Rainbow Warrior: A Personal Tribute to LGBTQ Pioneer Constance Kurtz
"Go see Connie."
This was the fifth time somebody had told me this. It was mid-July of 2016 and I was a field organizer in West Palm Beach, Florida. I was beginning my second month on the campaign and I had just received my own "turf" which consisted of a 3x2 mile section of the city. My assignment was simple: seek out the leaders in my turf, schedule a 1:1 meeting with them, and begin to form my leadership team. After all, I now had real, measurable goals that I had to meet and I could not do it alone. I needed a team to help me contact and register new voters every week for the next four months. To help me do this, I needed to find out who I should be talking to. I called up the highly-recommended Connie and agreed to meet her at her retirement community the very next day.
I got to her gated community early in order to make a good first impression. As I drove up to the gate, a guard asked me my name and who I was there to see. When I gave him Connie's name and address he paused. "Sorry," he said. "We don't have a Connie at that address."
I was shocked. I pulled around the gate and called Connie. She wasn't there. I was now exactly on time. I pulled back around to plead with the guard again. "Sir," I said. "Her name is Connie Kurtz. This is her cell phone number." The guard shook his head. "We don't have a person by that name at that address. Please move your vehicle."
I was now in panic mode. Connie Kurtz. At this address. This very address. Apartment numb--
Damnit. I realized I had twice given the guard the wrong apartment number. For the third time, I returned to the gate now giving the guard the correct address. "I'm sorry," I said. The guard shook his head. "Please proceed." Into the retirement community I went, now late for my meeting.
As I finally pulled into the parking lot for Connie's building, I saw a woman standing on a second story balcony with a look of consternation. This woman was wearing a flowered shirt and her silver hair reflected her nearly eight decades of life experience. I smiled as I approached, trying to make amends for my tardiness. "You Trevor?" she asked. I nodded. "What the heck happened?" I shrugged and was about to explain when she shook her head. "It doesn't matter. Come on up here. Let's get you settled in." I headed up the stairs and entered Connie's home and her world.
It was a world that was filled with love. In Connie's humble apartment, there were photos, books, and paintings, the latter of which I would come to learn was painted by Connie herself. There were also several news articles strewn about. "Pardon the mess," she said. I smiled and said it was nothing to worry about. She looked at me, as if to study me for a moment. "Ruthie!" she called. "Ruthie! Come meet Trevor." Out of another room came Ruthie, who I would come to learn was Connie's partner. They shared a little bit about themselves, I shared about myself, and then Connie asked what I needed from her. I told her I needed a couple of leaders from the retirement community who could help me make volunteer recruitment phone calls. Connie nodded and said, "I'll see what I can do."
Three hours later, I had 8 leaders scheduled for our first phone back to take place in 2 days thanks to Connie working her magic.
This was Connie Kurtz in a nutshell. A mover and shaker who, when she spoke, people not only listened but they acted. Despite pushing eighty years, she had the energy of someone half her age. She was president of her community's Democratic Club, a robust club that became the host of several high-profile surrogates over the next four months including senatorial candidate Patrick Murphy, Maryland Senator Ben Cardin, and former Secretary of State Madeline Albright. With each surrogate, Connie graciously and effortlessly provided me the opportunity to give my field pitch to a captive audience. This culminated with Secretary Albright's visit when Connie personally called me up to shake hands with the former Secretary of State. The gesture might not have meant much to Connie but for me, it meant the world.
This alone would have been more than enough but Connie also was a force to be reckoned when it gave to voter registration and Get Out The Vote. Every Tuesday, she would patiently wait in the lobby of the main building of the retirement community and would help those, regardless of political affiliation, to register to vote and later to ensure they were correctly completing their ballots. She personally hand-delivered dozens of ballots to the supervisor of elections, providing a service for those in her community who were too ill or feeble to drive themselves. On the day of the September primary, she braved a downpour to help make sure everybody knew which building voting was taking place at the retirement community. On Election Day, she and Ruthie drove multiple people from their apartments to vote in-person. Through it all, Connie never once seemed overwhelmed or flustered. In short, she was the perfect team leader.
Toward the end of the campaign, I swung by Connie's for a quick check-in and to pick up some call sheets. In addition to having organized the phone banks, Connie also served as our messenger, picking up completed call sheets and dropping off new ones to our reliable team, many of whom Connie had assembled that very first time. She smiled when she saw me, but looked concerned. "Are they feeding you down at the campaign office?" I laughed. "It looks like they're not feeding you. Here, sit down. I'll make you some latkes."
This was the essence of Connie. A tireless worker who simultaneously was able to read and relate to everyone with whom she came into contact. Her warmth and her energy were contagious. Her laugh was jolly. Her hugs were comforting. And her words were powerful and meaningful. When Connie Kurtz spoke, there was an air of reverence around them. She didn't mince words but rather used them in poignant ways. She commanded the room in a way that very few people can do. And yet, simultaneously she could speak softly to your heart in a way that made you feel you could tell her anything.
On November 9th, 2016, I called Connie to apologize. As the field organizer, I had failed her, her community, and the country. I hadn't done my job. As I stuttered through my apology, Connie hushed me. "Sssh," she said. "You did all you could, kid. You did good. There's nothing you coulda done that would have changed what happened. I'm proud of you." Those last four words meant everything to me. There were exactly what I needed to hear at that exact moment. As always, Connie simply knew what to say and how to say it. Although the rest of our call involved a tearful goodbye, I promised to stay in contact with her and Ruthie. I knew that it wasn't every day that a person like Connie would come into my life.
On May 27th, Connie Kurtz passed away in her West Palm Beach home. Her New York Times obituary summarized her life in a way I never could. However, what I can say is that it speaks volumes that Connie's work with Florida politics is barely mentioned. Everything I saw firsthand was done under the radar and without any fanfare. By the time I met her, Connie was already a civil rights champion who had finally legally married her longtime partner. She had earned the right to relax and enjoy her retirement. And yet, she was continuing to fight not for herself but for the next generation. She knew what the election meant not only for her but for those younger, raising their own families. That is how I'll remember Connie Kurtz: a tireless advocate for social justice for future generations. Someone who inspired me to be a better organizer and a better person. Someone who, for five months, was my leader, my team captain, and my inspiration. Someone who is now a part of my own personal story for why I do the work that I do.
And someone I was proud to call my friend.
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