Archive for the ‘politics’ Category

Confessions of a Microactivist

June 14, 2009

That guy pulling out of the Exxon station? He doesn’t get in front of me. Would I like a Corona?  No thanks.

I have become a Microactivist. Every day I make dozens of small, silent protests. Most people don’t even notice. That’s fine, I know what I’m up to. At my job, I have the opportunity to work with large corporations and NGO’s whose sustainability initiatives are having–or promise to have–a significant impact on the environment and society. But on my own time, I go micro.

The Code of the Microactivist (as determined by me) is simple; Do what you can to help The Cause. The Cause is human survival. You hear a lot these days about saving the Earth. Well, the Earth is not at risk, we, its occupants, are. If we continue to dump toxins into the waters, and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, the Earth will still be here–it’ll just be spinning around without us.

Microactivism is personal. You pick your spots. One of mine is Exxon/Mobil. And the people who buy their gas there. If you’re clueless enough to still be buying your $4 per gallon gas from a company that made over $40 billion in profit (yes, billion; yes, profit) last year–much of it on the backs of taxpayers–yet still has to be taken to the Supreme Court to be forced to clean up a mess it made 20 years ago, you’re not worthy of the common courtesy of being let into traffic. If you’re driving an SUV, I’ll give you a dirty look, too. If you’re in a Hummer–the proud badge of Neanderthal self-absorption–expect an obscene gesture.

I realize that when most people think about global warming, they don’t think about beer. But I do. Not only am I a Microactivist, I’m a beer geek. Beer is important to me. I think about it a lot (probably more than I should). The number one imported beer in the US these days is Corona. There’s simply no justification for this. If you’re really that desperate for a bland, boring, minimally flavored beer, you don’t have to look to Mexico, we have plenty right here! That’s just carbon that doesn’t need to be burned.

I’m not saying we should stop importing all beers (nor am I disrespecting all American beer). There are plenty of wonderful beers made overseas. English ales, German weissdopplebocks, funky Belgians–I would never want to stop these and other gems from crossing our borders. But given the amount of world-class breweries in this country (and there are many), and I no longer see the need to support middle-of-the-road beers that have to be shipped thousands of miles. (I’m looking at you, Heineken, Becks and Stella.)

Sometimes Microactivists have to speak up. Not only do I refuse plastic bags when I shop (usually for beer), I make it a point to tell the check out person about the 80 billion plastic bags Americans send into landfills every year (yes, billion; yes, every year). My standard line is, “save the plastic trees.” Last summer I nearly fell out of my plastic tree, when I heard a guy at the souvenir shop in Yankee Stadium say the exact same thing. Imagine, a fellow Microactivist and Yankee fan. (Wonder if he likes beer.)

As Microactivists, we must decry abominations when we see them. There’s a company (you won’t get its name from me!) that has recently introduced a bottled water for dogs.  As a Microactivist, I drink tap water whenever I can. He hasn’t said so in as many words, but I’m sure my dog supports that position. Were I to come home one day with a bottle of water for him, I believe he would look at me with sad eyes that say, “I can’t hold that bottle, would you mind dumping it into the toilet for me?”

We Microactivists know that every little step we take to help preserve the environment is important. We also know it’s not enough. Lately, many members of the scientific community have been saying that the effects of global warming have been underreported. That things are actually worse than we think. Naturally, they’re cautious about broadcasting this too loudly, lest the faint-hearted lose hope, and stop taking even the little steps.

Little steps are a great place to begin, but a lousy place to end. We must continue to reduce our personal imprint. Use less energy and water. Create less waste. Be more aware of the food choices we make. Cut off Hummers. But that’s not enough.

As Microactivists, we must move beyond our personal space, and influence corporations and governments. We can do this by being informed and selective about the companies we chose to do business with. We can do this by paying attention to pending legislation, and letting our elected officials know where we stand on the issue. And we must vote. This is perhaps the most critical Microactivist act of all, where Microactivism can yield macro results.


The Inauguration Part 1; Half The Fun

February 16, 2009

I have been on trips where getting there was, indeed, half the fun. Going to the inauguration of Barack Obama was not one of them.


