Principled businessman from an impoverished childhood runs for public office (James Barber)

 It’s March 23rd and I’m interviewing James Barber.  I know you’re an activist and you’re a candidate for public office. Have you been involved in activism long?

 Not terribly long. Probably for less than a year. Or about a year. I guess it depends on what being an activist entails.

 I know you from the Bernie campaign and you always struck me as someone who had a lot of experience with group dynamics.

 Actually not. [laughs]  Prior to the Bernie campaign I had my own business for twelve years so that was the sole focus of life. I did pressure washing and window cleaning. We did that all across the county and different areas of the state. I didn’t even pay attention to politics during that time.

 We had about nine or ten employees at a time. I got out of that business because it’s pretty hard on the body and twelve years was about enough. I got into real estate. Between the end of that and when I started real estate, I spent a lot of time online and Facebook and really started to pay attention. Got tuned into Elizabeth Warren and what she was doing and she really caught my ear and made me realize that this was something I needed to pay attention to. Politics are kind of important. [light laugh] So, that led to me hearing about Bernie and then from there it was all downhill.

 So that was when I realized, it seems my whole life has been about how I can help people. Even my business, it was never about how much money can I make. I would go and I would talk to people about what I could do, pressure washing or window cleaning for them and it was, “How can I help them?” That was what kind of led me to real estate because that’s the biggest purchase of most people’s lives. And I figured that that would be a good way to help people. Then I figured out how politics really impacts everybody’s lives, and the biggest purchase of their life, and really every single aspect. And then I realized, if I wanna really help people I need to pay attention to that.

So you come into this whole attitude of being involved on your own, it’s not something that was in your family?

 Not at all. The family background is actually fairly conservative. And we didn’t ever talk politics. We were poor. My parents were divorced when I was real young and I mostly lived with my mom. We grew up on government assistance, having to get food stamps. So really the focus of life my whole time growing up was just the next paycheck. Survival. We didn’t really pay attention to anything outside of that. When I was young I just focused on school, and school and school activities takes up so much of your attention. We were in a small town up in Washington and so that might’ve played a factor also.

Was this a Republican community?

 I don’t even know. Little town called Shelton, Washington.

Would you say that your parents, or your mother in particular, because you were living with her, were they registered voters or did they participate to that extent?

 I don’t even know if my mom voted because it was just never talked about. I think my dad might’ve been a registered Republican for a long time. I basically just identified as Independent my whole life. Because I didn’t really have the issues on my mind. I didn’t feel that I was knowledgeable enough about things to really vote that much. So, I didn’t vote. I would vote in [general] elections but not worry about what happens in the primary. If I didn’t think I knew enough about the people I wouldn’t vote. Because I didn’t want my vote messing anything up because I didn’t know what the issues were about. [light laugh]

 I think you’re probably expressing the way a lot of people feel who do not vote or don’t vote regularly.

 It could be. I know a lot of people who — the daily struggle is too much. They don’t have the bandwidth to consider what’s going on outside of how to get the next paycheck or how to get the next meal.

You know, it’s interesting, I’ve now interviewed, going on 20 activists, and certainly talked to other people. You are an unusual case. Because many of the people, typically, they come from political backgrounds of some sort. Where public affairs were dinner table conversation.

No, we didn’t have that. And it was funny because it ended up–we’ve never been a political family–and somehow my mom and my dad, who’ve been divorced for a long long time, and me and my brother and my sister, we all ended up seeing Bernie Sanders. And coming together behind Bernie Sanders. For the first time, we’ve all suddenly become kind of political. Yeah. It was pretty neat.

And I guess you’ve gotten more confidence in your own opinion and your ability to deal with these issues.

 I think I’ve always been confident in my opinion. As long as it’s well reasoned, and I’ve done research, and I’ve always done a lot of reading. And a lifelong learner. It’s real important to me to dig into the issues, and really know about ‘em. So, when I do speak I do sound confident in what I’m saying cause I tend to have done quite a bit of research on most subjects.

Do you have much formal education?

 Not a whole lot. I mean, I graduated high school, almost a 4.0 student.  High school is fairly easy but moving on to college I just went to Lane Community College. And I was never interested in getting a degree. I was more focused on what I wanted to learn. And that was business management. I took business management, accounting, I even did real estate classes back then. Not anticipating becoming a realtor, but thinking I would invest someday. And it turns out I became a realtor.

