A few of our favorite conversations from this year including: Professor Philip Alston and his poverty report for the U.N.; Thea Bryan, a DC bartender who lost her job after speaking out in favor of Initiative 77; and Chad Bolt on why Indivisible’s 435 campaign is backing activists-turned-candidates to bring about a Blue Tsunami in November. Subscribe to Off-Kilter on iTunes.
Earlier this summer, the United Nations released a scathing indictment of poverty and inequality in the U.S., finding that for all but the richest, “the American Dream is rapidly becoming the American illusion.” The report’s findings are damning and specifically call out Trump and the GOP for lavishing massive tax breaks on the wealthiest while 5.3 Americans live in “third world conditions of absolute poverty.” Rebecca speaks with Philip Alston, the U.N. special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, who authored the fiery report.
It’s midterm season — the time when members of Congress come home to their districts to tell their constituents just how hard they’ve been fighting for them, and why they should send them back to Washington. For a look ahead to the upcoming midterms — and a sneak peek at how Indivisible is supporting activists-turned-candidates challenging GOP incumbents through the “Indivisible 435” campaign launched earlier this summer — Rebecca talks with Indivisible’s Chad Bolt.
But first, in June, DC voters approved Initiative 77, which will raise the minimum wage for tipped workers to $15 an hour. But now DC Council is signaling it may override the will of the voters and stop the measure from taking effect. Rebecca speaks with Thea Bryan, a DC bartender who’s been supporting the measure, about how it will help her and other tipped workers — and why more workers in support haven’t been speaking out. (Spoiler: many are afraid of retaliation, and for good reason — Thea herself lost her job after she spoke out.)
This week’s guests:
- Thea Bryan, DC bartender supporting Initiative 77
- Philip Alston, U.N. special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights
- Chad Bolt, associate director for policy at Indivisible
This week’s transcript:
REBECCA VALLAS (HOST): Hey Off Kilter listeners, the show is on a break this week so we’ve rounded up some of our favorite conversations to hold you over in the meantime.
You’re listening to Off Kilter, I’m Rebecca Vallas. In a rare piece of good news, voters in Washington DC on Tuesday voted to pass a ballot measure to raise the minimum wage for DC’s tipped workers who are currently paid $3.33 an hour, their wages will rise to $15 an hour just like other minimum wage workers. DC now joins 8 states that have established a single minimum wage. Initiative 77 passed 55% to 44% despite a well-funded campaign from the restaurant industry to pressure workers and restaurant patrons to vote against it. Yet the fate of the measure is still uncertain with DC council signaling it may override the will of the voters and overturn the measure. And DC Mayor Muriel Bowser herself on record vocally opposing the wage increase. Largely missing throughout the debate have been the voices of workers who stand to benefit from the wage increase including a great many who have remained silent out of free of retaliation from their employers. I spoke with one of those workers Thea Bryan, a bartender in DC about what the wage increase would mean for her. Let’s take a listen.
Thea thank you so much for taking the time to join the show.
THEA BRYAN: Thank you for having me.
VALLAS: So many folks in the media and a lot of opponents of Initiative 77 have made it sound like workers are somehow uniformly opposed to Initiative 77 and that they feel it’s not going to help them. But you’ve been supporting the measure and you say that it will help you. Why have you been supporting it and what would it mean for you?
BRYAN: I’ve been supporting it because the base pay is too low, $3.33 an hour is essentially free labor. That’s one iced tea, one iced tea pays your wage in this city. It’s important that we get to a fair base wage, it hasn’t budged in decades. it’s been stuck at the federal level since 1991 and it was never meant to be that low and it was never meant to be stagnant. It was supposed to be initially half of minimum wage and it never budged, not in many, many years. So it’s time that we keep up with the times and that people making these low base wages start to see a little bit of an increase in their paychecks if they even get a paycheck, many do not.
VALLAS: Now you are supporting yourself and also your family and one of the things that you’ve talked about in the past is how when you’re relying on tips your income can fluctuate wildly and you can’t predict what you’re going to make one week to the next. Would you talk a little bit about what it’s like trying to make ends meet on that kind of a flocculating income?
BRYAN: Absolutely, so I am in grad school and just a shameless self-promotion, I’m currently looking for a [Masters’ in Social Work] (MSW) internship if anyone out there hears of one or knows one let me know. I have worked, there’s week that you’ll make really good money. All last summer, I was making probably an average between $20 to $30 an hour. still not close to the $40 to $75 some of these bartenders and servers claim to be making but it was still enough for me to get by. Now I’m doing an internship, I’m in graduate school, I’m a single parent so I’m juggling a lot and when you have set days and you’re seeing ok, I’m making $150, $200 this night, and around that same the next night and then all the sudden it drops or it did for me the last week of October, suddenly business just slowed way down. And I literally went from making between $100, $200 a night to $50 a night and initially I thought it was just a bad day, then a bad week, and then by the time I realized what was happening we’re moving into December, I’m in the middle of finals, I’m trying to find another job. It’s impossible in December to find a job in this business. An hourly rate wouldn’t have saved me but it would have made that fall a little less painful and I had no idea that was coming. I assumed that my wages would at least remain somewhat the same especially since that time of year is generally busier and I didn’t see that happen where I was. I think that had to do with there was no shopping in the area of Cleveland Park that I was working. So many things can be a factor, the weather can be a factor, if it’s raining things can slow down. If it’s snowing, maybe nobody’s going to come in. January, February, August typically very slow months. And we need a wage to make those slow times a little bit more humane.
