By Dennis Bernstein on Nov 9, 2011
I first encountered Norman Solomon nearly thirty years ago, when I was teaching writing to prisoners in a conservative community of upstate New York. One day, I opened up a local newspaper and saw an op-ed he had penned on the murder of a young engineer named Ben Linder by U.S.-supported counterrevolutionaries in Nicaragua. It was a time when very few in the mainstream were questioning President Reagan’s policies, and it meant a great deal to me.
“As the glare of publicity fades, those of us with personal memories of Ben Linder are left to ponder the meaning of his death,” Solomon wrote. “Why would anyone want to kill a gentle helpful man for working to provide electricity to a small village in an impoverished country?”
Since those early Reagan days, Solomon has been a biting media critic, a syndicated columnist, and the author of a number of books. And for more than a dozen years, he has directed the Institute for Public Accuracy, which he founded to present a wider range of voices that mainstream and alternative journalists can tap into.
Early this year, Solomon announced he was setting aside his distinguished career to become a Democratic candidate for Congress. He is vying for the seat soon to be vacated by the retiring Representative Lynn Woolsey, in the new gerrymandered District 2 that stretches from the Golden Gate Bridge hundreds of miles north to the California-Oregon border.
I caught up with candidate Solomon at a recent house party and fundraiser, in Mill Valley, an affluent suburb about fifteen miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge. I asked him why he decided to make such a drastic move.
“For more than forty years, I’ve been writing to change the system; now I’m running to change the system,” he said. “For decades, we’ve seen one disaster after another as progressives have routinely left the electoral field to corporate Democrats and their Republican colleagues. We desperately need to go beyond the false choice between staying true to ideals and winning public office. Progressives can—and must—do both.”
Writer and social historian Martin Lee co-authored Solomon’s second book, Unreliable Sources. Lee, who lives in Healdsburg, right in the heart of the new Congressional district, says Solomon’s bid was a natural evolution.
“For Norman, media criticism was always a vehicle for promoting social justice,” says Lee.
On Labor Day weekend at California’s state capitol in Sacramento, Solomon was one of a few white faces ensconced in a sea of red United Farm Worker flags. It was the climax of a 200-mile pilgrimage for farmworker rights, led by UFW President Arturo Rodriguez. While Solomon was present to garner support for his Congressional run, he’s no stranger to this movement.
“When I was seventeen years old in 1969, I was passing out Boycott Grape solidarity fliers in support of the late Cesar Chavez’s historic push to unionize farmworkers across the nation,” he tells me in the sweltering noon heat. “I love a good glass of wine. But there is no wine on the planet wonderful enough to wash away the bitterness of injustice in the fields.”
Miguel Gavilan Molina, who toiled in the fields as a child farmworker and has played a key role in the creation of the first rural day labor center to protect migrant workers in Graton, California, says he was impressed by Solomon’s “unrelenting support” for farmworkers and day laborers.
“No one else has been out there for the farmworkers like Solomon,” says Molina. “All the other politicians are busy clinking glasses with the growers, while Norman is taking a moral position for what he believes in, and beating the drum for it wherever he goes.”
Solomon has also been on the cutting edge of the resistance to nuclear power and nuclear weapons. He is quick to make the point that the notion of the peaceful atom is a “myth.” He says he supports the immediate closure of all nuclear power plants, in California and all over the United States.
Solomon has been arrested dozens of times protesting nuclear weapons and nuclear power, including once in the mid-eighties when he boldly sat in at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow after the United States failed to sign on to a nonproliferation treaty backed by Mikhail Gorbachev.
Over the years, Solomon has stood side by side with Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg in speaking out strongly against the way the Israeli government has mistreated, abused, and brutally imprisoned Israeli nuclear whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu. Now Ellsberg is standing behind Solomon in his bid for Congress.
“No one could better represent me in Congress,” Ellsberg said in his endorsement in September. “Norman will not be silent when Democratic leaders lose their way or their nerve. He’ll be a strong, independent voice for economic justice, civil liberties, and rigorous environmental protection—and a determined foe of the militarism that is depleting our society in countless ways.”
That’s if he gets to Congress. He faces a steep challenge against the establishment Democrat, California state representative Jared Huffman, and two others just to win the primary.
Solomon says he’s taking no corporate money, but he hasn’t hesitated to welcome into his campaign some Hollywood star power, in the name of Sean Penn. His relationship with Penn goes back some ten years, just before the United States invaded Iraq. Penn and Solomon traveled together then to Iraq and Iran.
In late August, Penn headlined a campaign fundraising event at McNear’s Mystic Theatre in Petaluma, about forty miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge. To an enthusiastic audience of some 300 Solomon supporters, Penn recalled the trip to Iran.
“As hundreds, then thousands, gathered around the circle of singing women, suddenly it was the appearance of the special police,” Penn said. “And then out came the batons. As things got chaotic, I briefly lost Norman in the crowd. I was about twenty-five yards from getting to that inner circle of women who were taking bludgeons to the heads. And then I saw Norman, not flinching, standing directly beside them, and he stayed through it all.”
In a recent stump speech, the typically mild-mannered and soft-spoken Solomon—who describes himself as a “Green New Deal” politician—got worked up a bit as he laid down some of his core beliefs.
“I believe that quality education, adequate health care, consumer protection, civil liberties, and environmental safeguards are not frills or mere privilege—they should be our birthrights as Americans,” Solomon said. “It’s not ‘national security’ to have our schools crumbling, homes foreclosed on, and deficits skyrocketing.”
Dennis Bernstein is the executive producer of Flashpoints, an award-winning daily news magazine syndicated over Pacifica Radio, and a contributor to Consortiumnews.com. His first collection of poetry, “Special Ed.,” will be published in January.