When Charles Pillsbury ’72 went to Boston to see a musical inspired by the comic strip of his old college buddy Garry Trudeau ’70, he wore a blue shirt, khaki pants and a vest. So did the actor who played the title character.
Freaky coincidence? Hardly.
Pillsbury, after all, was the basis for Mike Doonesbury, the title character in Trudeau’s comic strip of the same name, which began its storied run as “Bull Tales” on the pages of the Yale Daily News in the late 1960’s.
“All the characters are really amalgams,” Pillsbury said.
The name Doonesbury itself is one of those conglomerates. To come up with the name, Trudeau combined “Pillsbury” with Pillsbury’s nickname dating back to his prep school days, “The Doon.” In prep school parlance, Pillsbury said, a doon refers to a person who is not afraid to go out on a limb and take a chance at making a fool of himself. Pillsbury said he is much less similar to Mike Doonesbury now than he was when Trudeau created the little cartoon man.
“If I was, no longer,” Pillsbury said. “The character Doonesbury is a Republican. Our life paths have long since diverged.”
The issue of political affiliation is one which is propelling Pillsbury to make what could possibly be his dooniest move yet: challenging popular incumbent U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro for Connecticut’s 3rd District house seat, as the Green Party’s endorsed candidate.
And it’s not going to be easy.
Pillsbury’s own father, George Pillsbury ’43, a lifelong Republican and grandson of the Pillsbury baking company’s founder, has told his son he will not support his campaign. Add to that the heavily Democratic record of the 3rd District, the forces of “incumbency advantage,” and the fact that he does not yet have enough signatures to place his name on the ballot. All this adds up to a lot of work for Pillsbury between now and November.
He is not discouraged, though. The largest block of voters in the district, he said, belong to no political party, and that could work to his advantage.
“In a three-way race, anything can happen,” he said. “In this congressional district, because of redistricting, Rosa has attempted to make a very safe Democratic seat.”
Already, “The Doon” has gone out on a limb politically. In a state whose staple industry includes military helicopters and nuclear submarines, Pillsbury is running on an unusual platform: anti-war.
“I haven’t felt this way since the Vietnam War,” he said. “I haven’t felt that our country is so off course in terms of our foreign policy.”
Pillsbury was a Yale student during the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, participated in anti-war activism and protested on the New Haven Green in 1969. Becoming a Green is not his first party shift; he was raised a Republican, and changed his affiliation to Democrat during the war.
“The Democrats were the ones who opposed the war,” he said. “It seemed to be a party that represented people, not businesses.”
In addition, he was the plaintiff in a suit against Honeywell for the disclosure of the company’s books and records. He lost the case on appeal to the Minnesota Supreme Court, but his efforts did earn him a mention in the “Ralph Nader Reader,” and in legal texts.
“By the time I was in law school a few years later, that case was a footnote in one of my textbooks,” he said.
Pillsbury said that during the Vietnam era, he was inspired by the sermons of the moral provocateur, the Rev. William Sloan Coffin, who later made his way into the Doonesbury strip as the Rev. Scot Sloan. Pillsbury said Sloan’s character is a combination of Coffin and the Rev. Scoty McLennan, the dean of religious life at Stanford University, and Pillsbury and Trudeau’s former Yale roommate.
Now, Pillsbury finds himself inspired by Nader. Last year, he took one of his daughters, 18-year-old Susie, to hear Nader speak, hoping she would be moved by the consumer rights activist and presidential candidate. She was, and registered to vote as a Green. Unexpectedly, Pillsbury also found himself inspired.
“I was doing it mostly because I wanted to introduce my daughter to an icon of our age, a real hero, and it turns out I was just as moved as she was,” he said.
The disillusionment Pillsbury felt with the Republican Party during Vietnam has now transferred to the Democratic Party, and to his congressional opponent.
“As Democrats go, I think [DeLauro] is a very good Democrat,” he said. “But I think I’ve come to a point where being a good Democrat isn’t good enough. She’s rubber-stamping some combination between insane and obscene levels of defense spending as opposed to saying ‘why do we need [this funding]?'”
But Pillsbury still respects some Democrats. Barbara Lee, the California congresswoman who was the sole dissenting vote against the terrorism war resolution, is one of his heroes.
“You have to vote your conscience and your principles,” he said of Lee. “Sometimes you know you’re doing the right thing when you have the right enemies.”
Although he is critical of recent defense expenditures and of the war in Afghanistan, he does not want to see the parties responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks go unpunished.
“We are dealing with terrorists and they are criminals, and you have to address that, but you do that by using the criminal justice system, by investing in our police, both locally and nationally,” he said. “That means investing in the FBI. That even means investing in the CIA.”
The appropriation of taxpayer money is another area he wants to address. He said the current system of campaign finance gives a huge edge to incumbents, and that fund raising eats up a lot of the candidates’ time. He added that he feels huge corporate contributions make elected officials beholden to entities other than their constituents.
“If we have any hope for democracy, we have to get to a point where we are financing our campaigns with public dollars,” Pillsbury said.
For his campaign, he said he will accept contributions only from individuals.
If the self-described “recovering lawyer” wins the election, some aspects of his life will certainly change, but others, like his season tickets for the Yale men’s hockey team, will not.
He is planning a three-month leave of absence from his position as executive director of Community Mediation, a New Haven-based nonprofit that offers mediation services. If he is elected, he said he will probably resign the post, though not without regret.
“There’s always a loss,” he said. “I love what I do. But if I win, [I have] the opportunity to address violence and greed at national and international levels.”
Despite his father’s reluctance to contribute to his campaign, Pillsbury said the rest of his family is very excited. His mother, though a Republican, has pledged her support. And “my kids — think it’s fantastic,” he said.
He added that his wife of a year and a half, the Rev. Allie Perry DIV ’80, has also been “a great support.”
Pillsbury maintains close ties to Yale. In addition to attending hockey games, he is a member of the Church of Christ at Yale, a connection he said he will maintain even if elected to Congress.
He said the University Corporation, however, should not expect special treatment.
“I’d like to think that I will be representing the people in my district, not just the institutions,” he said. “My focus will be representing the people who elect me. Yale is not one of the people who would be electing me to Congress.”
Nevertheless, this does not mean his legislative interests will be at odds with the needs of this generation of Yalies.
“In many cases, the interests of Yalies as residents are not much different than the interests of residents,” he said. “It’s been good to see in the last few years, particularly under President [Richard] Levin, to see that the fate of the University and fate of the city are intertwined.”
Now only time will tell if Pillsbury’s cartoon alter-ego will pursue a similar political career — a shift that could be determined by the outcome of Pillsbury’s candidacy.