I was recently approached by a representative of the Carl Sheeler campaign about possibly interviewing the candidate. Sheeler is in a hotly contested primary with Sheldon Whitehouse over the Democratic nomination for the Senate seat currently held by Republican Lincoln Chafee. He was taking a shot in the dark to see if I'd be interested in interviewing the candidate before the upcoming Democratic Primary on September 12th.
Given the short notice and the fact that I'm not particularly tied-in to Rhode Island politics, I hesitated to do the interview even though they wanted all the publicity they could get. My knowledge of Rhode Island mainly comes from visiting with my sister who lives in Naragansett. But certain aspects of the Sheeler campaign compelled my interest, particularly because he is one of the 'Fighting Dem' veterans who are running in primaries all around the nation and challenging the Democratic Party status-quo.
Since I'm working on other articles on the campaign, including one on the 'Fighting Dems', finding out more about Sheeler first hand seemed like a great opportunity. Plus he's interesting. He's a veteran and a successful businessman, yet his viewpoint is pretty far to the left of insider Democrats like his primary opponent Sheldon Whitehouse. And boy is he to the left. He's got links to Democratic Underground and DailyKos on his site, and is promoting Sen. John Conyers' efforts to impeach President Bush. He also has some unusual and even innovative ideas. His underdog campaign has attracted some notice and gained some steam in the last few weeks, but it's particularly notable for the way that it has been overlooked by the media, written-off by insiders and even ignored by the pollsters. The question is whether he'll have better luck attracting the attention of voters and stage a surprising upset on the 12th.
For those not familiar with the other players in this race, Lincoln Chafee is the incumbent Republican. He's relatively young and running for what would be his second term in a seat which was previously held by his father. He's about as Liberal as a Republican can get, earning considerable ire in his own party for some of his positions, such as his strong pro-choice stance and being the only Republican Senator to vote against the War in Iraq. Some Republicans have even suggested supporting a more conservative Democrat challenger just to get Chafee out of office. Chafee actually faces a stiff primary challenge himself from Cranston Mayor Steve Laffey.
Sheeler's opponent in the primary is Sheldon Whitehouse, former Rhode Island Attorney General and Democratic candidate for governor. Whitehouse is a political insider whose platform is pretty much the straight Democratic party line. He's got the party machine and party money behind him. He actually comes off as a bit more conservative than Chafee, and the most recent Rasmussen Poll shows him potentially beating Chafee by 5 points in the general election.
I have to admit upfront that I think Sheeler remains a longshot, though the primary is still very much up in the air with a lot of undecided voters. But regardless of whether he wins or loses, he's an articulate voice for a strong and growing element of the Democratic Party which ought to be heard. So I did a little research and put together a set of questions covering the major issues, and got these interesting and sometimes surprising answers:
DN: A recent Rasmussen poll shows your primary opponent beating either Lincoln Chafee or Steve Laffey in the general election, and although you've made impressive strides in catching up, you still have to be considered a long shot. Why should dedicated Democrats vote for you instead of Sheldon Whitehouse if he can deliver victory in November and you're an unknown quantity? You've commented "If Lincoln Chafee had run as a Democrat or Independent, I might not be running for U.S. Senate." Will you be able to run effectively against him if you get the nomination?
CS: Ninety days before the 2002 gubernatorial elections few people knew who Don Carcieri was, as he had not previously held elected office…however, between Sheldon Whitehouse not lending support after his defeat to his primary opponent, Myrth York, and despite York's two prior runs, Carcieri became our Republican governor.
This event speaks volumes. Likeability is a key attribute in RI's retail politics and Sheldon does not have that "mojo". Paul Wellstone was also an unknown quantity and he defeated four primary candidates and a two-term GOP incumbent because of his populist support and views.
RI Democrats fall into two distinct categories – "anybody but Sheldon" and those who support the establishment "machine" candidate. Then there is the significant number of Independents who who are less concerned about the ruling party and more so interested in what the candidate and his/her campaign offer.
I offer a background as a middle class father of five, business owner, and a court appointed financial expert with the ability to listen, think and act – not carefully scripted sound bites with very little substance. People are smart and empty promises don't resonate. My time as a Marine Combat and Staff Officer taught me to stay focused on taking care of people and that is exactly what public service is supposed to be.
It's not a legacy. It's leadership. It's building bridges and making concessions among groups with disparate agendas. This is why even Sheldon finds me "very likable". Great ideas, passion and connecting with a wide range of people are key to winning the primary and general elections. These are offered by my campaign.
I have very strong support from local and national Veterans and peace groups, which is why both Chafee and Sheldon are spending over a million in ad buys targeting these groups. Sheldon is running on "he's a Republican" therefore vote for me. Leadership is "we can pull together and get our country back." When you strip the "R" and "D" away from the candidates, Sheldon fails to offer a real compelling difference.
