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John Bonifaz on the Democrats’ Stunning Loss in Massachusetts and the Forthcoming Supreme Court Ruling on Corporate Financing of Elections

StoryJanuary 21, 2010
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“We’ve got to return to people-centered politics, where people control the process, not corporations,” says John Bonifaz about how the Democratic Party’s close ties to the health insurance industry and Wall Street hurt them in the Massachusetts Senate race. “When you have money-drenched interests controlling the politics in Washington, you lose people at the grassroots level, you lose people on Main Street.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We end today’s show in Massachusetts, where a little known Republican state senator has stunned many by winning the Senate seat held by the late Ted Kennedy for over four decades. Scott Brown’s victory on Tuesday over state Attorney General Martha Coakley throws into doubt whether the Democrats will be able to move forward on passing healthcare reform this year. Once Brown is sworn in, the Republicans will control forty-one seats in the Senate, enough to filibuster the legislation.

Much of the Democratic establishment is debating who should be blamed for the stunning loss. Some have criticized Coakley for being a weak campaigner. Others cite President Obama’s failure to mobilize his supporters to come out on Election Day. Many progressives say Democrats — many progressive Democrats say Obama has demobilized the base of the party by aligning with Wall Street and insurance companies.

AMY GOODMAN: The news analyst Norman Solomon wrote yesterday, quote, “The Democratic leadership on healthcare and so much else — including bank bailouts, financial services, foreclosures and foreign policy — has been so corporate that Republicans have found it easy to play populist.”

Well, to talk more about this election, we’re going to go to Massachusetts right now, to Boston, to the attorney and activist John Bonifaz. He joins us actually from Chicopee, Massachusetts. In 2006 he ran for Secretary of State of Massachusetts as a Democrat. In 1988 he served as the scheduler for Senator Ted Kennedy’s re-election campaign.

John Bonifaz, can you tell us what happened in Massachusetts?

JOHN BONIFAZ: Well, there’s no question, Amy, that this election has sent shockwaves across the establishment here in Massachusetts, the Democratic Party leadership, as well as in Washington. And the fact is, is that Scott Brown, the Republican candidate, was able to ride a wave of populist anger against the status quo, a wave that was misdirected toward him because the Democratic candidate Martha Coakley did not stand on progressive principles nor was able to run on a platform, both from Washington as well as from Massachusetts, that match where people need to be.

I completely agree with Norman Solomon on this. The Democratic Party needs to stand on principle. It needs to return to basic principles of FDR, return to getting people back to work, focusing on Main Street, not Wall Street, and ensuring that it’s standing up to corporate America. And instead, unfortunately, too many of the policies appear more and more to being aligned with Wall Street, and that hurt the Democratic campaign here.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, John Bonifaz, we’ve heard a lot in the last day or two about the Obama administration trying to come forward with a much more economic, populist message. How does he do that with Larry Summers to his left and Tim Geithner to his right?

JOHN BONIFAZ: Well, I think that’s exactly right. I mean, I think those two individuals, in particular, need to go, first of all. And members of Congress have stated that. And I think it’s time that there be a dramatic shift in the Obama administration, if it’s going to make for a competitive environment in 2010.

You know, Massachusetts obviously is seen as a one-party state, and most of its offices are filled by Democrats. But the fact is, is that there is populist anger out there, including here in this state, and we need to respond to it. Progressive Democrats of America is an example of an organization that stands up for basic progressive principles, and the party leadership needs to listen more to groups like that in order to show some leadership.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to John Bonifaz, who is an attorney in Massachusetts. Let’s talk about healthcare in Massachusetts, because it’s often talked about as a model for the country. People in Massachusetts may understand what is being proposed more than most others in the country. How did that play in here?

JOHN BONIFAZ: Well, this has to be remembered. This is a plan that mandates that people buy insurance, but doesn’t provide the kind of strong public option that has been pushed for in Washington. And so, at the end of the day, this is a plan that, while I think has key principles for advancing reform, ultimately is not real reform in the way that we need it. We need to take on the insurance industry and the healthcare industry and their lobbies and demonstrate that healthcare is a right, a human right, not a business for profit. And the moment we continue to go down the road of privatizing healthcare further, which is what this plan does here in Massachusetts, is when we lose people. We lose people understanding why should they be forced to buy insurance when they’re not getting the kind of basic assistance they need. And to export that to the nation, for a lot of people, did not make sense.

