Politicking in the E-Democracy Forum
The e-democracy forum, or electronic discussion list, is a website, http://www.e-democracy.org, which facilitates community discussion in several Minnesota cities, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere. It was established in 1994. Community members can subscribe to and participate in particular lists free of charge. A member is able to post a message which goes out to all the list’s subscribers in the form of an email.
I have belonged to the following discussion lists: Minneapolis (1029 current subscribers), St. Paul (618 subscribers), and Minnesota state politics (261 subscribers). The messages are organized by topic. For example, a current issue on the list is “feral cats in Minneapolis.” Each list has a moderator, a volunteer who polices the discussion from the standpoint of civility and adherence to the scope of the discussion . For instance, messages on the Minneapolis list should pertain to something happening in Minneapolis.
Starting out, I imagined that political discussions might take place with significant content like that in the Congressional debates between Webster, Clay, and Calhoun, or the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Why cannot ordinary citizens write eloquently on political topics? With that understanding, I thought the e-democracy forum would be an ideal place to get my message out, first as a candidate for U.S. Senate on the Minnesota politics list and then as a candidate for U.S. Congress on the Minneapolis list. It turned out to be less than ideal. I’m not sure why, but have some theories.
Part of it has to do with what the participants want. My tastes tend toward raw exercises in free speech. If I would admire a politician like Jesse Ventura who speaks his mind freely but occasionally offends people, you get an idea of what I would want on an email discussion list. The landlord meetings conducted by Charlie Disney in the late 1990s were part theater and part serious discussion. I called them “a cross between a public-policy discussion and the Jerry Springer show.”
So I was looking for the same tone in e-democracy discussions. I was looking for something to excite political passion and motivate people to act. The moderators may have had other ideas. For them, it was more important to avoid personal attacks and “don’t feed the troll.”
In February 2006, when I first joined the St. Paul forum, I managed to whip up a storm by posting a message about how the City of St. Paul was proposing to tear down a house located at 14 East Jessamine Street. My landlord friends and I sent email messages about a planned protest demonstration. City inspectors were shaking down targeted property owners, and were burglarizing homes and garages. There was a spike in forum traffic. Some of this discussion spilled over into the pages of the St. Paul Pioneer Press newspaper.
Later, I engaged in a spirited debate with a man who used to be an aide to a St. Paul City Council member. After a fire in an apartment killed several people, this man was claiming that landlords did not care if their tenants died in fires. Furthermore, they liked to rent to drug dealers because this type of tenant paid in cash. I let the man have it. Who was he talking about, I asked? Which landlord? The man refused to say because, he said, I was luring him into a lawsuit. Again there was a spike in traffic. A man named Bob Johnson, sympathizing with us, started a St. Paul political blog called “A-Democracy” on the strength of some of those discussions. It became quite popular.
In Minneapolis, the situation was more subdued. Even so, I participated in another raucous discussion that arose from an event related to the Independence Party’s 5th district candidate for Congress in 2006, Tammy Lee. Late in her campaign, someone discovered a “parody” of Lee’s campaign website which made her out to be a white racist. She and her supporters were “quoted” to the effect that it was important to keep Keith Ellison, a black man, from being elected to Congress. Lee’s lawn signs supposedly could be ordered from David Duke.
Of course, this site was bogus. A Lee campaign worker traced its ownership to Chris Stewart, a racially mixed man who was an Ellison supporter and also a DFL-endorsed candidate for Minneapolis school board. Stewart was elected. I was the IP point man on the Minneapolis forum in demanding that Stewart resign from the school board. The debate became so intense that even the Star Tribune editorial board asked for Stewart’s resignation. In the end, I backed off this demand. Stewart joined me in an open discussion of race at a Minneapolis library in December 2006.
Now, in 2008, I was planning a run for office. Because my letters to the editor were seldom being printed in the Star Tribune any more, I thought the e-democracy forum, with its immediate and uncensored publication of email messages, would provide an outlet for my campaign messages. As a candidate for U.S. Senate, I was enrolled in the list pertaining to Minnesota politics. But really my list involvement did not begin until after I had lost the Senate endorsement.
On June 22, 2008, I posted a narrative about the IP convention on the state list. Some list members made disparaging remarks about Jesse Ventura to which I responded. Then a local activist named Leslie Davis posted this comment: “Give it up, McGaughey, you’re all wet.” My response included a statement that “Davis’ hate-led approach to public discussion represents a waste of energy and talent. I am unaware of having hurt or offended Davis in any way.”
