Jill Stein, no time limit

The following interview with Jill Stein--the Green-Rainbow candidate for secretary of state, and the 2002 Green-Rainbow gubernatorial candidate--took place last Thursday, a couple days after Stein received an unexpected flurry of newspaper endorsements and one day before Stein's sixteen-minute debate with incumbent Democrat Bill Galvin. [NOTE: the debate actually ran 16 minutes, not 5; I originally wrote that Galvin had insisted on a 5-minute time limit, but moderator Jon Keller tells me I'm mistaken.]

In all honesty, I pretty much ignored this race after John Bonifaz was trounced by Galvin in the Democratic primary. My interview with Stein made me regret this. Galvin is an entrenched, extremely well-connected politician, and my guess is he'll have another lopsided victory this Tuesday. But Stein deserves to be taken seriously. Here's what she had to say:

Q. Why didn't you run for governor this time around?

A. I wanted to run in a race that I thought I could win. And my experience as a medical doctor, and a health and environmental advocate, has pointed me repeatedly to the issues of money in politics and influence peddling. And when I learned that in addition to having those really great issues, which I think are gateways involving all the other substantive issues--healthcare, housing, all that--when I learned that the race was likely to be otherwise uncontested, that is, a Democrat running alone and most likely an incumbent Democrat, I thought, Wow, this is too good to pass up.

Q. Do you think more people would have been paying attention to your campaign at an earlier date if John Bonifaz hadn’t challenged Bill Galvin in the primary?

A. That's probably true. Then again, maybe there'd have been no attention at all. I think there’s been an effort on Galvin’s part to just duck, and he would've been ducking me as much as he ducked John Bonifaz. I think the whole Beacon Hill machine did not want this race to surface, because it is a very clear choice between business as usual and a reform agenda. John Bonifaz presented that reform agenda as well, but being outside the party allows me to mobilize a lot of the opposition outside of the Democratic Party. I think there's a grave concern about wall-to-wall Democrats starting on November 7, in all the constitutional
offices, and in like 90 percent of the legislative seats. And that concern may be a real energizer in our race here in the last week.

Q. You talk bout the “Beacon Hill machine” not wanting this race to get a high profile. What do you mean by that? It sounds--

A. Conspiratorial? I don't believe there is a conspiracy where every one gets together across institutional lines. But I think there are strong pressures on many institutions--from the press to political parties and elected officials—there are very strong pressures within each of those institutions to stay the course, with regard to incumbency and with regards to the political system that currently prevails, where money, corporations, and political power really have converged.

The media is drawn up in that. I don't mean to say that there aren't very responsible and inspired journalists out there; there certainly are, but they have to fight institutional forces. Newspaper staffs have really been cut, so investigative reporting has pretty much come to an end. It's very hard, I think, for journalists to do more than amplify the hints and the direction that they're given from officeholders. And it's always at their peril that they question officeholders. It’s sort of the Judith Miller phenomenon, where the press needs to preserve its relationships in order to get story. You shake things up at your peril.

Q. Is it fair to say that you waited too long to start courting press assiduously?

A. Well, what I understand from my press person is that he's been making calls all along, and it's been very hard for him to get calls returned. We are a low-budget campaign. That's the reality of being outside the machine that has money. Were we not spread so thin, I would've been following up on unreturned calls myself. But I think nonetheless it's better late than never, and there are press that have been receptive, and that we've had a dialogue with.

Q. You talked about John Bonifaz’s reform agenda and your reform agenda. Are they one and the same?

A. We're coming from our diff experiences, and we have very different backgrounds. I come to the secretary's race as a healthcare advocate, and as a medical doctor in the clinic witnessing just an epidemic of preventable health problems, many of which are linked to environmental causes--in particular: asthma, cancer, learning disabilities. Just witnessing that as a physician, I moved into area of policy advocacy, to try to stop people from being thrown into the river instead of just dragging them out. I decided to go upstream and work on policy,. And when I worked on policy, I learned that all the facts and the values and the reason in the world doesn't move policy; money moves policy. And from there I went to working on clean elections to reform that. I learned--when clean elections was ambushed in the backrooms on a voice vote by the legislature, without a recorded vote--I learned that it's hard work to change the system. It's a fight. And from there I was recruited to run for office.

