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Thursday, December 9, 2010

Debbie Tharp's Quixotic Quest for Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Political Office

By Gloria Kwan

Deborah Tharp is a 37-year-old Libertarian who ran for State Assembly of the 70th congressional district in this year’s General Election. A self-admitted paper candidate, she ran for State Assembly while wholly aware that her chances at winning were slim. A decidedly philanthropic politician, she campaigned primarily for the purpose of getting the public involved and less for the prospect of getting elected when November 2nd came around. Though November 2nd came and went in which she ran and lost to Republican Don Wagner, Deborah Tharp still considers herself a politician, and she foresees herself running for office again. Despite the rather grim reality that she garnered only 4.0% of her constituency’s votes, she received the highest percentage of Libertarian votes that her congressional district has seen in the past eight years. Though this recognition has made her tenaciously optimistic, she is keenly aware that her main objective is still looking positively bleak: the voter turnout for this year’s General Elections is projected to be around 44%, a significant decrease from the 56.2% turnout in 2006 and the 50.6% in 2002. Worse yet, this year’s Primary Elections saw only a 24.1% voter turnout, the lowest in California Primary’s in 96 years. Suffice it to say, her campaign for greater involvement has got a long way to go, a verity that she readily admits. “It’s an ongoing battle; a lifelong pursuit,” she told me following Election Day, “Just because the Election has happened and it’s done, it doesn’t mean that I’ll stop. I already have the connections, but more so I have the responsibility. If I treated the campaign like a job, and the job is over, then I haven’t done anything for my kids.”

* * * * * * * *

I first met Debbie and her seven-year-old son in May of 2010 as she was recruiting for the seven-member strong Young Americans for Liberty club on campus. Though she began campaigning about a year ago in November of 2009, dressed in a full-length skirt and an oversized t-shirt she appeared to me, to put it quite candidly, a conventional, working-class mom. With short, ginger hair, self-effacing side bangs, and a rather large, but friendly build, Debbie had the looks and the demeanor of a stay-at-home wife. Life stories were exchanged, and she quickly proved herself to be not only a first-time running political candidate, but also a pre-med student heavily indebted to a $55,000 student loan and a recent divorcee single-handedly juggling three part-time jobs to provide for her three adolescent children. In August of 2008, she also became a kidney donor for her ex-husband’s kidney transplant, which cost $2 million of tax-payer money and two unnecessary years of dialysis and kidney tests to complete.

All too affected by it, Debbie knows the intricacies of our public welfare system. Though the narration of her story could have easily veered towards a personal pity party, through her extensive explanation of its implications on our health and education system, it turned instead into a lesson on the perverted paradoxes of our state: We pay more for our college tuition each year, yet we receive less of a quality education each quarter. We have gained “free” public health care services, yet we have lost accessibility to these services and the quality of its care. And we expect the few who are unaffected by these issues to somehow provide solutions for the majority of us who are. However analogous her story may be to the majority of our state’s, it was this discrepancy between the power that bourgeois-class politicians are given to solve the issues that only their working-class constituencies must face that Debbie claims motivated her to run for office. Canvassing her candidacy as “an everyday citizen, just like every other constituent of the 70th Assembly District of California,” Debbie campaigned for State Assembly to represent the working-class citizen who has decided to take the power back into her own hands.

* * * * * * * *

I reunited with Debbie on October 13th where she was supporting her fellow Libertarian candidate Mike Binkley at the 48th Congressional Debate against Democrat Beth Krom. (Republican candidate John Campbell was suspiciously, although apparently not-so-surprisingly absent.) Fifty pounds lighter and tightly fitted into a tight, black dress suit, Debbie looked much more befitting of a running Libertarian candidate and contender to a cut-throat political posse. With her hair pinned up, bangs swept to a side, and lips lined neatly in red, she was the spitting image of a composed and collected politician, yet her frazzled and flustered demeanor suggested otherwise.

“I just came back from a six-hour bike ride,” she told me through heavy breathing. “I was supposed to go to the voter information fair in Cal State Fullerton today, but my motorcycle broke down on the way so I missed the whole event and had to take the backstreets to get home.”

“You took your motorcycle on the freeway all the way to Fullerton?” I asked somewhat incredulously.

“Yeah, I’ve been using my motorcycle to get around because it consumes less gas. I still have to get my parking pass for it though. It’s only thirty dollars a month to park a motorcycle on campus, but I haven’t been willing to cough it up yet since I make such a meager fucking salary. My paycheck last week was 180 dollars and quite frankly an insult.”

