Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.

Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

That was presidential hopeful Tom Steyer, when I spoke with him recently, during his second stop through North Carolina in two weeks.

Yes, there are primary and caucus states after Iowa and New Hampshire. And Democratic candidates are realizing success in those two states is not necessarily destiny. That means appealing to the diverse voters who will have to make peace with the candidates and one another by November, and realizing that as the primaries move South, West and beyond, inequality is an essential part of the debate.

But paying attention is not just electoral expediency, it is a matter of political philosophy as well — the “vision” thing. While other nations are still fighting ancient rivalries and coming up with solutions guaranteed to leave someone unhappy — see this week’s proposed Middle East peace plan — America has reason to fret over its own longtime divisions, laid starkly bare in this contentious election season.

A complex experiment

An impeachment trial is not the only thing that has the parties and the country looking at the same evidence and landing on different conclusions. There is disagreement on what the American experiment really means, and where do we go from here.

While Democrats are wrestling, sometimes clumsily, with complex issues of inclusion, the Republican Party’s message, through policy and vocabulary, is much clearer when it comes to appealing across lines of race, faith, national origin, socio-economic status and orientation.

In recent weeks, a Supreme Court dominated by conservative justices has given the go-ahead to the Trump administration to implement “wealth test” rules for legal immigration, while challenges work their way through the courts, making it easier to deny immigrants residency or admission because they have used or might use public-assistance programs. How many current citizens’ immigrant relatives would pass the test, and are Americans comfortable making wealth the defining judge of hard work and character?

The president is also considering expanding the travel ban that was criticized for targeting Muslim-majority countries. According to a Politico report, Nigeria might be added to the list, despite the many Nigerian Americans doing very well when it comes to education and income. Trump, of course, dismissed the country with a profanity.

States fear cuts in food assistance that don’t consider that pockets of limited employment opportunities leave many hurting, even in a good economy. Though poverty cuts across all lines, Americans disadvantaged by society’s obstacles — the poor, the disabled, minorities — acutely feel cuts in the safety net.

Abnormal times

The California Steyer speaks of with pride is the state Trump disparages. Homelessness and income inequality — problems not limited to the West Coast — are not viewed as American challenges to be met but as useful cudgels for political-opponent bashing. Trump does the same for other locales, eschewing the usual presidential gesture of assuring those who chose someone else or none of the above that the commander in chief has their backs.

In contrast, billionaire Democratic candidate Michael Bloomberg recently announced his Greenwood Initiative, a plan to address the systemic bias that has kept many African Americans from building wealth, in the Greenwood neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma, known for its role in the historical destruction of black wealth in America. Its “black Wall Street” was destroyed in a 1921 race massacre; mass graves are still being discovered.

Yes, Bloomberg is bedeviled by his New York City “stop and frisk” history, and some cynicism is warranted for his repeated efforts to persuade voters reluctant because of it. Nonetheless, that gesture acknowledged that America’s celebrated greatness has always been complicated and conditional.

When chided by a protest led by pastor and human rights activist Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II before the Iowa debate, Democratic candidates talked about poverty and the Poor People’s Campaign, a current reimagining of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s crusade. King’s day and contributions received the most cursory of acknowledgments from the current White House, if you don’t count counselor Kellyanne Conway’s suggestion that he would oppose impeachment — and why would you count it? What kind of welcome will the campaign’s Poor People’s Assembly and Moral March on Washington, planned for June 20, receive, I wonder?

Weighing their options

Voters have a choice, and are paying attention, from the enthusiastic and supportive crowds at Trump rallieslike in New Jersey this week, to folks who came prepared with questions at that Steyer town hall at a Charlotte, North Carolina, boys and girls center.

Carol Archibald, 67, a retired ICU nurse, said she had seen a lot in her 46-year career, from health professionals dropping dead from burnout to young people traumatized by violence and interactions with law enforcement in her New York City home. She said she appreciated Steyer’s “heart for the poor,” evidenced by the nonprofits and community bank he and his wife established before his presidential run. Issues on the list for her and her daughter, Faye Brown, who accompanied her, included clean air and water, health care and affordable housing.

Even my usual go-to theater escape is often about more serious things these days.

This week, I watched “The New Colossus,” a theater event written by actor/activist Tim Robbins and his Actors’ Gang, in Charlotte at the start of a national tour. The dozen members of the ensemble are guides in an immersive, harrowing journey of refugees — some related to the actors, we learn — who found hope, relief, escape in America.

Led by Robbins in an after-show talkback, audience members shared, sometimes with emotion, their own American stories, with roots that ranged from indigenous to new arrivals to Mayflower descendants. I shared the story of Addie Price, my great-grandmother, just 6 years old and clinging to her mother’s skirts when the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, a part of that history passed down so as not to forget.

“There is so much divisiveness, so much hateful rhetoric, that is dividing us,” Robbins told me after the show. “I think it’s important to tell stories that remind us of our shared humanity, our shared history, and what we have in common.” The idea, he said, “is to make people think in a different way, open their hearts a little bit.”

After seeing a show that takes its name from an Emma Lazarus sonnet, whose lines appear on the Statue of Liberty, it’s clear what her words mean to him.

The jury is still out on the rest of us.

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

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