With a fervor borrowed from the Civil Rights era, an earnest group of young Lyndon LaRouche supporters shook up what was otherwise a dull state Democratic convention
They were sitting in a semicircle in a carpeted hallway outside Ballroom A of the San Jose Convention Center, singing the old gospel hymn, "This Little Light of Mine." Except with this group of maybe 50 young people, who had traveled from up and down the California coastline to attend this year's state Democratic convention, the lyrics became somewhat debased. "Let the light shine in 2004, I'm going to vote LaRouche. Everywhere I go, I'm going to vote LaRouche." And then, "Democrats are corrupt, I'm going to tell the truth."
At the end of the song, the group decided to chant. "Hey boomers, get a spine. Don't you know it's LaRouche's time?"
LaRouche, of course, is perennial presidential candidate Lyndon H. LaRouche Jr., an 81-year-old economist who has run for the nation's top office every year since 1976, even from prison in 1992. Described in press accounts as a Marxist, a fascist, a power-thirsty paranoid, a kook, a cultist, a political chameleon, an intellectual, a prophet and a (self-described) neo-Platonic democratic republican, LaRouche lives in Leesburg, Va., on a million-dollar estate, claiming to be the next FDR liberal. He rarely gives media interviews, alleging somebody has been trying to assassinate him since the 1970s, when his followers were involved with a series of altercations with the members of the Communist Party. For three decades he has predicted the collapse of the world's financial system, and his supporters anticipate that one day he will be correct.
In spite of raising $5.4 million this election cycle, good for sixth among Democratic hopefuls, LaRouche is given no respect among pundits, even those inside the Democratic Party. Officially, he's not recognized in the crowded Democratic field because he failed to vote in the last two presidential cycles (a requirement of the Democratic Party) and because National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe decided LaRouche's ideology doesn't conform to Democratic principles. "He doesn't meet the goals and practices of our party as determined by our national chair," said National Committee spokesman Tony Welch.
Last year, at the state convention in Sacramento, LaRouche's band of young activists staged a protest in the Young Democrats caucus, singing and arguing while the Young Dems were trying to hand out voter-registration awards. "It's important to the integrity of this organization to be able to conduct business in an organized manner," one of the board members told me.
Elizabeth Sopkovich said LaRouchians disrupted the meeting because the Young Dems were ignoring the fact that America was two days away from war with Iraq. "They're lunatics," Sopkovich says. "Cheney and Bush were getting ready to declare war, but they didn't want to talk about that. They wanted to do an awards show. Where are the real ideas? People don't know how to think any more."
This year, the Young Democrats were prepared for the LaRouchians. To gain entrance into their caucus, you had to wear a blue wristband. Only four LaRoucians were able to obtain one, and those four were also excluded from the Friday-night meeting. Sopkovich said a police officer asked her to leave the meeting room before the caucus began. "We've been disenfranchised because of ignorance," she said.
Sopkovich, 32, graduated from San Jose's Silver Creek High School but now lives near LaRouche's West Coast headquarters, located in the Los Angeles suburb of Eagle Rock. About 50 LaRouchians, most in their 20s, work full-time for their candidate, sometimes subsidizing their existence with part-time jobs. "It's not the highest standard of living," says 26-year-old Cody Jones, one of the LaRouchians wearing a blue wristband.
Whenever they feel jilted by the process, as they did by the Young Democrats, LaRouchians stage what they call a calculated intervention. "We scream, we shout, we turn off the lights, we march out or march around the convention singing," Jones says. "We do our thing."
John Garamendi, the state insurance commissioner, mistook the LaRouchians for modern-day heirs to the Free Speech Movement, pleading with members outside the Young Democrats caucus to put aside their differences once the general election was under way.
"I went to Berkeley in the '60s," he confided. "My wife was in the Peace Corps. In a few more decades, you'll be standing where I am now." Garamendi eventually gave up as the group began singing again.
Half an hour later, out in the main concourse, LaRouchians attacked a Dean supporter during a ceremony honoring a dead activist. "Why do you support a Nazi? Dean's not even a Democrat. He's a Nazi." Several bystanders intervened and broke up the confrontation.
Still later, Sopkovich handed Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson pro-LaRouche literature. LaRouchians had placed a picture of Wesson hugging Gov. Schwarzenegger on a poster under the caption "Another budget cut? Yes, Massuh." Wesson went ballistic when he realized who had handed him the literature. "That was some racist bullshit, y'all were suggesting," he said, handing back the pamphlet. "'Yes, Massuh.' That's below the belt."
Rank-and-file Democrats didn't appear to be too impressed with the LaRouchians, other than the group's nice vocal arrangements. "They're annoying," said Bruce Carlson of Del Rey Oaks. "They're more interested in disrupting the process than being part of it. They're talking as if they're in a cult. It's not brainwashing, but they're very well trained."
At the same time, nobody wanted to prohibit the group from attending the convention. "If it means forcing Democrats to look at how we do things, then at some level it's useful," said Matt Friday, Carlson's partner.
LaRouchians will likely be around for the foreseeable future. LaRouche himself has said he intends to run until he dies, and he refuses to change parties. Which means he will be the butt of any number of jokes until he decides he's had enough. When the Young Democrats handed out straw poll ballots at their Saturday evening caucus, one of the young men in the crowd yelled, "Where's LaRouche?"
The response was immediate from Young Dem president Alex De Ocampo, who is Filipino by birth: "Please don't," he said. "I will go Asian-ghetto on you."