Summer of discontent

Rep. Heller is the target of a grass root effort to get him stop supporting the war

Iraq Summer Campaign field organizers Jacob Roberts and Emily Rhodenbaugh, in light shirts in foreground, meet and plan with activists outside Daughters Cafe.

Iraq Summer Campaign field organizers Jacob Roberts and Emily Rhodenbaugh, in light shirts in foreground, meet and plan with activists outside Daughters Cafe.

Photo By David Robert

Red and yellow signs are popping up across the Truckee Meadows. The message reads, “Iraq War/Wrong Way,” in the red center with “Keep ’em safe/Bring ’em home” in yellow. These signs are part of a nationwide campaign drawing attention to President Bush’s failing war policies.

In 2005, some of the groups that make up Americans against Escalation in Iraq (AAEI) formed a coalition that successfully mounted a national campaign to defeat privatization of Social Security. That organizing model of targeting “electorally vulnerable” lawmakers is being used in the antiwar campaign now.

The Iraq Summer Campaign is targeting nine Republican senators and 31 GOP representatives across the country. U.S. Rep. Dean Heller of Nevada is one of them.

The National Republican Campaign Committee (NRCC) chastised the Iraq Summer Campaign as hypocritical for targeting only Republicans. They cite “extremely partisan motives” at work, rather than “a genuine solution” to end the war.

AAEI’s stance is that Republican policy makers have remained loyal to the Bush war policies for five years, while Democrats who originally supported those policies have moved away from them in response to public sentiment. In the Feb. 16 House vote on escalating the war with 20,000 more troops, only two Democrats supported the proposal and only 17 Republicans did not. Since then, more than 600 service members have been killed, and 3,000 have been wounded. AAEI hopes that targeting Republicans will achieve veto-proof support for legislation on troop withdrawal.

The multi-million dollar campaign relies heavily on liberal Internet activist groups for funding. Political Action, with 3.2 million members, is a big contributor. Service Employees International Union, Vote Vets, and Working Assets Inc. (a long-distance provider and credit card company) are among those that have joined the coalition. In some states, groups that do not normally concern themselves with foreign policy, such as the Florida Consumer Action Network, have signed on.

Since the campaign began on July 1, GOP Sens. Pete Domenici, Richard Lugar and George Voinovich have renounced Bush’s policy. Domenici, of New Mexico, had been an AAIE target. AAIE hopes Domenici will be the first domino to fall and credits their campaign for the reduced number of Bush war policy supporters.

Local activists focus on Heller, who most recently voted to keep the war going last Thursday, voting against House Resolution 2956, which passed the U.S. House on a 223-201 vote. The measure would order withdrawal of combat troops within four months and complete redeployment by April 1, 2008.

AAEI kicked off its Iraq Summer Campaign in Reno on July 5 at Daughters Café. The coalition contacted local groups to help facilitate “the responsible redeployment of American forces.” Field organizers Emily Rhodenbaugh and Jacob Roberts invited locals to speak against the war and join the summer campaign to pressure Heller to vote for troop withdrawal.

Former UNR Young Democrats president Brian Benedict warned that Heller must “vote responsibly on the war or face political extinction.” Wearing a blue T-shirt with a Superman logo, he said that the “time for patience is over” and that people must mobilize their outrage.

Religious leaders called for peaceful initiatives to turn peace wishing into peace activism. Former First United Methodist Church pastor John Emerson called for “an end to the madness.” Emerson, a veteran, said he has witnessed how “violence only begets more violence” and called for making “our collective will known to our elected leaders.”

Shane Piccini spoke for Sierra Interfaith Action for Peace. This Quaker-based group, with 500 years of peace activism behind them, has earned the title “Grandmother of Peace Organizations in Nevada.” Piccini scoffed at the notion of Muslims versus Christians. “The community must work together to end the ‘Holy War for Bush,'” he says. “The true message of Christ was not to bomb another nation back to the Stone Age.”

Piccini believes the key to ending the occupation of Iraq is to stop the funding. He cites a “champagne economy,” no draft and outsourcing the war as measures keeping the war from affecting most people personally.

Lisa Stiller, a mother of two veterans, feels the impact personally. She’s delivered letters to Heller’s office but hasn’t received a response. “I didn’t vote for him, but I’m still his constituent,” she says.

Stiller’s son is stationed in South Korea, and she worries he’ll be deployed to Iraq. Thirty soldiers from Nevada have died, and 158 have been wounded since the war began. She doesn’t want her son fighting in what she calls this “illegal occupation.”

Both sides take firm stands.

Heller supports giving Bush’s troop escalation a chance, vowing to reassess his position after reviewing Gen. David Patraeus’ progress report on Sept. 15. An Interim Pentagon report indicates “escalated violence” and “setbacks” since the surge began. Yet, Heller remains committed to waiting on Patreaus, then determining a change of course if necessary.

“My position for the six months I have been here in Congress is to follow the non-partisan Baker/Hamilton Report, which includes a surge,” Heller said. “You’re going to have escalated violence when you escalate the troops.”

But critics of the Bush policies say Baker/Hamilton is more than the escalation, that it includes benchmarks negotiated rather than imposed by the United States and greater use of diplomacy, including talks with Iran and Syria, and efforts on Israeli-Palestinian relations. Escalation alone, they say, does not represent Baker/Hamilton.

The Iraq Summer Campaign uses online organizing, weekly rallies, sign waving and bird-dogging—following Heller with a video camera—to encourage him to oppose Bush and vote for troop withdrawal. AAIE wants Heller’s phone and fax lines buzzing with constituents encouraging him to take a different position.

In May, a Las Vegas Review-Journal poll indicated that 52 percent of Nevadans surveyed opposed the 20,000-troop escalation, with 38 percent in support. Fifty-one percent supported a pullout from Iraq, while 43 percent were opposed. Summer Campaign participants believe these results demonstrate that Heller is out of touch with his constituents.

“My responsibility is to support the troops and ensure they have everything they need,” Heller said. He will not support legislation to stop funding.

At the end of the meeting, participants gathered information to take action. Packets to assist in writing letters to Rep. Heller and local media outlets were distributed. Local letter writer Ed Cohen encouraged writers to keep their letters to media at 200 words. Letters to Congressman Heller could be any length, but writers were encouraged to use the words “reckless” and “out of touch.”

“What was reckless was invading Iraq to begin with,” Heller responded. “The goal is to get out of Iraq more intelligently than we got into it. Cut and run is reckless and not intelligent.”

Heller contends that the $4 billion Nevada taxpayers have contributed to the war ($3,964,543,084 as of July 12) has purchased their safety. He says there has been no attack in Las Vegas, a critical city named as a target by Homeland Security, nor in Reno.

AAEI will hold an around-the-clock vigil Aug. 25 in front of Heller’s office in the Reno federal building. The campaign wraps up with “Take a Stand Day” on Aug. 28, with a press conference to assess its collective efforts.

Organizer Roberts says, “If you’re fed up (with the war) the idea is to get in touch with Heller.”