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My Q&A; with Bill Shein

Posted on the 20 March 2012 by ---

My Q&A; with Bill Shein

Bill Shein. Source: Daily Hampshire Gazette

When redistricting fashioned a brand-new congressional district in Western Massachusetts this year, two Democratic candidates began primary challenges to Representative Richard Neal, a twelve-term incumbent from Springfield.  One of these men is Andrea Nuciforo Jr., a former State Senator from Pittsfield.  The other is Bill Shein, an Alford author who organized the Occupy Berkshires movement this fall.  A wealth of information can be found about him at his campaign website,  For my questions that it didn’t answer, I interviewed Shein.  The following is my full Q&A with him.  A shortened version with an extended profile will be available soon in the Maroon Tribune and the Monterey News.
1. In a competitive three-man race, what is your path to victory?  What voting blocs will put you over the top?  Western Massachusetts has a long tradition of supporting progressive ideas and candidates. As the only full-throated advocate for progressive political and economic reform in this race, my support is, and will be, broad-based and not limited to any particular geographic region or voting bloc. I’m well known in the Berkshires, of course, thanks to many years of writing and progressive activism. And I’m saying precisely the same things in the campaign that I’ve said for years – I’m not pretending to be anyone or anything other than who I am. We’re working hard across the whole district and I’m spending a lot of time in Springfield, Holyoke, and across the eastern section of the district. In those areas, voters have not had an opportunity to vote for a real progressive for Congress in decades. My focus on fixing what’s broken in our democracy, economic development that’s focused on locally rooted enterprise, and urgent action on environmental issues is an agenda that has broad support, and voters find it refreshing that I’m not a typical politician, nor do I sound like one. In the new age of big-money and Super PACs, my argument that we can’t keep electing the same kind of people, in the same kind of way, who rely on the same corporate and lobbyist money, is resonating. That I offer such a stark contrast to the old way of doing things is what will put my campaign over the top on Sept. 6.
2. How many towns have you visited so far?  Which ones are next on your itinerary? I’ve promised to visit all of the 86 cities and towns in the new First Congressional District. Don’t have a total yet, but would guess we’ve been to about a quarter of [them]. Stay tuned for a map on our website that keeps track.
3. You've worked on campaigns before.  Is there anything about this one that has been surprising and different? One substantial difference is the availability of Internet and software tools that allow us to reach lots of people without great expense. We’re only accepting small contributions of $99 or less, and not raising any money from corporate interests or lobbyists. So our volunteer-fueled campaign, combined with Web and social-media tools, means we don’t need big money to win. And that will be the story of this campaign, and a development that’s urgently needed: We must figure out how to win elections without relying on money from those interests that we need to fight against. If we don’t, we’re going to lose more than elections. 4. Which set of experiences do you think will be most valuable to you in Congress: your writing career, or your time as an Occupy organizer? As a writer, I’ve always tried to find creative ways to popularize ideas and highlight absurdities in politics and public policy. And creativity is in short supply in Congress these days. My work with Occupy has also shown me that we need to empower people to make change right now in their communities, and that it doesn’t always have to be through electoral politics. There are things we can change and fix without changing any laws or electing anyone to office – though obviously I believe those can help a great deal . . . That newly organized local power can then be used to help elect candidates who champion the people’s priorities and then keep officeholders focused on the right things. As I’ve campaigned across the district and met an enormous number of people, it’s obvious they know that things must change. To me, the power of Occupy is the realization among millions of Americans that the current system simply does not work. Public policy – especially the paltry options that usually see the light of day in Congress – is not in alignment with what we desperately need to do to address the real suffering that has been expanding across our society. That those with economic power can so effectively use their financial resources to distort our democracy for their own economic ends is now painfully clear. My experiences as a writer and activist will be useful in popularizing the ideas we need to address that core problem and many others.
5. What is the first bill you will sponsor as a member of Congress?
My goodness, there are so many things we need to advance! I’ll get to work immediately in three areas: First, after joining the Congressional Progressive Caucus the moment I take office, I’ll immediately put forward a democracy agenda that includes sponsoring or co-sponsoring legislation to overturn Citizens United and make clear that corporations aren’t people; enact robust public financing of federal elections; ban members of Congress from becoming lobbyists, as well as ban campaign contributions from lobbyists; enact universal, automatic voter registration, and advance a Right-to-Vote amendment to the Constitution. Second, I’ll get to work popularizing the ideas in the Progressive Caucus’ People’s Budget, a blueprint for federal action and investment that will create jobs, rebalance the tax code, and make urgent investments in everything from green technology to health care. Third, I’ll join with those in the Congress working to advance substantive legislation on climate change – this simply can’t wait another moment. In all of these areas and others, I will be loud, outspoken and consistent – day after day, month after month, and year after year if necessary. The days of sitting on the sidelines as a Member of Congress, and just going along to get along, are over. Today’s challenges are too great and too urgent to waste a moment on the wrong priorities, or to fail to show outspoken leadership.
