Proud to be a political activist

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Robert Friedman
Michael McPherson heads Howard County’s
Democratic Party and serves on the Maryland
Commission on Aging, among numerous other
public service volunteer positions. The Columbia
resident’s career also included jobs as a
legislative political director with the AFL-CIO and
assistant executive director for the national U.S.
Conference of Mayors.
Photo by: Roger King

Michael McPherson’s devotion to Democratic politics began with his first job — at the age of 6 — in his home town of St. Louis.

“My family’s next door neighbor was the Democratic ward committeeman, and he was arranging for a meeting in his back yard,” McPherson recalled. “He was paying kids 10 cents to distribute hand bills about the meeting. In 1937, for a kid, 10 cents was a lot of money.”

But while it may have all started for pay, McPherson has maintained his allegiance to political activism throughout his life as a volunteer.

He has worked on numerous presidential campaigns, even earning the dubious distinction of being placed on Richard Nixon’s “enemies list” after campaigning for the McGovern-Shriver ticket.

And today, at 80 (though he looks much younger), McPherson heads the Howard County Democratic Party, putting in about 30 hours a week “just for the love of politics,” he said.

In addition to his party work, McPherson has chaired the Howard Cable Advisory Committee for the last four years, and has spent the last 10 years as a member of Maryland’s Advisory Council on Prevailing Wage Rates, which mediates the rate of compensation for workers on state construction projects.

A commitment to aging issues

Recently, Governor O’Malley appointed McPherson to a four-year term serving on the Maryland Commission on Aging. “I’m interested in services for the aging because I’m one of them,” he said.

He sees “aging in place” — allowing older adults to remain in their own homes and receive needed services in their community rather than having to move to retirement communities or nursing homes — as a growing and crucial issue.

One concern is that the current recession and growing federal budget deficits will lead to reduced federal and state funding for senior programs, said McPherson.

“The big fight by advocacy groups is to provide more home services to the elderly, not to have them reduced,” he said. “Although Howard County is considered wealthy, we have a lot of lower-income seniors who could be affected” by funding reductions.

His goal on the aging commission, he said, is “to allow seniors to continue living with the quality of life similar to what they had during their working days, while not having to worry about the basic essentials.”

With all these commitments — all done on a volunteer basis — what does McPherson do in his spare time?

“I don’t have any!” he said, without rancor. “I’ve had a good life, I’m in good health, and this is my way of giving back.”

Ask him about retirement, and he doesn’t hold back. “Keeping active and making a contribution help me live longer,” McPherson said. “Mandatory retirement is mandatory senility. If I want to work, let me work.”

A life in politics

McPherson started his career in government in the mid-1950s at the National Geospacial Intelligence Agency, where he worked as a photo analyst and cartographer in the agency’s St. Louis office.

“We dealt with images, analyzed them, and sent the interpretations to the White House.” he said. Overseas photos taken by America’s U-2 spy planes were involved.

Some of the photos, he said, were used back in the Cold War days to draw up “target charts for fighter pilots against potential enemies.”

During the civil rights protests, McPherson marched and sat-in like many others. But as a member of the St. Louis Human Relations Commission he helped keep the lid on violence in that city after the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968.

“We were actively working to prevent any riots,” McPherson said. “We got job opportunities for blacks and we did what I would call ‘rumor control,’ shooting down all the crazy stories that spread in such times. We didn’t have the kind of upheaval in St. Louis that was going around in other cities,” he said.

In the late 1960s he became a congressional aide. For seven years, he administered offices for Democratic congressmen from St. Louis.

That work brought him to the Washington area. He moved to Columbia in 1969, just a couple of years after developer Jim Rouse created the planned city. He and wife, Patricia, now say they would reside nowhere else. “As far as I’m concerned, this is the greatest place to live,” he said.

In 1972, he worked on the campaigns of McGovern and his vice presidential running mate, Sargent Shriver. “After I made the [Nixon enemies] list, I got a note from Sarge Shriver saying, ‘See, I made you famous after all.’ That was typical Sarge Shriver.”

A people person

McPherson then took on the job of assistant executive director for the national U.S. Conference of Mayors. “I became a lobbyist for the mayors on human resources programs, which means programs that directly impacted people,” he said.

“People” is a word that keeps coming up when McPherson is asked about his various jobs, why he was allied to this or that cause, and who he wanted to see benefit from his work over the years.

“I became a Democrat because I think as a party they try to help people…I worked in Congress on programs for people…I believe in unions because people who are organized are in a better position to try to improve their lives,” he said.

McPherson spent some 15 years, from the mid-1980s to 1999, as the AFL-CIO’s legislative political director for the metro D.C.-area. That area extended from Montgomery, Prince George’s, Charles and St. Mary’s counties in Maryland, down through northern Virginia to Fredericksburg.

Mostly, he said, he appeared at hearings and county and city council meetings to oppose anti-labor laws, while promoting pro-labor candidates for office.

He realizes that many in the public have turned against unions, but insists that, over time, organized labor has accomplished far more for workers than any harm unions may have caused to the economy.

If unions are to be faulted, it should be because they have “failed to show the American people what they have really contributed to the quality of life, to what workers take for granted — a decent wage, a five-day, 40-hour week,” McPherson said.

”This was not given because of the benevolence of the employer, but it was earned through a lot of blood, sweat and tears of organized workers over the years.”

He added: “Unions have brought about the prosperity we enjoyed for many years. You need working people to organize. Look what recently happened with Verizon, which wanted to add $2 to the bills of people paying online. People organized and they let Verizon know [how they felt], and the company pulled back on the extra fee.”

Election year excitement

What moves McPherson to action is politics, especially in an election year like this one, when he expects his Democratic Party activities to extend even further into the days and nights.

He will be doing more or less what he did when John F. Kennedy ran for president in 1960 and George McGovern went for the White House in 1972 — work full time to convince voters to contribute their money and cast their ballots for the Democratic Party nominee.

But the type of work that entails has changed over the years. While there’s still much door-to-door, person-to-person contact, the Internet and social media are playing a bigger and bigger role in getting out the vote, he said.

“We still canvas neighborhoods and pass out flyers,” said McPherson. “But today I could sit here at the computer and reach many more people in much less time than could be done back in the 1940s, or even in the 1980s.”

At present, the status of politicians seems at an all-time low in the eyes of many Americans. But don’t blame the system, McPherson said. Blame those who are entering politics at this time, and “the voters who don’t pay attention and put them in office.”

McPherson, who takes the long view, believes things will change for the better over time. “I’m happy to say I’m involved in politics” he said, adding he still believes that political action remains the best way to improve life for oneself and one’s fellow citizens.

“I realized long ago that almost everything is controlled by politics to some degree, and that by going into politics I could do the most good in terms of my community,” he said. “Politics has the power to affect the well-being of every man, woman and child in this world.”