Fulani Follower Stokes Fires of Resentment and Reform
Linda Curtis, professional activist, is an obnoxious loudmouth... when she wants to be. Like the time she showed up at former Councilmember Ronney Reynolds' office to protest his apparent about-face on a campaign finance reform vote. Without Reynolds' support for calling an election on the issue -- support he had given on the first vote put to council -- approval for placing finance reform on the ballot last May died by one vote. Curtis says she felt more than betrayed -- she smelled a rat. To express her disapproval -- and to publicly humiliate then-Councilmember and mayoral candidate Reynolds -- Curtis showed up the next day at Reynolds' office carrying a plastic rat and making a stink of her own. Councilmember Daryl Slusher recalls: "To her credit, I'd never seen a single television camera down at City Hall 'til Linda Curtis came along. She figured out that you could just swing a rat and they'd come runnin'."
Of course, Curtis' theatrics make sense when the cameras are rolling, but what makes her especially grating to some is that she doesn't let up after the spotlight is turned off. She holds a grudge. A vindictive, personal grudge. The next time Curtis ran into Reynolds -- at Z Tejas Grill, power-lunching with colleagues -- she walked by his table and called over to him, "Hey Ratso, how's it going?"
"We were walking by his table, and I didn't even want to look at him," recalls fellow grassroots organizer Jeff Heckler, who also worked on finance reform. "And she just calls him `Ratso' to his face.... That was pure Linda."
"Pure Linda Curtis" means different things to different people. Some call her a purely passionate reformer; others see her as a purely rude, self-righteous attack dog. Few can help but admire her almost manic energy for pushing a populist governmental ideal as a petitioner and grassroots organizer on a host of issues, including the creation of a viable third political party, the defeat of a public-subsidized baseball stadium, and, most recently, the anti-annexation movement. She's a part-time legal secretary with a full-time political appetite, and the recent victory of campaign finance reform, which stemmed from a grueling petition drive she is credited for clinching, hasn't even begun to sate her.
Which begins to make sense considering that Curtis readily admits that the initiative will probably be thrown out by the courts anyway. It seems that to Curtis, it's not the win that counts, but the revolutionary activity itself. How else can she explain the scorched earth tactics that enrage and confound enemies and admirers alike? She'll form the most unholy of alliances to get what she wants, and then turn around and brand those who don't live up to her political standards "sellouts," regardless of their liberal credentials. The self-proclaimed leftist particularly seems to enjoy gigging the sacred cows of Austin's Democratic political machine.
Local Democratic political consultant Dean Rindy observes: "Anybody who disagrees with her is evil."
Save Our Springs Alliance director Brigid Shea recalls, "I've had to tell her it's not a black-and-white world."
Progressive consultant/activist Mark Yznaga describes her style as a throwback to the Sixties mentality: "It's power-to-the-people politics and street politics."
Curtis cohort Heckler has put out press releases that bestow upon her a litany of creative monikers, including "terminal iconoclast" and "social terrorist." But while he gets a kick out of her in-your-face guerrilla tactics, he admits that it wins her few friends. "No one can control Linda," Heckler explains, not even those on the left with whom she might naturally be aligned. "They never know when she's going to flop out of the sky and make life miserable."
Full Of Fulani
It's a chilly Saturday afternoon and Linda Curtis, 46, is sitting at a computer in her cozy one-bedroom apartment near Zilker Park doing what she likes best -- politicking. She prefers the door-to-door, in-person stuff, but today's weather, coupled with her desire to test out a new polling form, has her manning the phone. "Hi there... I'm a volunteer with the Reform Party of the State of Texas -- you called Perot's party last year? I'd like to update you on what we're doing now." Curtis goes on at length about the National Reform Party and its goals to, among other things, eliminate the influence of special interests. She then informs the listener that the Reform Party is preparing to run a slate of candidates for statewide office, from Governor to Railroad Commission. "But the trick is -- that in order to win permanent ballot status we have to petition initially to get our party on the ballot; so it's going to require approximately 50,000 valid signatures in just 75 days, from voters who did not vote in the primary. So we need two things from everybody we are speaking with: We need a little bit of time from you, and/or a little bit of money." The cold call -- from what Curtis calls a "hot list" -- produces a pledge for both.
