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Remembering Don Shaffer | The Nation

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Remembering Don Shaffer

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Don Shaffer accepts an award honoring his lifelong commitment to social justice at The Nation Institute Annual Gala Dinner in 2012.

Dan Cantor, the executive director of the Working Families Party, wrote this note to his colleagues after hearing of Don Shaffer's death. It is reposted here with permission.

My heart sank yesterday morning upon receiving a note from Manhattan WFP leader Jeff Gold that Don Shaffer had died. A heart attack, kidney failure -- it all happened very quickly after what Don thought was going to be routine surgery. He actually called me from the hospital mid-week to say that he had to cancel a meeting he had planned with Bill Lipton and Liz Pitt to help us plan this June's 15th Anniversary Gala.

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Dan Cantor
Dan Cantor is the executive director of the Working Families Party.

I note the number because Don was present at the previous 14. In fact, he was the only person in the current WFP leadership who also served on the predecessor board of the New Party from 1992 to 1997.  The minutes from those meetings, as well as our own more recent memories, rarely varied. Don was tough-minded, irascible, committed, and always, always willing to carry his share of the load. He was not one who only told others what the best strategy was at any given moment, though he surely did that. Win or lose on any particular strategic question, he showed up and put his shoulder to the wheel as part of our collective effort.

Don's history as a lifetime progressive activist -- from the 1940's to today -- is known better by others.  I know a few snippets here and there. He was at the famous Paul Robeson concert in Peekskill in the late 40's that degenerated into a riot by some right-wing thugs (there's a throwaway line in a Woody Allen movie about how some neighbors got roughed up at this event, and someone once said that the neighbor was a young Don Shaffer). He later moved to Long Island, and among other things became the left's all-time leading insurance agent (very useful when we struggled to find a broker to write a workers comp policy 50 years later).

He was active in the Open Housing fights in Great Neck in the early 1960's, and his passion for racial equality never diminished over many decades on Long Island. He spoke and wrote widely about the need for a fairer property tax system on Long Island, understanding long before anyone else that the system was both discriminatory and would be used by our opponents to incite working-class resentment of the government. He was prescient on this, as on so much else, and it gave him great pleasure when the minority report that Karen Scharff and Lisa Donner authored as members of the Spitzer Property Tax Commission in 2007-8 became informally known as the "Shaffer Position."  It gave him even more pleasure when people and organizations started seriously discussing the need for a Stock Transfer Tax. He had been on that horse forever.   

He was also a dedicated anti-militarist. He was a leader in both local and national organizing against the Vietnam War (what the Vietnamese call "The American War"), and he knew a bad foreign policy position when he saw one. WFP Organizing Director Mike Boland sent this note yesterday:

"One of my all-time favorite moments from WFP history was when Don owned Schumer in the 2004 interview. Schumer was telling this long story of getting involved in politics through the Vietnam War protest and how he would never forget it, and Don just calmly interjected: 'I wish you had remembered it when you voted for the Iraq War" and the room erupted in laughter. The senator's face told the whole story along with the back drop of his own top staff failing to hold it in. Schumer had captivated the room up to that point with his story and it collapsed like a house of cards under the force of Don's wit and commitment to peace."

Vintage Don. He knew what he believed, and he was never, ever afraid to speak truth to power.

After he retired from the insurance business, he moved back to New York City and enrolled in law school. He became a cooperating attorney with the NYCLU (no doubt giving new meaning to the word "cooperating"), one of his other political/organizational homes. I got to know Don a little more personally these last few years when my son and his grandson ended up at college together. He always asked after my son, and then happily and proudly reviewed the progress of his astounding brood of grandchildren. He had a twinkle in his eye on this subject.

The final words on Don properly come from Jeff Gold, who knew Don for more than 40 years. He sent this note:

"I first met Don when I was a kid when I had my fifteen minutes of fame on "Guess Who's Coming to Great Neck" on WCBS-TV, about a school busing controversy.  Don and Doris were the first people to show up at my front door in support, and we've been on an organizing ride together through all these decades and stayed friends even through minor political or strategy disagreements, and even saw each other when I lived in Europe.

He was an original long distance runner, in Michael Harrington's term (Don in fact wrote Michael's life insurance policy). He tried to take the long view even when the party didn't follow his lead. His impatience of the last few years always to me related to his sense of the actuarial clock....Don sent sweet birthday greetings to Jill two weeks ago, which he closed with: 'If progressive activity is the key to a good life, it's clear you have one.'   Of course, that sentiment exactly described Don."

Here's to Don Shaffer and a long life well lived.

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