That remark only fueled an even more vitriolic attack on me. “Your vicious attack upon me by accusing me of a ‘hate-led approach to public discussion’ is unfair and tears away your disguise as some sort of fair-minded intellect when you are no more than a basic Minneapolis bigot,” Davis wrote. “Tell us how you spend your daze in your paint peeling duplex when you're not writing gibberish and mocking others. I challenge you to put your public record up against mine. Pick up the gauntlet Mr. Mouth.”
This was pushing the limits of civility. I did respond by citing some of my accomplishments and that seemed to satisfy Davis for a time. His next message was to attack Jesse Ventura. (Davis had published a book titled “Always Cheat”, to debunk the Ventura “myth”.) I responded to that, too. This ended the discussion for a time. I ran into Davis in person several times at political events involving Jesse Ventura when he was doing personal theater to protest or embarrass the former Governor. No words were exchanged. For my part, I posted the email debate with Leslie Davis on my campaign website under the category, “Heckler’s corner”.
When I decided to run for Congress in the 5th district, I joined the Minneapolis forum, a larger group. In my first posting, I announced my candidacy for Congress and explained what my platform would be. The message, posted on July 16th, was titled “Neither Democrat nor Republican.” I had filed for Congress the day before.
On the following day there was a question whether I had been endorsed by the party and then a comment that I was not a serious candidate if I had not been endorsed at an IP convention. I did, however, as previously mentioned, receive a friendly comment from Michael Cavlan indicating his likely support.
Other than this, the Minneapolis e-democracy forum was bereft of meaningful discussion related to the 5th Congressional District race. No one from the Ellison (DFL) or Davis White (Republican) campaign was posting anything here. On July 22nd, I posted a message stating my support for Al Gore’s proposal to convert our transportation system to renewable energy in ten years. There was no reaction to this posting. On the other hand, the topic, “Keith Ellison has a primary opponent”, elicited more than a dozen comments. So my attempt to inspire a debate on Congressional issues was going nowhere. My candidacy evidently did not exist.
I found instead that I could participate in discussions of local questions such as alleged racism in the Minneapolis police department or whether white property owners should be blamed for crime in poor black neighborhoods. These were not issues of concern to candidates for U.S. Congress and I did not approach them in that vein. I did not mention my candidacy for Congress. Instead, I commented as someone who was involved as a Minneapolis property owner. Two spikes in traffic were of particular interest.
On July 26th, a middle-aged white homeowner named Dyna Sluyter, who lived in the crime-ridden Hawthorne neighborhood, posted a message titled “Had to board up my house today - and goin’ with the flow.”
Neighborhood criminals had broken five of her windows. She decided to board up her house, wryly commenting that the city might now declare her home a vacant building and make her homeless. Her house had become worthless. The Minneapolis police were all at the Peace Foundation arts event (sponsored by a City Council member) instead of protecting homes against vandalism.
This posting elicited a number of negative comments. One man wrote: “I have to wonder what sort of karma you are projecting that results in you being a victim to this time after time?” She should either consider being more cooperative with the police or else leave town. A woman wrote: “Did anyone ever see "groundhog day?" thats what dyna's post remind me of, the same old crap over and over again. BOOOORRRRIIIIIINNNNNGGGGG!!!!!!!!”
I was moved to write that Dyna Sluyter was a crime victim and people should show her some consideration. I said: “Dyna's postings may be hard to take but, unless someone's prepared to say she's making this up, it's something that we need to hear.”
Another man wrote: “I say she is making this up.” Another woman said, yes, Dyna Sluyter should leave town. “I also do not understand why you (Dyna) seem to be the only person to post on this forum with the amount of housing damage.”
Then another woman wrote: “(C)ontinuously sharing problems without sharing solutions means that you are a part of the problem. Dyna by declaring the Northside a dead zone, which is ridiculous, is part of the problem. Particularly as a white woman on the Northside crying wolf again and again and again. Unfortunately, her voice is amplified by her (white) privilege ... I grew up on the northside in the early 90s .... But in two years walking several blocks to the bus, after dark, being an extremely unimposing individual, I NEVER had a problem.”
Then another woman weighed in: “When I think of Dyna I imagine her home cold and uninviting. I think of being young and there was always one "haunted" house in the neighborhood. Some you had to hold your breath when you walked by so the ghosts wouldn't know you were there. Some of the little boys teased the people there with flaming feces and TP. These broken windows sounds like the retaliation of juveniles coming back after wagging your finger and shooing them off your grass.”
So Dyna Sluyter, the crime victim, was now someone flaunting her white privilege, a witch in a haunted house, and someone asking for trouble, with bad karma stuck to her soul.
