A. Robert Kaufman, left-wing activist, dies

Demonstrated for civil rights, against wars, ran for multiple offices

  • A. Robert Kaufman tapes his mayoral platform, "The Socialist Bob Kaufman's 24 Electoral Theses," beginning with an end to "the so-called 'War on Drugs,' " to the door of City Hall.
A. Robert Kaufman tapes his mayoral platform, "The Socialist… (Baltimore Sun photo by Jed…)
December 28, 2009|By Meredith Cohn | meredith.cohn@baltsun.com

A. Robert Kaufman, a lifelong civil rights activist, political gadfly and socialist who ran for just about every office ranging from Baltimore City Council to president of the United States, died early Friday.

He was 78.

Those who knew Mr. Kaufman said he formed his political views at an early age and never backed down from a debate. He was arrested countless times, thrown out of candidate forums and kicked out of council meetings. But he'd always be back, trying to use the political process to further his causes - from civil rights in his younger days to his more modern push to legalize drugs as a means to cut their street value.

"He was a very forward-looking person," said David G.S. Greene, an activist who ran for City Council president in the 1990s on a ticket with Mr. Kaufman, who was running for mayor. "He wasn't popular. But he had ideas and stood by them. If others didn't have quite the right idea, he'd tell them."

Ruth Lipsetts, Mr. Kaufman's sister and only surviving relative, said Mr. Kaufman died at 2 a.m. Friday at Northwest Hospital Center. He was living in a nursing home and had been deteriorating for some time. He never received a kidney transplant that he needed after a boarder at his Walbrook home nearly beat him to death in 2005. On dialysis three times a week, he recently had a stroke.

Lipsetts said her brother had always been "a little to the left" of his family - and just about everyone else around. Though, she said, she enjoyed hearing him speak and was impressed by his dedication.

"He never got discouraged," she said. "He kept running for office even when he wasn't well enough to run."

Mr. Kaufman, who never married or had children, was born March 8, 1931. He graduated from the Park School in 1950 and attended Goddard College, the Johns Hopkins University and Morgan State University.

In 2006, Mr. Kaufman told The Baltimore Sun about his early years of activism. As a sophomore in 1947, a classmate asked him to join a picket line at a local movie theater.

"I was from a middle-class Jewish family who would never consider such a thing, but it was the right thing to do. So I shined my shoes, put on a tie and my best suit, and went downtown," he said.

For the next three years, Mr. Kaufman walked the picket line every Saturday, some times alone. "My classmates and their parents would cross the line, and I'd give them the evil eye. Of course, this didn't make life too easy for me back at school," he told The Sun.

Radio host Marc Steiner, who had known Mr. Kaufman about 50 years, said he believes Mr. Kaufman identified with the civil rights movement because he was Jewish.

"The oppression Jewish people came out of - the Holocaust, people coming to America - it made a lot of young Jewish people empathetic to radical causes and black struggles for freedom in America," Mr. Steiner said.

One of his most vivid memories was when they were in a car, and Mr. Kaufman pulled over because he saw a man beating up a woman. Kaufman got the man to stop.

For his stubbornness and unwillingness to compromise, and his ability to be so disrupting, he will mostly be remembered in local political circles, said Donald F. Norris, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Mr. Kaufman cared deeply about issues. "But because of the way he carried forward with his views, he was irrelevant to the political process. He was not willing to engage in any kind of compromise to enable any part of his views to be adopted. It was all or nothing," Norris said.

Still, Mr. Norris said, "The world without Bob Kaufman telling everyone what he ought to be doing is somehow diminished."

Max Obuszewski, a fellow activist, said the protest for Mr. Kaufman's causes will go on without Mr. Kaufman.

"He was Baltimore's activist," Mr. Obuszewski said. "He was always available. Always there. This was his life trying to be about positive social change."

His sister said Mr. Kaufman had one last act for society. He requested his body be donated to science. There will not be a funeral.

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