Sunday, May 12, 2013

More On Vetting Candidates


Is there a way to find out if a candidate is courageous on a questionnaire?

Over the weekend, I had dinner with a guy who runs a progressive PAC. We had talked on the phone but had never met in person. He had never eaten in a molecular gastronomy-oriented restaurant before, but he had said he was up for "adventurous" and he loved it. He asked me what questions the Blue America PAC asks our candidates before we endorse them. Coincidentally, when I got home, another big progressive PAC sent me their extremely detailed candidate questionnaire to see if I had any suggestions. It's very rigorous... like a final exam for an advanced placement magnet school. There were a few dozen questions with yes or no answers, some of them relatively arcane-- albeit important-- policy points, like about "carried interest."

Blue America used to depend a lot on questions in our first few years... until we figured out that candidates have a tendency to tell you want they think you want to hear. The manager of one candidate told me the candidate [since defeated for reelection] was laughing at me the entire time I was interviewing him, feeding me completely misleading answers that he thought would result in an endorsement. He was one of several candidates we spoke with who dishonestly portrayed themselves as progressives, only to go on to join the reactionary Blue Dogs or New Dems. A couple weeks ago we looked at a progressive who answered all the questions right, still considers herself a progressive but has managed to build one of the absolute worst voting records of any Democrat in Congress because she feels that she needs to follow the [fatally flawed] DCCC's strategy to be reelected.

These days we have a different approach. We work harder-- and a questionnaire won't do it-- to find out what the candidate really thinks and feels. We want to make sure they're courageous, that they won't be easily corrupted and that they have independent minds. Until we find a way to clone Alan Grayson, Barbara Lee, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren-- and short of lie-detector tests and clairvoyants-- we just need to put in real and sustained effort to make sure we're not helping create future Steve Israels, Debbie Wasserman Schultzes, and Steny Hoyers inside the Democratic Party. It takes many conversations and plenty of back and forth.

Yesterday I touched bases with a candidate we haven't endorsed yet but who I have a lot of admiration for. I asked him about Chained CPI. He just loves it... feels it's a scientific approach to figuring out what actual cost of living adjustments need to be. "We should," he told me, "implement chained CPI that takes into account product substitutions by consumers as prices fluctuate, such as purchasing chicken or pork in lieu of beef when beef prices spike. Chained CPI is the measure of inflation that best accounts for the reality those consumers constantly responds to price changes. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has calculated and published Chained CPI since 2002, and the index is considered the most technically advanced and accurate of BLS’s major cost-of-living indexes. Policy and programs should be based on rigor and facts-- the best information that can be gathered.

I was ready to write him off completely but I followed up with his quotes from the Bureau of Labor Statisics with the statistics about the damage Chained CPI is likely to do to America's most vulnerable seniors and disabled vets that Bernie Sanders is endlessly quoting. But then the candidate started talking to me about how, in his view, a scientifically based Chained CPI could raise what seniors and vets get and then went on to discuss how he would like to see the social safety net strengthened, using almost identical points that Sanders and other progressives use. For us, it's not a yes or no answer... it's a work in progress.

And that, at least in part, why Blue America has so few candidates on our House list of endorsements this year and on our Senate list. We feel confident in examining the records some candidates have already built up, not just in Congress, but, in the case of Daylin Leach, in the Pennsylvania state Senate and, in the case of Carl Sciortino, in the Massachusetts House of Representatives. Nick Ruiz, we know well and his heart is an open book on his own website and on his twitter account. Andy Hounshell is a steel worker who grew up in a Republican household and came to the conclusions about what the GOP is all about on his own. He was a supporter of Justin Coussoule, the last Democrat to take on the thankless task of opposing John Boehner-- and now, a vice president of his union local, he's taking over where Coussoule left off, despite the DCCC's policy of protecting Boehner and other GOP top leaders. His has an innate fearlessness and authenticity... and answers all the questions right, to boot-- from his heart.

A few weeks ago I asked Daylin Leach if the "F" he was awarded from the NRA would hurt him in the primary or in the general election. He had the kind of answer that goes beyond a yes or no response and tells us plenty about the character of the man:
First, if it did hurt me, I wouldn't care. This is such a no-brainer issue with stakes so high, that I would happily lose an election before I abandoned my principles on this. That said, the people of Philadelphia know the price we pay for irrational gun policies. The carnage on our streets is something they witness first-hand every day. I can't imagine that there are very many voters out there who really believe that we should NOT KNOW if someone is a violent felon before they are permitted to buy a weapon of mass destruction, or that somebody legitimately needs a 30 round clip.
I know it's Sunday, but if you have it in you, please consider helping these candidates get into Congress and make the Democratic Party, and then the institution as a whole, serve the interests of American working families rather than the wealthy special interests. You can do it here. Maybe this will inspire you:

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