever reason, an affluent church. But these are people who use what they've been given for kingdom purposes, which is exciting. The offering today was probably $120,000. We teach to give 10 percent of your income. Some give a lot more than that.

$120,000? For one Sunday?

Yes, that's about average.

Because we're so focsed on the war, we rarely address the issue of poverty, which is a huge problem. Do you think it's the church's responsibility to address that problem rather than the government's?

The church has a responsibility and we have neglected that. The church is focused on evangelism and not those social issues of feeding the poor. We've been commanded to look after the poor, but we've dropped the ball. I don't think it has anything to do with the war. This country has enough resources and our churches have enough resources. We're just not doing it.

Glenn Hollman, 40, Frame Houses
(I sat next to Glenn during the event)

What draws you to this church?

This one is a good one because there are a lot of activities to plug into.

But you don't come here weekly? You go to different churches?

I grew up at Oak Forest Baptist Church. Now I'm a member of North Minister Baptist.

What are the major differences between the churches here?

Attitude. Different churches seem to have their ways of thinking and it's their way or the highway.

How does going to church shape your politics?

I think we have freedom of religion and that's the most important thing to me. If I felt like people were telling me how to believe, I would be weary. God loves everyone the same.

Some churches have said, you're not a Catholic if you voted for Kerry or you're not welcome here if you didn't vote for Bush.

Please! Give me a break.

Are you a Democrat or Republican?

Democrat, but I'm for our country and I support our president. We elected him.

Did you vote for him?

(blank stare)

I take that as a no.

I'd vote for a Yellow Dog before I'd vote Republican.

I've noticed that a lot of churches here have very different priorities. Some focus on new buildings, while others focus on outreach.

I agree. We're supposed to help the less fortunate. I'm a member of North Minister and in two weeks, I'm going to Honduras to build homes for people. We got it good here.

Do you go to church every Sunday?

If I don't, I feel like I missed something. I was raised in a Christian family.

Lynn Dongieux, 79, Sings in the Choir at the First Presbyterian Church
(Lynn came to First Baptist for the "Let Freedom Ring" event)

What draws you to the First Presbyterian?

The theology. I have grown very spiritually there. Our ministers all lead us into growing spiritually.

Does the pastor bring politics into the church?

No, just basic moral principles.

Like what?

Like what the Bible stands for. The Ten Commandments and growing spiritually so you can apply these in your everyday life.

Does your religion influence your politics and how you vote?

Yes it does.

In what way?

I believe in God and Jesus Christ his son. I would vote for someone who follows his principles and guidelines and wants to establish our country according to that philosophy. That's what our country was based on. I don't think they teach that in school anymore. People left other countries to come here for freedom of religion. They were persecuted for worshipping Christ and so they came here and that's what established this country. And it grieves us older people to look back and see what's taking place. This country is free and open to everybody. People want to come here because of what we have done and established in this country. Don't try to change it. Either accept it or leave. That's my philosophy.

Do you think people are trying to change that?

Yes, I do.

Can you give me an example?

Listen to the media. They're trying to slant things. They are very negative. They never talk about the good that is taking place in our country. They're letting people know about all the influences that are coming in and they're not trying to reinforce the things that made this country so wonderful.

What makes you a Christian?

That's the spirit of God. It's there for everybody, but you have to be aware of when it is there and you have to accept it.

Does First Presbyterian do any outreach to the community?

Oh yes. We have a tremendous mission and are constantly preparing people for this. We do outreach of all kinds.

At tonight's event, Thomas Hamill talked about the importance of supporting the war and President Bush. Do you feel the same way?

Yes. God intended for human beings to be free, not to be under tyrants and for human beings to be mistreated. President Bush is a very spiritual Christian man and acted based on the information that had been given to him. People have to remember that this was about 9/11. He didn't want anybody else coming into our country. If he didn't do something, he would have been criticized. He wanted to protect our country.

Thomas Wiley, 54

How long have you been coming to this church?

Thirty-two years.

What draws you to this church?

The variety. It's a Bible-based church.

What issues are most important to you when it comes to the church?

That they base their doctrine on the Bible and biblical principles.

How do you feel about bringing politics into the church?

The church is not a political organization at all and it really shouldn't be. Our views on politics are flavored by our faith, but the church is not a political organization.

Was today unusual? Or does the war come up on a regular basis?

It comes up.

What is the consensus about the war?

I think it's mixed. You can see the good and the bad and I think overall it's positive in that we want to support what our president is doing.

Does your faith greatly impact your politics?

Yes, as a Christian and a member of the church, my whole life is shaped by my views on Christianity and my views on what life is all about. In the political arena, you can't separate the two.

Are you a Bush supporter?

Yes. I support him because I like his political views. To me, the Republican view of things is if you don't work, you don't eat, whereas the Democratic view is that the government is there to help and that doesn't work. That's why I tend to align more with the Republicans because capitalism works. The idea of working for what you get works and when people don't work for what they get, things fall apart. There's a balance in everything.

How do you feel about giving benefits to the military?

I think we need to support them in every way we can. They're not paid enough. Police officers aren't paid enough. I think the more we can do for our soldiers and police officers, the better.

Have you been keeping up with the VA's funding problems? They're a billion dollars short for healthcare.

I haven't heard about that. That's not good.


Coming up: an interview with Anderson United Methodist Church worshippers and pastor Joe May.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Mississippi Learning

If you've been listening to the news lately, you've probably heard about Edgar Ray Killen's 60-year sentence for the killings of black Mississippian James Chaney and white New Yorkers Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. The three civil rights activists traveled from New York to Mississippi to register blacks to vote on Father's Day 1964. The Mississippians I've interviewed over the past few days say while the ruling is historic, it wasn't surprising. The question is, what's next? The Jackson Free Press tackles that question in its latest issue.

