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Chapter Three: Finding the Courage to Speak the Truth

 

Speak the truth? I am such a dork to think this matters to anyone - one of those simpleminded persons who thinks it his duty to speak only the truth. Sophisticated adults know that the world does not always come in blacks and whites but occasionally in exquisite shades of gray. How much good does the truth teller do when he informs a 6-year-old child that the tooth fairy doesn’t exist? Should a person on his death bed be told that he has an hour to live? Regardless of preachings about truth, the important thing is to keep the show going.

Be realistic. There are times and circumstances where lies, while theoretically abhorrent, do actually make sense. For instance, they are a good tool to use for keeping other people in line. Since our country is based on the idea of being on top, we Americans may have a particular appetite for swallowing lies. All that may change, however, when we realize that we are not on top and the lies in which we so knowingly acquiesce are meant to keep us pacified. When the lie teller wants us to keep a little secret, we, like Tonto, can always say: “Whadda ya mean we?”

It did not take me long to realize that, even though I had graduated from a prestigious college, I was not part of the ruling class. My kind seldom is. By “kind”, I don’t mean gender, race, or socioeconomic class but the type of person who would write books like this. We are these dorky self-styled truth-tellers perched on a soap box, hoping someone will be interested in our wisdom. But I offer experience, too. So this book is a story about my experience in running for President as well as a place to express thoughts about the kind of society I would try to create if by some chance I were elected to that office.

On the day before I set out on a journey to what I thought would be my first primary state, I had a haircut at a barber school in north Minneapolis which I often patronize. The student barber was a talkative man, white, about fifty years old, who hailed from Mankato in southern Minnesota. He told me that he had worked for twenty-five years for the flagship firm, a specialty-printing company, of a conglomerate owned by one of Minnesota’s richest men, the billionaire owner of the Minnesota Timberwolves pro basketball team. I asked him why he had left employment with that firm. It was not that he had been laid off or fired, the man said, but a calculated decision, mid life, to begin a new career.

A problem was that work hours were becoming too long. He had done a business study and found that several barbers in Mankato were approaching retirement age and none were ready to take their place. By his reckoning, he could make the same amount of money per week as a barber as he did with his former employer working twenty hours a week less.

This man had no hard feelings about his former employer. He had been a competent and trusted middle manager. He went on to say that the billionaire’s businesses were so successful because he, the owner, expected each company to be profitable. The company manager was held accountable for increasing profits and, if he failed to perform, he was left go. He himself had been an “idea man” who found ways to cut costs and increase profits when profit margins shrank. I was struck, however, by the fact that the billionaire employer had paid this man such a meager salary after twenty-five years and was working him so hard that he was willing to trade all this for the life of a novice barber.

Clearly this aspiring barber had a positive attitude. He was proud to have been the billionaire’s employee, privy, for instance, to information about how far the current owner of the Minnesota Vikings would have to come down in price for him to buy the team. This man had also made a rational decision to move on to a new career in the field of cutting hair. Thinking ahead to my forthcoming political campaign, I began to associate his situation to what seemed typical for so-called “management” employees. There is something in American culture which makes us identify with and support our leaders no matter how shabbily they treat us. All they need to do is tell us that we are part of management, that we are part of a privileged group.

One might guess that my own career path has been different. I was an outspoken, free-spirited type sometimes considered to be a loose cannon. My employer, a public-transit agency, cut me loose in the spring of 1996 after sixteen years with the organization. This ended a twenty-five year career in accounting with a number of public and private entities.

Before leaving the last job, I purchased real estate in an inner-city neighborhood of Minneapolis. It was across the street from an apartment building where I moved to be close to my employer. I first bought a fourplex owned by HUD and then a nine-unit apartment building adjacent to it. At the time, housing prices were depressed. Street crime was rampant. There was drug dealing in the apartment building.

Inevitably, I ran afoul of the local neighborhood association, police and city officials. Despite my best efforts, my apartment building was blamed for bringing criminals into the neighborhood. The city health inspector condemned my building and a building inspector cited me for costly code violations. I met this challenge through borrowing. After the neighborhood group held a rally to denounce me, I learned of a group of landlords in south Minneapolis who were suing the city for inspections abuse.

I became a stalwart with the group. Although the federal lawsuit did not pan out, the suing landlords turned into an effective political-pressure group. We spoke out at public gatherings, picketed City Hall, protested city-ordered building demolitions, and, most importantly, held a monthly meeting which was videotaped and shown on cable television. There was also a free-circulation newspaper. We became a thorn in the side of city government. Thanks to our incessant propaganda, the public came to realize that buildings do not cause crime; criminals do. Also, top city officials were running real-estate scams.

Of course, such activity led to electoral politics. When no one opposed the mayor’s reelection, I announced that I would run. Then I dropped out of the race when a better-known candidate friendly to our cause stepped up to the plate. Four years later, in 2001, the head of our landlord group became a mayoral candidate. Unexpectedly, he suffered a heart attack, became bitter about the lack of campaign support, and dropped out both as a candidate and leader of the group. I filed for mayor to fill his shoes.

