Voting Power 2014

Shirley Chisholm

When Shirley Chisholm broke both racial and gender barriers to become the first Black woman elected to Congress in 1968 and later the first Black woman to run for U. S. president, she leapfrogged over more barriers to power than any woman considering a run today can even imagine.

Was she conflicted in her relationship with power? Just the opposite as the quote above indicates. How did she get that way and what can we learn from her on Election Day 2014?

My systematic research into many women’s ambivalent relationship with power began during the 2008 election season, when I wrote an article for Elle magazine about why women do—or as I came to find out, more often don’t—run for office.

Though women constituted 53% of the voters in 2012, Congress is less than 20% female and state legislatures are not much better.

At the rate women are advancing in Congress, it will be 60 years before gender leadership parity is reached. But more astounding is what I found in 2008 that stopped me short: it’s no longer external, structural barriers, though some do still exist, but internal ones that hold women back from fully embracing their political power. And there are far more similarities than differences in how this dynamic plays itself out in the seemingly divergent realms of work, politics, and personal relationships.

Image via Rutgers
Image via Rutgers

The personal is, was, and always will be, political.

I wanted to learn more: to understand what internalized values, implicit biases, assumptions, and beliefs about ourselves we as women haul around, like worthless cargo, hindering the full attainment of our potential as leaders and doers—what intricate personal and cultural constructs of power, the silent sinews that bind not only our political intentions, but our work lives and even our love lives.

vote_todayParadoxically, I’ve spent most of my adult life working for justice and power for others—African Americans, poor kids, other women. Not, as Jerry Seinfeld would say, that there’s anything wrong with that. In fact, I feel blessed to have been able to make my life’s passion for social justice into my life’s work. And my path is not so different from gendered behavior regarded (and rewarded) as laudable—being nice, putting the needs of others first.

Which is the point. Fighting for others seemed worthy. Fighting for myself, or something I wanted, did not. And many younger women today tell me they experience similar reticence, even as they seek role models and mentors to teach them differently.

Yet all effective leadership is rooted in the language of power and the willingness to embrace the power one has. If women are ever to complete our staccato journey to equality, we must join the discourse and become deliberately fluent in power’s meanings and nuances.

While the men around us operate as though they own the world—because, for the most part, they do—women have to work consciously to assume that place of intentional power and agency. Women’s inner struggles parallel the pushme-pullyou history of our social and political advances.

It’s this relationship with power—almost a spiritual factor, rarely acknowledged by the metrics or even the philosophers, which I’ve witnessed in myself and countless other women—that fascinated me and propelled me to undertake writing my book, No Excuses, ultimately leading me to cofound Take The Lead. For until we redefine our relationship with power, we will stay stuck in our half-finished revolution.

And that matters for two reasons.

First, we will remain able to excuse and justify our lack of progress by pointing outward rather than owning our part of the responsibility to take the harder road of pushing forward courageously as Chisholm did.

Second, until we can stand confidently in our own power, we won’t be able to lead ourselves or others with intention. If we allow that to happen, both women and men will remain constrained within lives of limited gender stereotyped possibilities, lives that keep us all from achieving our full human potential.

The Right Honorable Kim Campbell, former prime minister of Canada (and the first head of that nation’s government), put it this way: “Look, power exists. Somebody is going to have it. If you would exercise it ethically, why not you? I love power. I’m power-hungry because when I have power I can make things happen, can serve my community, can influence decisions, I can accomplish things.”

Why not you, indeed? Why not any one of us?

And if a courageous woman like Shirley Chisholm could blast through seemingly impermeable barriers to run for president half a century ago, surely each and every one of us can at a minimum honor her memory by voting today and every Election Day.

The Young Politica: The Generational Communication Gap

In recent U.S. presidential elections, there has been a bipartisan effort to engage youth voters. The effort has been seen in candidates’ web/social media efforts, the recent upsurge of multi-party activism on campus, and the growth of youth organizations promoting youth political involvement.

It’s quite a change, given that we college students were more likely to be shooed away from the speaking platform in the 1960’s and 1970’s.

It seems that Democrats and Republicans have reacted quite differently to this paradigm shift. The youth vote comprises of a larger percentage of racial minorities than any older demographic. Sure, younger generations tend to lean left, but (as with most young people) there is room to change. As I said in my last column, the effort could have been increased, but Republicans gave up our voters before the race even began. Democrats are also appealing to our diverse generation by having women and racial minorities make up a collective majority of their party in Congress.

Thanks to the internet and organizations like Rock the Vote, youth activism has reached a new day. In the digital age, our rallies are resonated by re-tweets,  our voices don’t need to be screaming in picket lines, but rather, logically tearing politicians a new one on our blogs. Perhaps my embrace of the passive take on youth involvement is hard to swallow, but today social media activists are often more effective than someone who has no digital reach for their cause.

For our 19% piece of the demographic pie, the fight was won by the group of young people involved in the Young Americans for Obama campaign (circa 2008). Meanwhile, the Romney campaign tried to relate to youth voters by refusing to have anyone under 30 lead the team. It’s amazing how a solid marketing plan really does appeal and engage my commercial generation of instant gratification.

Yes—American politics are currently dominated by old, mostly white, men. But before we nominate Kid President for the 2016 presidential election, let’s see how both parties react to this years race. In 2016, I predict the strongest push by both parties for the youth, minority, and women’s vote. The portrait of the United States as seen by American politicians needs to be drastically altered.