A few hours after the ruling came down, I met with 82-year-old Charles Evers, a leader in Mississippi's civil rights struggle. In 1963, his older brother, Medgar Evers, was shot and killed by white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith. De La Beckwith stood trial twice, but in both cases the all-white jury could not reach a verdict. De La Beckwith was finally convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 1994, thirty-one years after the murder. Medgar spent his last years establishing local chapters of the NAACP throughout the Mississippi Delta and organizing boycotts of businesses that refused to allow blacks to use their restrooms. After an unsuccessful attempt to get into the University of Mississippi Law School, Medgar was appointed as the NAACP's first field secretary in Mississippi.

After his brother's death, Charles took that job and began black voter registration drives. Six years later, Charles was elected mayor of Fayette, Mississippi, the first black to hold elected office in the state since Reconstruction. Charles, who became a Republican during the Nixon years, also served as an advisor to a diverse group of politicians, including Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Reagan.

Today Evers is the general manager of WMPR, a community radio station in Jackson, Mississippi. Charles hosts a radio show on Wednesday nights called, "Let's Talk," and is the author of the book, "Have No Fear: The Charles Evers Story."

Charles, an animated man with strong opinions, proudly displays a number of framed photos of himself shaking hands with a wide array of mostly Republican politicians and civil rights leaders in his office. Here are excerpts from our interview:

How do you feel about the media's coverage of the trial and the state of Mississippi in general?

Most aren't fair. They don't talk about the progress that's been made since the days of hate and destruction. We know we're not completely through, but at least give us some credit for the progress that's been made. But they don't want to do that. They still want to look back 30-40 years ago and I have a problem with that. Mississippians have come so far economically, politically, socially and racially in 40 years. It's almost unbelievable. I've been here for 82 years so I know what it was like 40 years ago. Just today we got a Mississippi born judge to sentence a white man for the killing of the civil rights workers. He got 60 years in jail. That's never happened before. He was born in Neshoba County. The jury was from Neshoba County. There were nine whites and three blacks and they voted unanimously to charge this man with manslaughter. But no one wants to show that; they want to say something negative. Forty years ago, there were no blacks elected in this state. None. And now we have the highest number of elected blacks in the country. There were no blacks in universities forty years ago. My brother was the first to even apply. Now we have them in every university in Mississippi, but no one says anything about that. That's what bothers me. Sure, terrible things have happened, but things have changed. Forty-five years ago, I couldn't marry you in Mississippi, but now you got blacks and whites marrying each other and living next door to each other. We can live anywhere in the state of Mississippi and buy a house. We couldn't do that before and now we can. So this is my message to the media: Why don't you show both sides? Then and now. I hope you're going to do that.

How do you feel about the ruling?

I'm elated. I almost shed tears knowing that they convicted an old racist. It's unbelievable. We've begun to get justice. We've begun to put fear into those whites who think they can do anything they want to a black person and get away with it. Now we got white powerful Mississippians who say, no, you can't do that anymore, and I'm proud of that.

I've been talking to a lot of people about politics and it's interesting to talk to young people. I went to the Jubilee Jam the other night and I interviewed a number of young black men who said, blacks vote Democrat. Whites vote Republican. I told them I've met a lot of whites who vote Democrat and they were shocked by that. Then I spoke to young white men and they said the same thing. They also said they have no black friends. Is that a common opinion?

I'm against an all-white anything or an all-black anything. I'm a Republican, by the way. I feel there should be blacks in every party. I believe in most of the things Republicans stand for.

Like what?

I'm against abortion. I'm for prayer in schools. I'm for economic independence. I don't believe in welfare. I think it's a joke. I believe welfare makes you lazy and unproductive. The only thing I don't agree with is the war. I think the war is wrong. I think the President is wrong on this. The main thing I believe in is freedom. I don't think the Republicans say it as much as Democrats, but I think the Democrats say one thing and do another. Most of them are white.

There are a lot of black Democrats in Congress. Clinton appointed a lot of blacks.

Clinton was our number one president. I loved Clinton, not as a Democrat, but as a person.

Did you vote for Clinton?

No I didn't. I'm a Republican. I voted for my party.

So you're a party line voter?

Not all the time. But that time I did.

How do you feel about the Senate's apology for failing to make lynching a federal crime? The majority of the people who haven't signed on are Republican.

I ripped them apart on my radio show last night. It hurts me and it hurts every Mississippian and makes us look bad. I meet with them quite often and I'll tell them they're wrong. The least they could have done was say, I'm sorry.

What was your turning point? Why did you become a Republican?

I have nothing against the Democratic party. When I became mayor, I had to run as an independent because the Democrats wouldn't allow us to run as a Democrat back in those days. But once we broke the Democrats down and took over the seat, I was a national committee member, went to Chicago and took the party away from the old Democrats. And what did they do? They ran to the Republican party. So my thinking was, once we got blacks into the Democratic party, let's do the same in the Republican party and make damn sure they don't get away with nothin'. That's why I'm with the Republican party. I want to make sure we have blacks who will stand up in each party and that's me. I don't bow to none of 'em and my folks can trust me. I will never sell out to them. I tell them what they gotta do for our folk and that's to make sure we're included; not superior, but equal.

So you're basically working to change the Republican party from within rather than criticize it from the outside.

I can do more destructive things inside than I can out there throwing rocks. So I'm in the Republican party for the same reason I was in the Democratic party: to make sure blacks are included, along with everyone else. It's not like I jumped parties. I feel like both parties are not what they used to be or should be. I'll tell them when they're wrong. I couldn't do that as a Democrat. I'm on the executive committee of the Mississippi Republican party and I will tell Senator Lott that he's wrong for not apologizing for something his great grandparents did to us. Their excuse is, well, we didn't have anything to do with it. The hell you didn't. You didn't personally, but your great grandparents did. You should apologize. I have no problem telling them that and I'm a Republican. I pay my dues so they can't kick me out.

What changes have you made within the Republican party for blacks specifically?

They got a Republican that's not gonna let them run over blacks and get behind closed doors and pass laws that he's not gonna go out and tell people about. They know that.

How do you feel about the state of the national Republican party today?

