We’re nearing the end of a month that is often, for a huge swath of the planet, the coldest month of the year, and with this installment, ‘Thoughts from Actual People’ has reached its first half-birthday. Instead of allowing you to remain out in the cold, I invite you all to come in and warm your hands.
February might only seem like the coldest month, because by February, everybody is sick of waiting for spring. They just want it to get there. The hallowed Ritual of the Groundhog Penumbra performed at the start of the month is but an example of this impatience. The idea that a tiny mammal failing to spot his own shadow could somehow force spring to come sooner demonstrates just how fed up people have become with the ice and the cold and the snow.
When you’ve tired of a thing, no matter how tolerable – or indeed even pretty – it once seemed, it loses its inherent charm. You just want to be done with it. That truth of human nature hasn’t stopped a select few people across America from doing what they feel needs to be done, despite the fact that the vast majority of the public are, at the present moment, weary of their chosen field.
The unprecedented flow of money in the major elections of 2012, with their barrage of political television and radio commercials, made watching a favorite show feel more like getting a dental filling. Just when you thought you had weathered the storm, you were hit by the subsequent 24-hour-a-day drama of the ‘fiscal cliff’ negotiations: the media’s version of methadone to wean themselves off the mainline of presidential politics to which they had become addicted.
After all the constant noise of it for over a year, the country had a lot of recovering to do. Many felt that the less that was said or even thought about politics for quite some time, the better.
Some people do not have that luxury. These people aren’t candidates for national postings, but for local offices. All across the country, cities like Minneapolis, Boston, Los Angeles, Detroit, and New York City will be participating in their mayoral elections in 2013, along with a host of others.
One of those other cities is Rockford, Illinois. The largest town in the 'Land of Lincoln' outside of Chicago region, it is situated on the Rock River - a three-hundred mile long tributary of the Mississippi. A hotbed of manufacturing jobs, the city quickly grew over the course of the 20th century to become one of the few non-rural communities in Illinois outside of the Chicago area, and, as of 2010, was the one-hundred and sixtieth largest city in the entire United States.
Today, we sit down with one of the candidates for mayor of that city, Michael Kleen. (Facebook Page: Michael Kleen for Rockford Mayor) We'll get insights into the political process, find out what it’s like running a campaign, putting out press releases, and doing things like participating in television interviews and giving speeches to civic groups – things that most of us will never do. We’ll find out what Kleen thinks of Rockford and hear his ideas for what he would change.
Beyond his mayoral aspirations, Michael Kleen has a history as an author, historian, and publisher in addition to collecting local folklore and writing opinion columns. He has experience running the publishing company Black Oak Media, which he incorporated in 2011. In fact, during the four years he was operating a quarterly journal, ‘Black Oak Presents,’ he became the first person to publish one of my short stories, in the second to last issue. We’ll talk to Kleen about what his experience publishing and collecting the folklore of Illinois have taught him that informs his current work.
So, don’t be afraid – though the topic of politics may have worn out its welcome last year, we will look at it from a fresh angle and try to beat back at that deep, dull February cold that has sunk into our bones.
Me: I really appreciate you doing this. It seems like every time I check out the internet, I see another television interview, speaking appearance, or chat like this that you’re doing. It must be very demanding not only of your time but of your scheduling acumen. What’s it like juggling so many different demands for your time? Do you have some sort of system for avoiding repeating yourself, or do you have to repeat yourself to spread your message as far as possible?
Michael Kleen: It is always a challenge to keep up with the demands of campaigning, my business, and my personal life. Truth is, when you are running for office, you don't really have time for a personal life. I keep track of all my meetings and events on a calendar and that seems to work fine for me. In politics, you want to have your message heard by as many people as possible, so you do repeat yourself a lot. That's okay because usually you are speaking in front of different groups. However, I do try to talk about a topic that might interest that particular audience. Like when I'm speaking with business owners, I primarily talk about business. When I'm speaking to a neighborhood watch group, I primarily talk about crime, etc.
Me: You’ve always been deeply involved in the history and culture of Illinois, from your folklore work, publishing ventures, up through your more recent activities such as opinion column writing and a close bid for a seat on the Winnebago County Board – that’s the county where Rockford is seated, for our readers who are unfamiliar. What have you learned about the state that makes you so eager to represent it, and do you think your intimate knowledge of the history and people of the region equips you with a special insight for the job of mayor?
Michael Kleen: Illinois has a rich history and the people here have healthy love for stories, legends, and traveling. Still, there are too many folks out there who think Illinois is boring and "just a bunch of corn fields." If they left their house and explored, they would find that was not the case. As someone who has traveled all over state and met all kinds of different people, I feel that I have an understanding of what regular folks want from their local governments. Most people in Illinois just want the streets plowed on time, the garbage to be picked up, and for public officials to do their jobs effectively. They are sick of the political corruption, and the double standards when it comes to law enforcement.
Me: Rockford has always seemed – to me, anyway – like a city that had a lot to offer, with a handful of things that needed work that always seemed to be left unattended. From many reports, those ‘unattended issues’ have – like most ignored problems – festered a bit. What, in your mind, are the three biggest problems facing Rockford today, and what would you do to solve them?
