Meet Chokwe Pitchford: Charisma, Perseverance And Empathy

Southwest Michigan has been under the glassy-eyed influence of a well-oiled Republican machine due to Fred Upton’s nearly three-and-a-half-decade career as Michigan’s 6th district congressman, with compounding consequences for Chokwe Pitchford’s generation in particular.

The representation of Republicans Al Pscholka and John Proos, and now Pauline Wendzel and Kim LaSata in Michigan’s state legislature, together with historically Republican-controlled county and city governments has meant that Democrats rarely even get a seat at the table there, and they certainly don’t get offered opportunities to speak at white-linen luncheons or mid-summer chamber steak fries.

These conditions have given the false impression to constituents in the 79th district that pervasive poverty and crumbling infrastructure in cities like Benton Harbor are the fault of its largely Democratic school boards, city commissions, and residents and their inability to work together. However, nothing could be farther from the truth.

When an old friend of mine told me about this young, energetic progressive activist running for the Michigan state legislature, I asked state Rep. Jon Hoadley, a member of that legislature and the progressive Democrat who is going to finally retire Fred Upton in November. I couldn’t have asked a better person. Their campaigns are working together and Hoadley’s enthusiasm for Pitchford was boundless. He tole me that “He’s a bold voice for change in southwest Michigan. He’s ready to work with everyone, an Olympic quality listener, and focused on solutions. He’s a voice we need in the legislature right now.” And Jon would know.

For much of the time Upton has been in office, the west end of Michigan has been largely Republican controlled, with Kalamazoo County being the seemingly singular bright spot of blue. Michigan’s east side, with the heavy influence of the bulk of the country’s auto workers at its heart in Detroit, Flint, Saginaw and Pontiac, has been subjected to a push and pull for power between Democratic unions and Republican founding auto giants like the Fords, the Durants, the McLaughlins, and the Chryslers.

When auto sales are up, life is good for all. When auto sales are down, layoffs begin and working families go without while the fat cats wait it out, warm and comfortable in their mansions, burning their piles of money to cook their foie gras and keep warm.

Sounds familiar during COVID, doesn’t it?

Goal ThermometerSo what’s the solution? Electing people who are truly invested in the holistic and sustainable wellness of his state, his community and its people, and whose lived experiences more closely resembles those of the majority who live, work, and play here.

People like Chokwe Pitchford. I asked him to introduce himself to Blue America  members who want more information than what you can glean from the video or what you can find on his website or his Facebook page or by following him on Twitter. So, please, read Chokwe’s guest post below and if you like what he has to say, please consider contributing to his campaign by clicking on the Blue America 2020 state legislative thermometer on the right.

And remember, a $10 or $20 contribution goes a long way towards building an effective grassroots campaign for a state legislative race. Flipping the Michigan state House is probably going to come down to this race and Chokwe’s candidacy.

Politics is Personal; Perseverance Should be a Prerequisite for Running for Office
-by Chokwe Pitchford

My first television ad (see below) was released last week. In it, I talk about the perseverance required of families like mine in today’s America. An America where, depending on what generation you belong to, you’ve lived through multiple economic crises, a housing crash, or, like me, a “crack epidemic” with family members caught up in the ensuing “War On Drugs.” Maybe your family has been impacted by the more recent “opioid crisis,” an epidemic by any other name, deserving of its own war on the pain points we share, or at least recognize, like poverty, housing insecurity, and joblessness.

Maybe, as a first-time voter in a presidential election, also like me, you’ve been living in a country at war for as long as you can remember, with a climate crisis and a global pandemic on the side, just for good measure.

Something occurs when you’re a little kid, watching what’s happening around you to all the people you love and who look like you, and you’re thinking to yourself, this is not right. Again, and again, I’ve watched families like mine– generations of folks who are working hard, trying to do everything “right”– being cut out of the American Dream we, too, are guaranteed by the constitution of the United States of America.

Understandably, some people just get angry. Some people give up.

I got motivated to run for office.

I am a twenty-year-old Black man and I’ve grown up between New Orleans, where the hospital I was born in was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina; Atlanta, Georgia, where my family’s home was lost in the housing market crash; and Benton Harbor, Michigan, where years of strategic disinvestment in and disenfranchisement of people of color, especially those who are Black or indigenous, led to the high school I’d graduated from just the year before being threatened with closure by the state. It was then that I thought, “Someone from my community needs to run for office.”