Curtis -- whose colleagues marvel that when she's feeling blue she'll canvass a neighborhood as a way to cheer herself up -- offers to try out a more difficult list: the one she compiled from the months she spent helping to gather signatures for putting campaign finance reform on the November city ballot. On this lazy Saturday she is a dynamo ready for action, and her bright blue eyes brim with humor. A fortune plucked from a Chinese cookie is taped to her monitor: "A merry heart doeth good like a medicine."
"This [polling form] is my test," explains Curtis as she scrolls through the document on her screen. Once it's perfected with regards to pulling in volunteers and money, Curtis, as a member of the Texas Reform Party's executive committee, plans to take it statewide. "What we're going to do here is find someone to donate a small phone bank we can use, then I'm going to train volunteers to get the Reform Party on the ballot."
While she is still riding high on last month's finance reform victory, it's obvious that the Reform Party is Curtis' real passion. In fact, campaign finance reform is a natural extension of the Reform Party's stated agenda to take the monied interests out of politics. It's important to note that Curtis harbors no heartfelt love for the quirky right-wing Texas billionaire who first became a lightning rod for voter dissatisfaction with his 1992 presidential election campaign. Rather, Curtis is pounding the pavement for Perot's party because of her longtime affiliation with Dr. Lenora Fulani, the militant black nationalist who in 1988, as founder of the New Alliance Party, became the first woman and the first African American to get on the ballot in all 50 states as a presidential candidate. Fulani's party, now reconfigured as the Patriot Party, of which Curtis is state coordinator, has joined forces with Perot's group in the hopes that, with a grassroots organized effort, the Reform Party will become a viable third party, whose disparate factions would all unite to push the same goal: busting up the current duopolistic two-party system.
While politics have been known to make strange bedfellows, the team of Perot and Fulani has to be among the strangest. After all, Perot is the poster boy of the conservative, middle-class, angry, white male voter, and Fulani is a feminist, black, separatist Marxist. It appears to be a match made in hell. Curtis admits the alliance is unorthodox. "Most of the left won't touch Ross Perot with a 10-foot pole," she confirms. "The left's analysis of Ross Perot in 1992 was that he was a right-wing fascist... and we [the New Alliance Party] just didn't accept that analysis at all.
Resting just below a television on a shelf in Curtis' apartment is a photograph of Curtis standing with Fulani and several other African-American women in the New Alliance Party, taken 10 years ago in Oakland, California. Also prominently displayed is a large framed movie poster of the film Passion Fish, not because she especially likes the film, Curtis explains, but because the image on the poster -- of a white woman and a black woman together -- appealed to her. "It speaks to me," Curtis says. "It also represents how my friendship and activism with African-American women through the New Alliance Party and Fulani is one of the major turning points in my life."
Controversy must seem like old hat to Curtis, or to anyone who has been connected with the New Alliance Party for any length of time. Fulani and Fred Newman, whom detractors say is the real power behind the New Alliance throne, have been accused of running not a political party but a "cult," through the "social therapy" technique invented by Newman and practiced by both him and Fulani. (That the Jewish Newman plays such a prominent role in the Party while Fulani keeps close ties to the anti-Semitic Minister Louis Farrakhan is also a head-scratcher.) Curtis staunchly defends Fulani's political platform, and her championing of the rights of women, minorities, gays, and lesbians, and says that her leader is squarely in the realm of the left wing. But Fulani has come
under attack for perhaps compromising her principles too much by aligning herself with Perot's mostly white, conservative party, one that allegedly harbors anti-gay and anti-lesbian factions. To make matters worse, Fulani's critics claim, her party allegedly obstructs the very minority empowerment she professes to champion by engaging in smear campaigns and petition drives to discredit progressives whom the party does not consider to be "true" progressives. Hmmm. Sound familiar? These are the types of accusations often leveled among Austin politicos against Curtis herself.
From Feminism to Activism
Curtis was raised in Miami, Florida, in a family that she says routinely used the "n-word" for blacks and the "k-word" for Jews. She played the role of the family's black sheep, which she says she earned by befriending Jewish kids and fighting with her older brother about segregation. Her reputation as a rabble-rouser was cemented when she threw herself into the anti-war movement at the University of Florida, and consorted with her family's idea of the wrong people: Jews, Blacks, hippies, gays, and communists. She later dropped out of college and into the women's movement in 1971. She was as man-hating and radically feminist as Betty Friedan on steroids, even taking part in the "women controlling our bodies" movement, one aspect of which centered around women (like Curtis) dropping their pants, getting up on a table in front of "women-only" audiences, and inserting specula to allow spectators to grab flashlights and peek inside territory previously reserved for doctors and gynecologists.
