THE BLOG
03/13/2012 04:56 pm ET Updated May 13, 2012

90-Year-Old Activist 'Granny D' Inspires Change, Walks Across Country

I learned a few very good things during my travels with Doris "Granny D" Haddock. The first, which sounds hackneyed, is that one person can make a difference. It's truer than I imagined. When Matt Keller and other young Common Cause lobbyists were making their rounds on the Hill to get votes for McCain-Feingold--a flawed but worthwhile attempt to limit the flood of corrupting money into campaigns--they kept running into the same objection from Members of Congress: "Yeah, you good government folks want this reform, but the real people back home don't care about it--it's a Beltway thing."

Matt told me that all that changed overnight when they could say, "No, actually, people do care, so much so, in fact, that a 90 year-old New Hampshire lady is walking from California to D.C. to support this bill--and she's getting lots of ink along the way." The ink was true: newspapers and local TV stations were all over her, and were changing their editorial stances in favor of the reform. Even the conservative Dallas Morning News endorsed the reform after they talked to her.

So, yeah, one person matters. A lot.

The second thing I learned is that personal sacrifice is the key to political change, and it's very rare today. Getting on a bus to D.C. and walking around with signs doesn't cut it today, if it ever did. If there's not a little Selma in the march, it doesn't much matter. If Doris had been a healthy 35-year-old walking across the country, she would not have moved the bill to passage, which she did. (It could not have passed it without her, according to the bill's sponsors). Her secret weapon was her willingness to endure incredible leg cramps every night and to suffer through steep hills with her emphysema and her arthritis. Reporters walking with her became true believers, starting most notably with Frank Bruni of The New York Times. Big changes are all about personal sacrifice and the acceptance of pain to demonstrate the importance of the issue. The only real way to show people the depth of your feelings is to show them what you will do short of suicide or masochism (which don't sell and don't represent high human values).

Doris's willingness to keep going was an inspiration not only to me (I was the Common Cause guy for Arizona when she strode into our deadly desert), but also to people like the D.C. public relations wiz John Anthony, who pushed her story onto Good Morning America, NPR and a hundred other platforms. He introduced her, in fact, to Arianna Huffington, who became a big supporter of Doris and her message. Some 2,300 people were walking with Doris when she reached Washington, and she had to ski the last 90 miles after the biggest snowstorm in 40 years.

So I learned that we each can make a difference, but it isn't a casual thing: we have to make a sacrifice--that's the second thing to take away from Doris's life. We have to leave our ego and false sense of dignity at home and just get out there and suffer our way through. I learned that when you really do that, and when you are really balls-to-the-wall in service to a good cause, doors and opportunities open like magic for you every new day. It's actually spooky.

There was a third thing: A few years after her long walk, after the passage of her bill, she recruited a few friends to help her register working women to vote in advance of the 2004 election. It was a grueling trek--I don't remember how many cities, but about 23,000 miles were involved, mostly in a rattletrap old van. What I learned with her on that trek was the fact that the Democrats, or lets say the progressives, can easily win every election in almost every state if they would just listen to people and help them. On that trek, which is the subject of the second half of her new, posthumous, memoir, she did two things of note:

She took over the jobs of working women, just long enough for them to register to vote. She was an alligator feeder in Orlando, a mermaid near Tampa, and a bartender on Bourbon Street in New Orleans, a masseuse in Detroit, and much more. She went into a strip club in Tampa to register the women, which she did (refusing a turn on the stage). She did all that to attract the television and print stories that would encourage working women to register, and encourage voter registration officials to create outreach programs. Her message to working women was, "Yes, it's a pain to take time off and go register, but if I can go to all this trouble at my age and infirmity just to remind you, you can damn well do this thing for yourself and your country," and it worked.

The other, more mind-opening thing she did was listen to people's troubles. When our little wildly-painted van pulled into a housing project, be it Little Haiti, Fort Meyers, Memphis, St. Louis, or as far up as Duluth, kids came out to see us. Our traveling artist, Blue Broxton, would start drawing on the sidewalks with big chalk, and then she would give colors to the kids, and the sidewalks would explode. Then their parents would come out to see, and we would register them. Many of those people said they had never had anyone come into the project to help them register. They told us their problems, and we listened and often did what we could with phone calls to officials. We encouraged them to organize, and to work with churches and other organizations. People seemed inspired by Granny to actually do things like that for themselves and their neighbors. They planned after-the-vote parties to encourage voting.

We learned that many young adults had lost the right to vote because of the rap sheet that follow people in the projects as a result of Clinton's putting a zillion more cops on the streets instead of ending poverty. When we showed up in projects with the forms these young people needed to restore their voting rights, they lined up for them. Mothers took copies so they could make more copies after we left. Had anyone from either political party ever come through here to listen or to help? Never, they said. Never. And there were enough votes right there to swing any election.

With Chicago's amazing Andrea Raila we cruised the halls of Cabrini Green housing projects in Chicago. People were delighted to register, and delighted to know they could vote down at the school they could see from their windows. Were we the first to knock on their doors with voter forms? Yes, they said, we were. Before we left, Doris cried in the parking lot to see such lovely children in such poverty, and so abandoned by the political class.

When the Democratic Convention in Boston rolled around, Doris spoke to a gathering of Dean and Kucinich progressives, whose joint gathering she had worked to create. She told them that elections are just the report card to tell us how well we have been listening to people and helping them with their problems. She said that to just show up every few years and ask for votes was fraud. She said that if the Democrats would shed their fancier offices and plunk down in the middle of the neighborhoods that needed political help every day, then the Democrats would never lose an election.

And she was right. But the parties are, for the most part, just lawyers versus doctors, vying for power. The Democratic party's dedication to real people's needs has more often than not been a scam--the present administration being not much of an exception.

At the end of her working women vote trek, a twist of fate (the last-minute departure of the Democrat candidate) made Doris the New Hampshire candidate for the U.S. Senate in 2004--not because she thought she could win or wanted to, but because it would be an opportunity to turn her state back into the blue by stumping against Bush's war and his anti-middle class policies. In fact, New Hampshire turned blue by a few thousand votes, and her headquarters was a victory celebration for those of us who knew her real reason for running.

That, perhaps was the fourth thing she taught me: you never lose if you're all in. You never lose because, as she said in a speech in Pecos, Texas, when walking across all of our country:

"Never be discouraged from being an activist because people tell you that you'll not succeed. You have already succeeded if you're out there representing truth or justice or compassion or fairness or love. You already have your victory because you have changed the world. You have changed the status quo by you. You have changed the chemistry of things, and changes will spread from you, will be easier to happen again in others because of you, because, believe it or not, you are the center of the world."

She believed that, not only for herself, but for you and me. She often stole that great old quote: "democracy is not something you have; it's something you do."

It's what she did. It's what we all must do, even on days when our bones creak and our voices wheeze.

Dennis Michael Burke is the co-author of Granny D's American Century [University Press of New England, $27.95].

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