The Political Romantic

By Peter Ian Asen ’04 / March / April 2003
June 22nd, 2007
When I took my first political science class at Brown—City Politics—I was beset with sadness. Professor James Morone’s words about politics carried a certain cynical edge, as if the “scientists” of political science needed to reduce politics to a game. Realism trumped idealism.

Part of me reluctantly embraces the pragmatic thinking I’ve found in the study of political science. I voted for Al Gore in 2000, despite a feeling that we shared few values in common and despite the embarrassment of having my father—who’s well to my right on the political spectrum—vote for Ralph Nader while I supported the two-party system. Yet I am not the type of Democrat who shook his fist at Nader after the election for being a “spoiler”; nor did I begrudge his supporters the right to vote their conscience.

So when I heard that a twenty-two-year-old substitute teacher named David Segal would be running on the Green Party platform to represent the Fox Point–College Hill ward on the city council, the political romantic in me took notice. When I met him, I saw that David was clearly smart and passionate about such issues as guaranteeing city workers a living wage and appointing a civilian review board to oversee the police department. He was also much more thoughtful than I have come to expect politicians to be: if he did not know about an issue, he did not pretend to have a position on it already thought through.

Of course, the same things I liked about David were the kind of things that could hurt his political prospects. But something made me believe in him, or believe in the idea that he could be elected in ward one. Maybe it was that the area, which is full of Brown students, faculty, and other “progressive” folks, had a history of unusually high support for Green candidates. Maybe it was that David’s ideas and approach to the issues seemed so clearly superior to those of his three opponents. Or maybe it was that, after three years of watching the all-Democrat Providence City Council fail to pass an ordinance that would guarantee a living wage for city workers and the employees of large city contractors, I felt political cynicism taking hold within me. Maybe I just needed to believe in local politics again.

I started working for David during the summer, and by the early fall I had become a volunteer coordinator. With about six other volunteers I helped develop general strategy for the campaign and for Election Day. I took pride in an October 9 debate among the four city council candidates when the moderator asked about issues that David—and only David—had been talking about in his high-octane campaign: living wages, of course, but also affordable housing, police accountability, and parking reform. Throughout the debate, David’s three opponents, after having been silent on such issues, took positions similar to his. I realized that even if we didn’t win, we were setting the election agenda.

In September we registered hundreds of new student voters at Brown and RISD. On November 5, not only were we able to get about 500 students to vote, we had more than 100 student volunteers. Between the hard work of knocking on every door in the neighborhood and taking on hard issues in an intelligent, compassionate way, we had found a winning strategy. On election night David was declared the winner of the four-way race. Idealism had prevailed, and we had made history: David Segal became the first Green Party candidate ever elected in Rhode Island.

Winning this race, which nobody thought we could win, has been one of my most thrilling experiences at Brown so far. More than that, it allowed me to take part in Providence civic life: for the first time, I truly felt that this city is my home.

Peter Ian Asen is a double concentrator in Africana studies and philosophy.
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March / April 2003