A tribute to the radical Democrat and “ultimate organizer.”
I first met Tim Carpenter in January of last year, at Progressive Central in Washington, D.C. The third such event in Progressive Democrats of America (PDA)’s 10-year history, the day-long round of panel discussions united left-wing members of Congress such as John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) with activists from the labor, anti-war and environmental movements.
The event’s movement-spanning range of participants and its optimistic yet pragmatic tenor typified Tim’s politics: He believed the strained relationships between the Democratic Party and its foundation—by which he meant working-class people and allied activists—were worth healing and worth strengthening. Ultimately, Tim believed, the networks that link elected Democrats to their progressive base hold the foundation for much deeper social change.
In many respects, in his politics, Tim carried the torch from his mentor Michael Harrington, the idiosyncratic author of The Other America and founder of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). Harrington called for activists to work with federal and state-level Democrats as a means of shifting the mainstream political agenda towards the left. When I interviewed Tim for In These Times’ December 2013 issue, we talked about his involvement in DSA as a young organizer, as well as his roots in the Catholic Worker movement and the impact of red-baiting in American political life.
That’s when I first came to understand that Tim was essentially a radical—a socialist who didn’t call himself a socialist.
“When I was younger, when I was hanging out with Michael Harrington and was a member of DSA in my 20s and 30s, I was very proud of the label [socialist],” Tim told me.
However, he pointed out, the specific word is far less important than the cause it represents. “I’ve learned as I got older, as I battled a lot of my illnesses, is what little time we have,” he continued. “I would rather have folks debate the merits of what it is we’re fighting for, whether it be single-payer or a redirection of military spending to meeting human needs, than the definition of socialism.”
That goal-oriented attitude frequently resurfaced throughout Tim’s work with PDA. “He always had this mindset: OK, there’s only so much we can do on the streets, but we’ve got to bring in that movement inside the party,” says Conor Boylan, PDA’s national field director, who worked closely with Tim. “If we really want to move the agenda forward, we need to be out in the streets, but we also need a legislative vehicle to push through.”
The first time we met, I was a little taken aback by how haggard-looking Tim was. Plagued by an array of health problems, he wore a glass eye and wobbled around with a limp. On top of that, like much of PDA’s leadership, he seemed to test the boundaries of how disheveled one could publicly appear with members of Congress.
“Tim’s the only guy I’ve ever been with on Capitol Hill who made me look well-dressed,” says Steve Cobble, a fellow PDA co-founder who first met Tim on Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign. I should note that Steve was wearing light blue jeans and a corduroy jacket on that day in January—Tim himself had opted for an olive-green collared shirt under a navy dress jacket.
I never asked Tim why he looked so casual in these sorts of settings. But I think the answer is obvious: he never felt the urge to impress members of Congress or their staffers. Tim’s mission of building progressive political power spoke for itself; he didn’t need the expensive suits and slick presentation favored by other D.C.-dwelling liberals. From PDA’s early years up until the group’s more recent monthly roundtables on Capitol Hill, Tim entered meetings in Washington with that overarching, singular focus. And he worked to do the same in the streets.
In his March 2014 essay for Harpers, political scientist Adolph Reed Jr. charged that the “American left [has] moved increasingly to the middle,” having abandoned its once-transformational vision in favor of Democratic electoralism. Tim, though a proud Democrat, was never guilty of this. The various pieces of legislation that he backed lay the foundation for an ambitiously social democratic future: Medicare-for-All, full employment, and strong taxes on financial transactions and carbon pollution capable of funding a robust welfare state.
But these are dark times. Ultimately, the political context that Tim worked so hard to transform managed to snuff out his deeper aspirations. Under the shadow of a perpetually self-weakening labor movement and increasingly pro-corporate Democratic Party, Tim and PDA simply lacked the necessary partners to achieve their agenda during his lifetime.
This meant that, more often than not, Tim and PDA were stuck playing defense—they were the fire brigades, as I heard him and his fellow PDAers say several times in our acquaintance. That said, Tim’s work on such defensive front lines can’t be understated. He was an early opponent of the White House’s plan to slash Social Security benefits, pressuring Democratic members of Congress to pledge to vote against any and all cuts. Last summer, Tim and PDA played a vital role in reassembling the once-mighty anti-war movement to block President Obama’s ill-fated plans for military intervention in Syria. And most recently, PDA helped push a majority of Democrats in the House of Representatives to go on record against “fast-track” authority, a legislative maneuver that’s all but necessary for the Trans-Pacific Partnership to continue.
The sheer range of issues that PDA now tackles speaks to Tim’s commitment to movement-building. Reverend Lennox Yearwood, president of the Hip Hop Caucus, called him “the ultimate organizer”—someone who worked to overcome the “silos” that divide progressive groups by issues and race. “Because of our work with Tim and PDA, definitely walls were broken,” he says.
Yearwood points to the instrumental part that Tim played in the Hip Hop Caucus’ early years, helping connect the fledgling, majority-black group to larger, majority-white players in the progressive movement, such as the D.C.-based Institute for Policy Studies or the Madison-based Liberty Tree Foundation.
“Since that time, the Hip Hop Caucus has grown to be a leader in the peace movement and the climate change movement. I think a lot of that is because of what Tim did,” says Yearwood. “Plus, Tim gave us a tremendous amount of respect, more than, I would say, a lot of progressives.”
Tim shared another quality that’s vital for organizers, especially in such politically gloomy times: his ability to inspire hope. Among his friends and colleagues, his exclamatory email sign-offs are legendary: Teamwork! Onward! Keep On! Big Hug! The latter, moreover, was not reserved for metaphor. Reverend Yearwood recalls the “sweaty white guy hugs” that Tim used to shower him with—even before they were friends.