 So that was about the extent of it. Most of my college time, too, because I grew up poor, we didn’t have money and so I had to work. I ended up working two full time jobs while I was going to Lane Community College.

Again, you’re different from people that I have interviewed before because I shouldn’t have said exactly what I said about people always having dinner table conversations. Sometimes there were people who came from backgrounds which were privileged and where they resented some of the attitudes of people they grew up with. Particularly those who were older than you who got involved in the whole Vietnam War thing. So what issues have you worked on, would you say?

 Bernie Sanders’ campaign was kind of a big issue. Probably the biggest issue so far of my lifetime. At least on my radar. Everything that he stood for. Single payer health care I think is one of the biggest issues. Income inequality, that’s probably at the top of my list. I think income inequality is detrimental to our society. The level of income inequality that we face today is tearing our society apart and we’ve gotta figure out a way to solve that. From what I’ve read, historically, the level of income inequality in a society can be directly attributed to the destruction of that society. And the downfall.

 So we definitely need to get a handle on that. I’ve  been working towards that. Not anything specifically other than helping to get people aware and get people active. When Bernie’s campaign lost, it represented so many important issues. It’s really hard to just focus on one. For me, especially, because I care a lot about everybody and a lot of different things. Climate change. So my path involved, rather than focusing on any one issue, was to try to harness the energy of the people and get the people activated. Because if I can get ten people activated that are excited about ten different issues, now we’ve got ten different people working on all those issues. Instead of just me focusing on one.

And you are running for office. So when is that election?

 May of 2018 is the primary for that election. The seat is East Lane County. I’m running for county commissioner of District 5. And it’s a non-partisan race. So, the primary in May of 2018 will determine either the winner, if somebody gets over 50%, or the top two who will run, and [the runoff election] will be on the ballot in November. If nobody gets over 50% in the primary, then there’s a runoff between the top two.

 East Lane County happens to be the biggest district in our county. It extends out to the edges of the county, basically from the city of Coburg out to the edge. Marcola area, Mohawk. Walterville. All the way out to McKenzie Bridge and Blue River. Dexter, Pleasant Hill, all the way out to Oakridge. Creswell all the way down to Cottage Grove. And then it circles around the edge of Eugene and it grabs the Churchill neighborhood and it goes all the way out to Crow Rd. It’s very large, very diverse.

Well, you have such an interesting background, sort of backbone of America, you know, but you’ve seen it all, particularly having, if I may say so, having had to use public assistance. So, you know that people really need it when they get it.

 Absolutely. I don’t think people want to be on public assistance. I think there’s a misconception. There might be some people that take advantage of it, but the numbers are so small in comparison to the people that need it and the good that it does. Who knows where I would be if we didn’t have that.

Probably wouldn’t be as healthy as you are, either.

 Certainly not. I mean, coming up on food stamps and other government assistance, to see where I came from and to see that I started my own business. And graduated from high school. I attended some college. I got loans in college. I paid off those loans from college. And owning my own home. Everything I’ve done, I don’t know that that would’ve been possible if I didn’t have that assistance in my life. And really, none of our family is considered lazy, I don’t think. My brother and my sister are workaholics. My dad’s always been a workaholic.

What was he working at?

 He had a number of things. He owned a pen company down in California. It was called Scottie Pen. He just made pens. He printed labels on them. He did that for a number of years. I don’t know a whole lot about that. But, he also did real estate rehabilitation. Back before it got popular on TLC. And he worked for a helicopter company down in California. He’s done all kinds of things. He’s manager of a tile company. It was mainly because I was with my mom that we lived on government assistance.

Because he didn’t give a lot of help.

 No. And really it was that we were so far away. We went up to Washington while he stayed in California. And he’s always been busy but never really successful financially for whatever reason.

And how old are you?

 I’m 39.

What are the most interesting or satisfying experiences you’ve had as an activist?

 Boy, going to Philadelphia for the Democratic National Convention. I was not a delegate. I was a state delegate for Bernie Sanders. But I had never really done any public speaking to that point, until I had to run for that position. So really there were so many wonderful people that were vying to be national delegates. I didn’t try all that hard. [laughs] I just put myself up there because I knew that I would fight for Bernie up until the bitter end. I was confident in my abilities, in my drive to support Bernie and to represent him at the national convention. I just didn’t know about anybody else. Most of my time on his campaign was online.

