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Politics: Pulling Focus

Local progressives stage a "slam" at Second City.

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According to a recent Pew Center poll, support for the Democratic Party hasn't grown even though Republican approval ratings are plummeting. The problem? People think Republicans at least are clear about what they want: lower taxes, less government, strong defense. Democrats have "a hundred answers and it's ten minutes before the first sentence ends," says Peter Cunningham, president of the Bread and Butter Forum. For the Dems to win in 2008, they have to learn to keep it short and simple.

To that end the BBF--a local organization of progressive activists--last week hosted its inaugural Voter Slam, an entertaining if only vaguely practical public brainstorming session at Second City. Hoping to trade righteous anger for irreverent humor and negativity for problem solving on bread-and-butter issues like jobs, health care, retirement, housing, education, and energy, the group invited more than a dozen people to spend 90 seconds apiece telling an audience of like-minded friends and acquaintances what they vote for when they vote Democratic.

Each slammer stepped up to a lone mike on the bare Second City E.T.C. stage. Some brought notes; only Hannah Rosenthal, of the Chicago Foundation for Women, brought rhyming couplets. As in a poetry slam, vigorous audience participation was encouraged. Cohosts Jordan Klepper of Second City and Marj Halperin, BBF secretary and most recently manager of Forrest Claypool's campaign for County Board chairman, kept the pace up with a running serious-cop/sarcastic-cop routine.

Veteran politico and writer Don Rose prefaced the slam with a talk that followed the BBF's lead. "Economics was the glue that held together the New Deal coalition," he said, "and we surely need a new New Deal today." Then the slam began, and thoughts scattered. Chicago public-school teacher Alan Robinson said he was tired of voting for apologetic liberals: "Conservative Americans pass me on the highway, see my bumper stickers, flip me off, and they don't apologize." Designer Alice Berry wanted to be able to go to France "and not have them tease me about still having the death penalty." Bicycling advocate Randy Neufeld urged the audience to "stop fixating on Washington" and focus instead on "the daily local choices that bring about real change."

Former state rep Lauren Beth Gash momentarily brought the focus back when she proclaimed, "No one who works should be poor." Dan Seals, who ran a strong 2006 race against North Shore Republican congressman Mark Kirk, said Americans long for "competent government." Moraine Township trustee Margoth Moreno queried, "What are we going to do about immigration?"

Last week Ron Brownstein wrote in the Los Angeles Times that "blue-collar Democrats tend to see elections as an arena for defending their interests, and the upscale voters see them as an opportunity to affirm their values." Insofar as the BBF sought to turn values voters into interest voters, it didn't happen. Nobody got hissed off stage; at one point a woman hollered out, "Where's the slam factor?" But perhaps "What did we vote for?" just doesn't inspire the same laserlike focus the Cheney administration's malevolent incompetence does.

During a break in the action, Klepper and Second City's Aimee McKay did a rapid-fire skit in which an elderly woman tried to enlist in the military, against the recruiter's better judgment. "I have skills," she insisted--"I figured out Medicare Part D! . . . I can distract the insurgents! . . . I can encourage the soldiers--'Get out there! You might die! But see what happens if you don't!'" Finally she offered a deal: take me instead of my 19-year-old grandson. "He has so much more life left to live than I have."

The performers snatched the scene back from the brink of tears when the recruiter agreed to take down a letter to the secretary of defense for the woman. "Dear Secretary Gates," she began. "You are a shithead."

The recruiter's hands hovered motionless over the imaginary keyboard. "Ma'am, you can't write to the secretary of defense that way." He paused before continuing. "We'll save that for our letter to the president."

Lights down and some of the evening's loudest applause. Maybe people can rally behind plain old negativity after all.

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