Interview — July 19, 2012 at 11:08 pm

INTERVIEW: Democracy for America’s Jim Dean on Michigan GOP overreach & Romney’s secrecy (and more!)


Democracy for America, the progressive political action committee founded by Vermont Governor Howard Dean and now chaired by his brother Jim, is having a busy week. Yesterday, in conjunction with the Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC), delivered petitions containing the signatures of 115,000 Michiganders outraged at the actions of Jase Bolger. Recall that Bolger temporarily banned Democrats Lisa Brown and Barb Byrum from speaking on the House floor as punishment for making Bolger angry.

Tomorrow, they will deliver upwards of a quarter million signatures to Republican Mitt Romney’s Boston headquarters, asking him to release his tax returns for the voters in America to see, an act of disclosure he seems determined not to make.

I met Jim Dean for the first time at Netroots Nation in Providence, Rhode Island in June. We talked then about the political scene in Michigan and the challenges we face as progressives. I spoke with him again this morning at the bright and early time of 6:30 a.m. (we’re both early risers) about this week’s events and lots more.


Let’s talk about Michigan first. Yesterday DFA, together with the PCCC, delivered petitions signed by 115,000 Michiganders to demand that our Speaker of the House, Jase Bolger, apologize to Representatives Lisa Brown and Barb Byrum. How did that come about, what was the genesis of that action? It’s interesting to see DFA working with other groups, too.

We’ve actually been working with a lot other groups, particularly the PCCC, on a lot of stuff over the past few years. We’re big believers in the coalition stuff, just by way of introducing that. The substance of this issue is that this is something that we’ve really been stewing about and a lot of folks have been doing some really great work, not the least of which are the legislators — Lisa Brown and other in Michigan. We really need to be supporting these efforts.

We have a training director now, Julielyn Gibbons, who is from Michigan and she’s terrific. She’s fabulous, she’s just really doing great things. One of the by-products of that is that she’s been able to keep us up to speed on what’s going on there. This thing came about because of a combination of our members really being on this, the War on Women going on around the country, and the opportunity to support these two legislators who were really courageous on the floor and who gave us the chance to come and support them.

I don’t know if you’ve heard, but Barb Byrum was actually prevented from speaking on the floor of the House again yesterday.

I just can’t believe, I can’t believe this. I hate to rant and use up tape, but…! [laughs] You know, honestly, I think of this and what’s going on in Congress right now where Congressmen from outside and all around the country are trying to legislate Choice in Washington, D.C., not even allowing Eleanor Holmes-Norton to speak. These are people who really put their religion ahead of the democratic process. There really is not much distance between these folks and some of the cultures that tolerate or advocate for stoning women, honor killings and all this other stuff. These people are really off the charts. Every day we get and realize, gosh, we thought this stuff was really standard, that everybody has equal rights. And that’s under attack so we have to fight it everywhere we can.

I really commend these Michigan legislators. A lot of folks in Michigan have been battling this stuff for a long time out on their own and we’re just in there supporting and we’re real glad to be able to do it.

Speaker Bolger was in the news again this week. A report from a prosecuting attorney showing that he had engaged in some pretty major election fraud back in May. It is a culture, not just a culture of attacking women and minorities and unions and other groups, but consolidating power and making sure they maintain their power so that they can continue to do this stuff.

Here’s the thing, though. There’s a great opportunity out there, and I’m not going to pretend to know everything about all the legislative candidates, but we do have a chance to pick some of this stuff off right now. With all the hoopla that’s going on with the national elections, the fact of the matter is that the real battlegrounds are places like the Michigan legislature and those elections. You could say the same thing about Wisconsin and Florida this year. That’s the stuff that real change is made of. Sure you’ve got to get the right people in Washington, but in many respects that’s just playing defense to prevent these wingnuts from taking over. But, if you want real change, whether it’s to change the War ON Women to the War FOR Women or pick your other favorite issue — hydrofracking, campaign finance reform, all of that action is at the state level. So, if I were talking to your readers personally, I would tell them there are a lot of folks you can believe in and they’re right around the corner. There’s no need to kvetch about whether Obama is progressive or whether he’s going to win, we can get into this right here, at the state and local level

That’s great. That’s an empowering message, actually.