VALLAS: Now one of the things that a lot of folks might not be familiar with because it gets kind of wonky and in the weeds when you get into minimum wage law but employers are legal required to make up the difference when a worker’s tips don’t get them to minimum wage. But this is something that you’ve actually experienced where your employers have failed to do that when your tips weren’t enough.
BRYAN: Sure, last December I did speak with my manager about the fact that I did not think I was meeting the minimum wage requirements and his response was we have a great accountant, they’re going to catch that and it will be made up on your check. I never saw anything on my check. You have to understand that during the same time I’m juggling grad school, I’m juggling an internship, the job itself I’m a single parent, I have all that plus the stress and at the same time you’re expecting me to gather up all this information go down and try to get these wages made up by the Department of Labor, it’s too much. It’s too much for a lot of us and you’re also asking me to try and use a system that I’ve tried to use before and failed. Two years ago I worked at a place called the Salty Dog Tavern in Dupont Circle and I was told then that they didn’t have to pay me. They are since out of business but I did report them to the Department of Labor and I never saw a dime of that money. I never got paid an hourly wage, it was tips and tips alone and I reported them and it never went anywhere.
VALLAS: Now you’ve been a vocal supporter of Initiative 77 leading up to its passage, you’re talking about now why it’s a good thing and why it’s going to help you and other workers. But some people have been wondering why haven’t more workers been speaking out and why is it that media stories all see to make it sound like workers are opposed to this measure? What is it that you think is going on? Is it fear of retaliation by employers?
BRYAN: A lot of people are afraid to speak out because they are afraid to experience what I’ve been experiencing, which is I’ve gotten harassed repeatedly on social media I had a very bizarre job loss a couple of months ago. I did a speech about how hard it can be to get wages and two days was mysteriously let go. The reason I was given was they could no longer work around my schedule, which it didn’t really make much sense. Is there a connection? Maybe, can I prove it? No.
VALLAS: But you think you might have been fired because you spoke out?
BRYAN: I believe that there’s a connection but I cannot prove that. It was just very odd that suddenly they couldn’t work around the schedule that they initially were fine with. And a lot of people are surrounded by other workers that are against this and it’s hard being that one person when everyone around you is going on misinformation and you’re the lone wolf saying I believe this can help, a better wage would be better. In a city as expensive as DC when tips don’t always mean a whole lot of money for a lot of us.
VALLAS: And you referred to misinformation, anyone in DC and a lot of our listeners are in DC has seen signs that say “Save Our Tips” in windows of restaurants and bars and pretty much all over, blanketing downtown DC. A lot of the misinformation that’s out there has come from a campaign, a well-funded campaign backed by the restaurant industry that has led a lot of people who are restaurant goers to believe that somehow Initiative 77 would abolish tipping. It will not, that is a myth. But are you saying that you feel that workers themselves have actually gotten confused by the misinformation and is that part of what’s going on with why some workers are opposing a measure that might help them?
BRYAN: Yes, many people are under the assumption that this is going to move to a flat minimum wage and tips will be abolished, which is nonsense. That’s not the idea at all. The idea is to move to something that resembles what they’ve done in California, Oregon, Washington State, which is the minimum wage plus tips. I know in San Francisco you make as much as $14 an hour plus tips. Now they’re a little bit more expensive than DC to live there but not much more. And a city as expensive as we are, surrounded by six of the wealthiest counties in the entire country, we can afford to give our servers a better wage plus tips. The misinformation is ubiquitous and some of the arguments I hear that suddenly workers are going to become lazy and they aren’t going to want to do their job. It just doesn’t really make sense. If I’m an employer and I’m paying you and you’re lazy and you’re not going to do your job I’m going to fire you. Nothing’s going to change other than you’re going to see a better wage reflected on your paycheck.
VALLAS: Initiative 77 now has passed with the majority of DC voters voting on Tuesday to support it. It passed 55% to 44% and despite a well-funded campaign from the restaurant industry to try to kill it, and yet now DC council is signaling that they may overturn the will of the voters and block this measure from taking effect. Do you have a message for council and what would you say if they were listening to you right now?
BRYAN: Sure, I would really want council to listen to the data and the studies and not the fear tactics and propaganda that we have seen going on in this campaign. The other side didn’t really have a valid argument, they resorted to fear tactics, they resorted to harassment, they resorted to threatening their own employees. We know for a fact that several restaurants said that they were going to fire people that did not vote no on this. I want city council to listen to what this would do for workers. We’ve seen that it lifts people out of poverty, we’ve seen better employment rates, we’ve seen restaurant growth, we’ve seen happier employees, lower turnover rates, lower incidents of sexual harassment, I mean the lists goes on and on.
VALLAS: I’ve been speaking with Thea Bryan, she is a DC bartender who would benefit from Initiative 77 and has been a vocal supporter of the measure. Thea, thank you so much for taking the time to join the show and for your work to support this important wage increase.
BRYAN: Thank you and I want to thank all the voters that listened to the data and the studies and didn’t fall prey to the lies and propaganda that have been going on. Thank you all so much for supporting us and supporting [INAUDIBLE]. We appreciate you and your vote.
VALLAS: Don’t go away, more Off Kilter after the break, I’m Rebecca Vallas.
Hey Off Kilter listeners, the show is on a break this week so we’ve rounded up some of our favorite conversations to hold you over in the meantime.
You’re listening to Off Kilter, I’m Rebecca Vallas. “In a rich country like the United States, the persistence of extreme poverty is a political choice made by those in power.” So reads a scathing report by a special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights issued just this past week. The report condemns the nation’s policymakers for permitting not just 40 million Americans to live in poverty, but a staggering 5.3 million in Third World conditions of absolute poverty while giving massive tax cuts to the nation’s wealthiest and corporations. I’m pleased to speak with the special rapporteur, Philip Alston about this fiery report. Professor Alston, thank you so much for joining the show.