We had a plan for attending the inauguration, and though it did not include tickets to the event, it appeared infallible. We would drive to my mother and stepfather’s home just outside of Annapolis, Maryland the Sunday morning before the inauguration. We would stay with them, wake up on Inauguration Day, drive to the New Carrolton station (about 25 minutes away) and take the Metro in and out of DC. What could be easier?

Our inauguration travel crew consisted of myself, wife C., our nine-year-old son J. and my friend and co-worker H. As planned, we left my mother’s house at 7:00 am on the morning of January 20. We’d heard warnings on the news that Metro station parking lots would fill up quickly, so my brother-in-law, K, graciously agreed to drive us to the New Carrolton station.


Two days earlier, we had something of a trial run when J, H, K, brother R and I took the train into DC to attend the big pre-inauguration concert on the Mall. That day the New Carrolton station had plenty of available parking, and the only crowd we encountered was the one buying fare cards, where the line to each machine was 8 to 10 people deep.


Dozens of newly arrived port-a-potties lined the entrance to the station, awaiting the huddled masses yearning to breathe…well, you get the point. We bought our commemorative fare cards (with Obama’s face printed on them), including the ones we would need for Tuesday (a brilliant move, we were convinced) and boarded the orange line Metro train to DC without incident. We were on the Mall in less than an hour. The concert was good fun, though I kinda wish Garth Brooks had sung “I’ve Got Friends In Low Places.”


Getting home after the concert was relatively painless, as well. There was a bit of a crowd at the Metro station near the Mall, but nothing worse than the standard New York City rush hour. Piece of cake.


The team at Sunday's concert. We thought this would serve as a dry run for Inauguration Day. We were mistaken.

The team at Sunday's concert. We thought this would serve as a dry run for Inauguration Day. We were mistaken.

The morning of Tuesday, January 20, however, was a different story. For openers, I was not right physically. My stomach was extracting revenge on me for abusing it during a hearty chili, chicken wing and beer celebration the night before. I could barely touch my morning coffee. I feared the port-a-potties at the New Carrolton station might just come into play.


As we approached the station, highway signs advised us to bypass New Carrolton, and go to the next station down the line, Landover. STAY AWAY! KEEP GOING! SURRENDER DOROTHY!


We chose not to heed these dire warnings, figuring that the trains would fill up at New Carrolton, and we wouldn’t be able to get on at any of the later stops. This was the first in a series of bad decisions we would make throughout the day.


The police were not allowing cars to drive up to the station, so we had to walk from the main road. As we approached, my jaw dropped. There were hundreds, if not thousands of people crowded around outside the station, waiting to get in. Where were these people on Sunday?! I realized I would not be able to get even close to one the port-a-potties. I was at the mercy of my digestive system. Fortunately, my stomach embraced the sense of occasion, and did not give me any trouble the rest of the day. 


The crowd outside the New Carrolton station. A harbinger of things to come.

The crowd outside the New Carrolton station. A harbinger of things to come.




To make a long (and painful, tedious, frustrating) story short, it took us over an hour and a half to get on a train after arriving at the station. We were diverted from the station entrance, and sent up a (non-working) escalator into the rear parking lot, where a line that must have been a quarter-mile long extended into the far reaches of the parking lot.


Thankfully, that line moved pretty quickly, and as a result, spirits were high. A high-energy radio reporter from an Atlanta gospel station moved through the line, holding a tape recorder asking people where they were from.






“New York!” (that was us).






“South Carolina!”




“Baltimore!” (big deal)


“California!” (big deal!)


The line to get back into the New Carrolton station was about 1/4 mile long.

The line to get back into the New Carrolton station was about 1/4 mile long.

Once we got inside the station itself, we moved quickly up the escalators and onto the train platform. The tremendous foresight we exercised in buying our fare cards two days earlier probably saved us all of five minutes.


We got on the next train to DC, and all four of us easily got seats. It felt good to sit down. We’d been on our feet for 90 minutes, and I figured we would most likely remain that way for the rest of the day.


The train was hardly packed, and when it pulled into Landover, five people calmly walked on board. We came to the awful realization that had we heeded the highway signs, we’d probably be on the Mall already. But no problem, it was now almost 10:00 am., we should still be okay.


H, C and J on the train heading into DC.

H, C and J on the train heading into DC.

