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Grassroots: Politics . . . But Not as Usual Paperback – July 3, 2012

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About the Author

Phil Campbell is a freelance writer based in New York City and a former staffer at The Stranger, Seattle's alternative paper.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

from Intro

“Please,” he said.
This time, I could tell, I was in charge. Grant Cogswell, Seattle’s only punk rock grassroots city council candidate, was spent. Normally flat and demanding, he was now pleading with me in a low, off-key pitch.
I was downstairs on the couch, talking to Grant, my friend and my boss, appreciative of the nine blocks that physically separated us. There was a cold beer in my hand, an unbelievable rarity since the campaign had started. I had just popped Fists of Fury into the VCR. The movie was paused at the warning about copyright infringement. How funny. As if anybody these days had faith in the FBI.
“I don’t know, Grant.”
It was the first Monday of November 2001, the night before the election for Seattle city council, the most significant event of my life thus far. I hadn’t thought there was much else we could do, so I rented a movie. Grant, though, wasn’t willing to rest. He wanted one more push, one last, furious campaign shove. He wanted me to find volunteers to come by my house to make more DIY-style political signs. Grant originally wanted us to make the signs together, but I was talentless with the paintbrush and Grant had aggravated his back problem the last time he tried to paint signs at my house.
I was pleased to hear Grant beg. After almost five months of working together—16-hour days without weekends, sick days, or vacation—I wanted to blame him. And there were legitimate reasons to do so, starting with his tyrannical personality, to say nothing of what he had done to my poor car. But mostly I knew that I had been defeated by my own immaturity. My hopeful story of idealism and optimism had turned into another incident of youthful comeuppance.
“Who do you want me to call?” I said. “I don’t even have the volunteer list anymore.”
A desperate pause. “Please, Phil,” he said. “My back…”
The scenarios of Grant coming over to my house tonight were too difficult to contemplate. Grant and I arguing, one last time. Grant falling down in agony as he threw out a disc, a muscle, a tendon—whatever part of the anatomy that could be ruined while sketching a couple lousy electoral slogans on heavy brown paper. Grant’s girlfriend’s face reflecting our shared pain and exhaustion. Not getting to watch my movie.
But I wasn’t just irritated. I was also overcome with guilt. Again. The two emotions poured together like…like two colors of paint in a big can.
“OK. I’ll get somebody. I’ll get somebody.” I hung up as he tried to thank me.
This was beyond normal campaign stress. My “issues” went deeper than a crushed ego. For more than a month, I had been walking the narrow line that separated reality and fiction, sanity and lunacy. And the more I tried to understand it, the more ambiguous it became.
In the aftermath of 9/11, as they were now calling it, everything had taken on a new, somber air. First came the shock, now comes the resolve. We’re all in this together. I believed that people believed this. But why didn’t I feel that way myself? For me, the fabric that kept society united was unraveling, not tightening. This wasn’t just about me feeling like a defiant outsider; I’d been cultivating that smug attitude for years. Now, everything was all jumbled up, and it was impossible to rationally analyze any of it. The serious things were petty, the mundane all too important. My darkened basement induced hallucinations of bombs ripping through the caves of Afghanistan. The overgrown grass in the front yard represented the failure of ideals in a democratic society. And I was thoroughly convinced that one of my oldest roommates, the one guy left in America who still knew absolutely nothing about global politics or fundamentalist religion, was a dangerous terrorist.
I sank into the dirty old couch and hit ‘play’ on the remote to watch Bruce Lee arrive in a foreign land and beat the living shit out of his enemies. Giddy and primordial thoughts rose to the surface, like a wolf remembering to howl. Now that was a way to deal with a problem. Why hadn’t Grant and I adopted the martial-arts star as our campaign hero, instead of Marion Zioncheck, the obscure 1930’s politician we had chosen? Sipping my beer, I decided to visit Lee’s grave after the campaign was over. He was buried at the north end of my neighborhood, but I’d never paid my respects.
Bruce Lee watching his cousins get beat up by the drug dealers. Bruce Lee debating with lupine eyes if he should fight or not. The suspense building. A movement out of the shadows, from behind the couch…
It was Merlin, my fifth roommate, just as the good part was starting. He just stood at the edge of the living room. His voice was barely audible.
“Phil, Doug pulled his gun on me.”
In a thin whisper, Merlin told me what had happened. He had been in his room filling out his absentee ballot, which I had encouraged hiim to get, and as usual he had left the door open. Doug had come over to chatt. Merlin had started joking around with Doug about how he hated this season’s mayoral candidates. To emphasize his electoral disgust, he had put Doug’s name on the ballot instead. Doug Petersen had one legitimate vote for Seattle mayor.
I winced. Merlin should have known better. Am I the only one who understands what’s going on around here?
“—And then he starts going off about how he’s got a record that’s a mile long with the police department and how he doesn’t want any trouble,” Merlin said. “He pulls his gun out of his pants and he starts waving it around in the air and he says, ‘Don’t fuck with me.’”
Merlin had hastily added the German suffix “-enheimer” to Doug’s last name, so the elections commission would never know who Merlin had originally intended to put in office. Reassured once again of his anonymity, the reluctant candidate had put his gun away and stumbled back into his room.
“Goddammit!” I shouted. I bolted for the stairs, to confront Doug.
“I don’t think that’s a very good idea…” Merlin said. But this wasn’t about confronting one paranoid gun-toter who happened to live on the second floor of my rental house. Much more was at stake.
I was sprinting now, taking in two, three stairs at a time. It was glorious. I was rushing to meet my destiny. The only thing missing was the soundtrack. In retrospect, I’m glad for that. If Doug had been playing his butt rock, I would have been dead for sure.

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