Election 2004

On the Spot: Howard Dean Embraces Tom Hayden

In a unique political moment for progressives, Howard Dean electrifies an awards dinner honoring Tom Hayden in Los Angeles.
At least for Los Angeles' cultural/political reality, the day's news seemed typical.

Local TV news was dominated by Michael Jackson appearing in court, with a red arm band, to face arraignment on child molestation charges. Meanwhile, there was a report that a third porn actor had tested positive for AIDS; the ACLU threatened to sue L.A. County Health officials for invasion of privacy for taking records of more than 50 sex performers from a local organization that provides AIDS testing.

In the L.A. County jail, somehow, despite a court request for protection, a man who testified to witnessing a murder was strangled to death in his cell, allegedly by another inmate -- the person the victim was testifying against -- who managed to get from his cell in one part of the prison to the victim's.
Over at the Staples Center the night before, Kobe Bryant scored over 30 points to help the Lakers take the Houston Rockets four games out of five and advance in the playoffs. He had arrived on a chartered jet from a series of hearings on rape charges against him in Colorado just a few minutes before game time.

Did any of this surprise you? Probably not. But L.A.'s cultural/political reality did get a jolt at a fund raiser for the Liberty Hill Foundation on April 29, one that suggested the Democrats' political tent may be bigger than many think.

Howard Dean, who brought life and hope to the Democratic Party political process during the primaries -- he "gave America back its political pulse," as one speaker described it -- was greeted with a rousing standing ovation when brought on stage to introduce lefty political hero Tom Hayden. Clearly for this crowd, Dean was still their presidential candidate, and beyond the scenes there was much hand wringing about the lack of fire and clarity coming from the Kerry campaign.

Hayden was receiving the Upton Sinclair Award -- named after the muckraking journalist who wrote searing social commentary including "The Jungle" (1906), which changed the nation's meat packing industry. Hayden was warmly embraced by Howard Dean, who read a supportive letter of congratulations to Hayden from soon-to-be presidential nominee John Kerry. Dean pointed out that social justice is again in the air, as it had been when he was in college 35 years ago, when Tom Hayden was providing the leadership. Hayden, in his speech, suggested that Dean may be the key person between victory and defeat for the Democrats in November. Hayden also spoke movingly about the energy in the Los Angeles progressive community:
Los Angeles is the creative, story-telling capital of the world. The messages we create and distribute here reach a daily global audience. But so often our best and brightest are forced to wallow through and muddle along in entertainment or commercials. Worse, there has emerged a kind of an entertainment-military complex financed by the Pentagon to condition the public for permanent war.
But out of these same Hollywood depths, where creativity and corruption commingle, have risen such good friends as the fallen idealist Patrick Lippert and Rock the Vote, gentle warriors like Marge Tabankin who stood against war in Central America, Alfre Woodard and Roderick Spencer who formed Artists for a New South Africa, countless fighters against AIDs and pollution, and many of those gathered in the room tonight like Robert Greenwald and Mike Farrell who have united as artists against the war in Iraq.
Dean introduced Hayden's son Troy Garity (whose mother is Jane Fonda, but decided to take Hayden's mother's name), who gave a very moving personal reflection crediting Tom with refusing to let any generation gaps get in the way of his responsibility as a father and role model.

The evening wasn't all about Tom Hayden -- hardly. Other honorees included Bernice Johnson Reagon, a folklorist, scholar and curator at the Smithsonian Institution for 20 years who is most famous for her singing in the inspirational folk gospel a cappella ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock. Reagan reminded the audience to agitate not only for justice but for joy. Reagon was introduced by the ever-inspiring actress and activist Alfre Woodard. Another awardee was Angelica Salas, the Director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights, who gave a powerful, articulate speech about the myriad horrible ramifications of U. S. immigration policy. (AlterNet will publish some of the speeches from the event later this week.)

The dinner at the Beverly Hilton was clearly a political high moment for progressives demonstrating new influence and clout and for Liberty Hill, a model local foundation whose motto is "change not charity." Liberty Hill was co-founded and steered over many years by Hollywood producer and activist Sarah Pillsbury, and led most recently by the dynamic GLBT activist Torie Osborn -- who announced that she had married her partner recently in San Francisco during the brief period when thousands of gays and lesbians tied the knot.

Liberty Hill works closely with the most effective grassroots leaders over the long term, aiming for affordable housing, jobs with a living wage and programs in schools that fight racism and gay bashing. Its increasing profile and successes have made it a national model for supporting the grassroots, and has earned it significant support from particularly high-profile progressive leaders as well as large foundations like Ford and the California Endowment and increasingly large donors from the Hollywood community.

Los Angeles is one of the few cities in the country where progressives can realistically move into high elective office and leverage political power, and Liberty Hill has always supported leaders who in turn gained clout. Antonio Villaraigosa, who narrowly lost to James Hahn in the race for Los Angeles mayor is one such leader. The day after the dinner -- at which Villaraigosa introduced Angelica Salas -- the LA Times ran a feature which discussed the possibility that he would jump into the race to unseat Hahn.

During the course of the dinner, Bill Melamed, a former Liberty Hill award winner, led a rousing part-auction, part-fundraising inspiration that led to an astounding additional $250,000 raised for Liberty Hill. There was an anonymous $50,000 gift from the audience and $9,000 was bid for four drum lessons from John Densmore, formally of the Doors. In addition there was a $75,000 contribution from Washington Mutual, represented at the dinner by Antonio Manning, who received the Founders Award. Who knew that Washington Mutual had such an enlightened corporate giving profile? (Full disclosure -- this writer banks at Washington Mutual.)

Meanwhile, as a dinner footnote, another former presidential candidate, Jerry Brown, sat front and center at the dinner with his longtime advisor Jodie Evans and philanthropist Max Palevsky taking it all in. Brown, who is Mayor of Oakland, is rumored to be considering running for State Attorney General. Brown joked that he was an obscure footnote in California history, especially since way back when he appointed Hayden to the Southwest Border Commission and to a solar energy commission.

Don Hazen is executive editor of AlterNet.