PHILIP ALSTON: My pleasure.
VALLAS: So extreme poverty, the very concept of extreme poverty is something that Americans generally think happens only in Third World countries. But you in taking a look at the United States and how we’re doing when it comes to extreme poverty, you found lots of it right here in the U.S. Were you surprised by what you found?
ALSTON: Let me say one thing that is kind to the United States which is that the great majority of societies don’t actually think that they have extreme poverty in their own backyard. It’s normally something that many of us want to associate with other countries. But I was certainly surprised by what I found in the United States. It’s not only the figures because it has to be acknowledged that the figures reflect the policies also of previous administrations and previous congresses. What’s most striking now I think is that rather than seeking to devise policies to create greater equality within the society and provide stronger social safety nets, the United States is actually moving the opposition direction and doing so at great speed. So an effort to increase inequality by giving the tax cuts to the very wealthy, an effort to diminish the social safety net very significantly across a range of areas, to make those who are dependent on benefits much worse off.
VALLAS: Now the concept of extreme poverty and Third World conditions of absolute poverty, there actual are technical terms in here that have very specific meanings. Would you unpack a little bit of what some of those concepts are and what it means to be seeing them here in the United States?
ALSTON: Well the concept of extreme poverty is not so difficult because that is based essentially on the United States’ census bureau figures where they calculate, they come up with the basis on which they estimate the number of Americans who are living in poverty and the number who are living in extreme poverty. But the more staggering figure of 5.3 million is one that was put forward analytically by Angus Deaton, the Princeton professor of economics who won the Nobel Prize for his work and what he said was that if we go to a very poor country we use a figure that the World Bank came up with which is a dollar ninety a day and if you’re living on a dollar ninety a day then you are living in absolute poverty or less than a dollar ninety a day. He argued that because of the way that it’s calculated, a dollar ninety a day makes no real sense in the United States because you can’t buy a decent cup of [INAUDIBLE] and the figure should be closers to six dollars a day which of course is already peanuts. But on that basis which he said would be the direct equivalent of a place like Nepal or Bangladesh, you would have 5.4 million people living in that degree of absolute poverty.
VALLAS: Now it isn’t just the existence of these rates of poverty and squalor and deprivation that your report condemns. It’s the collision of America’s immense wealth, how many very, very rich people we have in this country and how much we have in the way of resources in shocking contrast, as you put it, with the conditions in which vast numbers of our citizens live. This is something we don’t see at these levels in other countries and that’s something while that people may be familiar with the concept of the United States leading the world in so many different measures of inequality it’s something that perhaps bears repeating and perhaps some greater level of comparative explanation given that we truly are in our own category when it comes to the levels of excessive inequality we see here in the United States.
ALSTON: The United States has just surpassed a remarkable benchmark. The life expectancy for someone born today in the United States is now lower than that of someone born in China. And that is really staggering, given the difference in wealth between the two countries and one of the effects is that China for all of it’s problems, has made a very concerted effort to bring down maternal mortality rates, to bring down extreme poverty rates. Indeed, to eliminate extreme poverty whereas the United States, with all it’s highly sophisticated medical and other facilities have neglected large parts of the population. So you have African-American maternal mortality rates which is off the charts and nothing is being done about it. So the extreme inequality starts to manifest itself in the average figures that come out and it’s starting to drag the U.S. down very significantly.
VALLAS: Another way in which, and it very much intersects with the policy and practical outcomes that you’re describing, but another way in which the United States truly is unique is that as you know, we are alone among developed countries in as you put it, “insisting that will human rights are of fundamental importance they do not include rights that guard against dying of hunger, from a lack of access to affordable health care or growing up in a context of total depravation.” That’s a quote from the report. We really are the only country who does not view the right to survive, not to starve quite literally and these other rights that I’ve just described as human rights.
ALSTON: Yes, it’s true and it’s stunning. It’s stunning not just because of the ideology. So Americans might say well, that’s because we don’t believe in socialism or whatever. It’s the consequences that really count. As a result of not having some sort of universal health care available in the United States, the US economy losing immensely. There are many people who would want to be out working but who can’t because they don’t have the health care in order to enable them to be fit for work. So it’s a sort of counter productive policy being issued for essentially ideological reasons. At the same time as every other developed country in the world has concluded that is the, not just the humane but the best economic way to go.
VALLAS: A big part of what’s going on your report notes and I have to say how pleased I was to see this in there because of how much, we talk a lot about this on this show but how little recognition there often is in official reports and documents studying and discussing poverty and inequality in the United States that gets into the role of the media in allowing these and even encouraging these outcomes to exist and to persist. And you point out in your report how much weight is given, you actually point out that it’s striking, you call it striking how much weight is given to caricatured narratives as you put it, “the purported innate differences between rich and poor that are consistently peddled by some politicians and the media.” Is that something that you expected to find here and would you say a little more about what you found to be the role of the media in driving these types of myths that have a very heavy hand in impacting the types of policies that are advanced?
ALSTON: Well until I started actually looking closely at the literature I wasn’t, I must admit, aware of the extent to which this issue’s been studied. But there are really compelling and solid studies that show that the portrayal in the media of people living in poverty is of black families. They are the ones who are poor; they are the ones who need our help, et. Cetera. When in fact, that’s a very significant distortion of the situation. There are many millions of white people, many more millions of white people living in poverty but you get this racialized presentation, which makes it much easier to create some sort of ‘them’ and ‘us’ narrative. Why we should we, honest hard working whites be supporting those lazy blacks? When of course, that’s just not the reality. First of all, we’re supporting ourselves the rich whites more than any others because of all the tax breaks and exemptions that we reserve for ourselves. And secondly, an awful lot of the safety net protections are precisely for white people and not just for people of color.