It was 6:30 PM, and we were waiting for the debate to start in Crystal Cove Auditorium, which was barely half-filled with a little more than a hundred college students and a row of elderly constituents. We were sitting behind a seated line of UCI undergraduates who were all clearly Democrats: they each wore light blue T-shirts whose uniformed backs all proudly proclaimed: I’M VOTING FOR BETH KROM ON NOVEMBER 2ND. Amid an ocean of Beth Krom enthusiasts and a sprinkling of Mike Binkley defendants, the attendance at the debate was decidedly Democratic. Regardless, when the Krom-ies began hooting and hollering for Krom’s every sensational and sometimes nonsensical arguments, Debbie started cheering and yeah!-ing right back to Binkley’s less stimulating and somewhat tenuous rebuttals. Though the televised debate ended clearly in Beth Krom’s favor, we headed over to the Pub to celebrate the occasion, and Debbie bought for the both of us a 20-dollar bottle of Barefoot’s white zinfandel champagne.

After dropping all her belongings haphazardly onto the ground, plopping her embattled body down heavily onto the seat of her chair, and letting out a rather loud, exasperated sigh as if finally being able to take a break from the trials of the day, she said: “At least Mike showed up. John Campbell didn’t even bother to come. How are you supposed to legitimately represent your constituency if you’re not even there to give an opinion on their concerns?” A legitimate question. “He’s missed over a hundred votes and didn’t even bother to give us a valid excuse to abstain from tonight’s event. He’s insulting his constituents by refusing to participate in his congressional district’s one and only debate. ” Though not so wittingly like Krom, who at the start of the debate said in her typical catch-phrase fashion: If you’re not at the table, then you’re probably going to be on the menu, Debbie made sure that Campbell’s absence did not go by unmarked.

On August 24th, Debbie posted on the Orange Juice Blog an e-mail forwarded from an anonymous Republican informing “Anthony” why John Campbell will not be able to attend the debate: It has something to do with congress being in session and not wanting to campaign till congress is out. Thanks and sorry for the inconvenience. A Paul Greenberg quote concludes the e-mail: No right is safe unless citizens are willing to exercise and defend it.

Headed by “Ultimatum for John Campbell from Debbie Tharp: You have one week, and then it’s on!” and placed under an unflattering picture of a closed-eyed Campbell wearing a JOIN THE RESISTANCE T-shirt, Debbie responds to this rebuff with: I will extend one more olive branch to Mr. Campbell: how about he names the date, and we will make it happen? Please relay to his office that this offer will stand for one week, that we demand an answer by this time next Tuesday, August 31st, and after that, we will assume that he does not want to address his own voters before the election and will take action accordingly to let the voters know of his disdain for their concerns.

Like Campbell’s invitation to participate in the debate, Debbie’s “ultimatum” went by unanswered. And it is this constant and blatant disregard towards our democratic system—he has missed 164 congressional votes, one of them to attend a car show in Florida—coupled with his abuse of the system to pass laws that cater to his own personal interests—he has added an amendment into the Consumer Financial Protection Agency Act that exempts car dealers from financial rules that protect the consumers—that Debbie says is the bane of her political existence, the antithesis of her congressional candidacy. Unlike Campbell, who has not only avoided interaction with his constituency but has also passed laws that largely harms them, Debbie, through social-networking sites and events such as voter-information fairs and congressional debates, has informed her constituencies about her candidacy, gotten involved in discussions about their political views, and adjusted her own views accordingly to more aptly represent theirs should she be elected. When asked what she thinks makes a good politician, she answered: “What makes a good politician versus a bad politician is whether or not that politician’s views have actually changed, the result of that change being whether or not you were truly listening to your constituency. Because if you’re truly representing the people that you’re running for office for, then you’re going to take the time to listen to what they’re saying so that you can represent them. Good politicians tailor their opinions to the people because that’s where it belongs. I didn’t run for office to represent only my views. I mean, my views were a part of it because I am a constituent here as well.”

As a Libertarian constituent, however, inconsistencies inevitably arise when you consider the contradictions between Debbie’s personal and political views and that of a Libertarian’s. Libertarians believe in a world where “all individuals are sovereign over their own lives and no one is forced to sacrifice his or her own values for the benefit of others,” yet Medi-Cal is a government, tax-supported, and thus somewhat socialist program. They believe in an education system where schools are managed locally and without any interference from the government, yet Federal Student Aid is a nation-wide program that is entirely funded by it.

