Thursday, March 29, 2007

Interview with David O'Brien - Candidate for Congress

On Tuesday, I had the opportunity to talk with David O'Brien, a member of the Democratic State and National Committees who is one of the candidates running to replace Congressman Marty Meehan (D-Lowell) as he vacates his seat in the fifth district. While O'Brien has never held elective office himself, he pointed to his extensive experience working at both the state and federal level. In the past, he has worked with former state Senator Patricia McGovern; he was one of the first staffers with Americorps, and was chosen by President Bill Clinton to be the regional advocate for New England in the U.S. Small Business Administration. More recently, Mr. O'Brien has worked to bring affordable housing to Lowell. He told me that he would like to see our troops out of Iraq "safely and soon" and that he supports the idea of universal health care. He is also in favor of imposing campaign finance regulations of 527 groups and would like to see a path toward legalization for undocumented immigrants currently in the United States.

Mr. O'Brien is the second candidate for MA-05 that I have spoken with. Last week, I posted my interview with Representative Jamie Eldridge. I'm hoping to conduct more of these as the election nears.

For more information about Mr. O'Brien, you can read this profile in the Concord Journal, or visit his website, which should be live by the end of the week.

Read excerpts from the interview inside
Q: Almost all the candidates running for Marty Meehan’s seat have some experience as an elected official. Do you think you have the experience necessary to be an elected Congressman?

I do. I’m not sure that elective office is the only thing that should be measured when the voters look at all of us and our qualifications to be their next Congressman. I’ve got a pretty diverse background of experience in state government, in the federal government, in the private sector and working for nonprofits.

My first job out of college was working for State Senator Patricia McGovern, back when I graduated from Merrimack College in 1986. I have experience working in the federal government under President Clinton when he tapped me to be one of the first staffers to help start the Americorps program in 1993. I also worked at the U.S. Small Business Administration as the regional advocate for New England.

I have experience working not only for federal government and state government, but also with candidates for president. In the last four and a half presidential campaigns, I started with Mike Dukakis’s campaign, worked on the presidential campaigns of Bill Clinton and Al Gore twice, and traveled in the 2000 campaign with the Gores occasionally but more often in the general election with Joe Lieberman as his trip director. The moment he was picked as a candidate, I was one of four staff people to fly out to Connecticut, pick him up and bring him to Nashville for the announcement and I was with him for the entirety of the campaign, including the protracted, painful recount.
Q: Of those experiences, what would you say is your most important achievement in your public life?
I would say working on national service, because it was Eli Segal, who just passed away last year, was our CEO and chairman and if you will, the founder of the modern-day Americorps movement. He was the man tasked with getting it up and running by President Clinton. The challenge of that organization and bringing that idea from poetry to prose, as Eli would often say, was really about getting the Americorps program up and running. It was a merger with the old action agency where Vista and older American volunteer programs which all started as a result of the war on poverty back in Lyndon Johnson’s day, merging that with a new brand of service which was President Clinton’s Americorps program. So it was a merger, a startup.

It was exciting to work there but it was not without its challenges. Working with bureaucracies was something that we had to learn to work through, but also at the end of the day prove results of a new program. It turns out that the motto of the Americorps program was getting things done. The debate about whether service would be about those who do the service and then come back and reflect on it, or about what service they do in the community, in part so they could justify spending federal dollars on it. In the end that’s what it became, it was about getting things done in the community. A byproduct was that people felt good about the service, the community felt good about people dedicating a year of their lives to either come in the community or come from within the community to make things better.
Q: Is that the sort of work you’d like to encourage as a Congressman?
I’ve thought about what I’ll run on, and I’m still not quite fully there yet, but Americorps is something I believe in. It’s something that has worked in three presidencies and in different forms now, so it’s an opportunity for young people to give back to their community but also earn college tuition or pay off old student loans in the process. It’s a powerful thing when you see the product and the end result, not only the work done in communities but the work of an individual, what they feel as part of a team. It’s a learning opportunity -- too often when we’re kids and we’re learning we don’t realize sometimes when we’re having fun and we’re doing something that’s not learning out of a book, sitting in straight rows in a classroom. We learn at different phases and at different speeds in our lives.