I think President Bush is way out of line and I don't think he speaks for all Republicans. He doesn't speak for me.

I read the article you wrote opposing the war in the Jackson Free Press. There weren't many Republicans who broke ranks over the war at that time. There were very few Democrats who opposed the war at that time.

I have a radio talk show on Wednesday night and that was my whole show. I'm opposed to the war. I let the President know. I let all my Senators and Congressmen know. It's wrong to kill. We had no more right to go to the war against Iraq than I have to go to war against you. Iraq did nothing to us. Iraq was not responsible for
9/11. Sure 9/11 was bad. Sure they killed thousands of us, but how many have we killed of them? How much suffering have we caused them? Two wrongs don't make a right. We are just as wrong -- and I want to be quoted on that -- for going in and destroying innocent people as they were coming over here on 9/11. 9/11 is no comparison to what we've done over there and how we've destroyed the old world with our bombs and how we spread hate and how we took Saddam. I was totally against that. When we took Saddam's sons and showed them all over the world. It's just like they used to do to us black folks. They hung us from trees and let them take pictures of us. Same damn thing.

Did you have any reservations about voting for Bush, especially given your strong opposition to the war?

It bothers me. I feel like he's not telling the truth. How can he sleep knowing that he just got hundreds of people killed or destroyed everyday? He is responsible for them being killed. He's responsible for destroying all of those beautiful buildings. That was the founding of a civilization. He destroyed them. Come on, Mr. President. How can you sleep? I'd ask him that point blank. Why don't you end this war? I pray all the time. Lord, please, let our president bring this war to an end. The United States Senate is just as guilty as Bush. They went right along with him and gave him billions to continue the war. Come on. Your gas and my gas is two or three dollars a gallon. We got poor folks, white and black, who need boxes of aspirins. I'm a veteran of two wars: World War II and the Korean War and guess what? If I need a box of aspirin today from the VA, I'd go through hell to get it. The veteran who comes home with no legs and no arms is pushed aside and can't get waited on. It's crazy. No one will say the truth. Democrats or Republicans. Reid speaks out once in a while, but they chop him up right away.

When I interview people, I bring up some of these issues, but they don't seem to care. Essentially the facts don't matter. Do you encounter that?

Oh yeah. My thing is, I don't give a damn what people think about me or what I say. To hell with what anybody thinks about me. White, black of polka dot. I'm against the war. I'm against killing. I've lost two brothers on some stupid murder by some crazy racist.

How do the Republicans respond to you when you raise these issues?

They don't really respond. They ignore me, but I'll keep saying it and they know they got one darkie that ain't gonna change. And that's me.

What do you think about the Republicans who say, we're so inclusive now. We have Condoleeza Rice and many high ranking black officials.

Bullshit. That's bullshit. We're not inclusive. The Republican party is not inclusive. The Republican party does not reach out. We're fighting for them to do that. I'll admit that President Bush did appoint Condoleeza Rice. He appointed Powell, but that wasn't enough. What about the local Republicans? Did he go around the country and campaign for blacks who were running for office? No. They're not inclusive. The Democrats aren't either. Don't get me wrong. I'm a Republican and I'm gonna stay a Republican because they need somebody like me to stay in the party and keep hammering away.

You feel like you have your issues and priorities and you want to bring them to the party. Do you ever get a response?

They won't listen to me. Others feel the same way but won't say it. What are you afraid of? I'd rather be dead and in heaven than afraid to do what I think is right. This war is wrong and I'm not afraid to say it. See the picture of me with Bush? His dad and I were very close. I don't think his father wanted him to go to war. The problem is, the Republican party hasn't done anything to make this country better and I speak as a Republican. I think they're creating so much division among the country. Any time the country is split 50/50, the leader is wrong. What about the other 50 percent? We need a change. I hope the next president unifies the country.

How did you feel about the 2004 election and all the mudslinging? It was pretty ugly.

First of all, I knew that a Democrat was not going to win. I knew that. You know why? This is a racist country. Anybody who runs for President in this country and comes out as strong as they were about helping the poor folks and black folks is not going to win. It's that simple. Not in America. Two people will never be President in my lifetime. A woman and a black. They can run Mrs. Clinton if they want to. She'll be beaten. America is still a bigoted country. Mark my words. I guarantee I won't live to see it. I would love to, but it won't happen. I told Colin Powell, don't you be a fool. You want to be embarrassed? Run.

Don't you think a black candidate would get a lot more blacks out to vote?

Yeah, but we can't elect a president. If Democrats want to win, talk them into electing a black man for vice president.

Voter turnout is so low all over the country. How do you encourage blacks to vote?

I usually take Medgar and Martin and say, do you care what they fought for? If you don't vote, you show disrespect for them. That's what I say. I don't know if it does any good or not. The least I can do is show Medgar I still care. And Martin. They all were my friends and we all fought for the same thing. Some of the youngsters say, my vote doesn't count. If your vote doesn't count, how do you think you got where you are? Somebody voted for you. I came back the other night from Washington and guess what? A young black man flew me back here. He's a pilot on Delta Airlines. We're flying planes. We couldn't even get on a plane forty years ago. When Megdar was killed, I came back from Chicago and couldn't go inside the airport in Jackson, Mississippi. I had to wait outside for my bag. Now we have blacks flying on Delta. We got blacks running airports. We can't forget that. We gotta keep saying that. That's why I hope reporters like you will say that. Show both sides. The negative and the positive. Today was a historical thing. Can you imagine? A white judge born in Neshoba county gave another white man 60 years for killing a black and two whites. Can you believe that? They'll say a little bit about it. Then it's all over. Now if you came in here and shot me, oh god, every damn press in the country would be here. White woman shoots black man! NBC. CBS. CNN. All of 'em. You couldn't get rid of 'em, cause it involves some nigger.

In terms of the media, a lot conservative radio shows have been talking about Senator Byrd and his beginnings with the KKK. How do you feel about that?

