A Political Pro Who “Worked His Tail Off for Bernie” (Matt Keating)

Sylvia: It’s August 29, 2016 and I’m interviewing Matt Keating. I know you were very active in the Bernie Sanders campaign. What do you do for a living these days?

 Matt K: I’m a campaign consultant. I’m a political organizer. I serve on the Board of Education at Lane Community College; I was a student there at one time. That doesn’t pay, of course, that’s a volunteer, elected position. And I was recently appointed to the Eugene Public Library Foundation Board and to the KLCC Community Support Board. [KLCC is a publicly supported radio station in Eugene.]

And how did you get into this whole field?

[pause] The politics of theater and the theater of politics. I was a radio disc jockey for many years. I was a broadcaster for KXMX in Anaheim in Southern California, then for KTCL in Denver. I spent my twenties as a broadcaster. Moved up to Eugene to be with my family and broadcast to my radio station in Southern California from our studios here in Eugene, Oregon. And within two years of doing that the radio station started to divest its properties and those of us on the air had to scramble and reinvent ourselves.

I dove headfirst into my first love, which is live theater. I’ve performed in more than a dozen shows locally. A lot of Shakespeare, children’s theater, and I ended up becoming the president of the Collegiate Community Theatrical Association at Lane Community College back in 2005. One thing led to another. We started performing our art for more than simply staging a show. We started giving back to the community.

We gave complimentary tickets to folks who donated food to Food For Lane County, or if they donated blood to the Lane Memorial Blood Bank. And we started to build our listserv, we started to build rapport with the community. The Register Guard, the Eugene Weekly were reviewing our shows and complimenting our work in the community, and ultimately we passed a ballot measure that put 50 cents per student per term permanently into the Theatre Arts program at Lane Community College.

And as a result of doing so we’ve now created a slew of scholarships for students. And students don’t have to scramble to fundraise to put on their shows and they’re still working with community organizations. It was that moment, that ‘Aha!’ moment where I realized that if you had a band of folks, if you had a collective group of individuals that were working for the greater good then you can get anything done.

I was very struck when I first saw you at the Democratic headquarters when Bernie supporters were meeting in that back room. You had so much energy and so much drive. You were just like forcing everybody to get involved and,“Do something! Do something! Do it now.”

 [laughs] I remember when that was now. Yeah. That was little more than a year ago. June 2015. I’d just come back from Iowa. I was in Iowa trying to draft Elizabeth Warren. Elizabeth Warren was my first choice. Shortly after she made it clear that she wasn’t going to run, Bernie was my second choice, of course.

Put my life on hold for a year to work my tail off for Bernie. Ultimately got elected as a delegate to the National Convention for Bernie and served as the State Caucus chair for Bernie. I was also the volunteer administrator for our field office here in Lane County. The Eugene field office was the first field office open in the state. Which is rare!

 We beat Portland to the punch. And we had a rather historic primary here. Landed on my birthday. It was a neat 40th birthday treat to have such a high performing turnout for Senator Sanders in a closed primary state. It was the first closed primary victory for Bernie, no independents. Had to register as a Democrat to vote.

Yeah, that’s why we were registering people to vote, so they could change their registration, if they needed to, so they could vote for Bernie.

 It’s safe to say, I’ve registered thousands of voters over the past ten years here in Eugene. [laughs] So, maybe someone reading this blog was registered by a much younger Matt Keating at some point.

So, is there anything in your family or your childhood that made you an activist?

 I actually don’t consider myself an activist. Far more of an advocate, an organizer. Someone called me a politician the other day. [laughs] I prefer the term public servant. I’ve got great respect for activists. Everyone has a role in progressive actions for critical reform. And I applaud those who are activists on the front lines, those who will put their life on hold to go to North Dakota. [There Native Americans and their allies are opposing a pipeline that would endanger their water supply and that of millions of other Americans.] Those who will put their life on hold to go on a boat and stop someone from whaling. That’s great work. What I do is advocate.

When I’m in Salem or Washington, D.C. or on the dais at Lane Community College, I’m advocating on behalf of my community. When I’m in the field on a political campaign, I’m organizing. I’m recruiting, training, and retaining volunteers in order to win an election. So, there’s a fundamental difference, but I don’t wanna discount the great work that activists do. I just don’t consider myself an activist. I’m an advocate. You can’t have a movement without advocates and activists.

What would you say are the most interesting or satisfying experiences you’ve had as an advocate?

 Well, being part of something greater is a wonderful feeling. The historic election in 2008 is most memorable. I was honored to serve as a delegate for Barack Obama from Oregon to the Democratic National Convention. The victory we had in 2012 was phenomenal, of course. I was in Florida at the time. I was still an Oregon delegate but I had taken a temporary job with Credo to defeat Representative Allen West, one of the most dangerously disturbing members of Congress to ever roam the halls of Washington. We defeated Allen West by little more than 1100 votes. And we elected Patrick Murphy, then the youngest member of Congress.

In 2012 I worked in Palm Beach county, Martin county, and St. Lucie county on the Treasure Coast of Florida and we came from behind and defeated Allen West. Not every campaign I’ve worked on has been a winning campaign. We lost, unfortunately, the gubernatorial recall of Scott Walker in Wisconsin. That stands out as one in which we did some great work, but ultimately we lost the election.