I carry those issues with me. I'm fundamentally rooted in health, environment, community economics--that's really where my experience lies. Essentially, I'm issue oriented, and I’m very concerned with the corruption in the system that prevents us from moving forward, that's really got us into a terrible backslide here in Massachusetts, where we're losing ground very rapidly.
The bottom line is, I'm very focused on money and influence peddling as an overarching issue, and I'm very concerned about voting rights as one aspect of our democracy, which is in crisis. But it's not my lead issue. My lead issue is that our democracy is in crisis, and there are many aspects to that. Money and influence is a big one. That's really where my focus is

Q. So how would you as secretary of state try to address that big issue?

A. Well, the secretary can play a very important role, because the secretary oversees the critical institutions of democracy--both the institutions that support it and the institutions that threaten it, the support being elections and public information, and the threats being the funding of those elections and lobbying and the behavior of corporations. So the secretary has enormous latitude to move those issues.

We organize our agenda in three parts: open up Beacon Hill; get the big money out; let the people back in. That's sort of our answer to the crisis of democracy that we're in. I can tell you a little bit about each. Open up Beacon Hill--let's apply the open meeting law. The secretary does not oversee the open meeting law, but the secretary does oversee  public records, and is the chief public information officer for the commonwealth. That really gives the secretary not just the ability but the responsibility to talk about the flow of information and the closed process on Beacon Hill. Few people out there are aware that the open meeting law does not apply to the legislature; nor does the public records law. That's why we can have major healthcare bills negotiated in back rooms, written by lobbyists for months at a stretch, and released the night before the vote—a 145-page bill, rammed through with a unanimous vote the next day, sight unseen, by the legislature. It’s just mind-boggling. And the extent of the betrayal in that healthcare bill is only now surfacing.

To my mind, that's a poster child of the influence-peddling process that prevails. The healthcare bill was written by insurance companies, and to some extent by the hospitals, but it's really an insurance company bill, and it provides a windfall for those companies at great expense to the health and economic security of the members of the commonwealth. This is the plan that somehow forgot to include children, a fact that only came to light a couple weeks ago. This is the plan that also makes it very easy for large businesses to basically back out of coverage of workers by providing an alternative system that costs them some $295, rather than some $6000 or $10,000. And this is the plan that forces people who can't afford insurance to buy stripped-down, useless health insurance policies that do not protect financial security or health. This is backroom politics at its worst, and it's such an illustration of the spin machine that's still patting itself on back, even as the plan is unraveling. If you're below poverty level and don't have healthcare, this plan is good, and that's some 40,000 people, something like that. But then there are about 500,000 others for whom this is a very bad thing.

Back to the open process which we do not have, and of which that is a case in point: if we had an open process, and people knew in advantage what these bills are that are coming down the pike, and we had hearings and time to dialogue with our elected officials about these bills, it would be transformative. That's one place to start--close the exemption.

Q. But there were hearings on the healthcare bill, right?

A. There were hearings on the subject, not hearings on the bill. And that's often used as a smokescreen by Beacon Hill. They'll have hearings, they'll have listening sessions, but you don't see the bill. The surplus land bill, which was an effort to offload up to 40,000 acres of very critical state-owned land, currently protected by some degree of process and community input--all those safeguards were going to be thrown away in a bill that I was very involved in watch-dogging. There was a hearing early on—the bill wasn't even written when that hearing was held. The secretary is the chief public information officer, so the secretary can direct  public attention where the secretary thinks it's vital to the public interest, and nothing is more vital to the public interest than an open and accountable state government.