The Young Politica: The 2012 Youth Vote

After a low youth voter turnout in 2010, projections for the youth vote in 2012 seemed to be less than that of the momentous turnout in 2008. Democrats made it a point to make the youth vote become an important factor in the 2008 election, but as many students, saw soon after inauguration day, change didn’t come as easily as we had expected. To many voters’ surprise, the youth vote was higher in 2012 than it was in 2008.

Paul Ryan’s dig on fading Obama posters may have been a bit extreme, but it did shed light on the election’s youth voter’s perspective, and the voter climate overall. Would the next four years be worth the another Obama term? Would change for our generation be financially sustainable?

This election was far different from the 2008 election that promised some generic change. It wasn’t about who had the spiffiest graphics or best campaign t-shirts. It was about our future, about how much we would have to pay in loans after college, about what jobs we could find, and about what our futures would shape into.

In our realization of disillusionment, we armed ourselves with knowledge instead of immediately changing sides. The vote wasn’t as one sided—60% voted for Obama and 36% for Romney in 2012, versus 66% for Obama and 31%for McCain in 2008. What a surprise, considering that the minority vote shifts to Democrats, and minorities make up the youth vote more than any other age demographic.

Though it may have only been 1% higher than the last election, the increase in youth voter turnout in 2012 was unexpected, at least for me. With less media appearances and less vigor towards chasing the youth vote, both candidates failed to capture the spirit that we saw in 2008. For Romney, at least, it seemed that he could care less about our 19% of total voters who might be able to elect him into the White House. How, exactly, can you break down the Five Point Plan for someone studying liberal arts at Sarah Lawrence? How do you explain that this student would be much better off financially if they put a stopper to their dreams by transferring to a trade school or a community college? It is easier, as the Obama campaign discovered, to appeal to a mass of students by bringing student loans up as a main spoke of the campaign, appealing to college students and recent graduates alike.

Of course, as I said before, fewer students voted for Obama this election season. Overall, however, students still (overwhelmingly) voted him into office.

This election wasn’t filled with as many national media appearances for the POTUS. However, he made the time to seek the youth vote on networks that appealed to the youth demographic. Another strategic way he sought the undecided voter (which makes up a large percentage of the youth vote, as we saw in the 6% Republican shift from 2008 to 2012), he often popped up in local media near swing voting sites, like when Obama called in to local radio stations. Romney focused on older, decided voters and avoided entertainment appearances.

The last four years hasn’t been all catchy t-shirt phrases and idealistic change. However, the POTUS appealed to the youth vote when Romney rarely even gave it a shot. This recent upsurge in student voters may not be because of a resurgence in youth activism, but rather, because of an eager desire to secure our futures. Despite popular opinion, we don’t vote because it’s a trend. We vote for the betterment of our lives.

Two Generations Dissect Election 2012 and What’s Next for Women’s Rights

On election night, journalism major Maegan Vazquez joined about one hundred fellow New York University students over the beer soaked floorboards of Brad’s, a popular site for locals and college 20-somethings alike. Keenly interested in politics, she’s been writing a terrific weekly column for my Heartfeldt Blog, titled “The Young Politica.”

Across town, I chatted with a couple dozen men and women at my friend Loretta’s Upper East Side apartment. As guests slipped into spaces on the elegant couch and chairs, like the old game of Sardines, each sighed, “I’m so nervous about the outcome of this election.”

Nov. 7, 2012 – New York, USA – Young women celebrate the result of the 2012 US Presidential election at Times Square in New York, USA, 07 November 2012. Democratic President Obama defeated Republican candidate Mitt Romney in the US elections. Photo: Rainer Jensen (Credit Image: © Rainer Jensen/DPA/ZUMAPRESS.com)

The pundits had us convinced that what turned out to be a rout would be a cliffhanger.

Maegan and I e-mailed back and forth about our thoughts and feelings.

I quipped that every 20 years, whether we need it or not, we get a “Year of the Woman.”

Women were angry enough in 1992 to vote in record numbers. We’d watched Anita Hill being insulted by the all-male Senate Judiciary Committee when she claimed then U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her. Twin assaults on Roe v Wade, Webster v Reproductive Health Services and Planned Parenthood v Casey had brought icy shivers of fear that the reproductive rights hard-won by second wave feminists like me were in mortal danger.

Four pro-choice women were elected to the Senate—a record!—and women won 22 of 24 open Congressional seats that year, when pro-choice Bill Clinton was elected to his first term.

Enter 2012’s Republican War on Women

Again, there were a succession of high profile insults. To name a few:

  • 30-year-old Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke was denied the chance to speak about why contraceptives should be covered by insurance, and was rewarded by being called a slut by Rush Limbaugh…
  • An all-male “expert” panel pontificated on women’s reproductive health before a Senate committee (also all-male because the women on the committee were so incensed they walked out)…
  • Bills in Texas and Virginia sought to force women seeking abortions to submit to 10″ ultrasound “shaming wands”…
  • Indiana GOP senate candidate Richard Mourdock declared he opposes abortion even after rape, because pregnancy from rape is “something that God intended to happen”…
  • Missouri GOP senate candidate Todd Akin opined about “legitimate rape” and made the loopy assertion that women’s bodies reject rape-induced pregnancy…

Were enough women, especially younger women, again sufficiently incensed to vote in the numbers needed to sweep Barack Obama into a second term and set a new record for electing pro-choice women?

