Politics for the People Book Club Recordings — A Conversation with Lois Leveen


On Sunday, June 3rd the book club had the pleasure of spending an hour in conversation with Lois Leveen, the author of The Secrets of Mary Bowser. You can listen to our full conversation at the end of this post.

Lois says that she “dwells in the spaces where literature and history meet.” She has degrees in history and literature from Harvard, USC and UCLA and has taught at UCLA and Reed College.

In addition to being a novelist, Lois is a frequent essayist and contributor to the New York Times, LA Review of Books, Huffington Post and many other publications, literary and scholarly journals.

In the opening section of the call, you can hear Lois and I discuss how she first met Mary Bowser and decided to write the book.  We talk about the relationship between Mary and Bet Van Lew, the woman who freed her and was her collaborator in spying on the Confederacy.

Give a listen here or below:


Caroline Donnola, who orginally recommended The Secrets of Mary Bowser to be a Politics for the People selection, asked Lois how she created and built out the characters of the book, especially Mary Bowser.  How did she decide what she should sound like, how she should think, how she would respond to her many life challenges?  You can hear their conversation here or below:


Helen Abel from CA shared that one of the most astonishing parts of the book for her was how Mary Bowser extended the Civil War by withholding particular information so that slavery would become a main issue for Lincoln and not just preservation of the Union. She asked Lois whether she this part of the book was something she uncovered in her research and whether there were other spies who impacted the civil war in this or in similar ways?  Listen to Lois’ answer:


Alice Rydel was eager to ask Lois if she considered herself a social activist? Give a listen to her answer:


Dr. Jessie Fields shared with us how much she appreciated The Secrets of Mary Bowser, and how much it “…conveys a great deal of African American history in a very intimate fashion, that history also being integral to American history. ” She asked Lois how her study of African American literature influenced the writing of the novel. Lois talked about how much she learned from authors like Richard Wright, James Baldwin and many African American women authors about “how difficult it is to negotiate protecting your family in a place where you legally really have very few or no protection of them.”  She talks about the creation of Mary Bowser’s voice, and the private school education she received.  You can hear the full response here and below:


Jenn Bullock, the coordinator of Independent Pennslyvanians commented on how “powerfully and unapologetically” Lois portrayed the racism in Philadelphia, particularly among white progressives.  You can listen to Lois’ response.  She talks about how “not everybody who was antislavery would have described themselves as an abolitionist.”


Harry Kresky and Lois talked about Clarence Thomas, Thurgood Marshall, the movie Black Panther and, as Harry put it, the complicated and controversial “issue of what African Americans and others do with opportunity, giving back so called…”  A fascinating conversation to listen to:


Julie Leak shared how much she loved the book and some of her reminisces of growing up in the South.  Lois talked about a visit to Richmond during the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and emancipation and a visit to Lumpkin’s Alley with an African American woman whose family lived in Richmond for generations.  Give a listen:


You can listen to our entire conversation below:


And if you would like to learn more about Mary Bowser and Elizabeth Van Lew, take a look at this wonderful CSPAN video, “A Spy in the Confederate White House” from 2013. The video features Edward Ayers, President of the University of Richmond; Lois Leveen; and Elizabeth Varon, Professor at the University of Virginia and the author of Southern Lady, Yankee Spy: The True Story of Elizabeth Van Lew, a Union Agent in the Heart of the Confederacy. 

Lois’ second book is Juliet’s Nurse, which tells the story of Romeo and Juliet through the eyes of Juliet’s nurse.  I have added this to my summer reading list.


We will announce our next selection soon.





Reader’s Forum — Harry Kresky

Lois Leveen’s historical novel, The Secrets of Mary Bowser, tells the inspiring story of a young woman born into slavery in Richmond VA who became a spy for the Union with access to the papers and conversations of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

The book portrays many aspects of America before and during the civil war: the cruelty of slavery; the courage of African-Americans who fought against it; the conflicted P1100330relationship between African-Americans (slave and free) active in the struggle and white abolitionists; the agonizingly slow, but inexorable defeat of the Confederacy.

