Saturday, March 22, 2008

The War at Home - Cindy Sheehan's uphill battle

The War at Home - Cindy Sheehan's uphill battle.
Miyoko Ohtake
Newsweek Web Exclusive
Updated: 5:10 PM ET Mar 21, 2008

Cindy Sheehan barely fits into her "campaign limo," her sister's blue Hyundai Tiburon. She ducks low to avoid hitting her head on the way in, and her knees are nearly at her chest when she sits, even with the seat rolled all the way back. Traveling over the Oakland Bay Bridge, her campaign manager at the wheel--steering with one hand and scrolling through e-mails with the other--the 6-foot-tall antiwar activist turned congressional hopeful tries in vain to stretch out in the passenger seat.

It's raining when they pull into a parking spot near Berkeley City College, where Sheehan is about to give a speech, but she opens the window anyway; it's the only way to exit the car. The interior handle is broken, so the door must be opened from the outside.

It's not easy--but then little on Sheehan's long and improbable journey to this place has been. When she first set up her lawn chair outside George W. Bush's Texas ranch in the summer of 2005--a grief-stricken mother demanding to speak to the president about the death of her son Casey in Iraq--she had no idea how she would capture the media's imagination and spark a movement. Her 26-day roadside vigil three years ago drew thousands of supporters to Crawford, Texas, and prompted marches and protests across the country. But her celebrity came with steep costs; divorce, heartbreak and exhaustion caused her to quit her antiwar activism in May 2007 to return home to Dixon, Calif., to mother her surviving children.

Her retirement didn't last long. Earlier this year, Sheehan moved to San Francisco and filed to run as an independent against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, whom she blames--along with Bush--for perpetrating the war in Iraq. When Pelosi, a Democrat, refused to hold impeachment hearings against Bush last summer, the Speaker found herself in Sheehan's cross hairs. "Her refusal to hold George Bush and Dick Cheney accountable is when I just said, 'That's it. We have to hold her accountable'," Sheehan told NEWSWEEK at her San Francisco campaign headquarters.

Sheehan's battle is all uphill. After all, Pelosi was re-elected to her 11th term in 2006 with 90 percent of the vote in one of the most reliably Democratic districts in the country. In September, 56 percent of San Francisco Bay area voters approved of Pelosi's job in Congress, according to research by the Public Policy Institute of California. But Sheehan insists she can gain traction against Pelosi by playing off San Francisco's fierce--and often theatrical--antiwar sentiments. In 2006, 59 percent of voters approved a ballot measure to impeach Bush and Cheney. Last year, protestors from the antiwar group Code Pink held an around-the-clock vigil outside Pelosi's house in the city's upscale Pacific Heights neighborhood to protest the Speaker's failure to introduce legislation to cut war funding and bring the troops home. Even though Pelosi has said she favors a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops, antiwar activists are disgusted by her failure to do more to cut off funding for the war, and Sheehan thinks she can persuade the city's voters that Pelosi is a sellout. "She is a supporter of the status quo, the establishment and the elite," Sheehan says.

Pelosi's also got a massive advantage in resources going into the fight. Pelosi, whose spokesman declined comment on Sheehan's challenge, had raised $1.6 million for her re-election campaign as of March 21. By contrast, Sheehan has raised $49,000 to date. Her strength, Sheehan says, lies in her human resources. "I'm superconfident we're going to win because we have the people on our side," Sheehan said. "With my name recognition, my face recognition, I can't walk down the street without someone stopping me." She has a campaign manager, a paid staff, armfuls of volunteers and a storefront office in the city's gritty Mission district.

The antiwar movement got a boost last month when Ralph Nader, announcing his 2008 presidential campaign, tapped a San Francisco politician, former city supervisor and Green Party mayoral candidate Matthew Gonzalez, as his running mate. Gonzalez endorsed Sheehan last December and has since been on board as an adviser and speaker at public events.

But Sheehan will need to bulk up her platform if she intends to be a real threat to Pelosi. "If she wants to be taken seriously as a candidate, she has to have views about health care and views about Social Security reform and the whole set of domestic issues, immigration and so on," says Bruce Cain, a political science professor at the University of California, Berkeley. "She's got to have a complete platform or she'll be giving the impression that it's merely a protest vote."

Sheehan takes issue with the idea that she's not in it to win it. "If this was just a symbolic campaign, we'd set up an office, and we'd just come in and play Solitaire all day," she said. She is running hard. A day on the campaign trail starts at 10 a.m. and is nonstop for the next 11 hours--a morning meeting at campaign headquarters, a speech to a crowd of 200 at Berkeley City College at noon, strategic planning meetings with her campaign consultants in the afternoon, a meeting with San Francisco Unified School District high-school students in the late afternoon and an intimate dinner with supporters, hosted by Gonzalez, to plan upcoming events. She takes one day off each week to do what she had intended when she retired from activism last May: spend time with her children. Each Sunday she travels to Sacramento to cook dinner for Carly, 26; Andy, 24, and Jane, 22, who is pregnant with a son due in May.

The coming weeks are crucial. In order to secure a spot on the ballot in November, Sheehan must collect 3,000 signatures from registered voters in the district, beginning April 25, and submit them to the county elections office by July 24 or pay a $1,652 filing fee. By Aug. 8, Sheehan must submit 10,198 nomination signatures--3 percent of the number of registered voters in the Eighth District prior to the 2006 general elections. Her aides hope the compact nature of the terrain will help them reach that goal. "The advantage of being in the second-smallest district in the U.S. is that we will be able to literally walk every street and shake hands with each of the 600,000 constituents," said Sheehan's campaign manager, Tiffany Burns. But even if the door-knocking and hand-shaking convinces voters to cast their ballots against Pelosi, Sheehan will also need to persuade them that she is the best alternative to Republican candidate Dana Walsh, Libertarian Philip Berg and Democrat Shirley Golub, who is challenging Pelosi in the June primary.

Sheehan knows that her fortunes will turn largely on the way folks in the Eighth District feel about the war, a conflict whose artifacts--Casey's military portrait, a picture of the Purple Heart he was awarded at his funeral, a congressional commendation from New York Rep. Charles Rangel--decorates Sheehan's otherwise cheerfully painted yellow office. "If there's any good to come out of Casey's death, I hope it is to make this country the country he supposedly died for," she said. Despite her busy schedule, Sheehan is still grieving her dead son. She cries in her office and again at dinner. She laments the fact that her grandson will never meet his Uncle Casey.

Despite the activists who took to the streets Wednesday to protest the fifth anniversary of the war in Iraq, polling from the presidential primaries has shown that the economy has become the leading issue in voters' minds. Sheehan says this only helps her campaign: "Our tanking economy is directly connected to the war economy," she says. "An economic-stimulus plan that no one's talking about is bringing our troops home and putting that money into America."

Sheehan declines to discuss what she'll do if this campaign falls short. "I haven't even looked that far," Sheehan says. "I don't put that negative energy into the universe because I'm pretty sure I'm already going to win. I'm already decorating my office in Washington, D.C., in my head."


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