Says Maegan, “For my generation—the up-and-coming movers and shakers, the wide-eyed, and the ambitious—this election was a pinnacle moment in many of our personal histories. It is an era that shifts towards tolerance and equality of women, same-sex couples, and ethnic minorities. Yet, as we saw in the early stages of election night, it can just as easily be taken away.”

The mood at Loretta’s lightened when the Connecticut senate race broke for Democrat Chris Murphy against World Wrestling Association former CEO, right wing Republican bazillionaire Linda McMahon. Proving once again that women can’t be fooled by lipstick and a pink suit.

Cheers erupted for Maggie Hassan, who will become the only female prochoice Democratic governor in the country.

Bigger cheers when Massachusetts Democrat Elizabeth Warren was declared victorious over Republican Scott Brown.

Biggest cheers were reserved for Mourdock’s defeat, and in rapid succession, Missouri Democratic Senate incumbent Claire McCaskill wiped the floor with Todd Akin.

This War on Women had clearly been won—by women.

Maegan’s take: “Reproductive rights and women’s health remain behind the times, but we are getting somewhere. With women like pro-choice Claire McCaskill in office, instead of her women’s rights antithesis Todd Akin, the country can continue to trudge toward women’s rights reform.”

Maine and Maryland pass ballot measures approving same sex marriage. More cheers for that watershed.

And then the news comes that Obama is over the top—Ohio has once again been the pivotal state that makes him president. On East 77th, a toast, and a sigh of relief.

Maegan describes the scene at Brad’s bar downtown: “Suddenly, the chatty crowd erupts in a roar. The sight I saw on election night was similar to what many of my friends saw in other parts of the country—young people celebrating after their POTUS was reelected.”

Young people made up 19% of voters, an even higher percentage than in 2008. Maegan predicted students should soon be seeing legislation to reform student loans and Obamacare will continue to stream into effect. These are high priority items for her.

The numbers for women across age brackets were even more stunning.

Women as a whole made up 54% of the electorate. They voted for Obama by 55% – 44%. Unmarried women voted for Obama by a whopping 68% to 30%:

Twenty female senators will serve in the 113th Congress, the largest number in US history. Every Democratic female incumbent was reelected.

Journalist Irin Carmon’s salon.com piece taunted, “Still Want to Fight a War on Women?”

What does it all mean? The answer is in our hands.

It means the fight goes on. And any generation that forgets this lesson of history is doomed to repeat it, just as women did after 1992.

In 1994, the right came back with a tsunami known as the Gingrich Revolution and his infamous Contract with America. Many of the women and progressive men elected in 1992 were swept back out of office.

This happened not because women changed their minds but because they failed to vote in the same numbers as they had when they were agitated in 1992. Today, opportunity knocks anew.

After the nasty political acrimony of the last two decades, I believe there is a deep hunger for the leadership qualities women bring, a desire to fix the broken political system and change dysfunctional cultural paradigms. Women are more likely to work across the aisle to find solutions rather than merely engage in adolescent power plays.

But to achieve that goal and get the country moving forward—Obama’s campaign slogan–women must first claim their own power to lead themselves with intention. To take this precious moment in history and make the gains sustainable by advancing a bold agenda, and never withdrawing from the process again.

Too much has already been lost. It will take an enormous amount of work just to repair the damage of the last few years of assaults.

There are positive signs. Almost immediately, I received an e-mail from the Center for Reproductive Rights urging me to sign their Bill of Reproductive Rights.

I am gratified that this language now being heard everywhere—women’s reproductive rights are human rights. The contraceptive coverage movement I created at the national level in 1996 must continue to flourish and become truly universal until Sandra Fluke is recognized as hero, and no one would dare call her a slut. That recognition of women’s full humanity requires a culture shift bigger than we have never had before.

It’s time for the Freedom of Choice Act to guarantee women the right to make their own childbearing choices. Time to repeal the Hyde Amendment and its spawn. Time to insist the president fill the too-many empty seats on the Federal bench expeditiously, with people who respect women’s rights.

It’s time for the Paycheck Fairness Act and other economic policies that ensure all women and men get a fair shake.

For as Maegan e-mails me, “The President can do what he wants without the hesitation he faced during his past four years in office. If the POTUS will be remembered for anything after his presidency by swing voters, it will be his failure or success of stabilizing the U.S. economy.”

As a millennial, a woman, and a Hispanic, she lives at the sweet spot of where the voting demographics are going.

Her advice is exactly right: “We must fight for what we believe in, and continue striving towards our political desires through our votes and our grass roots movements and our voices. We cannot sit still waiting for a promised change. We must insist on change when politicians do not follow through. We must demand it.”

This post originally appeared on BlogHer.

In Which I Answer POLITICO Arena’s Election Day Question: What were the campaigns’ biggest mistakes?

A friend posted a photo on Facebook of a long line at her polling place this morning with the comment that “it’s a good sign when voters are treating an election like Black Friday at Walmart.” Now we have to wait all day to learn which of the candidates brought forth this outpouring of interest: do voters think Obama or Romney is the better bargain?

Both campaigns have made mistakes galore, balancing each other out in about the same horserace numbers as the daily polls have recently shown the race to be. Romney’s worst was hoisting himself on his own petard of Etch-a-Sketch positions, thus eroding voter trust, then nailing his coffin with the deliberately false Jeep ad.

