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We Need Better Democrats

For the past couple of weeks in my city, one our City Councilmembers has been getting a lot of praise—and rightly so. Councilmember Monica Montgomery was elected in 2018 to represent the 4th Council District here in San Diego. A criminal justice advocate and former City Hall staffer, Montgomery ran on an explicit platform of police reform, vowing to use her time in office to champion efforts like banning chokeholds and establishing an independent Commission on Police Practices. Since taking office, she has done exactly that. Since the protests began in our county just over a week ago, we have seen both the mayor and most of the city council come out in support of a ballot measure to establish that Commission, we have seen the police union back off of opposing it, and every police department in the county has now banned neck restraints. Of course, we cannot give all of the credit for these changes to Councilmember Montgomery, but she was and is an important part of it.

It’s on my mind, though, that Montgomery was not expected to win in her election, because her opponent was the incumbent Council President, Myrtle Cole. I mentioned that Montgomery had previously been a City Hall staffer; in fact, she had worked in Cole’s office, but resigned after Cole made remarks arguing that police were justified in racially profiling Black people. Despite those remarks, Cole received the backing of both the local Democratic Party and all of the major labor unions. With that kind of institutional support, the power of incumbency, and close ties to the Mayor’s office, Cole was expected to easily hold her seat. According to her own statements, she didn’t even really mount a campaign. Instead, she came in second to Montgomery during the primary, and then again in a Dem-vs-Dem general election that November.

What this highlights for me, and what’s on my mind as I think about the organizing around the next few elections, is that it’s not enough just to have a D next to a candidate’s name. That not all Democrats are the same. That it matters which Democrats we elect. Both Montgomery and Cole are Democrats. Both are Black women. They do not stand for the same things, and did not have the same priorities in office. This November in San Diego County, three of the five San Diego City Council races, one of the County Supervisor races, one of the State Assembly races, and one of the US House races will have two Democrats facing off. In these elections also, the candidates are not all the same.

It strikes me, too, that the organizations we trust to help us make these decisions don’t always have our best interests in mind. As I mentioned, Myrtle Cole was endorsed by the San Diego County Democratic Party and all of the major labor unions. On the most recent episode of Matt Strabone’s podcast Show in Progress, back in March, Party chair Will Rodriguez-Kennedy said that the Party is required to defend incumbents, which explains their support for Cole. I don’t know why labor backed Cole over Montgomery, and I don’t want to speculate as to the reasons. But it is worth taking the time to understand that both political parties and labor unions are organizations that exist to accrue political power unto themselves, not to do “what’s right.” Often times, both parties and unions will come out against good reforms, and while I’m not privy to their decisionmaking processes, it has struck me that those reforms are often the ones that might decrease their own influence over elections, even while helping marginalized communities or candidates. You can make your arguments about whether or not that’s a good thing, and it makes complete sense to me that a political party or a labor union would want to protect and increase their political power. But if the cost of this is undermining necessary changes, is that worthwhile?

This year, many of the downballot elections that I get to vote for will be Democrats facing off against Republicans. And I will and must vote for the Democrats in these cases, and I will urge everyone I know to do the same. Part of the work I do with grassroots organizations here in San Diego is legislative research and tracking the votes of our state and federal representatives, so I am intimately aware of how much it matters to have Democratic majorities in our legislative bodies that can and do stop the worst offenses of the Republican Party. I also know that even the most centrist Democrats are almost always much more susceptible to pressure from their constituents to move left than moderate Republicans are. I’ve seen this personally with my State Assemblymember, whose voting record flipped dramatically after he left the Republican Party to become a Democrat. Part of that came from pressure from the state Democratic leadership, and part of that came from pressure from his Democratic constituents. Having met over a dozen times with my right-leaning Democratic Congressmember, I also know how many bills we’ve been able to bring to his attention that a Republican would have ignored—if we’d even been able to get a seat at the table in the first place. So I will obviously be voting to keep those Democrats in office, to defend their seats from their Republican challengers. And for the exact same reasons, I’ll be voting for Joe Biden, too.