The Latino and minority communities support my campaign because they've been ignored and the immigration issue is a tipping point putting many into primary elections this year. Small business owners and social activists are very supportive. They are a critical component to our campaign. The one area of strong dominance is our carefully nurtured outreach to faith-based leadership that includes over 200 parishes.
Sheldon's special interests money machine is formidable… but he simply can't dance and whining over $350 an hour boredom as an "of counsel" attorney at a prestigious law firm while looking out his window and "it's my legacy" with some skeleton's in his A/G closet are not ways to win the hearts and minds of Rhode Islanders.
DN: You have said of the Whitehouse campaign:
"I'm running because his campaign has repeatedly merely attacked Chafee and the Republican Party instead of offering real solutions to our bread and butter issues that we working families experience."
Yet you've put up a billboard just outside Providence which reads "Be Patriotic, Impeach Bush" on one side and "Fund Our Future, Not Bush's War" on the other. Doesn't that amount to very much the same thing – running against Bush and his policies rather than running against Sheldon Whitehouse?
CS: On the contrary, do Americans expect if they work hard and play by the rules will have meaning if their leaders are not going to adhere to the fundamental principles of our Constitution? They know tax cuts for the top 1% earning $750,000+ annually; especially, during time of war is not fair. They know they're down $3500 in discretionary pay just since 2001 due to high energy costs that can be associated with big energy lobbyists and this war. They know Halliburton and big special interests are eroding their lives' pursuit of the American dream and that of their kids. They know they've been lied to and are as disenfranchised with many of our democratic leaders as they are with Republican elected.
Finally, they know if we don't put leadership into our Congress great hopes of domestic security, single payer national healthcare, high quality education K – College and ebergy independence are just "me too" claims with no substance of being realized. They want accountability and this cannot happen with our presence in Iraq and few willing to fight for checks and balances that preserve our Constitutional rights.
DN: You're one of the 'Fighting Dems', with a background of military service the Marines in the first Iraq War. There has been some concern that Democratic Party leadership hasn't supported the Fighting-Dems as wholeheartedly as they might have, throwing more money and support behind more conventional, 'insider' candidates who don't challenge the status quo in the party. This certainly seems to have been a problem in your campaign where Whitehouse has gotten all the attention and you've been virtually ignored. How big a mistake is the party making by shying away from more progressive candidates and failing to support the 'Fighting Dems’?
CS: "Can do!" It's a simple phrase, but means a great deal. Military service is about more than strong patriotism and national pride. It is about getting the job done and minimizing partisanship. We used to have a Congress that would cross aisles on most major life altering legislation. Since many among the establishment Democratic leadership have moved to the right and feed from the same trough as their GOP counterparts, they've broken their social contract with our country's middle class that includes "Family. Faith. Flag." They have minimized the very serious nature of putting lives in harm's way. They are shells and not leaders who make command decisions based on the right thing to do and not what is politically expedient.
There's over 30 days until our primary and Sheldon's polls aren't really budging. He lacks the needed gravitas that money can't buy. Earning it does not mean spending 15 minutes at a gathering, but hours. Seems to me we're getting a lot more attention because of the netroots and populist support that the high paid DC advisors can't adequately respond to other than the self-serving media buys that can't buy love.
DN: You have some innovative ideas on education, including providing additional support for public education through a charitable fund and the creation of a national lottery to raise education money without raising taxes. State lotteries which fund education have come under fire as being like a tax on the poor and uneducated disproportionately to pay for schools. Wouldn't this also be the case with a national lottery?
CS: Thank you. Our global competitiveness and ensuring good paying jobs will always be well rooted in quality education initiatives; especially, in the Maths and Sciences. Las Vegas would never be the same again and I think you'll find that not only the poor enjoy gaming. In fact, an argument could be made that when the poor folks do buy lottery tickets for education it relieves the tax burden on other social programs thay have to compete for allocation.
People want to have the hope of the big money and when it's their choice to pay to play versus to be taxed, they'll always gravitate to choice.
DN: Former Providence School Board member Julia Steiny had an editorial in the Providence Journal last week which made a very strong argument for the expansion of school choice in Rhode Island, following the example set by nearby Boston. Her ideas are echoed by parents and inner-city and minority activist groups which are crying out for school choice as a solution to the chronic problems in education all over the country. The current administration seems to have gone down the wrong path with its "No Child Left Behind" plan. Would you, as a Senator, consider participation in a federal effort to promote innovative education solutions like charter schools, multi-district choice and even educational vouchers?
