MEET RICK PENBERTHY-- CANDIDATE FOR CONGRESS FROM FLORIDA'S 5TH CD
Thinking back on yesterday, two things most stand out in my mind: speaking with an earnest, idealistic guy in Florida running for a House seat held by a Republican loon and seeing an incredible film about what happens when a population like ours allows itself to be bullied and driven by fear and prejudice into the arms of fascism and authoritarianism. The Florida guy is Rick Penberthy in the rural 5th CD north of Tampa. And the film is V FOR VENDETTA. I spoke to Rick in the morning and saw the movie at night so I never got a chance to ask him if he saw it. He seemed like the kind of guy who will though. (It's not a movie Republicans will go see-- and Rick's never been one of them.)
Rick's a school teacher. He's been teaching government, history, political science, economics, civics in high school and college for 23 years. He's also a veteran, a proud one. Before I spoke with him on the phone, in fact, all I really knew about him was what I had read on Daily KOS in connection with the Fighting Dems. When we talked on the phone he probably spent about an equal amount of time speaking about his life experience through both prisms: teacher and citizen-soldier. I want to spend some time talking about Rick and telling you why I think he's worth supporting in his congressional race and I want to talk a little about V FOR VENDETTA and why it ties in-- at least in my mind (and probably no where else)-- with Rick. But I'm going to take a detour first.
My friend C is originally from small-town Maine. Like Rick, he teaches school, but in an inner-city ghetto (Compton). Unlike Rick, he reviles the military. He thinks they're suckers and rednecks and fascist dupes. When I show him the DCCC cookie-cutter issues websites about how supporting the military has to be a front-and-center Democratic Party position, he goes crazy and starts cussin'. I never served in the military either-- although I briefly fantasized about joining the Vietcong to fight fascist imperialism (I worked in an Amsterdam meditation center, the Kosmos, instead). C tends to see the guys who join the military as pea-brained, rah-rah jocks and xenophobes who deserve all their wounds and death. C scares me sometimes. I tell him that most of the guys (and gals) who enlist are driven to it by other factors besides a love of fascism (or even misplaced patriotism)-- like as a way to escape grinding poverty or small town boredom or any number of personal problems they are ill-equipped to deal with. And the military promises all kinds of things, from escape, adventure, career and education opportunity to a feeling of being part of something bigger and greater than oneself. C doesn't buy any of it.
I don't want to give away any of the plot of V FOR VENDETTA but there's quite a bit of dramatic build-up towards the end when one is forced to wonder if the massed soldiers will fire on the civilian population seeking to overthrow the fascist order. (In Ohio the National Guard murdered unarmed students peacefully protesting the War in VietNam on their Kent State campus. In 1917 Russian soldiers joined the revolutionaries seeking to overthrow the filthy, despotic czar. You never know which way it will go-- although soldiers are trained to obey orders, not think for themselves, especially not about morals and principals.)
I'm not big on the Fighting Dems thing and I think Wes Clark, a good general no doubt, would make a really, really horrible president. Being a veteran neither qualifies nor disqualifies any candidate from office in my opinion. There are good veterans and bad veterans. It's not an issue for me. Clinton and Bush were both, basically, draft-dodgers seeking to avoid fighting in VietNam. Clinton made a pretty good president. Bush is the worst president in the history of the U.S. FDR, JFK and even Eisenhower (at least in his farewell speech) showed some strong leadership traits that came from their military backgrounds. Jimmy Carter? Probably not; his best traits coming from other, more inner, resources. That said, I'm enthusiastically supporting quite a few of the Fighting Dems, not because they are veterans and not despite the fact that they are veterans, but because they are genuinely excellent candidates.
Rick Penberthy spends a lot of time talking at VFW meetings. He feels comfortable and at home in their halls. He enlisted in the Army when he was 18 and later joined the Naval Reserves when he was in his early 30s. Serving his country seems to come as naturally to Rick as breathing. And being part of the military seemed like a perfectly natural way for him to do that. After just a short time on the phone with him, I wouldn't be worried if I was one of the civilians trying to overthrow the fascist order in V FOR VENDETTA and he was one of the massed soldiers.
Florida's 5th CD has more retired veterans than any other congressional district in the U.S. And many of them would probably agree with Rick-- at least in a general way-- that with only about 30% of Congress having ever served in the military, there are not enough veterans in the House. Is that enough to motivate them to vote out the incumbent? Ginny Brown-Waite has a lot more problems then just not being a veteran. To start with, she's a rubberstamp Bush supporter and loyal DeLay water-carrier with unsavory connections to the Republican culture of corruption that is bankrupting and destroying our government in DC. Dishonest and weak, Brown-Waite absurdly tries to present herself to Florida's moderate voters as one of them. But her record paints the picture of a far right kook, terribly out of sync with the values and interests of the people who live in FL-05. She promised voters she would protect Social Security, for example, but her record shows a dangerous extremist willing to support Bush's and the Republican Party's goal of wrecking the most popular public program in the history of America. ProgressivePunch, which rates every member of Congress on their voting record shows that she is one of the most right-wing members of the House with a record far, far, far from moderate on every single issue that has come before Congress. And on issues like Family Planning, Fair Taxation, Housing, Labor Rights, Civil and Criminal Justice she is dangerously radical and extremist, masquerading as a normal American and a moderate.
