-by Jason Call
congressional candidate (WA-02)
On May 27, the Congressional Progressive Caucus released its Focus Group Findings on 2020 & 2022 Elections for Congress. The memo contained a slew of revealing information about what voters want from the Democratic Party, and the short story is that the direction #ActuallyProgressive candidates and activists are going is where much of the Democratic base wants to go, and that, as we’ve been saying, the corporate political establishment has been misreading the room and if the Democrats don’t deliver on meaningful policy, they stand to lose big in 2022 just like they did in 2010.
I want to be quite clear. The only thing that Democrats can do to avoid such losses is pass progressive policy. So when we progressive candidates are critical of the corporate establishment, we’re actually trying to help the party to not get murdered in the midterms. We do not want Republicans in charge of anything. But we can’t softball an establishment that isn’t serving the public good, nor should we. Time is running out for the planet, and we need to pass Green New Deal legislation, Medicare For All, and some serious campaign finance reform, among other critical legislation.
In light of this CPC memo, #ActuallyProgressive candidates such as myself need to turn up the heat, not tone it down. We are on the right side of the issues. The corporate sector is well represented in Congress (all of the GOP and 80% of the Dems are beholden to big money interests), while the working class has a handful of representatives who are constantly being dismissed and insulted by Democratic leadership. But that handful is speaking truth to power, the people have heard it and are responding positively, and it is up to us now to amplify that pebble into ripples that build real power in government.
My race in WA-02 against 20-year corporate incumbent Rick Larsen mirrors any number of races around the country. That is, progressive challengers are seeking to unseat longtime representatives who are wholly owned and operated by any number of industry sectors (for Larsen, it’s the Fossil Fuel industry and the Military Industrial Complex-- no surprise, since he’s 3rd ranking on the Armed Services Committee, chair of the Electronic Warfare working group, co-chair of the Bipartisan Commission on China, and chair of the Aviation Subcommittee of House Transportation). Legislators like Larsen have opposed progressive policy their entire careers, but have now put their finger to the wind and are trying to rebrand themselves (Larsen’s repeated phrase is ‘bold, aggressive and progressive, FDR-like agenda’, as if any of the miserably lowball bills he’s pushing are any of that) in order to meet a low bar of perception of progressive-ness, where the average voter will say that he’s ‘good enough.’
It’s our job to use this information from the CPC memo, along with the track record of the incumbents, to show voters that these corporate stooges haven’t been getting the job done on policy, and that-- in fact-- re-electing them instead of progressives who will fight for people is actually dangerous to the future of the country, not least of which is the possibility of losing the White House in 2024 (pssst…it’s happened that way before, you didn’t think things could get worse than Bush/Cheney, but they did! Don’t think things could get worse than Trump? Think again…)
Larsen should be a soft target to unseat, if the voters have the actual information in their hands-- which is why it’s vital to fund #ActuallyProgressive challengers to Democratic incumbents. WA-02 is a D+10 district. A Democrat is not going to lose this seat, so why not have the best policy representative in there.
Let’s examine Larsen’s record in light of the CPC findings.
In the Key Findings section, the memo says “without Trump on the ballot as a clear villain… Democrats are at risk of losing some of these new voters in 2022.” Larsen centered his entire 2020 primary message around defeating Trump. He never acknowledged that he had a progressive challenger, and his sole goal in the primary was to not respond to my campaign at all because he knows the more airtime I get, the more votes I’ll get. He desperately sought to avoid any policy debate because he knows he opposes the things that voters actually want. They’ll clearly vote for him over a batshit crazy Republican, but his case is incredibly weak when put toe to toe with an #ActuallyProgressive challenge.
The memo goes on to say, “both Democratic surge voters and swing voters have many progressive issue priorities…Swing voters’ top issues are the environment and climate change, corruption in government, and kitchen table economics, followed by social justice, affordable health care, immigration, and the economy. Women are especially focused on education and healthcare.”
Larsen loses on all counts referenced in that passage.
On the environment, he opposes the Green New Deal, and hangs his environmental cred on a 2008 piece of wilderness protection legislation that did nothing for climate change concerns. This year, as a ‘TransportDem’ he’s been pushing bills to get more electric buses and to revamp aging ferry fleets, but these bills are essentially nothingburgers. The amount of money being approved would fund about 650 electric buses in a nationwide fleet of 65,000. So…basically replacing 1% of them. And the ferry funding amounts to building one new ferry over 4 years. Not bold. Not aggressive. Not FDR-like. He also isn’t supporting the Warren/AOC Build Green Act. Meanwhile his historical record on the environment includes voting against stopping offshore oil drilling in the Gulf, literally right after the Deepwater Horizon disaster. This, along with a plethora of votes to continue to allow oil and gas exploration in the Arctic, and continue building oil pipelines through native lands and national parks, sets him firmly at odds with the priorities of those concerned about climate change. And he’s taken tons of money from the fossil fuel industry in exchange for such votes, all detailed here.
Corruption in government is an easy basket. Larsen has taken millions from corporate PACs over his career. He came from a for profit health industry lobbyist career, almost a decade serving the WA State Dental Lobby prior to 2000. 51% of his funding has come directly from corporate PACs, the majority of individual money has come from maxed out donors who list their occupation as CEO, President, Executive and the like, and less than 6% of his career funding has come from small donors. And he clearly does the bidding of his corporate funders, evidenced by dozens of campaign contributions that have been directly associated with industry legislation has voted on.