The train lurched between stations as we crawled into Washington. The conductor announced we were being delayed because of heavy traffic in front of us. Far off in the distance, we could see the dome of the Capitol building. I pointed it out to J.


“That’s where Obama will be standing, right there,” I said.


“Really?,” he said in awe.


The conductor announced Federal Plaza station, where we planned to get off, was closed due to crowds. We wrestled with the decision of whether to get off the stop before, or the stop after. We decided the stop after, but it ended  up being a moot point, since the train stopped at Federal Plaza anyway, and we got off. Our second bad decision.


Rising up the long escalators to the bright light of day, we were greeted by a small army of Obama volunteers, identified by their bright red knit caps. “Ticket holders to your right, non-ticket holders to your left,” they shouted. Finally, some organization.


Being non-ticket holders, we proceeded to the left. There was a large throng of humans heading toward the Mall. The crowd was moving slowly, and we decided to venture off for a parallel route.


The streets were jammed with people heading toward the Mall.

The streets were jammed with people heading toward the Mall.

We zigged and zagged our way west (away from the Capitol Building). We tried to find the road less traveled, but, alas, there was no such thing. No matter which way we turned, we found ourselves in the thick of a slow-moving mob. This was especially tough for J, who only saw peoples’ backs for the better part of an hour (but didn’t complain). I held his hand tightly.


Throughout our tortuous journey, we encountered scores of souvenir vendors offering a massive spectrum of Obama-branded merchandise: T-shirts, hats, posters, calendars, coins, magnets, cups, mugs, pens, statuettes, bobble-head dolls, air fresheners (seriously), hand warmers (not Obama-branded, but a big seller) and more. The free market system was alive and well in Washington that day.


Only in America.

Only in America.

As we made our way along the southern edge of the Mall, the crowd got denser and slower. We found ourselves walking through a shadowy canyon of buildings. It was dark and cold. There were points where the crowd in front of us simply stopped moving. We were standing still. It was cold, dark and miserable. The Mall was to our right. To our left, there were small bunches of people who had already given up. They had perched themselves on trees, doorsteps, fire hydrants, window sills–anything with a slight elevation. I couldn’t tell what they were able to see, but supposed it to be one of the Jumbotrons that would broadcast the proceedings.



It was now 11:15 am. The ceremony was scheduled to begin at 11:30, with Obama taking the oath of office slightly before noon. I had serious doubts as to if we’d make it. The idea of having gone through all of this, and then not seeing the inauguration made me want to stick knitting needles in my eyes.



Then, just as the outlook was bleakest, we literally emerged into the light. Suddenly, we burst into a wide open, sun-drenched intersection. The crowd dissipated like a sneeze. We could see. We could breathe. The Washington Monument was to our immediate right. I felt like Joshua (as in the Generation) as we stepped onto the Mall. We were there.


I felt a warm rush of jubilation as C, J and I walked onto the Mall (H had to visit a port-a-pottie). The sky was a brilliant blue, and wide open above us. We felt liberated. It had been over four hours since we’d left the house that morning. I sent a text to my son, B, who was not with us, “We made it!” Of course, there was no way he could truly comprehend the sense of joy and relief behind those simple words.



The Inauguration Part 2; Being There

February 16, 2009

The moment Barack Obama finished taking the oath of office, I turned to say something to C, my wife, but nothing came out. For one thing, I was too choked up to speak. But more important, I didn’t know what to say. There wasn’t a whole lot I could have added to the moment.


The people around us must have felt the same way. For the previous 30 minutes, there had been plenty of conversation, but at that moment, everyone was silent. Many people applauded (I would have, but I was holding up J, who at age nine, somehow manages to weigh 400 pounds), but that was about it. Everyone seemed to be simply savoring the moment.

C, J and I were standing beside the Washington Monument, about a mile away from the Capitol Building (which we could not see), and 300 yards from the nearest Jumbotron, which was like trying to watch a 12-inch TV on the other side of a crowded room. But we were there.


To the left of the flag is the Jumbotron upon which we witnessed history.

To the left of the flag is the Jumbotron upon which we witnessed history.

We watched the Jumbotron as the various officials made their way out of a hallway and onto the Capitol steps. There were various cheers and jeers for congressional leaders and former presidents as they were announced to the crowd. Around us, the Carters got a nice ovation, but the loudest was for the Clintons. There was silence when Laura Bush and Lynn Cheney were introduced. No cheers, no boos. They got a pass.