Yeah, it’s really true. We’ve learned some great lessons about that over the past couple of years.

I would say that I’ve learned a big lesson from the tea party because Michigan didn’t used to look like this. I mean, seriously, two years ago we looked a lot different than we do right now and that’s largely because the tea party was very effective in 2010 at completely switching this state over. I don’t it represents the majority of Michiganders, they just were the ones who showed up in 2010 so we’ve got to get people activated.

My worry is that the tea party was sort driven by fear and hate and anger and I think that progressives in Michigan are feeling that right now. But I don’t think you can sustain that as a movement. I think we need to harness that energy but then turn it into something positive and progressive, truly progressive.

Man, you just hit the nail on the head. I think about this a lot without coming up with brilliant solutions, but just look at Wisconsin. Eighteen months is a LONG time to have people fired up and to be relying on anger to get things done and get real change made. Those emotions have to be channeled into something that involves more long-term thinking. We really need to have politics somehow involved in our daily lives in order to make this work because, if we don’t, that’s how the tea party takes over. They didn’t take over by being popular. They took over because a lot of folks were not voting and were asleep at the switch. This is not a majority movement. This is a small number of people who are incredibly well-funded and who have incredible sympathy in the media just because it’s a headline. But they have nothing to do with the popular will of the people either in Michigan or anywhere else. The fact is, if we’re not protecting and advocating for the popular will, particularly for the rights of women and basic rights for everybody, that’s how they take over.

I know a lot of people complain about Washington, and I don’t blame them, but the fact is we have to do this and, if I can rant just a little bit further on this one, the thing is I know how hard this. I mean, Chris, I know how hard it is for you what you’ve got to do all day and take care of the folks you love and do this or go to a Board of Education meeting for three hours. In many respects, DFA’s mission is to make that job easier for people, but you’ve gotta do it. We have to do it, we ALL have to do it. It’s not just activists but everybody. Because, if this was a political country — if you look at places like Europe, where people openly talk about politics, openly discuss it all the time, are at least engaged mentally, people like these tea party people don’t get elected over there. That’s because there’s a great awareness so we’ve got to keep this up among folks.

I was amazed when I was in Europe right before the 2008 election how much more people over there knew about our elections than a lot of people here did. It was really amazing. I was in Gemona, Italy, which is the teeny little village at the base of the Alps for work and one of the presidential debates was on. I had to get up at like 3 in the morning because I am a complete political junkie and it was on FOUR different channels and one of them was translated into Italian! It was incredible! You know, we don’t have that here. We need more civic engagement because people aren’t paying attention.

Yeah, that’s amazing! That’s really cool. You know 80, 85 percent of the eligible voters in France turn out for their presidential election? We do cartwheels around here if it’s 60 percent! But it is fascinating how that’s happened and I just sort of have this little theory about it. You know, Americans are really smart consumers. We have that culture of consumerism here. The least educated American is really good about how to figure out value and price, but they have no interest in this and people say, “Oh, Americans don’t vote in their own self-interest and they complain about it but, the fact is, they’re not as interested in that as they are consuming and they aren’t as smart about it as they are about consuming. We have to turn that around and that’s a basic tenet of our culture that really needs to change.

I like that, that’s good. So, let’s turn it over to tomorrow’s event in Boston. You’ve partnered up with MoveOn and Daily Kos, a couple of… that’s a triumvirate right there! So, you’re turning looks like close to a quarter million signatures. How did that start up and what do you hope to accomplish with it?

Well, we certainly want to draw as much attention to it as possible and, certainly, public attention to this issue, the Romney tax issue and the fact that he’s just hiding so much about himself. You could say, I know the political class is saying that it’s dinged him up, but this is a HUGE election issue and we’ve got to keep it in front of people all the way until November. If he can’t come clean about his own financial issues, then he’s not fit to hold public office, particularly given the holdings and the business activities overseas. I mean, that is a material fact of his candidacy and he’s not willing to discuss it.

So, we’re doing this with some great folks — MoveOn and Kos and everybody — we’re really doing it to keep the pressure on, to keep the public pressure on, and gather more people to continue that.

Do you have any idea about how it’s going to go down tomorrow in terms of will you be allowed to be in their headquarters or anything like that? I assume they’re going to be ready for you, this has been making the news.