That was the thing to do then. I'm not justifying it, don't get me wrong, but that was the popular thing to do to get what you wanted. In order to get elected, you had to talk about niggers. If you vote for Charles Evers, he goin' take your daughter and marry her. We gotta forgive white people, but never forget.

What other issues are important to you? What have Republicans done well in the past four years?

Have they done anything? Our gasoline is three times what it was a few years ago. Unemployment is about four times what it was a few years ago. Hatred is getting worse for both blacks and whites. The Christians are trying to take over everything. We have a mess going and we need to straighten up our act.

One of the major differences between the Republicans and the Democrats I've met is this: Republicans emphasize personalize responsibility. They say, we don't like social programs. Everyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Democrats say people need help.

I partially agree with that. Partially. Give us a chance to pull ourselves up. I don't like a lot of social programs either because it makes you non-productive. Speaking as a black person, welfare is the worst thing that's ever happened to us. My dad always told us, and I'll never forget this, before I get commodities, I'll kill all of you and then kill myself. I was totally against them giving me commodities like meal, sugar and flour. I always want to be able to work and take care of y'all. That's my job. I don't want you ever asking me about welfare. Welfare makes you dependent upon someone to take care of you. Republicans say, no, we're not giving you nothin'. I like that. My problem is, don't block me. Republicans say, go do it yourself and I say, give me a chance to do it for myself.

That's the main point, right? Go to any poor neighborhood, black or white. You'll find old books, run down buildings and teachers who have to buy their own school supplies. So at that point, where's the hope? Especially if they come from a broken family that's not emotionally available.

My whole thing is if Bush wants to leave no child behind, then prove it. What you're afraid to do Mr. Bush, is to go to the poorest neighborhoods in all the states and find out what district needs the most. And don't worry about the affluent neighborhood. We need to bring up those communities that need it the most. It ain't gotta be black folks. There are a lot of poor white folks now.

Why is it that people tend to not identify with those basic economic interests? They identify with conservative social issues like gay marriage and abortion, but not issues like education and poverty.

They're not popular issues. We need to take responsibility and educate people. That's why black folks don't like me. I always say it's our responsibility to make safe neighborhoods. It's our job to get them cleaned up.

I notice one of the few Democrats on your wall is Robert F. Kennedy.

I was with Bobby the night he was killed. If any Kennedy ran for president, I'd vote for him. The Kennedy's and the Rockefeller's, before anybody else gave a damn about black folks, they did what they could. I took Bobby Kennedy through the delta and he cried like a baby. He said, I didn't know anybody could live like this. He said he just didn't know any colored folks. We were colored back then. He just didn't know.

After having this conversation with you, it's clear that you're a Republican to change the party from within, but the media makes you sound like you're a hardcore black loyal Republican from Mississippi.

They don't know a thing about me. I am a black Republican by choice and I do it to make sure the Republicans straighten up.

But that should be included in the story.

They won't do that. Go down to the Republican headquarters. They ain't got a single black working there. Not one. I've been giving them hell about that. I gotta keep hammering away. I'm on the executive committee and I keep repeating, what about a black? It's getting pretty lonely here with all you white folks. I'm the only darkie here. I can say darkie and I can say nigger. I can say what I want about my own folks. And they look at me real funny. They whisper, Charles you're right. And I say, tell the chairman that.

Sounds like you enjoy the challenge.

I love the life I live. The Lord blessed me to be independent. I am independent.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Help Spread the Word!

We left San Francisco two months ago today. I could not have predicted that we'd meet such a diverse group of people, including a Democratic cowboy who calls Bush a "wannabe cowboy," a Pentecostal "red neck" who used to stage solo hunger strikes in East Texas and is about to release a book about activism, Democrats who are breaking the rules by speaking out and protesting for the first time, moderate Republicans who believe Bush is the worst environmental president in history, Republicans who oppose Bush's foreign policy, but are afraid to speak out, a Republican who has a poster of Bush in her kitchen and Republicans who don't think Bush is conservative enough.

I'd like to believe that those on the left and right will gain new insights by reading these interviews. The reason why I'm transcribing the interviews in their entirety is because the mainstream media lacks depth. It's difficult to understand why someone holds certain beliefs based on one sentence in an article or a quick sound bite on television.

Because I spend so much time interviewing, transcribing and writing articles, I have little time to publicize my project and Web site. I'd appreciate it if you would forward my latest dispatch and Web site URL to your friends and lists. Subscription and donation information can be found here.

If everyone could get a minimum of five people to sign up, that would greatly increase my subscriber base and help me achieve my ultimate goal of writing a book about my experience.

Since I've been on the road, I've received many comments from readers and would like to share a few:

"This is so interesting to read - it's like hitch-hiking (by which I mean it reminds me of the conversations I got to have with people who picked me up hitch-hiking - they were people of all political stripes and people I'd never have met in my ordinary life, yet they were ordinary just like me). Thanks for doing this."

"You should get an award for this series. I'm so impressed with your work and dedication - and I look forward to each email update on your trip."

"I am about to move to pursue a master's degree, and I am in no position to donate to your efforts, but I will do so as soon as I am able. Thank you for the amazing work that you are doing. I am a 23-year-old gay man, and I cried several times as I read the comments from your interviewees in Texas. Lancaster County, PA is Bush territory, and there is an outright hostility to gays. Living here is hell, yet I know that when all is said and done, most of the people who so despise everything in which I believe are not evil. Thank you for going out to talk to these people. There will be no peace and no happiness in my life until I can come to understand why there is so much fear, mistrust, and hatred of gays in America, and your work is a comfort to me."

"Reading this is addictive... I can't stop!"

"Thank you so much for doing what you are doing; I've been just transfixed, reading post after post... it's amazing. I've sent the website address to a bunch of friends and family. I'm from NY, and came to Houston, TX to attend graduate school at Rice, and have managed to make a living here, so my wife and I have stayed. I must admit, living here amongst so many Republicans is truly bizarre; we both feel like fish out of water, and look forward to leaving some day..."