Obama’s worst mistake was four years in the making. He failed to run, as Harry Truman successfully did, against the “do nothing Congress” that is more at fault for the lack of economic progress than the president who at least put forward some ideas. He had to re-energize many discouraged 2008 supporters as a result. But thanks to the Republican War on Women which Romney could not separate himself from, Obama was able to seize a set of issues that resonate with progressive women who make up almost 60% of the Democratic base.

Romney’s mistakes were mistakes of character and likability; Obama’s were mistakes of leadership style.

I’ve walked many precincts knocking on doors and weathered many elections. In the end voters usually go with the person whose character and persona they find more appealing. Those scales weigh in Obama’s favor today. We’ll find out tonight whether that is enough of a bargain to carry the election.

Meanwhile, here’s what I’m posting on social media today:

The ballot box is where we win the #waronwomen. #Vote #Election2112 

I’d appreciate your shares and tweets of that sentiment.

This was originally posted in response to a question in Politico Arena. Find the Arena response here.

Outsider Fits No Political Box, but Declares Choice Because “I Hope It Gets Better”

This is a powerful personal essay guest post on American culture and politics from my colleague, Tamara Fagin. Her title was “Random Musings From the Frontline” but I don’t think it’s random at all. I believe most Americans feel like outsiders at some time in their lives, and who have had the experience of being bullied or feeling like we have been treated unfairly because of our birth origins.

We are a nation of diverse heritages, a salad bowl of tossed differences rather than a melting pot where we all blend in together.

How does Fagin tie her personal experience as a one-woman salad bowl of cultures who always felt “different” with how she came to choose a candidate for president? Read on…and tell us your experiences.

All or for much of my life I have felt like an outsider.  Bullied in a sense for giving a damn.  I have early memories of eye-rolling, smirks or quiet taunts. This was not the punching, hair-pulling, tripping garden variety of physical bullying and worse, rather the insidious kind that eats at one’s insides and makes one eat lunch in the high school bathroom (it was clean and a friend joined me).

It was the one-off comment from the popular, All-American high school cheerleader that goes unanswered by one’s peers and one’s teacher. When I answered a question in A.P. U.S. History class, our teacher asked the class, “Why can’t you guys answer that question?  Tamara just moved here from Japan.“  The cute blonde cheerleader girl shouted, “She’s an import!” I can’t remember what happened after that.…

I just remember that I wished that we were back in Japan.  And, I wished that she knew the deal.  But, c’est la vie or shikataganai, as the Japanese say.

Note to Mr. M.:  you should have called her on that.  You should have never made that comment to the class about me being able to answer the question.  I was new to the school.  I was miserable.  I missed my old school, my old friends, my old beaches, my old Japanese nightclubs, my old routine and I missed Okinawa, Japan.

Note to educators everywhere: you make the bullying problem worse when you do this kind of comparison thing. It doesn’t work for parents when they say to their kids, “Why can’t you be more like your big brother, Johnny?”  Why the hell do you think it is going to make your domestic darlings try harder?  It just doesn’t.  It breeds resentment.  It pits us against them.  U.S. blonde, blue-eyed and beautiful against different. But, to borrow a phrase from my LGBT brothers and sisters, IT GETS BETTER.

In 5th grade, my family moved from the quaint, hippy town of Boulder Creek (nestled in a majestic Redwood forest atop the Santa Cruz mountains) to the small tropical island of Okinawa, Japan. I attended 6th grade at the brand new Amelia Earhart Elementary School and then attended the brand new Kadena High School (actually served grades 7 – 12). Both were on Kadena Air Force Base, one of the largest Air Force bases in the world.

My dad, a veteran of the Korean War, is a patriotic American; he is pretty much as American as you can get.  Born in Aldenville, Massachusetts in 1933 to a physician and homemaker (this moniker does not do her justice—she ran the hospital and the family home which was attached to the hospital).  My dad was the 4th born of 8 boys. The first 2 died in childbirth.  My grandfather delivered my dad and all of my uncles in their hospital in Western Massachusetts.

My mother was a Japanese woman born on August 25, 1945 in Hiroshima, Japan; a mere 2.5 weeks after the U.S. dropped the first atomic bomb ever there.  My mother died a week before I began law school from stomach cancer.  We do not know if it was related to the bomb.  We will never know.  What I do know, is that life will never be the same for us with her gone so young.  She was only 47.

I am half Japanese.  I lamely joke that I was made in Japan but born and assembled in the U.S. of A.  Certified American.  Not an import. So, like our dear president, I am 100% American; and Mr. Trump and similar doubting Thomas’s (birthers—that term does a dishonor to mothers everywhere IMHO), I can produce my birth certificate but I choose not to. You are a bully, sir.  All that money and “hair” and you are a disgrace to this country.  But freedom of speech is king and you are free to make an ass of yourself.  Make my day.  Be my guest. Master Trump and Ann Coulter types only help my cause.

I leave for Japan on Thursday.  I wanted to be here for this historic election.  I am going to Japan with my husband to retrieve my maternal grandmother’s ashes and import them to the good ol’ U.S. of A.  It was not an easy call for me.  I have procrastinated all year trying to figure out what a Japanese woman born and raised on a tiny island off the coast of Hiroshima during the Taisho Era would have wanted.  It upsets me and is really ironic that I never discussed this with her.

