April 26 2017 08:52 AM

In his last year of life, progressive warrior Bob Alexander saw new cause for optimism

WEDNESDAY, April 26 — About a year ago, on a fine spring Tuesday, Bob Alexander went through a stack of papers at his East Lansing condo. He was set to start chemotherapy the next day, but other things were on his mind.


“We’ve allowed millions of college graduates to have $100,000 in debt when they get out of college,” he said. “Fuck that shit! Eh?”


In late January 2016, Alexander was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He fought it off with his trademark energy and dry humor for over a year, surprising even those who had strained to keep up with the old campaigner for decades.


Bob and Julie Alexander

As recently as Jan. 29, the one-year anniversary of his diagnosis, Alexander looked strong and overjoyed to greet dozens of friends and family at a celebration of life with his wife of 15 years, Julie.

But in early April, after receiving 11 types of chemotherapy in 14 months, doctors from the University of Michigan’s oncology team told the couple that his cancer had grown, especially in his liver, and there was nothing more they could do.


Alexander died 4 a.m. today at 72.


He will be remembered more for fighting than winning. U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers handily defeated him in two congressional runs in 2004 and 2008, the worst in a series of electoral setbacks that pushed Alexander back to his most enduring role, that of dogged Democratic Party foot soldier.


His trail wound in and out of the political wilderness, but he never deviated from it as he pushed for progressive economic and social policies from his Peace Corps days of the 1960s to the Bernie Sanders campaign of 2016.


Almost everyone in Lansing, and many more people throughout the state, ran into Alexander in the past 40 years. He managed dozens of campaigns, worked for hundreds of Democratic candidates and circulated thousands of petitions for causes ranging from legalization of marijuana to heath care and campaign finance reform to physician-assisted suicide.


“Bob has never been cynical. That’s the beauty of him,” former Michigan state senator Lana Pollack said.


Pollack had 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.

“One thing people can learn from Bob is that if you quit the first time you lose, you’ll never make much of a contribution,” Pollack said.


Political consultant Mark Grebner compared 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.”


In March 2016, sitting — and often pacing the room — for an interview with City Pulse, Alexander 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. 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 Rogers’ office. 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 real world — 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 — had 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.”


Panty raid

On hot September nights in the early 1960s, men in the West Quad and South Quad dorms at the University of Michigan would answer a call: “To the hill!”


In the radical hotbed that spawned Tom Hayden, John Sinclair and SDS, a panty raid was the first mass action Alexander witnessed.


A crowd would gather from all directions, swell to over a thousand, and storm the citadel of all-female dorms centering on Mary Markley Hall. While the women flung bras and panties out the window, the swarm of men pushed and climbed upward, like ants, to grab the lacy manna falling from above.

On one raid in 1963, several men were pushed through a row of windows. Nobody was hurt, but “the university went berserk,” Alexander said. The solution was to move blocs of male and female students to each other’s dorms.


Alexander helped student council members go door to door to ask students to move.

“They hoped it would end this fascination with lingerie,” Alexander said. “That was my first real canvassing operation — to end panty raids.”


He went to U-M only because his father had gone to school there.


“For the most part, I was not an activist on campus,” he said. “I was the all-American boy.” His life to that point barely hinted at a political future.


He was born on a hot Halloween night in 1944 in Nashville, Tenn., where his father was stationed at a naval shipyard. Shouts of “Trick or treat!” could be heard through an open window as he came into the world.


“I still haven’t decided what I got that night,” his mom told him more than once.


At 5 years old, he won what may be the biggest personal victory of his life: first place in his age group in the all-Detroit Halloween costume contest.


“This was big stuff in 1949,” he said. “There were 2,000 kids in competition.”


He couldn’t resist crowing about a rare and obscure Bob Alexander victory, but left out something important — the costume.


“I don’t remember.”


Pressed further, he sank into a long, uncharacteristic pause.


“I’m sensitive to this,” he said finally. “Let me say it was the worst possible thing for a white boy to be wearing.”


Ah.


“I had nothing to do with it,” he waved in disgust. His grandmother and aunt dressed him up. “Let’s just leave it at that. Mike Rogers would have had a field day with it.”


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 leaflet 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.”


‘You’re going to pay’

After graduating from U-M in 1966, Alexander thought about law school, but the Vietnam War was heating up. He joined the Peace Corps and spent two years in India, working in intensive chicken breeding. The draft loomed larger when Alexander got back in 1968. He applied to the National Teacher Corps, a Great Society program that sent young teachers to poverty-stricken areas.

The Corps expected 5,000 applications. It got 27,000. Alexander didn’t make the cut and was due at the draft board Aug. 2.


A door suddenly opened in late July, when Alexander 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.


“Just getting the black and white students to work together was revolutionary,” he said. “I felt in physical danger every minute I was there.”


When the one-year gig ran out, Alexander drove to Detroit June 19, 1969, to apply for another Teacher Corps opening.


“That’s when I just blossomed,” he said.


He taught at Webster Elementary, at 25th and Porter streets, 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 hard-charging 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-year-olds 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 1974.


“Perry Bullard was a big deal,” Mark Grebner recalled. “Bob very nearly defeated him as a third party candidate, sucking off enough of the vote to elect a Republican.”


The experience turned Alexander into a lifelong Democrat and soured him on third-party runs for the rest of his life.


“I did my little tour with the Human Rights Party and Doc Spock,” Alexander said. (Dr. Benjamin Spock, the renowned pediatrician, was the HRP’s 1974 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 politicians. In 1974, he ran 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 candidate 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’s trenchant 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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