When I was in 6th grade and my big brother Ken was already old enough to vote, I tried to explain to him how to choose a candidate. An 11-year-old me told him that he should listen to all their speeches and carefully examine each candidate’s policy positions. He said “No, that’s not the way. You need to look at their values. You can’t predict what policy decisions they may have to make in the future. What you need to know is what values they will rely on to decide.”
This Fall, our club will be faced with a choice of endorsing only one of the three outstanding Democrats running for the U.S. Senate. We have the Prosecutor, the Law Professor, and the Social Worker. Each of them has written a memoir that can give us a glimpse into the values that guide their public service. Here are the books listed in the order in which I read them.
Midnight in Washington: How We Almost Lost Our Democracy and Still Could—by Adam Schiff
Representative Schiff’s Midnight in Washington opens with the words “Please grab a mask!” spoken by a Capitol Police Officer. It goes on to a riveting insider account of January 6th. Schiff’s concern for the safety of his colleagues and staff made me feel that he was just exactly the kind of person I would want standing next to me if I were under attack.
No review of Schiff’s career can fail to address his vote to authorize the American Invasion of Iraq which he calls the greatest mistake of his public life. He explains that he was not on the Intelligence Committee at the time (neither was I), that he relied on flawed intelligence, and perhaps, I think, a misplaced faith in the Republicans (“we weren’t friends, but we were friendly”) to act in the interests of our country.
Schiff now says, “Power does not necessarily corrupt, it reveals.” Other chapters of the book tell of his family’s story of immigration from places that later became sites of Holo- caust and pogrom. That and his youthful ex- periences traveling in an authoritarian country where government surveillance is ubiquitous, have made him especially vigilant to the threat of autocracy. It is noteworthy that brave heroes of the First Trump Impeachment such as Alexander Vindman and Fiona Hill are themselves immigrants. Their courage was contagious—bringing other witnesses forward. This seems to have hardened Schiff’s resolve to keep America a place where someone like Vindman can truly say “Here, right matters.”
I commend to you these stirring words of Schiff’s epilogue: “Our present circumstances are desperate, but we do not have the luxury of despair…For all its imperfections, America remains the best hope of freedom-loving people around the world.”
I highly recommend the book even if you are not considering a vote for Schiff for Senate. If you don’t have time to read all 483 pages, at least check out Carlos Lozada’s terrific review of it in the Washington Post. Also, you can hear Schiff discuss his book with Al Franken here.
I Swear Politics Is Messier Than My Minivan—by Katie Porter
I highly recommend Katie Porter’s book, if you want to know what it’s really like to be a member of Congress. This is no dreary civics lesson (one reviewer called it “tangy”), but it tells you what it’s like for real. For one thing, she makes it clear why most Congress members are millionaires. “Congress is full of multimillionaires for the same reason that the NBA is full of tall people.” (For details, see her Chapter 13—Personal Funds. Adam Schiff addresses that question in his book’s Chapter 3—Take Out Your Rolodex.)
She explains why she is the only single mom of school-age children in Congress. The unpredictable congressional work schedule that fails to accommodate family life and the cost of childcare (1/4 of her after-tax salary) are factors. Her kids call her “Congressmom.”
In Adam Schiff’s book, he also regrets the family sacrifices. He missed so much of his kid’s growing up time. He tells of the Thanksgiving dinner shared with his family and his security detail which was made necessary by the post-January-6 death threats. Schiff credits his partner, Eve, with making it possible for him to serve in the Congress without worrying about the kids. Congressmom has no partner.
Representative Porter’s formative years were spent on an Iowa farm during the farm crisis. (That’s where she gets the accent.) Young Katie saw banks closing and families losing everything after a lifetime of hard work growing food for a hungry nation. The banks took their homes, their farms, and even their cars. It was natural, then, that as a law professor working under the mentorship of Professor Elizabeth Warren, she made a scholarly study of bankruptcy that drew the attention of the New York Times. In time, this led her to politics, as she came to understand that policies need to change and “Professors did studies, not make policies.”
Katie Porter’s memoir leaves me with a sense of the importance of representation. Hers is a rare voice in the Congress of a single parent who watches her checking account balance—not her stock portfolio—just like most of her constituents do. Hers is also the voice of a woman in the halls of power who is frequently mistaken for “the help” or for a staffer. (A male congressional colleague once handed her his valet parking ticket by mistake and asked her to go get his Tesla.)
And like Representative Barbara Lee, she has domestic violence in her past. Representative Porter knows what it is to call for help and find that law enforcement is ill-equipped to handle such situations. She knows what it is to hear them say “Don’t call us again or we’ll take your children.”
Representative Porter perseveres through it all while keeping a sense of humor and a whiteboard. (See Page 63 for instructions on “How to Whiteboard Anyone About Anything.”) “I Swear” is a fun and informative read even if she is not your first choice for the U.S. Senate. To hear her discuss her book with Al Franken click here.
Renegade For Peace And Justice—by Barbara Lee
In her book, published in 2008, Representative Lee makes it abundantly clear that her values come from her Christian faith. The opening chapter reads like a travelogue of her spiritual journey from her conversion to Catholicism at the age of 10 and on through a series of other churches. The book is liberally sprinkled with quotes from the New Testament, and she even reprints, in full, the Beatitudes. But hers is not the Christianity of MAGA. Her Jesus is a revolutionary, and after the revolution “The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth.” If Barbara Lee has any faults as a candidate, it may be that (at least as of 2008) she was a little overly fond of the idea of giving tax money to fund “faith-based initiatives.”
It was these values that attracted her to political activity as a social service worker with the Black Panther Party. The Panthers’ Ten Point Program that called for equity, inclusiveness, peace, and justice reminded her of those Beatitudes. The Black Panther’s “survival rallies” offered food distribution and voter registration. Their slogan “All power to all the people” recognized the value of intersectionality decades before that word came into common usage.
Representative Lee’s most famous vote, of course, was against the blank check Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) that allowed the younger President Bush to invade Iraq. She foresaw the disaster that no other Congressional Representative did. It is not possible to overstate the amount of courage this took at a time when the trauma of September 11 was still so fresh. But her pursuit of peace was not just a one-day event. She continued to work quietly for repeal of that AUMF, to prevent young Bush from invading Iran, and to develop a cabinet-level Department of Peace which would work against all types
There have only been eleven Black U.S. Senators. Only two of them have been women. When the first of them, Carol Moseley Braun, was sworn in she said,
“…my presence in and of itself will change the U.S. Senate.” So the “r” word (representation) comes to mind. What does it change when there is a voice in the Senate that has climbed over what Lee calls “the twin hurdles of race and gender”?
If elected to the Senate, Representative Lee would most likely be the first U.S. Senator to have ever been on welfare. She says that “Being on welfare was a humiliating experience, but it was also enlightening.” She came to understand that the people on welfare weren’t broken, the system was broken. What does it change when there is a voice in the Senate of one who has actually been poor? Lee’s legislative goal is nothing short of the elimination of poverty.
I highly recommend the book, even if Barbara Lee is not your first-choice candidate, for its powerful living history of what it was really like to go to school in segregated America before the Brown decision and when there were “coloreds only” water fountains. What was it like to try to keep your head up when there are daily assaults on your human dignity?
So that’s what the candidates have to say about themselves. Aren’t they great? I only wish we could blend the best qualities of each into one candidate and run that candidate for President in 2028. But for now, let’s all do our homework and make the best possible decision when we make our Club’s endorsing vote this Fall.