Longtime progressive fighter Bob Alexander dies at 72

Bob Alexander will be remembered more for fighting than for winning. Alexander, longtime Democratic Party activist and two-time candidate for U.S. Congress, died of pancreatic cancer on Wednesday.

Alexander’s 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 the Peace Corps days of the 1960s to the Bernie Sanders campaign of 2016.

U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers handily defeated Alexander in two congressional runs in 2004 and 2008, the worst in a series of electoral setbacks that encouraged Alexander to stick to a role for which he was bust suited, that of dogged Democratic Party foot soldier.

His career brought him to tens of thousands of mid-Michigan doorsteps as he managed campaigns, worked for Democratic candidates and circulated 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 Sen. Lana Pollack said. Pollack knew Alexander since the 1970s. In 1982, Alexander pulled out of the state Senate race because he thought she had a better chance to win. (She won.) Pollack credited Alexander with pushing her to pass a polluter pay law requiring polluters to pay for environmental cleanup.

Alexander had “ambition in the best sense of the word, for an enlightened, fair and transparent civil society” and never gave up, Pollack said.

The 1982 Senate race wasn’t the only sacrifice of Alexander’s career. In 1995, he bowed out of the race for East Lansing City Council, even though he earned a slot on the ballot by finishing sixth in the primary. He canvassed door to door, urging his supporters to switch their vote to the progressive triumvirate of Sam Singh, Mark Meadows and Douglas Jester in the general election, and the strategy worked. All three won and all three took a turn as East Lansing mayor.

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.”

Alexander was born in Nashville, Tenn., where his father was stationed at a naval shipyard. He grew up in Berkley, a suburb of Detroit, and went to the University of Michigan. He served in Bowling Green, Ky., and Detroit in the National Teacher Corps, a Great Society program that sent college graduates to teach in inner-city schools. In Detroit, he plunged into a welter of civil rights battles, becoming known as Beto Alejandro to the Hispanic community.

Alexander moved to Ann Arbor and ran for state representative in 1974 as a Human Rights Party candidate. When he nearly siphoned off enough votes from Democratic icon Perry Pullard to elect a Republican, he soured on third-party runs and remained a Democratic stalwart for the rest of his life.

Alexander was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in January 2016, but he fought off the disease with his trademark energy and dry humor for over a year, surprising even those who had strained to keep up with him for decades.

As recently as Jan. 29, he looked strong and was overjoyed to greet dozens of friends and family to a party marking a year of survival since his diagnosis. Earlier that month, Alexander and his wife of 15 years, Julie, enthusiastically mingled with marchers at the Women’s March at Michigan’s State Capitol.

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

Alexander touched many lives in his long career.

Ira Harrison, a longtime friend, spent a summer with him in India, where Alexander had served in the Peace Corps for two years. When they made the trip in 1975, Harrison was a troubled fifth-grader from Willow Run High School, where Alexander taught for five years.

Harrison, now an Ann Arbor fire inspector with two kids of his own, said the trip changed his life. He cherishes the memory of Alexander dragging him out of bed one morning to watch a spectacular sunrise.

In one of many conversations they had on the trip, Harrison told Alexander he hated his sister, with whom he was constantly fighting.

“He told me hate is too strong a word to use on people,” Harrison recalled. “Hate cancer or injustice, but not people.”

— Lawrence Cosentino

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