Monday, September 19, 2011

If Barbara Ehrenreich Were To Run For Congress, She'd Be Franke Wilmer In Montana


Franke Wilmer is a progressive Democrat running for Montana’s open at-large seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. She's currently serving her third term in the state legislature where she has sponsored legislation on behalf of women’s rights, public employees, firefighters, teachers, tipped employees, unions, gay rights, American Indians, and veterans. Her work on behalf of veterans has been recognized twice by Veterans’ groups, most recently being named “Legislator of the Year” by the Vietnam Veterans of America Montana Council. She has the kind of remarkable record of legislative leadership that always interests Blue America. We're doing our due diligence on her right now, but I've asked her to write a guest post about her commitment to human rights and progressive values, since it was talking with her about those topics that made me add her to the DWT ActBlue page.

Her guest post follows but I want to fill in that Franke is no ordinary state legislator. She was elected to serve as Speaker Pro Tempore in her second term and from 2005 to 2007 she was Chair of the Montana Human Rights Commission. She's also a Full Professor at Montana State University teaching courses on International Human Rights, International Law, International Relations Theory and the Politics of War and Peace. She also taught Indigenous Peoples’ Politics at Montana State University and Blackfeet Tribal College in Browning, Montana. She's written three books and has traveled to 56 countries as either an invited guest lecturer or for her field research, including five trips to the former Yugoslavia beginning during the war there in 1995.

But just as important as her academic accomplishments and record of public service are her life experiences before completing her graduate degrees. In her early 20s, Franke was a divorced single mother with no child support and few prospects. All she knew was waitressing, so she relied on that again to support herself and her daughter and was determined to eventually complete her college degree. It took her 16 years, often working two jobs and even 2 years working as a carpenter. She finished her B.S. degree in political science with a minor in economics (imagine a politician who has some knowledge of economics... like Alan Grayson!) and with the help of scholarships completed a Master’s and Doctorate in 1990. “I know what it’s like not to be able to afford health insurance,” Franke said in a conversation with me last week. “I know what it’s like to take a pocket full of tips to the energy company to pay my heating bill.”

As far as I can tell, Franke’s commitment to human rights and progressive values comes both from the quality of her character and the breadth and challenges of her own life experiences. Below Franke tells us in her own words about that commitment.

Guest Post-- Franke Wilmer (D-MT)

I ran for the legislature in 2006 and am running for Congress now for the same reason I became an academic-- as an expression of my activist commitment to use my time and talents to make the world more humane, more just, and with less preventable suffering. That commitment has primarily been focused on issues of human rights. Coming of age in the Civil Rights and anti-war era (I graduated from high school in 1968-- the spring of assassinations-- MLK and RFK) profoundly shaped my political views. In fact, in high school I was active in efforts to desegregate our town “teen center” and a restaurant owned by our mayor. So to fast-forward-- I have thought of my academic identity more in terms of being an “academic-activist” and as strange as it may sound, that’s probably the best way to think of my work in the legislature where I have sponsored bills on gender pay equity, to create a domestic partner registry, and calling on public speakers and educators to learn the names of Montana’s First Nations in their own indigenous languages.

Between high school and completing my undergraduate degree, I did take a “detour” through the challenge of supporting myself and my daughter, mostly as a divorced, single mom. Sixteen years later working mostly in restaurants and often working two jobs, I was able to complete a bachelor’s degree. I knew I wanted to be an agent for change and at first I majored in journalism, but settled on becoming a teacher instead and studied political science and economics. I had no idea I would ultimately teach at the university level.

When I received scholarships to continue my work in graduate school, I eventually had to settle on a topic for my dissertation. I knew I was interested in human rights and the academic and policy focus of human rights in the U.S. at that time was on the human rights records and problems outside of the U.S. I wondered, “what are the human rights issues here in the U.S. that have been ignored or neglected?” and this drew me to the question of indigenous peoples and their political activism in global settings. I also had an interest in issues of global environmental politics and the global (and local) political activism of indigenous peoples appealed to me also because it often engages questions of an indigenous environmental paradigm that contrasts sharply with the paradigm of capitalist “development.” Indigenous peoples’ activism articulates a critique of unsustainable resource exploitation and this is an underlying theme in my first book, The Indigenous Voice in World Politics (Sage 1993), which was a revision of my dissertation.

My academic-activism was also aimed at bringing the issue of indigenous peoples’ global political activism into the realm of mainstream political science and am gratified that a number of political scientists in the U.S. and abroad have taken up related issues as a primary focus of their research. My last significant work on indigenous rights took me to Australia and New Zealand/Aotearoa to interview indigenous activists and leaders there as well as in Canada and the US on reconciling the indigenous-settler relationship. This work was featured in a keynote address I was invited to give on “Nation-Building” to the Tainui Maori confederation in 2001 at the University of Waikato in Hamilton, New Zealand/Aotearoa.

