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County Fairs and Fairness Vermont's passage of "civil union" legislation, which provides gay and lesbian couples most rights and protections afforded straight married couples, didn't just happen. Credit goes to groups like the

Vermont Freedom to Marry Task Force

About the Author

John Nichols
John Nichols
John Nichols, a pioneering political blogger, has written the Beat since 1999. His posts have been circulated...

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He wants Republicans controlling the “political apparatus” and the “governmental apparatus” of voting.

The Democratic Senate candidate's prairie populism has made him competitive in this red state.

, which has worked for five years to change hearts and minds in the state. Even before Vermont's Supreme Court forced legislators to address equity issues, says task force board member

Deborah Lashman

, "We talked to anybody who would listen--Chamber of Commerce meetings, clubs, schools." Even county fairs were targeted. "We always have a big booth at the fair--with photos of couples, everything." The fieldwork paid off; by the time this spring's legislative votes approached, the task force had supporters in every Vermont county. One convert was Vermont State Senator

Helen Riehle

, who said meetings with the task force helped shape her stance. "I am happy that Vermonters have led the way," she said in voting for the measure, adding that she was only sorry the legislature wasn't going all the way--by voting to allow same-gender marriages. This unabashed advocate for gay and lesbian rights is a Chittenden County Republican, a veteran of eighteen years in the legislature and twenty-eight years of marriage. Vermont activists continue to push for same-gender marriage rights and hope to export their take-it-to-the-people approach: "Vermont is definitely not the only place this kind of effort can work," Lashman says.

Seder Solidarity "The first work strike took place 5,000 years ago, when the Hebrew people walked out of Egypt," declared Temple Kol Tikvah Rabbi

Steven Jacobs

as he observed a Passover Seder with striking LA janitors. The strikers, mostly Latino Catholics, joined the traditional Seder meal in front of a building being struck by

Service Employees International Union Local 1877

. Jacobs and other religious leaders were later arrested after committing civil disobedience to support the strikers. A settlement was reached on Easter and workers ratified it the next day.

Wrestling Ventura When the Minnesota State Senate voted to limit access to abortion, reproductive rights supporters had their work cut out for them. The law mandated a twenty-four-hour waiting period for women seeking abortions, required clinics to tell women in graphic detail about abortion procedures and provide information about alternatives, and included up to $10,000 fines for doctors who disobeyed. Similar legislation had already passed in twelve other states. Only Governor Jesse Ventura's veto stood between the bill and passage, but Ventura's staff had helped craft a version of the plan so the chances that he would block it didn't look good. Minnesota's

National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League

chapter,

Planned Parenthood of Minnesota/South Dakota

and a coalition of clinics decided to hit the wrestler-turned-Governor in his conscience. After all, he had won election on a pro-choice platform. "We had just three days, so we poured our energy into getting people to call Jesse Ventura, fax his office, get a message to him that we wanted him to go back and think about his basic beliefs," says

Tim Stanley

, Minnesota NARAL executive director. "We put out an all-points bulletin. The Governor got something like 6,000 messages from our side in seventy-two hours." Callers included

Gloria Steinem

, who had met previously with Ventura, travels to Minnesota often--"I've been to Bemidji"--and watches abortion rights fights there closely. "Minnesota is an early-warning system for the rest of the country," she explains. "The fights you see there usually end up playing out later in other states. That's why making these calls matters." The campaign worked: Ventura vetoed the bill, saying he had been wrong to consider a compromise: "We learned that there is no middle ground here." The Minnesota drive drew on sophisticated lists of state abortion rights backers developed with a grant from

The Turner Foundation

. The foundation, created by Ted Turner, has a $25 million annual budget and directs its giving to environmental and population policy groups. Grantees include the NARAL Foundation, Planned Parenthood, the

National Abortion Federation

,

Zero Population Growth

, the

Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice

and the

National Family Planning & Reproductive Health Association

. Last year the foundation began giving grants to groups in eight states where abortion rights are particularly threatened. "We put a special emphasis on helping groups develop the electronic tools necessary to contact people on their lists quickly and effectively," says

Cecile Richards

, who oversees Turner's pro-choice giving. "The Turner list made a huge difference," says NARAL's Stanley. "When an emergency arose, we were ready to move on it."

Citizen Rock "I am an artist and a citizen," says rocker

Patti Smith

. The poet and songwriter, who released her first album twenty-five years ago, displays both aspects of her persona on a fine new CD, Gung Ho (Arista). The high priestess of punk in the seventies, Smith has been creating music over the past decade that pushes the notion expressed in the title of one of her best songs: "People Have the Power." It's a theme she'll be taking on the road this spring as she launches her most ambitious tour in years. A history buff who devours stories of Paul Revere's midnight ride, Smith sees herself as a musician-messenger calling people to action. On Gung Ho she seems to be doing that at every turn. Smith, who visited Vietnam while writing these songs, uses the title-track to explore similarities between Ho Chi Minh and Thomas Jefferson, both men she celebrates as having carried "the seed of revolution." On other tracks she plants her own seeds of revolution. "Glitter in Their Eyes," perhaps the closest thing to a classic pop song Smith has recorded since "Because the Night," makes reference to last fall's WTO protests in Seattle; "Strange Messengers" recounts the legacy of slavery and colonialism; and environmental themes run through songs such as "New Party." That last tune features Smith's call for a political realignment driven by citizen action: "We got to get up off our ass or get burned," she chants.

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