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Senior Democrat Caught on Tape Pressuring Progressive Congressional Candidate to Drop Out of Race

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A new exposé by The Intercept confirms how powerful Democratic officials have worked to crush competitive progressive candidates in primaries around the country, choosing instead to back moderate, business-friendly candidates. This comes after President Obama used his farewell address to encourage Americans upset about the outcome of the 2016 election to take action by running for office themselves. We speak with Levi Tillemann, a Colorado man who heeded Obama’s call and found himself disappointed by the process, after he was repeatedly pressured by powerful Democrats not to run. In fact, he recorded a conversation in which he was directly told to drop out of the Democratic primary for Colorado’s 6th Congressional District by none other than the second-ranking House Democrat, Representative Steny Hoyer of Maryland. We go to Denver to speak with Levi Tillemann, a candidate in Colorado’s Democratic primary for the 6th Congressional District, which includes Denver. He is featured in the new exposé by Lee Fang, investigative journalist at The Intercept, “Secretly Taped Audio Reveals Democratic Official Pressuring Progressive to Bow Out of Election.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to a new exposé by The Intercept that confirms how powerful Democratic officials have worked to crush competitive progressive candidates in primaries around the country, choosing instead to back moderate, business-friendly candidates. This comes after President Obama used his farewell address to encourage Americans upset about the outcome of the 2016 election to take action by running for office themselves.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures and run for office yourself. Show up, dive in, stay at it. Sometimes you will win. Sometimes you’ll lose. Presuming a reservoir of goodness in other people, that can be a risk. And there will be times when the process will disappoint you.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, today, we speak with a Colorado man who heeded Obama’s call and found himself disappointed by the process, after he was repeatedly pressured by powerful Democrats not to run. In fact, he recorded a conversation in which he was directly told to drop out of the Democratic primary for Colorado’s 6th Congressional District by none other than the second-ranking House Democrat. Now he’s gone public with the recording, which was turned into an animated video by The Intercept. This is a clip. Listen carefully; parts are hard to understand.

NARRATOR: In Colorado’s 6th District, one of the most competitive seats in the country, the DCCC moved in early to select Jason Crow, a corporate lawyer, as the party candidate, pushing resources, endorsements and money to Crow, while elbowing out progressive Democratic competitors. The Democratic Party often denies that they play favorites. What follows is a meeting between Congressman Steny Hoyer, the number-two Democrat in the House, and Levi Tillemann, a progressive running for the nomination for the Colorado seat.

REP. STENY HOYER: Levi, I wanted to—obviously, I want to talk to you about this congressional race.

LEVI TILLEMANN: Absolutely. That’s what I expected.

REP. STENY HOYER: Yeah.

LEVI TILLEMANN: You would like me to get out of the race.

REP. STENY HOYER: You keep saying I would like you to get out. And, of course, that’s—that’s correct.

LEVI TILLEMANN: Yeah. And I know you’re fundraising for Crow.

REP. STENY HOYER: Yeah.

LEVI TILLEMANN: Yeah.

REP. STENY HOYER: I’m for Crow. I am for Crow because a judgment was made very early on.

AMY GOODMAN: That muffled recording was Representative Steny Hoyer of Maryland, Nancy Pelosi’s number two. You can hear him in that recording saying, “That’s correct,” when Levi Tillemann asks him if he’d like [him] to get out of his primary race and that the decision to back his opponent was made early on.

Well, for more, we go to Denver to speak with Levi Tillemann, a candidate in Colorado’s Democratic primary for the 6th Congressional District, which includes Denver. He’s featured in the new exposé by Lee Fang, investigative journalist at The Intercept, headlined “Secretly Taped Audio Reveals Democratic Official Pressuring Progressive to Bow Out of Election.”

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Levi Tillemann, explain when this meeting took place and exactly what you were told.

LEVI TILLEMANN: This happened in December, after months of our campaign receiving subtle and frequently not-so-subtle messages from Democratic insiders that there was a chosen candidate, and it wasn’t us, and that they were going to shovel money and resources towards a candidate who, quite frankly, I don’t think represented the values of the district.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain exactly further how you met with Steny Hoyer, what the circumstances were.

