Friday, June 12, 2015

On Editing My Father's Memoir

My father, Nicholas R. Carbone, whose work as a progressive city council majority leader in Hartford, CT from 1969-1979, established him as national expert on urban issues, hired a ghostwriter to help him write a memoir.  The memoir uses those years as a prism for exploring his political the personal and intellectual roots of his moral-political philosophy, and his take on what skills and approaches leaders -- council members, city managers, mayors,  community activists -- need to embrace for cities to thrive in the future based in an increasingly global economy.

My role will be as a development editor, working with him, his researcher, and his ghostwriter on the manuscript. The project's been fun so far, with a chance for me to look back to a time that was formative for me as well in many ways. I'm finding that it involves a lot of writing, notes to the ghostwriter, revising manuscripts, emails, drafting some sections of the memoir to supplement the writer's work.  It's writing for different reasons -- to support a writer who works by dictation and a ghostwriter who is shaping that dictation into drafts, but it's writing still. And fun for being so.

So while the project is his memoir, my own memoria plays a role in how I see and think and feel about the work. The project is fun for what I am remembering and learning.

 I was ten in 1969 when my father started on the council, and twenty when he lost an election for mayor and stepped out elected offices for good. During that time, as I got older, I attended the occasional council meeting, or meetings at schools or senior centers where he answered questions about taxes, bonding issues, school construction, policing, and other municipal issues from Hartford residents, often meetings where constituents were angry about or afraid of the ideas on the table.

I'm remembering all kinds of names, controversies, events, campaigns (city councilors and the mayor serve two year terms), and politics, local, state, and national. Just a few things by way of example. During a dispute with the police union on contracts and guidelines for police behavior, we would routinely get calls at two or three in the morning from distraught people hoping to get bail for a son, daughter, mother, father or friend who had just been arrested. Some members of the police department were giving our home phone number out when people asked for a bail bondsman. My father didn't want us to just hang up or be rude -- the folks were in distress. So we were told to explain what the officer was up to, and had handy the number and names of one or two bondsman to give them.

I also remember meeting President Carter towards the end of my father's time in office (and Carter's too for that matter), and Vice-President Humphrey, who was running for President, earlier, in 1968, a year before my father was appointed to the council to fill one three vacancies.

But what's key in those years is that they came at a time when I was old enough, and interested enough, to begin understanding what he was doing as a councilman and political leader and boss, and why. So my progressive views were shaped by growing up and tagging along with a progressive public servant who used his political muscle, which muscle peaked with Carter's primary and then general election wins in Connecticut, wins my father largely engineered, to serve city residents.

Picture of my father, Nicholas R., seated, me standing, in front of campaign sign that says "Nick"
My father and I in 1979, when I was twenty, at the headquarters for his mayoral campaign, which he lost. The photo came from a campaign mailer that also featured photos of my mother, and my four brothers and our sister, the youngest.

17 - 20 are formative intellectual years for many teens, and I was no exception. I went from a catholic high school to the University of Hartford, where I read a lot of literature, philosophy, and wrote for the campus paper, following the news, still going to meetings, that marked some of my father's work. So I came to understand the importance then of equity, education, treating everyone with respect, and as well the forces and systems that, without being challenged and remade, without being questioned, disadvantage the poor and powerless. So much of the work in those years centered around addressing the poverty in Hartford, and the things poverty is linked to and perpetuated by: struggling schools, crime, drugs, adversarial policing, racism and classism, broken homes, ruined property (which weaken the tax base for addressing issues), and more.

What I'm learning now, and never knew then, is a bit more about how he got things done -- the strategic economic planning as the city's resources and revenue streams shifted, as well as the strategic thinking in how to move things not only through city hall, but also the state legislature and from Washington, where lobbying agencies and congressional committees for grants, legislation, and speaking to them about national city issues became part of the work necessary to govern well.

I'm also discovering that a lot of what was accomplished was first, and only happened through persistence and careful strategy in persuading and aligning the votes necessary to get things done. For example, Hartford, in 1979, passed an ordinance that Hartford would not discriminate in hiring, choosing vendors, because of sexual orientation nor ex-offender status. Coming ten years after Stonewall, and in the era of Anita Bryant, it was a brave ordinance to write, one of, if not the first, such city ordinance in the country. To pass it had to go through a year or so of planning, lining up votes, working with council members on language, coordinating with gay rights activists on timing, and still overcoming some strenuous objection from radical right groups like the Blue Berets and a mayoral veto by then Mayor George Athanson, who signed the veto statement from Idlewild Airport while waiting for his delayed flight to Greece to be rescheduled then ducked out of town to avoid the heat.

So it's a fascinating project in many ways, and I am looking forward to seeing what the first draft of writing brings, and then editing it, working with my father on clarifications, and hearing him talk about what he knows and thinks.

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