A progressive city council candidate in a hopelessly conservative city
By Danny Mayer
Say what you will about Don Pratt, but it’s difficult to deny that, for the past 50 years, the current at-large city council candidate has been one of Lexington’s most engaged local citizens on issues big and small, national and local.
So why is it that he’s been snubbed for political office so often, for so long, by a city that proclaims its desire to have an active citizenry, one that’s trying to re-brand itself as a progressive city?
The Pratt biography: active citizenship
As a teenager growing up in Lexington during the mid-1960s, Pratt was one of the few white citizens in the region to see the city’s so-called “polite racism” for what it was—racism—and to act on his convictions. As a public school student, he participated in several unpopular and mostly ignored protests outside UK’s Memorial Coliseum designed to pressure his future alma mater into integrating its all-white sports teams. He would continue his direct action for civil rights by traveling throughout the South to participate in other agitations, demanding equality for all of our nation’s citizens.
While a college student at UK, Pratt would draw upon his civil rights activism in joining Lexington’s burgeoning movement against the Vietnam War. Far from the hippie stereotype we hold today of anti-war protesters, Pratt was no long-hair. An ROTC student at UK, his opposition to the war like his call for civil rights grew out of his entwined moral and religious convictions.
In the early 1970s, while still a student at UK working within the city’s anti-war movement, Pratt made national headlines when he went to prison over his refusal to answer his military draft notice. Though he had an already documented medical condition that would have disqualified him from service—considered a golden parachute for most American citizens (including many war-mongering politicians holding office during the past 10 years)—Pratt instead made things difficult for himself by choosing to adhere to his moral convictions. He refused to show up for the medical exam that would disqualify him from service, an act that ultimately would lead to his imprisonment for two years for draft evasion at a federal prison in Michigan.
Back when UK professors actually engaged with their students, an English professor by the name of Wendell Berry even devoted a chapter in his first book of essays, The Long Legged House, to Pratt’s actions during this time. The chapter is titled, “Some thoughts on citizenship and conscience in honor of Don Pratt.”
Since returning to Lexington in the early 1970s, Pratt has continued to engage with national, regional and local politics, though with considerably less fanfare. He fought (successfully) with others to protect the now nationally revered Red River Gorge area from being turned into a giant lake and (unsuccessfully) to secure local ownership of Lexington’s water supply. In addition to these big concerns, throughout the years Pratt has become a regular at city council meetings, even running several times for the District 1 (UK-area) city council seat. And he’s done all this while raising over 20 foster kids and, for much of that time, owning and operating a small local grocery store well before Lexington got hip enough to value such a thing.
Ignoring Don Pratt
Just don’t tell the Herald-Leader all this, or Lexington’s so-called liberal and progressive citizens. Despite a clear 50-year record advocating for just about everything that the Leader now advocates for on its editorial page, the city’s paper of record has inexplicably failed to endorse Pratt in every single election he has run.
In the most recent dismissal of his candidacy, last May’s primaries when nine at-large candidates for the city council would be pared down to six, Pratt lost out to nobody, literally. Though it could endorse up to six at-large candidates in the primary race, the Leader only saw fit to endorse five in its May 18 “election day” editorial.
This was quite a snub: in the other two non-partisan races where multiple candidates would advance, the Leader dutifully selected two candidates, as in its endorsement of both Jim Newberry and Jim Gray for mayor. Not choosing a sixth candidate to endorse in the race was a pretty telling—not to mention spineless and questionable—statement.
Even more astounding than the explicit abdication of its role as a non-partisan civic voice, though, the Leader‘s endorsements themselves made absolutely no sense. The paper endorsed Chuck Ellinger despite acknowledging that he’s “made a faint impact in almost eight years on council,” and it endorsed George Brown, a former council member it described as being “shortsighted in his almost slavish support for development and business interests.” Presumably, the paper believes that these candidates are not only better than Pratt, but that they are head and shoulders better than Pratt. They got an endorsement, after all.
Of course, one might expect the corporate run Herald Leader to downplay the grassroots campaign of a city council candidate who has spent less than $1,000 on his campaign as a matter of principle. (Most of Pratt’s opponents, by contrast, have raised over $20,000, thereby raising the economic bar for citizen entry into local politics. Bravo wealthy candidates!)
More surprising has been the response he’s received at Barefoot and Progressive (B&P), the insurgent online blog that claims to cover all things political in the city and state. Though it claims to cover local politics from a “progressive” viewpoint, it has consistently downplayed Pratt, damming him with faint praise while suggesting his viewpoints are crazy. A March 2008 post, for example, when Pratt was running for the District 1 seat, listed him fourth—among four candidates in his district—in order of voting preference. Then, the fledgling site endorsed 26-year old Eric Thomasson based solely on his desire to save downtown (a vague stance that Pratt’s 50 years of activism no doubt also embodied); but it also named Diane Lawless, who won the seat, and Jonathon Rodgers as better candidates than Pratt.
Two year’s later, in this year’s council race B&P has unambiguously endorsed at-large candidate Steve Kay, whom moderator Joe Sonka called “the only candidate that I can definitely say I’m going to vote for” in the primaries, a position he upheld in other posts. (Sonka, like all of us, can vote for three candidates for at-large city council, and at the time of his writing just before the primaries, he could vote for 6 at-large candidates.)
And Pratt? Though Citizen Pratt shows up in several non-council race B&P posts dealing with specific local moments of health care activism and fights for local control of water ownership (both positions endorsed by the site), when discussing Councilman Pratt the site has offered such backhanded compliments as “Don Pratt’s good thoughts outnumbered his crazy thoughts.” (When Pratt asked which thoughts the site deemed crazy, he received no response.)
