March 2 2016 11:48 AM

Facing cancer, progressive warrior Bob Alexander sees the world turn his way

Last Tuesday, the day before his first round of chemotherapy, Bob Alexander went through a stack of papers at his Lansing condo.

In late January, Alexander was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He was in a mood to look back, or at least he pretended to be, but his excitement over the 2016 Democratic presidential primaries kept distracting him.

"Hillary is so namby-pamby,” he said. “Bernie says $15 minimum wage, she says, 'I'll do $12.' Bullshit. Just atrocious. She's in la-la land."

He pulled out a picture of himself, standing with Iraq war protesters outside the office of U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers, who pummeled Alexander in two runs for U.S. Congress in 2004 and 2008.

The photo is strangely comforting. It says all's right with the world, even though nothing is right. In the 1990s and 2000s, while toothy flag-wavers like Rogers settled into the national driver's seat, Alexander was in his element, two feet outside the window, in the cold, the shrubs and the dog shit.

He padded to the kitchen for a glass of water. The diagnosis hit Alexander when many of the issues he's hammered all his life — income inequality, racism, access to health care — have spectacularly come to a head.

"A lot of us older folks have a lot of understanding about this kind of stuff, but we didn't have the ability to motivate young people to get on our side," he said. "They saw politics as evil. They just didn't want to get involved. This Bernie Sanders campaign has eliminated that wall, and it's just amazing."

Almost everyone in Lansing, and half the state's population, have run into Alexander over the past 40 years. He's managed dozens of campaigns, worked for hundreds of Democratic candidates, circulated thousands of petitions for causes ranging from legalization of marijuana to physician-assisted suicide.

"Bob has never been cynical. That's the beauty of him," former Michigan state senator Lana Pollack said. Pollack has known Alexander since the 1970s. In 1982, Alexander pulled out of the state Senate race because he thought she had a better chance to win. It wasn't the only sacrifice play of his career.

Political consultant Mark Grebner com pared Alexander to a lighthouse. A longtime Ingham County Commissioner and fellow policy wonk, Grebner has known Alexander since 1972.

"He's part of the navigation of the Democratic Party," Grebner said. "He's fixed. He refutes Einstein's theory of relativity."

Beto Alejandro

Growing up in Berkley, a suburb of Detroit, Alexander read a lot of history. He spent hours drawing elaborate maps, including a panorama of the battle of Gettysburg he still recalls with pride. In the early 1950s, he watched his father work with a neighborhood association to organize the fight against Dutch Elm disease. He and a friend got $3 apiece to deliver notices to 285 houses. He still remembers the names of the streets and number of blocks they covered. It was his first leafletting campaign.

"We had to fold them very carefully," Alexander said. "My father said you have to have respect for the people you're giving them to."

Political activism didn’t interest him much, even after graduating with a history degree from the University of Michigan in 1966. The only door-to-door canvassing he did in college was to help the university put a stop to panty raids.

He thought about law school, but the Vietnam war was heating up fast. He joined the Peace Corps and spent two years in India, working in intensive chicken breeding, but the draft loomed even larger when he got back in 1968. He applied to the National Teacher Corps, a Great Society program that sent young teachers to poverty-stricken areas.

The Peace Corps expected 5,000 applications. It got 27,000. Alexander didn't make it and was due at the draft board Aug. 2. In late July, he learned that Congress had authorized three more Teacher Corps training sites. The closest was in Bowling Green, Ky.

His parents dropped him off at the corner of Telegraph and 12 Mile roads with a duffel bag and a sign: "Bowling Green or Bust."

He ended up teaching middle school in newly desegregated Hopkinsville, Ky., 70 miles west of Bowling Green, near Fort Campbell, a huge army training camp. When the one-year gig ran out, he drove to Detroit June 19, 1969, to apply for another Teacher Corps opening.

Alexander married his wife, Julie, in 2001.
Courtesy Photo

"That's when I just blossomed," he said. He taught at Webster Elementary, at 25th and Porter, near the Ambassador Bridge, where 40 percent of the kids spoke Spanish and there were no Spanish-speaking teachers.

The area was in political ferment, with Hispanic/Latino protest marches to the Board of Education building. Alexander was in the thick of it, under the cognomen Beto Alejandro. He fell under the spell of future Detroit mayor Coleman Young, then a hardcharging state senator who gathered input at annual legislative conferences and monthly task force meetings.

"I just sat here and soaked it all up," he said. "People longed to be there, to be part of this boiling pot of ideas."

In March 1971, Congress gave 18-yearolds the vote. That May, the Supreme Court ruled it was unconstitutional to keep college students from voting in the city where they went to school. The influx of young voters was a game-changer for activists seeking office.

Alexander moved back to Ann Arbor and got involved with farm workers' groups, the Human Rights Party, "about 10 different things." He dismissed the Democratic Party as too "status quo," but his relationship with the HRP wouldn't last long.

He learned a big lesson in his first bid for public office, running for state representative in liberal Democratic icon Perry Bullard's district in 1972.

"Perry Bullard was a big deal," Grebner recalled. "Bob very nearly defeated him as a third-party candidate, sucking off enough of the vote to elect a Republican. As a reaction to that, Bob spent the rest of his life deploring third-party runs."

Bob Alexander made his first bid for public office — and his last as a third-party candidate — in 1974, running for state representative eon the Human Rights Party ticket.
Courtesy Photo

"I did my little tour with the Human Rights Party and Doc Spock," Alexander said. (Dr. Benjamin Spock, the renowned baby doctor, was the HRP's 1972 candidate for president.) "I was done trying to create a new national party. That was the end of my personal running for awhile."

In the years following, Alexander gravitated toward brainy, compassionate, unorthodox Democratic politicians. In 1974, he ran Democrat Zolton Ferency's unsuccessful campaign for governor against Republican George Romney. They lost the election, but Alexander gained a dear friend and mentor. He loved driving Ferency and his wife, Ellen, all over the state, listening to "Zolie's" stories about the Russian front in World War II. "I had a tremendous rapport with him," Alexander said. "Zolton was — and Ellen still is — just a gem, so real."

In 1976, Alexander got involved in the populist presidential campaign of Fred Harris, a former Oklahoma senator who tooled around the nation in an RV and stayed in supporters' homes to save money. (Harris gave his hosts a token for a night in the White House in return.)

"He was brilliant," Alexander said. Several of Harris' books, with titles such as "Locked in the Poorhouse" and "Deadlock or Decision," still sit on his shelves. "They're just as accurate now," he said. "Bernie [Sanders] is the Fred Harris of today."

Against his better judgment, Alexander loaned the campaign $2,400 of his own money for a big fundraiser. Harris had the support of the Service Employees Union and plenty of three-figure donors were lined up, so he was sure he'd get his money back. On the day before the event, Harris dropped out of the race. He was screwed.

"I learned a very expensive lesson in that campaign," Alexander said. "If you're getting into left-wing politics, running against the status quo, like Bernie against Hillary, you're going to pay."

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