It is also a story about human development. Mary Bowser’s parents, forced to live apart as slaves with different masters, instilled in their daughter a determination to be free, the importance of focusing and working towards that goal, and the need to become worldlier.  She had the good fortune to be bought and freed by an anti-slavery member of the family that owned her and, at her sponsor’s urging (and with the full support of her parents), moved to Philadelphia where she was able to study at a school for freed African-Americans.  And, of course, that meant leaving her parents behind in Richmond.

Mary Bowser proved to be the top student in her class, an avid learner outside of school, and an astute judge of character and analyst of social and political dynamics.  Whether her accomplishments are attributed to genetics, opportunity or luck (likely all of them), Bowser’s story demonstrates the importance of being able to live in a more cosmopolitan environment and interact with many different kinds of people, white and black, kind and not so kind.

And the responsibility on all of us to relate to people as who they can become.

Harry Kresky is counsel to IndependentVoting.org and one of the country’s leading experts on nonpartisan primary reform and the legal issues facing independent voters. He is also a poet (poems for friends).



Politics for the People

Conference Call 

Sunday, June 3rd at 7 pm EST.

Will Explore

The Secrets of Mary Bowser

Secrets of Mary Bowser Bk Cover

With Author Lois Leveen


P4P Recordings–A Conversation with Greg Orman



On Sunday, April 15th, we had the pleasure of spending an hour with independent candidate for Governor in Kansas, Greg Orman.

Greg is a successful businessman and entrepeurner who ran as an independent for the US Senate in 2014 and made national headlines with almost unseating the incumbent Republican Pat Roberts.  In 2016 Greg wrote A Declaration of Independents: How We Can Break the Two-Party Stranglehold and Restore the American Dream.  The book offers a powerful look at independents and our potential role in moving our country beyond, what Greg so aptly calls, weaponized partisanship and is a scathing indictment of the two party system, the duopoly.

You can listen to our full conversation at the end of this post.

In our opening segment you will hear my introduction of Greg and our initial conversation where we talked about what Greg hopes people take away from his book, the unique role he sees independents and independent candidates playing in bringing people together and they dynamics in the current gubernatorial race.  Give a listen:


Evelyn Dougherty from the Massachusetts Coalition of Independent Voters asked our first question.  Book club members in MA wondered what were the most important lessons Greg learned as an independent candidate in 2014 that he is taking into his independent run for Governor this year? Here is what Greg shared with us:


Steve Richardson, the founding member of Virginia Independent Voters Association and asked our next question about the struggle independent voters face and the need for structural political reform at a state level.  You can listen to Greg and Steve’s conversation here.


Dr. Jessie Fields and Greg had a rich conversation about the divisions in the country and how to bring differing communities together. Dr. Fields shared, “My view is that the parties divide the American people and the Black community is being told in many ways that its interests are synonymous with…the Democratic Party in particular.”  Greg agreed and said, “…the two parties tend to want to divide us because it serves their electoral purposes, and yet we all understand how fundamentally damaging that is to our country. And so I think, if you are genuinely an independent and you genuinely put your country and your state ahead of any political party or frankly ahead of any other interest, then ultimately you have to be working in the service of bringing people together. ” You can listen to their full interaction about the African American community and how Greg is reaching out to bring people together outside the parties here.


Steve Hough, the Director of Florida Fair and Open Primaries asked Greg his view of the Top Two Nonpartisan Primary System. Greg shared his past support for the system and some of the challenges he believes the Top Two system presents for independent candidates.  You can listen to their exchange.


Harry Kresky, Independent Voting’s general counsel asked Greg how he saw the issue of independents having the right to vote in primaries—was it a bottom line issue that the movement could agree upon.  In his response, Greg shared his view, “…One person, one vote is something the Supreme Court has codified in law yet one person one vote doesn’t seem to apply if you’re an independent….There is a basic inconsistency in the law and again courts have consistently confirmed that partisan primaries are private political behavior and yet they seem to not have a problem with the government paying for that private political behavior….I think the way we’re going to start making progress on opening up primaries, particularly in states where there isn’t a citizen driven initiative, is largely going to be through forcing the courts to make a more consistent decision.” You can listen to the full exchange:


Sue Davies, the coordinator of New Jersey Independent Voters shared with Greg that she works with independents who are pursuing a strategy of taking over one or the other of the major parties.  Greg shared with us that this is not a strategy that he has given a lot of thought to and pointed out, “…We need to start recognizing that as independents we have the numbers and we have to start coalescing around candidates and ultimately winning some elections is a way to change the perception about the viability of independent candidacies.” Give a listen:


George Trapp, a member of Independent Voice of Ohio told us that he was glad to read in Greg’s book his view of the importance of addressing economic mobility and poverty. George asked Greg if there what were examples of the government doing too much and examples of the government doing too little to help poor people. You can hear Greg’s response.