With progressive friends like these, it’s no wonder that Pratt has had a difficult time gaining a foothold politically in this city. Both the paper of record and the “progressive” site of record have consistently marginalized him. With an advertising budget 1/20 the size of his opponents, Pratt doesn’t stand a chance when public news outlets consistently dismiss him.
The “nature” excuse: bullshit
The reason cited by the Herald Leader and Barefoot and Progressive for not endorsing Pratt?
Given his local civic biography, it certainly wasn’t that he was “a newcomer to electoral politics” who “needs a stronger grasp of the details surrounding city issues”—the Leader’s critique of Kathy Plomin, whom the paper endorsed. And it’s not because Pratt has lost several previous council races—this would also describe fellow candidate Steve Kay, whom the paper, like B&P, enthusiastically has endorsed, in part because of Kay’s “extensive civic involvement.” (B&P has even dreamed of Kay being vice-mayor.)
Nope, it has nothing to do with what Pratt’s actually done (because he’s done a lot), and nothing to do with his current public stances (which both sites agree with). The Leader and B&P do not endorse Pratt because of his “nature.” Specifically, our city’s public civic voice of record did not endorse Pratt because “his uncompromising nature might undermine” his constituencies’ needs in a place where “compromise and alliance-building are required to get anything done.” A vote for Pratt, the paper contends, is only a vote for “an agitator in residence.” Over at B&P, the tune is similar. For this progressive blog, Pratt “still needs to dial down the anger a little bit.”
Of course, the supposed outlandish Pratt nature, which is never explained in anything a writing instructor might call “detail,” needs to be put in context. I mean, Pratt’s not going off and dropping F-Bombs all over the place in public, as both I and, more importantly, council person Doug Martin have done. And as he and his council opponents conceded in a candidate debate in April, Pratt is probably the most straight edge of all the candidates—though he nevertheless advocates decriminalizing marijuana offenses and turning Lexington into a medicinal marijuana hub (talk about building upon an economical counterpart to the eds/meds push!).
And of course, when Pratt gets labeled a crazy person who does crazy things like putting his underwear into evidence, remember that former vice-mayor Jim Scanlon is allowed to get on all-fours and bark at fellow council members, and current vice-mayor Jim Gray can bring a sack of lawn seed to a council meeting and use it as an agitating prop. Scanlon and Gray, though, get described as effective and colorful leaders.
Pratt? No. He’s just a crazy loon. It’s in his nature, after all.
No need to look at his actions. Just know that picketing UK to advocate for civil rights might be evidence of being a little too angry. Remember that going to prison on your principals when every other sane person would take the free medical pass is merely an example of “an uncompromising nature.” Sleep well knowing that fighting to keep the Red River Gorge area a Kentucky treasure and our water resources local owned is just something “agitators in residence” do.
These are certainly not endorsable actions, according to our various media of record.
The bottom line
This paper will not do endorsements during this political season. You all should be thinking human beings, and we place that responsibility on you to get to know your candidates, though of course we highlight in this paper issues that you might want to consider.
But I can tell you that I will place only one unambiguous vote in this election cycle, and it will be for Don Pratt. And it’s not just because Don Pratt delivers 150 of our papers to rich Bell Court residents every other week. It’s because the things he’s advocated for this past half-century are the very things we in this paper advocate today: local ownership of resources; a society not bent on using economic might to trump moral right; active engagement voiced by “ordinary” citizens in local government. In a just society, these are not the positions of an agitator; they are the positions of a leader.
Truth be told, for the past 50 years, Don Pratt has been a Lexington treasure, though the city’s political class likes to think otherwise. As a young man, he beat the Leader to the punch on civil rights (by 40 years) and took a principled stand on the Vietnam War–for which our local paper harshly criticized him, along with Louisville native Muhammad Ali (who is now celebrated by the same city paper for his appearance at WEG).
There are political reasons to elect Pratt, of course. As the most progressive candidate on the bill, you should want him on the council pushing Gray or Gorton or Kay to do the right thing. As a measure of where Lexington stands as a progressive city, it would be criminal to have a decriminalization (hey, they’re doing it in California, Colorado, and a host of other “progressive” states) candidate with a deep history of anti-war actions lose in a city with three voting college student populations (and the supposedly liberal anti-war faculty voters to complement those students).
In many respects, Pratt’s candidacy is a referendum on Lexington: is it what it says it is, or is it just a city bullshitting itself by consistently choosing safe candidates and then wondering why it consistently wins the race to the safe, boring middle?
These are all good political arguments, but I’m voting for Pratt based on more intimate reasons, ones that should jive with all the advertising schlock Lexington seems to take seriously.
I’m voting for Pratt because unlike most of the creative class that Tom Eblen interviews periodically in his “what Lexington needs” columns, Pratt really did come back to Lexington as a young man, and he’s worked the rest of his life—as a private businessman, loving foster-father and politically engaged citizen—to make this city a better place. He hasn’t given his money to do this because he didn’t come back here to make money; instead he’s given much more: his time and labor and energy—his democratic life.
I don’t know if Don Pratt will be a great councilman, and to be sure I will vote for other Lexington candidates, but I do know that to not give him the opportunity after his half-century of engaged service to this city, region and nation would be a slap in the face to the things that I—and supposedly, in word at least if not in deed, Lexington—holds dear.