Emerson Lynn: A teachable moment in the race between Brock, Zuckerman

The best of a campaign is often when it is unintentionally personal, when voters are given a deep look into a candidate’s character, when the veneer is stripped and you see the person at their barest.

One of those moments happened this week in the lieutenant governor’s race between Democrat David Zuckerman and Republican Randy Brock.

Mr. Zuckerman sponsored an event to draw attention to the issue of racism in Vermont, but he also used it as an opportunity to draw attention to himself, to do a little campaigning. He promoted it as an event, where “we’re going to have music, we’re going to have fun,” and “a good time.”

He was exploiting a sensitive issue for his political benefit, and Mr. Brock wrote him a lengthy letter saying it was inappropriate, and that it had no place in a political campaign in Vermont. In the letter, Mr. Brock noted that it wasn’t the first time Mr. Zuckerman had crossed the line.

In January Mr. Zuckerman posted on his Facebook page that the fight for racial justice was comparable to his fight to legalize pot in Vermont.

They are not. They bear no resemblance whatsoever. That’s like saying you understand what the victims of five years of bombing in Aleppo are experiencing because you camped once on the Appalachian trail.

In a Vermont Public Radio interview, Mr. Zuckerman compared the judgment black people must feel with the judgment he feels when people look as his long hair, which he wears in a ponytail.

Not only is the comparison wrong, and demeaning, it illustrates the lack of depth Mr. Zuckerman has on the issue. It’s the sort of exploitation that sends the Ta-Nehisi Coates of the world nuts; white people pretending they know how it is to be black.

We don’t.

Randy Brock does. He’s black. But he almost never talks about himself as a person of color. In all his various campaigns he has never made it an issue. Or tried to curry political favor by playing the race card to his advantage. Mr. Brock’s letter to Mr. Zuckerman was the first time he has made race an issue.

And it was done powerfully, and with grace. His last paragraph to Mr. Zuckerman reads: “Our nation and our state has come a long way in my lifetime. As the first African American to have held statewide office in Vermont, I can personally attest to that. I know that Vermonters continue to show a tolerance and an inclusiveness that is unmatched in America. I can also tell you that we’ve got a long way to go to change the hearts and minds of those who still cling to hate and fear. I know, I speak for those of us who have been fighting this battle every day of our lives. I’d just remind you, respectfully, that this isn’t about you.”

And that’s the problem with Mr. Zuckerman’s event. He was trying to make the issue about him, when it should not be. This isn’t a concern particular to Mr. Zuckerman, it’s an issue common to most people running for political office. Of both parties. It’s the equivalent of finding a crowd and then racing to the front to be its leader. As Mr. Brock wrote, “Combating racism requires leadership and maturity, not a political campaign rally with music, a cash bar and the promise of a ‘good time.’” He wrote to Mr. Zuckerman: “When you compare the legalization of marijuana to racism, you trivialize the historical pain felt by millions of Americans. When you compare attitudes toward your long hair to the color of my skin you display an ignorance that furthers the very attitudes you claim to be working to change.”

Hence the shallowness of Mr. Zuckerman’s appeal.

But those words apply to more than Mr. Zuckerman. Mr. Brock’s call is about empathy and about putting other people’s needs above your own. It’s about thinking before speaking. It’s about stuffing your ego in your pocket just for a second. The sorts of things in short supply in today’s political world. Particularly on the national stage.

It was encouraging to see this side of Randy Brock, typically the erudite, former Vermont state auditor who is more comfortable sifting through the complicated details of a state program than he is arranging for political parties to boost his candidacy.

For whatever the campaign between Mr. Brock and Mr. Zuckerman brings, it was a teachable moment, a political rarity these days.

by Emerson Lynn

Source: (St. Albans Messenger - September 29, 2016)