You can listen to the full recording of our P4P conversation below.


If you would like to stay up to date on Greg’s campaign, please visit OrmanforKansas.org.



Please join us for our next selection:

The Secrets of Mary Bowser.

Secrets of Mary Bowser Bk Cover

Hope you will pick up your copy of the book today. 

We will be talking with author Lois Leveen 

Sunday, June 3rd at 7 pm EST.

Harry Kresky for National Poetry Month


Harry Kresky is counsel to IndependentVoting.org and one of the country’s leading experts on nonpartisan primary reform and the legal issues facing independent voters. He is also a poet. You can read more of his poetry on his blog, poems for friends.


Taking Stock?


It’s that time of year

And that time of life.



Time to take stock,

To sum up.

Was my life well spent?

Did I make a difference?


My better voices say

You don’t need to do this.

Your life has been a collective effort.

Does measurement have meaning

If you want to change the world?


Enya sings

“Is there a road I should follow,

A sign I should know”

She sings about getting back

The love she lost.


I don’t  have a lost love.

I have friends I love.

Together we have let go —

Unmoored and committed.


December 2017



Secrets of Mary Bowser Bk Cover

The Secrets of Mary Bowser is our new Politics for the People Book Club selection. 

Hope you will pick up your copy of the book today. 

We will be talking with author Lois Leveen on Sunday, June 3rd at 7 pm EST.


Patriot by Harry Kresky

Today’s poem was written by Harry Kresky

Harry Kresky at National Conference 2017



An urban Jew –
A radical iconoclast.

An American.
Who can’t bear to see his country torn apart
By those who abandon us in pursuit of gotcha gold.


I wrote this poem in to response to the goings on in Washington since Trump was elected.  While I’m no fan of our President, I see the concerted efforts of the CIA, the liberal media and the Democratic Party to undo the result of an election as a threat to our democracy. The poem is also posted on my blog: poemsforfriends.wordpress.com

Harry Kresky is counsel to IndependentVoting.org and one of the country’s leading experts on nonpartisan primary reform and the legal issues facing independent voters.


Highlights from P4P Conversation with Matthew Desmond



On Sunday, October 23rd, the Politics for the People book club spent an hour talking with Matthew Desmond about his book, EVICTED: Poverty and Profit in the American City.  I am sharing a few highlights below and you can listen to the entire conversation at the end of this post.

(Note: if the audio links do not appear in the email version of this post, just click on the email to come to the blog.)

Our first audio clip includes my introduction of Matthew and an exploration of his process, his examination of poverty as a relationship between rich and poor, and how that framework brought him to look at and study the eviction crisis. I also talked with Matthew about the destabilization of New York City’s public housing taking place under the NextGeneration plan. This section ends with some of Matthews most surprising discoveries meeting people living in poverty across the country and the ways in which they refused to be defined by their hardships.  Have a listen:


Ramon Pena shared his personal experience being evicted in New York City after “20 years of having never missed a rent payment.” He goes on to share his journey through homelessness, the shelter system and finally to a home out of state. Ramon and Matthew explore what our elected officials should be held accountable for. Hear their interaction below.


Sarah Bayer found out she is a Cambridge, Massachusetts neighbor of Matthew’s as she delved into a fascinating exchange on her 25 years of work within the family shelter system, what she describes as our nations’ own “internal refugees”, and the unique financial constraints placed on a city like Boston. How does Matthew see the role that the shelter system plays in the eviction crisis?


Tiani Coleman, president of New Hampshire Independent Voters talked about her days of working in the court system in Salt Lake City,

“I did pro-bono work for my church community and was able to see first hand the impact of lack of representation for families that were facing eviction. I had to handle some evictions, and even had opposing council get rather annoyed with me and tell me I was unnecessarily complicating things… What do you think is the biggest impediment to getting the eviction crisis and the representation issue in housing court addressed?”