The people around us (about 75% African-American) booed Dick Cheney, when we was announced, but more than anything, there was curiosity as to why he was in a wheelchair. I speculated he forgot to charge his batteries the night before. When President Bush was announced, a massive shower of boos poured from the crowd. A lot of people yelled at the giant screen. “Good riddance!” “Thanks for nothing!” “Go back to Texas!” “And stay there!”


Someone near us yelled, “Go to hell!”


The man behind me said, “No, don’t say that. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.”


“Why not,” I said. “He’s done that to us for eight years.”


“Yes,” said the man behind me, “and someday he’ll have to answer for that. I’m a big believer in karma.”


There was silent appreciation during the musical performance. It didn’t sound recorded, but then we had the sound bouncing off the Washington Monument, which created an echo effect that was fine for the spoken work (sorta like Lou Gehrig’s speech), but kinda strange for the musical performances. I made sure to point out Yo Yo Ma to J, who is a burgeoning cellist.


To our left, the crowd surrounding the Washington Monument.

To our left, the crowd surrounding the Washington Monument.

After Joe Biden took his oath, there was applause and cheering. After Joe Biden gave his speech, there was a palpable sense of relief. He had not gone rogue.


Rick Warren’s benediction got more of a response than I would have expected, including applause at several points. Standing directly behind me were two elderly women who had traveled from Michigan by bus. They couldn’t even see the Jumbotron most of the time, and asked the tall man standing next to them (also behind me) to take a picture when Obama came on the screen. At several points during Warren’s benediction, one of the women muttered, “Thank you, Jesus.” It wasn’t something said in irony, nor shouted out evangelically for the benefit of the crowd, but a quiet statement of sincere and personal gratitude. This was a person whom, I suspect, was witnessing her prayers being answered.


Like Obama himself, everyone standing around me was a bit flummoxed when Chief Justice Roberts botched the oath of office, but immediately got past that for a muffled celebration when the new president finished taking the oath.


About every other person held a cell phone or a camera high above his/her head to document the moment. I was holding up J, and caught a glimpse of the Jumbotron around the mass of his coat. (Everyone in our immediate area had maneuvered so that the two elderly women, both of whom were barely over five feet tall, could see the screen.)


Obama held the attention of the crowd throughout his address. There were cheers at certain points–now louder than after the swearing in–but for the most part, everyone was intently taking in the new president’s message. On a couple of occasions, people near me were shushed for commenting during the speech.


When it was all over, there were smiles all around. While the day was cold, and the Mall was crowded, no one complained. I sensed a feeling of disbelief. Did this really just happen? Some people began making their way off the Mall, but many, stayed put, soaking up the atmosphere.


C, J and I turned to our right, and began making our way off of the Mall. We reconnected with H, and moved toward the Metro. The next phase of our inaugural adventure had begun.




The Inauguration Part 3; The Long Road Home

February 16, 2009

We turned 90 degrees to our right, and began making our way south off the Mall. We were heading toward the Enfant Plaza Metro station that would put us on the orange line, and take us to New Carrolton. It was 1:15 pm.


The crowd streaming out was more relaxed than the one heading in. While there were no wild whoops or chants, there was a levity to the atmosphere. The sun was shining. It wasn’t terribly cold. There hadn’t been a massive terror attack. People were happy.


Maybe it was the route we took, but there were far fewer Obama vendors on the way out than there were on the way in. I was a little disappointed, because now I was ready to pick up a souvenir.


We headed east, making our way toward Enfant Plaza. When we got there, we saw a crowd of people ascending a staircase, heading across a open patio space and moving toward a door into what looked like a sandwich shop. Someone (not a cop, nor red-hat volunteer) said this was the way to the Metro, so we joined in.


We got to the top of the stairs in about a minute, and onto the patio space, where I saw the crowd in front of us, which I guessed to be about 500 people, trying to squeeze into some sort of mall cafe through two standard glass doors that opened outward. It was absolutely jammed, and the crowd at the door was not moving. We decided we wanted no part of this funnel of chaos, and turned around and fought our way against the crowd, back onto the street.