6. On your website, you call yourself a bold, progressive candidate.  Are there issues on which you can see yourself working together with Republicans? Yes, many. First – and this isn’t just talk – I intend to seek out and get to know a wide variety of lawmakers from across the country and across the ideological spectrum. We may not seem to agree on much, but we all know that when you strip away the politics, it’s easier to find common concerns and common ground. Second, I believe my focus on “local” will present opportunities to work with legislators across the spectrum, as ultimately we need national policies that enable change at the local level. As I’ve done for years as a writer and activist, I’ll seek to popularize ideas and educate my colleagues on new ways to do things. No doubt some will have no interest in working with me, but I believe personal relationships can be forged. Keep in mind, too, that I won’t spend half (or more) of my time raising money in $2,500 and $5,000 chunks at fundraisers thrown by PACs and lobbyists. So I’ll have much more time than most legislators to learn, study, meet with constituents, and get to know other members as well as consult with policy experts. And to champion democracy reforms that Democrats and Republicans will know are about living up to our democratic ideals.  Note, though, that a real danger in the quest for “compromise” in an election year is that too often these days the “compromise” is between policies that are right-wing and center-right – a false and inappropriately narrow choice. That’s not the broad middle. That’s the effect of 30 years of corporate money flooding into our elections and legislative process, and why I’m working so hard to counter that influence. Finally, as a Member of Congress, I will not campaign against other members of the House and Senate. It’s simply impossible to build or maintain working relationships after you campaign against colleagues during election season. When you return to the Congress, how can you possibly work together in earnest? It’s a poisonous atmosphere already, and today’s campaigns only make it worse.
7. What is your position on free trade agreements? I believe free trade agreements move us in the wrong direction on many fronts. While they are presented as job creators, e.g. enabling expanded exports, the data show that they are almost always net job killers. And they do not focus our economic development efforts in the right place, and that’s in building robust local enterprise. Policies that continue to favor global businesses that drain resources away from our communities, and that are focused only on the short-term, are the wrong way forward. Not surprisingly, they are wildly popular among those global enterprises who seek increased profits regardless of the impact on United States employment, wages, economic security and environmental sanity. And those economic interests have far too much influence in our elections and legislative process, thus the seeming mad rush to enact more FTA’s.
8. What specific measures do you advocate to address climate change? First, we in western Massachusetts are seeing the effects of climate change already. Last year’s violent and unpredictable weather is precisely what has long been forecast. The costs, economic and otherwise, are already enormous. The simple truth is this: We must put a price on carbon. Period. It is no longer acceptable to “externalize” the cost of pumping carbon into the atmosphere so that it’s not reflected in a profit-and-loss statement. We have to change our psychology, and so we can start with a low price. But if we don’t move rapidly in this direction, preventing cascading climate-change effects and dangerous feedback loops that further accelerate carbon release will be difficult. The good news is that many of the things that are good for our economy and our communities – notably focusing on “local” with vigor – will help us move in the right direction on fossil-fuel usage and climate change. On a related front, here’s something you likely won’t hear from other federal candidates this year: We need to begin a national conversation about what will replace an economy based on endless consumption of finite resources and an endless, unquestioned, growth-at-any-cost economic model. We live on a finite planet with finite natural resources. While economic growth has provided many things, it is not a model that works for the long-term. We’re already seeing how it doesn’t provide shared prosperity, but rather, drives wealth and income inequality. And we’re seeing how it drives climate change as we push up against environmental limits. It’s the elephant in the room that can’t be ignored if we truly want a future of shared well-being and healthy people, communities, and ecosystems.
9. What is your message to undecided voters? I’d say this: We’re going to send a Democrat to Congress next January to represent the new First District of western Massachusetts. That is certain. The question is, what kind of Democrat? My central argument in this campaign is that Democrats need to be Democrats again, and that means (a) breaking the stranglehold of agenda-narrowing corporate money, (b) championing public financing of elections and other broad democracy reforms, and (c) providing full-throated advocacy for transformative political and economic change. For too long, we’ve watched the people’s priorities get shoved aside by the priorities of those who fund candidates of both parties and spend billions on lobbying. Only one candidate in this race has been an uncompromised and consistent advocate for fixing what’s broken in our democracy and pushing back against the corporate interests that undermine fairness. So will we send back to the Congress someone who is not a champion of fixing what’s broken and who continues to do things the old way? Will we replace him with another lifetime politician who didn’t use his service in state government to fix things, and, in fact, openly and successfully worked to repeal our Clean Elections public financing law – a key progressive reform? Or will we send to the Congress someone who is not a typical politician, and who will continue the progressive tradition of Rep. John Olver, and go even further as an outspoken advocate for substantial political and economic change? Given the very clear choice, I’m confident those who are undecided will join our campaign.

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