 Cause I was working at the time. I’ve got three kids. I’ve gotta make sure I’m working most of the time. So, most of my time was spent in online support, [probably phone banking to bring out the vote] sharing stories and such, while other people did a lot of their work out in the fields. I did travel to Nevada [with a contingent from Eugene] and helped with the caucuses down there, helped people get to the caucuses in the primary. I went down there to help with those caucuses, for Bernie.

That was one of the few things that I did prior to the convention. Most of my activities in the real world, offline, happened just prior to the convention. Or just after the primary here in Oregon. And then at the convention. Attending the convention was a wonderful experience. I was a ‘plus one’ to one of our national delegates. A plus one just means I’m a guest of one of the elected national delegates. So, I was able to attend. I was able to get into the facilities during the day, although there was restrictions on getting into the convention center at night when they did everything. When all the voting occurs. But I was able to attend that first night. Which was the only night Bernie spoke. And, that was really one of my proudest moments. I ended up spending the next 3 days walking around. They had protests going on outside the convention, and inside the convention, and all over the city.

And we knew that Bernie was gonna come talk to our Oregon delegation Thursday morning. He worked his way around to all the delegations–Thursday morning was gonna be ours. So I spent the 4 days during the convention gathering stories from everybody I could. I had two blank books that I carried around with me. I would ask people if they wanted to write a heartfelt note to Bernie and I would give it to him on that Thursday morning breakfast. And, people loved it. I mean, people had so much that they wanted to say to him.

There was one guy that I remember, young, tough looking kid, and I asked him if he wanted to fill something out for Bernie. It was midnight and we’re out in the park there where all the protests are going on and people are marching. I got this young, tough kid and he said, “Sure.” And he grabbed the book. And he thought and thought. And he started weeping. And he had to hand it back to me. And he said, “Give me a few minutes and I’ll fill it out but I gotta collect myself.” And that was so touching. And I encountered a number of times, things like that. The people had this urge to express themselves and tell Bernie how much he meant to them. And for me to be able to provide that opportunity was really special.

That’s a brilliant idea. It touches the heart and it gives others a chance to share what they feel.

 So we filled up two books. I did give them to Bernie that Thursday morning at the breakfast. I have no idea if he read them yet or not cause I haven’t talked to him. I like to think that he did.

He did. Or someone on his staff looked at them and said, “You’ve gotta see this, Bernie.”  I mean, I would certainly do that if it were my experience. And I think it would give him strength to keep going. Which he really needs now.

 He really does. We all do.

OK Anything else you can think of that you wanna tell me? About what activism means to you or what it’s done for you?

 So, yeah, the last six months I’ve spent as chair of “Our Revolution Lane County.” That used to be Lane County for Bernie Sanders. A group that I wasn’t a part of much until when I was part of that group that went to Nevada. Coming out of the convention, though, there was a real sense that we couldn’t let things dissipate. This energy. This passion for everything that we’ve been fighting for. And so we changed our name.

It’s not an affiliate of the national group, “Our Revolution,” which grew out of Bernie’s campaign. Our goals are to engage the community. Our motto is “engage, educate, and activate.”  Three important aspects to get people involved and to bring about the change we need to see in our society. And hopefully accomplish the things that were laid out in Bernie’s platform. I keep coming back to Bernie, but you know, he has a special place in my heart. But moving beyond him it’s not just about Bernie, it’s an idea. It’s a sense of hope that we can do better, we can be better. And  that’s what I’ve been working on. We wanna continue doing that.

And through Our Revolution Lane County, our hope is to inspire people to get involved. Inspire them to be involved in the political process so we can get out, we can march, we can protest and we can write letters in hopes of influencing our elected officials. Or we can become the elected officials. So, that’s the path I decided to take, you know? We need people to step up and actually become those elected officials. And it’s not easy. It’s certainly not for everybody. There’s a place for everybody in getting these things accomplished.

And I am so proud to stand with all these activists out there and all the people that have said, “Enough is enough.” And they’re ready to make a positive change in their communities. And they’re looking for ways to do that. And I hope to be part of their voice in government itself. And I hope that they will see people that they can trust in government. And know that their fight is not in vain. And we’re gonna do everything we can to help them. And yeah. That’s, that’s my hope. I hope people stay engaged, involved. We need to somehow earn back the people’s trust.











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 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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