"This whole project is absolutely amazing. keep up the fantastic work!"

"Congrats on your site...it's really taken off...the interviews are more and more illuminating, and it's good that you're letting the interviewees speak for themselves. I'm making all my friends look at your site - especially the lefties with a knee jerk reaction to the words Bush and Republican, simply because what you have is so much more balanced than what is traditionally available."
-Derrick from Sydney, Australia

Thanks for reading and spreading the word!


Greetings from Jackson, MS

We've had a busy few days in Jackson, Mississippi. Now that we have our travel routine down, we're finding it much easier to get used to new environments. We get lost on an almost daily basis, but that's part of the experience. Because our days are packed with interviews and transcribing lengthy interviews, I'll try and send out updates every few days.

The Mississippians we've met so far have been incredibly hospitable. We just returned from an afternoon interview and dinner with a lovely couple (she's a 63-year-old Democrat, he's a 62-year-old Republican) from Jackson. Interestingly, he is a Republican on fiscal issues, but is more liberal on social issues than many Democrats.

Over the past few days, I've also met with:

*Robert Langford, executive director of Operation Shoestring, an interfaith ministry that works to improve the lives of Jacksonians in low-income communities
*Donna Ladd, editor-in-chief of the Jackson Free Press
*Young Democrats and Republicans at the Jubilee Jam music festival
*Janet Clark, a Democrat whose father was one of the first doctors in Mississippi to desegregate his waiting room

After attending church last night at the First Presbyterian, one of Jackson's most conservative churches, I had a lengthy conversation with two southern preachers about politics and the meaning of truth. Today I met with the executive director of the Mississippi Coalition Against Domestic Violence. I also visited the Jackson Women's Health Organization, the only abortion provider in the entire state, and interviewed a former counselor, patients and a protester outside. I'm planning to meet with one of the clinic's doctors tomorrow and Right to Life of Jackson later this week.

Friday, June 17, 2005

A Texas Democrat in the "City of Churches"

After another long day of doing interviews in 90+ degree weather at the Nacogdoches blueberry festival, we decided to take a break and try the blueberries. We stopped in a quintessential country store selling everything from tea towels and door hangers to blueberry jam and ice cream sundaes. Because we lug around so much equipment, people usually ask us if we're from out of town. After telling the storeowner about my project and asking her if she'd like to answer a few questions, she said, "Sure, but this isn't Bush country." She has been in business for many years and grew up in a nearby town.

Tell me about this town.

It's the oldest town in Texas. The population is about 30,000. It's a good university town. A lot of artists live here. It's a very caring town. We try to protect our history and enjoy these festivals. There's a core group of people that does everything. I'm from Lufkin, which is right down the road, but Nacogdoches is more historic. People ask me, why do you prefer Nacogdoches over Lufkin? Davy Crockett walked these streets. Sam Houston walked these streets. I just love it. I'm very protective of the downtown area. We've accomplished a lot in the past 10 years. We got historical overlay put on our buildings. We fought to keep the festival on the brick streets. We're involved in a minor way in local politics and that's what it takes. You can't just let someone run with it or you won't like the way it turns out, much like our national elections.

How does this town lean politically?

Republican. You don't really discuss it if you're a Democrat because for one thing, the Republicans act like you're ignorant if you say you're a Democrat. A lot of times we just keep our mouths shut. I've always been a liberal and I just don't believe in some of the things that Bush is doing. We've got to take control again. I believe in stem cell research. I believe in a woman's right to choose. I believe in so many of those things that they are trying to take a giant step backwards on. That really aggravates me.

This area used to be Democratic. Why did it turn Republican?

I don't know. It's been turning Republican for the last 15 years. Bush was our governor and not a very popular governor. Now we have good hair Perry. If Molly Ivins would run for governor, I'd vote for her. She's wonderful. Kinky Friedman says he's running for governor. I am gonna vote for him!

I was just interviewing the Republican booth outside. When I asked them why this town turned Republican, they said Democrats no longer value the family or the church.

That's bull. Believing a woman has the right to choose has nothing to do with your religion. That has to do with human rights. As far as family values, I think Democrats are right on up there with everyone else.

Do you talk about these issues with Republicans here?

No. We do what we can to get local officials elected. Their political party really doesn't come into play. It's really about their agenda. I've got a lot of friends that are Republicans. Rather than get into arguments, we just don't talk politics. My stepfather is against gun control. He has so many guns. You just don't bring it up at home.

Do your friends know you're a Democrat?

Well, we don't talk about it, but I think they know. Some will say, I know you're a Democrat, but... And my husband has a ponytail, so that's a good giveaway there. It's not a problem with my friends. We try to look beyond that and I look over them for being Republican, unless they cram it down my throat.

Do you go to church?


Whenever I talk to conservatives who go to church, the first thing they bring up is abortion and gay marriage.

I would rather have a gay person get married to their significant other than to go out and be a pedophile or a stalker. If you love somebody, you love somebody. I don't have a problem with that.

What do you think about the war?

It's time to leave Iraq. My nephew is over there working for a private company guarding ammunition dumps. We've wasted a lot of money over there. We have a healthcare issue here. There are so many people without healthcare, myself included. My healthcare went up to $1,000 a month. I can't pay $1,000 a month for insurance. If we could take all of that money that we've blown up in smoke over there, we'd have fewer problems here, but that's not gonna happen. Bush's agenda is anything but taking care of the home front.

A lot of the Republicans I've interviewed talk about personal responsibility. They say the government shouldn't pay for social programs. People need to take responsibility for themselves and pull themselves up.

We need social programs. My husband always says, it's not a handout, but a hand up. Yes, we do give away too much money, but it doesn't compare to the amount the government wastes on things like the war and things that aren't helping put food in people's mouths. I told you I don't go to church and I'm not religious, but to me, that is a Christian outlook. You should help people. I don't understand that. A lot of my Republican friends will say one thing and do another. You'll see that in any walk of life, but the Republicans want you to believe that they don't do that.

