April 04, 2006

Will political office tame activist?

Lake Worth, FL
She's been called an anarchist, a feminist, a radical and a troublemaker.

Her political views are gospel in some circles, scorned and mocked in others.

At 29, Cara Jennings is a lightning rod for controversy in Lake Worth, made more so after her victory over businessman Jorge Goyanes in the city's District 2 City Commission runoff March 28.

Painted by her critics before the election as a fringe candidate unfit for office, Jennings made her first run for office a true grassroots campaign, going door to door to engage residents with debate on social issues and the city's ongoing electricity crisis. She did not accept donations from developers or large companies. The tactic worked as Jennings cultivated support from a range of voters fed up with the status quo in this politically charged, oceanside city of 35,000.

Jennings has been a frequent city critic on issues such as the recent code enforcement crackdowns that forced immigrant families from their homes. But as Lake Worth's City Commission convenes tonight, all eyes will be on Jennings to see if she can work within the system she spent so long deriding.

"There seems to be a climate of fear, nationally and locally, of people who have dissenting opinions about government," said Jennings, who helps mentor at-risk youths through a program at Forest Hill High School. "It's like if you're against government you're automatically a terrorist. I'm not anti-government, but I'm critical of it."

One of five siblings who grew up in a working-class Irish Catholic family, first in New York City then in South Florida, Jennings' political philosophies have always guided her. She left Florida State University after two years to travel the country, hitchhiking to left-leaning rallies and immersing herself in anarchist ideology.

To Jennings, anarchy does not describe an overthrowing of government, but fine-tuning it to better suit the people's needs.

"I think the anarchy word scares people," said Andy Procyk, a Jennings opponent in the District 2 general election. "As she describes it, it's moving to a more de-centralized government. But put it with the public protests and people get a little nervous."

Jennings was arrested in Miami last year for protesting at a meeting of the Organization of American States, which promotes democracy and free trade among countries in North and South America. She protested Palm Beach County's use of tax money to lure the Scripps Research Institute, which she says practices "unscrupulous science." Jennings is co-creator, along with her sister, Aimee, of the Radical Cheerleaders, a protest organization that began in Florida.

As information about her past trickled out before the election, Jennings became the target of attacks on local Web sites and her candidacy wasridiculed by opponents. Goyanes called Jennings' platform "flower-children philosophy." Sitting city commissioners questioned whether Jennings would fit in a structured government.

"If she can change her thinking somewhat and realize she can't change the world, maybe she'll do fine," said longtime City Commissioner C.H. "Mac" McKinnon, whom Jennings replaces in District 2.

It was rhetoric similar to what surfaced a year ago when another self-proclaimed anarchist, Panagioti Tsolkas, challenged incumbent Rodney Romano and political newcomer Marc Drautz in the city's mayoral race. Jennings said Tsolkas, with whom she is friends, did not run to win, but to highlight important issues.

Jennings' effort was something different, she said, and to succeed she understood she had to put some distance between herself and the more radical anarchist movement.

"A lot of my friends didn't want me to run," she said. "I think now they understand it's an effort to balance the commission."

In seeking broader support, Jennings touted her involvement as an appointee to the citizen's Stakeholder Advisory Committee, which helps map the city's growth. It was valuable experience for Jennings, who said she "learned it's possible to work with people you don't see eye to eye with."

While others are curious to see whether the government machine will tame Jennings "the activist," she's not.

"I never planned on serving more than one term," said Jennings, whose term ends in 2008. "When people serve more than one term their interest becomes staying in office. My interest is only serving the city."


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