Well, I don’t think they’re going to let us in! [laughs] But, you know, they have allowed people that drop that stuff off before, but I don’t expect there’s going to be a big meeting or a nice discussion with Mitt around the conference room table! [laughs]

So, are you going to have a rally? What are the plans?

Yeah, we’re gonna do this and it’s going to be a press event and, again, we’re going to call attention to this issue. And there’s also some residual stuff. I mean, Massachusetts, I don’t know how much time you’ve spent there, but those voters there, that’s one place where voters are quite savvy. They really have a good B.S. meter so there’s no better place to do that because those folks have seen that act before and they get this stuff. So, we’re going to get a lot of play there and that’s going to hopefully emanate out of Massachusetts to the rest of the country.

That’s great, I’m looking forward to that. What time does it start?

We’re not quite sure but it looks like nine o’clock is when it will go down.

I assume you’re mobilizing DFA folks in the Boston area to come out and support it?

Yeah, they’re actually going to take a couple of minutes out of all the work they’re doing for Elizabeth Warren’s campaign! She’s great, by the way. I’m sure you know quite a bit about her. She’s got a great shot and she’s a terrific campaigner. I’ve seen her and just likes to be out in public talking to people.

I just can’t believe that Brown is competitive with her, frankly, especially in Massachusetts.

You know, he likes to do this pickup truck shtick. It’s really interesting how this goes. We’ve had great Republicans in Massachusetts’ history. Governor Frank Sargent was a good environmentalist. Senator Ed Brooke, of course, who was really a great statesman. But there’s no room for people like that in this party. This is a guy that goes down to Washington, basically does what Mitch McConnell tells him to and then comes back and gets in his pickup truck and tries to tell everybody he’s Ed Brooke! And it’s worked for a little while but I think it’s UNworking now and that’s sorta the clutter we’ve got to cut through in this campaign, that’s the challenge. I mean, he just voted against DISCLOSE. That does NOT cut it in Massachusetts. Student lending rates? Letting those rates go up in a state that’s got 30% of its population in college? It’s crazy, you can’t get away with that.

I wanted to ask you one more thing. I interviewed David Cobb from Move to Amend a couple of weeks ago when he came and spoke here in Ann Arbor and it’s the kind of stuff that’s really got my attention right now because I’ve always felt like, if I could hitch my wagon to could truly be effective at getting money out of elections and ending corporate personhood, maybe I would just drop everything else and just do that. Move to Amend seems like they’ve got maybe the best shots at that. And they seem to be realistic in terms of the time frame that it would take. Has DFA been involved with them at all or at least with the corporate personhood issue?

We have been involved in supporting the efforts of [Senator Bernie] Sanders from the state where DFA is headquartered, Vermont and we all support this constitutional effort, that’s not in question, and where we can, we support it. The focus for us, because campaign finance reform for our members is probably the one issue that gets mentioned almost every time we do any kind of testing or polling, the focus for us has been to put some points up on the board, as our political director would say, Michael Langenmayr. That means trying to fight this battle everywhere we can, at every opportunity. That includes disclosure legislation. It includes the possibility of public financing of elections in New York state (which I think we’re going to have a shot at in the legislature next year.) We might have another public financing bill up, possibly in Maryland. We have Initiative 70 that I hope’s going to be on the ballot in Washington, D.C. that prevents corporations from funding elections and elected officials the local level. It’s not the same as the Montana situation; it’s a totally different jurisdiction, so we think it can fly when they turn in the ballot signatures.

So, the thinking here is, yes, we need a constitutional amendment about corporate personhood but, while that’s going on, we need to demonstrate that people are fed up, because the ARE fed up with it, by getting this legislation passed and by calling out those, particularly Democrats, who would not do that. You know, the DISCLOSE bill in California was a terrific disclosure bill and, frankly, two Democratic legislators were the ones that sank the bill this year. But we’re going to have a chance to come back at it next year and we’re going to primary the legislators if they still take that position — [state Assemblyman Felipe] Fuentes and [Senator Michael] Rubio.

Those are the kinds of battles that we’re really trying to fight with our members, while supporting this effort to pass a constitutional amendment.

[Photo credit: Anne C. Savage, used with permission]