Maybe it’s Time for a Troublemaker

Posted March 25, 2010

By Gregory Flannery

The further left one’s politics goes, the more argumentative is the company he keeps. Thus while many progressives in Cincinnati might agree with Dan La Botz’s policy views, he is not necessarily every local activist’s favorite.

That won’t faze La Botz, who brings an unusual combination of political scholarship and organizing experience to the Ohio race for U.S. Senate. A veteran of union campaigns, anti-war movements and the ongoing struggle against racism, La Botz has spent 45 years in the politics of the workplace, the ballot box and the street. Now he’s making his first run for elective office, and he’s doing it under the banner of a party whose very name has been used as a smear against the far more moderate views of President Obama.

La Botz is running as a member of the Socialist Party USA.

“ ‘Socialist’ has become a dirty word but it’s also become an attractive word,” he says.

He describes his effort to get 500 signatures to qualify for the May 4 primary election. He gathered 1,200 and has been certified for the ballot.

“Here’s the responses I got,” La Botz says. “There were some people who just turned away. But I didn’t have one person who got nasty or call me names. For the first time in 45 years as an activist, I didn’t have one person tell me to go back to Russia. I also had people say, ‘You can’t be any worse than what we have in Washington now.’ Another response I got was people said, ‘This is America. Everybody has the right to run for office.’ Young people would turn away. They weren’t interested in politics in the usual way. But then, when you said, ‘Socialist candidate,’ they would turn around and say, ‘Here, let me sign that.’ These were not people who belong to political organizations. They have come to self-identify as leftist or socialist. It had made people on the left and right think and say, ‘If I want health care, I guess I’m a socialist.’ ”

Abolishing corporations

La Botz explains his concept of democratic socialism as a contrast to the power of corporations in the so-called “free market.”

“We have several corporate headquarters downtown,” he says. “Those headquarters can hold a board of directors meeting of 12 to 20, usually white men, and take a vote and decide to close a factory and put out of work an entire town. Today the corporation, like slavery, is an institution that should be abolished. Closing a factory, destroying the economy of a town, is too important a decision to be in the hands 10 or 20 men. That is a decision society should make. Skilled tradesmen, factory workers, secretaries, electricians, millwrights, accountants advertising people – all of those people created that wealth, and that wealth should be seen as our common property.”

The economic initiatives of the Bush and Obama administrations – bailing out failing mega-banks and the auto industry – primarily benefited the corporations that profit from them, according to La Botz.

“The government decided to save the auto industry,” he says. “They continue to move plants abroad. Even though they have been saved, they continue to go to the workers and demand concessions in wages and health care. Let’s use that money to create a kind of not-for-profit company that works for the people of Ohio. Let’s build solar panels. Let’s build wind energy. Let’s have them use their talent to create a new industry and have that industry run democratically. … We could build an industry, using our tax dollars under the priority of the people of our state. What would it mean to have the secretary who reads Streetvibes make a good living wage and have a voice in running the company? How about a world where all the clerical workers have a vote in the way the company is run?

“I don’t think democratic socialism is easy. But a system in which a very few people keep all the wealth for themselves and make all the decisions is a very poor option.”

La Botz opposes the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He believes Obama’s continuation of those wars is causing disillusionment with his own supporters.

“It seems to me Obama must be a big disappointment to those who voted for him,” La Botz says. “Many people voted for Obama because they wanted to end the wars. They wanted a different foreign policy. The war has continued in Iraq. It’s expanded in Afghanistan. It’s expanded to Pakistan. There is a danger of war in Yemen. There is a danger of war with Iran. Obama continues the same foreign policy as Bush. These wars are not good for America. They promote terrorism.”

‘Fight Back’

His Senate run isn’t the only new thing in La Botz’s life. At age 64 he has begun learning to play guitar, a useful aid in his new job as an elementary-school Spanish teacher.

“It’s challenging because it’s all new,” he says. “I’ve neither taught Spanish nor taught young children before.”

An adjunct professor of U.S. history at the University of Cincinnati, La Botz has also taught at Miami University and Northern Kentucky University. He is the author of books on the history of labor unions, Mexico and Indonesia, including Rank and File Rebellion and A Troublemaker’s Handbook: How to Fight Back Where You Work – And Win!

La Botz has a history of working with successful coalitions. He is a member of Cincinnati Progressive Action, which worked with the Cincinnati Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to defeat a tax to build a new jail in Hamilton County. When voters defeated the tax, the county commissioners ignored the election and imposed the tax anyway. La Botz and his allied then organized to overturn it, and won again.

In 2001 La Botz was active in the March 4 Justice, a large, non-violent movement against police violence after a Cincinnati Police officer killed an unarmed African-American teenager wanted on traffic citations.

Although he is all but certain to win the Socialist Party primary – he is the only candidate on the ballot – he is more realistic about the general election in November. He recently spoke to a class at Seven Hills High School.

“One of the students said, ‘Why would you do this when you know you can’t win?’ It seems to me the reason is to present an alternative and to network across the state and put people in touch with each other and kind of encourage people to fight back,” La Botz says. “The reason for doing this is there’s such incredible disenchantment with the government and political parties.

“My goal right now is to reach out to people across the state to create a political movement. I’m trying to reach out to people who belong to the faith community, people who belong to labor unions and young activists. I’m not going to be able to cover every precinct in the state but I think we can have a presence in all the larger cities. I would like this to be the kind of campaign that gives expression to the workers’ concerns.”

[This interview first appeared in Street Vibes]