In the dessert room, with Norman Solomon and Daniel Ellsberg


Inside the well-appointed kitchen of Gary Birnbaum’s modernist Strawberry home, Democratic Congressional candidate Norman Solomon stood wide-eyed, absorbing the backdrop of his latest campaign house party. Outside the French doors, under the purplish flare of twilight, a spacious terrace looked out over Richardson Bay and the Tiburon peninsula. Solomon, respected for his intellectual heft and his willingness to stray from conventional political wisdom, stated the obvious: “We’re at such a great venue.” 

Solomon thanked Birnbaum for opening his home to the $200-a-head soiree for more than 20 potential contributors and featured speaker, famed Pentagon Papers leaker, Daniel Ellsberg. 

Despite the opulence of the setting, Solomon, who lives in Inverness Park,  soon found himself engaged in  conversation about a decidedly working-class issue—the type he really cares about. Barbara Clark, a fellow member of the Progressive Democrats of America (PDA), told Solomon about the picket line, in support of nurses’ rights, which she attended earlier in the day at Sutter Medical Center in Santa Rosa. It wasn’t just glad handling chatter. Solomon had attended a strike for the same cause earlier that afternoon, at Novato Community Hospital. 

Most of the supporters milling about Birnbaum’s home on Thursday evening shared a common outlook: they were disillusioned with the Democratic electoral field and were impressed with Solomon’s authentic knowledge of and passion for the progressive agenda. That’s why Clark was so surprised and thrilled when she first heard about his candidacy. 

“Truthfully, I look at the politicians as a bunch of frat boys who don’t care about much and act like juveniles,” Clark said. “And he is so far from that. I mean, he is the kind of person [that] truly has a good heart as well as a great intellect. We need a heart in Washington.” 

Ellsberg, a renowned anti-war advocate who has known Solomon for almost two decades and penned the forward to his book Made Love, Got War, was also at first taken aback by Solomon’s decision to break into the political realm. 

“I wasn’t sure why he wanted to do it, but my trust in Norman is such that if he thinks he can make a difference there, I’ll trust him that he can,” Ellsberg said. “I know he’s not just doing it for ego or fame, or certainly not for profit.” 

As the residential lights on the other side of the bay began to brighten, an ambient acoustic guitar duo finished their set and people filtered into an upstairs living room to hear Solomon and Ellsberg speak.  

“We have an opportunity to have a conversation with two people who really can express a lot of the ideals and ideas that you all think about, and have a vision of the type of society that we’d love to live in that unfortunately we’re not living in right now,” Birnbaum said in a short introduction from his armchair. 

Solomon began his talk by answering a question posed by Ellsberg earlier in the night: Which political figure does he emulate? He replied that he had come to admire Senator Wayne Morse during the Vietnam era; as a teenager, he had attended a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing in 1968, and had heard Morse tell Lyndon B. Johnson’s aides that he did not “intend to put the blood of this war on my hands.” 

“I think what is so important for us is to speak truth about power, so that our eyes are not uplifted in supplication, but we’re connecting with each other to try to share insights and understandings about how power is wielded in a negative way,” Solomon said. “And also to overcome the ambivalence that progressives have about power. Because power can be manifested for tremendous good.” 

For Solomon, that good can be executed by building working relationships with similarly minded progressives in Congress, as well as with activists and organizations, to confront and tackle the problems of “autocratic corporate power” and the “dire shortage of democracy.” These, in his estimation, complicate the development of solutions to issues such as unemployment, climate change, lack of renewable energies, restrictions of social liberties, poor public education and a limited transportation infrastructure. 

His campaign, which embraces grassroots social movements and rejects corporate PAC donations in favor of individual contributors, addresses both of these fundamental problems. Without any corporate sponsorship, the campaign has raised over $200,000, second only to candidate and State Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, who says he has raised “far, far more” than that. A preliminary count of campaign contributions from the house party was $4,500.  

Solomon also announced that he learned earlier in the day that PDA had decided to lend its first official endorsement for 2012 to his campaign for the open 2nd district Congressional seat. 

After an inspirational and mostly serious introduction, Solomon offered the floor to Ellsberg, who regaled guests with insights he had gained during the Pentagon Papers ordeal and a convincing endorsement of Solomon. Coincidentally, Senator Morse had once told Ellsberg that if he had leaked his confidential cables sooner, the resolution would have never been passed and he, in effect, could have prevented the Vietnam War. This troubling revelation made him realize that the principled actions of one person, especially in higher levels of government, can have profound effects on history. He said that Solomon was the type of person that would not shy away from wielding his influence.

“I have no question at all that Norman Solomon would be one person who would stand up,” he said to applause. “People will always say to me, ‘Well, aren’t you talking to the choir?’ And I say, ‘Yes.’ That’s exactly who I need to be talking to, because the choir can always do more than they end up doing. I don’t have to change their lives, which is very hard to do, I don’t have to change their hearts but get them off their ass…What I look for from Norman in this is to organize the progressive caucus.” 

Standing in the dessert room as the night wound down and volunteers packed up the kitchen, Solomon said he felt uplifted by the positive energy that coursed through the home. “The ultimate success of the campaign is to have so much community involvement that all the money and any mud thrown in our direction will be insufficient to stop our momentum,” he said. “So we’re gonna keep building from the grassroots up.”