As a Libertarian Medi-Cal patient and Federally-aided student, Debbie recognized these inconsistencies, and this, she says, is where the “Compassionate” part comes in, which shifts her Libertarian beliefs away from the strict objectivist ideology of Ayn Rand towards the more sensible ideology of say Alan Blinder. In Hard Heads, Soft Hearts, Blinder argues for a beneficial government that helps the impoverished and poor as long as those who are being governed are able to pursue other liberal goals. And through her involvement in the UC system, Debbie realized just how important the impoverished sometimes need to be helped: “Realistically, private education can be impossibly expensive, and public education can sometimes be the only possible way that a student’s future can be made better, Federal Aid often times being the only way that their present can be made not so bad. I met a Sociology student here on campus who has resorted to stealing or as she so calls it “liberating” from the Zot-n-Go because she can no longer afford to buy food. She said that she doesn’t care about getting caught because if she does she’ll just say: I’m hungry. Paying for private education, in her case, is simply a ridiculous concept. It’s a Libertarian position to say that education should be 100% privatized, but after talking to my fellow students about issues such as the recent fee hikes, I realized just how much our public education system actually means to our state. My opinion on education is an example of how my political view has changed. Honest politicians opt out of their party platform sometimes, and I’m guilty of doing that.” And in her congressional debate against Republican Don Wagner and Democrat Melissa Foxx that was televised by Cox Communications, she publicly did just that.

* * * * * * * *

It was 7:30 PM, October 27th, and I was waiting for Debbie’s debate to start, which again took place in Crystal Cove Auditorium but that day was barely a forth filled with a handful of college students, a smattering of scattered couples, and an ever faithful band of elderly constituents. Unlike the Krom-ie congregation, there was no predominant political support for any one candidate, and the lack of structure in the debate seemed to stem from the lack of cohesive backing for any of the parties. As if the candidates were aware that the audience was there maybe more for their past-time amusement, the formal debate quickly dissolved into a disordered debacle, and the atmosphere in the auditorium quickly turned tense as Wagner and Foxx began sparring with each other in verbal warfare and in complete disregard to debate decorum. I felt embarrassed, as if I was watching an argument between two adult-sized children and intruding upon some intimate dispute that should have been dealt with in private. Though Debbie made a clear effort to detach herself from the quarreling and to maintain some semblance of cool, collected composure, she eventually and theatrically began rolling her eyes and letting out huge sighs and giving in to the spectacle on stage.

* * * * * * * *

The General Elections are over, and the Republican’s spectacular success is all the more remarkable for having occurred at a time when the state legislature receives only a ten percent approval rating, the lowest assessment of California state legislature in the past twenty-seven years. When considering that John Campbell has been in office for the past ten years, nothing in this election is more convoluted or more paradoxical than his re-election into congress with 60.0 percent of the votes. His win is nothing short of a comic tragedy, and I can only imagine his decision to abstain from the debate to be his way of laughing at it all.

I visited Debbie about two weeks after the Elections at the Humanities Gateway on campus, where she works as a front desk attendant for a few hours every morning. I asked her what she plans on doing moving forward from the backwards implications of the election results, and she told me that she plans on starting a student activist workshop here on campus to get students more involved, but involved in a more effective way: “When I see people protesting in front of Aldrich Hall or hear of them hassling our administrators in office, it becomes clear to me that the students here don’t know how our system works. They don’t seem to understand that it is our representatives in office who are the ones who control our state funding, not the administrators of our school. Continually complaining to Drake will accomplish very little, if anything at all.” Hearing this, I can’t help but think of the time when I worked as a waitress, where I was often complained to about the meager portion of food when it was the cook who doled out such a meager portion in the first place.

As Debbie was packing up to leave, Tom Ragan, a reporter from The Daily Pilot, came in to ask us if we knew where to find Jesse Cheng, the UC student regent for the 2010-2011 school year. After making an off-hand remark that she has a lot to say about the recent budget cuts, Debbie became a part of Jesse Cheng’s interview, and I had the pleasure of not only witnessing for the first time an interview done by an actual news reporter, but also meeting our student regent who was one of the five out of the twenty-six members on the Board of Regents who voted no on the recent eight percent fee hikes.

When Ragan asked why he did not agree with the other twenty-one members, Cheng said: “I don’t think it’s a long term solution. If we’re looking at a one billion dollar deficit, an eight percent fee increase only creates one percent of the budget solution. For the stress and the pain that we cause on our students, to offer only one percent of a solution to the deficit is almost negligible for our overall budget solution. I think we have to think about our priorities when we look at revenues. We are causing a lot of stress for what is not a long-term solution.” When asked what he plans to do upon graduating, Cheng answered: “I plan to teach English to middle-school students in Baltimore through the program Teach for America. Education is always a path.”