My campaign was short but vigorous. I passed out numerous flyers denouncing the city’s housing policies while carrying a picket sign around town. Election day was traumatic on two counts. First, my campaign efforts gained a pitiful 143 votes, which was good for twelfth place among the twenty-two candidates. Second, and more important, the Pentagon and World Trade Center were attacked on that day. For it was September 11, 2001. The terrorist attacks produced lasting trauma for our nation and the world. My personal disappointment with the primary results was more than relieved when, in November’s general election, Minneapolis voters replaced the mayor and a majority of City Council members.

My take on politics was shaped by experiences had as a member of the landlord group. As a political-pressure group, we had failed in all the conventional ways. We failed in our lawsuit. We failed to pass a bill introduced at the state legislature. We failed to elect any of our members to public office. Yet, the group was a big success. What we had achieved had to do with values and perceptions of truth. We had turned the discussion around from stigmatizing landlords for neighborhood crime to making the public see that the police needed to accept ownership of this problem and it was improper to use inspections as a crime-fighting tool.

Once lamb for the slaughter, we inner-city landlords became a feared player in city politics; a reporter once called us the only effective opposition to the city’s one-party government. And we did this, again, not through legal victories but by speaking the truth as we knew it. We learned that an individual speaking out in public on matters of which he has personal experience can be a powerful instrument for change.

The landlord group was filled not with policy wonks but with persons willing to tell what was on their mind. As a result, it had a certain energy and power. We did not try to be “the good guy” or control the public image of ourselves. If someone called us a group of “slumlords”, we accepted the label. When an ill-meaning person would say “I realize that you personally are one of the ‘good’ landlords; we are talking are talking about the many ‘bad ones’’”, I would respond, “my neighborhood group considers me a slumlord”. In effect, I was saying: “Don’t try to divide us.” That way we could live without fear. Without poking into another’s business, we trusted each other. There were no fights over parliamentary procedure. There was no haggling over issues. Each member of the group did what he or she could to aid our common enterprise.

The essence of our method was, as I said, to speak out on aspects of city policy. The televised meetings provided a way to amplify our individual testimony. However uncouth they may have seemed, these meetings had a ring of authenticity. These were real people speaking out on matters of real public concern, not bureaucrats speaking jargon. As a result, persons aspiring to public office gravitated toward our group; and, when some of them got elected, we had clout.

All this time, neither the Star Tribune, Minneapolis’ daily newspaper, nor the weekly alternatives gave us any recognition or credit for what we had accomplished, even in our key role in unseating the City Council President. We slumlords were, by definition, incapable of doing anything good. Political liberals hated and despised us. Conservatives, while courting our political and financial support, may have considered us beneath their dignity. We were these greedy maggots who provided housing for the poor, not as an act of charity but to make a living. I’m sure that the lawyers, journalists, educators, religious and business leaders decided that we, in associating with society’s underclass, did not have clean hands. But we saw ourselves as a group working to clean up city government and, in our own way, improve society.

Those who saw the landlord organization primarily as an economic interest group, working to increase its profits, missed the mark. We were mostly small property owners. There were plenty of other landlords with larger property holdings who refused to join us. In fact, they often joined with our critics who, in tagging us as slumlords, hoped to ruin us individually so they could pick up our properties for a song. Yet, our political exertions benefited them as well. Were we dupes and fools, giving our free labor to persons who despised us, or did we have some other motivation?

I decided that our labors were worthwhile from the standpoint of creating a life filled with camaraderie and high adventure that would be hard to come by in any other way. Whatever others might think of us, we were given the opportunity to express ourselves and to be ourselves politically while also having a noticeable impact on the larger community. It was Camelot during those brief years when our group held together unselfishly and fearlessly fought all the dragons of the realm. I am not among those who say it might have been better to have given up that experience for the sake of acquiring more riches to take to the grave.

I learned to put a value on speaking the truth for its own sake. I developed a faith that even one person expressing something once will change society in a small way. And, if others follow that person’s example, the change can be great. “Monkey see, monkey do,” is a powerful influence upon human beings. Courage is infectious. Someone courageously standing up in public to express what he believes in does inspire the urge to emulation, though there are other forces working to hold people back. Chief among them, perhaps, is the need to make a living. Bureaucracies and professions that provide a good income are subject to pressures that tell people how to think.

In that regard, we independent landlords had an advantage. No one could fire us if we said the wrong thing. We could be just as outrageously wrong or politically incorrect as we wanted to be. Our customers, the tenants, would not abandon us if they needed rental housing; and, if the city tried to pull any nonsense similar to what it did to me, the landlord group could retaliate immediately. They knew we had teeth. So, really, we were in the rather unique position of being able to say freely what what was on our mind. We could exercise the freedom of personal thought and expression which citizens of this nation in theory enjoy but not in fact. It was an enviable situation to have in life. This is what inspired my further venturing into politics. I would aspire to speak the truth because I could. Many others in my community did not have that luxury.

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