VALLAS: And you found in speaking with policymakers here in the United States that many politicians are as you put it completely sold on this narrative that bears very little resemblance to reality.
ALSTON: It’s a convenient narrative. And as long as the efforts to discourage the poor from voting are as successful as they have been it’s one that doesn’t come at any electoral cost. The poor are not voting, partly because so many millions have been disenfranchised and partly because it’s been made much more difficult for many of them to get ID, to get to polling stations on time and so on. And so that just reainforces the elite orientation of a lot of the policies that are being pursued.
VALLAS: You mentioned disenfranchisement, which is another major finding of this report. Six million Americans with felony convictions, overtly disenfranchised. You also refer to covert disenfranchisement both through gerrymandering but also artificial barriers to voting such as voter ID laws and other types of barriers. Is this something that we see in other countries or is this something that the United States has found in terms of a path to hide what they’re doing and I’m speaking here, of course, about conservative elected officials in trying to further cement their solid majority and ownership of power in this country.
ALSTON: There are many dimensions to that. First of all, gerrymandering of course is something any politician in power would be delighted to do if they good. But what most countries have institutional checks and balances whether it’s the court, whether it’s electoral commissions or some other technique for making sure that blatant gerrymandering can’t go ahead. Those techniques haven’t worked in the United States and so we’ve got the situation where there really is very blatant gerrymandering. You have states where the governments have been elected by 40 percent of the population and so on. But I think in many ways, the most significant finding of my report actually is the extent to which the economic and social depravations have a major impact on the quality of American democracy. So the exclusion of the poor from the electoral system, the very low number of people who actually turn up at the polls, the formal deregistration, disenfranchisement of large numbers of them, all of these and of course the way in which American politics are increasingly heavily influenced by money, the capture of governmental agencies and departments by industry representatives and others is again, fairly extreme by comparison with most other countries, and that does I think have a major negative impact on the quality of the democracy.
VALLAS: While we’re talking about the intersection with the criminal justice system, you also point out and have some extensive discussion in this report that America has for a long time relied on criminalization to conceal our underlying poverty problem. You walk through something that is well known and well understood, that is the criminalization of homelessness in this country but you also expound on the reliance of fines and fees such as those that started to make headlines in Ferguson some number of years ago because America has begun using it’s criminal justice system as a system for keeping the poor in poverty while as you put it, generating revenue not just to fund the criminal justice system but actually many other components of government, something that has many, many layers to it but becomes very much a vicious cycle.
ALSTON: Yes, so there are intersection moves if you like. One of them is that as budgets at the state and country level have been increasingly restricted by amendments and other techniques the authorities have been forced to look for other sources of income because as some state authorities put it to me we couldn’t possibly go to the legislature and ask for more money even though we know there’s a dire need. It’s just off the table politically, can’t be done. And so then that they intersects with the punish the poor type narrative which we saw in Ferguson but I saw in California and various other places as well, which says that we have to crack down on these minor violations, homelessness or whatever it is. We have to find these people and we have to have a very aggressive system of collecting that money from the poor and so the fines will triple over time, eventually we will put them in prison, we will still have the debt and so on and so this is a way of raising money for the municipalities, for the counties, whatever in times of otherwise straightened budgets.
VALLAS: I mentioned up top in setting up this segment that you point out that because of America’s great resources, the fact that we have extreme poverty at the levels that we have it or even at all is a political choice made by people in power. You also noted early in our conversation that literally as you were researching and writing this report America’s political leaders who in this case are now Republicans in charge of not just the White House but both chambers of congress have been actively advancing a policy agenda including notably the tax law that took effect earlier this year that is making poverty and inequality in this country worse by the day. Would love to hear you speak a little bit about your experience in speaking with some of those elected officials and individuals in power. I understand some of them actually refused to speak with you when you were here for your visit for your report.
ALSTON: The Department of Justice systematically and consistently refused to speak with me despite a number of requests because obviously the areas that they are in charge of relate very closely to some of the issues that I’ve been discussing earlier. I think otherwise the general message that I got from people [INAUDIBLE] going to in government is the one which is really characterizing the current administration’s welfare policy if you can call it that. And that is back to work and off welfare and that of course sounds great. Who could oppose that? People who can work really should work but what we’re seeing is that the administration is proposing exactly the same remedy whether it’s Medicaid, whether it’s for SNAP, food stamps, whether it’s for housing subsidies and a range of other benefits where they’re simply saying these people don’t need the benefits. They can be out working and so we’re going to impose ever more putative policies that will force them into the labor force but of course that fundamentally misunderstands the actual nature of the poverty that these people are living in and the particular challenges that they’re confronting. There are lots of studies that show that very many of those who are receiving food stamps, for example are indeed in full time employment or at least to the greatest extent they can possibly get. But the income they’re getting is simply not enough. They and their families can’t provide so food stamps which gives them something like a dollar forty per meal per person are absolutely crucial in enabling them to survive. But turning to them and saying well you lazy good for nothings should get out and work more really is not an evidence based diagnosis of the problem. It’s an ideologically based one that essentially doesn’t believe that a society should provide an essential safety net for the worst off.
VALLAS: And in the last minute or so that I have with you, I wish we had many hours because there is so much in this report and I would urge our listeners to read it, to spend some time with it because of how much ground it covers. We’ll include a link in our nerdy syllabus page on Medium but among many recommendations, first of which you call for the decriminalization of poverty, noting that in the United States that it is poverty that needs to be arrested, not the poor simply for being poor. But among mnay recommendations you also, this being the flip side of the coin of what you were just speaking about, you call on America and American policymakers to quote “get real about taxes”. What do you mean when you say that?