And yet, in a time when more and more people are realizing that incremental changes and targeted reforms are wholly insufficient to meet the issues we face as a nation, whether that’s racist policing, healthcare, or climate change, as I look toward 2022 and beyond, it is on my mind that simply defending Democratic incumbents is not enough. The Assemblymember that I and my colleagues have been able to push on a few issues also routinely abstains from controversial votes, and is mostly known for introducing bills about pets. The Member of Congress who I mentioned frequently meeting with prioritizes working with Republicans and fundamentally believes in small, incremental bills as the appropriate and most effective kind of legislation. Both of these men are personable and, I think, mostly well-meaning, but their approaches to government cannot and will not give us the changes we need, and neither the Democratic Party nor the local labor unions are at all likely to support a more progressive primary challenger in the future. Just today, Joe Biden’s campaign made it clear that he does not support defunding police departments. We need Joe Biden right now, because as the Democratic nominee he is the only viable alternative to Trump, and four more years of Trump would be a disaster, and lethal to so many people in vulnerable communities. But when we look to 2024 or 2028, what could we accomplish with a President who truly understands and enthusiastically advances the systemic changes we need, instead of one who we merely hope we can push to the right side of history?

If we are serious about making change, then I think we need to do more than just exhorting people to vote. By the time we get to a general election ballot, the choices we have are constrained, sometimes to trying to figure out the lesser of two evils. Even in a primary election, our choices are still often constrained by a candidate’s money or lack thereof, by the way institutional pressure and obstacles are deployed to defend incumbents and insiders. It’s not that a candidate can’t win without the establishment—Councilmember Montgomery is proof of that. But it’s an uphill battle even in the best of circumstances. We need to do better at keeping the issues and real solutions front and center in the public’s minds, and finding and supporting candidates who will enact those solutions. Because, yes, it matters who we vote for, but it matters, too, who we have the opportunity to vote for. I don’t know exactly how to do all of this, but I know we need it. I hope we can get there.

#MatteredtoMe - June 5, 2020: A Week of Protest, Black Lives Matter

  1. Last week, Hanif Abdurraqib wrote about the violence of American normalcy. “But also because when people fighting for freedom use tactics some would deem violent, it is holding up a mirror to a violent country. Whether or not that result is intentional or understood by those in power. So much of what is labeled as violence was learned through American machinery or American neglect.”
  2. Kimmy Yam wrote about Tou Thao and the history of Asian American complicity in anti-Blackness. Something we as Asian Americans need to understand and own.
  3. Like a lot of people, I returned to Jericho Brown's poem “Bullet Points” this week. Written four years ago, but, of course, part of the point of all of this is that police violence isn't new.
  4. Danez Smith's piece in the New Yorker today, “Crying, Laughing, Crying at the George Floyd Protests in Minneapolis.” “Why do we have police? Have you Googled where they come from? The precinct’s ancestor is the plantation cabin filled with overseers, between the slave quarters and the big house. When the North came down to free my people, you tell me what burned.”
  5. Finally, Luther Hughes's poem “Stay Safe,” which starts with such tenderness, contrasting with the worry and fear that comes later. Well, which is always there.

As always, this is just a portion of what has mattered to me recently. It's been heartening to me to see so many of my friends and family speaking up and speaking out lately, who might not have before. I hope it is a sign of good things yet to come.

Thank you, and take care.

#MatteredToMe - May 29, 2020: Comfort

So, today is Friday, and on Fridays I post a round-up of art or writing that mattered to me over the past week. Over the years, many people have told me they find my lists comforting, and today I'm thinking about what it means to offer comfort in times of unrest.

I think that a bit of comfort or solace or respite can provide us with the space we need to continue on and do what needs doing. And some of the things I share, I hope can help engender compassion for those who need it, and that that compassion can help make change.