Tim fought and organized at his characteristically frenetic rate up until the very end. Before he passed away, he was intensely focused on a petition drive to encourage Bernie Sanders to run in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary. (More than 11,000 people have signed so far.)
“My conclusion about Tim was that … he shouldn’t be able to do as much as he does,” Cobble says.
I, for one, will never forget the time Tim corresponded with me from the hospital late last August. As Secretary Kerry was beating the war drums on Syria, Tim was receiving cancer treatment and trying to connect me with anti-war organizers to interview. “Working from nurses station :-),” he wrote me. “They took my cell away while I’m in hospital :-)” And I’m just a journalist. I can only imagine the other kinds of organizing he was doing from the operating table.
It sounds absolutely insane—and it mostly is—but it makes perfect sense when you consider that Tim lived his life for the movement.
Rest in peace, Tim, and rest in power. Onward!
Cole Stangler is an In These Times staff writer and Schumann Fellow based in Washington D.C., covering labor, trade, foreign policy and environmental issues. His reporting has appeared in The Huffington Post and The American Prospect, and has been cited in The New York Times. He can be reached at cole[at]inthesetimes.com. Follow him on Twitter@colestangler.
Original article on In These Times
Washington, DC -- Representatives from several organizations will gather at 11:30 am on Wednesday, September 17 at the House Triangle to respond to the President's plan to bomb Iraq and Syria. Speakers include Andrea Miller of Progressive Democrats of America, Stephen Miles of the coalition Win Without War, Ret. Colonel Ann Wright of Veterans for Peace, Medea Benjamin of CODEPINK, and Alli McCracken of the youth group No Future in War.
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MINNEAPOLIS—Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) released the following statement today after Israeli and Hamas officials announced they had agreed to an open-ended ceasefire.
“I am happy and relieved with yesterday’s ceasefire agreement,” Rep. Ellison said. “I call on all parties to comply with the agreement and refrain from further violence. It is time to move forward with negotiations and diplomacy that will ultimately end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
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PDA (Progressive Democrats of America) shares the horror of the world at the slaughter of hundreds of innocent Palestinian civilians in Gaza. We condemn violence against civilians by all sides.
Progressive Democrats of America (PDA) strongly endorses the statement of our Advisory Board Member Congresswoman Barbara Lee who expressed grave concerns about the "violence and loss of life in Israel and Gaza." We agree with Rep. Lee that, "this horrific violence does nothing to enhance the security of Israelis or Palestinians," and we join her calling for a diplomatic solution to ensure lasting security." Rep. Lee once again is the voice of reason saying, "We need strong diplomatic intervention by the US and regional partners to help establish an immediate ceasefire that allows for the negotiations of a permanent and peaceful settlement."
Furthermore, we endorse our Advisory Board Member Congressman Keith Ellison's demand that Israel and Egypt end the Gaza blockade to achieve peace.
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80 Members of Congress Write to the President on Iraq
Washington, DC – Today, Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA13), Congressman Scott Rigell (R-VA02) and seventy other Members of Congress sent a letter to President Obama calling on him to seek Congressional approval before taking any military action in Iraq.
Please act now! We need your Congress member's signature on the Lee-Rigell Letter opposing a military attack on Iraq. Consult the list (see below). If your member of Congress is not there, call the Congressional switchboard ASAP (before Close of Business July, 2nd) and ask them to sign on to the Lee-Rigell Letter. Republicans may be willing to sign on, so it's worth trying them as well. The Switchboard number is 202-224-3121. Tell them to contact Rep. Barbara Lee's staffer Monica Pham at
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Next week, Congress will begin debate on a roughly$601 billion Pentagon budget for FY2015. Before we let this pass unchallenged, let's take a few minutes to put it in some historical perspective.
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U.S. efforts to overthrow foreign governments leave the world less peaceful, less just and less hopeful.
Soon after the 2004 U.S. coup to depose President Jean-Bertrand Aristide of Haiti, I heard Aristide's lawyer Ira Kurzban speaking in Miami. He began his talk with a riddle: "Why has there never been a coup in Washington D.C.?" The answer: "Because there is no U.S. Embassy in Washington D.C." This introduction was greeted with wild applause by a mostly Haitian-American audience who understood it only too well.
Or How the U.S. Military Avoided Budget Cuts, Lied About Doing So, Then Asked for Billions More
Washington is pushing the panic button, claiming austerity is hollowing out our armed forces and our national security is at risk. That was the message Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel delivered last week when he announced that the Army would shrink to levels not seen since before World War II.
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America's military adventures have fueled a global explosion of terrorism and a historic breakdown of law and order.
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The talks in Syria began today, with the Syrian government and opposition exchanging accusations and invectives. Missing was the voice of nonviolent civilians, especially women, even through they have been trying for months to have a seat at the table.
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A trillion dollars. It's a lot of money. In a year it could send 127 million college students to school, provide health insurance for 206 million people, or pay the salaries of seven million schoolteachers and seven million police officers.
On Friday, September 12th more than 150 activists will go to DC and Demand that their Senators and Representatives support removing the ratification deadline from the ERA (SJ Res 15 and HJ Res 113)
MoveOn.org Petition - Congress Don't Renew Fast Track
Public Citizen Petition - Congress Must Reject Fast Track Authority
MoveOn.org Petition - Stop the Trans Pacific Partnership
CREDO Petition - Stop the Massive Corporate Power Grab
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