This weekend, my wife and I had a great breakfast with my good friend Mark Borba and former mayor of Fresno, actor and producer Alan Autry - or Carlos Brown as he's known to us Riverdale folks. We got together to get acquainted and have breakfast and good conversation, and in particular to discuss Mr. Autry's career in entertainment and politics. In particular, I was very interested in learning about his experiences running the city of Fresno, from how he campaigned for the job and won, to the challenges he faced during his time in the mayor's office. I was also eager to hear about how he got started in doing talk radio and gain whatever insight he could give me on that subject as well.
Politics is something I will always be passionate about and public service is something I would definitely like to be involved in, but I have a real desire to do talk radio. I mean, that's what I do, I'm a talker! I come up with blog topics all week long and I don't even write down half the stuff that pops in my head while I'm typing them out. My fingers just can't keep up with my brain, and my posts would be even longer and more annoying to read through than they already are, besides. So, if I could wave a magic wand and have exactly the career I wanted, I would be a talk radio host right now, gain success and a loyal following, get my message out there and connect with the people who share my views, and then move into a successful career in politics, bolstered by the support of my fans. I want to take an active role in making this country a better place in whatever way I can, even if the best I can do is just make things better in my own community and try to cause a ripple effect that carries as far as possible in the process. Too many people just complain and complain and wait around for someone else to fix the things that are broken in our country. I want to take a shot at actually doing something about it.
So, there I am, eating my chipotlé breakfast burrito, drinking my coffee - 2 creams, 2 sugars - and listening intently to everything that Carlos is telling me about how he got to where he is today. I'm listening to him talk about how he had to fight with corrupt developers, stubborn school board members, an oft-ineffective city council that had been weakened by the aforementioned corrupt developers and the real problems of crime and divisive economic strife in Fresno. He referred to Fresno as "A Tale of Two Cities". Anyone who's ever lived in or around Fresno, or visited there more than a couple times will know exactly what he was talking about, but basically Fresno is a city divided, and has been for as long as I can remember. There is a border, both physical and metaphorical, between the more affluent, higher income, better educated and opportunity-rich part of Fresno and the poor, undereducated, crime-ridden and neglected side. That border is drawn basically right down Shaw Ave. Everything north of Shaw is the "good" side of town, everything south of Shaw is the "bad" side. When he took office, Carlos' main priority was to do whatever he could to change that, by bringing opportunity and investment back into south Fresno. It was then that he realized the dividing line in Fresno wasn't simply economic, but political as well. Developers had staked claim to north Fresno as their area of interest and were actively working to prevent development of any kind in south Fresno. A former city council member was basically forced out of office for daring to build affordable, low-income housing in southwest Fresno. The developers were running the city and the council was impotent to change it.
This was when Carlos gave me the first piece of advice to remember. "You have to be willing to lose your job to do your job, or you'll never get anything done in politics."
When he realized the problems that were contributing to the deep socio-economic divide in Fresno, he took the developers on head to head to try and solve the problem. He did a lot to encourage and reward development in the downtown area, and area which is now seeing a boom of growth and revitalization due in no small part to the opening of Grizzly Stadium, the minor league ballpark which not only hosts games for the Fresno Grizzlies, but also puts on concerts and other various events. This has spurred business investment and new development there for the first time in decades. It might not look like much to those of us who grew up in the Fresno area and saw how it used to be, what it became and where it's barely gotten back to now, but if you knew the fight that had to be won just to get done what's been done there so far, you would be amazed. I was.
Carlos was willing to risk his job to get this done, and it paid off. He put himself out there and basically said "I want to make these changes, I want to do these things for the benefit of the city, and I'm willing to stake my career on it." And, the people supported him. He told me, the first thing a person thinks when they meet someone or hear them talk for the first time is "Can I trust this person?" He said, if you show them that you can be trusted, they will give you that trust, but you have to earn it and you have to prove that you deserved it.
Then, as he did often throughout our conversations, Carlos spoke of his faith and how it saved him, both spiritually and physically, from a life that was leading to what he believed would be his death. He spoke very candidly about his struggles with alcohol and drugs and how he had seen it claim good people around him, how it had hurt his family and marriage and how it had left him poor and desperate, wondering what kind of example he was setting for his daughter. He said that it was then that he felt the presence of the lord and that it lifted him and gave him the strength to give up the drugs and the drinking and it gave him the peace to know that, even if he never worked as an actor again, even if he never had that kind of success again in his life, that as long as he could be a good father to his daughter and son to his mother, that he would be rich beyond measure. Now, if you know me, you know that I'm not a religious man. It's not that I'm an atheist or anything, I just have doubts and questions and real issues with the state of organized religion in the world today, and I'm not capable, at this point in my life, of putting my life entirely in the hands of God and surrendering to faith. However, as I was listening to Carlos' words, I felt his strength of conviction behind them. I felt his faith and his sincere belief in every word he was saying. I respected the honesty with which he was testifying before us. He didn't speak of his past as if it was something to be ashamed of, he spoke of it like it was a test that he had to endure to help him become the better man he felt he was today, and it resonated with me.
Now, I don't know if Mark had briefed Carlos as to the kind of person he was going to be dealing with in me, in terms of my ideologies, my beliefs, my opinions, and so on, but Carlos seemed to be aware that I wasn't a guy who was totally sold on religion. It was obvious we had some differences, politically, and that was one thing, but here was a guy who had given his life to God. He had found renewed faith and through that faith, renewed purpose. He had started a faith and family-based film production company in Fresno. His life was a daily tribute to God, a daily mission to serve him, to follow the path he had laid out for him. It was one thing to argue politics, because politics can be changed like a pair of pants, as we see every day in our government. However, there was no arguing when it came to God. I didn't even dare challenge, at first out of pure respect for this man who was taking time out of his Saturday to come talk to me when he didn't have to, but later it was because of the second thing he told me that I took away from the conversation...