LEVI TILLEMANN: Well, Hoyer was in town on a fundraising trip, during which he was going to hold a closed-door fundraiser for my Democratic opponent. But he reached out to me, and he asked if we could sit down and have a meeting at a hotel downtown. So I obliged, and I told him that I thought that we needed to fight for truth and democracy and for democratic values. And when I say that, that’s not just Democratic values with a big “D”; that’s democracy with a small “d.” And he told me that, quite frankly, he thought the right thing to do was for Democrats to get in early and to put their weight behind a chosen candidate.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I want to go back to another excerpt of The Intercept’s animated video of the audio recording made by our guest, Levi Tillemann, of his meeting with Democratic Representative Steny Hoyer. Listen carefully.

LEVI TILLEMANN: Crow is the favorite, in no small part, Congressman Hoyer, because the DCCC not only put its finger on the scale, but started jumping on the scale very early on. And I’m born and raised a Democrat. I mean, it’s undemocratic to have a small elite select someone and then try to rig the primary against the other people running. And that is—that is basically what’s been happening.

REP. STENY HOYER: I hear you, and I disagree.

LEVI TILLEMANN: But you were part of that process.

REP. STENY HOYER: Absolutely.

LEVI TILLEMANN: You said, “Abs…”

REP. STENY HOYER: Absolutely.

LEVI TILLEMANN: Yes, yeah.

REP. STENY HOYER: I’ve been at this a long time.

LEVI TILLEMANN: Yeah.

REP. STENY HOYER: When I said we need to get in strong, hard and early, you disagree with me. You know, obviously, that’s your choice.

LEVI TILLEMANN: You guys are shoveling money at him.

REP. STENY HOYER: We’re going to continue.

LEVI TILLEMANN: You’re going to continue to do it?

REP. STENY HOYER: We are going to continue to do it.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Levi Tillemann, in that clip, Representative Hoyer says they’ll continue to shovel money at your Democratic primary opponent, Jason Crow. Could you talk about that? Who is Jason Crow?

LEVI TILLEMANN: Well, Jason Crow is a white-collar criminal defense lawyer who didn’t live in the district when he decided to run. But the bigger problem doesn’t have to do with me or my Democratic opponent, who has embraced this support. It has to do with the fact that this happened not just to my campaign, but to every other Democrat who was running in the district and to dozens of Democrats across the country. And what that means is that Washington insiders are controlling the agenda. They’re pumping money towards candidates who are going to fight for corporations and Wall Street and the establishment. And the issues that progressives care about, issues like a living wage and Medicare for all and a complete transition to renewable energy by 2035 and, finally, impeaching Donald Trump, those aren’t getting the attention they deserve in Washington today.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s bring Lee Fang into this conversation, The Intercept investigative reporter with this exposé. Lee, talk about Representative Steny Hoyer. Talk about his significance and the role of the DCCC, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and the money it’s raising, who it’s choosing and who it isn’t. It’s not just in the case of Levi Tillemann in the greater Aurora/Denver area.

LEE FANG: That’s right. Steny Hoyer is the number-two Democrat in the House. He also has ambitions to be the next speaker of the House. And Steny Hoyer, elected from Maryland, really skyrocketed through the Democratic leadership ranks. He was elected in 1981, but he’s played a part in the DCCC for his entire congressional career. He’s been a big party fundraiser. He’s the point person in the Democratic Caucus to outreach to K Street to raise big bucks from lobbyists and from corporate PACs. And he’s played a very pivotal role in going around the country and selecting establishment candidates and helping them fundraise, and hopefully, in his perspective, making sure they win the general election and support his agenda, once elected.

Now, if you look at this Colorado race, it’s very interesting. We have this very vivid picture of the dynamic because of this audio recording. But this is going on all across the country. We’ve been covering this since January. We did a big feature, but we’ve been covering this on a day-to-day basis. Steny Hoyer and the DCCC are going into primaries. They’re saying, you know, “We’d like to have establishment candidates, folks who are very business-friendly, who won’t rock the boat once they come into Congress.” And they want those folks to win their party primaries.

