MFD Interview with John Leopold


John Leopold is running for 1st District County Supervisor in California's Santa Cruz county. He has served on the board of the Rex Foundation -- the Grateful Dead's philanthropic organization -- since 2000, and the Cabrillo College governing board for eight years. Leopold also works at the University of California in Santa Cruz and is on the board of the Arhoolie Foundation, which is dedicated to recording, preserving, and disseminating regional folk music. He has previously served as Executive Director of the Santa Cruz AIDS Project and Associate Director of Working Partnerships. He lives in Santa Cruz with his wife and two daughters.

Steve Silberman: What inspired you to get into politics?

John Leopold: I first felt inspired to get into politics in 1979, when I was living in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and I had to evacuate my home because of Three Mile Island. It was the first time in my life that I realized that someone in the government wasn't telling me the truth. We evacuated for about a week, came back, and I immediately got involved in the anti-nuclear moment. I was 14 at the time.

Silberman: You've served on the board of the Rex Foundation. What does the foundation do?

Leopold: The Rex Foundation was founded 25 years ago by members of the Grateful Dead as a vehicle for their philanthropic impulses. They were a band that always tried to give money back to the community. They got to a place by the mid-'80s where it was no longer practical for them to do benefits for everyone. They were one of the first rock and roll bands to start their own foundation. The Rex Foundation has a very broad mandate, but I like to think of it all under the umbrella of human rights -- making sure that we have a safe environment, that people have access to health care, and that we do what we can to promote cultural survival. They make sure that small grassroots organizations that haven't been noticed by more mainstream funders get support. In 2001, before we started bombing in Afghanistan, Rex funded the Afghan Institute of Learning, which helped young girls get an education. But I'm equally proud of funding a group here in Santa Cruz called Shared Adventures, which was founded by an amazing Deadhead guy named Foster Anderson, who was paralyzed when he was 16. He has not let being a quadriplegic prevent him from helping others. He's developed this beautiful organization that helps other young people in his condition to be able to surf and hang glide and have all sorts of outdoor adventures.

Silberman: What music instilled you with a social conscience and the conviction to work for ideals larger than yourself?

Leopold: I was born in 1965. My parents were by no means hippies, but my mother was involved in a number of social-justice activities, and we listened to a fair share of folk music. That was the first time I heard music about the issues that people face, and those songs stayed with me. As I grew older and my musical tastes expanded, I got really interested in vernacular music, which was filled with stories of working people trying to make it through the world and the issues they have to deal with. That was inspiring to me and gave me a look outside my own life. When I was very very young, it was Peter, Paul, and Mary, and Odetta. When I moved out to California, it was the music of Ry Cooder and a lot of traditional folk and blues. I was also really taken with the anti-nuclear music coming out of that era, like the No Nukes effort and the people associated with it like Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, John Hall, and Bruce Springsteen.

Silberman: What perspectives do you feel that politicians of your age have to offer that older politicians don't have?

Leopold: I've grown up in an age in which the American dream has really changed. My predecessors could count on their generations doing better than the previous ones, while I'm in the first generation that is not sure whether we'll do better than the generation that came before us. I was born right at the end of the Baby Boom, so I also live with the prospect of ending up at the short end of our entire benefit system -- which was geared to serve that demographic bulge -- right at the time when I'll most need to access those services. Watching that train go by something that is very real for my contemporaries. Our political views were not shaped by the Vietnam war, but by the anti-nuclear movement, the excesses of the '80s, and the first war in Iraq. It gives you a really different perspective on the world. I feel much more a global citizen than my predecessors have been, and that my generation recognizes the interconnection of us all -- that the struggles we face now are similar, no matter what continent we're on.

Silberman: Who do you support for president?

Leopold: Barack Obama. It's interesting. In January of this year, I was prepared to vote for John Edwards, because I felt like on the issues that most spoke to me -- economic justice issues -- John was talking about those issues the most. When he dropped out before the California primary, I had to do a little soul-searching, because there were a lot of things I liked about Hillary Clinton, but I was really moved by the words of Barack Obama. I wrestled with it for a while, and when I came to the decision to vote for Barack, it was in part because I felt like he had the ability to inspire people to do things that are greater than they themselves think they can do. We need leadership that can push us to do great things, rather than a leadership that will just continue on in the same fashion. I'm very excited about the enthusiasm that Barack's campaign brings, and I'm really jazzed by the possibility that he can help us frame the issues at a national level in a way that we haven't seen out of a Democrat in a long time. Another key factor in my choosing to support Barack's candidacy is that he's only a few years older than I am, and that's important to me, because it's time for my generation to take the lead. If we want to break out of the box of older thinking and rebuild our broken political system, it's going to take a whole batch of fresh blood to make that happen.