Matthew began his answer by acknowledging the important kind of community investment Tiani spoke of, “Thank you so much for your work, you were slugging it out in housing court… When folks have a lawyer by their side their chances of keeping their home go up dramatically irrespective of the case.” Hear their interaction below:


Attorney and Independent activist Harry Kresky shared his observations since moving to New York city to attend Columbia in 1962. Throughout his time here and through his work on the NYCHA housing crisis he’s seen that increasingly “so much of the face of New York is now for the wealthy people…. A lot of the focus is on so called ‘affordable housing’ which deals with middle class people and union members and people that have political clout,” but troubling to Harry was the absence of a coming together of “the affordable housing people,” and “the people living in intractable poverty and fighting to save public housing.” Matthew And Harry explore why that might be:


 As we looked forward, Arizona P4P member Al Bell asked Matthew whether he had heard of any members of congress who truly understand this issue of eviction and could potentially become an advocate. Matthew shared some encouraging updates with news of happenings on ‘The Hill’ since the publication of Evicted.  Give a listen:


Michelle McCleary helped take our perspective from the macro to the micro-level. “If I knew someone was hungry, I’d buy them a sandwich. If they were cold, I’d give them a coat” she shares, “What is our personal responsibility to our fellow man?!’ “I personally think this is where the conversation has got to go if we are going to make any lasting change…” Matthew replied. “By 2025 about 1.6 billion people will live in substandard housing or unaffordable housing… climate change and housing are the biggest issues facing humanity.”

You can hear Matthew and Michelle’s conversation below.


You can listen to the full conversation with Matthew Desmond below, ENJOY.




Next Politics for the People Selection:

Terrible Virtue


by Ellen Feldman

Our conference call with the author

will be on January 22nd, 2017 at 7 pm EST





Readers’ Forum – Doug Balder and Harry Kresky


Harry Kresky (l) and Doug Balder (r)

In his wrenching book, Evicted, Matthew Desmond observes that the first step on the devastating journey from eviction to homelessness is often the loss of an apartment in subsided or “public” housing.  A family that lived in a stable home is forced into dilapidated, private-sector housing, owned and operated by landlords seeking short-term profits from tenants who are likely to face further eviction, impoverishment, and social disintegration.

Here in New York City more than 500,000 people live in public housing operated by the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), equal to half the entire population of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the city Desmond writes about.  The “projects” are a critical part of New York City’s infrastructure.  Maintenance could surely be better and capital improvements are badly needed.  But, for generations of poor and working class families, the projects provided stability, security, community and, of course, a roof over their heads.

This year, under the City’s “progressive” Mayor, Democrat Bill DeBlasio, NYCHA has begun to implement its “NextGen” master plan.  Under NextGen’s “infill” program, playgrounds, sitting areas, and other public spaces in NYCHA housing complexes will be sold to private developers, who will be permitted to build high rise apartment buildings containing a combination of market-rate and “affordable” units.  However, the “affordable” units are beyond the means of the average NYCHA tenant.  In addition, the plan allows the sale of existing NYCHA apartments to private landlords, who will receive a subsidy as long as the present tenants remain.  After that, the unit can be rented to families chosen by the developer, and earning up to $142,395 for a family of four.

Dr. Lenora Fulani and her Committee for Independent Community Action is campaigning against NextGen and has widespread support among public housing tenants and other New Yorkers who care about the lives of poor and working people.  CICA views NextGen as the first step in full privatization.  NYCHA claims these drastic steps are needed to meet its $17 billion capital deficit and $98 million annual operating deficit.  However, NYCHA’s own projection is that infill and the sale of apartments will generate a total of $300-600 million, a fraction of the capital deficit.  For real estate developers, NextGen provides an opportunity to build on what is now very valuable land, such as that at Holmes Houses overlooking the East River on Manhattan’s upper east side.

