Interview With Jen Perelman, Who Is Challenging Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz For Congressional Seat
Jen Perelman has had the same representative in the United States Congress for nearly 16 years — Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Democrat in Florida’s 23rd congressional district. Now, Perelman is mounting a primary challenge against Wasserman Schultz.
Primary day is August 18. She has until July 20 to convince independents in the district to switch their registration to Democrat to vote for her.
Wasserman Schultz is a well-known corporate Democrat, who chaired the Democratic National Committee until she was forced to resign in 2016 after WikiLeaks published emails that exposed the DNC helped rig the presidential primary to favor Hillary Clinton.
Perelman is running on a platform of demilitarizing the police, ending marijuana prohibition, abolishing for-profit prisons, and forgiving student loan debt. She also backs Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, and affordable housing initiatives.
She is quick to point out that Wasserman Schultz’s political career has been funded by special interests opposed to these popular proposals. Wasserman Schultz opposes marijuana legalization, and that is likely because she has relied on money from political action committees tied to the alcohol industry.
Wasserman Schultz has served the interests of Big Sugar at the expense of cleaning up environmental degradation in the Everglades. She voted for farm bills in 2008 and 2014 that contained what Politifact described as “lucrative benefits” for major sugar companies.
In a bid to become the chair of the House Appropriations Committee, if she is re-elected, Wasserman Schultz promises to “establish an advisory panel to address systemic racism in federal funding.” However, according to Perelman, Wasserman Schultz’s past campaigns have relied on donations from police groups that have objected to proposals to address the killings of Black people by officers.
Wasserman Schultz has benefited from campaign contributions from Goldman Sachs, and she is one of several Florida lawmakers who defended a payday lending law that consumer advocates bashed because it “traps the poor in a debt cycle.” She also voted against a bill that Politifact concluded was “intended to provide clarity about the law on racial discrimination related to car loans.”
Plus, when it comes to appropriation, Perelman called attention to the fact that the websites jenperelman.com and jenperelmanforcongress.com redirect to Wasserman Schultz’s government website.
‘Most Of The Things That I Support Are Populist’
Democratic presidential candidates Andrew Yang and Marianne Williamson, along with Brand New Congress, the Sunrise Movement, and 350 Action, have all endorsed Perelman’s campaign.
“You know most of the things that I support are populist. Most of the things that we are behind and pushing are what most people want,” Perelman told Shadowproof. “Seventy-two percent of the American people want Medicare For All. So these are not fringe radical ideas”
“She’s representing a very small faction of people that are served by corporate interests,” Perelman added.
Perelman said her background is in journalism. “I went to college for journalism, and I’ve always had this sort of investigative journalism kind of sense to me, and I’ve been the same with regard to policy and following the money trail.”
“Journalism then led to advertising, which regrettably was a few years of whoring myself to corporate interests. But eventually I ended up going to law school because I decided I wanted to get involved in policies for nonprofits.”
As a supporter of abolishing the death penalty, Perelman first sought out a job as an advocate for the Innocence Project or a similar organization that advanced criminal justice reform. She did not live in a state capital so this kind of lobbying work was difficult to do. She moved into criminal defense and witnessed firsthand the disparities in the justice system.
Perelman would like to see profit removed entirely from policing in the United States. “whether it’s different municipalities having different quotas, whether it’s things like stop-and-frisk versus citations of any kind, those things are incentives to harass and patrol and police.
“When you get into incarceration, Florida has the most for-profit facilities of any other state in the country. There are literally people that profit per person per night in a facility. And it isn’t just the facilities. It’s the subcontractors, so all the people that provide the laundry, the transportation, the internet service, the commissary, all of the different things. They also then utilize prison labor as basically current slave labor.”
Like most criminal justice reform advocates, Perelman supports marijuana legalization and releasing, commuting, and expunging the records of so-called nonviolent drug offenders. Wasserman Schultz, however, has a record of opposing even medical marijuana because she contends it is a gateway drug to harder substances like heroin. (Perelman says this is because she takes money from Big Pharma.)
Perelman supports the effort to de-prioritize policing and reallocate funds from departments to mental health or other social services. She does not believe massive amounts of money need to continue to go to departments to patrol vulnerable or marginalized communities.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz at Netroots Nation 2011 (Marta Evry on Flickr)
‘They’re Serving At The Behest Of Corporate Overlords’
Over 5.4 million laid off during the COVID-19 pandemic lost their health insurance.
Asked whether she thinks establishment Democrats have botched a key opportunity during the COVID-19 pandemic to back the expansion of Medicare to cover all Americans, Perelman suggested it shows the vast majority are “not really interested in solving problems.”
Perelman welcomes the fact that President Donald Trump is essentially facilitating the revolution and more people are paying attention, which I knew they would. More people are paying attention. What’s happening now is because of COVID, more and more people see the man behind the curtain and know they don’t really give a crap.”
“It’s not like [Democrats] don’t understand how it works and how we’re going to pay for it. They understand that it’s all possible. They completely understand that we could have Medicare For All. This isn’t rocket science. They’re choosing to not do it because they’re serving at the behest of corporate overlords.”
Many Democrats are losing the ability to hide behind circumstance, Perelman added. “More and more people are saying, wait a minute. Maybe having my health care tied to my employment isn’t a good idea now that I’m unemployed. So more and more people are getting a taste of how backwards we actually are.”
