Saturday, January 24, 2009

Kirsten Gillibrand, sitting in my den, way back when....

By Claudia Ricci

It's official, Kirsten Gillibrand, a "Blue Dog" Democrat from upstate New York, has been appointed to fill Hillary Clinton's U.S. Senate seat.

Like so many others, I'd been hearing rumors that the little-known Congresswoman was on Governor Paterson's short list. But still, it comes as a bit of a shock to learn that Kirsten's going to get Hillary's job.

Less than three years ago, on a winter Sunday afternoon, she sat in the den of my 1850s farmhouse in upstate New York, contemplating her very first run for office. She was there with her husband, and as I recall she took the leather sofa. My husband, a political activist, took the rocking chair by the stone fireplace. He spent the next couple of hours offering Kirsten his best insights, and his encouragement and advice on how to go public with her campaign.

I would like to say that my reaction to Kirsten that afternoon was love at first sight. But honestly, I found her a bit cold. And even, a little frightening. She was certainly friendly, polite, upbeat and completely enthusiastic about the prospect of defeating then cong John Sweeney, a rather vile Republican who held the seat.

But in the course of the meeting, she spoke about the work she'd done as a high-powered corporate attorney defending cigarette companies. I sat there in my own rocking chair feeling that she would certainly be a big improvement over Sweeney, but she wouldn't be my first choice for a candidate.
What is amazing is how that meeting in my den began to transform Kirsten into the candidate that would win a seat in Congress. She confessed to us that afternoon that as a female lawyer, working in a tough and largely male corporate world, she felt compelled to project that very cold hard persona I saw. She said that she couldn't do her work without embracing that facade.

My husband, wisely, advised her to take an important step: embrace a new public persona, that of a strong woman who could speak to the powers that be, but one who would still reflect her heart and soul, and even, her femininity.

Well, so, she did that. (And she has publicly acknowledged my husband's role in helping her realize that she needed to make the change.) She defeated Sweeney that November in a tight, and somewhat ugly race. (My youngest child, Noah, then a senior in high school, volunteered on her campaign.) I voted for her, and she became our Congresswoman.

Her last election, this past November, was expected to be a tight race, but lo and behold, she blew her opponent, Sandy Treadwell, a ridiculously rich businessman from the Albany area, away. Her success at this last run demonstrated her extraordinary fund-raising ability, and, her popularity with her largely rural upstate constituency.

For my part, I've come to like her. I respect her hard work on the job. I respect -- and marvel -- at the fact that she manages to balance a very demanding career with her mothering. She's done right by us, and she deserves her success.

And while she's still a "Blue Dog," her voting record has been liberal.

While she will have her detractors for sure, Gillibrand is poised to play an important role in the Senate as part of the Obama era, and she is well positioned to be a force for change in Congress.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

One Gigantic Shining Moment

By Claudia Ricci

It was way before sunrise when celebrants began to converge on the Mall to form the human quilt that stretched from the Capitol to the Washington Monument and way beyond.

How many of us were there? Two million? Three? Looking out at the sea of people, it looked like a red throbbing blur. Later, I spoke to people who despite their best efforts, actually never made it to the Mall. Three women from Iowa who had toiled hard back at home to get tickets for a good standing room perch by the Capitol told me that they ended up waiting four hours in a tunnel to get to the mall.

Sadly, police closed the entrance before they -- and thousands like them --were able to get in.

But even in that case, according to these Iowa women, there was, remarkably, no one pushing or angry or swearing, even after they were turned away. This was a day for gentle and upbeat celebration, despite the many challenges. Waiting in long, long lines, and in numbing cold, we joked and smiled and made endless chit chat. We fell into impromptu conversations with complete strangers as we walked miles, and waited hours, and watched the festivities with the press of bodies all around.

What we found was a huge spill over of emotion.

In the moments immediately after Obama was sworn in, I turned to an African American woman standing behind me and we just hugged, celebrating in that tight embrace the collapse of racial divide. We shared too what everyone out there was enjoying: a renewed sense of pride in being able to call ourselves Americans. A renewed hope that our new President can lead us through very scary and challenging times.

The spirit that took over Washington, D.C. this week will go down in history as one gigantic shining moment. A high point when we came together to celebrate our belief as Americans that anything is possible. That all dreams have their moment.