ALSTON: I think both parties in fact have been very reluctant to grasp the mantle of taxation. We know from all societies that basic levels of government income are essential to enable the government to regulate an economy and to make sure that all of it’s members are not only socially protected but are able to become economically protected. That requires taxation. You can’t just keep cutting and cutting and cutting. You get the sort of problems that the United States has with teachers, where you’ve got extremely hard in some states to retain any of the teachers they get salaries that are a pittance compared to their qualifications. And as you drive down the overall quality of government services so the economy becomes less productive, infrastructure starts to decay, people can’t get access to the health care they need even to get out and do manual work or whatever and it’s a self defeating policy. So to keep saying that the answer to all problems is to drive taxes down is just self-defeating and that has to be grappled with.
VALLAS: What are you hoping comes of this report?
ALSTON: Well there’s nothing that the United Nations can do about this. There’s nothing I can do about it. The reason for the report is because the UN consistently evaluates the human rights policies of all of its members. I previously went to countries like China and Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. By putting this on the table, one hopes that the United States will engage with some of the issues. One hopes that there’ll be more of a focused debate within the country but the solutions are all entirely up to Americans, not to outsiders.
VALLAS: I’ve been speaking with Philip Alston, he’s a professor at NYU law school but he has written a massive and sweeping report in his role as the United Nations’ special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights. Again, you can find it on our nerdy syllabus page, the whole thing is worth reading and there aren’t enough fire emojis to describe. Professor, thank you so much for taking the time and for this incredible important, if scating report.
ALSTON: Thanks for talking with me, I appreciate it.
VALLAS: Don’t go away, more Off Kilter after the break, I’m Rebecca Vallas.
Hey Off Kilter listeners, the show is on a break this week so we’ve rounded up some of our favorite conversations to hold you over in the meantime.
You’re listening to Off Kilter, I’m Rebecca Vallas. It’s midterms season, A.K.A. the time every two years when members of congress comes hope to their districts to tell their constituents how hard they’ve been fighting for them and why they should send them back to Washington to represent them. To help me look ahead to the upcoming midterms, I’ve brought in my trusty friend, Chad Bolt, from Indivisible, who has terrible taste in television and movies but I have him back anyway because he knows things. Chad, thank you so much for coming back on the show.
CHAD BOLT: I’m glad to be back, Rebecca, even though everytime I come on you find a new way to embarrass me. My working theory on this is it actually just endears me further to your listeners.
VALLAS: That’s certainly the Jeremy Slevin approach to being endeared to listeners. So if it’s working for him I see no reason why it shouldn’t work for you.
BOLT: Agreed, agreed, I’m happy to be back and I can’t wait to be embarrassed again.
VALLAS: I don’t have anything specific, I don’t like actually show up to these segments with, “Oh I know Chad hasn’t seen the following, I’m going to bring it up”, it really happens organically. So I think you’re safe as long as we don’t actually talk about what you have and haven’t seen.
BOLT: Well we can actually bring the listeners in on this, I mean hey, just “at” [@] me in the comments.
VALLAS: That’s a great suggestion. So listeners, you heard it here. If there is something that you think is a must have seen such as “Seinfeld”, which Chad has not seen, such as “Ghostbusters”, which Chad has not seen, such as what else have you not seen?
BOLT: So the example that comes up is “Forrest Gump”.
VALLAS: Yeah but see, that’s not the one that I would get on you for, because I didn’t see “Forrest Gump” until college.
BOLT: That feels late in the game.
VALLAS: I mean it was.
BOLT: I’m not one to talk because I still have not seen it.
VALLAS: You don’t have a leg to stand on.
BOLT: No spoilers, no spoilers.
VALLAS: But chocolate? Run, Forrest, run? You’ve probably seen most of the movie in life.
BOLT: I know the punchlines, I can tell you that.
VALLAS: So Chad before we get back to a place where I learn things about you that make me wonder why I love you so much, let’s actually take a look back at what Republicans have done since they’ve been running Washington, which really is the backdrop that leads up to the midterms. Well help us turn back the clock, well I wish we could turn back the clock but help us go back down memory lane to remember what Republicans have been up to since they’ve been in charge.
BOLT: Sure thing. And I think I’m just going to hit the greatest hits, especially as it pertains to working families so first, Republicans got to Washington and they have been promising their donors and the most extreme voters in their party for 8 years that they were going to repeal the Affordable Care Act. And so they hit the ground running at the beginning trying to pass Trumpcare. We all remember that would have left 23 million more Americans without health insurance, it would have destroyed Medicaid as we know it by ending the Medicaid expansion, which Virginia just expanded, 34th state in the control so that’s huge.
VALLAS: Not without it’s bittersweet components because the bill also including taking away Medicaid from people who aren’t working a certain amount of hours and we all know from this show how much I hate those policies and how much they hurt people but a huge thing to celebrate in Virginia even though it isn’t perfect.