But I also know that turning toward comfort can be a way of turning away from that which is uncomfortable, of closing our eyes and hearts to the suffering of others. It can dilute the urgency we feel to make necessary changes. It can enable complicity.

So, all of this is on my mind right now, as I'm preparing to share this week's list. I do want to celebrate and share the things that have mattered to me, and I do want to help comfort the afflicted, to help make the world a little better. But I am yet concerned about the idea that in some way I might be helping people feel comfortable with the status quo. I'm not sure what my responsibility is, ultimately.

I hope that in sharing things that made me think or feel, I am doing something useful. And when I do something harmful, I hope to have the opportunity to learn and grow and do better, and I hope that I remember to take that opportunity if it's given to me.

In any case, it is Friday, and here are some things that mattered to me recently:

  1. Sasha Steensen's poem "My Body, A Barometer." Especially, today, the lines "Sometimes it is ok to be afraid / & necessary."
  2. The images in Catherine Panebianco's series "No Memory is Ever Alone" layer past and present together in a way that feels to me very much like the way I experience memory.
  3. Troy Jollimore's poem "Marvelous Things without Number," which is about impermanence and trying to hold onto things that are ungraspable, but which also pays such close attention to details which are, in fact, marvelous.
  4. Maggie Smith's piece "Ghost Story," which is about divorce, and afterlife—or, rather, it is about life, after. I think, too, it is about the way longing and becoming can happen at once.
  5. Shing Yin Khor's comic "Of Mufflers and Men" makes a metaphor out of a certain kind of roadside Americana, in a way that feels wonderfully affirming.
  6. Finally, Scene On Radio's latest episode is about the myth of journalistic objectivity, something that is always relevant and certainly remains relevant as we watch how events in Minnesota and elsewhere are reported.
  7. As an addendum, this seems a very good time to revisit Scene On Radio's excellent second season, about the history of American racism and how it continues to play out today.

As always, this is just a portion of what mattered to me recently. If you are safe and comfortable today, I hope you will take some time to help those who are not. Thank you, and take care.

#MatteredToMe - May 22, 2020: Things Fall Away

  1. Sarah Gailey's recent "Mending Sauce" post was such a gentle and beautiful and kind piece of writing. (CW: mention of a pet's death)
  2. I re-read Alvin Park's 2016 flash fiction piece "tree rot" this week. I loved its quiet lyricism, the way that land and person reflect each other.
  3. Devin Kelly's writing always has this longing to it that feels so familiar to me. In "What I Want to Know of Kindness" he wrote about loss, grief, mothers, male friendship, and gentle masculinity. I thought it was beautiful. (CW: cancer)

As always, this is just a portion of what mattered to me recently. I think right now a lot of our boundaries are being tested. I hope that you know that it's okay to have different boundaries from the people around you. Thank you, and take care.

New KTCO: Maggie Tokuda-Hall

This week on Keep the Channel Open, I'm talking with writer and podcaster Maggie Tokuda-Hall. Maggie’s debut YA novel, The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea, is a swashbuckling pirate fantasy, and it’s also a nuanced and subversive story about colonialism, the power of storytelling, and the cost of violence. In our conversation, Maggie and I talked about her love of working in multiple forms and genres, the presentation of race in her novel, and writing the horrificness of violence. Then in the second segment, we discussed how to talk to our kids about problematic books and authors.

Here are some links to where you can listen to the episode:

You can also listen to the full episode and find show notes and a transcript on the episode page at the KTCO website.

If you'd like to support Maggie's work, you could buy a copy of her YA novel The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea or her children's picture book Also an Octopus. You could read her column at Catapult, Fear and Loathing In Utero, or check out her hilarious animal facts podcast, Drunk Safari.

