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Photo by Jack GouldTim Carpenter's first political crisiscame in the sixth grade at St. Cecilia Catholic School in Tustin, when his radical politics almost got him expelled. Instead, Sister Cathy defended him from critics—and later joined the Bilateral Nuclear Freeze Initiative movement Carpenter helped found in Orange County.
Winning over Sister Cathy might have been Carpenter's first victory as a peace activist, but it wasn't his last. During the past two decades, he has been a vital part of nearly every progressive cause in Orange County, beginning with Democratic candidate George McGovern's 1972 presidential race against Richard Nixon. On March 5, the 40-year-old Carpenter received the Paul Delp award from the Orange County Interfaith Peace Ministry, an organization Carpenter helped establish 20 years ago.
According to friends and fellow travelers, the award provides long-overdue recognition for a person who personifies the unflappable spirit of Orange County's peace and justice movement.
"I think of Tim as one of the absolute mainstays of the peace and justice movement in Orange County," said Irvine City Councilman Larry Agran. "In fact, I don't think we would have much of a movement were it not for Tim."
Agran worked with Carpenter in trying to persuade then-President Jimmy Carter and the Democratic Party to abandon the nuclear-arms race. "People like Tim have not been afforded the credit they deserve for helping bring about the end of the Cold War. It was Tim and others like him who ultimately brought some sanity to bear on U.S. policy," he said.
Agran first met Carpenter in 1976, when both were involved in Orange County's unsuccessful first effort to get a woman—Vivian Hall—elected to the U.S. Congress. "He was a youngster, maybe 15 years old," says Hall, now a board member of Women for: Orange County. "He knew so much about politics and was so enthusiastic, and we've loved him ever since. . . . People love him for his warmth, optimism, intelligence and knowledge. And he just never gives up."
Jonathan Parfrey, executive director of the LA-based Physicians for Social Responsibility, is another veteran activist who finds inspiration in his friendship and professional work with Carpenter. "Tim has a magnificent outlook on life," Parfrey said. "Here's a guy with the intelligence, enthusiasm and ambition to be one of the captains of industry but who instead has chosen a life of service to the disadvantaged."
Parfrey and Carpenter were active in the Catholic Worker movement throughout the 1980s, chiefly helping the homeless through shelters, first in LA and then in Santa Ana. They spent nights sleeping on concrete to help protect the homeless from harassment by Santa Ana police. But the pair first met in 1981 at a civil-disobedience action outside the El Segundo headquarters of Rockwell International—the builder of both the MX missile and the B-1 bomber.
"Tim has a very positive attitude toward everybody," Parfrey said. "Pro-nuke guys would drive by and flip us the bird, saying things like, 'Go back to Russia!' And Tim would wave at them and smile."
Parfrey said that Carpenter had a tendency to inflate the numbers of people who showed up at such demonstrations. "We called it the Carpenter Factor," Parfrey explained. "Someone would say we had 500 people, and then someone else would joke, 'Are those real numbers, or is that the Carpenter Factor?'"
Carpenter has his critics among fellow Democrats. In 1998, he helped organize a conference called "An Evening of Music and Progressive Politics Behind the Orange Curtain." The audience included everyone from Green Party activists and liberal Democrats to Libertarians—everybody but OC Democratic Party stalwarts, who saw the conference as something of a political threat. "Not that we don't respect their point of view, but they're just not in the mainstream," commented Jean Costales, OC Democratic Party chairwoman, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. "We're more liberal, certainly, than the Republicans," she added, "but just not as liberal as Tim Carpenter."
In the 1990s, Carpenter helped organize the Orange County chapter of Families Against Three Strikes, helped rally opposition among religious organizations to Clinton's welfare-reform package, and worked tirelessly against the San Joaquin Hills Transportation Corridor. He now teaches history and government six days per week at both Huntington Beach's Marina High School and Irvine Valley College.
Occasionally, Carpenter even manages to perform the kind of community service that sees few volunteers: debating the likes of Bob Dornan. The pair's first debate occurred during Dornan's first Orange County run for Congress in 1984, when Carpenter was agitating against nuclear weapons. The last one took place in October 1998 at Fullerton's Rosary High School, when Dornan ripped into Carpenter, questioning his teaching credentials and even the sincerity of his religious beliefs. Dornan's attacks were so disgusting they prompted Weekly music writer Buddy Seigal to stomp out of the school with the rather understated riposte, "YOU'RE A SCUMBAG!"