As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

CA-10: An Interview With Sen. Mark DeSaulnier

Mark DeSaulnier has had a rapid ascent through the state legislature and now, potentially, into Congress. Within three years, this former restaurant owner won elections to the State Assembly (in 2006) and the State Senate (in 2008), with a Congressional primary scheduled for September 1. Prior to that, he was a 3-time member of the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors and the California Air Resources Board. A former liberal Republican in the mold of Edward Brooke, DeSaulnier switched parties several years ago and compiled a liberal voting record in the State Legislature. His first ad of the campaign covered the topic of health care, and I asked him about this and several other issues in an interview conducted last week. Having taken place before the crucial budget vote, I spent a good deal of time asking DeSaulnier about that, and you can see his responses here. Depending on your perspective, he either did or did not fulfill the promise to vote against "most" of the budget, by the way, voting no on 11 of 26 bills, including all of the more controversial ones.

I'll pick up with a paraphrased transcript of the rest of the interview below:

DD: So, other than the budget, how's it going with your campaign?

Mark DeSaulnier: Well, this is a tough campaign, with a big field and a lot of good candidates. The polls we've done show us winning. We've got 70% of the money that we need to compete, and a lot of great endorsements. I would say we have the most local endorsements inside the district. And we're going to be able to put together a great ground campaign, with people I've worked with for 20 years in the district. I think we're going to be concentrated in Contra Costa County, where we can post a big number. I think we're putting ourselves out there as the local candidate, who has represented the district for a long time. And we have people out there walking and phoning, putting forward that message.

DD: As long as we're on California, obviously you've seen the dysfunction at the local level. What do you think you can do at the federal level to remedy this situation?

MD: You know, I read a lot of Paul Krugman, and I agree with him that we're going to need a second stimulus package. And I think we need it sooner and not later. I think we can take what's been learned from the stimulus package that we're doing now. I think the problem is that the banks like Citi and Bank of America aren't lending, and so we need to require the banks to lend, with relief for the credit worthy who are falling behind on their payments, and more money out to the credit unions who have done a better job handling this crisis. Next, I think we have to do some sort of fiscal stabilization. I see it in this state, people who need to access the safety net go up when the economy goes down. And so we have to break that cycle, and I think we can by providing some relief. Finally, we should say that we can do things more efficiently. There shouldn't be this silo mentality. I'll give you an example. We put together these "one-stops," places where you can go for unemployment and job training. And people tell me that you have to get out of one line and pick up a phone in the office to get your unemployment benefits. That just doesn't seem like good government to me. And I think we have an opportunity to make government work better.

DD: Let's move on to health care. Seems to be a big issue for you. What are the principles you carry in this debate?

MD: To me, the gold standard is single payer. We have the problem of getting health care to those who need it, and also how we get control of costs. I think the public option is the first step, and if we do it right, it could be, and really I think it should be, single payer. The question is what are the Democrats willing to give up to get moderates on board, and I think there have to be some lines we cannot cross there. In the end, it has to be about flexibility and more choice. That's the way you're going to sell this thing. It's telling that the moderates want firewalls in their plan, they don't want the people to have more choice, they want to preserve something for the insurance companies.

DD: Will you commit to not vote for anything that doesn't have a quality public plan available on day one, not a trigger, open to everyone, and with the kind of rates necessary to force the insurance companies to compete?

MD: Yes. I think as liberals, as progressives, something we don't do a lot but which we can learn from Republicans, sometimes we've just got to say no.

DD: Congress has started to debate the regulatory reform ideas put forward by the Obama Administration, and they're getting a ton of pushback from the banking industry, particularly on the concept of the Consumer Financial Protection Agency. It's the same way on a lot of these issues, the banks just won't relent. How do we solve this problem?

MD: Honestly, the politics will never get totally fixed without a public finance system in this country. And then people say, "why should we pay for elections?" The truth is that the average American is paying disproportionately already, when the giveaways to businesses and corporations are factored in. They buy elections fairly cheaply, and they get the rewards. So that's something we have to pursue. As far as your question, yes, I think we need a Consumer Financial Protection Agency, in fact I think it should be cabinet-level. A Secretary of Consumer Protection. The point to all of this is that if middle income people don't have wealth, democracy ends. That's just the bottom line. And one way to ensure that is by protecting consumers, so you don't see all their wealth go into someone else's pockets. Inequality is just killing us right now. Kevin Phillips wrote about this years ago, in Bad Money, and he was very prophetic. I also think that you can't reform the financial system without holding people accountable. And so I would involve the Department of Justice right at the beginning. That's the only way to really ensure it doesn't happen again.

DD: You mention inequality, it's something Democrats don't talk about enough. A recent Wall Street Journal story talked about the top 1% earning 35% of all the compensation in the country.

MD: It's stunning. And our tax structure, by the way, rewards the accumulation of wealth, not work. This happens when you get a financial services economy, which is completely not sustainable. We don't have manufacturing, we just have this financial services giant, and it trades in bubbles. So one way to reduce that inequality is to retool the financial services sector, make it smaller, make it more boring.

DD: OK, last question. I wanted to ask you about SB375, the smart growth measure that you played a big part in passing last year. This bill doesn't get a lot of attention, but it really offers a blueprint to how to achieve smart growth policies with the statewide authority working in concert with local communities. Do you plan to scale that up if you make it to Congress?

MD: Oh, absolutely, and this is where I think my background really suits me to replace Ellen Tauscher. I chaired the Transportation Committee in the Assembly as a freshman, I think the first person to do that. I spent ten years on the California Air Resources Board, and I co-authored SB375. I'm pretty sure there's a companion bill in Congress right now. Doris Matsui (CA-05) is carrying it right now. I have honed in throughout my career on the changing transportation and mobility side of the energy issue. We accomplish this, in part by reducing miles, and also finding new energy sources for transportation. We need more transit, and a move away from single-occupancy vehicles and long commutes. It's about bringing the work space closer to the living space, and creating livable communities. So I think I'm naturally suited for such a task. I'd like to get on the Transportation Committee if I get to Congress.

DD: Thanks for your time today.

MD: No problem, thank you.

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