Dems Occupy Salinas
For the first time since 1992, the Democratic Party has set up office in Oldtown.
Thursday, August 5, 2004
Dan Brown is puttering around the new Salinas Valley Democratic Club registering volunteers and sprucing a tray of vegetables for the regular Thursday night social that’s about to get underway. The office has only been up and running in Oldtown Salinas since early July, in the space it shares with state Rep. Simon Salinas.
A radio is barely audible in the background. But it’s a woman’s voice, a speaker at the Democratic National Convention. Brown has one ear finely tuned in to her.
“That’s $2,” Brown says with a smile to a volunteer at the counter who is buying a bumper sticker. She wants a lawn sign, too. “We’re all out of those until next week,” he says with a tilt of his head and disappointed sigh. Then she’s gone, back to her seat, and Brown’s back to puttering, straightening things that don’t need to be straightened. Fiddling.
Then his ears perk, he stretches his shoulders wide, slams his fist into the air above his head and booms, “Yeah! Health care is a right!” echoing the woman on the radio, who apparently is reporting the outcome of some DNC platform negotiations. The ensuing applause is easy to hear.
Brown pulls himself back together almost immediately, combing a hand through his thick gray hair to put it back into place. It falls right back out, and he’s back down to the demure club president he was four seconds ago, at least until he’s riled again.
Margaret Bonetti, the club’s vice president, is different than Brown from the outset. She rushes in, ten minutes late, cursing traffic and still managing to look effortlessly pulled together. It’s easy to get the feeling it’d take much less to get her to throw her fist into the air.
Bonetti is an advocate from surface to core, a product of a childhood spent marching on the Capitol for various causes, and traveling to see Ethel Kennedy or Coretta Scott King. She’s literally sitting on the edge of her seat and square up to the table to answer questions, hands folded, practically wringing with willingness to speak out.
Brown, a software engineer and former Howard Dean loyalist, is almost totally reclined, not letting his body take the shape of the chair, but stretching out his legs and straightening his back instead, his arms barely holding on to where they’re perched, crossed on top of his head.
Their differences end there.
Brown and Bonetti have a shared mission, one that brought them together and put them in a place where they probably don’t even realize they’re finishing each other’s sentences. It sounds simple: Get their goal of 2,004 Democrats registered by the Oct. 18 deadline, then get them all to the polls. In essence, do what they can to get John Kerry elected.
“I credit Howard Dean,” Brown says. “He made me realize that I have power as an individual. I want to have an effect on where the Democratic party goes.”
“Absolutely,” Bonetti chimes in. “This office finally gives other Democrats a place to go. It is especially important in Salinas because it’s the most populated city in the county.”
Of the roughly 65,000 Democrats registered in Monterey County, more than 20,000 of them live in Salinas—nearly twice the number of Salinas Republicans. Despite its Democratic majority, Salinas had been without a Democratic office since 1992, during Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign.
“We only had the office in Monterey, but not one here,” Bonetti says. “For a very long time, a group of us had been talking about needing an office in Salinas. We needed someplace locals could go. So we just did it, and here we are. It was long overdue.”
A Salinas club was critical now more than ever, according to Bonetti, because this election is different, monumentally different.
“It troubles me to think that what happened in Florida could happen again. More than that, though, this election is scary different to me because of what might happen if Kerry doesn’t win.
“This administration has squandered what the [Clinton] administration and Congress and the Senate fought so hard for,” she says, “a balanced budget.”
Brown thinks that has had a local impact: “People are feeling the pinch, through lost jobs and lower-paying jobs.”
“That plays right into our local problems,” Bonetti says. “Both parents have to work just to make ends meet—sometimes several jobs. So kids are leaving their homes and banding with others, with gangs, their new familia, and it’s compounding the problem.”
“To make it worse,” Bonetti says, “gun control under this administration is going to lapse. More guns on the street aren’t going to help our situation in Salinas. It’s a spiral effect, and it’s happening to us right here and now.”
Brown and Bonetti believe John Kerry can right the wrongs they list.
“It’s not about the left or the right, not just what’s going to benefit one segment of the population,” Bonetti says.
Brown agrees in specifics, dispensing with any notion that his swap for Kerry from Dean was in any way fickle, about party lines instead of campaign platforms.
“I’ll tell you what: I was inspired by Dean, but I absolutely believe in Kerry,” he says. “I believe in his position on removing our dependence on foreign oil. I believe that he’ll take action on health care. I believe that he’s a person who’s going to move on what he says.”
Brown and Bonetti both acknowledge it’ll take more than just a belief in Kerry to get him elected. It’ll take a lot of volunteers, and more than just a few donations from bumper sticker sales.
At press time, according to the most recent Gallup poll, Kerry led Bush by a scant three percent among registered voters, while Bush led Kerry by that same three percent among likely voters. Kerry was enjoying little swell in polls immediately after the convention.
That worries Bonetti and Brown, probably more so because there’s a war going on, and voters are historically leery of change during wartime.
“We’re at a pivotal point,” Bonetti says. “It is the most important election in recent history. The next president will be choosing at least three members of the Supreme Court. The Patriot Act has been used to infringe on our rights. We’ve got to protect what we’ve got. Once you give one right away, you give up all of your rights. It took many years of civil fights to get where we are, and I’m unwilling to move backward anymore with this administration.”
Brown looks like he wants to shove his fist into the air again, but instead he purses his lips hard and nods aggressively.
“I keep thinking about what Kerry said,” he finally adds, “that hope is on the way. I’ve felt the despair. And you know what? Hope really is on the way. I believe that. And it absolutely drives me.”