In 2008 I ran for regent of the University of Michigan. I ended up with 102,158 votes, amounting to 1.23% of the statewide total.

How did it happen? Each time after my runs for prosecutor in 2004 and commissioner in 2005-06, I had vowed never to run again.

But on Saturday, July 26, I attended a state Green Party meeting in Marshall, in southwest Michigan. Really, the reason I went was I combined it with a family reunion of an outlying branch on my Boal side, 80 miles away in South Haven. I had not seen these second cousins in over 40 years, but felt fondly from childhood memories. Just on the strength of that, one of them, a Republican, had contributed to my prosecutor campaign in 2004 from Iraq, where she was working for Halliburton. So two events together brought me to the area.

For the Green Party, it was the bienniel meeting where candidates for election to state offices are chosen. Somnolently, I listened to the discussion from the back of the room. I perked up when I heard someone mention the spot for regent of the University of Michigan.

My first year of law school was at Michigan in 1969-70. It was a difficult and interesting time. The school work itself wasn't particularly challenging. In class, I opposed the ongoing celebrated conspiracy trial of the Chicago 8, which arose out of the 1968 Democratic National Convention, where I was also arrested and tried. Other than that I did the reading but didn't study a whole lot and never looked at my grades.

Candidates for the University of Michigan Board of Regents appear in a forum at Palmer Commons on campus on October 27. From left: Ellis Boal, Green Party; John LaFond, Republican; Eric Larson, Libertarian; Denise Ilitch, Democrat; and Larry Deitch, Democrat. Susan Brown, a Republican, took part in the forum via speaker phone. Photo: Eliyahu Gurfinkel | The Ann Arbor News.
Out of class was where the action was. Until then I had not been politically and organizationally involved. But on arriving I joined SDS and the National Lawyers Guild. I attended the anti-ROTC actions on campus and antiwar marches in Washington. In the spring was the big Black Action Movement ("BAM") strike, when over three hundred teachers cancelled classes. After eight days the regents capitulated, and approved increased minority aid, services, staff, and enrollment. I was a secondary leader in the law school. Later another student and I were brought up on academic charges. The rap against me was in the middle of a mass picket in the law school hallway, I had stood on a table and gathered a dozen other strikers to march upstairs and into my torts class to disrupt it. A due process defense came to the rescue: Inadvertently the student rules had not been distributed in our freshman orientation packets the previous fall. I had no way of knowing that disrupting a class violated them. The charges disintegrated. Later I attended the founding meeting of the Ann Arbor Gay Liberation Front; its constitution passed on my motion. At the end of the school year I left Ann Arbor with SDS and moved to Detroit to organize workers.

I ended up finishing law school there and never looked back. In the 38 years since, a fleeting encounter some 15 years ago in the hallway of a courthouse in Flint was the only contact with any of my Michigan classmates.

As this went through my mind at the Green Party meeting it dawned that I would be an ideal candidate for the U-M spot. For an education position like this I wouldn't be expected to campaign much or spend any money. Money was a significant consideration. I had spent $7419.29 in Charlevoix County campaigns in 2004 and 2006, of which $1527.68 was mine. I wasn't inclined to go into my pocket or anyone else's again. But my website from 2004-06 was still up. I could just re-tool that, and let it go at that.

Hutchins Hall
At right in Hutchins Hall, University of Michigan law school, spring, 1970. Source: Law Quadrangle Notes, Spring 1995; UMNIS, Bentley Historical Library.

I explained all this to the Green Party meeting. I was encouraged by Ed Morin, who ran for this spot as a Green two years ago. He gave me his materials from then.

I was nominated by acclamation. At the Massey/Ryerson family reunion that evening, we celebrated.

Back home an unsolicited $35 check arrived from David Finkel, a long-time collaborator and a contributor from the last campaign. That meant I had to start a bank account. In turn that meant I should probably re-activate the PayPal button on the site. I did all that, but no other money came in. At the end I returned David's money, and my only expense in the whole campaign was a $9.50 bank charge.