For those displaced by privatization, the consequences will be as drastic as those described in Eviction.  One need only look around New York to see massive luxury development in what were once working-class neighborhoods in Hell’s Kitchen, Long Island City and Williamsburg, and accelerating gentrification in Harlem and East New York.  We look forward to hearing what Professor Desmond has to say about this unfolding social catastrophe.

Douglas Balder is an architect and on the Board of Directors of the All Stars Project.

Harry Kresky is counsel to IndependentVoting.org and one of the country’s leading experts on nonpartisan primary reform and the legal issues facing independent voters.


Politics for the People Conference Call

With Matthew Desmond

Sunday, October 23rd at 7 pm EST

Call In Number: 641 715-3605

Access code 767775#


Lincoln’s Second Inaugural

Today’s selection comes to us from Harry Kresky.  It is not a poem in the traditional sense. It is Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address

Harry shares his thoughts:

This is as close as a political speech gets to poetry. I love its understatement and its acceptance of responsibility by America (not just the South) for the sin of slavery.  It is poetry (and philosophy) in its “not knowing” stance towards profound and troubling questions: “Both [North and South] read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.”

And Lincoln leaves no doubt about where he stands on the fundamental question of slavery.”


Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address




AT this second appearing to take the oath of the Presidential office there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement somewhat in detail of a course to be pursued seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention and engrosses the energies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself, and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.

On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war—seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.

One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the causeof the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.


Our celebration of National Poetry month continues throughout April with poems chosen or written by P4P members.  


Reaching Across Boundaries

Reader’s Forum

By Harry Kresky

I was predisposed against Megan Marshall’s Margaret Fuller.  I had never heard of either the author or the subject and did not think the biography of a New England woman who lived in the first half of the nineteenth century would be of much interest.

Harry Kresky

Harry Kresky

I was wrong.  Margaret Fuller’s life is the story of a woman’s struggle to achieve intellectual, emotional, and sexual fulfillment.  But it is not a book “for women.” Fuller’s concerns – the one-sidedness and constraints of marriage; the difficulty in building intimacy as friends, lovers, coworkers; the tension between self-fulfillment and responsibility to others; the treatment of the poor and the despised – are the concerns of every decent human being.  In speaking as a woman, and on behalf of women, Fuller and Marshall’s message is not an identity-based, sectarian one.  Like Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi and Pope Francis they express how the liberation of a particularly oppressed sector of humanity is inseparable from the development of us all.  Gandhi said, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”

Margaret Fuller lived her life like that and so can we.

Harry Kresky is counsel to IndependentVoting.org and one of the country’s leading experts on nonpartisan primary reform and the legal issues facing independent voters.


Politics for the People Conference Call

With Megan Marshall

Sunday, September 20th at 7 pm EST


Readers Forum

Keep sending me your thoughts on I Am Abraham: A Novel of Lincoln and the Civil War.  Today, we feature a commentary by Harry Kresky.


This is a most unusual book.  First, there is the question of what it is.  It tells the story of Abraham Lincoln, our 16th President in the first person, in Lincoln’s voice.  And it is a novel by Jerome Charyn, our next guest on Cathy L. Stewart’s Politics for the People book club.

Charyn’s Lincoln, of course, grew up poor, was a small town lawyer, and was as physically strong as he was tall and homely.  He led the country through a civil war, the abolition of slavery, and was assassinated six days after the war’s successful conclusion.

Next to George Washington, Lincoln is our most iconic president.  This remarkable book reveals Lincoln’s inner life as told by himself.  The narration describes Lincoln masturbating, worrying that his oratorical skills were inadequate as he began his famous Cooper Union speech and, most strikingly, the empathy Lincoln had for ordinary people – soldiers, impoverished and abused children, White House servants who included former slaves.

Harry Kresky

Harry Kresky

Incidents (such as a séance his wife brought him to as she tried to connect to their son William who died in the White House at age 12) are described in great detail – much more than exists in the historical record.  While Charyn’s accounts are not “true,” they are always insightful  in allowing us to access Lincoln, his time, his life and his character.

I look forward to the opportunity to hear more about the creative process that produced this book.

Harry Kresky is counsel to IndependentVoting.org and one of the country’s leading experts on nonpartisan primary reform and the legal issues facing independent voters.

P4P conference call with Jerome Charyn:

 Sunday, February 15th at 7 pm EST.

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