Michael Kleen: I would say your description is accurate. Rockford has a lot to offer, but we do have some deep socioeconomic problems. Our three biggest problems are crime, unemployment, and poor education. All three are interrelated, which is why they have been so difficult to solve. We are making some strides in education, however. Now we just need to get crime under control and people back to work. For me, crime is #1. Our police department is woefully understaffed, so we need to get more cops on the streets. We used to have beat patrols in Rockford, and business owners have told me it made a world of difference when it came to crime. We also need to re-install the over 2,300 street lights the city removed two years ago.
Me: You’re running on the Republican ticket against an Independent incumbent. How important do you think party affiliations are with regards to municipal governance? I confess, I am not really sure what parties the mayors of Saint Paul and Minneapolis represent. Do you think the current mayor of Rockford’s independent status helps his chances, hurts them, or doesn’t factor in?
Michael Kleen: Well the mayor's status as an independent definitely helps him, because he can claim to be everything to everybody. This is a guy who has voted consistently in Democratic primaries, and attended both of President Obama's inaugurations. When it comes right down to it though, he really represents a small group of very wealthy businessmen, who use him to protect and promote their financial interests. They spent hundreds of thousands of dollars convincing Republican voters that he was a "Republican in all but name." Then, when he got into office, he paid back all his contributors with positions on city boards and with taxpayer dollars in the form of TIF districts.
So if I think party labels are important, it is only because by running under a party banner, you can be more easily held accountable by the voters. There are a certain set of beliefs and policy positions held by members of the respective parties, and while no one will conform 100 percent, it at least gives you some kind of standard to go by. It makes it more difficult for politicians to act like spineless chameleons.
Me: You’ve been posting quite a bit of television interview clips you have participated in on your pages lately. The ability to do this, to my mind, greatly increases the value of such appearances – your potential audience is no longer limited to the people who happen to see a particular broadcast, but is expanded to include anybody who shows interest after the fact. How have you found the process of being approached to do these interviews? Do you take a more active role in courting the media, or does the media come to you? As an outsider to these processes – as I’m sure most of my readers are as well – I’m fascinated by the work you’ve been doing.
Michael Kleen: I definitely take an active role. I've tried to send out at least one press release a week, and sometimes I'll get calls and sometimes not. The TV channels usually show up to forums and interview all the candidates, but the print media is trickier. Our daily newspaper here is basically a propaganda outlet for the establishment. I actually met with individual reporters and columnists and begged them to write about me. I guess that came back to bite me when one columnist wrote a couple of less than favorable pieces about me, but at least I got my name out there.
Me: In a twist that is sure to delight many of my readers, these recent appearances do not mark the first time you’ve appeared on television. Unless there was something earlier that I don’t recall, your first televised appearance was on the national cable program ‘Ghost Adventures’ on the Travel Channel, where you were consulted by the… ahem… Ghost Team to elucidate some finer points of local history with regards to the ‘Ashmore Estates.’ For the readers, ‘Ashmore Estates’ is a decidedly freaky, crumbly building that was an almshouse at one point – often erroneously referred to as an ‘asylum.’
Did you enjoy being a part of this process, did you learn anything new from it, and what is it like knowing that anyone could log into Netflix and watch you on TV?
Michael Kleen: I had been on the local news a couple of times, and in a widely viewed web series on FearNet, before Ghost Adventures. It's funny, because every time I had an opportunity to be on one of these programs, I thought my whole life would change after it. After Ghost Adventures, I thought my books would fly off the shelves. But life pretty much goes on as it did before. That's why I don't understand these people who get big heads and become really arrogant after they get their face on TV. It's fun, but in the end, it's just a couple of minutes in the spotlight - what's that in comparison to the rest of your life?
Me: You’ve published a number of books of your own work – both fiction and non-fiction – over the years. Everything from tourist guides of famous Illinois spots – with a focus on folklore – to dramatic novels and stories, even a non-fiction treatise on statism. Has this writing work helped you focus your thoughts and clarify your current views? Do you have any work that would be particularly relevant to those wondering about your political beliefs and positions?
Michael Kleen: Well, I guess all of it has contributed to developing my worldview over the years, but there's such a difference between political philosophy, ideology, and governance. It's one thing to talk about being against statism or for a more libertarian form of government, and another to actually sit in a governing body trying to maintain vital services for people who depend on them. So there's nothing I've written that you can point to and say, "there's the blueprint Mike will follow," because I'm learning and evolving all the time. If I have the opportunity to repeal an silly ordinance or lessen business license fees, I'll take it. My concerns are very practical at this point.
Me: Is there anything you’d like to say to people who are interested in helping your campaign or learning more about your work?
Michael Kleen: Sure, they can visit my website at www.citizensforkleen.org, and even if they don't live in Rockford, they can still help by contributing to my campaign. It costs a lot of money to run for office, and my opponents have very deep pockets. If you have friends in Rockford, please call them and ask them to support me. The election is on April 9th.
Me: Thank you so much for your time, and I’d like to wish you the best of luck in the Rockford mayoral election in April. I think you definitely have the passion and good-intentions to excel at the job.
Michael Kleen: Thank you! It's always a pleasure.