#MatteredToMe - May 8, 2020: Comfort, or the Lack Thereof

  1. I loved the paradox of Ada Limón's "The End of Poetry," how it is an example of both poetry's limitations and its necessity. The ache of it, the way it is a connection but not a touch.
  2. For some time now, and more and more, and especially now, social media has felt like such a frantic and overwhelming thing. Julianna Baggott's poem "The Facebook is Excited and Sad" captures that feeling so well.
  3. I really liked (and agreed with) Aidan Moher's piece about games based on The Lord of the Rings. It's always seemed to me such a disservice that so many adaptations fail to capture the wonder and beauty of the books.
  4. Finally, Noah Cho's latest food column is about kimchijigae, food scarcity, resiliency, and, I think, gratitude. I love when Noah writes about his comfort foods—I find the way he writes about it to be similarly comforting.

As always, this is just a portion of what mattered to me recently. I often find that when I'm feeling hopeless or scared, doing things for others can make me feel better. If you're able, if you have the energy and opportunity, maybe that could help you, too.

Thanks, and take care.

New KTCO: Sarah Gailey

This week on Keep the Channel Open, I'm pleased to welcome writer Sarah Gailey back to the show. Sarah’s latest novel, the YA fantasy When We Were Magic, is a wonderful story about teen friendship, magic, and queer love. In our conversation, we talked about the importance of representation and sensitivity edits, writing YA that respects teens, and how it’s okay to take up space in one’s relationships. Then for the second segment, we talked about something that’s been on all of our minds lately: food.

Here are some links to where you can listen to the episode:

You can also listen to the full episode and find show notes and a transcript on the episode page at the KTCO website.

#MatteredToMe - May 1, 2020: Two Poetry Collections

  1. Danez Smith's latest book, Homie, seemed to me both a continuation of their amazing past work and an evolution. There is fire in this collection, and sadness, but there is such joy in it, too, and so many different kinds of love—love of community, love of self, love of language. More than once, the generosity of spirit in these poems brought me to tears.
  2. I loved how Leah Huizar blended different kinds of history in her poetry collection Inland Empire, regional and cultural history intertwining with personal history. I love poems that make me reconsider places I know well. These ones gave me a new view of the state where I was born and the region where I now live, and for that I'm grateful.

As always, this is just a portion of what mattered to me recently. I've been thinking a lot lately about how letting someone help you is a gift to both of you. Maybe that's a useful thought for you, too. I hope so, anyway.

Thank you, and take care.

#MatteredToMe - April 24, 2020: Short Cuts, Wonderful!, Little Fires Everywhere

  1. There's a segment of the "Civil Disobedients" episode of Josie Long's Short Cuts podcast where comedian and activist Mark Thomas is describing the feeling of riding on a street flooded with bicycles, and it's just lovely.
  2. Just before the ad break in this week's episode of the Wonderful! podcast, there's this little interaction between Rachel and Griffin that is so sweet and so adorable, and it just made my day better to hear it.
  3. Finally, J and I sat down and watched the Little Fires Everywhere finale on Wednesday night. The whole series was so well done, and it just makes me so happy for Celeste Ng to see her book adapted so well.

As always, this is just a portion of what mattered to me recently. I hope you're well. If you're having a hard time, something I was reminded of recently is that it's okay to be upset about upsetting things. (A hat tip to Sarah Gailey for that reminder.)

Thank you, and take care.

KTCO Re-run: Celeste Ng

Tonight, the final episode of the limited series Little Fires Everywhere is available to stream on Hulu, and in honor of the occasion I'm re-releasing my 2017 conversation with Celeste Ng. It's been so much fun watching this show and seeing how it was adapted from the book, not to mention a thrill to see Celeste's name in the credits of every episode. In our conversation we talked about both Little Fires Everywhere and her first novel, Everything I Never Told You, which was one of the most important novels of my reading life. Then for the second segment we had a fun discussion about Celeste's former phobia of octopuses, and why she finds them fascinating now.

Here are some links to where you can listen to the episode:

You can also listen to the full episode and find show notes and a transcript on the episode page at the KTCO website.

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