CS: The Bill Gates Foundation is spot on. It's not leave no child behind, it's leave no school behind. The bar has to be raised for expectation of the role of the community on our parents, unions and teachers that involves both during- and after-school programs supported by big and small businesses as well as civic and faith based organizations. No plan works without having local community involvement and high expectations. An absence of funding will cripple a school system as will chronic spending with no clear performance milestones.
The choices above address the symptoms and don't fix the root cause of failure to adequately prepare our kids for further learning, life and work following graduation. What will and has worked is more than lipservice is ensuring our at risk kids' educational investment is made.
Otherwise, more funds will be expended in law enforcement and judicial process than in ensuring an adequate environment exists to learn. I'd welcome the federal government's commitment to an investment in our kid's future no matter what form it may take if it can be shown to work.
DN: One of the most important questions facing our legislators in the next few years is the issue of our ongoing dependence on foreign oil, which makes us vulnerable to manipulation by foreign powers, weakens our economy and even drags us into war. What measures would you take to establish energy independence for the United States? Would you consider methods to increase domestic production such as drilling in ANWR and off the coast of Florida? Would you support government programs to encourage construction of new Nuclear power plants? How would you reduce demand for oil for automobiles and accelerate a shift to alternative fuel vehicles?
CS: Industry experts state the amount of energy needed to drill in ANWR and the level of proven reserves are inadequate to provide more than a year's worth of oil for US consumption. Technology advances have changed considerably since the last construction of American based nuclear power plants. France has 30% of it's power use from nuclear, so this ought not to be removed from our options to fuel our residential and commercial electric grid use.
I've shared two examples of not just thinking out of the box, but getting rid of the box entirely. First, instead of giving the glutinous oil companies any further tax subsidies ($12.5 Billion this year), we could apply these funds towards an immediate mandate that all state and local vehicles (from trucks to school buses) are hybrid, hydrogen and/or biodiesel compatible in three years.
This would cut pollution and consumption dramatically as well as lower petroleum prices, but is only the first stage in demonstrating energy independence that could transition to the public to purchase this ability at lower cost as the demand increases. It produces jobs because of the new technology manufacture to create such durable products.
The second stage is to have federally funded investment in the many patents already existing similar to the billions of taxpayers funds spent annually by DARPA for defense and military R&D. In fact, our military benefits because fuel consumption is a major logistical hurdle for combat operational planning and our military is the single largest consumer of petroleum products in the world. This investment would require the same Manhattan Project mandate and collaboration using our best and brightest in academia and private industry that would be comparable to Kennedy's quest to put a man on the moon.
It could and should revise our lives and rewrite history.
DN: The Iraq War, the situation in the Middle East and the continuing threat of terrorism will also loom large for legislators in the immediate future. Clearly you oppose the War in Iraq, but do you have any ideas on how we could effectively withdraw and leave behind a functioning nation? How do you suggest that we deal with the rise of sectarian violence and terrorism in the region and the possibility that it might very well spill over to the United States again as it did on 9/11?
CS: I answer this question in a recent blog. I will summarize here. First, 9/11 and Iraq have NOTHING to do with each other. Second, the US military is not a police force and not in the business of nation building. Our energy and foreign policy have been short sighted and debilitating then as well as now in our relations in the Middle East. My exit strategy had a precise how and when and was published at my website and shared with 7,000 RI veterans.
We should have been out after their drafting of their Constitution. Over 80% of VFW members oppose this war and call for the immediate withdrawal. How many lives are lost in 6 days, weeks, months or years… so we somehow feel we can save face. Your military readers will know what FUBAR and Cluster F**k mean. You don't put good young men and women in harm's way without a good plan getting in and coming out. You certainly don't politicize the decision and change the rules to fit the current assessment.
National security has been a buzzword, but Bush looking to contract with Arab nations to protect our ports; an absence of adequate funds and guard to have a real domestic security program; withdrawing from Afghanistan and foregoing the search for Osama bin Laden have done nothing to make our citizens safer, but it sure as hell made a lot of large contractors wealthier. It is unpatriotic to use fear the way this administration has done. No president has done less even when the "threat" of China and the USSR and their military and nuclear capability was always more dramatic and risky.
DN: Our prisons are bursting at the seams, much of that overcrowding caused by huge numbers of harmless citizens sent there as a result of the War on , a war which costs us tens of billions of dollars every year, makes organized crime more widespread and more profitable, and has led to government abuse of the rights of citizens under the 4th Amendment to the Constitution. The leading edge of the fight to bring and end to decades disastrous drug policy is the effort to legalize medical marijuana. If you were elected would you support legislation like the Hinchey-Rohrbacher Amendment to protect the rights of medical marijuana users?