In the mid-1990s I became interested in further examining the question of dehumanization (and psychoanalytic explanations for it) as a political dynamic that rationalizes political violence. This was one of the questions raised by my work on indigenous peoples since policies that aimed at or resulted in destruction of their communities and cultures stemmed in part from a narrative of “modernization” or “progress” that stereotyped indigenous peoples as “backward” or “primitive.” But I chose a very different setting for my second research project-- the war in former Yugoslavia. In 1994 I met Dragan Veselinov, who was at the time the leader of the Farmers’ Union in Serbia (later Minister of Agriculture), and he invited me to come to Serbia. I took him up on the offer and made my first trip there in the spring of 1995, when the war was still going on. In July 1995 I was about 30 miles away from Srebenica when the massacre of Muslim men and boys by Serbian regular and irregular forces was taking place. That week, ironically, I interviewed both a leader of the anti-war movement and a high-ranking advisor to President Milosevic. It was later clear to me that both were aware of the atrocities taking place in Srebenica.

Although I was able to connect with people from a broad spectrum of political views in Belgrade, my “home base” was with the anti-war movement. Every Wednesday afternoon the Women in Black stood in Republic Square in downtown Belgrade and held up anti-war protest signs and I stood with them. They joked that I was the “toughest” protester of all because I could withstand the most insults-- mostly because I couldn’t understand them in Serbian language!

My activism has not been limited to academic research, travel, and activities, however. In the first few years after I moved to Bozeman there were efforts by the KKK and other white supremacist groups to recruit and establish a local base of support in Bozeman (and Billings, and Kalispell). Knowing I taught a course on human rights, several local activists asked me to join them in forming a local “Gallatin Valley Human Rights Task Force” to counter the white supremacists. That was 1994. We mobilized residents to write letters to the newspaper, rally in local meetings, and make a clear statement to the extremists that Bozeman was not a place where hate groups and their ideology were welcome.

After the white supremacist activity subsided, we continued to schedule monthly events in an effort to create a “pro-active” presence in the community. The task force is still in existence today, and has twice since 1994 been at the center of mobilizing widely supported community responses to attempts by white supremacists to establish themselves in our community. The most recent activity occurred in the fall of 2009 and our response drew a crowd of several hundred (I estimate 500-700) marchers with speakers from the MSU student body, local clergy, musicians composed songs just for the event, and members of the city council donned safety vests to act as cornercrossing guards for the march. (See my friend Rev. Denise Rogers’ speech). (Because I’m in the legislature, I did not want this to become a “Democrat” or a “Franke Wilmer” event so I kept a low public profile.)

As former Chair of the Montana Human Rights Commission I have also testified in house committees advocating for the addition of sexual orientation to the Montana Hate Crimes Act and the Montana Human Rights Act. In 2009 I also sponsored a Domestic Partners’ Registry bill. There is an uneasy and challenging tension between progressive activism, which does not rest on winning a majority of votes, and activism in elected office, which does. To be effective one must acquire and choose when to expend political capital. Leadership does not mean getting out in front of the direction everyone is running and taking credit for getting them there. It means persuading people to try moving in a direction they are hesitant to persue, but are willing to try because they trust and believe in you and your leadership. This is the challenge we all face as agents of change in all of our roles, from grassroots organizing to serving in elected office. An activist who is not in elected office must work just as hard to persuade more people to move in a progressive direction so that elected leaders have support for their efforts. We rise or fall together. And if I go running off in a direction with no one following me, I will not get elected or re-elected.

Sometimes one election and one vote can make all the difference, a lesson we can learn from Montana’s own Jeannette Rankin. Rankin only served two terms-- one during each World War. She was known for being the only member of Congress to vote against both wars. My own view is that the U.S. should have intervened in World War II to stop the Holocaust sooner, so I always had trouble with Rankin’s second vote. But in reading biographical accounts, I learned that the reason she cast a vote against World War II was that she thought congress should never vote unanimously in support of war. I doubt she would have voted the same way had hers been the deciding vote between intervening and not intervening.

I don’t know whether I will go to congress and cast one fateful vote or make a critical floor speech or just persuade a congressional colleague over a cup of coffee to think differently, more progressively, about an issue. I have learned in the legislature that one or two votes can be critical in killing bad bills or passing good ones out of committee. I will work to acquire political capital by showing respect for everyone’s views, and disagreeing with ideas in a civil manner.

Given her background, it's ironic that, should she win the Democratic Party primary, Franke will face a nominee from the one of the extreme ends of the Republican Partry, either a KKK organizer, John Abarr, or a job-exporting plutocrat Steve Daines. If you'd like to see Franke's voice in Congress, you can chip in here. Her campaign website is here and you can follow her on Facebook and on Twitter at @Franke4Congress.

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