The idea of women controlling their bodies stuck with Curtis, and in 1973, immediately following the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, she worked with a group of women who had founded the country's first out-patient, first-trimester abortion clinic in Tallahassee. She says that the traditional medical establishment, which was categorically opposed to consumers running their own facility, used punitive tactics against the doctors who worked at the clinic in an attempt to shut it down. While the women, including Curtis, launched a well-publicized anti-trust lawsuit, Curtis disagreed with the others on how else to proceed. She wanted to turn the clinic into a consumers' health union, gathering support locally by going door-to-door, and taking the fight from the courts to the community, especially the black community, which accounted for a third of the patients served at the clinic. Part of Curtis' passion stemmed from her introduction to the beginnings of the New Alliance Party, which had reached out to poor women and minorities. But while Curtis thought the politicization of the clinic and its expansion into the community was a natural progression in the fight for women's rights with regard to their bodies, she says, it became apparent that the founders were happy to remain simply a clinic. She says that the bottom line was that these women didn't want to risk what little they had in order to challenge the local business/political structure (a chance Curtis herself is always willing to take). The clinic's women may have also decided against becoming a springboard for the tactics and principles of the New Alliance Party.
Curtis eventually left Florida in 1979 to move to New York to learn more about what she calls "independent politics." After working for New Alliance in New York, California, and Virginia, Curtis was stationed, at her request, in Austin in 1993. The consensus among most politicos about town: She was sent. It appeared that her mission was to sit at the old Whole Foods and gather enough signatures to put the New Alliance Party on the presidential ballot in Texas. But that's not all she did in the name of Fulani and electoral reform. Shortly after arriving in Austin, in order to break down the state's two-party system, Curtis joined a coalition that introduced a state legislative bill to gain "fair access" to the ballot through the power of initiative and referendum (I&R). Initiatives are public votes to create laws that stem from petition drives, and referendums overturn existing laws. After the bill stalled, Curtis made headlines during the 1995 session when she crashed Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock's press conference to protest his announcement of a proposal for legislators -- rather than the public -- to control ballot access, in order to avoid ballot confusion and clutter. Because her coalition's I&R bill didn't pass, Curtis worked on a petition drive for the same purpose. The petitioners didn't gather enough signatures, so Curtis then sued the state, claiming that the petition requirements were too arduous. She won a major victory when the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that petitioners are not required to obtain voters' registration numbers, making the signature-gathering process much easier. (Curtis used the less stringent standards to good effect later in her petitioning career.)
Curtis threw herself into an odd assortment of political activities over the past five years, eschewing Austin's usual liberal/enviro grassroots causes (i.e., S.O.S.) for more class-conscious activities stemming from her membership in the New Alliance Party. One cause had the former women's libber acting as spokesperson for an Abilene man convicted of aggravated rape for a second time, arguing that he deserved a new trial because the jury pool in mostly white Hood County was inherently unfair. She also joined local Eastside activist Dorothy Turner in protesting the shooting of Paul Monroe, who was killed by police in 1993 in what authorities said was a drug-related robbery. And in her role as a New Alliance committee member, Curtis marked the first-year anniversary of the deadly standoff between federal agents and cult leader David Koresh by protesting in front of Austin's Capitol building and demanding an independent investigation of the FBI. She told the Austin American-Statesman that the bureau's treatment of the Branch Davidians was similar to the agency's investigation of the New Alliance Party. FBI documents that had been recently released revealed the FBI had investigated the party on the suspicion that it was a "political cult." If the New Alliance party is a cult, a charge that Curtis ridicules, this tireless and devoted follower stationed in Austin surely deserves a place in Fulani heaven.
Curtis hit the petition trail -- and the papers -- again in 1995, this time as co-chair of Priorities First!, a wide-ranging coalition of fiscal conservatives and progressive enviro-type activists who united to defeat Austin's proposed city-subsidized minor league baseball stadium. While some Priorities First! members were driven by a desire to keep Austin's pursestrings drawn tight, others like Curtis were more enraged that the council had officially declared professional baseball an "emergency" in order to circumvent a public vote on issuing bonds to build the stadium. Priorities First! board member Bob Larson rests the group's success squarely at Curtis' feet. "We never would have been even a threat [to the stadium] if it hadn't been for Linda," Larson says. "I've never seen anyone work a petition like her -- she took the petition drive over." An election was held, and the stadium was defeated 2-1.