This shift has fueled successes in a number of primary races, where progressives have defeated incumbents or the candidate backed by the Democratic Party establishment. For example, in New York, Jamaal Bowman roundly defeated Congressman Eliot Engel, a hawkish neoliberal who was a 16-term incumbent backed by Hillary Clinton, Senator Chuck Schumer, and Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House.
Perelman supports Representative Barbara Lee’s push to cut the Pentagon’s budget by 50 percent. She believes troops should be brought home from overseas wars, including in Afghanistan. She think the revolving door between defense contractors and Washington, D.C., institutions must be shuttered.
Dismantle The Military Industrial-Complex
In effect, Perelman is a rare voice running for Congress who advocates for dismantling the military industrial-complex. It distinguishes her from Wasserman Schultz, who has accepted $170,000 in contributions from PACs tied to defense contractors during her career.
She is tired of regime change wars and finds it offensive to enlisted members of the military because they are used as “profit pawns.”
“I’m against our intervention in other sovereign nations. I think short of a genocide it’s really not our business, and then even then, it’s really more of the world that has to come together. It isn’t us. We are not the police of the world. So I do not support an imperialist agenda.”
“I do not support American exceptionalism. I do not support any of that. I do not support propping up nations that are rife with human rights violations. I don’t support illegal sanctions. Those are illegal acts of war. What we’re doing in Venezuela, what we’re doing in Iran, I don’t support any of that,” Perelman declared.
Wasserman Schultz, Representative Donna Shalala, and other representatives in Congress, particularly from Florida, have consciously acted as demagogues on Venezuela. They invoke the country to drag down progressives and make it harder for advocates to campaign for public programs that would help address basic human needs. They pander to upper class white Venezuelans and prey upon citizens’ ignorance of what is actually unfolding in Venezuela to sow discord.
Perelman does the best she can to “reeducate people.” She tells those in her district “look, the problems in Venezuela and Cuba are not because of socialism. It’s because of authoritarianism and also because of our interference [with] sanctions and things that are basically suffocating their economy. It isn’t because of a social democratic system.”
“Debbie is just an example of one of many corporate Democrats that are essentially Republican on this issue. She supports who we decided, this Juan Guaido, that we tweeted is the new leader Venezuela — which is the most absurd American exceptionalist thing that it even happened. It disgusts me.”
Perelman continued, “I’m not making a personal statement on [Venezuela President Nicolas] Maduro one way or the other. I really am not. I’m not a fan, but that was a democratically elected person. And the only people that don’t recognize that is so are the people that are pushing their different agenda.”
As Perelman acknowledged, Wasserman Schultz, Shalala, and others are “sucking up to the wealthy white Venezuelans that reside in south Florida.” It is a “pretty large contingency of people.” They’re known as Westonzuelans because they live in Weston, Florida, which Money magazine ranked 19th in a list of cities with the “biggest earners” in 2010. (Median annual family income was near $120,000.)
“When you go to people that are not the rich white Venezuelans but are just your regular average working class Venezuelans, they support Maduro, and that’s really what matters to me. He’s not committing a genocide, like I said earlier. So it’s not something that warrants our interference,” Perelman said.
“Debbie, she stood in front of the Venezuela embassy with [Florida Republican Representative] Mario Diaz-Balart and was standing there talking about getting rid of Maduro and bringing in Guaido. I don’t see how that’s not Republican.”
‘Just A Bunch Of Empty Platitudes’
Democratic Party insiders typically whip up outrage these days when someone like Perelman challenges an incumbent like Wasserman Schultz. Any time a candidate like Perelman highlights policy differences, that candidate is accused of creating division or violating guidelines for “civility.” But this charade is all a way to protect those with entrenched power in the system.
“The thing about the Democratic Party in Florida is they’re fairly feckless. You’re talking about a state that out of sixty-something counties I think there’s only six that are blue. They’re a feckless party. Our [Democratic Executive Committee] in Broward [County] hasn’t made quorum in like four years. They’re pretty weak,” according to Perelman.
“If you came down here right now and got on to one of their Zoom meetings, you wouldn’t even know there was a congressional race. They’re just completely ghosting the whole race. So they’re doing forums for sheriffs, state attorney, public defender, clerk of court. They’re doing all these different types of things for candidates and they are not even addressing that there’s a congressional race and primary in [the 23rd District].”
Perelman is convinced Wasserman Schultz does not want to debate her because she has no policies. She is a “just a bunch of empty platitudes.” So the Democratic Party must protect her by pretending there is no race.
The insurgency in the Democratic Party, spurred by Senator Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaigns, has brought out major generational differences within the party, especially between the base and elite representatives.
“Your older sort of centrist blue Democrats, they are clinging on for dear life for everything to be exactly as they know it, and they’re just not capable of seeing past that,” Perelman said.
Most in the United States support term limits for members of Congress. They are sick and tired of politics and wholeheartedly agree with the idea of out with the old and in with the new.
The question is, how long before some of these “insider dinosaurs” retire or die off and progressives outnumber them on Capitol Hill?
Until they are no longer a presence in Congress, such Democrats will remain an obstacle for movements for racial, economic, environmental, and social justice that are working to truly improve people’s lives.