I had had enough. I wrote: “I can’t believe some of this discussion about Dyna Sluyter’s problems in the Hawthorne neighborhood. The woman came home from a trip and found two windows of her home were broken ... There were fifteen gunshots in her neighborhood in the previous week ... If anything could prove that our political culture is broken, it is some of these ignorant, self-righteous postings about Dyna Sluyter. Take crime seriously; it could happen to you.”
One of the posters, a woman who called herself Quita-B-Northside Belmares, responded: “I say I want answers re: the Mpls PD payout and I am calling (police chief) Dolan a ranting racist. I share an anecdote about haunted houses and I am calling Dyna (Sluyter) a lying witch. It seems Bill (McGaughey) likes to take comments and blow them out of proportion to make people seem crazy and delusional. I think it's the other way around. If Bill was comfortable and secure with his opinions he wouldn't need to overreact to every little comment that doesn't go along with his thinking or help further his political career.” (She was remembering one of my early postings.)
Another poster wrote: “Dyna has been saying the same thing for over five years and doing exactly nothing to change her situation. People are tired of hearing it. We believe her, but we are still tired of hearing it.” The forum moderator then jumped into the discussion asking participants to “focus on issues, not nastygrams.”
On July 31st, Dyna Sluyter posted this message: “Seeing no progress in securing the Northside, I'm headed to Starbuck for the month of august at least, and probably through the november elections. I'd hoped to stay in Minneapolis to help with some of the nearby DFL campaigns like Ashwin Madia's for congress in the suburbs just to our west. But it's simply gotten too dangerous to live in North Minneapolis, and I can't afford to keep replacing windows either... Meanwhile, Starbuck (Minnesota) ain't exactly political podunk. The I-29 corridor is becoming one of the political fulcrums of America... So goodbye, Minneapolis ... And I won't miss your criminals or housing inspectors! - headed outa' Hawthorne, Dyna Sluyter”
This round of discussion did have a happy ending. Gradually, people came around to thinking that the crime problem in north Minneapolis did merit some sympathy and attention. A man in south Minneapolis, Jim Graham, proposed that “ we (list participants) could throw a List "meet and greet" and barbeque at Dyna's. Block off the street and have a party. I'll bring a Weber and some Bulgogi, any other takers?”
Yes, there were other takers. A woman wrote: “I think the idea of having a barbeque at Dyna's house is a great idea. My family would love to attend, and maybe take a walk over to Anissa's house while we are in the area. We can bring meat, beverages, and whatever veggies our CSA contains that week. Dyna, are you willing to host a barbeque in your yard? Is someone willing to plan it?” A man wrote: “I would be willing to bring 20 or so Army and Marine Corps veterans ... Maybe that would impress the neighborhood into leaving Dyna alone and ending this whole thing once and for all.”
Dyna, however, threw cold water over the latest proposal. She wrote: “The vets might do the trick, provided they're armed and can stay for a while. The BBQ has been tried and failed - as soon as the event is over the criminals just go back to business as usual. Besides that, they'll eat up all your BBQ - back in Hawthorne tonight, then off to Farm Fest ... Dyna Sluyter.”
It was decided that a community picnic be held, not in Dyna Sluyter’s back yard but in a vacant lot in the same neighborhood, two blocks away from her home. The picnic was set for 5:30 p.m. on Friday, August 22nd. About 200 people attended, including a reporter from the Star Tribune. In the following months, there were similar picnics in the Jordan and Harrison (my own) neighborhoods of north Minneapolis. I attended all three picnics, though not as a political candidate.
Dyna Sluyter did not attend the first event, but she did attend the second and third. The old curmudgeon, no longer reviled, had become something of a community icon.
About the same time, I became involved in another argument on this list which concerned the Minneapolis police. The city had agreed to a huge settlement of a racial discrimination case involving black officers whom police chief Tim Dolan had demoted. Some were proposing a pressure campaign to have the chief removed from office. Another controversy arose when the chief gave awards to officers who had stormed the wrong house looking for criminals. The chief said the officers, who had received faulty information, were “just following orders”. They should be commended for their effort.
That remark offended a prominent school administrator who lived in St. Paul but worked at the University of Minnesota. Being Jewish, this man was reminded of excuses given by Nazi concentration-camp guards. I defended the chief, whom I had met once, as someone who seemed relatively free of racial prejudice and who also had, in my opinion, developed effective crime-fighting strategies. I called the Nazi comparison a “smear tactic”. I also objected to a St. Paul resident’s effort to encourage people living in Minneapolis to contact their Council members to have the police chief disciplined or removed. Somewhat intemperately, I remarked: “Keep your hateful attitudes on your side of the river.”
