Tim Carpenter Built the Foundation of Radical Change — in OC and Nationally


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Tim Carpenter - City Hall

The late Tim Carpenter, the Democratic Party’s Rebuilder.  (Photo from PDA Illinois — see link at bottom of story.)

On a Sunday morning in the 1980s, a group of friends met at the Catholic Church in Laguna Beach.  We were there passing out fliers after the mass, asking the parishioners to send letters to investigate the murder of four nuns in El Salvador. Somebody had contacted local activists, and they showed up giving us a more acceptable image.

Other than my deceivingly lighter appearance, we were a bunch of short, dark-looking Latinos, having a hard time trying to communicate with the Anglo parishioners with our broken, accented English. So when our gringo friends joined us we felt relieved.  They took some of our fliers and started talking to the people coming out the mass, shaking hands with them and urging them to write.

One of the most energetic of the gringo group was a guy who said that his last name was Carpintero in Spanish — a very friendly and supportive guy.  We met him several times later when my Salvadoran friends held fundraisers, and after the long speeches about the situation in their country, we enjoyed some good talks while eating pupusas , curtido, tamales wrapped in banana leaves,  and drinking horchatas.

I then saw him often at meetings at the Episcopalian Church in Laguna. The Alliance for Survival, an anti-nuke group met there.  I remember a young Miguel Pulido attending those meetings. Another common place to run into Tim was at the weekend vigil at PCH, or at the annual farmworkers’ dinner.

Bob Dornan was then the rising GOP star, and he crushed a rally of the only OC Dem in Congress at that time. Tim briefly confronted him, and years later they would face each other again in a classroom.  When Dornan later replaced the Dem congressman, Dornan became Pulido’s good friend. Larry Agran was also a young rising star, and he participated in some of Tim’s political initiatives.

I lost contact with Tim after he moved out of Orange County.  His last visit to OC was in a tour with progressive intellectuals. I was kind of disappointed that they had chosen Frank Barbaro’s place as the only place to present their views. It is hard to think that Frank Barbaro and his replacement in the DPOC, Vandemeir, are progressive types. As his friend John Nichols wrote:

Tim Carpenter never lost faith in the very real prospect of a very radical change for the better. And he never lost his organizer’s certainty that the tipping point that would make the change was just a few more phone calls, a few more rallies, a few more campaigns away.

But Tim’s was never a typical politico. He knew the drill: he had been at the side of presidential candidates. He had developed winning electoral strategies and helped to organize movements around every essential issue of the Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush (again) and Obama eras. But Tim was always about something more; he was never satisfied with an election victory or a legislative success.  He wanted to transform politics because he wanted to transform America into a land that realized what he believed was an irrevocable promise of liberty and justice for all.

To achieve that end, Tim knew it was necessary to transform a too-often centrist, too-frequently compromised Democratic party into a dramatically more militant and more meaningful organization than it has been for a very long time. Mixing memories of the New Deal with elements of the 1960s civil rights and antiwar movements, linking the vision of the Rainbow Coalition with the new energy of fast-food and retail workers demanding a $15 minimum wage, Tim sought to define and achieve what one of his heroes, author and Democratic Socialists of America chair Michael Harrington, described as “the left wing of the possible.”

Tim refused to compromise with politics as usual. Yet, he refused just as ardently to be pushed to the margins. He waded into the middle of every new fight, grabbed a stack of precinct lists, distributed them to the activists he’d brought along in that beat-up car with Bob Dylan blasting on the stereo, and headed for the doors shouting, “Teamwork!” 

A chapter of the organization that Tim founded, Progressive Democrats of America, still meets in Orange County.  I join them in saying: ¡Tim Carpenter, Presente!

[Editor's Note: Of all of the remembrances and interviews I've seen of Tim Carpenter since news of his death spread Tuesday morning, I recommend that you read this excellent December 2013 piece from In These Times (from which the above photo came), which gives a sense of the flavor of the man, of his current thoughts and concerns, and most strongly of his indomitable spirit.  -- GD]


About Ricardo Toro

Chilean native and Anaheim resident for several decades.