Smile Politely

The Importance of Voting Ammons

Of all the races taking place tomorrow, none are quite as engaging and contentious as County Clerk, which puts Aaron Ammons (D), alderman in Urbana, against Matt Grandone (R), a current employee for Gordy Hulten, the outgoing County Clerk.

I’ll be straight up when I write that I am disappointed in both campaigns for some of the tactics they’ve resorted to over the past few weeks. I don’t really care much for mudslinging; it plays to the worst of us, and appeals to almost no one except political sociopaths, and city hall hacks. I get that there’s a playbook, and you have to fight fire with fire, but it’s partisan politics at its lowest. Neither campaign gets high marks from me, personally, as far as that situation goes. There’s a lot to earn from just focusing on the issues, and letting your merits do the persuading and your team do the campaigning. 

Regardless, voting is the thing tomorrow, and with that, I am voting for Aaron Ammons. I am proud to be able to do it. And I have reasons, listed below. 

While the column that follows is intended to be persuasive, I don’t expect there to be many who might read this and flip for whatever reason. If I am a betting man — and I am a betting man — you’ve already made that choice, and there’s very little I can do to change anything you think by now.

None the matter, I felt compelled to write about this race, based upon my belief that he and his wife, Carol, represent one of the next and biggest steps for racial reconciliation in America, and more importantly for us, in Champaign County. 

Before I write anything else, however, I want to again acknowledge and reiterate, as I wrote last week, that I not only like Matt Grandone as a person, but I believe he would do a fine job as County Clerk. Why wouldn’t he? Gordy Hulten has done a terrific job as far as I am concerned, despite what the Ammons campaign, and many of the Democrats in town seem to believe. I disagree.

I think they are just locked into a particular brand — the GOP — which, and for a very long time, carries with it an ugly ideology. Now, it’s become a dangerous one, for many of our own citizens. There is no getting around the fact that the Republican Party is the political home to the vast majority of the racist, the xenophobic, the neo-fascist, the anti-semitic, and the willfully ignorant. The proof is undeniable by now.

Just being a Republican, or rather, a believer in conservative economic theory, does not make someone any of the descriptors above. But it puts them in the same company. How anyone who calls themselves an American can possibly stick around in the current state of that political party is officially beyond my comprehension. 

Of course, I can’t really stand up for much as far as the Democratic Party is concerned these days either. They’ve got blood on their hands, and there are plenty of fingers to point at that group, too.

But for the moment, it’s who we have to eradicate the hateful and despicable actions and words coming from the opposite side of the aisle. 

So without further ado, and broad political extrapolation, here are three reasons that voting for Aaron Ammons is the best choice for us in Champaign County for the office of County Clerk on election day:

1. Aaron Ammons is a role model for young people that need the most help

Aaron is a middle son of a large family, raised in Chicago until 7th grade when his parents, Jerry and Valerie, moved them all to Champaign to escape the growing street violence in the south side of Chicago. He went to Central High School and graduated in ‘89, when he decided to “walk on” for Parkland, playing basketball at the 2 guard. After a semester, and proving himself on the court and in the classroom, he was awarded a scholarship to compete.

After that, he went to work at various jobs, and but they didn’t pay well, and had no real upward mobility, so like a lot of young people, he went into business for himself.

If you want me write about his now-completely-irrelevant run-ins with the law as a small time drug pusher, well, it’s not interesting to me, and shouldn’t be to you, either. The War on Drugs was literally designed by GOP golden boy Richard Nixon and perpetuated by Ronald and Nancy Reagan in order to disenfranchise people just like Aaron Ammons, who grew up black in America. It’s not some conspiracy theory that raving leftist lunatics came up with to deal with their white guilt. People just finally started listening to the black community, at least, enough to make sense of how a failed “war” like this one could affect the lives of so many families.

A person like Aaron Ammons wasn’t afforded the same opportunities as his white classmates. That’s a fact. It’s no longer news to learn that the social and political elite in this country found new and demeaning ways to hang on to the Jim Crow laws of the past.

Democrats don’t get to play pretend like they weren’t complicit, and at times, advocates on this one, too. They aren’t somehow exonerated from this mess for simply not designing it themselves. It’s more complex than that. 

But Aaron’s story is a success story, and we need that in our elected offices. A person like Aaron Ammons faced extraordinary oppression, stared it down, and defeated it. He’s a role model for kids who grew up the way he did, but also for any kid who comes up believing that restorative justice is the best path forward. For me, that sort of courage gets my vote every time. He didn’t succumb to the weight of society or its expectations. He lifted it, and used it as a shield, and not a weapon.

2. His work as a union president gives him a unique perspective on the job

By the time Aaron met Carol in 2000, while they were working at the Chanute Transition Center in Rantoul, he had gotten his life together, quit eating meat, and started his own organic vegetable and fruit garden in their backyard on the north side of Urbana. He grows an insane amount of produce to feed himself and his family, and sometimes, his friends, too. Literally, he produces asparagus, zucchini, raspberries, peaches, broccoli, cauliflower, hot peppers, bell peppers, watermelon, cantaloupe, sweet potatoes, red potatoes, eggplant, grapes, green beans, black eyed peas, honeydew melon, cabbage, mustard green, collard greens, onions, chives, garlic, sage, oregano, basil, tomatoes, corn, carrots, the list goes on.

