I had difficulty keeping up with the fast and furious flow of ideas when I spoke to Don Calloway, one of three Democrats who want to represent St. Louis County’s 71st  district in the state legislature (check out his Campaign Web page here).  It is obvious that he has thought very seriously about the best way to effect positive change in the large and diverse district where he grew up and now lives.  

If there is a unifying theme behind the goals he describes for himself, it is his interest in moving political discourse toward what he describes as visionary rather than reactionary politics.  Visionary politics, according to Calloway, entail long-term planning and strategy to achieve enduring change.  He characterizes reactionary politics, on the other hand, as an immediate reaction to a particular issue.

It was this approach that Calloway articulated when he weighed in with a column in The St Louis American on the subject of the effort to recall St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay (for background on the recall, check here and here). The column, which was attacked by advocates of the recall, such as Eric E. Vickers, argued that the recall effort is strategically misdirected and doomed to failure.  Instead, Calloway suggested that:

Slay deserves and has invited the lion’s share of the criticism coming his way. But his opponents should take the next year and bring their brightest political minds together to analyze the landscape, identify a 2009 mayoral candidate with citywide appeal on a broad spectrum of issues, and zealously organize to raise money and grass-roots support for that candidate. Such is the nature of visionary politics, as opposed to reactionary.

It is this belief in the importance of a systematic approach to problem solving that has lead Calloway to run for state office.  He has always been active in his community; volunteering, for example, at the Mathews-Dickey Boys’ & Girls’ Club.  As a lawyer (currently at the law firm of Lathrop & Gage), he does substantial pro bono work. Although he finds these activities personally satisfying, he also finds himself frustrated by the limited scope of what he can achieve–which he characterizes as “spot-solutions.”  As a pro bono lawyer, he assists one family at a time; in the legislature, he could work to bring the law to bear on policy so that all families could be helped. Consequently, he thinks that the legislature is the place where he can exercise his law skills to do the most good.    

Calloway is only 28 years old, but he began to develop his approach to political process while still in college.  As President of the Student Government Association at Alabama A&M, he worked to mobilize students around issues, organized protests and acted as a student spokesperson to the board of trustees.  Later, when he attended law school at Boston University, he and his brother drew upon the more than 2000 African-American graduate students in the Boston-Cambridge area when they organized a mentoring program that matched up 600 graduate students with inner city children.

Calloway acknowledges that there will be challenges in meeting the needs of a heterogeneous district such as the 71st, and that he may not always be able to keep everyone happy. He believes that the best way to meet that challenge is to identify the concerns that this particular electorate have in common and unify people around the process of resolving them.

As an example, Calloway asserts that we all want safe communities, and as a state representative, he would be in a position to work directly with police departments to assess resource allocation. He noted that merging some of the 22 municipalities that make up the 71st district and pooling resources might permit efficiencies that would lead to better service for more people.

Another issue that Calloway hopes to tackle is education.  He observes that everybody wants good and safe schools, and that while some in his district can afford to send their children to private schools, most cannot.  He readily admits that many ideas that he has about how to improve education may not work, but he nevertheless believes that we have nothing to loose by looking at unexplored possibilities.  He cites Karen Kalish’s Cultural Leadership Program, which is intended to inculcate cultural understanding in school age children and foster tolerance, as an example of the type of innovation that he finds promising.  He is emphatic that we must go beyond the “usual suspects,” such as addressing class size and teacher salaries–and he certainly does not believe that vouchers are the answer to the problems of public education.

Of particular interest to Calloway are efforts to address the child’s home environment and educational achievement as part of the same continuum.  To this end, he considers the issue of parental involvement to be very important in improving education in his district, and believes that legislative initiatives can be fashioned to make such involvement easier and more attractive–while remaining sensitive to concerns that residents might have about undue intrusion.

In this regard, he appreciatively notes legislation that Representative Rodney Hubbard, D-St. Louis, is sponsoring that would require employers to give employees four hours of paid leave every month to spend in their child’s class.  Another example of an effort to build a relationship between families and the schools that Calloway cites is a program that was initiated in the Normandy schools.  The experimental initiative set up plans for home visits by teachers as part of creating a plan for each student that required parental involvement.  He notes that this program failed because it lacked consistent funding–a situation that could potentially be addressed by legislative means.  

I had the impression that Calloway has lots more to say and could offer up a vast array of specific proposals on the equally vast array of issues that he would face should he be elected.  The most lasting impression that I took away, however, was of his search for and  openness to new ideas, no matter the source, and the recurring theme of using politics as a positive force to achieve sustainable change.  He is certainly a person who bears watching no mater what the outcome of the election.