You would have thought that this might have come up while my mother was dying in a hospital in Kobe, Japan.  You think this might have come up when I visited my grandmother all of those times while I was attending Tsuda College in Tokyo or when I was in Hiroshima doing research on social programs for the elderly. You think that this might have come up because I was a tax lawyer and even practiced estate planning law toward the end of my legal career.  How could I have been so negligent?

When my grandmother had a major stroke last year, I was not able to talk to her or her caregivers.  It seems that even Japan has enacted patient privacy laws.  There was no advance health care directive or power of attorney on file.  I was not her guardian.  She had no living children or heirs according to the official Japanese Family Registry – my mother never registered my brother and me.

What was my dear obachan?  A ward of the state?  She had 1 living younger brother – a man I did not know.  How could I not know her only living brother? He lived less than an hour away from her?!

I appealed to the hospital staff in Akashi from my home in California. I sent desperate faxes of pictures of me with my grandmother.  I had Bullet Train passes with dates of trips that I had saved from Tokyo to Nishiakashi.  I had pictures from April of 2006 when I took my husband, daughter and then 1 year-old son to visit her.  None of this worked.

I enlisted Japanese friends who were respected professors and government employees to contact the hospital on my behalf.  I was told to get to Japan ASAP.  I hired a lawyer.  He drew up the paperwork.  I was finally able to see her… but it was too late.  She was gone… or almost gone.  I visited with her for 2 days.

Going through everything in my head.  What could I have done differently?  I should have visited more.  I should have called more.  What a mess.  What a frickin’ mess.

I returned to California beaten.  Very unsure about whether being half Japanese, bi-racial, bi-national was worth it.  I didn’t get to have nice holidays with my grandparents.  I hardly ever saw them growing up.  I could not communicate with my grandparents until I was in college because I did not speak Japanese.  My mother translated everything.  Why couldn’t I just have grandparents who popped over and watched my soccer games like everyone else?  Why? Why? Why?

The day after I got home from Japan, I woke up and checked my email. My grandmother had died last night I was told.  She probably died when I was on the plane coming back. “What would you like us to do with her stuff?” they asked.

So, now I prepare feverishly to go to Japan with my husband.  We will go to the Buddhist temple where my grandmother’s ashes are stored, meet with her only surviving brother – who is understandably disappointed with me for my complete failure to handle this in a timely, efficient and appropriate Japanese manner, meet the real estate agent who has recommended that we cut the price of my grandmother’s modest home by 50% in order to sell it (we have had no offers for 9 months but it went on the market right after the Tsunami, hardly a good time for a quick sale) because it is on the proverbial slippery slope —the same sloping mountain side it has been on for 60+ years without incident!  We will try to eat some good sushi (Jiro Dreams of Sushi; Jiro-sama, please save us a seat at your sushi counter – a big seat for my husband and regular one for me onegaishimasu), see some cool stuff, soak in a nice onsen and purchase a new, state-of-the-art rice cooker.

So, how will I be treated in Japan as a hapa haole or as the Japanese say “hafu” (means half)?  I don’t look Japanese.  I somehow got all of the haole genes. I am often mistaken for a Latina. I use that to my advantage whenever I can. 😉

I am more Japanese than most folks would ever imagine and certainly more Japanese than pretty much any Japanese-American you would meet in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo or San Francisco’s Japantown.  I have been to more places in Japan than my mother and grandmother combined and more than most Japanese nationals I know.

So, let me tell you how I will be treated.  I know this well from past (painful) experience, and I doubt that things have changed much in the last year.  I will be treated with the utmost respect and polite distance.

Japanese people, bless their hearts, will use the appropriate honorific speech for someone of my educational background, gender and age.  They will be REALLY nice to my husband.  He will be treated like the prince that he is. 😉

I will be told umpteen times how good my Japanese is (even though it will never be really good) and how well I use my chopsticks (even though I am not so good at using chopsticks; my Jewish husband has much better form than I do, and I ask him to teach our kids!). And, people will be shocked when I tell them that my grandmother, grandfather and mother were Japanese.

I mean… jaw-dropping SHOCK will pass across their faces.  It will be fun for the first day and after that it will get old.  I will wish that I can just blend in and go on with my business.  But, that will never happen as long as I look the way that I do, walk the way that I do (like an American – taking up too much space and too proud), talk the way I do and look people in the eye with a little too much intensity and directness.

I will tell people that I’m half Japanese and people will shake their heads and crinkle their brows and try to compute that… “Hontoo ni?” Really? Yes, really.  There will be a disconnect.  But, no matter how good my Japanese is, no matter how much Japanese history, proverbs and strange only-Japanese people know kind of stuff I know, I will always be an outsider to them.  I will always be a gaijin (literally – outside person).

I was made in Japan – my mother was very pregnant with me when my mom and dad fled Japan for America.  My father worked for the U.S. government and wrote his Congressman and the Embassy/Consulate and requested an emergency transfer back to the United States for himself and his pregnant Japanese national bride.  Somehow they agreed.

Somehow the story of my affluent maternal grandfather, Mr. Noboritate, and his henchman (including the local police) and their bullying of my dad and my mother struck a chord with someone. Somehow his concerns for my mother’s sanity and the well-being of his unborn child resonated with someone fairly high up somewhere.  My grandfather was a nutcase.  He threatened my mother with a knife when she told him she was going to marry my dad.  She was young.  My dad was 13 years older and had been married before.  I get it.  I would not have blessed that marriage either… but a knife?