What message would you send to Democrats as they try to figure out their strategy for 2006 and 2008?

Don't give up and find us a good leader. You need someone who is charismatic and intelligent. Al Gore wasn't it. John Kerry wasn't it. I'm hoping Howard Dean can figure it out.

Earlier, you said you've always been a liberal. What does that mean to you?

Live and let live. If people are not hurting me or my family and they're happy, I'm OK with it.

Where do you get most of your news?

CNN. My husband watches Fox and it drives me insane. I read the daily newspaper here. The Internet takes up too much time. We watch a lot of news on television. My favorite place for news is the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. I told my husband, it's bad that we get our political news from a comedy channel.

Do you think this area has a chance of becoming Democratic again?

No, I don't see it happening.

Texas Republicans in the "City of Churches"

Greetings from Jackson, Mississippi. We finally said goodbye to Texas last week. We didn't expect to stay for almost a month and a half, but we found Texas to be far more diverse and interesting than we had expected. From Austin, a progressive college town, to Highland Park, an affluent area in Dallas dominated by Republicans, we never had a problem finding a wide array of people and groups to interview. Over the next few weeks, I plan on sending out interviews with the Cathedral of Hope, a gay and lesbian church in Dallas, Republicans for Environmental Protection, Young Republicans of Dallas, Paralyzed Veterans of America, and others.

After leaving Dallas, we headed East to Nacogdoches, the oldest town in Texas. We chose Nacogdoches, population 30,000, after reading about its annual weekend blueberry festival. The first thing we notice, as we do in most small towns, are the churches on almost every corner. With over 120 churches listed in an online directory, Nacogdoches lives up to its reputation as being the "city of churches." President Bush got 66 percent of the vote in Nacogdoches County.

After Nacogdoches, we went to Linden, a small town in the heart of the Piney Woods Region of Northeast Texas. I interviewed a number of locals there, including a Democratic cowboy who calls Bush a "wannabe" and a Republican who says Bush isn't conservative enough. I then stopped in a grocery store parking lot to do an interview with a Dallas radio station about my trip. As I was answering a question about Democrats and the separation of church and state, a fairly large man walked by and screamed, "There should be no separation of church and state. I'm not a Democrat! I'm a Republican!" He looked as though he wanted to charge me. Shortly thereafter, we left Texas and began our journey to Mississippi.

We spent the next day in Shreveport, Louisiana, where I found one of the only vegan restaurants in the entire state. The restaurant's owner said the vegetarian lifestyle has yet to catch on in Louisiana, which would explain why we were the only customers in the restaurant. A few minutes after we got to talking about politics, I realized I was talking to a pro-war Republican vegan. Yet again, I've learned not to be surprised when my assumptions are incorrect.

We're planning to spend the week in Jackson, Mississippi. I'll bring you stories about the only abortion clinic in the entire state, the power of the anti-choice movement, the state of education and efforts to improve the lives of impoverished women.

Until then, here are a few interviews with people I met at the blueberry festival in Nacogdoches, Texas.

Members of the First Baptist Church handed out bottles of water at the blueberry festival. I grew up in Northern California and am overwhelmed by the heat here. I gladly accepted the water and asked pastor Allen Reed a few questions.

Allen Reed, 61, First Baptist Church pastor

Tell me about this area.

It's a small town of about 30,000 people. It's a friendly town with down-to-earth people.

How long have you lived here?

24 years.

Has it changed a lot over the years?

Some, but not much. Our Hispanic community has increased a great deal.

Tell me about your booth here.

This is the First Baptist Church. I'm the pastor and we give out free water. It's 90-degree weather and people get thirsty. We have our church's label on the bottle with a verse that says, "If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink."

How does this town lean politically?

There's a strong Republican influence here. All of East Texas used to be Democratic. It didn't matter who was running for what, you'd vote Democrat. That's changed a great deal.

Why has it changed?

The ethical and moral issues that face our country are more in line with the conservative party.

Are you a Republican?

Yes, I've been a Republican for a long time, but I don't vote for the party, I vote for the person. I cannot accept a lot of the liberal politics.

Like what?

Abortion. Homosexuality.

Those two issues come up more often than not. What'd you think of Governor Perry's decision to pass two bills affecting those issues at a church?

I think it was a good thing. I'm surprised he's not gotten more flak over it simply because it was in the church, but here when we go to vote, 90 percent of our voting places are in churches. That's been that way for decades.

What do you think about the concerns over separation of church and state?

My own personal conviction is it's separation of church and state, but not separation from church and state. Our founding fathers did not intend for us to be atheist in our beliefs. I should not as a minister stand in the church and say, you have to vote for this person or that person. That's not what it's all about, but I do address moral issues. I say, as Christians this is what we believe and you go vote your convictions and your conscience, but I'm not going to say go vote for George Bush or John Kerry.

Back to the gay issue, I'm from San Francisco and one of the safest, nicest neighborhoods is the predominantly gay neighborhood. A lot of my female friends live there and love it.

That's what I understand.

I received an email from a gay man this morning who said the interviews I've done with people opposed to homosexuality made him cry. He said he can't understand why there is so much hate in this country. What would you say to him?

Don't hate the person. Hate the sin. Homosexuality is an abomination to the Lord. It's a sin, but all of us are sinners. I don't hate the homosexual, but I certainly don't agree with the lifestyle. It's unnatural.

Do you have any gay friends?

Two of my family members were gay. One was my brother and the other was my niece. Both of them are deceased now.

Did you maintain a good relationship with them?

Yes, I conducted the funerals for both of them. It's in everybody's family these days. They knew I loved them and that I didn't agree with their lifestyle. Let's agree to disagree.

The Bible also says divorce is a sin.