I think the Americorps program is just that kind of a program because you’re part of a team, you’re working through challenges and cultural differences, and socioeconomic differences, maybe on a team with someone who’s all the way across the country or maybe from the neighborhood you’re serving, and figuring it out on the spot is really what that’s about, and for a young person to be able to do that in the community before they go on to their work life is really pretty compelling.
Q: What do you think is the number one issue on the minds of voters in the 5th District?
Of the voters I’ve talked to, I’ve been to some Democratic Town Committees, I’ve been to some Democratic events, I’ve spoken to folks at a Lion’s Club in Tewksbury, and I think, while we all presume that the war in Iraq is top of mind and people do talk about it, but people are still concerned with issues that don’t seem to go away and don’t seem to get the attention they need. I don’t think they are unsolvable, but there’s only so much time in the day that our leaders in Washington can commit to working with the troublesome issues, and I think one of the problems is, the attentions on the domestic front have really suffered as a result of everyone’s time, attention, frankly budget focus on the war in Iraq.

We’re spending billions in Iraq. It’s a lot of money, and it’s money not being spent on something else, whether it’s foreign programs or foreign aid somewhere else or trying to rebuild another country, or rebuilding our country. I mean, we have issues that are challenging here, like affordable housing or heath care, K-12 education, higher education. It’s not always about dollars. Too often in Washington, it’s a sense of priority and we’re not investing in the things that are helping our own people get ahead. That’s what they expect us to do. They expect us to do the people’s business, and for the past four years Iraq has been something that in large part has been distracting our leaders from keeping their eye focused on solving the challenges here.
Q: Recently the Senate voted on the Iraq appropriation with the strings attached of a timeline. The House also approved an appropriation last week. Would you have voted for that?
I didn’t see the vote today so I can’t speak to that. I did read about the vote in the House last week. Here’s my general sense of it, and I try to follow it like any good citizen can, through news accounts and online and otherwise. It seems to me that we are in a situation in Iraq where we are in the midst of a civil war among the Iraqis. Our troops are not fighting a common enemy; they don’t always know who the enemy is. To that end, I’m not sure how much longer our troops can stay there and frankly risk their own lives for something that is not a conventional war.

To the extent that we can help them secure their borders, reestablish their security, get their army back -- we disbanded our army when we went over there four years ago, and I think in hindsight that was a mistake -- and get out of Iraq safely and soon, I am for a timeline, I just don’t know which one works best, whether it’s the House or the Senate. We do have to trust our military leaders to give us guidance so that we’re not going to lose more lives leaving, and get shot in the back while drawing down our troops.
Q: You mentioned heath care is one issue that the war is draining resources from. How should the federal government lower heath care costs for Americans?
I think if it were as simple as lowering the health care costs for all Americans, it would be done. The goal of having universal health coverage for everyone, I do believe that health care is a right in this country, not a privilege. You shouldn’t have to be born into having a situation where you have good health care. Even people who have decent health care plans are one illness away from a very expensive cost. It strikes me that there needs to be some balanced system so that we’re not bankrupting families just to stay alive.

My sense is, that I share with many of my colleagues on the Democratic State Committee and Democratic National Committee on which I serve, the goal of universal health care access and affordability and how we get there still needs to be worked out. But I think with Democrats in Congress, and a Democratic President, I think we’re going to get there sooner than with Republicans, because they’ll let the market work and the market doesn’t seem to be working for everybody right now. Not everybody has an equal and fair opportunity to have coverage. I think there’s still 42 million Americans who don’t have coverage. Why in this day and age is that allowed?
Q: Do you favor any particular way of getting to universal health care? A single payer approach or something similar to the current Massachusetts law?
You know, I’ve tried to follow the Massachusetts plan and I know the bugs and the kinks aren’t worked out of it yet, but it strikes me that if companies have the means to provide -- and this is where the small business exemption would come in -- that they need to provide it for their employees. I also think that individuals do need to step up and pay their fair share. I mean, if someone’s in poverty and unable to pay for their basic human needs, I’m not sure they’re going to be writing a check for a health care plan, but those that can afford to pay should.