Really?

It was the 1960’s when my parents delivered their engagement news. Don’t kid yourself that the revelation of their marriage plans would have fared much better in the good U.S. of A where miscegenation was still against the law in a staggering number of states.

In spite of the challenges and my mother’s broken English, their love thrived and they were married until my mother’s premature death.  My maternal grandparents, on the other hand, divorced when my mother was still in elementary school.  This was the early 1950s and divorce in Japan at the time was unheard of and women’s rights in Japan was even more remote (or not even a concept yet!).

My grandfather was so unfit that even the desperate Japanese Army in the waning days of the World War II would not conscript him.  He was a flat-footed, he was mentally unstable, he was the only eligible bachelor on the island left for my unfortunate grandmother to be set up with in an arranged marriage.  He was a jealous, drunken fool and liked to beat her and chase her with a knife around the house.  She hid in the closets until he would fall asleep.  I can only imagine the horror.

At some point it must have become unbearable.  She made the Sophie’s Choice-like choice of staying with the madman or leaving my young, vulnerable mother to be cared for by his relatives.  She fled to Kobe—I guess she had a brother up there.  I’m not 100% sure.

I should have learned more about this sordid chapter of the Noboritate family history.  But now it is too late. They are all gone. How this must have felt, I can only imagine.

Anyway, I’m half Japanese and half French, I typically say; even though my dad is really of French-Canadian descent.  But, I am really 100% American.  I do not feel like an import.  I feel American.

Do I drive a Japanese car?  Your damn right I do.  I love my Lexus.

Do I like Japanese food?  Of course, I do.  I grew up eating steamed white rice every day.

Do I worship the emperor?  Are you kidding me? Of course, not.  No way.

I am 100% American – that I’m sure about.  But, I feel very conflicted these days.  Elections and the Olympics tend to do that to me.  I feel confused. Do I cheer for Japan or the U.S. in Women’s Soccer?  I usually go with whoever is winning. 😉

I don’t fit into any neat racial boxes and neither do my kids (it gets more complicated for them!).  At some point you have to wonder, what is the point?  My daughter is ¼ Japanese, ¼ “black” (well, technically, her paternal grandfather was from Trinidad, and my ex doesn’t like the phrase African American so I will honor her wishes here), ¼ French-Canadian and ¼ French (but my daughter’s paternal grandmother was born and raised in Algeria – so does that make her North African? She sure as heck did not feel French when they were forced out of Algeria and had to settle in the South of France – but that is another story for another time).

I don’t fit into any neat political boxes either and hence my dilemma this morning.  I need to fill out my ballot.  I need to turn that in tomorrow and really start focusing on my trip.  Argh… What to do?  I’m socially hyper-liberal and moderately fiscally conservative.  I am pro-choice and pro-parents’ rights but pro-tax reform and like the idea of a flat tax with credits/exemptions to address equity concerns (as long as they don’t wreck the simplicity/efficiency of the flat tax).

I am liberal and even libertarian at times but I support better food labeling, better environmental and food safety regulation and I support our military but I want our troops the hell out of Afghanistan.  I support our bases in Japan but I desperately want to go there and tell the troops – please, please, please leave the local people alone.  Respect them.  They may not look like you but they have sisters and mothers just like you do.  Do not abuse them.  Do not rape them.  Treat them like you would like to be treated.  Get along.  Be an example.  This is all they know about America.  Do not tarnish that.

To make things even more interesting, my family and I lived in Columbus, Ohio for most of 2011 and part of this year.  We also visited this summer.  It was insane the amount of political ads that were on the radio, T.V. and EVERYWHERE.  I feel for my fellow Ohioans… you must be SICK TO DEATH of this election.

I am so glad I got to know you better Ohio. I was fortunate enough to get to know Jennifer Brunner, the first female Secretary of State of Ohio and the author of the new book, Cupcakes and Courage (about her unsuccessful U.S. Senatorial campaign – looking forward to reading that on the plane to Japan), her amazing sister, Andrea Dowling—you are so supportive, welcoming and warm—the best qualities of a Midwestern woman, and my senpai and fellow Bryn Mawr alumna, Pari Sabety.  On the other hand, I was also fortunate to attend an intimate lunch with Senator Rob Portman and Jewish leaders (thank you Bob for that invite).  I met all of you in my first month or so of moving to Columbus.  It was quite an introduction to Ohio politics.

OHAYOO Ohio! Good Morning, O-H-I-O!  Thanks to the time change, it is still morning in California.  It has always struck me as funny that ohayoo in Japanese means good morning.  They are pronounced the same way.  Must be fate that I married two Ohioans and that many Japanese companies, such as Honda, have such a big presence in Ohio.

So, Ohio. You have been on my mind and most Americans’ minds lately. There is less than 12 hours to go until my polling station closes in California (thank you CNN for the countdown!).  I may be conflicted, confused, wishy-washy about many things and who or what propositions I’m voting for but one thing for sure is that I am going to vote.  I will take my kids with me and let them watch me vote.  I will make a big deal of walking to our local fire station or biking there (weather permitting) and exercising my right to vote.

I urge you to get informed.  You still have time!  Please vote.  And, get your neighbors, the elderly, the young hipsters, everyone, to vote. Teachers please share with your classes that you voted!  Take this opportunity to teach what is right and what is truly 100% American.