The first thing I will do as secretary is propose legislation to close the exemption on the open meeting law. This needs a system fix, and as the bills come along where the incredible cost to taxpayers and families of this kind of closed and wasteful influence peddling [is evident]--this closed system where influence peddling prevails--I would be pointing that out as secretary. For example, the Globe published the day after the healthcare bill passed, unanimously except for two votes, the information that 7.5 million dollars had been spent on lobbying for the purpose, essentially, of buying the right to draft the bill by the health insurance industry. I don’t know anybody who read that and wasn’t absolutely outraged about it. In Wisconsin, with the click of a mouse, you can find out exactly who is lobbying on which bills in real time, in advance of votes and that’s a central thing that I would do to open up the process and get the big money out. We need openness: not only open meetings, but we need openness on this engine that is truly the driver in our political system, and that is money. Money below the table, money below the radar. That’s not to say that it is illegal, but it certainly does not serve the interest of the people of the commonwealth. How do we discourage that? Well, Wisconsin begins to get us there. We need a one-click system for clarifying who’s lobbying, who’s behind
which bills, what portion of their budget is going toward it.

Q. Does the Wisconsin system let you see which legislators have been the recipients of lobbying money?

A. No, it does not. That’s step two for us. I think our OCPF system is a very good beginning, but it needs two things in my view. Say you go to look up the insurance companies’ campaign contributions--more oft than not, you can’t do it, because you can’t find the business and the employer for many contributors. That information is requested, but candidates are not required to get it. In California, you must provide that information within sixty days; if you don’t, you give the money back. It would be very nice to see our regulations amended. And it may take a law to do that, and it may be very hard to move such a law in the current environment. Nonetheless, at the end of the day it’s people who move laws, and the secretary can help clarify for people that this is not just a so called good government issue. This is not an abstraction, this is whether you’re getting screwed on your healthcare, and I think the issue needs redefining in the same way that the secretary’s office needs redefining.
Bill Galvin would like us to think that it’s an office of number crunching, of bureaucracy, of doing the Census. What he cites as his major achievement is that he gets the Census done. Great. People need to understand that the secretary is—should be—a watchdog for our democracy, and an advocate for the reforms that we desperately need to get democracy back on track, and to get the influence peddlers off our back, because right now that’s where they are. And we are paying an enormous cost as taxpayers for that influence peddling.

Q. Secretary Galvin also points to the work he’s done on securities regulation. Do you think he’s done a decent job in that area?

A. Yeah, I think so. He has a very good attorney who oversees that department who’s been doing a great job. This has been--if you look at the secretary’s web site, this is usually the headline, so this appears to be his chief priority. And that’s important, but it’s also important to remember that securities fraud grows out of a permissive culture of political influence peddling.

Q. In what sense?

A. Think of Enron, and think of the influence peddling that enabled Enron to get away with what it got away with as long as it did. That could be a long and extended discussion in and of itself. To my mind, the important point is that the secretary has a slew of responsibilities, and taking care of investors should not take the place of taking care of voters. Investments are very important, particularly for our pensions and so on, but most people who are gaining the major benefit from investments--it’s a relatively small fraction of the population. Whereas everybody’s at risk all the time from the threats to our democracy, which I think are big time, and I would love to jump there for a minute.

Q. Sure. I’m surprised Diebold hasn’t come up yet.

A. That’s a piece of it. It’s a very ominous threat on the horizon. There are other threats that are right here that are having a devastating impact right here and now. Let me point to what we call the vital signs of democracy, here in Massachusetts, some of the vital statistics. If you look at money in politics, it’s big, it’s going up rapidly, you need to be a multimillionaire to run an effective statewide campaign in the current system. Look at competitiveness, which has taken a nosedive in this state, under Galvin’s watch, in fact. In 1990, something like 66 percent of our legislative races were contested. Now it’s about 25 percent that are contested. We’ve fallen much farther and much faster than most states; now we sit at the bottom of the heap in uncontested elections. So by that criterion we are in tough shape. Look at our incumbent reelection rate of about 98 percent. We’re in effect a Soviet-style democracy, where legislators rotate into office every two years, if they so choose. It’s a pretty shocking rate that most people are not aware of. But few incumbents are not reelected if they choose to run.