When I looked in the mirror, that someone was me.

I hope you will vote to give me the opportunity to represent all the hard-working families in the 79th district with something in common: we’ve all been nurtured by years of republican control to believe that resources are so limited that we must fight one another for the crumbs from one very small piece of foie gras pie.

The truth is that families in Benton Harbor could thrive in safe, resource-rich environments just as families in who live in cities like St. Joseph do if resources were allocated more equitably. If, for instance, resources weren’t squeezed out of communities like Benton Harbor’s overpoliced neighborhoods through bonds, fees, and court costs to fund a criminal justice system that was never designed to enforce the laws equitably or even pursue justice when the criminals don’t look like me or my family.

The price working people must pay– like single moms working two and three jobs so they never have to ask for help (because they “made their beds,” right?)– when times are tough, in a seasonal economy like Michigan’s, is compounded over decades and over generations that never truly catch up. And don’t get me started on what student loan debt might look like for young people like me starting out in a post-COVID economy.

The segregation and resulting disparity we see so blatantly displayed here isn’t sustainable. It’s why we’re in a come-to-Jesus moment regarding racial equity. Perpetuating the idea that racism lives mainly in the south and that northern states have somehow been immune is a myth.

Michigan overall is a deeply segregated state, which harms our ability to compete in a global economy. If small businesses can’t thrive here, due in part to the seasonal nature of doing business in Michigan, we can’t continue to support the tourism industry which provides many working families with the most basic living expenses, or with second and third jobs, with ways to pay for their kids’ extracurricular activities, for family vacations, for kids and their families to pay for college, or for families to be able to help their kids while they start their lives.

Well, enough is enough. Closing schools can never again be an answer we entertain. The opposite of segregation isn’t just integration, it is investment. Rather than allow huge corporations like Nestlè to exploit our precious resources for profit while we allow that same water to poison the children of Flint, my promise to you if I am elected is that I will work every moment I am breathing to ensure that, as a state, we begin investing in all Michigan’s working families from Hagar Shores to Watervliet, from Benton Harbor to Bridgman, and everywhere in between.

While it is true that I am just starting out in my life and career, after our latest campaign finance report that says our fundraising is running neck and neck with my opponent’s– who wouldn’t be where she is without a steady influx of DeVos money– Daily Kos reported that our campaign has a real shot at turning that badly needed fourth seat blue in Michigan’s state house.

“It may well be a long shot that we Democrats have nominated a 20 y.o. in this race. However, given everything we’ve been through the last 20 years as a party, and looking at the road ahead and seeing how Chokwe powerfully frames the choice, isn’t it worth taking a moment and making a donation to at least give Chokwe Pitchford a shot?”

“Think of it this way, every new voter and student Chokwe Pitchford turns out to vote will add to the support for Biden/Harris in Southwest Michigan, a crucial swing state.”

In that spirit, if Michigan’s 79th district voters show up in November, electing someone like me who knows what it is to persevere, someone who recognizes and honors the perseverance of his constituents,

  • means we can protect things like a pregnant person’s right to access the full spectrum of reproductive healthcare.
  • It means ensuring that every kid has every opportunity to succeed with increases to tuition-free career and technical education, and partnering with unions to create more apprenticeship and journeyman positions that serve more students, including those who are chronically underserved.
  • It means we’d be able to lower prescription costs by creating a citizens’ commission to monitor, track, and approve– or not– what drug manufacturers want to charge for life-saving prescription drugs like asthma medications and insulin.
  • It means we’d be able to introduce and have a prayer at passing bipartisan legislation to use our existing unemployment system to cover parental and sick leave for Michigan’s working families, helping small businesses in the process.

And doing it without having to wait for such critical help to come at the federal level because republicans and democrats in our state legislature would be forced to represent all of their constituents and look at the merits of proposed legislation, versus voting on the basis of purely partisan power plays.

And most of all, flipping Michigan’s 79th district blue means we would have the opportunity to invest in and help turn around my state’s struggling public school system that was once among the greatest in the country, and never threaten to shut down any kid’s school, ever again.

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