BOLT: Absolutely, so the fight is not over there. We all know Trumpcare would have jeopardized coverage for people with preexisting conditions and dealing with opioid abuse and it would have given huge tax breaks to opioid manufacturers. And the conventional wisdom at the time was this is an 8-year priority of Republicans and they’re going to do it on day one. Of course we know that’s not what happened despite their best efforts. So they followed up their loss on Trumpcare, they came right back with another plan to make healthcare worse for people and give huge tax cuts to the wealthy and corporations. Of course that was the GOP tax scam. 83% of the benefits of that bill went to the top 1%. Even though corporate profits are at record levels, we’ve already seen that workers are getting left behind and the vast majority of the benefits are getting paid back to shareholders and stock buy backs. And that bill also repealed the individual mandate, which CBO said is going to drive insurance premiums up at least 10%. So they came back in the New Year and decided that they haven’t given away enough giveaways to big banks and so they followed that up with the bank lobbyist act. That’s a bill that allows racial discrimination mortgage lending to go unchecked, rolls back key provisions of Dodd-Frank intended to prevent another financial crisis, CBO says about this one that it increases the likelihood of future taxpayer funded bank bailouts. We all know how popular those are. And then most recently we had the Farm Bill, which would have ripped away food assistance from families that rely on SNAP and we know Republicans are treating this as a test case for future work requirements on programs like TANF, Medicaid, LIHEAP but victory here. Thanks in no small part to your listeners and others’ phone calls, we were able to keep the Democrats unified here and so the at least first attempt of the Farm Bill in the house went down just two weeks ago.
So we definitely had those greatest hits in congress but not only did members of congress rubber stamp the Trump agenda legislatively, but they’ve also been complicit in his norm smashing.
VALLAS: And before we even get to that, that’s a lot to take in. I want folks to let this sink in for a second. So you just walked one, two, three, four major pieces of legislation, two of which actually involve a sixth of the American economy or more when you’re thinking about health care and then when you’re thinking about tax, Dodd-Frank also the rollback there, a huge share of the economy. But just to review, look a little bit of the through line here, we’re talking about a party that since it took power in Washington has had the following as it’s major legislative crusade. Take away health care from tens of millions of Americans to pay for huge massive tax cuts for their donors. They failed at the first part, they decided to skip right to the second part and just do that and now turn around and rollback protections that would keep us from spiraling into another economic crisis and then try to take away food from millions of people. Did I get all that right?
BOLT: That’s basically right. I think to sum it up, they keep trying to tilt the playing field further and further in favor of the wealthy and corporation and further away from the middle class and working families across this country.
VALLAS: And the reason I wanted to walk through those things and bring them together is that through line isn’t just a talking point. It’s not just something that progressives say a lot.
VALLAS: It is through and through the entire Republican agenda since they took control of Washington.
BOLT: That’s exactly right and as you said earlier, they’re going to be going home in the run up to November and saying hey, we’re working for you in Washington. I went there to get things done for you. And the facts and their voting records just tell a completely different story. They are not working for you. Their votes make clear who they’re working for.
VALLAS: Assuming that the you you’re talking about in this case is a person who’s not a friggin’ bajillion-aire who just got to buy a boat to put inside their boat because of the tax cut that they got.
BOLT: That’s right. If you are the owner of a yacht on which you are taking the mortgage interest deduction then congratulations, congress is working for you. If you’re a big corporation reaping record profits then your member of congress is working for you and anybody else, not so much.
VALLAS: So with all that as the backdrop of what we’re walking into in the 2018 midterms where I’m going to put this in massive blue wave emojis around everything that I’m saying. We’ve got everyone that I’m talking about talking about the potential for a blue tsunami. And for Democrats to potentially take back the House, maybe even the Senate although that seems to be a little bit less likely. So Indivisible, bringing this to why I have you here for this conversation. Indivisible started as a guide. It was a downloadable guide, it’s hard to even remember, that feels like decades ago.
BOLT: It does.
VALLAS: That that’s what Indivisible was literally like a toolkit for resistance. But that was of course where it started, a shout out to Ezra Levin who was one of the authors of that guide who’s been on the show several times and is a good friend. And then that became a hub for resistance and for engaging people who are new in many cases to political activism, to civic engagement generally. But now you guys have actually grown even further and that’s because a big part of how we change, how things are done in Washington you believe and I believe and agree is to change who’s running it. So what’s this new growth that you guys have just announced?
BOLT: That’s exactly right. So just yesterday we announced a really exciting new electoral program. It’s called Indivisible 435, 435 is the number of congressional districts and with this program we intend to compete in all 50 states, in every congressional district. And you’re exactly right. The Indivisible guide started as a practical guide for resisting the Trump agenda. And it was intended to tell people that they had power and if they deployed their constituent power, they could defeat things like Trumpcare, and we did. We made the tax scam the most unpopular piece of legislation to ever become law. But over the course of those victories, defeating Trumpcare, even small victories like getting your member of congress to have a town hall for the first time in a decade. It really gave people, not only showed them that they had power but it also gave them hope in dark times. Indivisible 435 is another reason to have hope and another way to take back power and this time do it electorally. So this is really the next evolution of the Indivisible movement that we’re all building together. So starting with this program, every Indivisible group in the country now has access to canvassing and phone banking tools. We’re providing training so every group knows how to use them. We’ve doubled the size of our organizing group to support our groups. And this will help both grow Indivisible groups and support candidates in November. So if I can just take a second and talk about just what this actually means in real terms. So you’ll be able using these tools to canvass door to door using only a cell phone or tablet. So you don’t have to flip through your analog clipboard anymore.
VALLAS: Alright hold on, I like my clipboard. I have to be honest, I’m a huge fan and always have been of clipboards so are you saying I don’t get to use my clipboard?
BOLT: Look you can stick to clipboard if you want.
VALLAS: Chad, hands off my clipboard.
BOLT: Are we going to get #HandsOffClipboard trending?
VALLAS: I think we’re going to find based on who decides to engage after hearing this.
BOLT: Sounds like a dud to me.
VALLAS: Maybe not the next “Hands Off” social media campaign.