That's true. I would like to ban divorce now that you brought it up. We have church members that are divorced. I perform wedding ceremonies for divorced people. If it's a woman and the man has committed adultery and she's done everything she can to save the marriage, I see her as a victim. Why should she be punished? If she finds a good Christian man, she should have the right to remarry. I would be more concerned if a believer marries an unbeliever. What would they have in common? I preach from the pulpit about God's ideal, which is a man and a woman for life, but we realize we're not perfect. It's not an unpardonable sin. Neither is homosexuality.

Do you allow gays to worship in your church?

Anybody can attend our church as long as they're there to worship, but if he wants to join, we'll have to talk about repentance. If they choose to continue the lifestyle, then where else can they go to worship? I'd still welcome them.

How do you feel about all of the time and energy spent on passing anti-gay legislation? A lot of people criticized the Texas legislature for spending too much time on gays and not enough time on education.

Our politicians waste a lot of time on issues that don't amount to anything. I'd like to talk to the gambling industry and find out where all the money went that was supposedly set aside for education.

Do you think more time should have been spent on other issues and less time on gay marriage, especially since gay marriage here is already illegal?

It's crucial to stop the gay agenda.

What is the gay agenda?

They're trying to cram it down our throats. In the school system, they're teaching, Sammy has two mammas or George has two daddies. It's being forced on us. They're saying, this is a lifestyle you're going to accept one way or the other. I think our whole society has gone to the minority. We used to say in East Texas, the pig that squeals the loudest gets the most slop.

What would you say to gays who are just trying to live their lives? They don't want to cram their lifestyles down your throat just as they don't want you to cram your lifestyle down their throats.

We're all entitled to our opinions, but their lifestyle is wrong.


I then passed a booth for the Republican Women's Party of Nacogdoches County, complete with a pair of Bush '04 cowboy boots on the table. I sat in the shade with three members of the party:

Carolyn Mathews, Retired Teacher, Member of the Republican Women's Party in Nacogdoches County
Dee Striplang, Member of the Republican Women's Party in Nacogdoches County
Joe English, Chairman of the Nacogdoches County Republican Party

How does this town lean politically?

JE: In the past, it leaned Democrat. Over the last 15 years, it's slowly become Republican and conservative. It's taken a while.

Why the change?

CM: I think the Democratic party moved away from the people. This part of East Texas is very conservative.

JE: This is the bible belt.

CM: People go to church. That's very important. I think the Democratic party moved away from those people. Their values changed and they became liberal. The people here are not liberal.

What does that mean exactly? How do you define the word "liberal?"

CM: I guess they don't value the same things we do. Our society is based on three institutions: the home, the church and the school. We still believe that and make that a part of our lives. Larger areas have gotten away from that.

DS: Our values don't change or waiver. We look at some of the past political leaders and it makes you wonder, are you really proud of who you have in the White House? What is it that you like? Did you like them because they're popular and good lookin'? To me, that's liberal.

It's funny you should say that. I've interviewed a lot of people who say they like Bush because he's a nice guy.

DS: That's what we're talking about. When they go into office, what do they do? What did Clinton ever do? Whatever happened to family values? He made a joke out of us.

Going back to values, I've met a slew of Christian Democrats in this state who value their family, church and home. And those who don't go to church also have strong family values.

JE: But what does the Democrat's platform on church values say? You have to look at their platforms. Their platform says they believe in a woman's right to choose. Republicans say we shouldn't be doing abortions on everybody that wants one. You gotta look at your platforms. I sat on the Republicans platform's committee in East Texas and we spent four or five hours just on the abortion issue. That's a core value. That's the difference between a liberal and a conservative.

Do you have any pro-choice Republicans in your group? I've met pro-choice Republicans and anti-choice Democrats. A lot of prominent Republicans are pro-choice. Condoleeza Rice told the Washington Times that she's mildly pro-choice, so it's not strictly a party line issue.

JE: Right. You have to decide individually what's the most important issue to you. It may not be abortion, it may be the tax issue. Maybe you feel like you're being overtaxed. You have to look at those and then go with the party.

What about prevention? I rarely hear Republicans talk about measures to prevent abortion other than to make it illegal.

DS: It goes back to values. How can you prevent a young lady from going out and having sex? Granted, if she's raped, that's different. How can you prevent a man from starting fatherhood without understanding or caring about his responsibilities. That goes back to home values. What are you teaching your kids? What is being taught at school? Most people don't want sex education in school. Whose responsibility is it?

Some parents aren't capable of providing that information. Some parents don't care. I tutor a young girl. When I pick her up, she's hungry. Her mom never says, where are you going? And when are you bringing her home? She has siblings from different fathers. Chances are, her mother isn't going to teach her about sex.

DS: It's pretty sad.

CM: It's been made too easy for unwed parents to have children and you and I take care of them with all the giveaways.

DS: There are too many social services.

CM: I do not approve of that. There has to be dignity in work. We are not getting that across in education. Every student that graduates should have some type of vocation. I am a career technology retired teacher. Kids should have to have some chosen field where they can earn a living and be a contributing member of society. We're not expecting that from enough people. You contribute to society. You're not just here to take. We're missing that because the family has disintegrated. Out of the home, the church and the school, what's the one institution that all children are exposed to now? The school. The school is given the responsibility to do everything, but they don't have the authority.

This is where sex education comes in. Bush set aside $167 million for abstinence-only programs this year. What happens to those kids who can't talk to their parents about sex? Or kids whose parents don't care enough about them to talk about sex? Are you in favor of sex education or should we be teaching kids to 'just say no' and go on pretending that teen pregnancy isn't a problem?

CM: There has to be education. I just adopted a daughter in October. She's 40. I taught her in high school 25 years ago. She came from a home like you're talking about. Four children. Four different fathers. They're not given an identity of who they are and this is wrong. I'm tired of paying for women's and men's recreational sex and the result is children. They're not being made to assume and accept responsibility for the choices they're making. Those choices are producing members of society who are not able to contribute like they need to because they don't have an identity. I can't imagine not having a mother and a father and knowing who my father was. There are plenty of kids who do not know that. Back in the 80s, we had students who would live with mama until they got mad and didn't like mama's boyfriend. Then they went and lived with daddy and his girlfriend until that didn't work out. Then they end up living with their boyfriend and if they showed up at school at 7:30 in the morning, they were doing us a favor. They shouldn't have to be responsible for themselves at that age.