Kitchen table economics, another easy basket. Larsen simply doesn’t fight for the working class. He’ll fight to repeal Dodd-Frank banking regulations and consumer protections, he’ll fight to repeal the estate tax for billionaires, he’ll fight to limit oversight of large banks, but when it comes to the working class he’ll fight against an individual’s options for student loan bankruptcy (2005 Bankruptcy bill), essentially ensuring that student loan debt is carried for life. He’s also made numerous statements about being a ‘deficit hawk’ which basically means he supports austerity minded balanced budgets at the federal level and is willing to cut Social Security and other social support payments; ‘all options are on the table’ he said in 2012. And while progressive campaigns average $27 per donation, in the first quarter FEC filing, Rick’s average donation was $1168.
Social justice is another lopsided comparison. Progressives typically have a history of social justice activism, and progressive policy seeks to repair historic systemic damage to minority communities. I’ve been a supporter of the Black Lives movement since it’s inception, marching for justice locally on numerous occasions, including that one time we shut the freeway down in Seattle. I’ve marched in support of Palestinian justice, and took part in occupying Seattle streets when Trump instituted the infamous ‘Muslim ban’. I was also one of the first to breach the barriers at Seattle’s East Precinct the night the Seattle Police Dept vacated the building and the CHOP/CHAZ area was created, and have taken mutual aid supplies to allies protesting police in Portland. All of these actions have a primary goal of overturning institutional white supremacy, much of it directed at the unaccountable police forces nationwide who operate with impunity. If you think the protests in Seattle last year were ‘a little much’, consider that of all the police who have been identified at the January 6th insurrection in DC, more came from SPD than anywhere else. Meanwhile, Larsen didn’t mention Black Lives Matter ever until June 7, 2020, and now that the woefully inadequate George Floyd Justice in Policing Act has passed the House, he’s gone back to forgetting about Black Lives. Larsen is not bold on social justice policy at a time when it’s vital to repairing a divided nation that must protect the rights of marginalized groups. Consider that Larsen had an opportunity to simply sign his name to two documents in support of the LGBTQ community-- Windsor (2013), which was the repeal of DOMA, and Obergefell (2015) in support of federal legalization of gay marriage. He passed. One of a handful of Democrats in each Congress to not sign the briefs. It wasn’t even legislation, just statements of support. Of course, now that the Democrat Party line supports some LGBTQ rights, he acts like he was there all along.
I’ll wrap up this overview with healthcare. Larsen doesn’t support single payer, doesn’t support Medicare For All. He’s said so publicly many times. He wants to keep profit in the healthcare system. He’s ok with tens of millions having no insurance. He’s ok with thousands of needless deaths and untold suffering so that health insurance CEOs can keep their tens of millions in salary and stock options that comes from denying people care. All of this, of course, hits the poor and working class, and minority communities hardest. It’s been identified in multiple studies that black women are the most underserved by our for profit healthcare system. And here we are, the wealthiest nation in the history of the world, and yet the only one not to provide comprehensive healthcare to all residents. Meanwhile, I’m a Medicare For All advocate and activist, and I’m on the board of Whole Washington, a state single payer advocacy group that is right now running a ballot initiative to get statewide single payer implemented here. So. I win that one too.
One of the things that didn’t get mentioned in the CPC memo was military spending. I won’t go into detail, but Larsen is deeply compromised in this area. Not just with money coming from Boeing, the largest regional employer, but also with companies like Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, and Honeywell. All weapons manufacturers with a vested interest in obscene NDAA expenditures, all of which Larsen votes for, every time. It’s true these authorizations pass almost unanimously every time, people are extremely fearful of being seen as weak on the military. But as a 20 year member of the House Armed Services committee, he’s the one fighting FOR these expenditures (and against ones that will actually help people). A closer look at this policy area is here, and you’ll notice that as the military budgets have increased over the years, so have the Military Industrial Complex contributions to Larsen’s re-election campaigns.
I’ll close this essay with an examination of the kind of candidate that Democratic surge and swing voters are seeking-- the two things highlighted being independence from partisanship and special interests, and a focus on getting things done for regular people. The preceding paragraphs should identify that Larsen is entirely beholden to special interests-- his corporate donors. And he clearly focuses on getting things done for those interests rather than regular people, it’s in the voting record. Voters want someone who is ‘real’, says the memo. I don’t check all the boxes for diversity, I’m well aware of that. But I’m working class, I have the passion for the policies they are seeking, and I speak to those policies from a 30 year history of activism both inside and outside party politics. I also recognize my white male privilege as we come to grips with systemic oppression in America that comes from, let’s face it, people who look like me. Larsen, on the other hand, doesn’t say a word unless it's approved by Democratic Party leadership. Consider his position on the Afghanistan War. He’s voted against withdrawing literally every time it’s come up over the last 20 years. Now that Biden says its time to go, Larsen says ok it’s time to go. Of all the House Democrats elected in 2000 who are still around he has the least floor speaking time; he routinely ranks in the lower quintile of electeds on getting legislation passed. He’s not there to be a leader for people, he’s there to support industry profits. This is not what voters want. Now it’s our job to make them see they have better options.