While continuing fee increases have not only failed to provide an adequate answer to the budget deficit, they ironically enough have also managed to produce other problems for our public education system. Over the last decade, banking institutions and financial aid offices nationwide have eagerly handed out hundreds of thousands of dollars of student loans. Coupled with a decline in grants and a raise in tuition, the increase in easy credit has resulted in more than two-thirds of college students graduating in 2009 in debt—up from the forty-five percent in 1993. According to the Project on Student Debt, a research initiative begun by the Institute for College Access & Success and aimed at increasing public awareness of the socio-economical implications of student borrowing, the student debt was averaged to be $24,000 in 2009, and it has been confidently estimated to be significantly higher in 2010. The irony of this situation is that while the debt for student tuition has been increasing, the availability of student services has been decreasing, and students are graduating not only with a weakened skill set and also with a degree spent largely making up for their financial disadvantage when it should have given them a propitious advantage in economic competition.

In an article titled “Report Card on Colleges Finds U.S. is Slipping,” Patrick M. Callan, the president of The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, is quoted as saying: “American higher education on the whole is underperforming and is being outperformed by many other countries.” With college classes and student services being cut and stress being increasingly incurred, it is clear that our underperformance is attributable to our schools’ lack of a quality education. In an interview by Declining by Degrees, Callan states: We have abundant evidence that colleges and universities that do better in teaching and counseling get better results. And if the college has no impact on whether people learn what they came to learn or if they finish, then it seems to me there's not a lot of justification for the dollars that society and students spend on what happens there.

Unable to receive certain student aid services, Debbie now questions her justification for going to college. When Ragan asked Debbie how the budget cuts have affected her, she answered: “I have a serious learning disability that was qualified by the Disability Center so I could enroll in the LARC tutorials for free. These tutorials were helping me pass my classes, and just when I enrolled in classes [this year], they cut the LARC tutorials, and I don’t have the funds to pay for it even though I’m already paying more for student fees. And now I’m failing my classes. I’m going to be graduating $55,000 in debt, and I’m not even going to be in the major that I intended to graduate with. My plan was to go on to medical school, and now it’s not going to happen because I’m literally flunking my classes.”

When asked what she thinks is the problem with our current political system, she answered: “Apathy. Our biggest mistake is apathy.”


Research:

1. Debbie Tharp: http://www.lpoc.org/?q=node/249; http://www.facebook.com/#%21/profile.php?id=100000999733061; http://www.debbieforliberty.com/

2. Campbell: http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2010/02/08/opinion/main6186201.shtml; http://projects.washingtonpost.com/congress/members/c001064/; http://www.orangejuiceblog.com/2010/08/ultimatum-for-john-campbell-from-debbie-tharp-you-have-one-week-and-then-its-on/; http://www.ocregister.com/news/campbell-91136-ocprint-krom-orange.html

3. Libertarianism: http://www.lp.org/; http://www.libertarianism.com/

4. “Compassionate Libertarianism:” http://www.thelibertypapers.org/2010/09/26/perhaps-its-time-for-a-little-compassionate-libertarianism/; http://arnoldkling.com/~arnoldsk/aimst3/aimst317.html

5. Public Education System: Project on Student Debt: http://projectonstudentdebt.org/state_by_state-data.php; The Chronicle of Higher Education: http://chronicle.com/section/Home/5; http://chronicle.com/article/Report-Card-on-Colleges-Finds/3508/; http://www.decliningbydegrees.org/meet-experts-6-transcript.html

6. Public Health Care: http://www.hcpro.com/content/231693.pdf; http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1914973,00.html

7. Public Opinion: The Roper Center for Public Opinion Research: http://webapps.ropercenter.uconn.edu/CFIDE/cf/action/ipoll/questionDetail.cfm?keyword=&keywordoptions=1&exclude=&excludeoptions=1&topic=Government&organization=Any&fromdate=1%2F1%2F1935&todate=&sortby=DESC&label=&QSTN_LIST=&QSTNID=1774109&QA_LIST=&QSTN_ID4=1774109&STUDYID=69682&STUDY_LIST=&lastSearchId=1236021&ARCHNO=&keywordDisplay=&x=7&y=14; The Field Poll: http://www.field.com/fieldpollonline/subscribers/

8. Election Results: General Election: http://www.sos.ca.gov/elections/sov/2010-general/; http://www.ocvote.com/live/gen2010/results.htm; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/California%27s_70th_State_Assembly_district;
Primary Election: http://www.pensitoreview.com/2010/06/10/energy-on-the-right-voter-turnout-in-the-california-primary-was-25-lowest-in-96-years/; http://articles.latimes.com/2010/jun/10/local/la-me-california-election-20100610

Reporting:

Two lengthy interviews with Debbie
One lengthy interview with Debbie’s daughter
E-mail correspondence with Debbie’s intern Colby Seymour
Observed the 48th Congressional Debate
Observed the 70th Congressional Debate
Observed interview between Daily Pilot reporter on Debbie Tharp and UC Student Regent Jesse Cheng
Multiple visits to Debbie’s apartment and workplace on campus

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