From Shop Steward to Bernie Delegate–Ardent and Smart (Chandra Paetsch — Part 1 of 2)

Sylvia: It’s September 9th. 2016 and I’m recording an interview with Chandra Paetsch.

I first met you at a Bernie campaign meeting so I know that you’ve been involved in political activism but until we chatted a bit before this interview, I didn’t know what other things you’ve done as an activist.

 Well, this is the first presidential campaign I’ve ever worked on. I have a bit of a background in labor. I was the chief steward of nursing homes here in Oregon. For two years for the whole state for the Service Workers Union. SEIU [Service Employees Industrial Union.] We worked on the Fair Shot Coalition which, among other things, tried to get paid sick days for Oregonians and succeeded. That was fantastic.

I am now working with the Measure 97 ballot measure. Which would tax large corporations and give that money to our local schools and whatnot. And every now and again I get involved in direct actions with environmental matters. I was there when we blocked the Shell oilrig up in Portland. So, that was pretty exciting, yeah.

I recently interviewed someone who was in the Anacortes demonstrations in a kayak.

 O yes, yes! The kayaktivists. [laughs] I love them.

You mentioned the Fair Shot Coalition. What all was it working on?

 There were several different issues. Essentially, they teamed up with a lot of different unions across the state to pressure our legislators to put in some more progressive legislation. It included paid sick days, loading retirement accounts, and banning the criminal history box.

Oh yeah, Ban the box. [On many job applications, there’s a check-off box which asks whether the applicant has a criminal record. This typically ends consideration of that person for a job. If this question is dropped and, on the basis of their qualifications, they’re interviewed, then it’s legitimate to ask this question.]       

 That was part of it. There were about seven or eight issues that they decided to work on as a group. And that added pressure of having so many unions and so many individuals working together really did make an impact on the legislature.

So, what in your background do you think has brought you to being certifiably an activist?

 It’s hard to say. I think part of it is I was just raised right. My family gets very, very involved in their community whatever, in whatever way. I have two nieces who helped to ban fracking in their local town. If there’s an issue, we try to at least do our part.

Sounds like you’re doing more than your part but that’s all to the good.

 [laughs] And I’ve always been a sucker for a good hero story. To me that means that if you see injustice in the world or if bad things happen to good people, you have to go in and do something about it. For a long time that was the kind of story that I would watch and read and then it got to the point where those opportunities would come up and yeah, it was something that just always appealed to me, that idea of making a difference.

You’ve said that your family was involved in several community issues.

 Yeah. It tends to get a little bit more activist with each generation. [laughs] My mother came of age in the sixties. She was raising a family at the time, so she was too busy to get thoroughly involved but she definitely went on some anti-war marches. One of my very early memories is going to Jesse Jackson’s presidential rally. So she was keeping us aware of what was going on around us a lot more than I think some parents do. Yeah. That just led to the rest of us wanting to get involved.

Do you have several siblings?

 Yeah. I have three older siblings. I’m the youngest by a long ways. And lots of nieces and nephews.

How did you get into the Bernie campaign?

 The Bernie campaign was so exciting for me. I remember talking with my brother on the phone about two years ago and we talked about the upcoming presidential election and I said to him, “So, just if it were theoretical, if you could have any candidate you wanted, who would you want to run for president?” And he said, “Well, Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders.” So, I said, “Me, too.”

And then he actually ran which just was flabbergasting to us. So, we’ve been following his political career for a while. He’s definitely had one of the most progressive track records of any senator and then I got involved really early on with the Bernie campaign. I went to one of the first organizing meetings here in Eugene. And then went up to that rally in Portland which set a record for quite a long time for his largest rally-–28,000 or something like that.

Right after that I called up the local organizing group and I said, “I’m really excited about this campaign. Do you have an organizing branch at LCC [Lane Community College] where I’m currently a student?” And they said, “Well, now we do. Do you want to start one?” [laughs]

I ended up tabling about 10 hours a week at LCC but in addition to that I was brought in really early on to be part of some of the background campaigns. The stuff that was done online, I volunteered for a lot of that. As a result I ended up becoming very close to the Burlington staff [in Vermont, Bernie’s main headquarters.] Getting to know them very well. Now, even though the campaign is over, it looks like I’m still going to be working for them.

I’m volunteering for Our Revolution at the moment. They’ve been moved to Washington, D.C. They were the Burlington crew. [laughs]

There was this talk about several people quitting and so on. What was that all about?