CS: Your question is a canard. Legalizing marijuana for medical use is not the same thing as widespread use of other illegal drugs causing incarceration for possession or distribution. I do believe that the underlying premise is correct. I'd support proven medical use to be legalized.
We expend the wrong amount of resources on apprehending, arresting, processing, trying and incarcerating those whose crime it is to have small quantities of marijuana. Prevention and offering life changing alternatives are simply less costly. What the former does is provides training to become more experienced and hardened criminals that also has a higher social cost.
DN: As it currently exists Social Security is not doing a great job of serving the needs of the public for a decent retirement system. Those who do not pension plans or investments are depending on it, and the system is inefficient, structurally unsound and has been described as a 'ponzi scheme' with good reason. A shrinking workforce cannot continue to provide for the needs of an ever growing population of the elderly indefinitely. The system has to be changed or readjusted in some way. At current rates, investing a worker's Social Security contributions in the safest possible investment – like Treasury Bills – over the course of his lifetime, would provide more than 50% greater income in retirement than the current system. Would you consider supporting at least a partial transition of younger workers or those who are willing to give up any prior claim on the current system, into a government insured and structured retirement investment plan?
CS: Actually, there is a real debate about two issues. First, should our government be using the surplus the SS fund has produced for years for other than retirement purposes? Our elected have abused this piggy bank for other expenditures. Companies are not allowed to use pension funds for operations; however, our elected don't feel such rules apply to them. This is wrong and privatization is not the answer.
The second issue is are the rates of return and withdrawals are as depicted and is the "risk" of social security a strawman, so the investment industry can make billions of dollars by privatizing? In fact, these funds are backed by federal instruments (IOU's) with much of the debt ironicaly funded by China. It's ironic because more could and should be done to turn the tide of lost jobs to the Far East. This has also depressed wages, which, in turn, provides lower retirment accounts. Increasing pay to living wage would also create higher withholdings.
I'd also not agree that our population is growing smaller. The increase in immigrants and their tendency to have more children will expand the work force as will investment in alternative energy and biotechnology seeking better quality of life drug therapies for our seniors.
Should there be a legitimate risk of underfunded Social Security, then the first measure ought to be revising the system to a "needs based". It was not intended as a full retirement program, but a supplement. If one has saved well and is wealthy with 7% return on say $1 million saved in marketable securities is the $70,000 adequate to live on and should the amount of entitlement be the same as a less fortunate individual?
Also, I'd argue that the cap be removed and a donut hole be created for those earning between $50,000 and $100,000. After the withholdings are paid below $50,000 no more is withheld until after $100,000. It is a fair way to earmark funds for society by those who have the greatest benefit from it as FDR had intended. It would also allow for a lower withholding due to number and level of incomes over $100,000.
DN: The question of illegal immigration has become one of the most hotly contested policy issues of the new millennium. Do you have any novel ideas how to reform our immigration system so that it protects our borders our economy and addresses the obvious desire of so many immigrants, especially from Mexico, to come to America and pursue the American dream > just as our immigrant ancestors did before them?
CS: Immigration is a real issue, but it's a wedge one initiated just like flag-burning, choice and marriage equality to divide Democrats who are establishment and those who are progressive.
Since the Carter/Reagan era amnesty there has been no direct correlation demonstrated that undocumented workers who became citizens did not produce a net benefit to our economy. What is factual is that since 9/11, 60% of the estimated 12 million entered into our country, which says much for Bush's real agenda and desire for national security. Let's start by making sure those hiring undocumented workers are fined… not just lipservice. Strengthen our borders with manpower and technology, but not with walls. Reagan and prior administrations tried and succeeded in bringing down the Berlin Wall and our legacy is above creating new one on our Southern border. The symbolism and reality are at odds.
The elements, after some further refining, are solid and non-discriminatory in the Kennedy-McCain bill. It's not practical to expend tens of billions of dollars in identifying, locating, apprehending, arresting, incarcerating, processing, adjudicating and deporting millions of people. Laws were broken, fines paid, felons deported, tax evasion not permitted, language skills and employment required before citizenship being considered. It has teeth and ought to be achieved when we know we have the security in place to reduce further illegal entry.
Second, create a Coalition of Americas that builds a bridge between Latin America and the US, like the European Union. That strengthens our security and provides greater incentive for our nation and corporations to develop middle class economies in these countries to purchase our goods, which in turn stimulates increased production and more jobs here in the U.S.
This also reduces the economic need for people not wishing to leave their communities and families to come to our country. What is a real problem is we have bottled necked highly skilled and educated labor wanting to come to the US and instead going to Europe and other countries where their abilities will give them an additional global competitive edge. It's shortsighted on our part.
Thanks for the opportunity.