Why am I telling you this? Because it’s a showcase of dedication and hard work and self reliance. If you’ve ever grown anything, you know what I mean. That he basically has an entire farm is telling. You can evaluate people by many measures. I happen to do it based on the dirt beneath their fingernails, so to speak. In this case, it’s literally dirt under his fingernails. I like that.

And that brings me to his job at UIUC as a Building Service Worker. It’s also a hard job, and one that deserves all of our respect. While he’s been employed there, he’s gone from union employee to union steward to union president in the matter of a decade. As president, he advocates for fellow laborers in the SEIU Chapter 119 Local 75, and recognizes the power in working with people, collectively, as a unit.

What we need in elected offices are people who know not just the meaning of labor rights, but who will fight to preserve and extend them. The office of the County Clerk doesn’t hold that sort of power, but it does employ union laborers. The Republican Party has, for many years now, been a thorn in the side of most unions, simply because the concept doesn’t fit in with their hierarchical ideology, particularly with regards to collective bargaining.

What we need now are people in elected offices who believe in the idea and functional power of union labor, and that gives Ammons the leg up here, again.

3. It is now officially our job to elect people of color, women, and LGBTQ+ to offices whenever possible

This one upsets white people, dyed-in-the-wool right winged Republicans mainly, but plenty of “liberals”, too. They talk about the American Dream, and boot straps, and they (mis)quote Martin Luther King Jr. about the color of skin and the content of character. They discuss with you, at length, in a loud and booming voice, the idea of liberty!

“Liberty!” they yell. “Yes LIBERTY! It cannot be stifled by government overreach! It is alive!”

They aren’t wrong, of course. They just don’t really seem to want to understand the abstract components of the argument. And that is because any cogent and thoughtful person understands that true liberty demands a level playing field. And since we do not have one, and since we have never had one, our idea of liberty first needs to level, and then we can speak in broad idealism like they wish.

Carol and Aaron Ammons aren’t here to pacify the concerns of those who seek to misappropriate the American Dream. They don’t change the way they speak to appeal to some people who may have certain expectations about how they are supposed to behave. When you hear them give speeches — fiery and determined like modern day Freedom Riders — they don’t sound like they just came out of cotillion classes, and that’s because they didn’t, and I thank God for that and their courage as public servants in office. 

They are intelligent and fierce, and they speak truths with reckless abandon, because they have seen things that most of the white folks and the wealthy won’t ever have to see. They represent the hopeful future of politics in America, a place where the body politic is far more diverse than it is today.

For better or for worse, we have arrived at America’s most crucial moment since the period between the Civil Rights Act and the end of the Vietnam War. There is not going to be a quick solution to racial reconciliation in America. We’ve long passed the point where we can just “make it right” by offering a pittance like “voting rights” or even “civil rights” to those who have been born into brown skin. As Rebecca Solnit just wrote yesterday in The Guardian

“The American civil war didn’t end… We never cleaned up after the civil war, never made it anathema, as the Germans have since the second world war, to support the losing side. We never had a truth and reconciliation process like South Africa did. We’ve allowed statues to go up across the country glorifying the traitors and losers, treated the pro-slavery flag as sentimental, picaresque, fun, Dukes of Hazzard, white identity politics.”

Our role, as Americans, is to find and encourage genuine and thoughtful political candidates to vote into office so that we can start to secure a more balanced space for voices to be heard. And it’s not limited to elected positions. It has to be representation across the board, especially in taxpayer funded offices and workplaces. Affirmative Action wasn’t enough. It has to be more. It has to come from the people.

The County Clerk’s office is a prime example of a space that demands that sort of representation.

What Aaron Ammons’ candidacy represents is not just the idea of restorative justice, although that is important and meaningful. It represents the idea that our local electorate might finally have access to a perspective that it has never once come close to seeing. The mind and experiences of an African-American person, subject to deep seated and unmistakable racism, offer the entire community a new perspective on the long-held, deeply unfair system that has been designed to keep them out of offices like this one. If Ammons is elected, the people who voted against him will also be earning perspective and an opportunity, even if they don’t know it, or like it.

Aaron Ammons doesn’t just bring those who were born into low income families to the table, or those who once had trouble with the law as a result of the failed War on Drugs. His election wouldn’t simply represent African-American communities in our county. His election will bring space to so many more voices that make up our community, from women to African-Americans, to all people of color to the LGBTQ+ and, yes, to white folks like myself who have long assigned themselves a position of allyship, and who are resigned to believe that we’ve had enough with largely white representation alone. 

We aren’t in a good place now, and I think that’s something most of us agree on. So it’s time to give opportunity to a different set of individuals with a different perspective on what is fair, and what is just. 

For those reasons, I am voting for Aaron Ammons. 

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