The next job was to update my biography, and re-cast the website to U-M issues. The problem was I didn't know any of the issues. I started emailing friends from SDS days. The plan was to convene a closet-full of seething radicals. Each would have a finely-honed attack on the university and military/capitalist collaboration, which I would synthesize into a take-no-prisoners platform.

But no emails came back. Everyone was mute. I was pretty surprised.

Initially, I had given thought to connecting the campaign to the controversy at U-M about the decision of University of Michigan Press to discontinue distribution of a book Overcoming Zionism by a comrade, Joel Kovel. The book argues that Zionism has created an apartheid-like racist state in Israel and that a single, secular, democratic state is the only solution. I am friendly to this view.

The book publisher was London-based Pluto Press, of which U-M Press was the American distributor. In 2007 U-M suspended distribution after accusations of anti-semitism. Two months later it reversed course after a campaign by academics and libertarians. Then three of the eight regents -- Andrea Fischer Newman, Laurence Deitch, and Andrew Richner -- called on the Press to end all distribution agreements with third-party publishers, including Pluto. The Press wouldn't go that far, but the following year it issued new guidelines saying a third-party publisher must have a mission "aligned" with U-M's and it must use peer-review methods similar to U-M's. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, few university presses maintain such guidelines; they treat distribution agreements more as business deals than as intellectual partnerships. Small presses like Pluto can't afford to do this level of peer review. So Kovel's book and all other Pluto books are gone.

Comrades told me the book was no longer a live issue on campus. In any event the decision was made by U-M Press, not a vote of the regents. I decided not to speak of it in the campaign.

Meanwhile, clerks in all the counties wrote asking if my name was spelled right on sample ballots. Then came invitations to attend candidates' forums from small faraway venues, like the Auburn Hills Chamber of Commerce, Colonial Village Neighborhood Association, Hillsdale County Chamber of Commerce, Mount Pleasant Regional Center and Michigan Protection and Advocacy Service, Grand Blanc Chamber of Commerce, and the Older Persons' Commission of Rochester, Rochester Hills, & Oakland Township.

Not considerately, I declined them all without notice, except for two that were nearby (Charlevoix and Harbor Springs), on October 26.

Then came media requests, asking why I was running, what I thought about school funding, tuition, diversity, and other issues, etc.

Unlike the more important races for governor, attorney general, state senators and reps, etc, third-party candidates in Michigan's elected education-related postions (Board of Education, University of Michigan, Michigan State, Wayne State University) actually get invited to debates, and have a chance to be heard.

I decided I should be respectful of the media. People seemed to actually care about what I thought. I responded:

One questionnaire in particular interested me, from Triangle Pride PAC, with 21 gay-specific questions. Except for three on which I said I wasn't sure, all my answers were such that I thought I would get the organization's support. Asked at the end whether I wanted to be endorsed I said it was their decision. I mailed it in, including my phone number in case they might want clarification. I heard nothing back. Later I saw they had endorsed only Democrats in the four Michigan education posts.

The U-M College Democrats' questionnaire was also good. They asked about residency-based disenfranchisement of student voters, Michigan's low level of support for education funding, diversity and affirmative action, the lack of health care for students, and the cost of contraceptives. For the last two, I admitted I hadn't studied the issues and had no answers. They gave me a "C" rating, tied for 5th with Libertarian Eric Larson, behind the four Democrats and Republicans.

The Alumni Association invited me to a candidates' forum on October 2. I didn't attend, but did respond to the association's questionnaire.

