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Choose Your Future

Choose Your Future

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”
— E.L. Hartley

One particular moment from the past has replayed in my mind over and over in recent months.

Thirty years ago, I was a junior staffer for California Lieutenant Governor Leo T. McCarthy. The former Speaker of the Assembly was a throwback even back then, an old-school idealist with old-world manners who relished weighty policy discussions almost as much as he did chatting up short order cooks, doormen, cops, and nurses, a family man who went home to San Francisco every night that he possibly could. His belief in the worth and importance of public service was a fundamental part of his character, and he lived his values daily.

Leo T. McCarthy

In 1990, he won re-election for the second time as Lt. Governor, opposed by Republican State Senator Marian Bergeson. The two were miles apart on many issues and came from vastly different backgrounds; he was an Irish Catholic who did odd jobs in his family’s San Francisco bar growing up, while she was a prim Mormon schoolteacher from the conservative bastion of Orange County, as well as the first woman to serve in both houses of the California Legislature. The common thread between them was that, like Leo, Marian Bergeson was both partisan and principled.

Which brings us to the specific memory I keep returning to. With Election Day weeks in the past, shortly before his January 1991 inauguration Leo spoke with Senator Bergeson and invited her to attend the ceremony. She accepted. Standing on the dais in the California State Senate chamber following his swearing-in, surrounded by an overwhelmingly Democratic audience of family, friends, staff, and colleagues, Leo made it a point in his inaugural remarks to recognize Senator Bergeson, inviting her to stand and then proceeding to lead the crowd—his crowd—in applauding her for her service to the people of California.

A politician, leading his own staff and partisans in a standing ovation for his opponent. In our current environment of toxic masculinity run rampant, it sounds like fiction, or at the very least like Hartley’s “foreign country.” But it happened; I was there in that crowd on the Senate floor, standing and applauding.

Of all the things I’ve felt emotionally bludgeoned by in 2020, one of the hardest has been seeing a few friends starting to give in to cynicism about politicians and the political process and saying things like “They’re all the same.” Because they absolutely aren’t.

There are plenty of women and men out there who continue to believe as Leo did—that democracy matters, that how you treat others matters, and that it’s our duty as citizens to get involved in the process of governing our society. The greatest enemy we face as a nation right now isn’t any particular candidate or party or movement—it’s our own cynicism and fatalism. “My voice doesn’t matter” is a self-fulfilling prophecy, and the people trying to convince us of that are mortal enemies of both democracy and this nation.

Choosing to disengage is more than just an abdication of responsibility, though—it’s the height of privilege. At a time when peoples’ rights, futures, and possibly even lives depend on the outcome of our elections, choosing not to vote, or to cast a symbolic “protest” vote, is unconscionable. There is too much at stake.

It’s important also to understand the psychology at work here. The reason some people want you to think your vote doesn’t matter, is because it does. The reason those same people are trying to make it harder for you to vote, is because they’re afraid you will.

The past may be a foreign country, but the future is still ours to choose.


Comment (1)

  • Betsy Butler

    Jason, Thank you for your accurate and inspiring reflections about Leo and for the important explanations about why some people don't want others to vote. As a fellow former staffer, we learned from Leo what serving the public meant -- he was truly a Statesperson, committed to the public good. I miss him so much and am forever grateful that I got to experience working for a purposeful, dedicated public servant.

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