On the other hand, there are resistance and activists and other populists who are also vying for the nomination. These folks are promising bold, progressive ideas. And the DCCC, in public and, in some cases, in private, they’ve said that they remain neutral in the primary. But that hasn’t been the case. In case after case that we’ve reported on and kind of dug into, we’ve seen that the party is shoveling resources, money, polling, data, endorsements, media coverage to the establishment pick, and elbowing out the progressive. So, you know, this Colorado case is very interesting because Levi decided to go public. He decided to record this. He decided to fight back. But this is really going on from coast to coast in competitive elections.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us particularly about what’s happened in Houston.

LEE FANG: Right. So, another kind of case of this dynamic playing out, in one district, I believe the 7th District of Texas—this is the Houston suburbs—long-held Republican seat, but Hillary Clinton won this district in 2016, meaning that Democrats think that this is a pickup opportunity. There are a number of Democrats that ran for this seat. The establishment favorite was a—is a corporate lawyer named Lizzie Fletcher. There is another candidate, Laura Moser, who is an activist, who has organized anti-Trump resistance efforts all across the country, done a lot of digital organizing.

And the DCCC took the unusual step where, right before the Texas primary, they dumped opposition research—that’s the term of art for political dirt—on Laura Moser, the progressive candidate. And they said they did this because they thought that Moser was too liberal for that district. But that tactic kind of backfired. Moser actually soared in the polls after that dirt was dumped, and collected small dollar donations from donors all across the country and actually made the Texas runoff. So, you know, Texas has kind of a double election process, and that runoff election to select the nominee will be coming up in May.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, one of the other things that you mention in your piece has to do with the fact that before candidates are considered, the DCCC tells them they have to pass the Rolodex test. So, can you explain what that is, and also the fact the DCCC has renewed its partnership with the Blue Dog Caucus? Can you explain the significance of that?

LEE FANG: Right. Well, you know, we’ve talked to a number of candidates who say they’re first-time candidates, they’re trying to learn the process. In Minnesota and Pennsylvania and elsewhere, we’ve heard this anecdote several times. But when they go to the DCCC and say, you know, “We’d like to learn how to be a candidate,” DCCC officials say, “Take out your smartphone and show us how you can raise $200,000, $250,000, just from the contacts on your smartphone.” So there’s kind of a moneyed barrier to even running for office. That’s why the DCCC is kind of gravitating towards corporate lawyers or folks that have a lot of wealth.

And, you know, all of these kind of battles within the Democratic Party are not going on in a vacuum, right? So, on the left, there are some organizations affiliated with Bernie Sanders or other activist groups that are trying to influence these primaries, trying to hoist up more bold progressives as the Democratic nominee. But at the same time, the DCCC has renewed its partnership with the Blue Dog Caucus. The Blue Dog Caucus has historically been both culturally and economically conservative Democrats, folks who oppose gay marriage but also are friendly to tax cuts for corporations, deregulation, cutting Social Security.

Their numbers have been winnowed in recent elections. There’s not many of them left in Congress. But the Blue Dog Caucus is now partnering with the DCCC to select establishment candidates, hoping that the Blue Dog Caucus will be renewed in this election cycle. And, you know, this is not kind of an even fight. The centrist and conservative PACs and the Blue Dog PAC is funded by Wall Street banks, Big Oil companies, utility interests, the defense contractors. They’re pumping hundreds of thousands of dollars into these PACs to ensure establishment-friendly candidates win these nominations.

AMY GOODMAN: Lee Fang, we just have 30 seconds, but obviously I think people are hearing a lot of parallels to the 2016 election, and many feel that if Bernie Sanders had been the candidate, he could have beaten Donald Trump, even though, of course, Hillary Clinton did get 3 million more votes than Donald Trump, but ultimately she did not prevail. What about those parallels in how the DNC dealt with Bernie Sanders?

LEE FANG: Well, that’s right. You know, poll after poll showed Bernie Sanders as the stronger general election candidate against Donald Trump, but the Democratic Party pushed resources, media, polling data—everything they could—to Hillary Clinton, to make sure that she won the nomination and to elbow out Bernie Sanders. They did not learn from this self-inflicted wound. In fact, the Democratic Party is doubling down, and we’re seeing those exact same tactics applied in congressional races all across the country.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you both for being with us. Lee Fang, we’ll link to your piece at The Intercept, and Levi Tillemann, a candidate in Colorado’s Democratic primary for the 6th Congressional District, that includes a large area of Aurora right next to Denver.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we’re going to talk about the Rohingya in Burma. Stay with us.

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