So you're in favor of sex education in schools?

CM: Yes.

Why is Bush in favor of abstinence-only and not sex education?

CM: I don't have an answer. My feeling and choice is different from his having been in public schools for over 30 years. I'm a product of my experiences.

DS: It's pitiful that we have to have parties. You have Democrats that have some of the same feelings as Republicans. It's just the way this country was built. There are some things I don't agree with on the Republican platform, but you pick what's most important to you and try to deal with the rest.

JE: A lot of the platform deals with things like how much money we should pour into a school or how much we should pay in taxes. That's the difference between liberals and conservatives. Conservatives say, we should be taxed less and we shouldn't be sponsoring every program out there. Liberals say, y'all are rich. We should be taxing the heck out of rich people so we can pay for these programs.

How do you feel about all the money that's being spent on the war?

DS: I'm tired of it. When are these people going to stand up on their own two feet in their country? Never. Look at other countries that we've helped. They're not helping us. They're not backing us. They're asking us for money. They're not here breaking their backs and paying taxes. We are. I get tired of our money being sent to places that don't appreciate it. The tsunami was ridiculous. They don't deserve our money. They're all pagans. Our president promised them money and I think he's wrong on that.

You think it's wrong to help countries in distress?

DS: Yes. We can only do so much. I'm tired of our tax dollars being given away. We need to fix our own problems. How long can we survive?

How do you feel about spending money on better health benefits for the troops?

CM: There should be more money appropriated for the military. I am extremely patriotic. I was in the Philippines in 1968 during Vietnam. We cannot do enough for military. I have two nephews who are West Point graduates. Congress is not doing enough for the people who are serving. Stop giving away the money and use it for our men and women who are willing to serve and choose to be there.

Two House bills to increase health care benefits for the troops recently died. The majority of Democrats voted for the bills, while the majority of Republicans voted against them. Have you heard about that?

DS: I've heard about healthcare problems, but I haven't heard about how they voted. That blows my mind. There must be something in the package that the Republicans didn't like.

They were separate from the $442 billion military budget.

DS: That's a good question for Texas politicians.

CM: I've been in education for so long and I would like to see the draft come back. It forces people to mature and we don't have that. Young men do not accept responsibility for themselves. They are allowed not to accept responsibility for themselves. We need to get them out of that environment and say, pardon me, we need this young man to grow up and become a contributing member of society. Bring back the draft and bring them out from under mama.

JE: It doesn't necessarily have to be the army. There are some countries that require people to serve as police officers, in the post office or as border patrol.

Do you think Congress would ever go for that? Very few politicians have children overseas.

CM: No, they're afraid of it. The draft would give them a vocation, which we're not doing in public schools. Someone needs to be in charge.

The problem is, politicians rarely talk about these issues. Why do we have such a high poverty rate? Why are so many people unemployed? Did you watch the debates? They rarely touched on those issues.

CM: Yes, there was no substance. None at all. Where are the issues?

DS: You've been here for over 30 minutes and there are so many issues to talk about. These are very important issues, but does anyone care about beginning the conversation? No.

What did you think of Bush's performance?

DS: He could have done better. You know who Karl Rove is don't you?

Oh, yeah.

DS: When I was in Austin, I worked for him at night for his direct mail company. I could see things going on before George ever got into office. Let me tell you, that's who is basically running it now. He's pulling the strings keeping Bush muffled. I'd rather see Bush make some major changes that need to happen. Yeah, it's gonna mess some people up, but you know what? Somebody's got to start it. If not, what are we doing? It's a waste of time.

What would you like Bush to change?

DS: I know we've started a war and I can't say, run off and leave that, but I think we do need to start getting those countries back on their feet. We need to start focusing our resources right here. I know people want homeland security to be the top issue, but if we're doing our daily duty, we're not gonna have a problem. All we're doing is building bigger government trying to put more controls on people. It's all hype. I'm just tired of it. The media blows everything out of proportion.

How do you feel about the war now that we know weapons of mass destruction were never there and Iraq had no connection to 9/11?

DS: I've always felt like those weapons were there. I think they have been moved around. They're smart. They have technology. They're making us look like a bunch of fools. I think they are there. I honestly do not believe that George Bush went over there and started a war without having something. I don't think we're being told and I think that's fine. You cannot know everything and have a secure country.

CM: I think the media says too much about homeland security. They need to be protecting us and the news media needs to stop blabbing it because they need to say something 24 hours a day. That's where a lot of this ridiculous stuff comes from. They have to make up something to be on the air.

Where do you get most of your news?

DS: Evening news.

CM: Unfortunately, I read the Houston Chronicle. I read about people I know, but they have no conservatives on their staff. Everything is liberal, so I read it with a grain of salt.

JE: I watch Fox, but I watch CNN too, so I get both sides. I read the Wall Street Journal and I listen to NPR.

What do you think of NPR?

JE: I think they sway towards the left, but there are things they bring up that I agree with.

Like what?

JE: Some of their war coverage is good. I like their long pieces.

Are you open to voting for Democrats in the future?

DS: Sure, there are people on the opposite party who have good values. If I like the person, I'll vote for him.

JE: I always vote for the party. I don't vote for the person, I vote for the party.

Do you think Bush is a Republican by definition?

JE: Yeah, he's no Ronald Reagan, but he's a Republican. That's another difference between conservatives and liberals. Conservatives don't spend money. You shouldn't let it go. A liberal is more liberal with their money.

Bush has spent more than Clinton. We had a surplus under Clinton. Now we're dealing with a huge deficit.

DS: We're at war. How much time and how many tax dollars were spent on Clinton's impeachment? Lots of money.

That was led by the Republicans and was a waste of time.

DS: That's my point. They wasted time.