Silberman: In the last few weeks, Obama has been repositioning himself towards the center on certain issues, such as FISA. Has that surprised or disappointed you in any way?

Leopold: I was very surprised by his FISA vote, because I thought that he had clearly got into a place where he could have not voted for giving the telecoms retroactive immunity and I don't think it would have been a hard punch that McCain could have landed later. But I know -- as someone out there talking to people -- there's a very strong push to the center once you're the candidate that people take seriously. I see it around issues in my own campaign, and it's a powerful force. As someone who's been involved in politics for a long time, being a candidate is a whole different experience. I've worked on campaigns and been a campaign manager, but when you're the candidate, that pull to the center is very strong.

Silberman: Do you see the Internet and the kinds of grassroots organizing tools that digital media and social networking provide as changing politics in a significant way?

Leopold: I think so. Where do people get their news these days? They get it from the Internet. With declining readership for newspapers and television news, the Internet becomes the source of information for many people. So we've seen over the last four or five years that you can organize a movement, you can raise money, you can reach a dramatic number of people, and you can get the word out in a way we never could before. I think that's only going to increase over time, because as younger people get involved, that's the way they get information. My daughter is 14. She looks at the newspaper in the morning, but she reads on the Internet.

Silberman: With the Bush administration coming to an end and Obama talking about change, there's a feeling that we're about to enter the next chapter of American politics. What would you hope to see in that next chapter?

Leopold: I would like to see active involvement in politics at all levels. We've seen such a swing to the right at the federal level that the policy debate is so limited. It's hard to feel that regular people are represented in that debate. Hopefully there's a way to break that logjam with an Obama presidency, and hopefully a good majority for Democrats in the Senate and the House, we might be able to do that. We might be able to swing that pendulum a little more to the left than it has been. At a state and local level, we need more people engaged in the process. Here in California, we have a terrible financial crisis caused by a really arcane way of passing our budget. As one of only three states that require a 2/3 majority, we're at the will of a minority that won't even tell us what they want to do with a state budget. They're allowed to hold up the budget for months and won't allow us to move forward, even when polls say that people would be willing to pay a little bit more to get access to basic services. And at a local level, that's the place where regular people should be most involved, and know who their elected officials are, and become involved in the work that defines a community -- whether it be community planning processes, or serving on boards and commissions, or just being aware of what's happening on the city council and the board of supervisors.

Silberman: What is the role of music in advancing the political dialogue?

Leopold: So often, people downplay the significance of music and musicians in really having a say in what goes on in the political system. My sense of it is that, especially in age when most young people get their news from Jon Stewart, having someone use the power of music to articulate ideas is a very realistic and reasonable way to share information and tell stories.

Silberman: If you could take just three albums to a desert island, what would they be?

Leopold: Live/Dead, which has beautiful playing. If I was going to a desert island with only three records, I would need something that had many different moods, and that record has them. I could study that record for years and still find new things in it. I would also take Kiko by Los Lobos, because that's another record that's multidimensional, with great songs and great playing. And I would take Bob Dylan's The Times They Are A-Changin'. That was in constant rotation at a key point in my life.

Silberman: You've worked with the Santa Cruz AIDS Project. As a married straight guy, how has it been working so closely with the gay community?

Leopold: It's given me a window into what the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities face every day. As the executive director of the AIDS Project, I realized pretty early on that most people assumed that I was a gay man living with HIV. That was a telling experience, seeing how people related to me because of that. For me, it's been incredibly fulfilling work. The discrimination against the community is very clear, the reasons for it are very flimsy, and the work that needs to be done is extraordinary. It's a very welcoming community, and in the 20-plus years that I've been actively engaged, we've made some really important strides, including hopefully in this November's election, where I think we're going to be successful in defeating the proposed gay marriage ban, which will set a new standard in politics throughout the country. The idea that the state is telling consenting adults who want to get married that they can't for religious reasons is antithetical to the whole reason the country was founded. The reasons for not allowing gay and lesbian people to get married have never held any water as far as I'm concerned. The longer you talk about it, the more clear it becomes.