Q. But is it the secretary of state’s job to create an atmosphere of democratic foment?

A. Well, I think the secretary needs to be the watchdog for our democracy, and there are many ways that the secretary can advocate for restoring our democracy. And again, I speak to the vital signs only to clarify that we’re in tough shape by those measures. And I would include in them that lobbying is high. The most recent cross-state comparison, which was a couple years ago, by the Center for Public Integrity, basically put Massachusetts at the top in lobbyist expenditures per capita, and gave us a 7-1 ratio of lobbyists per legislature. By several counts, our democracy is not doing well. Add to that now this routine of lobbyists writing legislation in the backrooms, secret until the 11th hour, and then rammed through with unanimous votes, Democrats and Republicans voting together, one big happy family…. This happens not only with the healthcare bill. The economic stimulus package, the budget--major legislation is tending to move in this direction. This is not good. This is not what democracy looks like. This is what the Soviet Union looked like.

Q. The Soviet analogy strikes me as a risky one, because—

A. We have protections they didn’t have.

Q. I don’t worry that if I write something negative about Mitt Romney or Bob Travaglini, that I’m going to be trundled away in a truck. I understand why you use it, but it strikes me as the sort of analogy that makes your average Democrat say, Jill Stein’s way out there. I’m not going to take her seriously.

A. Let me stop you, because usually this is a joke in passing. I say it half facetiously, because as I described the system to a Russian scholar, that was his comment: Gee, this sounds like the Soviet Union. We say that our democracy is in crisis, and it is. We don’t say it’s a Soviet style dictatorship. But on the other hand, this is not what a democracy looks like.

Q. So what could you do to as secretary to create more competitive elections?

A. Open the system up; we talked about the open meeting law. Get big money out. How do we do that? One piece is just disclosure. The movement of money beneath the radar is clear. If we can begin to link the lobbyist database that connects you from a bill to a lobbyist with the corporations database, which connects you from corporations hiring lobbyists, to the membership of that corporation, to the campaign contributors database that allows you connect names to political donations, then voters and watchdogs can begin to say to their legislators, How are you voting on this bill? I’ve noticed that there’s a lot of money pouring in from the health insurance industry to your political campaign. I want you to understand that I’ve read the bill; I know what’s in that bill. And the next time an election comes around, if your vote has been bought by the insurance companies on this, you’ve lost my vote, and I’m going to work to get you out. Suddenly we have power as voters and taxpayers to connect the dots. Right now those connections do not exist, but they are very real. Everyone knows who’s funding political campaigns. Everyday people are the exception, if they’re contributing $25 or $50. The usual suspects—insurance companies, financial services, utilities—the usual suspects; that’s who funds the political system, essentially. So simply by creating disclosure we empower voters to make our democracy work.

The other piece of getting big money out is advocating for public financing for political camps that agree to forgo big money contributions. The voters enthusiastically supported the clean elections bill. It was ambushed on a voice vote. It would have cost us $12 million a year. In lieu of that, we pay a billion dollars a year as energy consumers. You may recall the deregulation bill which was pushed by the lobbyists--that’s a lobby tax. Every household in Massachusetts is paying up to 30 percent on their energy bill thanks to the lobby tax that clean elections would be an alternative to. Look at the cost of pharmaceuticals. We passed bulk purchasing, but the industry conducted a lobbying campaign to keep it from being implemented; they poured money in and they succeeded. How much more are we paying as a result? Off the street, you’re paying twice as much, maybe three times as much as you’d be paying in Canada, so we’re paying a big price as health care consumers.

Look at the single payer healthcare system, the sort of Medicare-for-all that has three percent overhead. In Massachusetts, one of the most recent studies suggests that we’re paying 39 percent overhead. That’s our healthcare surcharge. Look at transportation. We’re being hit with the debt from the Big Dig, which itself was product of influence peddling. That debt’s being shifted onto us as taxpayers. Whatever they’re saying right now, there are many indications that there are new tolls around the corner; they’re going to expand, they won’t only be on the Mass. Pike. The gas tax increase is likely around the corner, to the tune of $270 million, which will be on the taxpayers’ backs. And the T, the MBTA above all. Fares are skyrocketing because the Big Dig debt was transferred to the T, and that’s outrageous, that people who aren’t using the Big Dig are paying for it to the teeth right now. And all this is kept very quiet. These are very questionable creative bookkeeping techniques, which are so begging for scrutiny. The bottom line here is that we were going to pay $10 million or $12 million a year. Instead, we are paying billions each year.

