This could just as well be titled, “How to pick a candidate”. It deals with the two candidates for the 5th Congressional District seat (Senator Markey’s former seat) who are taken most seriously in my neck of the woods — Sudbury. To be sure, there are 3 other candidates, each with their own supporters. But this piece is long enough already, and my conclusions wouldn’t be different if I also wrote about the other candidates. I tried to write this in such a way that the ideas in it could be used generally, and I hope that even if you are considering other candidates or are not in the District you will find it worth reading.
Speaking broadly, I see two kinds of candidates for public office today:
- Those who see their job as persistently chipping away at relatively small issues, and do it pretty well.
- Those who start with a broad value-laden vision for our country and publicly frame what they think and how they act in that context.
Now things are never this simple, of course. Every elected official is sensitive to constituent needs, and deals with them aggressively as a matter of course. And every elected official has some view of how our country works. But there’s a world of difference in how this plays out in the present case.
Last week, Carl Sciortino and Karen Spilka both spoke to the Sudbury Democratic Town Committee. I asked each of them the same question: “What in your opinion is the biggest issue facing us today, and how would you approach it?” I listened to their answers to this question, and also to the other points they made, which as it turned out meshed very tightly with their answers to that question. They were really very different.
1. Karen Spilka has worked on a large number of local government issues, specifically getting more state education funding for MetroWest, and getting funding for children with disabilities, but also a number of others. For example: She met a man whose wife died — and the insurance company was refusing to pay out the life insurance. She worked on this for a number of years, sitting down with the insurance company and filing legislation and eventually got a bill passed as a result of which the man got his insurance payment. She also talks a lot about bringing industry to her district and “marketing” Massachusetts to corporations, and has spent a lot of time in the state legislature doing this.
She started out as a labor lawyer and then became an arbitrator. She also describes herself as a social worker. She is skilled in conflict resolution — she comes back to this often. She says she’s particularly qualified to work in Congress because she grew up in a dysfunctional family and knows how to deal with dysfunctional institutions. Her idea is to reach out to individual Republicans to find common ground and get things done.
When asked, she says the biggest issue facing our country today is the sequester. It will hurt many people, and particularly the least fortunate among us.
She believes that the Tea Party will shrivel up. In the meantime, she says we have to be ready to compromise — find ways to cut some programs while preserving the ones that benefit the most needy.
2. Carl Sciortino has also been active in his legislative career. His accomplishments include raising the state’s minimum wage — he and (then state rep.) Jamie Eldridge opposed the Speaker on this and won. He was also responsible for legislation closing corporate tax loopholes, extending buffer zones around reproductive health care facilities, and increasing access to public transportation. He co-sponsored and fought hard for the Massachusetts health care law, but is unequivocal in his belief that nothing except a single-payer health care system will meet our needs — and he pledges to work for that. He is a co-founder of the House Progressive Caucus.
He says that we need to change the national discussion — in fact, this is the very first thing he says. When asked about the most important issue facing our country today, he did not refer to some specific outrage or problem — he said that it is the question of economic justice, and in particular the growing disparity in both wealth and power between the top 1% and the rest of us. Everything he says follows from his views on this and a few other big issues. So he wants to go after Citizens United, and he frames that precisely in terms of how that court decision reinforces inequality and injustice.
When asked about immigration, he not only said that he favors a path to citizenship, but pointed out that when people talk about “securing our borders”, they’re really only talking about one border. They’re concerned about dark-skinned Hispanics. This is really not-so-disguised racism. I was impressed to hear him say this. It’s a breath of fresh air compared to the incessant triangulation coming from the centrists in our party.
When he talks about education, he points out how charter schools manage to get rid of large numbers of low-achievers, thereby artificially inflating their average test scores. These students then become the responsibility of the “failing” ordinary public schools. And he speaks eloquently against the notion that the problem with public education is teachers — he says they are the solution, and need to be consulted and supported, not demeaned.
So we have here a real contrast: on the one hand, we have a person — Karen Spilka — who works assiduously on issues that are certainly important and at the same time relatively small, with no real overriding goal other than to do the best for her constituents as she sees it. She doesn’t see her job as changing the terms of the national discussion. She thinks the discussion will change by itself — specifically, she says these things are “cyclical”.
On the other hand, Carl Sciortino explicitly says that he sees his job as working to change the way things are talked about. And in that context, he sponsors and works for — rather successfully, it appears — progressive legislation.
I think this is really a crucial distinction. The Tea Party may in fact wither as an institution. But the damage they (and the Republican Party generally) have done to our political life is immense. The whole notion of what is an acceptable political view has shifted way to the right from when I was growing up. It’s the task of progressives — it’s the most important thing we can do — to change the way people talk about things, not to triangulate and work around the edges.
I don’t see Karen Spilka as understanding this in any sense. She really sees politics as interpersonal. But the problem in Congress is not that the Republicans are a dysfunctional group. On the contrary, they are quite functional. They say exactly what their goal is, and they work for it. And their goal is a country based on greed and winner-take-all. They say that, and they mean that.
If we don’t put forward a different vision, then theirs will be the only vision to choose from. But as Carl Sciortino puts it, *our* vision is economic justice. That’s a vision that reverberates among all except the top 1% or so. That’s the vision that got Elizabeth Warren elected. And that’s the vision that has made her — already and in such a short time — so astoundingly effective in such a hidebound institution as the United States Senate.
And people want vision. That’s what they vote for, more than anything else. The closest that Karen Spilka came to expressing a vision was her repeated notion that we had to protect the neediest among us. That’s true, of course. But to most people, that just feels like it doesn’t apply to them. And it falls victim to the right-wing talking point of how progressives are trying to take your hard-earned money and give it to lazy shiftless drug-addicted criminal unemployed-by-choice Blacks and Hispanics in the (gasp!) cities. That’s not a vision that can unite us.
I don’t think that Karen Spilka is a bad person at all. She’s by all accounts a pretty good state senator. She brings home the bacon for her district, and does, I think, genuinely care for the the people she deals with. In Washington she would be a solid Democrat, I’m sure, though not an inspired one.
I’ve heard some people say she is “feisty”. I guess she is. Is she a “strong woman”? Yes, certainly. But as far as changing how people talk about things — as far as changing the terms of the discussion — I don’t think she’s cut out for that. She doesn’t seem like a national leader to me, and given her view of how the world works, I don’t really see how she could be.
When Elizabeth Warren ran, she said — again and again:
“Are we going to be a people who say, ‘I’ve got mine and the rest of you are on your own,’, or are we going to say, ‘We can invest in our future’?”
More than anything else, that one line was what got her elected. That’s what people respond to. That’s what brings out the best in all of us. That’s what underpins every bit of progressive political action.
Martin Luther King famously said (and he’s often been misquoted on this, but it was reported again recently in the Globe):
“Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.”
And it’s not only Elizabeth Warren and Martin Luther King who talk like that. Carl Sciortino talks the same way. And he acts the same way. And that’s why I’m supporting him for the House of Representatives.