Features » May 7, 2014
The Political Legacy of Tim Carpenter
A tribute to the radical Democrat and “ultimate organizer.”
Tim’s mission of building progressive political power spoke for itself; he didn’t need the expensive suits and slick presentation favored by other D.C.-dwelling liberals.
I first met Tim Carpenter in January of last year, at Progressive Central in Washington, D.C. The third such event in Progressive Democrats of America (PDA)’s 10-year history, the day-long round of panel discussions united left-wing members of Congress such as John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) with activists from the labor, anti-war and environmental movements.
The event’s movement-spanning range of participants and its optimistic yet pragmatic tenor typified Tim’s politics: He believed the strained relationships between the Democratic Party and its foundation—by which he meant working-class people and allied activists—were worth healing and worth strengthening. Ultimately, Tim believed, the networks that link elected Democrats to their progressive base hold the foundation for much deeper social change.
In many respects, in his politics, Tim carried the torch from his mentor Michael Harrington, the idiosyncratic author of The Other America and founder of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). Harrington called for activists to work with federal and state-level Democrats as a means of shifting the mainstream political agenda towards the left. When I interviewed Tim for In These Times’ December 2013 issue, we talked about his involvement in DSA as a young organizer, as well as his roots in the Catholic Worker movement and the impact of red-baiting in American political life.
That’s when I first came to understand that Tim was essentially a radical—a socialist who didn’t call himself a socialist.
“When I was younger, when I was hanging out with Michael Harrington and was a member of DSA in my 20s and 30s, I was very proud of the label [socialist],” Tim told me.
However, he pointed out, the specific word is far less important than the cause it represents. “I’ve learned as I got older, as I battled a lot of my illnesses, is what little time we have,” he continued. “I would rather have folks debate the merits of what it is we’re fighting for, whether it be single-payer or a redirection of military spending to meeting human needs, than the definition of socialism.”
That goal-oriented attitude frequently resurfaced throughout Tim’s work with PDA. “He always had this mindset: OK, there’s only so much we can do on the streets, but we’ve got to bring in that movement inside the party,” says Conor Boylan, PDA’s national field director, who worked closely with Tim. “If we really want to move the agenda forward, we need to be out in the streets, but we also need a legislative vehicle to push through.”
The first time we met, I was a little taken aback by how haggard-looking Tim was. Plagued by an array of health problems, he wore a glass eye and wobbled around with a limp. On top of that, like much of PDA’s leadership, he seemed to test the boundaries of how disheveled one could publicly appear with members of Congress.
“Tim’s the only guy I’ve ever been with on Capitol Hill who made me look well-dressed,” says Steve Cobble, a fellow PDA co-founder who first met Tim on Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign. I should note that Steve was wearing light blue jeans and a corduroy jacket on that day in January—Tim himself had opted for an olive-green collared shirt under a navy dress jacket.
I never asked Tim why he looked so casual in these sorts of settings. But I think the answer is obvious: he never felt the urge to impress members of Congress or their staffers. Tim’s mission of building progressive political power spoke for itself; he didn’t need the expensive suits and slick presentation favored by other D.C.-dwelling liberals. From PDA’s early years up until the group’s more recent monthly roundtables on Capitol Hill, Tim entered meetings in Washington with that overarching, singular focus. And he worked to do the same in the streets.
In his March 2014 essay for Harpers, political scientist Adolph Reed Jr. charged that the “American left [has] moved increasingly to the middle,” having abandoned its once-transformational vision in favor of Democratic electoralism. Tim, though a proud Democrat, was never guilty of this. The various pieces of legislation that he backed lay the foundation for an ambitiously social democratic future: Medicare-for-All, full employment, and strong taxes on financial transactions and carbon pollution capable of funding a robust welfare state.
But these are dark times. Ultimately, the political context that Tim worked so hard to transform managed to snuff out his deeper aspirations. Under the shadow of a perpetually self-weakening labor movement and increasingly pro-corporate Democratic Party, Tim and PDA simply lacked the necessary partners to achieve their agenda during his lifetime.
This meant that, more often than not, Tim and PDA were stuck playing defense—they were the fire brigades, as I heard him and his fellow PDAers say several times in our acquaintance. That said, Tim’s work on such defensive front lines can’t be understated. He was an early opponent of the White House’s plan to slash Social Security benefits, pressuring Democratic members of Congress to pledge to vote against any and all cuts. Last summer, Tim and PDA played a vital role in reassembling the once-mighty anti-war movement to block President Obama’s ill-fated plans for military intervention in Syria. And most recently, PDA helped push a majority of Democrats in the House of Representatives to go on record against “fast-track” authority, a legislative maneuver that’s all but necessary for the Trans-Pacific Partnership to continue.
The sheer range of issues that PDA now tackles speaks to Tim’s commitment to movement-building. Reverend Lennox Yearwood, president of the Hip Hop Caucus, called him “the ultimate organizer”—someone who worked to overcome the “silos” that divide progressive groups by issues and race. “Because of our work with Tim and PDA, definitely walls were broken,” he says.
Yearwood points to the instrumental part that Tim played in the Hip Hop Caucus’ early years, helping connect the fledgling, majority-black group to larger, majority-white players in the progressive movement, such as the D.C.-based Institute for Policy Studies or the Madison-based Liberty Tree Foundation.
“Since that time, the Hip Hop Caucus has grown to be a leader in the peace movement and the climate change movement. I think a lot of that is because of what Tim did,” says Yearwood. “Plus, Tim gave us a tremendous amount of respect, more than, I would say, a lot of progressives.”
Tim shared another quality that’s vital for organizers, especially in such politically gloomy times: his ability to inspire hope. Among his friends and colleagues, his exclamatory email sign-offs are legendary: Teamwork! Onward! Keep On! Big Hug! The latter, moreover, was not reserved for metaphor. Reverend Yearwood recalls the “sweaty white guy hugs” that Tim used to shower him with—even before they were friends.
Tim fought and organized at his characteristically frenetic rate up until the very end. Before he passed away, he was intensely focused on a petition drive to encourage Bernie Sanders to run in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary. (More than 11,000 people have signed so far.)
“My conclusion about Tim was that … he shouldn’t be able to do as much as he does,” Cobble says.
I, for one, will never forget the time Tim corresponded with me from the hospital late last August. As Secretary Kerry was beating the war drums on Syria, Tim was receiving cancer treatment and trying to connect me with anti-war organizers to interview. “Working from nurses station :-),” he wrote me. “They took my cell away while I’m in hospital :-)” And I’m just a journalist. I can only imagine the other kinds of organizing he was doing from the operating table.
It sounds absolutely insane—and it mostly is—but it makes perfect sense when you consider that Tim lived his life for the movement.
Rest in peace, Tim, and rest in power. Onward!
Cole Stangler writes about labor and the environment. His reporting has also appeared in The Nation, VICE, The New Republic and International Business Times. He lives in Paris, France. He can be reached at cole[at]inthesetimes.com. Follow him @colestangler.