“I haven't seen you since 1988,” Tim Carpenter says with astonishment as he finally recognizes the progressive activist whose hand he's been shaking during a brief break between a press conference and rally for Democratic candidates at the Teamsters Local 952 union hall in Orange last Friday.
Before 2002, if there was a demonstration for homeless rights or against the death penalty or nuclear proliferation, you can bet he was not only there, he probably organized it. Partially for financial reasons and partially because he is needed on the national stage, Carpenter left Orange County in 2002 to become a top organizer for Dennis Kucinich's presidential bid before becoming executive director of the Progressive Democrats of America (PDA), which is based in his new home state of Massachusetts.
Carpenter's political awakening came at a very early age. As Nick Schou told it eight years ago in “The Importance of Being Tim”:
His first political crisis came 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.
He was in his mid-teens when he worked on the first unsuccessful effort to get an Orange County woman, Vivian Hall, elected to Congress, and he played vital parts of nearly every progressive cause in Orange County, beginning with George McGovern's 1972 presidential race against Richard Nixon. He was active in the Catholic Worker movement throughout the 1980s, sleeping on concrete at night to help protect the homeless from harassment by Santa Ana police, and in the 1990s he helped organize the Orange County chapter of Families Against Three Strikes. He has been locked up for protesting, spoke at the Democratic National Convention in 1992 and counts Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne and Jerry Brown among his many dear old friends.
Carpenter's day job was teaching history and government throughout Orange County, including Irvine Valley College, Marina High School in Huntington Beach and Rosary High School in Fullerton.
In fact, his latter stop is part of OC Weekly lore. Shortly after Loretta Sanchez took Bob Dornan's congressional seat, the bombastic Republican, who Carpenter had previously campaigned against and debated with over nukes, honored an invitation to address Carpenter's class in October 1998. But Dornan seized the opportunity to question the Catholic school teacher's credentials and the sincerity of his religious beliefs. The Weekly's then-music editor, the late Buddy Seigal, who'd gone along for the ride just to see Dornan in action, got so upset he stomped out of the classroom yelling, “YOU'RE A SCUMBAG!” at “B-1 Bob.”
It's important to mention that Carpenter has performed his tireless advocacy despite being saddled with degenerative arthritis, the effects of which still linger today. Local and nationally known progressives got together in 1999 and held a fundraiser to netted $50,000 to help offset his medical expenses. Of Carpenter, Tom Hayden said that fine day, “Always outside the box.” That willingness often put Carpenter at odds with don't-rock-the-boat Democrats. He clashed with then-President Jimmy Carter over nuclear arms and then-President Bill Clinton over welfare reform. Locally, then-OC Democratic Party chairwoman Jeanne Costales once said Carpenter was not representative of mainstream Orange County Democrats, to which a Weekly scribe brilliantly noted, “That's because Carpenter can chew his own food.”
The PDA -- whose advisory board includes Hayden, Medea Benjamin and Jim Hightower -- works at the grass-roots level to champion peace and justice. Among Carpenter's first actions was pressing for answers in November 2004 about voting irregularities in Ohio after John Kerry's campaign dropped the issue. Though Kerry would have won the presidency had he won Ohio, it was Carpenter and the PDA who won a House Judiciary Committee hearing on the screwy Ohio vote.
This election cycle, the PDA and Carpenter have organized rallies against the the Wall Street bailout. Carpenter: “The Bush administration has spent more than $800 billion for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now they're demanding a $700 billion blank check for Wall Street using the same old scare tactics and threats to avoid public debate and Congressional oversight. Our members are showing our support for a responsible plan by rallying against the Bush Blank Check Bailout. We say, 'Bring Home the Troops and Bail Out Main Street--not Wall Street!'”.
Carpenter and PDA are also campaigning for “Healthcare Not Warfare,” which is what brought him home to Orange County and the Teamsters hall on Marks Way. (For more on the press conference that preceded the rally, check out “Democrats Proudly Wear the Union Label.”) In trying to get Democrats to embrace the idea that the U.S. should bring the troops home and use the money spent in Iraq on providing healthcare for all, the PDA has lent its support not only to Barack Obama's presidential campaign but races farther down the Democratic ticket. With reports that Republican Dana Rohrabacher's Huntington Beach-based seat is in play, Carpenter joined the Teamsters in organizing a get-out-the-voter-registration's drive leading into the weekend.
Wait a sec: Democrat Debbie Cook's race is in play?
“Depends on who you ask,” Carpenter confided at the break, explaining that at least one poll shows a 5 percent differential, which would be within the margin for error or the beneficiary of a timely push from PDA and its army of nurses calling for Healthcare Not Warfare, which Cook embraces. Likewise, the attention on Cook also furthers Healthcare Not Warfare.
Soon Carpenter had to break off the chat to go energize the 50 or so volunteers who'd spilled into the union hall.
“Is it time to invest in our country?” asked Carpenter.
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“YEAH!” came the loud response from the audience.
“Do we need more schools not more bombs?"
Just like old times.