 A lot of people I know quit. It was sad but I respect them for doing it. Essentially, Jeff Weaver was assigned to head the big organization where already they had had some differences of opinion. He was one of Bernie Sanders’ campaign managers. So, when he came in, among other things, he decided that the organization would be founded as a 501(c)4 and be allowed to take corporate donations.

Many of the staff said, “Well, wait a second. That’s kind of against everything we’ve been campaigning for all year.” And then, in addition to that, he decided to disband a lot of the national volunteer teams. The call team was initially disbanded as well as, I think, they were going to disband some of the tech teams. Fortunately, one person I know decided to go back afterward. He said he was able to talk Weaver into reforming the call teams.

 There were also a few changes to the board. So, it looks like it’s going to be going in a more progressive direction. We’re hopeful for it — but not fully committed. If this doesn’t end up being the really great progressive catalyst for change that we’re hoping, we all feel comfortable moving on in our own direction.

When you say “we,” who is “we”?

 We is a collection of national and international volunteers whom I’ve been communicating with online for the past few years. We’ve been coordinating together. They include the call team, they include many other groups who have really been the hidden strength of the Sanders campaign. So much of his campaign has been run by volunteers, whereas you would normally have staffers.

Now, have you generally worked as a volunteer? Or have you ever been paid staff anywhere?

 No, I’ve never been paid for my activist work. [laughs] It’s something I just do for fun. Yeah. Just do because I feel compelled to do it.

Do you have some other income?

 I do. I currently work at a nursing home which is very part time but very rewarding. I have also just recently been hired as the chief of staff of the student association at Lane Community College. They keep me busy. [laughs]

When you were working for SEIU, were you paid there?

 No. That was volunteer work. I’m still there on a few committees but since I went back to school, I gave up the chief steward position. I am hoping to, eventually, become a teacher. So, I’m working my way towards a teaching license.

My guess is that you’ll do that but then you’ll end up doing something totally different. [laughs]

 Well, I do already have my undergrad degree that I call my Bachelor of Hobbies. I studied English, History, and Theatre down in New Zealand, I spent three years there. And then the month before I graduated the recession hit. And so jobs in those fields tended to be the first ones that were cut. So I came back to the States.

 I grew up in a very rural area and below poverty class. In Moab, Utah. It’s kind of the arches, canyon lands area. There really wasn’t much opportunity to either get ahead with work or go to school because I couldn’t really afford it but then I realized that if you go overseas a lot of the other countries help subsidize their college even for international students. So, I was able to get a degree down there for just a fraction of what I would’ve paid up here. And so I went to New Zealand. I lived in Wellington, about a block away from the parliament building.

It’s absolutely beautiful. On the walk to school everyday there would be camellia blossoms all along the stairways, it was like a little fantasyland in its own way. I came back in December of 2007. And at that time my mother had retired to Oregon, which was a dream of hers since she was little so I decided to come out here. I hadn’t lived in Oregon but I’ve always liked the West Coast and I’ve been here ever since.

 For most of her life my mother was an accountant. She also, just for fun, would dabble in astrology and do that for her clients. [laughs] She’s worked as a baker and a cook, and worked as a waitress — basically, anything she could do to raise four kids on her own.

So, you learned from her to be very self-sufficient.

 Yes, absolutely. She was a great role model for that. I really feel honored to have had the family I did cause they really did teach those values extremely well, you know, hard work and self sufficiency.

So I know that you were a delegate for Bernie Sanders to the Democratic National Convention. What was your experience there?

 Wow. [laugh and sigh together] It was not what I expected but I really feel privileged to have been there. Before we went, all the Oregon Bernie delegates met up many times to go over procedures and rules and see what we could possibly do there. We didn’t want to just be spectators, we wanted to be able to participate. One of the things that we wanted to bring to the floor is the fact that the party had not put strong language into their platform against the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

 So when, on the first day, they gaveled us in to start the convention and they began talking about the platform, we tried to call for a division of the House to bring a minority report to change the platform. And we were completely ignored. And then there were several other times when we tried to bring up universal health care, a few other issues, and again, they just completely ignored us. We realized by about the second day that we were there to, essentially, fill seats. [laughs] Not to actually participate.

 The roll call vote was again a little bit frustrating, cause for those of us who had been working on the campaign for this past year, we kind of knew what the division of delegates was in each state and we kept hearing states that Bernie had won ending up giving a majority of their delegates to Clinton.

We knew it was because of super-delegates. It was still quite frustrating to know that people who are not bound by the will of the voters have so much of an influence on our political system. So, by the end of the roll call vote, a lot of us were feeling either just saddened or upset and the delegate standing next to me said, “You know, I just need to get a breath of fresh air.”

 [laughs] And so I said, “OK, me too.”

 

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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