Our presidential vote in California might not count…but vote to reelect President Obama anyway to send a message if you value tolerance and inclusion. And, we have so many important issues on the ballot—issues that affect our schools (California Propositions 30 and 38), our streets, our safety (such as those regarding GMO-labeling (California Proposition 37)), human trafficking, the death penalty. Get out there and vote.  Proud to be an American, a Californian and half Japanese.  Feeling very patriotic and optimistic. PEACE. LOVE. OUT.

TAMARA MAYUMI GENEST FAGIN resides in Los Altos, California with an active elementary school duo and a great mensch of a husband with an even greater sense of humor.  She is a dedicated (and sometimes overzealous but well-meaning) community organizer and is the current Director of Development of The Fit Kids Foundation in Menlo Park, California (www.thefitkidsfoundation.org – please LIKE us on Facebook!). She is a proud graduate of Bryn Mawr College and Harvard Law School and was a Fulbright Scholar to Hiroshima, Japan in 1991-1992.  She also attended Tsuda College (1989), Stanford Law School (1995-1996) and a ridiculous number of other schools.  She loves to cycle, hike, cook, read, watch sports and hang out with her awesome friends and family. This is her second blog article.

The Young Politica: How to Vote During Hurricane

We Lower-Manhattanites are a scrappy bunch of people. We are starving artists, college students, writers, and Wall Street bankers. This past week, after Hurricane Sandy hit, all of lower Manhattan was out of power for days.

I am writing this after being evacuated from my dorm and living out of NYU’s Kimmel Center for days—a building that offered food, shelter, and power to students. For those not seeking refuge outside of their ‘South of Power’ apartments, I’ve heard stories of raw ramen for dinner and pilgrimages north for cell phone service. Luckily, power resumed for much of my neighborhood recently, so I have a bed to sleep in again.

Rather than thinking about where I would be relocated after the storm on Monday, my concerns shifted to how Sandy would affect the upcoming election. Perhaps my priorities need adjusting.

First on my list of concerns: my vote. Along with local businesses and city parks, the postal service was out of operation in my area for a few days. It wasn’t good news for an absentee voter, like myself.  However, Uptown mail services were functioning as usual. That’s where I headed to get my ballot sent. As of Wednesday, USPS is up and running.

Another slew of worries deals with voter turnout. The eastern seaboard states affected by Sandy were mostly blue states. Many of the people who will not make it to the polls because of the storm will be similar to those who are also shut out of the system that attempts to instill Voter ID Laws—citizens who need transportation to get to their voting site like the poor and the elderly; and mail-in voters who cannot make it to the polls like those with illness. Even voters who can drive to their polling sites may not be able to get there because of the gasoline shortage.

Some experts are even reasoning that the election might be swayed by way of the president’s approval rating post-Sandy. Even though the situation down here was quite the opposite of the negative national event that was Katrina, a natural disaster like Sandy during any administration’s reign can be a game changer.

No matter who wins, I just hope it’s a fair fight; not one skewed by a tragic event such as this. If we can survive without power for almost a week, we can walk to polling stations to cast our ballot. I hiked up 45 blocks to get my ballot sent, for Pete’s sake. No matter where you are, please vote.

If Obama Wins Ohio, Fair Voting and Jennifer Brunner Get Credit

My grandparents were all immigrants from tyrant-ruled Eastern Europe during the early decades of the 20th century. They treasured their voting rights as only new citizens can, and they instilled in me their almost sappy love of the American ideals of liberty, justice, and fairness.

Having struggled to get to their promised land, they considered voting their sacred duty. Every election, no matter what. They weren’t naïve about politics, nor did they expect their favored candidates to win every time. They just wanted their votes counted honestly and their voices heard fairly.

They would have loved Jennifer Brunner, Ohio’s first female Secretary of State who served from 2007-2011. She’s a true American hero for cleaning up the state’s election system after its 2004 debacle, one that is remembered as one of the most sordid chapters in our nation’s history.

Ohio is a perennial battleground state. It has been pivotal to the outcome of every presidential election in recent history.  And since 1944, as Ohio has gone, so has the nation with only one exception, when voters chose Nixon over Kennedy in 1960.

Most elections are won or lost with a mere 2 percent swing. So the consequences of even a scintilla of voter suppression or a few malfunctioning voting machines can turn an entire election and change the course of history.  That’s why fair and honest elections are so incredibly important to American democracy.

In Brunner’s forthright memoir, Cupcakes and Courage, for which I was honored to write the foreword, you see firsthand the qualitative difference between a mere politician determined to stay in office even if it means jiggering the electoral system and an elected official who is first and foremost a public servant.

Brunner tells an inspiring story, full of juicy anecdotes that illustrate the power of the individual to make a difference. But unlike the single frosted cupcake on its cover, Cupcakes is not an individualistic story—far from it. Deeply rooted in values of family and social responsibility, she took those communitarian values into public service and audaciously trudged through bi-partisan criticism to protect the rights of the individual voter.

Brunner’s unwavering focus on fairness and transparency brought major changes to Ohio’s 2008 electoral processes, which in turn helped to restore voter confidence.  Her unflinching description of what she did and why after the 2004 presidential election turned on the shifting sands of Cuyahoga County’s voting irregularities deserves to be a political science class staple.

“Many have questioned the efficacy of our [2004] presidential election in Ohio,” says Brunner. “I simply questioned its fairness of process.”

