Life of the Party: An Interview with Mark Rudd
By Samantha Anne Carrillo
Many—if not most—interviews with organizer and activist Mark Rudd focus on his early, radical activism. Five years after joining Students for a Democratic Society, the twenty-something earned the respect of his contemporaries, emerging as a leader and spokesperson within the movement. Frustrated with SDS’s tactics, Rudd and other members formed militant left-wing anti-war organization Weather Underground in 1969.
Published in 1990, Rudd’s political memoir “Truth and Consequences” chronicles his time in the SDS and Weather Underground, including his experience as a fugitive. The 2002 documentary “The Weather Underground” sparked renewed cultural interest in Rudd, who was the only member to express regret over the group’s violent tactics. Rudd published a more personal memoir, “Underground,” in 2009.
Last week, Rudd and I met in downtown Albuquerque for coffee and conversation. As we talked, it became clear that neither of us was thinking about Rudd’s storied past. With the inauguration of GOP “maverick”-slash-President-elect Donald Trump looming, we began to talk about the present while considering the future.
Elbow Room NM: What I’m really interested in discussing is what’s going on now. The New Mexico Progressive Coalition’s very first People’s Forum happens this Saturday. Can you tell me more about the coalition?
Mark Rudd: The New Mexico Progressive Coalition started here in Albuquerque, but we do have contacts around the state. Outside of Santa Fe, the [state] Democratic Party has not been open to progressives. Santa Fe is like New Mexico’s Upper West Side. It’s 80 percent Democratic, and they’re not scared of progressives. For example, they passed an effective minimum wage law.
Right. Their living wage ordinance mandates that employers pay a minimum hourly rate of $10.91. That pay differential ($3.41 an hour) makes a meaningful difference in Santa Fe workers’ personal economies and related quality of life.
I consider the push for a living wage to be one of the best examples of building a mass movement that actually has a chance to succeed. But, aside from Santa Fe, the Democratic Party [in New Mexico] has not been very effective. It is true that we won [the Santa Fe mayoral] battle, but our state Democratic Party is not necessarily progressive. On the whole, it’s more center-right.
Can you expound on that?
Here in Albuquerque, for example, progressive candidates always lose, because very few people vote in the primaries. And the ones who do [vote] are old-timers. They’re loyal to the names they know. And there’s a lot of confusion over what’s progressive and what’s not. The governor’s race in 2014 is a classic example. You had a center-right candidate in the primary, Gary King, and you had a left candidate, Alan Webber, and then a bunch of candidates in the middle. Not many people voted, but [those who did] voted for Gary King, who didn’t even bother to campaign. They thought they were voting for his father, Bruce King.
They didn’t realize [Bruce] had died five years before. That is scary. Nobody votes. In 2012, we had an open seat for Congress. It was pretty well known that whoever won the primary would win the general. Since Heather Wilson, the Republicans here haven’t fielded any viable candidates in Congressional District One. We had three candidates, all claiming to be progressive. Between them, they spent $2.1 million dollars on this primary, but here’s the thing: out of a possible Democratic Party membership of 150,000, only 46,000 [New Mexicans] voted.
That’s not even a third!
And there was confusion over who was progressive and who wasn’t. The Democratic Party is a shell, and it’s controlled by the people who have always been in office. At the very minimum, we are attempting to create a progressive wing of the state’s Democratic Party. Personally, my goal is to turn the party nationally—starting from the bottom—into a party of the people.
Respected pollsters, political journalists and commentators all predicted Hillary Clinton’s victory. From voting early until election night, I was confident Clinton would win. As the night wore on, I felt shell-shocked. What was your reaction to the election of Donald J. Trump?
As an activist and progressive, my reaction to this situation is: this is the best opportunity we have had during my lifetime. People are waking up. People are paying attention now. And more people are engaging with politics. Here in Albuquerque, a group of young LGBTQ activists called the Equalist Coalition have decided to intervene in the upcoming APS School Board election by hosting candidate forums.
