Big Talk: Charlotte Zietlow
The Grande Dame of Monroe County Politics Talks about JFK, Czechoslovakia, Frank McCloskey, PCBs, role models, and chicken soup ◆ by Michael G. Glab
She helped change the political landscape in Bloomington in the election of 1971. First as a City Council member, then as a County Commissioner, Charlotte Zietlow put the people before the bosses. Now, she’s the go-to woman for blue ribbon commissions set up to study modern day problems in our little corner of the world. Every Bloomington-area Democratic woman candidate of the past four decades owes her a debt of gratitude. And Charlotte herself wonders how she’ll feel when the first woman takes the oath of office of President of the United States.
Young newlyweds Charlotte and Paul Zietlow were no different than many other academic couples at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in 1960. He was working on his master’s degree in creative writing and she wondered if she was cut out for the life of a housewife. She already had accomplished plenty on her own: she’d earned her own master’s degrees in German and French literature. Later, she’d earn a doctorate in Linguistics. She had her own opinions, too, and she wasn’t afraid to share them. That fall, she’d spout off any chance she got on the presidential race. A friend, perhaps weary of her harangues, threw down the gauntlet.
“Why don’t you do something about it?” the friend said.
“What can I do?” Charlotte asked.
“You can knock on doors and talk to people.”
“No,” Charlotte said, “I can’t do that. I’m too shy.”
“If you’re going to talk all the time, do something about it,” the friend said. “Otherwise shut up.”
Charlotte Zietlow wasn’t about to be shut up.
Charlotte Zietlow: I felt pretty strongly about Kennedy and also about Nixon. So I got a list of people to go and talk to. I knocked on doors and I talked to mostly seniors because they would be home. I would talk to them about Kennedy and they would say, ‘Oh, I really like that man.’ They were so scared that they would get sick and they wouldn’t know how to pay for any of that. One person after another. And he was talking about doing something about that; he was talking about Medicare. And then they went on to say, ‘But we can’t vote for him because he’s Catholic.’
I would say, ‘My father was a Lutheran minister and I went to parochial school and I’m going to vote for him. If I can do that, you can do that.’ I changed votes. I changed about 40 votes. Kennedy won the state by about 3000 votes, less than a vote per precinct. Without a hundred people like me, he might have lost and the world would have been different. I’ve never stopped working in a campaign since. At that time, when you looked at the poverty rates, the poorest people were the seniors. Now that’s not true. The percentage of impoverished senior citizens is way down and it’s because of Medicare.
Michael G. Glab: If I were to say to you, I’m running for president and I am going to urge the Congress to pass universal, single-payer health care….
CZ: [interrupts] I would give you my fortune.
MG: Can you name me off the top of your head three good things that you’ve done as an officeholder?
CZ: I was first elected to City Council in 1971 and I was part of a group of people — it was a motley crew of novices who took over the government with no experience in governing.
MG: This is the Frank McCloskey gang? [McCloskey had been elected the first Democratic mayor of Bloomington in decades. Zietlow and eight other progressives also swept into the City Council.]
CZ: Yeah. We were a council of activists. The thing that was most important to me was to make sure people got heard. I lived in Czechoslovakia in the previous year, where people were not heard, could not speak. I came out of the ‘60s with all the turmoil, of all the things that were going on, and it seemed to me the important thing was people wanted a voice in their government. So suddenly I was with this motley crew of people and a common factor that united us was our desire to have the people speak.
I became the president of the council for the first two years, which meant I ran the council meetings. I had no experience of running meetings of any sort so I probably was not very tidy in the early days. But people got to talk. They were welcomed and they were listened to and we wrote down, the minutes will show, what they were concerned about. That was a huge change; it was a 180 degree shift. That can be proven; you just go read the minutes books. So, just carrying through on that and establishing the right of people to participate in the meetings as well as in the government. We opened up government. We started creating boards and commissions in every direction and people went, ‘Oh my God, what are they doing?’
And then, not going to our best friends and saying, ‘Hey, we’ve got this position for you.’ We said, ‘You all come, and if you’re interested submit your resume and you’ll be chosen on the basis of whether or not you’ll contribute the most.’ That happened and I oversaw that. I was only one of nine but I was the chair.
MG: Prior to the election, were all nine of you allies?
CZ: Not all nine of us because we elected one Republican. But he turned out to be the maverick Republican that the other Republicans had kind of cast out. A very interesting guy, Jack Morrison. He was half Indian [Sioux] and he was not up to the social requirements of his fellow Republicans and so he was not included in their social activities. But we included him! The second thing we did was we named Jack Morrison number one on the council, from the 1st District. We wanted him to feel that we understood he was important.