JUAN GONZALEZ: John, I wanted to turn to another subject. The Supreme Court has announced it will hold a special public session today at 10:00 a.m. There’s speculation the Court will issue its long-awaited decision in one of the most important campaign finance cases in years. The case is Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. As a longtime advocate for campaign finance reform, can you talk more about the significance of this case?

JOHN BONIFAZ: There’s no question that this case is being closely watched by people around the country who care about the integrity of our elections and whether or not the right to vote will be upheld and people be able to have their voice heard in the political process.

What this decision could do, according to the way the Supreme Court is moving it forward, is it could involve overturning a century-old precedent that prohibits corporate money in our elections and would essentially allow corporations to spend billions and billions of dollars of their general treasury funds in our campaigns, drowning out political voices, ordinary citizens’ political voices. And that is a complete danger to our democracy. It ought to be seen as a direct threat.

And obviously, the hope is that the Court will not go all that way. But if they do, organizations like Voter Action, where I serve as legal director, and others will be leading the charge to say we’ve got to stop treating corporations as persons under the First Amendment. And we certainly make sure that corporations not have free speech rights in the political process. So is a place people should go to hear about the response.

AMY GOODMAN: John Bonifaz, let’s relate the issue of campaign finance back to what happened in Massachusetts and to the whole country. Talk about what happens now with the — well, the number sixty, that golden number the Democrats no longer have, and where campaign finance — how you see the industries that have — President Obama has cloaked himself with, from the insurance industry that would profit so much from the plan he wants to put forward to Wall Street, determining what is taking place, and perhaps this loss for the Democrats in Massachusetts.

JOHN BONIFAZ: Well, absolutely. The fact is, is that we’ve got to return to people-centered politics, where people control the process, not corporations. And when you have money-drenched interests controlling the politics in Washington, you lose people at the grassroots level. You lose people on Main Street, who were suffering, who are losing their jobs, who don’t have real healthcare. And so, you know, having Wall Street control the way we define our politics in Washington, I think, really makes it difficult for people like Martha Coakley running as a Democrat here in Massachusetts to prevail.

No one should be looking at this as solely a race in which the candidate on the Democratic side made mistakes. There’s no question she did. But the blame has to be shared with Democratic leadership in Washington, that has not stood up on populist principles to stand up to corporate America.

So from a campaign finance perspective, we’ve got to deal with how do we change our politics. And one major way we do that is shifting from a control of corporate-dominated interest to one in which we the people rule the process. And that’s through public funding of elections, and it’s also ultimately through challenging corporations being treated as persons under the First Amendment.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And John, this issue of the sixty votes needed in the Senate — throughout the long period that the Republicans were in control of both the House and the Senate, you rarely heard about the need to get sixty votes to do anything. Suddenly it became a big issue now in this — with the Democrats in control now. There are those who say that the Obama administration should make more conciliation and efforts to reach out to Republicans. I’m sure that’s going to be a major thrust of some of the tactics of the Democrats. But what about the issue of actually going to battle over the fact that the Democrats still have a majority in the Senate and force those Republicans, if they’re going to filibuster stuff, to do it and wage a public campaign against them?

JOHN BONIFAZ: Well, right. I mean, here, first of all, the way we engage in dealing with a filibuster now is we simply get the threat, and then we don’t bring the bill to the floor, rather than forcing the opposition party, in this case the Republicans, to actually filibuster, to read from the phone book for days and days. Imagine if Republican after Republican got up on the floor of the Senate and read for days and days from the phone book, filibustering and shutting the Senate down. For what? Because they don’t believe in healthcare reform? That would change the debate.

But in addition to that, we have to remember, the Democrats control the Senate, they control the House, they control the White House. And with fifty-one votes, including Vice President Biden’s vote, Democrats can work through the reconciliation process to get something passed. But that something has to be real reform. It ought to be something that stands on basic core principles and, dare I say, principles that Senator Kennedy stood for in the so many years that he led the party. So I think that we have to go back to the question of people-centered politics and making sure that we control the process, not corporations.

AMY GOODMAN: John Bonifaz, we want to thank you for being with us, attorney and activist in Massachusetts.

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