BOLT: What do I know? You can make phone calls to voters in your area, you can keep track of voters’ responses to questions. You can text now to help get out the vote and mobilize voters in the final days before the election. So these are all really exciting tools that we’re deploying to every Indivisible group.
VALLAS: And it sounds like for people no matter what their level of engagement in the midterms is going to be, whether that’s wanting to knock on doors and help with get out the vote activities or whether that’s just being informed about who is on the ballot and who is fighting for them, you guys have one stop shopping.
BOLT: That’s absolutely right and again, this is about competing literally everywhere. And we’re going to talk later about some of the candidates that we’ve endored and it really runs the gambit from blue districts to deep red districts and so when we say that we’re competing everywhere we really mean it. It’s about expanding the electorate, it’s about diversifying the candidate pool and it’s really about building something that lasts. This is not like we deploy these tools and we turn them off the day after the election. This is about building sustainable power starting in 2018, starting now and into 2020, 2022 and beyond.
VALLAS: So you at the time of launching Indivisible 435, so as we’re talking now and this week you have already endorsed 14 candidates so far.
VALLAS: And those are folks that you think are the kind of change we need to bring to Washington but they’re also taking on particular people who are some of the choicest examples of the folks leading the agenda that we were just reviewing in terms of fighting for the donor class and not for their constituents.
BOLT: Yep, some of the biggest rubber stampers of the Trump agenda are getting challenged in November by Indivisible endorsed candidates. And that’s really exciting.
VALLAS: So you’ve endorsed 14 candidates so far, you brought a few of them with you, not the people in person, I wish you had, that would actually be super fun if we opened the door and now all of a sudden had a bunch of candidates, maybe that’s a few segment.
BOLT: Andrew Learned what are you doing here in the Off Kilter studio?
VALLAS: Come on in! Oh look, yes, a friend of the show! But so actually that would be super fun to do at some point and I do want to have some of these candidates on this show.
VALLAS: So people can hear from them down the road. But you brought a few of them with you in spirit, as well as who they’re running against. Who are some of the folks you’re most excited about?
BOLT: So I should say first that the really good thing about this is that this endorsement process is ground up. So Indivisible groups, they’re the ones that know their turf the best and so they recommend to us who we should endorse at the national level. So that it’s really a process driven by our local groups. So we vet them and if they pass then they get our national endorsement. And we’re really excited about this because we think this disrupts the traditional gatekeeping that holds back candidates that may not have a certain resume or look or background that tend to get maybe party support or bigger support but they would still make great leaders. So our Indivisible local groups nominate folks for endorsement and so far we’ve made 14 national endorsements as you said, to elevate a new class of leadership. Some of them that I’m really excited about, first of all, Paulette Jordan. Running for governor of Idaho. If elected she would be the first Native American woman elected governor, really, really exciting, really excited about that endorsement in Idaho. We’re making endorsements both at the gubernatorial level and at the congressional level. Another one is Andrew Learned, he’s running in Florida 15th.
VALLAS: The guy who just came in the radio studio.
BOLT: Right, imaginarily yes. So he is a former US navy officer, he actually, the incumbent in his district is Dennis Ross, he announced his retirement the same day as Paul Ryan so that is now an open seat. It’s a district that Trump won by 10% but with his retirement we really think this one’s in play. He’s a really exciting candidate, we’ve also got Harley Rouda running California 48th. He’s an entrepreneur who’s been endorsed by unions out in California and gun safety groups. He’s taking on Dana Rohrbacher, you probably know that name. he’s one of the most infamous members of the Republican house caucus. This is a congressional district that Trump actually lost by 1.7% and when I say that he’s one of the worst incumbents, one of his worst votes was he voted for Trumpcare in the house. It would have meant that 41,000 fewer of his constituents would have health care, it would have meant that protections for his constituents with pre-existing conditions, all 316,000 of them would have been in jeopardy. He also voted for the bank lobbyist act despite the fact that following the financial crisis, California had three and a half million mortgage delinquencies. He voted to take us back to those same regulatory conditions that preceded the financial crisis.
Another big candidate, oh I’m really excited about this one Liuba Grechen Shirley, she’s running in New York 2nd. You may know this name because she fought for a ruling from FEC that she could use her campaign funds to pay for daycare.
VALLAS: That’s right, I remember reading about that.
BOLT: Which is huge and it just opens up the field, it means that we can bring new leaders into the fold for the first time.
VALLAS: It also highlights, sorry to cut you off there, you’re here in the groove Chad, you’re naming some blue wavy people. But it’s huge because what it also does is to shine a light on one of the things that is a huge obstacle to more people getting involved in electoral politics from the standpoint of actually running.
BOLT: Yup, that’s absolutely right. And she was actually someone who read the Indivisible guide and started a group and is now running for office.
VALLAS: That is so cool.
BOLT: So that’s amazing. And when I say that we’re competing everywhere, we really, really are. We’ve endorsed Jeramey Anderson in the Mississippi 4th. He’s one of the youngest state legislators in the country. He’s taking on Steven Palazzo. Steven Palazzo has gone four for four in terms of the bills that we just mentioned. He voted for Trumpcare, the tax scam, the bank lobbyist act and the Farm Bill so he’s really hit them all. And we’re hoping that Jeramey Anderson can take him out. Shawna Roberts, another exciting candidate that we’ve endorsed in Ohio 6th. She joined her Indivisible group and actually participated in die-ins in Senator Portman’s office while Trumpcare was moving through the senate. She’s now running for congress, taking on Bill Johnson, another joker that voted for all four of the aforementioned bills. Trump won this district by 42%. But when we say we’re competing everywhere, we really mean it and we’re building something that’s built to last so we’re really excited about Shawna running too.