MG: Did he appreciate it?
CZ: Yeah. And I think the other thing he appreciated was when his wife got sick I took her chicken soup.
We really wanted to govern better. We really wanted the city to be a different place, which it is. It’s really the Bloomington it is because of that election.
MG: And you and Frank McCloskey were close?
CZ: Of course. Actually, we kind of pulled him along until, I think, his friends and advisors said, ‘That council’s kind of far out there. Don’t you want to be a little more conservative?’
Some tension arose. We had disagreements, there’s no doubt about it. After years and years and we had some really big fights, I ran against him in a primary [for mayor]. It wasn’t personal; there were issues. But by the end of his life, my son worked for him as a staff person in Congress. We were like family.
Another of the things I’m proud of, obviously, is the Courthouse. After two and a half years of taking one alley and then another and then another, eventually arriving at our goal of restoring the courthouse and ultimately building the justice building and jail because it had to be part of the deal. That was a very hard job which required an enormous amount of kicking and shoving and stroking and smiling and groveling. We got that done at budget and in a reasonable amount of time.
MG: Why was the Courthouse worth saving?
CZ: Because it’s a nice building. And it’s the center of town. And it creates a sense of community. The whole idea of community for me is one of the strongest motivations for doing things.
[During the struggle to renovate the Courthouse, many men of power in Bloomington would tell Charlotte she was naive, that she didn’t understand how politics and businesses worked, that she’d never even had to meet a payroll in her life.]
CZ: In 1973 my friend Marilyn Schultz and I decided over lunch one day that we were really tired of being told that we couldn’t understand budgets because we were just mere women and hadn’t met a payroll. The men on the Council hadn’t either but, forget that. So we decided to meet a payroll and we decided to create a store that would purvey cooking goods because we were both really good cooks and this city needed a store like that. It would be the kind of store that would revive and maintain the downtown. Home-owned, small, high-end boutiques would be the salvation of downtown.
We walked around the square three times and then saw people moving out of one of these stores and said, ‘We’ll take that one.’ That was in May and we opened in November. And it really was something that helped save the downtown. And all of a sudden all those guys said, ‘Oh my God, they’re so smart! See what they learned because they’re in business!’ Yeah, right.
Marilyn Schultz (l) & Charlotte Zietlow In Their Store, Goods For Cooks
[The two friends’ business would be called Goods for Cooks. The store is still open on the west side of the Square, under new ownership.]
[In 1984, the Westinghouse company, several local governments, the State of Indiana, and the federal Environmental Protection Agency announced they’d signed a consent decree to erect just outside Bloomington a garbage-and sewage-fueled incinerator to dispose of hundreds of thousands of tons of PCB-contaminated soil. Residents feared this would release poisonous dioxins into the air. Charlotte, a County Commissioner at the time, opposed the plan. It was finally killed in 1995.]
CZ: Another major thing that I’m proud of is that we do not have a garbage eating, dioxin-spewing incinerator to the south of Bloomington.
My County Commissioner days are probably the most demanding of anything I’ve done. The first four years I was there, Vi Simpson and I and to some extent Warren Henegar and to a great extent Phil Rogers, who was a Republican, and Norm Anderson, and some of the other Republicans, Carl Harrington and Morris Binkley — we were able to bring the county into the 20th Century. Not the 21st, but 20th. That was hard work.
The PCBs, the Courthouse and all that construction stuff, reorganizing the airport, creating a veterans service office — I’m really proud of that. My predecessor on the Commission, the one I defeated, didn’t think we needed it but the veterans did. We listened to them and we figured out how to fund it. It was really necessary. It turned out to be one of the best things we did.
It was great hard work to persuade the men that I wasn’t crazy and that I did care and that I knew how to add and subtract.
MG: If you come to me and I think you’re crazy, how are you going to change my mind?
CZ: I’m going to talk to you and tell you what I think and what we need and why we need it and if you don’t agree, that’s okay, but I’m willing to listen. I’m not going to say I’m absolutely right. But I will not come to you and tell you something unless I’ve thought it through and done some homework.
MG: Do you have hope for the future?
CZ: Because I don’t want to think of not having hope.
MG: I’m going to go out on a limb and say our next president will be a woman.
CZ: I think that’s probably true.
MG: Will that be a great feeling for you?
CZ: Probably. [Pauses.] You’re bringing tears to my eyes. When they named the Justice Building after me, Mark Stoops called and said, ‘Charlotte, we’d like to name the Justice Building after you, would that be okay?’ I said, ‘I suppose I should say no’ — you know, in all humility — ‘but I’m not going to.’ I got off the phone and I told Paul they’re going to name it the Zietlow Building and he said, ‘It should be the Charlotte Zietlow Building!’
