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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.
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.”
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.”
“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.”
In 1975, Alexander went back to India for a summer. He took along a troubled fifth-grader from Willow Run High School, where Alexander taught for five years.
Ira Harrison, now an Ann Arbor fire inspector with two kids of his own, said the trip changed his life.
“When someone else thinks you’re so important that he’ll take you halfway around the world, it leaves an impression,” Harrison said.
He marvels that his parents allowed the trip at all.
“My father was good at reading people,” Harrison said. “I’m not sure how I would react to a trip like that with my own kids, but he trusted Bob.”
Early in the trip, Alexander pulled a sleepy Harrison out of bed to see the sun rise over the Indian Ocean. It’s one of Harrison’s most treasured memories.
“The sun came up out of the water, it was all these different colors and it was amazing. It sounds so simple, but it made me stop and think about things differently.”
Alexander still considers Harrison family.
“We had a lot of discussions about life,” Harrison said.
In one heart-to-heart, 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 said. “Hate cancer or injustice, but not people.”
Harrison choked back tears as he spoke.
“I was raised by him. I love Bob.”
In the late 1970s, Alexander and Lana Pollack taught a disco dance class together at Washtenaw Community College.
“He was wearing plaid pants and I know he had sideburns,” she said. “He was a little to the left of me, but he had ambition in the best sense of the word, for an enlightened, fair and transparent civil society, and he’s never given up.”
Pollack was an early beneficiary of Alexander’s political instincts.
In 1982, Alexander was a staffer for state then-state Sen. Edward Pierce of Ann Arbor. When Pierce decided to run for governor, Alexander’s time for public office finally seemed nigh. Pollack, then a member of the school board, would run his campaign.
The more Alexander thought about it, the more he realized Pollack was better known in the senate district than he was. He feared that the Republican candidate, a woman and a moderate, might tempt votes away from him.
He pulled out of the race. Pollack won and went on to a distinguished career in public service and environmentalism. She served as state senator from 1983 to 1994 and headed the Michigan Environmental Council from 1996 to 2008. In 2010, President Barack Obama appointed her to lead the U.S. section of the International Joint Commission, the body that resolves U.S.-Canadian disputes over water boundaries.
As state senator, Pollack’s signature achievement was the 1990 “polluter pay” law requiring polluters to pay for environmental cleanup. But the impetus, she said, came from Alexander.
“In my first week in the Senate, he told me I would be eaten up by day-to-day demands if I didn’t carve out some major long-term goal and make time for it,” Pollack said.
Together, they decided to push the polluter pay law, which ultimately saved taxpayers $100 million in cleanup costs, according to the International Joint Commission.
“It was Bob who had the vision to go for something large and important,” Pollack said.
Alexander hit another sacrifice fly in 1995, when he bowed out of the race for East Lansing City Council. Although he earned a slot on the ballot by finishing sixth in the primary, he urged his supporters to vote for the progressive triumvirate of Sam Singh, Mark Meadows and Douglas Jester in the general election.
The strategy worked. All three won and all three took a turn as East Lansing mayor.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Alexander led campaigns for dozens of fellow Democrats running for Ingham County Commission, East Lansing School Board, State Representative and other offices. He headed the Michigan Draft Al Gore for President campaign in 2007 and was state campaign director for Dennis Kucinich’s 1994 presidential run. The scroll of Bob’s allies and causes is much too long to fully unroll, except perhaps in a dirigible hangar.
When it came to running for office himself, Alexander was afraid of wearing out his welcome with voters. In a 1995 letter to supporters explaining why he pulled out of the East Lansing City Council race, he anticipated being attacked as “the Engler recall leader, a Zolton zealot, an ol’ HRP-er and from Ann Arbor!”
Many people saw his two runs for U.S. Congress as two more sacrifice flies. He doesn’t see it that way.
He prefers to call his 2004 campaign “educational.”
“You can’t beat Mike Rogers with $80,000,” he said.
But in 2008, Alexander thought he had “some cutting edge stuff” that could put him over the top. He warned of widespread plague from the rat’s nest of collateralized debt obligations and other arcane Wall Street instruments that brought about the 2008 financial collapse. He identified $800 billion in unnecessary administrative and lobbying costs in the nation’s health care system.
“It didn’t get any attention from the mainstream press,” Alexander said.
Rogers brushed him off with ease. When Alexander showed an uptick toward the end of the 2008 race, the Republican flooded the district with smiley TV spots and negative ads warning of “taxpayer giveaways to illegals.” Alexander could only afford to rebut with a mailer. In Michigan, Democratic challengers got far less support from the party’s national campaign committee than incumbents.
“(The Committee) is a club of the Democratic members of Congress, and they don’t let a lot of people in,” Alexander said. “I was done running, for myself, for office.”
As our March 2016 talk wound down, Alexander got up from his chair to greet Julie, a 44-year veteran in human services for the State of Michigan.
She was holding flowers from a retirement party her co-workers threw for her that day.
“It’s a different chapter than I thought would come next, though,” she said.
The illness hit him in the midst of a typical cascade of Bob Alexander projects. His living room was still piled with charts analyzing state elections with precinct-by-precinct, Battle-of-Gettysburg precision. Since his 2008 defeat, he devoted much of his time to finding ways to elect more Democratic state representatives in Michigan, homing in on 20 key races.
He also spent hours researching cancer treatments on the Internet and charting his 21-day cycles of chemotherapy.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen to the (Democratic Party) progressive caucus, but it’s going to be no longer my concern,” he said quietly.
But there was a twist in the last chapter of the Bobyssey. After working for Bernie Sanders’ Michigan campaign, Alexander was more certain than ever that the palace gates are about to swing open for progressives in America.
In Mark Grebner’s analysis, it’s not so much the Democratic Party that’s wheeling back around to Lighthouse Bob. It’s the world.
“Socialism doesn’t scare people,” Grebner said. “The death penalty is dying out. Marijuana is gradually becoming legalized. Homosexuality has become not just routine, but almost boring. The world is talking about economic inequality. In some ways, the world is smiling upon Bob and his beliefs more than it did 10 or 20 years ago.”
After decades of blank stares, rolling eyes and slammed doors, the old canvasser had never seen young people get so excited about politics.
In September 2016, Bob and Julie visited Alexander’s daughter from his first marriage, Lindsay, in Thomas, W.Va., a tiny town near the headwaters of the Potomac River.
The music, the politics and the scene had more than a whiff of 1960s Ann Arbor. Thomas, a former coal town in the Alleghenies, is becoming a lefty, hipster hub with a restaurant/venue called the Purple Fiddle.
Lindsay Alexander performs in a rock duo with drummer Chuck Richards under the name Yes Alexander. (It’s her nickname from way back, Bob explained, because she’s always up for a celebration.)
“The music — I can’t do it justice,” Alexander said excitedly. “It’s really noisy and full of pathos, anguish and so on. My daughter’s bouncing up and down while she’s playing the keyboards and singing and Chuck is doing these fantastic rhythms.”
True to form, Alexander got antsy during his brief visit and helped locals organize a Bernie Sanders event.
“By 6 o’clock we had 48 people, in a town of 380,” he said. “I spoke to 15 or 20 percent of the population!”
Julie’s voice came from the next room.
“Are you drinking water?”
He dutifully took another sip.
“That’s what I’ll miss. Seeing the positives,” Alexander said. “But we did what we could and I feel really good about it.”