Voting rights—yes, even in my grandparents’ rosy view of America—can be as fragile and as fleeting as they are in non-democratic nations around the globe. As a girl growing up in Texas, I heard the rumors of Lyndon Johnson stuffing ballot boxes in Jim Wells County with ballots of dead people. We might think those poll taxes, literacy tests, and other Jim Crow laws instituted in the South after the Civil War, and lasting well into the mid-20th Century, are well behind us.

But history is repeating itself this year in the wave of voter suppression initiatives sweeping the country. Just as a house that has been cleaned can become a mess again in record time, so the Ohio voting process that Brunner cleaned up—or any state that falls prey to divisive, partisan abuse of power—can, and in many battleground states, is faced with the risk of corruption and the contortion of the voice and will of its people.

As it has ever been historically, minorities often receive the short end of the voting rights stick. How tragic, considering that this country is the product of minorities, like my patriotic grandparents, at its core.

Since leaving office, Brunner started Fair Elections Ohio, a group that successfully fought back harmful Ohio voter suppression legislation, keeping 2008 voting rules in place for 2012.

In 2004, “Cuyahoga County” became a household term, and thus entered the political junkie’s lexicon as a metaphor for voter suppression.  If President Obama wins Ohio, it’s likely that he will win a second term as president. If so, he will have Brunner to thank—not for manipulating voting mechanism to favor him, but simply to allow the people to speak through their votes, the franchise of a free nation.

Romney Skewered by Candidate He Endorsed?

Indiana GOP Senate candidate Richard Mourdock told debate viewers last night that he opposes abortion even in the case of rape, because pregnancy from rape is “something that God intended to happen.” This occurred just as Mourdock’s campaign unveiled a new on-camera endorsement from Mitt Romney.

To his credit, Mourdock’s opponent, Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly, later said that Mourdock’s comments didn’t reflect what “my God or any God” would intend to happen. And it’s no secret that most Americans, including Romney by own official campaign statements, reject such extremist views.

But Mourdock’s comments can’t help but damage Mitt Romney by association. Such a wild-eyed position by a candidate he has endorsed drives one more nail into Romney’s campaign coffin by revealing the stark truth about the extreme anti-woman positions the Romney campaign has been forced to take by the extreme right-wing of his party.

Just as Todd Akin did with his misogynistic attempt to parse what kind of rape is “legitimate” and what is not, Mourdock cruelly dismissed women’s moral autonomy and even their right to defend their own bodies against the assaults of their attackers. He even invokes God’s name to justify his position.

This is just one more illustration that the right-wing war on women’s fundamental human right to reproductive self-determination remains in full battle array. This conflict has nothing to do with abortion or babies or what God wants; it is a full-out culture war and its objective is to take away the economic, social, and political gains women have made over the last 50 years. It’s the ultimate way to keep women powerless—locked physically in those binders Mitt talked about.

Sadly, the formerly moderate Mitt Romney has proactively chosen to align himself with retrograde thinkers like Mourdock, and he is likely to pay the price.

This post was originally a response to a question asked in Politico Arena. My answer is here.

 

The Young Politica: Do the Presidential Candidates ‘Walk the Walk’ on Student Issues?

If you watched the presidential debate this past week, you probably remember Jeremy Epstein, a 20-year-old college student who attends Adelphi University. He opened up the town hall question session by asking:

“Mr. President, Governor Romney, as a 20-year-old college student, all I hear from professors, neighbors and others is that when I graduate, I will have little chance to get employment. Can — what can you say to reassure me, but more importantly my parents, that I will be able to sufficiently support myself after I graduate?”

This question is the basis of concern for many young Americans. And it correlates to other questions we have about student loans and the economy. In 2008, 51% of young voters came out to the polls and helped swing the vote. An overwhelming amount of students—68 %—voted for Barack Obama.

Now that there is some unrest on how he has handled the economy over the past four years, recognizing the student vote on both sides should be key to snagging the presidency. Here are some issues the candidates need to address:

Degree-Requiring Jobs

Most students out of college are either unemployed or work at jobs which do not need a degree. While both candidates focus on the generalization of ‘more jobs’, they are not necessarily adding more to degree-requiring jobs to the market. Romney addresses these concerns by emphasizing his administration’s take on education—bring more students to technical, vocational, and trade schools. Obama has added jobs, but they are mostly an effort to continue to emphasize his desire to return factory jobs to American workers.

Climate

There is some hope that the candidates will address climate change at the upcoming debate. The President has obviously softened on his need for environmental improvements after Solyndra’s downfall. And Romney is still mocking him for it. But neither candidate has addressed the issue directly within recent weeks.

The Youth Vote

It seems that there have been some belated efforts, but snagging a large percentage of youth votes may be too late. Unlike Barack Obama, Mitt Romney has avoided sitting down with television hosts (wish I could say the same for Ann ) and his social media presence is sub par in comparison to Obama’s. At the same token, Romney might not see benefit in the youth vote; but Obama is definitely not as hip as he was in 2008, as Paul Ryan noted.

After the town hall debate, Jeremy Epstein spoke to NBC New York to discuss the debate. He said that he made his voting decision, but kept it confidential. After the debate, Epstein spoke with both candidates:

“I asked [Romney] if he’s gonna give me that job in two years and he said ‘Maybe,'” Epstein said. “Then I was speaking with President Obama asking how his Chicago Bulls are gonna do, because they lost their MVP Derek Rose, and he said that I could not beat him in one-on-one, but I disagree with that.”