I said, ‘I’m not going to tell them that.’
So, the day they unveiled it, it was the Charlotte T. Zietlow Building. The number of responses I got, especially from older women, was pretty overwhelming. It meant so much to them to have a woman’s name on a building. If you think about it, there are very few buildings in this country that have women’s names on them. Very few. Not because it was me but the symbolism of having a woman appreciated meant a lot to a lot of women. I think that’s the way we’ll all feel if we have a woman president, you know, the 52 percent of us.
MG: What else happened between your days ringing doorbells for JFK and your first election eleven years later?
CZ: We moved to Czechoslovakia in October of 1969. [Paul had been offered a job teaching at Komensky University in Bratislava.That was after the Warsaw Pact had invaded the country. The axe was beginning to fall by the time we got there. We lived in Bratislava, which is the capital of Slovakia, on the Danube. We were the only Americans in that city. We were guests of the Ministry of Education. We were extremely well-treated, like royalty. We had everything that we could possible want that they could give us. And it was the hardest year.
We had children in school: a five- and a seven-year-old. We saw what it was like to live in a country which was totalitarian, where decisions were arbitrary, where there was no room for discourse or discord. We listened to the Voice of America on a short-wave radio that we were not supposed to have. We heard people denouncing the actions of Nixon, the arguments about why it was wrong to bomb Cambodia, for example. We heard all that dissent on this government-funded radio station and there we were in a country where it was illegal — treasonous! — to say anything negative about the government in groups of two or more. Our Czech friends would say, ‘We want to touch you because you breathe a different air.’
MG: I imagine if you live in a totalitarian society you have to shut a part of yourself off, pretend it doesn’t exist.
CZ: Yes. So what they did is they went and tended their gardens and they drank a lot. People would come over to our house — it was a government apartment, it had to have been bugged — and they’d start berating the government and we’d [begins waving her hands in front of her face to indicate they should shut up]. We didn’t want to get people in trouble. We were immune but nobody else was. We tried never to say negative things in front of the children so they wouldn’t repeat them.
MG: Did you have any political mentors or idols?
CZ: I come from a generation where women didn’t do much. I came of age before the women’s movement. I was born in ’34. There weren’t a lot of women role models out there. I have enormous respect for Eleanor Roosevelt but I didn’t know much about her. I have a picture this big in my dining room. And I just read the biography of Frances Perkins who, if I’d known about her….
MG: She was the first female cabinet secretary [Franklin Roosevelt named her Secretary of Labor in 1933.]
CZ: She basically pushed Social Security through. She drummed it through. The New Deal was, in many ways, the result of her pushing and shoving Roosevelt.
The reality is I came from a Lutheran background. Women still in the Lutheran church don’t have a vote. My mother and all my relatives were ministers’ daughters. I was told to behave myself, don’t make noise. My mother told me later, ‘You were always so independent.’ This was not a good thing.
You know, I have a feisty edge. I get my back up. I’ve run into a lot of brick walls in my life.
I wanted to be in the Foreign Service when I graduated from college. I had good language skills and was really interested in political science and government. And I’m not stupid. I took the tests for Foreign Service, for the NSA, and for the CIA. I got high marks on all of those. I got an interview with the Foreign Service in Chicago. A bunch of white men from the East interviewed me. We spoke German and we spoke French. At the end they said, ‘Your record’s really good and your tests scores are outstanding. We can see you’ve got a touch. You would make an ambassador a wonderful wife.’
So, then I got an interview with the CIA. Some guy was going to meet me in Lambert Field in St. Louis. I would know him because he would be wearing a red rose. At the end he said, ‘Really good, fantastic, wonderful interview. And you’d make a spy a wonderful wife.’ That was the end of that. That’s why I went to graduate school.
MG: How did you feel when you heard those words?
CZ: I didn’t expect it. I couldn’t believe it. I got angrier and angrier as I walked down the hall. But there wasn’t much to be done, not at that time. There was no recourse. Anyway it was infuriating.
MG: One regret.
CZ: I try not to regret. [Long pause.] I guess I regret not having had a mentor. That I had to find my own way. That meant some blind alleys. There really wasn’t anybody who guided me.
MG: Have you ever been bored?
CZ: In high school my fear in life would to be bored.
MG: So, have you ever been bored?
CZ: Not really. I find something interesting to take up the time. I’m a great tourist because I like everything. Everything’s interesting: the streets and the windows and the supermarkets and the people.