This is an amalgam of my statements and positions:

  • History: I studied algebra as an undergraduate at Bowdoin College and started a Ph.D. progam at the University of Chicago in 1966 on an NSF fellowship. Leaving after a year, I tried the Peace Corps, teaching, and various odd jobs before starting Michigan Law in 1969-70. This was the year of the successful BAM strike for affirmative action in which I played a role. It imprinted on me the importance of mass action to achieve goals, a lesson that stayed with me in many political activities since. Leaving academia once more I moved with SDS to Detroit, and eventually finished school there. I had a solo labor practice for 25 years, mostly representing union dissidents and establishing some important legal precedents. Moving to Charlevox in 2000, I became active in the Green Party, ran for county office a couple of times, and played leading roles in various community efforts. These included preventing a Wal-Mart store in Charlevoix, stopping the Coast Guard from using toxic lead ammunition for target practice in the Great Lakes, supporting a two-year Teamster nurses' strike in Petoskey, keeping a terrorist-insurance company out of the area, and organizing several local anti-war rallies. I handle cases involving the LTBB Odawa Indians. I write opinion pieces in local newspapers, and sometimes get quoted in national publications. I have visited the West Bank twice in pro-Palestinian legal delegations. Perspectives developed from the above would be unique among the university regents.
  • Budget: Federal budget priorities must be re-ordered. Half of the federal budget operating expenditures goes to the military, starving the education sector. We need less military, more education.
  • Tuition: The economic crisis and Wall Street bailout this fall make it difficult to assess this question by election day. Time is needed. Generally, if money continues to flow away from education and toward financiers and Iraq and Afghanistan, traditional approaches must be re-considered.
  • The state of Michigan: Itís a global economy. In assessing its development role, the university should not limit itself to Michigan. The Green Party platform calls for an economic system based on a combination of private businesses, decentralized democratic cooperatives, publicly owned enterprises, and alternative economic structures. Collectively, this system puts human and ecological needs alongside profits to measure success, and maintains accountability to communities.
  • Research: One of my opponents, Susan Brown, said in response to a media question: "We must aggressively leverage our public-to-private relationships with both local and global businesses and NGOs and increase the amount of technology transfer to the private sector...." At least one other candidate also endorses technology transfer. This is completely wrong-headed. The academy does not exist to give intellectual capital to industry. It exists to educate students. (See e.g. Derek Bok, Universities in the Marketplace: The Commercialization of Higher Education, a book I learned of only after the campaign.) Schools participating in the University Research Corridor should receive no different treatment financing than other state universities. Creating separate incentives and appropriations could lead to two separate and unequal tiers of higher education. Most of the state's educated workforce comes from colleges outside the corridor.
  • Flint/Dearborn campuses: Route more university money and support to Flint and Dearborn, away from the elite campus in Ann Arbor.
  • Athletics: The purpose of the university is to educate people, not put on entertainment. I believe in athletics. I won three varsity letters in college. I run/ski 40 miles a week. I have a 1:14 at the Dexter-Ann Arbor half-marathon, and a 2:36 in the Detroit marathon, a sub-6-minute/mile pace. These are participation sports, which you can do your whole life. Spectator sports like football asnd basketball are different. This serves no educational purpose. Michigan Stadium should be sold and considerable proceeds applied to club sports and academics. The University of Chicago, where I went in the 1960s, once had a great football team and a great coach. Correctly, Chicago abandoned football and left the Big Ten in the 1930s and 40s. It's still a great school with plenty of revenue. And it has a lot more Nobel laureates. Michigan should follow suit.
  • Stem cell research: Yes.
  • Medical marijuana: Yes.
  • Gay rights: Support.
  • Most recent book I've read: The Odyssey (Rouse translation).
  • Favorite recent movies: Grizzly Man and Mon Meilleur Ami (My Best Friend).

On September 30 and October 8 I attended forums around Charlevoix on the economic crisis, sponsored by something called the Michigan Campaign for Change, featuring talks by economist Sam Williamson, a supporter of Barack Obama.

They were useful sessions. Williamson laid out a short course in macroeconomics, and the history of US monetary policy. He commented on the qualifications of the economic advisors of the leading presidential candidates.