Unsure whether to go left or right, we asked two girls who somehow seemed to know where the other entrances to the station were. (The thousands of cops and thousands of volunteers that were said to be swarming all over DC were nowhere to be seen. Completely disappeared. Maddening.) The girls told us we could get to the Metro station by going through the Enfant Plaza mall. They pointed us to the entrance, about 100 feet back from where we were. We thanked them and headed that way.


Enfant Plaza, at least the part we encountered, is a low-ceilinged hallway with stores and eateries on both sides. Most were closed. There was a line of about 100 men just inside the door to the right. It was for the men’s room. The line for the ladies room was, not surprisingly, about three times as long. I was extremely thankful none of our party needed the facilities.


We made our way through the mall, until we hit a wall of people, filling the hallway. A sign about 100 feet ahead of us pointed the way to the Metro. Here was another mass of humanity that was not moving. C was happy because she was finally warm. The cold had not been much of an issue for J or I, but C, despite all her long underwear and other sartorial preparations, was freezing.


The wall of humanity heading for the Metro stop in Enfant Plaza

The wall of humanity heading for the Metro stop in Enfant Plaza



We stood with the crowd for about ten minutes, when there was a sudden surge, and we moved about 15 feet forward before stopping again. By now, there were hundreds of people behind us, as well. We stood shoulder-to-shoulder for another 15 minutes without moving. I was getting pretty hot, but it was too crowded for me to take off my coat.


Not moving, and becoming more compressed by the minute, we debated the wisdom of continuing along this path. It was anyone’s guess as to when we would be able to get into the station at the rate we were going (or, more accurately, not going). After much discussion, we made the collective decision to abandon our present tack, head back onto the street, walk down to the next station and hope for the best. Bad decision number three.


We turned around, and began making our way through the crowd. We were moving, single-file with me leading the way, against the current. I was shocked to see how many people were now filling the hallway of Enfant Plaza. There may have been hundreds of people in front of us, but there were now thousands behind us. Like salmon, we bumped and banged our way upstream through the long hallway, that was now packed all the way out to the street.


Back on the street, we made our way east toward the next stop. Once there, a policeman informed us, via bullhorn, that the station was closed and the trains weren’t running. He didn’t know when the situation would change. We decided to walk ahead to the next stop.


Ten minutes later, we saw a line of people two blocks long, waiting to get into the station. The line wasn’t moving. We decided to walk to the next stop. At this point, we were all getting a bit cold, tired and cranky. There was not a lot of conversation. I was wondering just how far we’d end up walking. J was holding up like a trooper, but C was not happy.


We went over highway barricades, through a hole in a chain link fence, up freeway ramps, through crowded intersections. There were throngs of people everywhere. We paused to buy a couple hot chocolates from a little girl who had set up a table in front of her house. This was the first and only time we would not encounter a line of at least 50 people.



We finally got to a Metro station where we could (with the crowd, of course) make our way down the escalators and onto the platform. By the time we got on an orange line train bound for New Carrolton, it was 4:15. Three hours since we left the Mall.


My brother picked us up at New Carrolton, and we made our way back to my mother’s house. I wanted a beer, but we still had the drive back home ahead of us, so I settled for a coffee.


We packed up and got on the road as quickly as possible. It’s a four-hour derive under normal circumstances, and I had no idea what sort of northbound post-inauguration traffic we’d encounter.


The highways of Maryland, Delaware and the first 20 miles of the New Jersey Turnpike flew by just fine. Then we hit a wall of standstill traffic. We would sit in it for over three hours. This time it wasn’t a bad decision, just bad luck. The Department of Homeland Security, working on a tip, had detained a southbound vehicle that was believed to driven by a heavily armed man, and was loaded with explosives. The authorities shut down the Turnpike in both directions between exits 1 and 4, and had a suspect in custody. We were just past exit two. Had we left either an hour earlier, or an hour later, we would have been spared.


We straggled home well past midnight and crawled into bed. It felt like a long time between that moment, and 7:00 that morning, when we had embarked upon our odyssey. The next day, we would learn that the tipoff that had shut down the Turnpike for hours was a hoax. Seems the mother of the man driving the car hadn’t wanted him to make the trip, and called in the tip to stop him. She had done this before. Thanks, Mom!