This inauguration is surely one such moment, and a wonderful launching pad for the Obama Presidency. Part street festival, part carnival, it exuded a spirit of love and cooperation, hope and possibility, that I have never associated with political events. Yes, it was a cold, cold, day, but the warmth of the people attending, and the inspiration of the leader being installed on the podium, fired us up. Gave us the heart and the heat and the hope that we indeed are witnessing a sea change in history.

No matter what disappointments lie ahead, and naturally there will be some, for now, we are glowing and so connected. We know what it means to act -- and to celebrate-- as a diverse American nation. We are convinced that we've chosen a man to lead us, to bring us together, a man who can inspire us to have the courage we need to face these very scary and difficult times.

Millions and millions of us were out there on the mall. We formed a crowd like none the nation has ever seen before. We were a long and throbbing sweep of human beings, a pumped up crowd that was at once elated and energized, screaming and cheering and waving Amerian flags, but at the same time, completely peaceful - astonishingly, Washington police made not a single arrest all day long.

It was a good, good time, and no one who was there will ever forget it. I know I won't forget the joy I saw all around me. One image carved in my mind: a jubiliant young African American man stepped off a curb and started leading his own impromptu parade, calling all of us to chant with him at the top of his lungs: O- BAM-A, O-BAM-A.

The party ends, but maybe the chanting --and the belief that we've found a leader-- can continue

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The day after inauguration: MARCH FOR IMMIGRATION FORM

By Claudia Ricci

Whether we are one of the millions converging on the Mall in DC, or we are sitting in the living room in South Dakota or Saint Lous or Denver or Detroit glued to the TV, we are all riveted on Tuesday's inaugural events. We are a nation waiting for an extraordinary chapter in our history to unfold.

But once Tuesday's excitement comes to a close, there will be Wednesday, January 21st. And that's the day when our real task begins: changing the way this nation has governed for the past eight years.

One event that deserves our attention -- and that of the Obama admininstration -- right after inauguration, is immigration reform. Toward that end, there is a march in DC on Wednesday, January 21st, organized by a group called the Fair Immigration Reform Movement, or FIRM.

FIRM is a project of the Center for Community Change, a national network of local and state community organizations. Their aim: "just and humane" immigration reform. Toward that end, the group has organized a march on the offices of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in DC. Their intention: to host "a ceremony to cleanse ICE of 8 years of repressive policies."

So if you are still in DC on Wednesday, and you want to say something important publicly about an issue that is crying to be fixed, join the folks converging on Benjamin Banneker Park, 10th & G Sts. SW, Washington, DC. The group will march to ICE's national headquarters at 500 12th St., SW, and from there, will proceed to an afternoon forum on immigration reform at Westminster Presbyterian Church, 400 I St.

As President-elect Obama has said, the election, and the inauguration, provide an extraordinary opportunity for change. The real work for change begins in the days after.

Monday, January 12, 2009

"Open Mic, the Best Medicine"

By Camincha

Arriving full of frustration, headache. Alba smiles feebly in answer to Big Hello from Reading Host, and swallows an aspirin. Looks ‘round for Julia.

The host starts the reading.

The two Features are women: The first one has PIZZAZZZZ. Cadence in her words. And that delightful sound, what is that instrument?

Ahhhhh, it's her right hand beating against her large, well-built thigh. What a sound it makes! No wonder! She’s reading a love poem:

Your manly beauty,
resplendent, covering me
along side me, behind me...
thump, thump, thump, pan, pan

The second Feature is reading about a friend she’s just lost:

I miss you in small quiet ways
When I look at the geraniums under
the front porch and find your smile
floating among the red and white petals...

Alba is paying attention. Listening. Absorbed, she forgets her headache, all those frustrations.

Julia walks in. They embrace. I'm so happy to see you! Alba smiles.

Me too, Julia whispers in her ear, her long ripe-wheat-honey-blonde-hair falling, brushing her knees.

Tear Drop––Alba’s favorite regular––is on. He pummels his words with raised fists, his thumbs high up in the air for punctuation. He’s passionate. No wonder, he’s reading about his favorite subject, defending the homeless:

Holding his plastic bag
he reaches 11th and Folsom, one
more corner, just like all the
others he’s passed tonight, empty.

All doors are closed
No lights at the windows
No one’s waiting for him...

Alba’s headache? What headache?

And Alba doesn’t feel frustration anymore.

Camincha, a regular contributor to MyStoryLives, is a pen name for a writer living in the Bay Area of California.