For me, it was too complex. There was also a down side. He acknowledged supporting the $700 billion Wall Street bailout plan, but didn't explain the pros and cons, or why it was a better plan than distributing the money among individual debtors. He was indifferent when asked if strengthening the unions would be an important part of straightening out the crisis. He lauded J.P. Morgan and Steve Jobs as architects of enlightened capitalism.

I was the only one in the crowd to challenge him. My view is that even if reformist or radical change were implemented, it would only be effective with the support of popular mass organizations. That is what a union is, and to the extent that the civil rights laws of the 1960s succeeded, it was because of a popular movement.

This is the whole point of what the Green Party tries to do. The Williamson talk prompted me to write a letter to the News-Review. I noted the two Michigan senators and my local Congressional House rep were split on the bailout plan. I recommended that people support the economic plan of our presidential candidate Cynthia McKinney, the primary feature of which is a call to nationalize the Federal Reserve and establish a federally-owned public banking system.

I got so wound up in the bailout issue that I went to the October 16-19 convention of the National Lawyers Guild in Detroit and proposed an amendment to a resolution calling for repeal of the Wall Street bailout, public control of publicly-owned assets, and nationalization of the Federal Reserve. On a mail ballot to the membership, a month later it passed.

On October 9 I spoke briefly at the State Theatre in Traverse City, along with other Green candidates, including Green presidential candidate McKinney. Michael Moore, the theatre's art director, introduced us. Her movie American Blackout was shown. McKinney impressed me at the time as a good and forceful campaigner. Later, her conspiracy theory about 5000 felons being found executed after Hurricane Katrina impressed me as lunatic. A month after the election, she was aboard a Free Gaza Movement boat, hit by the Israel Navy in international waters as it attempted to enter the Gaza Strip. An interesting lady.

On September 25 and October 16 I visited the university's Dearborn and Flint campuses. In Dearborn I met with a member of the student senate and the head of the math department. In Flint a reporter for the Michigan Times interviewed me.

The most interesting event turned out to be a forum with the other candidates before SACUA, Michigan's faculty senate, on October 27.

It was preceded by an address of the university president, Mary Sue Coleman. During questions after her talk it came out that no one at Michigan ever won a Nobel Prize. This prompted hand-wringing and discussion about how to change that. According to Wiki, the school has "produced" seven laureates, while the University of Chicago has had seventeen on staff at the time of the award. Relatedly, another faculty member at the forum complained of the school's priorities in paying its football coach $2.5 million to break a contract with West Virginia and come to Michigan. These discussions helped set the table for what I was going to say.

Originally I wasn't going to go to the forum at all. But looking over my opposition I noticed one of them was a Michigan classmate I had been friendly with in 1969-70, Larry Deitch, now the most senior incumbent regent. He is a corporate lawyer, a Democrat, and a "progressive," as he says. (But he was one of the regents to oppose Kovel's Pluto Press.) September 17 I emailed him to say hello. This was my first substantial contact with a classmate in 38 years. He responded enthusiastically. That, combined with the talks I had with Ed Morin in July and at the September 26 Sabeel conference convinced me to do it.

The other candidates participating were Democrat Denise Ilitch, Republicans Susan Brown and John LaFond, and Libertarian Eric Larson. The second Libertarian candidate, and the two candidates from the US Taxpayers Party didn't show.

I had been nervous coming into it, assuming I would be outclassed by the others, who I expected would have more diligently done their homework. But that morning on the recommendation of a friend I had reviewed the others' online programs. The main theme of one of them, Republican Brown, who placed third and would have won had the top of her ticket prevailed nationally, was that as a student her husband was football captain.

It made me realize this is a crowd within which I can compete.

I ran my usual pitch, adding references to the faculty grievance procedure (and whether it should culminate in an outside arbitrator), which had been discussed in the meeting before the formal start of the forum, and the question whether this senate body should properly be thought of as union or management.

I was surprised at how few faculty attended. Only about 25 were in the audience.