But Curtis' behavior in the anti-baseball fight is hardly universally admired. In what many believe is the height of hypocrisy, the radical reformer's group took a huge chunk of "dirty money" -- $40,000 -- from Bill Pohl, a real estate developer who was hoping that Priorities First! would spike the stadium proposal so he could gain a franchise of his own. Curtis is characteristically unapologetic. "We all live under a bad system, and yes we took the money from Bill Pohl, no strings attached," Curtis says. "But what was truly hypocritical was for the Statesman, which had been using its pages for months to push a stadium it had a corporate interest in, and for Bruce Todd and Ronney Reynolds, to complain that us taking a large amount of money meant we weren't fiscal conservatives.
"So we said, `All right, we don't like it either, so let's change the system so that none of us can take the money,'" Curtis recalls. Thus local campaign finance reform became her next avenue of attack on the status quo. Curtis joined up with Democratic strategist and Priorities First! co-chair Heckler and Brent White, a hard-working grassroots activist who began the push to limit contributions in local elections. Together they formed No More Corruption, which they later modified, with tongues planted in cheeks, to Austinites for a Little Less Corruption (ALLC).
With the help of national reform groups, ALLC drafted a charter amendment and last spring began gathering the 15,000 signatures necessary to put the issue on the municipal ballot. They managed to collect 29,000 names, a task that had Curtis, once again, perpetually stationed at Whole Foods. "She is the ultimate petition gatherer -- the best I've ever seen," observes local activist Mike Blizzard. "She probably gathered half of those signatures herself."
However, Curtis' strategy had been to leave off the voter registration numbers to make the petitioning easier, a shortcut that she had fought to get on the books two years before. Ironically, that testing of the new law caused problems when the city clerk declared more than half the signatures invalid, partially because they lacked voter registration numbers. Heckler recalls getting on to Curtis for trying to accomplish too many things at once. "Every time she goes out she wants to change the fucking world," he says. "I'm always telling her to focus on one thing at a time... but creating policy is not where she is effective. It's drumming up motivation."
After a long and winding road, Federal District Judge Sam Sparks finally ruled last September that the city had been dead wrong to deny the ALLC's petiton, and that it would have to put the campaign finance reform amendment on the ballot as soon as possible. The measure tapped into voters' dissatisfaction with national campaign reform, and won decisively. When faced with the argument that the measure won't stop big money from continuing to insert itself into politics through nonprofit groups, Curtis replies that it's all part of the process, of which the imperfect amendment is only the first step. If big money is funneled to nonprofits, then "it's the job of reformers to then make it clear to voters what's going on... to urge them not to vote for candidates who allow this," she says. (It should be noted that nonprofits are not required to reveal their contributors.)
The ALLC campaign for electoral finance reform got a boost when former Councilmember Max Nofziger -- after hearing that then-mayoral candidate Watson agreed with Reynolds' no-vote on the validity of the ALLC petition -- decided to jump into the race. Although Nofziger had voted for baseball, and for the city's subsidization of the veloway at Circle C, Curtis gladly became his campaign coordinator. And why not? Even though in nine years, Nofziger had never so much as brought up the issue of campaign finance reform, he willingly handed over his campaign lock, stock, and barrel to Curtis and the ALLC, who used it more to highlight their issue than to inform the public about the personal philosophy of their grassroots candidate. In an embarrassing "who wears the pants moment" during the campaign, Curtis actually threatened to withdraw her support of Nofziger on KVET's Sammy and Bob show if he did not support an issue on which he professed not to have enough information. Within minutes, Nofziger quietly got back in line behind Curtis. Undercutting your own candidate on the air is a cardinal sin among strategists, but it's vintage Linda Curtis. Ask political strategists what's most important in a campaign and they'll say "the win" every time. But, as the radio fiasco attests, Curtis is built differently. There is no compromise.
Fight the Power
Indeed, few friends claim to have a clue as to what her belief system is, and that seemingly slippery ideology causes local politicos the most trouble. Craig McDonald of Texans for Public Justice, who drafted the ballot language on campaign finance reform, offers the suggestion that Curtis' causes boil down to "democracy with a small `d.' ...flowing through all the things she does is the notion that the average person should have more power."
