In 1998 I had an impeccable political resume: a former officer in the Army Rangers, a degree in Public and Private Management from Yale, and a rising star in the conservative movement with Bob Dole and Newt Gingrich campaigning for me for Congress. By 2001 at the age of 39 I was living alone in a cabin without electricity, deeply disillusioned with the political UN-civil war. By 2004 I had reentered politics with a new approach, building rather than destroying bridges. I eventually helped bring over 145 national leaders representing over seventy million Americans into multi-day retreat dialogues in search of opportunities to collaborate—Al Gore, Grover Norquist and top leaders of MoveOn.org, Common Cause, Christian Coalition, American Legion, Meetup.com, Libertarian Party, and Green Party among others.
My personal transformation began after winning a racially charged Congressional primary in Georgia against “the first Black Republican ever to run in the deep south.” Within three years after I failed to win the general election campaign my “American dream” turned to nightmare — I lost a marriage, home, two businesses, my reputation and political career. Amidst a deep mid-life crisis I found myself alone, nearly penniless sitting in a cabin in an out of the way place called Floyd County, VA ruminating on the age old questions, “who am I?” and “why am I here?”
In Floyd I was adopted by the local “hippie” community. These were the first “liberals” I had ever seen who really walked their talk — they lived simply and sustainability, they treated me and most everyone equally (first names only), they shared easily and took care of those in need, like me. In return for their kindness I was able to help stop a gas pipeline through the community by getting Bill Moyer’s and US News interested in their story.
In 2003 in response to concerns I had over potential abuses of power in the USA Patriot Act and the Homeland Security Act, myself, then partner Pat Spino, and a videographer left Floyd to travel a portion of the route of Alexis de Tocqueville, 1831 author of Democracy in America. We interviewed people like Ross Perot, Ralph Nader, Noam Chomsky, Reagan’s Press Secretary Lyn Nofziger, heads of ACLU and ACU and law professors at Yale and UVa about the state of democracy in America. They all indicated — in their own way — its up to We the People to take responsibility for creating a system that works (just like they did in de Tocqueville’s time through institutions like the New England town hall.) It seemed to me America was calling for a new type of bottom up leadership…citizen leadership, servant leadership.
Using footage from the de Tocqueville trip I made a 22 minute video that focused on a citizen Wisdom Council as a innovative technique for creating a “voice of We the People” from 12 randomly selected citizens, in this case from Jackson County, OR (which became my new home.) Then with a grant from the Fetzer Institute and the support of a group called Lets Talk America I co-organize the first “transpartisan leadership retreat” as a strategy for facilitating cooperation among leaders with large grassroots constituencies. A Declaration for Dialogue Across Divides was signed at this remarkable event by people as different as Dave Keene, Chair, American Conservative Union, Former Congressman Bob Barr (Clinton impeachment manager), Michael Toms, Host, New Dimensions Radio, Futurist Barbara Marx Hubbard, Leif Utne and about 25 others. Here’s a popular article by Tom Atlee, author, Tao of Democracy and another one by Mark Satin, author Radical Middle about their experience at the First Conference on Democracy in America.
Back in Ashland when our local Constitution (Charter) was up for revision, myself and a small team of local organizers in Ashland, OR knocked on over 400 doors and got about 80 people to show up for town halls and a weekly “conversation cafe” on the question of “How do we want to govern ourselves here in Ashland?” It was called the Ashland Constitution Dialogue. We produced a newspaper of values, principles and priorities called “By the People” on July, 4, 2005 that educated the community. The ballot measure was ultimately rejected overwhelmingly. The strategy: DON’T LOBBY the government…educate the people through community dialogue, make officials curious about “what the citizens are planning,” be open, inviting and cooperative…it worked!
With another grant from the Fetzer Institute I organized another private, 4 day leadership retreat called the Second Conference on Democracy in America. It brought leaders of grassroots groups representing over 70 million Americans together in dialogue about areas of common concern. Participants included heads of MoveOn.org, Christian Coalition, Americans for Tax Reform, Common Cause, American Legion among others. As a result of relationships built between Joan Blades of MoveOn.org and Grover Norquist at the Second Conference on Democracy in America, Al Gore was invited on January 4, 2006 to speak about climate changewith conservatives at Grover’s center-right coalition “Wednesday meeting.”
In early 2006 I organized a team of political bridge builders called Reuniting America. After a Reuniting America steering committee meeting in DC where Joan Blades of MoveOn.org got to know Michelle Combs of the Christian Coalition they decide to take out a full page ad in the New York Times and do a Capitol Hill press conference on the subject of net neutrality. Short video. With another grant from the Fetzer Institute and as a result of trust built at First and Second Conferences on Democracy in America, I was able to convene a 4 day private transpartisan leadership retreat in the mountains of Colorado. The subject was Energy Security and Climate Change. Al Gore and many leaders of the environmental movement were able to spend quality, relaxed time exploring what united and divided them from leaders of the free market conservative and evangelical communities as well as leaders of the American Gas Association, Arch Coal and others. See 5 minute video. Much back-channel cooperation resulted. Within a short period of time evangelical leader Pat Robertson stated on the 700 Club “I’m a convert to global warming.”
In an effort to cross-pollinate relationships between leaders of the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation and leaders of the Green Party, Committee for a Unified Independent Party, the Libertarian Party as well as other grassroots groups, Reuniting America hosted the Third Conference on Democracy in America at Wye River Plantation, MD. Seeds were planted for third party cooperation in 2008 election cycle.
Reuniting America was reorganized into the Transpartisan Alliance and the Transpartisan Center to focus on grassroots dialogue and national policy dialogue respectively. As the launch of the Transpartisan Alliance, on a shoe string budget, I organized the first American Citizen Summit at the Sheraton in Denver, CO. The event took place on Abraham Lincoln’s bicentennial — theme: “A house divided against itself cannot stand” — and was attended by about 100 people and leaders from many of the organizations who had participated in the previous Reuniting America events. As a result of the Summit a core team was formed and a number of strategic planning meetings were held. Last fall the Transpartisan Alliance launched the Campaign to Unite U S to begin planting seeds in Portland, Seattle, Fresno, and the Florida Keys for local Citizen Leaders Councils and Citizen Assemblies.
The seeds we planted took root in Seattle and since last November a prototype transpartisan citizen council has been meeting twice a month. It is currently planning its first Chautauqua meeting to bring 50-75 civic and political leaders from the Puget Sound area together on the question: “What if we could talk beyond the choir about building community resiliency in an economic crisis, and responding to excess corporate/government power?” My goal is to promote examples of a new game with cooperative rules that in time makes the old game obsolete, a game that generates innovative, flexible policy options to complex issues that become attractive to decision makers in time of national need. That’s why I am writing this book with comedian Steve Hermann, to inspire people with principles and practices for transforming the political game from win-lose to win-win based on my last seven year’s experience.