"I don't like to give up"

In Pinellas, he's the GOP — the Grand Old Progressive, that is

click to enlarge SENIOR AGITATOR: "The people of my generation somewhat are a lost cause, I guess," says Dwight Lawton, a Pinellas County political activist. "I get a little discouraged with them." - Alex Pickett
Alex Pickett
SENIOR AGITATOR: "The people of my generation somewhat are a lost cause, I guess," says Dwight Lawton, a Pinellas County political activist. "I get a little discouraged with them."

Who? Dwight Lawton, political activist

Sphere of influence: A longtime member of the progressive scene in Pinellas County, Lawton has worked with many organizations seeking help for the homeless, an end to the Iraq War, farmworkers' rights and military issues.

How he makes a difference: The 77-year-old Korean War veteran is uncompromising, persistent and media-savvy, often acting as spokesman and public critic in the causes he's involved in. His most recent victory was convincing the Pinellas County School Board to allow organizations representing alternatives to military service access to high school students during the school day. Only one other county in the state has a similar policy.

CL: When did you get into progressive causes? Early in life or later?

Lawton: No, it was later. It was about 1993 when I joined a Pinellas support community for farmworkers. Through my church, I had been introduced by people who had been active for years supporting farmworkers and their causes. So that was the first time I got involved. I've lived in lots of places where I should've seen what was going on, but you know — business, raising a family, I don't know what other excuses I have, but I didn't get involved. [The farmworker] issue opened my eyes. That and the School of Americas. Then I really got into our foreign policy, and I really began to understand what we had done and how we've been involved in other countries' affairs.

How significant is your victory that convinced Pinellas County schools to offer alternatives to military recruiting?

It varies by school. We're in about eight of them. The biggest impact we've had is [during] our fight to get in the schools we pointed out to [school officials] that the military recruiters were allowed almost carte blanche, and they had more influence with the students than any other group from the outside. [School officials] let them go into the cafeterias; they let them coach; they let them do all these things. [The school board] began to realize that this was out of control, and it wouldn't stand up, and that they needed to do something. Even before they finally said we could go in, they started establishing more rigid requirements and times for the military recruiters. So much so, that in the schools we're in, we don't see the military recruiters...

They are still very influential in the schools in Pinellas County, and I think generally speaking, every place throughout the country. They do some of the testing for [schools] for free and that gets them all the names of the students who agree to do these "aptitude tests." And they offer free things to the schools, constantly. They have these war-fests, we call them, in the high schools. The military influence in these schools is very, very high. We think it's undue influence.

You've been a large part of the antiwar movement here. But five years later, the Iraq war still rages on. Have local protests helped?

Certainly to the extent that we've educated some people. I don't think people are in enough pain. You would think with some of these things that are happening that they would automatically think, "Do you understand how much borrowed money we're spending in Iraq? Do you understand that this is what's affecting you?" It's coming back to how money is not getting to the cities and the counties. It's a horrendous, horrendous expense. I am not daunted, but I am discouraged by how people [don't] see that...

What's the status of the Save Graham-Rogall Committee?

We got everything [housing authority officials] say they're going to give us on what happened to the people that got out of the Graham-Rogall [senior/ disabled public housing facility slated to be demolished]. ... We got a list a week ago and I've looked at some of the places that they're going to. There is a fairly good-sized list of people they have no record of. ...But I think if we are persistent in this there are some things we could do, maybe legal. I don't see now that we have the resources to do it. ... But I don't like to give up.

You recently sent a letter to Florida Secretary of State Kurt Browning lamenting the federal Veterans Administration position to not allow voter registration drives at VA hospitals. Why is this an important issue?

It's an important issue because getting veterans registered is just registering voters. You know, registering voters is something I've been involved in before. [VA officials] are saying they aren't going to let veterans use the facilities to register. And their excuses are really pathetic: It's disruptive. How disruptive is a table? You know, there are some people in the hospital that are [immobile]. Everyone should have the right to vote, particularly veterans. And you're not going to let them be registered in your public facilities? I think not.

Are you encouraged or discouraged by the next generation of progressives?

I am worried about the next generation. I am encouraged by the students, particularly when I see what they've accomplished with the Coalition of the Immokalee Workers. ...I look for opportunities at USF; I've lost my contacts somewhat at the other schools. It's an unfair situation — those students graduate and go on to other things! [Laughs]