My suggestion that it was inappropriate for a St. Paul resident to meddle in Minneapolis politics stirred controversy. One poster, thinking that I was still running for U.S. Senate, suggested that I was being “hoisted on my own petard” by offending a St. Paul resident who would now be sure to vote for someone else. Another, who lived in St. Paul, posed a series of insulting questions: “Mr. McGaughey,” he wrote, “ you appear to believe that non-Minneapolis residents should not be involved in Minneapolis politics.
So I was becoming bogged down in silliness like this.
The issue for me was that people on the discussion list seemed to care more about policing speech and maintaining proper racial decorum than they did about whether the police were effectively controlling crime. As a Northside resident, crime was important to me.
At midnight on August 1, a car filled with black teenagers drove down the alley in back of my house. Several gun shots were fired. One went through the window of a basement-level apartment in my building, narrowly missing the tenant who was in the kitchen at that hour. She freaked out, anxiously reciting Biblical passages. Several days later, she was found in the Mississippi river. Fortunately, she was still alive. It might have been a failed suicide attempt - the woman claimed not to remember. It took months for her leg to heal.
Then, on the following day, a group of young men - it might have been the same group as the shooters - tried to break into my house. They broke three windows and then tried to force their way through the door of a unit where a Hispanic family lived. The woman of the house was terrified. Fortunately, there were eyewitnesses. We summoned police and directed them to a nearby barber shop where one of the men was apprehended. This man and several others were prosecuted. So it was a case where the police had done effective work.
This was more important to me than whether the police chief had used phrases reminiscent of excuses used by Nazi prison guards. I’d be darned, I thought, if I let Mr. -, a high-ranking academic who lives in a comfortable section of St. Paul, orchestrate a campaign to get rid of the Minneapolis police chief because the man used a politically sensitive phrase and some black officers had sued the department.
The woman who had made the “hoisted on my own petard” remark wrote: “On exactly zero evidence, Mr. - is accused of wanting (police chief) Dolan fired. Even the SWAT team had more ‘evidence’ than that.” So I was being accused here of lying. I cited the evidence in my next posting. “I am not running for U.S. Senate,” I wrote, “but for U.S. Congress in the 5th District. Mr. - is not eligible to vote for me, but you are. Maybe you should get your facts straight on various matters before going into the voting booth." That shut her up for a time.
My comment did, however, prompt a posting from another woman: “"Just me, but if anyone was so confrontational and antagonist(ic) rather than just relating their own version of the truth, I doubt most seriously that I would vote for them. After all, my Congress Person works for me, not the other way around.”
Well, maybe I was getting too much into an argumentative frame of mind. This discussion was certainly not advancing any ambitions that I might have had to win votes for Congress in the city of Minneapolis. I was devoting much of my time writing and responding to messages on the e-democracy discussion list on local matters when I might have been pursuing other campaign activities. So after August, I made a conscious decision to scale back my time at the computer. I had miscalculated in thinking that “issues” related to my Congressional campaign might be discussed here. That just was not happening.
Why? This is not the 19th century when serious political issues might be eloquently debated. It is not a culture dominated by the print media. No, the people posting on the e-democracy forum, especially in Minneapolis, seemed to be averse to discussing real issues. They seemed averse to confrontation in general. Civility, rather than truth, was the object. The topics that got discussed were relatively trivial matters. School board policies were sometimes discussed, but not those pertaining to the federal government. The big issues of the day were ignored.
Out of the thousand who belonged to the Minneapolis discussion list, a relatively few persons participated. Were the rest “lurking” in the weeds or did they simply delete the messages as fast as they appeared? The active participants seemed to be expressing a collegial relationship among like-minded persons; or, as I put it once, they were “preening” for each other.
That was fine, but it was not my cup of tea. In one posting, which raised hackles, I commented that many of the people participating in the discussions might have belonged to “the DFL political infrastructure.” A few Republicans then identified themselves. They were hardly kindred spirits.
All this sound and fury was going nowhere. The interesting, sometimes heated, discussions that I had had in 2006 did not repeat themselves. My hopes of generating a meaningful discussion in the Internet forum were misplaced - not that a cautious approach would have been any better for an underdog candidate such as myself. The problem was really that too much time was being spent on this. The campaign itself was being neglected.
I may have been pushing too hard in the period shortly after I filed for Congress. Toward the end of the campaign, I did post messages related to the financial bailout. The response then was more forthcoming. Still, helpful as it is, the e-democracy discussion was no substitute for media coverage of a campaign. Or, perhaps, my confrontational approach had outworn its welcome.
I needed to be a fighter to come from behind as a third-party candidate, but found little interest in fighting. I found little interest in debating political ideas. That is one of the things I learned from my experience in running for Congress.
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