Rick Penberthy, on the other hand, is a thoroughly mainstream kind of guy, married with 3 daughters and a son, a much esteemed school teacher and a man fully engaged in the issues that matter to the real lives of people in his community. In a district with 42% of the voters registering as Republicans (and 38% Democrats and 20% independent), it could be a tough race against an entrenched, very well-funded incumbent beloved by the wealthy special interests for whom she is always ready to do a service. But Rick says she can be defeated this year. "I wouldn't be here," he told me, "if I didn't think she's beatable. This isn't a normal year and she's not a normal incumbent."
Rick, who chose to get on the ballot by collecting signatures, rather than by paying fees, has been out every single day but one-- "It was raining really hard that day"-- talking with voters around the sprawling district. "It's not just about Democrats turning out in greater numbers than usual because of Katherine Harris. I'm sensing-- and polls back me up on this-- that Independents are breaking by as much as 70% for Democrats. I've been talking to Republicans too and they're as fed up with Bush as everyone else is. And this is one congressperson who is too tied to Bush to be able to run away from it."
Rick expects the Republicans, with their backs up against the wall, to roll out their divisive wedge issues to try to scare and confuse people and to turn out their demoralized base. He doesn't think it will work this time because even Republican voters are angry about Bush and his rubberstamp congressmen-- and congresswomen-- pushing intrusive government down everyone's throat. "No one likes intrusive government. People around here want to keep government out of our private lives. And we're looking for tolerance, not bickering. Folks are tied of it."
Rick seems really energized and optimistic. He sees 2006 as a year for a sea change in American politics. With the Republican Party tied to both incompetence and corruption, he believes moderate voters feel uncomfortable supporting them any longer. Talking about Iraq, he says "We can't just 'stay the course.' We have a failed policy. I don't think we can just cut and run either because if we don we'll leave behind a failed state in the Middle East. We need to change the course. Jack Murtha is absolutely right... we need to start bringing our troops home and incentivizing Iraqis to stand up to the insurgents."
But he's campaigning on matters that are important to people in his district. National issues are just one part of that. "In this part of the country," he explains, "the most important issue is always about how to manage growth. Water is a crucial issue to the people in this district."
Rick and his family live on a small farm and he is filled with ideas about desalinization plants and the dangers of sink holes (caused by over-pumping the shallow aquifer in a mad, unregulated rush to willy-nilly development). The wonk in Rick comes out when he starts talking about solar energy and biomass, two alternative energy sources that are perfect for his part of Florida. He understands everything about why Brazil is over 90% independent of foreign oil and why we're not-- and he's ready to roll up his sleeves and get busy on it-- more than ready, in fact! Independence from foreign oil is one of his big passions and he thinks the U.S. needs the equivalent of "a Manhattan Project for alternative energy."
Rick seems like the kind of teacher we all pray our kids get in school-- and like a dream congressional candidate for a moderate district. Ginny Brown-Waite, the incumbent? A real bad dream. The last time I heard anything about her was some kind of cockamamie tactic to hold up Congress-- which she did for 2 hours-- complaining about a procedural vote to make Bill Clinton's boyhood home in Hope, Arkansas a national monument. She was trying to say that Bush's plan to sell U.S. ports to his family's business associates in Dubai was Clinton's fault. This is just the kind of nonsense Americans are sick and tired of already. Even House Republicans think she's out of her mind and only 11 extremist nut cases supported her; the final vote: 409 in favor and 12 opposed (Ginny Brown-Waite plus 11 right-wing fanatics). Oddly, the only other national attention this crazy congresswoman has ever gotten was a similarly nonsensical scheme-- this one to bring back the bones of the American GIs buried in France. That one got about as far as her crazy scheme to turn the Clinton boyhood home vote into a partisan issue. Americans are sick of people like Ginny Brown-Waite. It's time we had adults running our government again. Keep an eye on Rick Penberthy's campaign; he could be one of those adults.
THURSDAY MORNING UPDATE: PENBERTHY IS WORTH HELPING
Yesterday DWT opened an ACT BLUE Page for Rick. In an inexpensive media market like FL-05, a small contribution can go a long way towards being very effective-- very effective in ridding us of a rubber-stamp jerk like the incumbent and very effective in putting a selfless and serious citizen into the U.S. Congress. Please consider making a donation-- even a small one-- to Rick's campaign.