When C asked J what he would tell his classmates about the experience, he replied, “It was the most boringest day of my life.” I’m sympathetic to his point of view. Our moments on the Mall were amazing. We witnessed history. The enormity of that moment will only continue to grow over the years. We’ll always be able to say, “We were there.” In time, the pain that surrounded the moment will fade, and we’ll only remember the wonder and the joy we felt. Kinda like childbirth (so I’ve been told).


Attending the inauguration of Barack Obama was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. And that’s probably just as well.



Smear Campaign Victim

October 24, 2008

(originally posted on

I am an elected official. I have been on the campaign trail. I have had mud slung at me, and I have fought back.

While I was campaigning for my office, Committee Member of the Ramapo (NY) Democratic Committee, my opposition made statements to the press that my running mates and I were “not real Democrats.” And we were “hijacking” the Democratic party. Okay, as far as campaign smearing goes, it’s pretty tame stuff–no one was accusing me of fathering an inter-racial bastard child, as the Bush campaign did of John McCain in 2000–still, it’s disturbing to have something said about you that is not true. I can only imagine how the presidential candidates must feel being on the receiving end of such nasty lies. It’s amazing they’re able to keep their cool at all.

My response to the statements was, consider the source. The person making the statements about us was the Town Supervisor, a man I consider to be corrupt, morally bankrupt and damaging to the vast majority of the people he’s supposed to represent. When I knocked on doors and talked to voters, my message was a simple one, I would do whatever I could to remove this man from power.

In their campaign literature, our opponents, led by the Town Supervisor, aligned themselves with Barack Obama. This really pissed me off, because, as far as I was concerned, they shared none of his values involving governance, values like inclusion, transparency and integrity. We (the Ramapo Democrats For Change candidates) were the reform ticket. If anybody should have been aligned with Obama, it was us.

I personally did not create any sort of campaign communications. The group I was part of, however, did create a couple of mailers outlining our opposition to the “political machine” currently occupying town hall.

As for the content of the mailers, I’m Hank Stewart, and I approved this message (even though no one asked me to). There is nothing in our campaign communications that is untrue or even misleading. There is no libelous or defaming content. We didn’t need any. The truth was the most powerful weapon we had.

We put out a message of change, reform and hope. It’s a message I am proud to be associated with. And it’s a message that resonated with the majority of our constituents, as most our candidates, including myself, were elected by approximately a 7 to 1 margin.

Keep hope alive.


September 30, 2008

September 12, 2008

I am now an elected official. Two days ago, I was one of 294 people elected to serve as a member of the Ramapo Democratic Committee. For the next two years, I shall be part of the body that nominates candidates and establishes policy for the Democratic Party for the town in which I live, Ramapo, New York.

I campaigned for this office. I didn’t have to kiss any babies or give any stump speeches, but I did knock on doors, shake some hands and make a lot of phone calls. On two occasions, one of my running mates and I (there were four of us) went door-to-door, asking our neighbors for their votes. You meet all kinds doing this.

Some people are deeply engaged. They know the issues, and the players. They pulled out the postcards sent by both the organization I am affiliated with (Ramapo Democrats For Change) and our opposition. Once I was invited into a home, asked to sit on the sofa and explain how my running mates and I were going to bring about change if two of the four were married to each other. Some people were vaguely aware of the election and issues, and others were clueless, and looked at me as if I was speaking Hungarian.

When the polls closed at 9:00 on Tuesday night, it was all worth it. The hours of going door-to-door, and calling potential supporters had bourn juicy fruit. My running mates and I defeated our opponents by a 6 to 1 margin. I had been appointed poll watcher for our district, and got the final tallies straight off the machines within minutes of the polls closing. I was the first to know. As I drove to our election night party at a local Italian restaurant, I was elated. I couldn’t get there fast enough to share the good news. I had a big, dopey smile on my face, and pumped my fist the entire trip.

I had run for office twice before, both times for Fire Commissioner, and both times I had been defeated by someone I believed to be a lesser (i.e., not as qualified) candidate. This night I had won, and it felt great.

I get to work next week, attending a meeting of the county Democratic Committee, which I’ve been forewarned could be contentious. Not to sound like the Governor of Alaska, but I’m ready. (And I really am.)