You win some and you lose some. And the wins feel great. The wins move the needle in the right direction or rather Left direction, of course. And, yet, your takeaways from the losses, sometimes you learn more from losing than you do winning.

You’re obviously a person with progressive leanings and sympathies to the Left. Where does that come from?

 Mom and Dad. Grandma and Grandpa and Grandma and Grandpa. It’s the family history. Mom used to take me into the voting booth as a kid. I grew up in Southern California. I read a lot. My grandparents were “greatest generation,” F.D.R. Democrats. Though in my household, Mom and Dad didn’t always agree.

My dad was a little more conservative and as a result my little brothers are as well. So, my mom and I are the liberal progressives of the family. And my dad and my brothers are the conservatives. So, it makes for interesting Thanksgiving dinners.

You’ve had all these ties to different groups that you were working for in one way or another. How does that happen? Do you apply for things or do people seek you out or what?

 Both. This is an interesting cycle in that we just spent 14, 15 months trying to elect Bernie and takin’ it all the way to the convention. It’s clear that Bernie’s leading a movement but we have real work also to make sure that we retain the White House and take back the Senate.

So this is an interesting cycle in which, you know, you just put your life on hold for 14, 15 months for Bernie and now it’s time to transition. And for some that means taking on the TPP or fighting for an abatement to climate change or working on local reforms or statewide measures.

I’m willing to do the work to make sure that we elect Hillary Clinton. I’m gonna take my nod from Bernie and he’s been a man of his word. He’s said all along he’s gonna support the nominee and I mentioned at the top of this conversation that Elizabeth Warren was my first choice. Bernie Sanders was my second choice. He’s not the nominee so Hillary Clinton’s my third choice and I don’t strike out. We have to keep Donald Trump from occupying 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

At a recent meeting of Bernie volunteers you explained why you were not in the walkout at the convention. [Hundreds of Bernie delegates staged a walkout because they were being silenced by the pro-Hillary majority.] You said you were following the lead of ‘my senator.” Who did you mean?

 Senator Merkley. Well, we have two, but Jeff Merkley was the only U.S. Senator to endorse Senator Sanders. And when Bernie endorsed Hillary and my senator voted for Bernie at the convention as did I — I would have voted for Bernie every single round at the convention — it played out the way it played out. We had fewer votes and Secretary Clinton is our nominee. And our senator and Bernie, I think, are standing on the right side of history in support of our nominee. It’s what you do.

You know, I’m a Democrat. And I’ll never forget in 2008, when I met Hillary delegates as an Obama delegate, how magnanimous she was and how gracious her delegates were. I’ll never forget that. And that meant something to me in ’08 as it does here in 2016 and I’ll go to bat for her. Again, she was not my first choice, but she’s head and shoulders far superior to Donald Trump.

Well, of course I agree with you. They say politics is the art of the possible. We’ve gotta get it done somehow.

 We don’t let “perfect” be the enemy of the “good.”

Exactly. Do you have any other comments about your experience at the convention?

 A lot. Yeah. It was my third consecutive convention, and the third convention in which I took the train. I took the train in ’08 from Oregon to Denver and in 2012 I was working in Florida but I was still an Oregon delegate and I took the train from Palm Beach Gardens to Charlotte. And in 2016 I took the Empire Builder from Eugene to Portland, Portland to Chicago to Pittsburgh, to ultimately Philadelphia. I met a lot of great people on this trip.

 It doesn’t take long for the news to spark, like wildfire, that there’s a delegate on the train. It’s like a whistle stop tour. So, every conversation is about shared values and politics, where we’re at as a nation. I’ve worked all over these United States and I’d never been to Philly and this was a great first visit to the birthplace of our nation. Visiting Independence Hall on Tuesday, the morning of the day on which we voted to nominate Secretary Clinton, was most memorable.

I could visualize Ben Franklin and Madison and Adams and Jefferson and I could see where then general George Washington was. And the vigorous debate. Ben Franklin advocating for a co-presidency because he felt that the executive power shouldn’t fall on any one person like a king. It was like Delegate 101 is what it was. In the most important room, because of the most important document that was signed there, the Declaration of Independence. And, I cried. I cried.

The power and the magnitude of what happened in that room hit me. And I pulled the docent aside afterwards and I thanked him for the tour, and I told him he was the luckiest man in Philly. And he asked why. And I said because he gets to teach in the coolest classroom on the planet every day.

He said in all his years of education he never received a compliment quite like that. Little things in Philadelphia, you know. Just taking time to thank a police officer on the street. Taking time out to observe a rally or a protest. It’s far more than just cheesesteaks and William Penn and the Liberty Bell, it’s far more. It was an enriching experience. It was frustrating at times, naturally. But, it was wildly inspiring.

Would you ever like to go into politics yourself? I mean, in terms of being an elected official.

 I think I’m in politics, myself. I’m elected countywide to the Board of Education at Lane Community College. I’m up for reelection May 2017. I hope I can count on your vote.

[laughs] Of course! Is there anything you would like to add to this interview?

 Thank you. Thank you for all you do. All you’ve done and all you continue to do, thank you.

About Sylvia

Sylvia Hart Wright, the interviewer and blogger, has combined efforts to help achieve a more peaceful world and social and economic justice, with a career as a librarian, author, and longtime college professor. For more about her, please visit her website at sylviahartwright.com There you can also find the first chapter of her memoir-in-progress, ACTIVIST: Adventures at the Cutting Edge of Social Change.
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