That time Jerry Emmett set me straight

27 Jul 2016 03:07 pm
Posted by: Donna

jerry emmett
Photo: Miriam Wasser, Phoenix New Times

Easily one of the coolest moments of Tuesday night was when it was the Arizona delegation’s turn to announce its vote totals. Per The Guardian:

Clinton was formally nominated as the Democratic candidate after a roll call of the states in the Philadelphia arena. And in a tender moment, the centenarian joined her state’s 85-member delegation, which split 51 for Clinton and 34 for her Democratic rival, the Vermont senator Bernie Sanders.

“I’m Ruben Gallego from Arizona, the beautiful state, the natural state. We’re proud to say that we’re the home state of Cesar Chavez, home state of many native tribes, home state of electing some of the first women leaders in this country,” the congressman said. “And I am proud to be joined here by Jerry Emmett, age 102. Madame Secretary, Arizona casts 34 votes for Senator Sanders.”

Gallego handed the microphone to Emmett, who leant forward with a wide grin.

“And 51 votes for the next president of the United States of America, Hillary Rodham Clinton,” she said, as the crowd erupted in cheers.

Emmett, the star of the Arizona delegation and a lifelong Democrat, was six years old when women earned the right to vote in the US and remembers the moment when her mother cast the first vote of her life.

If you are active in Arizona Democratic politics at the state level, you have undoubtedly encountered Geraldine “Jerry” Emmett at a state committee meeting or a Heritage Dinner, usually accompanied by one or several from her coterie of fiercely loyal friends. She’s a delight to be around. She may not remember you but she has no problem regaling anyone in her presence with tales of her eighty some years of Democratic activism. I learned that she and I share a love for Joan Crawford movies at the Fourth of July Parade in Prescott (where Jerry lives) in 2010, while I was there for a campaign I was working on. She was a slip of a 96 year old back then, but she brushed off my suggestion that she be the honorary grand marshal of the parade the next year by grabbing my forearm and exclaiming, “oh, honey, I don’t buy green bananas!”

In February of that year, I accompanied a statewide candidate I was working with to a Democratic women’s luncheon in Prescott. Despite it being on a weekday afternoon, the room was packed with ladies of a certain age, the kind of stalwart women who mostly, and enthusiastically, supported Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primary. Jerry was one of them, and was the keynote speaker. I recall (I’m going off memory since I can’t find my notes) the usual round of several candidates giving pitches and then it was Jerry’s turn to speak.

What followed, from this woman who had supported Hillary Clinton with all her heart before, was a rousing defense of President Obama. It left an indelible impression on me, not just because of who Jerry was, but also because of who I was at the time. I had been a big Obama supporter in 2008, travelling to other states to canvass for him (as I have done for Hillary this year). But by early 2010, though I still loved him personally, I felt deeply betrayed and demoralized by President Obama. Like many other lefties, I thought he had sold us out on the progressive hopes and values that (we believed*) we had propelled him to office with. We felt he wasn’t acting enough like FDR. You heard that a lot back then in Liberal Land.

Well, Jerry Emmett was having none of that. She began by describing what it was like in the American West in the 1930s. They were not only dealing with the Great Depression, but also with the Dust Bowl conditions brought on by mismanagement of farmlands and a horrendous drought. There was dust everywhere, Jerry said. On every surface. It got in your mouth all the time. People were literally starving. That was the situation into which Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected.

Jerry then went on to explain the crucial differences between FDR and Barack Obama, that for one thing Roosevelt (who was white, obvs) was from an established New York patrician family, about as close as you could get to aristocracy in America at the time. That was an advantage in his favor that Obama lacked. FDR also had enormous majorities in Congress. Even so, he had a very difficult time passing his initiatives, and when they did pass they were often compromised and left entire groups of people out (ie Social Security). Jerry admonished us disappointed liberals to consider what President Obama was up against (often opposition from members of his own party in addition to GOP intransigence) and to look to the good he was doing (such as the Affordable Care Act) and to the bigger picture.

I truly believe Jerry’s talk sparked a change in me. I wish I could say I never went on to be angry at President Obama (not always unjustified, as with The Year of Our Deficit Wankery and The Simpson Bowles Granny Starving Attempt of 2011) but I gradually stopped blaming him for things he truly doesn’t control and for falling short of arbitrary standards that are impossible for him to meet. I’ve gradually grown out of seeing politics and voting “as an act of performative virtue” and into seeing it as the way you use the power of democracy and elected office to do the most good for the most people.

And I really believe that talk by Jerry Emmett six years ago is what set me on the path leading me to picking Hillary Clinton as my candidate in 2016, on the basis that a diverse coalition, armed with steely pragmatism, is the key to our progress as a nation and in implementing progressive goals.

May Jerry be able to buy green bananas if she wants for as long as possible.

*We didn’t. See: coalition, diverse

1 Comment(s)

  1. Pingback by This week on progressive government blogs: Pushing eco-justice in VA; 102-year-old AZ activist on the DNC | View the latest breaking news on July 30, 2016 12:08 pm

    […] Democratic Diva of Arizona, Donna writes – The Time Jerry Emmett Set Me Straight . Tuesday, July 26, 102-year-old honorary chairman of the Arizona delegation to the Democratic […]

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