I was distracted as I spoke at one point by something outside. Mine was the only chair in the room positioned to see it. "Oh," I said, "there's a rainbow," and continued on with my thought.

I made one mistake. The rules of the forum were that candidates were to respond only to the questions, not each other. In my allowed two-minute summary I started to quote from and respond to candidate Brown's mentioned call for "technology transfer [from the university] to the private sector." I had expected the subject to come up during the questions but it hadn't. David Potter, the chairman, interrupted and reminded me of the rules. So I repeated the point generically, without reference to Brown and noting that she was not my only opponent who was for this. Later I apologized by email to both Potter and Brown. Sweetly, Brown wrote back saying she wasn't offended, my point was well taken, and she hoped I would run again.

Afterward, a guy came up and challenged my assessment of the BAM strike. I didn't get his name. He claimed there was higher minority participation in the university -- I don't remember whether he was talking about faculty or studentry -- before the strike than after. "So BAM didn't win?" I said. I was astonished. "At the time it was the view of both BAM and the regents that it did." He answered: "That was the spin that both put on it," and recommended that I read the Committee for a Multicultural University's 2008 report. The document has extensive statistics. But they go back only to 1994, and do not speak to the effectiveness of the strike.

After the forum we had an impromptu Green Party meeting. I announced it during my remarks but none of the faculty attended. Like the forum itself, our meeting was small, with only six in attendance.

Here is the campaign media coverage:

Results: I got 102,158 votes, or 1.23%.

The Ann Arbor News was probably right in saying:

Historically, many voters across the state don't understand the role of regents and are not familiar with the candidates. As a result, strength at the top of the ticket and straight-party voting determine winners in these contests to win eight-year terms.

No organization endorsed my candidacy, or that of any other third-party candidate. As an example, the Michigan Daily opted for the Democrats, strongly for Deitch and unenthusiatically for Ilitch. LaFond was thought qualified, except for his stands opposing stem cell research and same-sex health benefits. The paper also questioned the ethics of his stand for allowing private industry to have a strong presence in the university. Brown was thought unqualified.

Still, a vote total in five figures does sound impressive. And given my total expenditures of $9.50, the cost per vote was $.0000929. That is less than 1 percent of a cent. Who can beat that?

Many have questioned the wisdom of my call for the sale of Michigan Stadium. "A school should keep its eye on the ball, and the ball is education," I said at the forum. Responding, Deitch said "successful competitive intercollegiate athletics are part of Michiganís culture, ... part of the gestalt of the place...." This is true, but that doesn't make it right. It doesn't lead to the coveted Nobels. And it doesn't lead to fit students.

But the university's culture drowned me out. The candidate whose primary campaign theme was her husband's football skills almost won.

What do I think of the winners? Deitch was the top vote-getter. He represents corporations, opposed Pluto Press, and is for spectator sports, but at least he is against luxury boxes in Michigan Stadium. Ilitch is a Democrat who contributed $2000 to George Bush in 2004. Other than that I don't have a sense of her.

I am quite sure I would have got the same vote total had I not campaigned at all. In fact I might have got more, because of my stance on athletics. It makes one wonder if there is any point to doing anything. But that is usually the lot of visionaries. I would rather vote for someone I believe in, and it seems worthwhile to offer other voters the chance to do the same. Sooner or later our perspective will trickle up.

I ended the compaign with a second letter to the News-Review, on November 19, two weeks after the voting. Since 2000 when I moved to Charlevoix, no Democrat has stood for county office, I noted, except one in 2002 who ended his campaign when he heard there a Green in the race. (In a third letter January 8, I corrected a factual error; a Democrat did run and campaign for commissioner this year; he lost.)

Greens usually lose, but we have a better record of trying. The definition of a political party is something which challenges for state power.

In that sense we are more of a party than the local Democrats. Nationwide, forty-eight Greens were elected. Green House candidates doubled our totals over 2004, and Tom Mair, our candidate for commissioner in Grand Traverse County got 30%.