“Does this administration think that slavery is wrong?” American Urban Radio Networks reporter April Ryan asked Oct. 31 as White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders scurried from the White House briefing room, leaving the question hanging with no response. It’s a fundamental Core Values question about the embrace of diversity and opportunity in America, something LGBT Californians know a lot about.
Even with New York real estate developer and “Apprentice” Reality TV star Donald Trump playing President of the United States, it is difficult to imagine that in 2017 some Americans are actually re-litigating the Civil War. But that appears to be happening, as Trump fluffs his white nationalist base—saying there were “very fine people, on both sides” of the violent KKK and Neo-Nazis protest in Charlottesville, Virginia last August that left one woman dead and many injured.
A self-declared “very intelligent person,” Trump’s jaw-dropping ignorance of eighth grade history may be fodder for late night comedians but it’s no joke to Confederacy-praising white supremacists. “The Civil War, if you think about it, why? People don’t ask the question but why was there the Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?” Trump asked during a conservative radio interview last May.
Trump’s Chief of Staff, retired Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly, heretofore considered the “adult in the room,” doubled down during an Oct. 30 interview with Fox News host Laura Ingraham when asked about the removal of a Robert E. Lee monument from a Virginia church.
“I would tell you that Robert E. Lee was an honorable man,” Kelly told Ingraham. “He was a man that gave up his country to fight for his state, which 150 years ago was more important than country. It was always loyalty to state first back in those days. Now it’s different today. But the lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War, and men and women of good faith on both sides made their stand where their conscience had them make their stand.”
Historians pushed back, noting there were several attempts at “compromise” but finally the Civil War was fought over slavery and the South’s economic and moral beliefs in white supremacy with the secession of 11 Southern states. Alexander H. Stephens, vice-president of the Confederacy, articulated that idea in his “Cornerstone” speech of March 21, 1986, just before the first shots were fired in the Civil War.
The Founders, including Thomas Jefferson, thought “the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature” and would eventually pass away. But the new Confederate government, he said, “is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
That’s what Lee fought for, and the states’ right to defy or break from the union to support the economic commerce slavery provided.
“The real story, the great tragedy of the coming of the Civil War, was that there was no middle left anymore in American politics,” David Blight, a historian at Yale University, told the New York Times in response to Kelly’s comments.
While 2017 may not be as grave as the Civil War era or as divided as the country became during the war in Vietnam, the moral fabric of constitutional America is splitting and many are looking to progressive California for help and eventually, healing. And it’s coming. In additional to progressive congressional leaders, today the California Democratic Party and the Los Angeles County Democratic Party (LACDP) are both run by openly gay men, Eric Bauman and Mark Gonzalez, respectively.
Bauman, who successfully ran the LACDP for 17 years, literally passed the torch to a new generation, the young man he mentored, Mark Gonzalez. And on Oct. 12, after years of working with the grassroots and in the offices of elected officials, the 33 year old out gay Latino chairs the largest local Democratic Party in the country, with 2.2 million registered Democrats in a county of 9.8 million people in the minority-majority state. And speaking of states rights, California recently became a “sanctuary state” to try to protect undocumented immigrants and DREAMers who call the Golden State home.
“The true progressive movement is here in California, and it is here in the Los Angeles County Democratic Party,” Gonzalez said after his election. “The Democratic Party’s principles are the foundation of how America was built: The Party of inclusion, of the hard-working middle class. As the youngest person and first Latino ever elected Chair of this great Party, I can tell you firsthand that those Democratic Party principles are as alive and true as they ever were. We are going to send the message throughout this country that we are what we preach.”
“I got involved in this party 16 years ago as a teenager when I joined the Northeast Democratic Club of Los Angeles in my home area of North East LA. Meeting folks like Eric, my current boss, (Assemblymember) Miguel Santiago, John Perez– they were personal mentors of mine who inspired me to get more involved,” he tells the Los Angeles Blade. The 2004 presidential race between George W. Bush and John Kerry inspired him to take the plunge into politics.
Gonzalez thinks it is his experience of literally working from the bottom up and accruing over a decade of experience in service of LACDP that helped him win election as party chair, especially after the contentious race for state party chair between Kimberly Ellis, representing the “Berniecrats” and Bauman, representing the “establishment” wings of the California Democratic Party.
“I think they wanted to vote for somebody who could unify both sides,” Gonzalez says. I get along with both sides and I think we’re finally starting to move forward. But I think there are people on the Bernie side who know I actually do agree with what they’ve been saying and there are some of the ‘establishment side’ who know my work and my work ethic and that they can work with me. I come in the middle and my goal is to unify both sides which I think we’ve been doing because the newer activists, who are hungry to do this, are just like me when I was doing this 16 years ago.”
Gonzalez’s experience growing up in North East LA also helps his broader grasp of issues and helps him relate to LGBT people, especially LGBT Latinos, who might not feel welcome in the Democratic Party.
“When you’re Latino and you grow up in a strong Catholic single parent household, being gay is not something that is always accepted,” he says. ”It’s not something you talk about because you’re supposed to—in my case— marry a woman and have kids like my brothers did. It’s that old fashioned thinking.”
And while he thinks that “old fashioned thinking” is “evolving,” he’s also very aware of the intense homophobia that still exists. “I grew up on that weird kind of cusp. I graduated from high school in 2003—it’s not that long ago, but at the end of the day, it’s not socially accepted. It’s getting better, but you still see and hear stories of killing and attacks. We’re lucky to live in California. I was born in Texas and visiting my brother there in February—it’s a very different atmosphere out there. In Los Angeles, we’re such a mixing bowl, we’re all so different and I embrace the diversity. But you have to realize, not everywhere is like LA. It’s a culture shock.”
Gonzalez also has experience needing government programs and is ready to fight for them. “I went to Head Start and sometimes we needed food stamps so we had to rely heavily on those kind of government services when I was young,” he says. “So I know how it feels. And that’s why it’s important to elect good people to make sure those services are still provided for people like me today, especially with the cost of living being so outrageous in some places.”
Gonzalez says being chair of LACDP is a “huge undertaking” but his election as the first Latino and the youngest to run the local party “is a huge message” about the direction in which LA Democrats want to go.
“I’m looking forward to it. And we’ve got a lot of work to do,” Gonzalez says, especially strategizing how to bring in new voters and engage with current voters who’ve become apathetic. “I’m look forward to hearing from people who are still fired up and ready to go. We want to build on that and give people a voice at the table.”
Gonzalez laughs when it’s point out that he has automatically incorporated former President Obama’s catch phrase without even think about it. “It’s true,” he says. “I wake up in the morning and that’s the goal. Yeah—I’m still fired up and ready to go!”
A tale of two Americas: one tweets about division, the other speaks about unity.