In retrospect, the national Democratic Party must wonder if it was a strategic mistake to stick with the establishment candidate, ignoring the momentum of Bernie Sanders.
People didn’t like the Democrats or Hillary. The Democratic Party doesn’t stand for anything particularly progressive, although Bernie did create some enthusiasm. So our people stayed home. Blacks did not vote. A significant number of young Chicanos didn’t vote.
A lot of those [Sanders] people didn’t vote, or maybe they voted for Trump. A lot of them stayed home in protest, feeling that Trump had no chance. Because the mainstream media kept saying this guy isn’t viable. Nobody knew. It’s really odd how inevitable his election looks now. But at the time—just a month ago—it didn’t.
It’s certainly surreal.
It shows how deeply out of touch we are. As I see it, the problem with the Democratic Party is that it became a party of big money. Technically, it’s neoliberal, and so is the Republican Party. Under Hillary, the Democratic Party developed two bases for engaging people: the first was the educated elites—that’s us.
And second is the media. Even in Republican-oriented media—take a guy like [conservative commentator] David Brooks of The New York Times. He ran over to the other side; his background was far-right, but even he could see … He ran to us because the Democrats already represented the educated elite. We’re also the party of quote-unquote diversity for non-whites, LGBT people.
The Democratic Party supposedly reflects mass movements, like the women’s movement, the civil rights movement, etc. These two base constituencies, the educated elites and the media, are popular party bases and reflect some voices—urban voices but not rural voices, which are generally Republican and right-leaning. Essentially, we have two wings of neoliberals. Then you have young people, who don’t tend to register as either Democrat or Republican.
Right. They register as independent or here in New Mexico as “decline to state.”
So these [unaffiliated] young people can’t vote in the primaries. Because of New Mexico’s closed primary system, they don’t pay attention to the primaries. In contrast, California doesn’t have a closed primary system, but the open primary system has other problems. Open primaries are designed to eliminate the wings, both the far left and the far right.
We are, at the moment, part of the far left. But take a district that’s strongly Republican. In California, there were a few. Then Democrats could vote for “lesser evil” Republicans and swing the election toward the center. And vice versa. … If [New Mexico] had an open primary, we could have a progressive candidate and a center-right Democrat, and Republicans would vote center-right. Open primaries are designed to do eliminate outliers.
That’s not a good thing?
Some people say that’s good. I don’t, because my wing, the progressive wing, loses out. My feeling is: keep the closed primaries and work on building the left wing of the Democratic Party.
What did you think of the FBI’s announcement of an (ultimately irrelevant) Clinton investigation just before the election?
I call that a soft coup by the cops. I think the cops were entirely organized against Hillary and for Trump. I think that law enforcement in general hates the Democrats. Right now, in Albuquerque, the police department is under supervision by the Department of Justice. They have no interest in supporting Democrats.
They’ve been working on the DOJ investigation/review/settlement process for more than four years now.
And the Republican administration in Albuquerque has stonewalled. We can’t build the left wing of the Democratic Party until there’s a mass movement that rejects the cops’ methods, gun violence, militarization and multiple related issues. The way I see it, the project we’re beginning, the New Mexico Progressive Coalition, is a 20-to-40 year project. The necessary precedent we need is to tackle the political process: a mass movement with shared, progressive values where millions get involved and demand change. Then the politicians will follow.
New Mexico Progressive Coalition People’s Forum
“How Do We Build Progressive Power Across Race, Gender, Class and Geography?”
Saturday, Dec. 17, 1-5 p.m.
IBEW LU 611
4921 Alexander Blvd. NE, Ste. A
For more info, visit facebook.com/events/233710473701035.
To RSVP, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Samantha Anne Carrillo is a nuevomexicana writer & editor, a freelance social media consultant, a fourth-wave feminist and a devout situationist. Find her at facebook.com/samanthaannenm.