Another one: healthcare costs from environmental pollution are said to be about a billion a year in terms of asthma, lead, mercury, learning disabilities, pesticide exposure, and so on. Huge, incredible costs that are imposed on families and all of us as taxpayers. The list goes on and on, but we are paying big time for the influence peddling tax. That influence peddling tax just dwarfs by orders of magnitude the very small amount we would pay to liberate our election system from stranglehold of big money. So as secretary, as chief public information officer, as the person responsible for fair elections, I will be a relentless advocate for the reforms that people already support.

Final thing: bring the people back in, get the money out and let the people in. That’s where I support really all the reforms that John Bonifaz talked about, the reforms to remove obstacles between voters and voting. We need people to vote, particularly people who are most strapped, who are most oppressed by our very unforgiving economic system which makes it hard to leave your job and get to the voting booth. Same day voter registration, Election Day holiday—these are no-brainers. Support for linguistic minorities so they have proper translations. Instant-runoff voting, or so-called ranked choice, so that voters aren’t blackmailed into voting for their second worst choice. I think on the whole people have greatly appreciated the range of debate in the governor’s race. That should be the rule not the exception. And if people feel like they need more time to hear the candidates, let’s give them more time! I’d very much like to see media and the corporations of media held to a higher standard--and I mean particularly TV and cable--a higher standard for public interest airtime. The secretary doesn’t have much to do with that at this point, but I think that’s a critical piece of the puzzle.

And then, last but not least, voting machines, I think it’s pathetic that we are bringing the Diebold TSX into Massachusetts just as other states are barring it. I don’t know if you listen to NPR’s Science Friday, but this was the subject just last week, not just Diebold but the Diebold TSX. And now Bill Galvin’s saying it’s a different TSX. If it is, well, Ira Flatow’s expert guest had not heard that the TSX had been miraculously reformed and is now reliable. This is Diebold’s standard line: you didn’t like our track record for the past three years? Well, never mind, we’re now completely reliable! Hello?

We should not be bringing Diebold in. You probably know about Maryland ordering, on an emergency basis, its 1.6 million ballots after Diebold failed. Bill Galvin is claiming this model has printer, but the Diebold TSX has had a printer attached to it for a while, and it’s a lousy printer. It’s a printer with a thermal tape, which is rather fallible; you need a magnifying glass to read it. Unless you’re doing an audit, the paper trail is meaningless. If Mr. Galvin doesn’t know that, where’s he been? There’s no necessary connection between the paper trail and what the machine is automatically recording; the only way to know is to do an audit. It defies common sense--not to mention that he has failed the disability community, to whom he promised and for whom he’s required to provide assistance [under the Help America Vote Act]. That doesn’t mean the unreliable, tamper-friendly, touch-screen voting machines; there are many other options here. The disability community needed to be a part of this conversation and to be involved in the choice, and from what I hear they didn’t have a whole lot to say about it. And here we are providing one training session for poll workers who are pretty stretched as it is, whose average age is 72, many of whom are not computer literate, and now they have to learn to manage a pretty temperamental computer. This does not bode well. The good thing is that the machine is an option; it’s not something that voters are going to have to use. But the Diebold should not be a contender here, and it’s really reprehensible that Bill Galvin got himself in this position of having neglected the disabled community, and now he’s in a rush at the 11th hour to try to do damage control.

The bottom line is, I have a different vision of the office. I don’t see the office as a bureaucrat. And as much as [former Florida sec. of state] Katherine Harris showed us how the office can be used for harm, it has that much potential to be used for good. The office should not confine itself to the bureaucracy of the status quo, which is really where it’s been. We need a new vision for the office, because our democracy is in a brave new world right now, which we all pay the price for; as taxpayers, as people who use the healthcare system we can no longer afford. At our peril, we would continue along this course. And I hope as secretary to help take our democracy back, to be a watchdog for waste and influence peddling, and to blow the whistle so we can turn this around and get Beacon Hill back to work for the families and the communities of the commonwealth.

Q. Jill, thanks for taking the time to talk with me.

A. Great.

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