VALLAS: And hearing you describe all of those folks and there’s a lot more where that came from so people can go to, what’s the website?
BOLT: It’s indivisible435.org.
VALLAS: So folks can learn a lot more about the other candidates that you’ve endorsed and there’s a lot more where that came from. A couple of questions but I have a quick reaction just hearing you tell the story of who all these people are and who they’re taking on. There’s been this conventional wisdom for some time now that Republicans are the ones who are more authentic. They’re the ones who are the outsiders and that was sort of how Trump ran. I’m this person who’s not from Washington, I’m not part of the political establishment but these people, some of them are folks who have been activists who have decided to become part of the change, it’s like the ultimate outsider.
BOLT: That’s exactly right. And if your Republican member of Congress tries to say that they are some sort of outsider or that they are the Trump brand of outsider, passing huge tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations is about as establishment Republican agenda as you can possibly get. Repealing the Affordable Care Act is about as establishment as you can get for Republicans and these are all candidate who have said absolutely not, they’ve all said universal health care is where we need to be and so they want to build on the success of the Affordable Care Act, they’re obviously taking on incumbents that would rather repeal it and throw it in the trash. And so the difference between some of these Indivisible endorsed candidates and their Republicans that they’re taking on couldn’t be more stark.
VALLAS: So in the last couple of minute that I have with you how are you guys making decisions about who you’re choosing to endorse. You’ve got folks making nominations, you’ve got questionaires coming in but how are you deciding who are the people you think Indivisible should be backing?
BOLT: Yeah so again, it’s really driven from the ground up. So a local group, a local Indivisible group, they’re the ones that know their home turfs the best. They decide to nominate a candidate and the first thing we do is take a look at that candidate’s campaign and their resources. We do a policy vet, so we have them fill out a really detailed questionnaire that we then share with groups so that the local groups can see how the candidate that they nominated responded to our questionnaire. Make sure that obviously they are aligned in terms of policy with our movement and then we make the national endorsement. So what does that mean when a candidate gets the national endorsement? Well, it means that they get —
VALLAS: I wish folks could see right now because you’re scrolling through this fabulous database of information and you’re like what does this mean? [LAUGHTER] Getting meta about it, I’m waiting for the broader meaning of life to come out of this.
BOLT: It means that they get additional support from our, our Indivisible groups get support from our organizers. Indivisible groups get additional media training to shine a spotlight on their support for these candidates. It means that they again, they have access to those canvassing and phone banking and text banking tools and plus it gives them the benefit of our national platform. So we are again talking about these, first several rounds of endorsements that we’ve made as these new class of leaders that we want to see sent to Washington.
VALLAS: So it’s a really cool and novel on ramp for people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to break into politics and have a serious chance or at least not electoral politics because they, to be endorsed by you guys, you don’t have to have a whole bunch of baking from a national party or all sorts of connections that would make you the heir apparent to a particular candidacy. These are people who really in many cases knocking on the door from the outside and you guys are saying come on in, we think you’re the next wave of leaders.
BOLT: Yep, I just think such an exciting class of folks here in these first couple rounds of endorsements. We’ve got first time candidates, we’ve got women, we’ve got people of color, women of color, parents, young people, all different kinds of backgrounds represented here. Folks who after the 2016 election were upset and joined an Indivisible group and decided that the next step they wanted to take was running for office. This is a really exciting set of folks and we couldn’t be more excited to back them.
VALLAS: Well in the last couple of seconds I have with you, I know you hate getting this question but if you had to look into your crystal ball, early as it is in midterm season do you think that Dems flip the house?
BOLT: I think we stand a really good chance of it and again, I think it’s because these Republican incumbents are going to go home to their districts and say I’m working for you and I think the American people are smarter than that. I think they look at votes, whether it’s Trumpcare, which would have left people without health insurance and protections for people with preexisting conditions, whether it was the tax scam that gave huge tax cuts to the wealthy but did next to nothing for working families and the middle class. Whether it was the bank lobbyist act, which increase the likelihood of future taxpayer funded bank bailouts. Whether it was the farm bill that would have ripped away food assistance from people. I just think people see through the Republican charade of hey, we’re the ones on your side. I just think they’re not going to buy it. Folks know that Republican incumbents in the house are rubber stamping the Trump agenda and I think folks have had enough of that. I think we stand a good chance. It’s early to crystal ball.
VALLAS: Never too early to crystal ball.
BOLT: Especially not on Off Kilter.
BOLT: I feel really good about our chances.
VALLAS: I’ve been speaking with Chad Bolt who you know because he’s a friend of the show, he’s one of the fabulous gurus over at Indivisible who’s going to be helping bring on this blue tsunami, bring it on Chad, bring it on. And I love him dearly even though he hasn’t seen Seinfeld yet but if you’d like to start anytime is a good time and then the next time I have you on I wont have to do this everytime. Take that as your incentive, Chad.
BOLT: I’ll catch a rerun.
VALLAS: And you can find him on Twitter because he’s worth a follow @ C H A D E R R ?
BOLT: Almost, @Chadderr.
VALLAS: I never get it right.
BOLT: Two D’s, two R’s. You can also go to Indivisible435.org and check out our electoral program.
VALLAS: Chad thanks for coming back and I’ll see you soon.
BOLT: Absolutely. Anytime.
VALLAS: And that does it for this week’s episode of Off Kilter, powered by the Center for American Progress Action Fund. I’m your host, Rebecca Vallas, the show is produced each week by Will Urquhart. Find us on Facebook and Twitter @offkiltershow and you can find us on the airwaves on the Progressive Voices Network and the WeAct Radio Network or anytime as a podcast on iTunes. See you next week.