Other local politicos worry that the only person whom Curtis wants to have more power is herself. "She seems to be driven more by resentment than ideology," suggests Rindy, who was against the ALLC's version of campaign finance reform. According to Rindy, it was her "resentment of those who have power" that bubbled over at a Chronicle photo shoot during the campaign, in which several of the consultants working on local council races showed up on the steps of City Hall to pose for a picture. After she arrived, Curtis immediately began to mutter insults, the gist of which were that she was after the consultants' jobs with her push for finance reform, that they stunk, and that she couldn't wait to get away from the sell-out swine. Political fundraiser Alfred Stanley and she exchanged words, and a Nofziger campaign worker took offense on her behalf, worrying bystanders that the affair would turn to fisticuffs. (The final photo shows Curtis with a big smile and a raised fist).
That Curtis would bait some of the most powerful political movers and shakers in town is puzzling to those who spend their lives looking to fight another day. But for Curtis, to be in the club is to be corrupt. "She has always played the role of outsider to power," he says. "She doesn't want it any other way."
That characterization goes a long way toward explaining another of Curtis' favorite pastimes: attacking Kirk Watson. While few liberals have a problem with Curtis' jabs at Reynolds during the campaign, they can't fathom why Watson became her favorite punching bag. "She can be so passionate that she loses sight of her real enemies," says Shea, who supported the Watson campaign.
Shea is referring to the public thrashing Curtis gave Watson during the race, for his role in granting a permit to a notorious polluting plastics plant while serving as chair of the Texas Air Control Board. While respected enviros across the city argued that Watson's green credentials were impeccable, Curtis wouldn't let up. That's a stance that Jim Baldauf of the statewide grassroots environmental organization Texans United says he respects. "The local liberal Democrats rallied around Watson on that deal -- they were in big-time denial," Baldauf says. "Linda's the kind of person who won't just go along with any weak Democrat because she's supposed to."
But Watson supporters see Curtis' attacks as a case of not seeing the forest for the trees. Watson was the great progressive hope for Austin liberals -- why would a good leftist like Curtis jeopardize that? "Reynolds was her enemy, not Watson," Shea says.
Yet when Watson won on election night, in true Curtis fashion, she didn't even attempt to reconcile with a man she would likely face again when pushing her issues before council in the future. Instead, she gleefully threw wads of fake money she had had printed up, picturing Watson's face and a cartoon of the plastics factory. Watson "hated that," Heckler recalls. "I called and told her, `When you lose, there's no point in rubbing someone's face in it... You may need Kirk for something some day."
Wallowing in the MUD
But in her usual take-no-prisoners style, Curtis has done more than burn that bridge; she's firebombed it. Her most recent attacks on the mayor have come through her work with the angry masses of the anti-annexation movement. While Watson has been championing the unprecedented effort to annex 10,000 acres of land and more than 35,000 people living in the municipal utility districts (MUDs) and other areas ringing the city, Curtis has been riding fire trucks in MUD neighborhoods, urging people to rally, and holding "Austin Tea Parties" at which she passes out unflattering Kirk Watson masks and anti-annexation buttons. (When Councilmember Slusher first heard that Curtis was representing the MUDs, he reportedly noted: "A lot of us in Austin have associated her with mud for a long time.")
Many local activists are put off that Curtis would try and "hurt" the city by opposing annexation, and some question her motives, but Curtis insists she's not council-bashing for the sake of it -- that's just an added bonus. Then how could this hyper class-aware activist consort with rich white MUD people? "This is the same thing like with Lenora Fulani, where the left just doesn't get it," Curtis says. "The consensus-building process in the city, this state, this country, has just broken down. And you see it played out in all kinds of ways such as with this annexation process." (While Watson has argued that the process is bound to be an adversarial one, Curtis insists that he could have sat down and hashed out mutually beneficial deals with at least some of the areas slated for annexation.)
Indeed, how could Curtis not be involved? The MUD fight has all the elements she loves: the disparate coalitions, the animosity, the confrontation.
She'll be involved all right, no matter with whom she has to roll in the MUD. At a recent anti-annexation event, Curtis introduced three guests of honor: John Doggett, conservative radio personality best known for his insistence that Anita Hill came on to him, too, Rep. Mike Krusee, who has made a career out of bashing Austin in the Lege, and Rep. Terry Keel, who is following in Krusee's footsteps. Most self-respecting Austinites would have been heckling the trio; Curtis embraced them as her own. How could joining forces with a crew that has attacked Austin at every turn possibly be a good thing for the city? In Curtis' world, it all makes perfect sense. "When there's an issue around consensus or democracy," she pledges, "I'll be there."