This evening K and I were invited to a house party for Kweisi Mfume, one of several Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate from Maryland. If you've never been to a meet-the-candidate event, I highly recommend going to one, especially if it's a small, informal coffee klatch at someone's home. Even if you're not swayed from your position on the candidates or the issues they represent, at the very least you'll come away with some deeper insight into the political process. If you're lucky, you'll also leave heartened by the notion that even in a fairly major race for national office, grassroots campaigning still plays a big role in how people get elected.
As for myself, I went in a firm, if not ardent supporter of the other guy, and came out with an Mfume bumper sticker and a flicker of rekindled faith in truly progressive politics and the power of the underdog. It's not that Mfume was so tremendously inspiring in his rhetoric, which was fairly subdued and rife with liberal candidate cliches. Nor was I surprised by his issue stances, which were fairly predictable to anyone who knows anything about Mfume's personal and professional history. What struck me instead was his personality. The candidate was warm without being phony, passionate without sounding shrill, dignified without being stiff. He did not give the air of someone who is gracing us with his presence, after the fashion of some name-brand politicians; nor did he seem desperate for votes and cash, in the manner of many underdog candidates. He was gracious, calm, focused, and sincere.
Despite the humid closeness of the September evening, the air was fairly rarified in that north Baltimore house. There were more nonprofit heads, foundation types, policy wonks, and wealthy retirees sipping sauvignon blanc and nibbling bruschetta than one typically encounters during the course of a random Tuesday. A wonk myself, I was initially a bit disappointed by Mfume's remarks, which tended more toward the ideological and visionary than the practical and policy-oriented. I kept comparing him to Ben Cardin, his major rival and the big dog in the '06 MD Senate race. Cardin, who is the consummate wonk, would have answered each question with detailed, 10-point plans, complete with possible funding mechanisms and implementation timeframes. Mfume spoke about things like fairness and responsibility and inclusiveness. He talked about how the mainstream of American society was just waking up to issues of race and class in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. He talked about how the current administration throws disabled veterans "on the trash heap." He talked about how racism and homophobia and prejudice toward poor people rob us of a true sense of who we really are and can be as a nation. As he spoke -- quietly, crisply, authoritatively -- I felt a deepened sense of respect and admiration for the candidate and for the man.
Years ago, when I was first politicized by my wife, she instructed me to "vote your heart in the primary; vote your head in the general." It's an oft-repeated sentiment, but one that has sometimes gotten lost for me the more actively involved in politics I've become. Tonight, listening to Kweisi, that aphorism took on new meaning and relevance for me.
Should Cardin win the primary, which looks likely given that the engines of the political establishment are whirring on his behalf, I will support him unhesitatingly. He's a good legislator and a good Democrat. Maryland will be well served by Cardin as a senator as it has by Cardin as a representative. But this primary season, I want to throw my lot in with the underdog. I want to support the guy who grew up tough on the toughest streets of a tough city, who rose above the role that institutionalized racism and classism had pre-ordained for him. I want to vote for the candidate who went from West Baltimore to a Master's degree from Johns Hopkins, and from there to the City Council, and from there to the U.S. Congress, and from there to the leadership of the nation's oldest civil rights organization.
This primary season, I vote my heart.