"We're not really so different, you and I..."
Carlos, as if sensing some uneasiness in me as he spoke of his faith, began to tell me a story about when he spoke to a gay rights association in Fresno, during his campaign for mayor. Now, as you can probably guess, Carlos, being a devout Christian, has strong beliefs about marriage and the homosexual lifestyle and things that, once again, I wasn't going to get into a debate with him about for common sense reasons if nothing else. However, he chose to speak to this gay rights group, knowing that he would be walking into the lion's den as a conservative Christian who was opposed to gay marriage and the "gay agenda" as he put it.
Right from the start he said he could feel the eyes on him like laser beams. He could cut the tension in the room with a knife as he began to speak. When he was done with his speech, the floor was opened up for questions and, sure enough, a man stood up and began to take Carlos to task for his anti-gay beliefs. After the gentleman had his say, Carlos said "Let me ask you a question, you're a gay man... but is that all you are?" The man replied "What do you mean?" Carlos said "I mean, is being gay all that there is to you? Is it what defines you, what rules your life, what influences every decision you make every minute of the day?" The man replied "No, of course not." Then Carlos said "Well, I'm a heterosexual man, but that doesn't define me either. When I get up in the morning, I don't decide 'what's the heterosexual thing to do?' before I do something, I just decide what do I want to do. I'm assuming you are the same?" The man replied "Yes."
Then Carlos asked the room "Do you all believe we should do something about education?"
"Do you believe we should do something about crime in this city?"
"Do you believe we should do more to stimulate job creation and economic growth here?"
"Do you believe we should improve the streets, beautify the city and make this a more attractive place to live?"
"Do you believe we can work together to make Fresno a better city for everyone who lives here?"
The answer to all of those questions was "yes."
"Then," Carlos said, "we're not really so different, you and I."
That's when he told me, "Dave, if you focus on the things we have in common that unite us as people in this country instead of the differences that divide us, you will find that most people agree with each other more often than they disagree. If you can get those people to see that about you, you're halfway there."
Those words struck me, probably more so than anything else he told me that morning.
Here I am, guilty myself of rushing to judgment to an extent, due to the fact that Carlos is a devout Christian, making assumptions about his ideology and his beliefs, and when you get right down to it, it's not much different than the intolerance I perceived him having towards the gay community. Do I agree with his views about gays? No, I don't. However, if I judge him solely based on those views, I'm completely ignoring the fact that we agree about very basic things that mean much more to the average person in their everyday lives. Things like improving education, lowering crime, providing opportunity to those who seek it and so on. These things are all issues that I am much more passionate about and I feel would do far more to improve our society than bickering about sexual lifestyle with someone who clearly is not going to change their views on that subject no matter how good of an argument I make. Convincing a devout Christian to accept homosexuality is like convincing a gay guy to accept vagina, it's just not going to happen. So, rather than beat your head against the one wall that's between you, focus on all the clear pathways to understanding that exist instead. It's simple and brilliant and I will never forget it.
Following up on that, Carlos told me "Always remember, be flexible in your politics but firm in your convictions."
He went on to explain that, as mayor, he had proposed incentives paid by the city of Fresno to encourage private sector growth and development. This was strongly in opposition to his conservative, Republican politics, but it was what he felt was necessary to do what he believed was right, which was to try and bridge that gap between the "Two Cities" that Fresno had become. He made deals and compromises that drew a lot of heat from his party, but he said that he was willing to be flexible on his politics because he knew in his heart that it was the right thing to do. He said men who compromise their convictions for their politics never get anything accomplished and only contribute to the problems in our government. However, men who compromise their politics to stick to their convictions, they are usually remembered as great men and strong leaders. He cited JFK, who was strong on military and civil service. He said "Can you imagine JFK getting up in front of the Democrats today and saying "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country?" He said, "Can you imagine a Democrat saying we need a strong military?" He said, "That's why JFK is remembered as such a great leader, even though he was killed so soon into his presidency, because he put politics second to what he knew was right for the country, and the people loved him for it."
When we finally had to drag ourselves out of that breakfast meeting, nearly 3 hours later, because the businessmen at the table all had more meetings to go to and schedules to keep, I walked out to the car with everything I had listened to and participated in swirling around in my head. Here we were, four people who had all come from the same small town, gone to the same school, knew everyone's families. Two generations of Riverdale people. One one side, two men who had gone on to have great personal and professional success and, on the other side, two people eager to achieve that same success for ourselves. There were conflicting opinions held on each side, and opinions that we were all in agreement with. However, when all was said and done and the napkins were thrown on the empty plates, we really weren't so different.
We all want basically the same thing - to make a better life for our children (well, as soon as Shannon and I have kids, that is.) We really all want to see our country thrive and be great and continue to be the land of opportunity that helped one half of the table become successful and would hopefully help the other half do the same thing. Sure, we have our differences and some of them are quite significant, but at the end of the day we all can agree on the things that really matter, and that... for lack of a better word... is what really matters.
I can honestly say, the way I debate with my conservative friends and critics will change as a result of what I learned on Saturday. I have a new way of looking at things, and I feel like I've taken yet another step closer to reaching my lofty, yet completely attainable goal.