Health care isn’t free; doctors don’t work for free; hospitals don’t work for free. Too often, the easy one to beat up on is the insurance companies, but everyone else in the health care food chain, they all work for a living. Now they’re not going to give it away. To the extent that everybody should pay something for the coverage they get, I think they should pay what they’re able to. Even if it’s a modest amount of a couple hundred bucks.
Q: Congressman Meehan’s was very involved in campaign finance reform. What solutions do you favor, if any, and would you continue the work he’s done?
I support the notion of having greater transparency. I think even at one point in time the Republicans talked about having same day or fairly quick online postings of who’s giving money. I think we still have an issue with the soft money, kind of sneaking its way into 527s which are not all reportable -- you don’t have to report where the money comes from or who the donors are as long as those organizations don’t, say, vote for or against somebody, they get away with getting very close to the line of convincing people to vote for or vote against someone. So it seems like a loophole to me, but from what I’ve watched in Marty’s career, it strikes me that that’s one they can try to tighten up but it seems that it might be headed to a showdown in the Supreme Court because it comes back as some form of limiting speech.

I don’t know how we resolve that but if there’s a way to make maybe even reporting of who gives the 527 so there’s a sunshine aspect to it at least then we know, so that the media can write it up and the public’s aware of it, that somebody’s dumping millions of dollars into an effort like Swift Boat Veterans, for example, that are clearly trying to stop one candidate over another as opposed to educating people on an issue.
Q: Speaking of campaign finance, I know that Jamie Eldridge announced today that he raised $100K, Niki Tsongas raised $150K. Can you raise enough money to be competitive in the system today?
Part of the challenge of a candidate like myself is that I don’t come from a wealth of money – I won’t be able to write a check, I don’t have a famous last name or a big donor list. Every donation I get is going to be from somebody I know or a friend of a friend, I don’t have a big donor history of people giving me money to run for office, so I start from zero. But I do believe I’ll be competitive. It’s an interesting race in that it’s a special election, so the conventional wisdom that he who raises the most money wins doesn’t apply. I think the voters in the end are going to decide. I think in some respects they’re going to look at the people with the most money as the institutional players and they’ll scratch their heads and wonder why everybody’s giving money to that top dog.
Q: What do you think America should do with its immigration policy?
I’m disappointed that Senator Kennedy and Senator McCain couldn’t stay on track and get a bipartisan bill passed to allow people who are already here to become citizens after a time as long as they applied and didn’t have a criminal background. The tension in immigration is two things as I see it is: people who want to build a big fence and not let anybody into our country because we’re already too full and the challenges of people feeling like someone else is getting the job they deserve. It seems to me that the people coming here illegally or otherwise are people just trying to provide for their own families and doing jobs that, as I understand it, are not being done by Americans. Migrant farm work is not something that Americans are stepping up and doing.

I’m hoping to get back on track with the tenor of what Senator Kennedy and McCain were trying to do and get people an opportunity to become legalized in this country. As I understand the law, if children are born in the United States -- even of illegal immigrants -- they’re Americans. They should be able to go to school... The fact that the law says they’re American citizens means they should be treated like Americans.
Q: I understand that you were involved in bringing affordable housing to Lowell?
The project we’re working on in Lowell, the Julian Steele project, is a federally built public housing project built after WWII for veterans coming home to have places to live. For a time it was in great shape and running along well and at full capacity. Over the years it became rundown. The plumbing was deplorable, and the physical condition reflected issues of the community itself. They had crime and drugs and prostitution. There were police officers afraid to go in there because it was so bad. So, the greater Lowell delegation, Senator Panagiotakos, all the state Reps, and others decided it was time to tear this place down. There was actually a lot of opposition to this from various community groups, the Catholic Church, tenants organizations. They did not want to displace the people who lived there. The argument made by the Lowell delegation was that we can’t let people live in these conditions, and they won the day. Beacon Hill passed legislation to tear the site down -- first rehouse the families that were living there throughout the greater Lowell area -- level the site, and start fresh.

That was a process started more than seven years ago. The site was empty for three or more years and they had a local group of five builders ready to go and develop the site. In February or March 2005, I happened to be reading the Lowell Sun and saw that the five local builders were not doing the job. They walked away. So I knew they were going back up to bid with it at some point, so I started doing some homework on the project. My brother’s a builder... I approached him and he told me, those other guys walked away for a reason. Why would you want to do this? So I said, I don’t know, but it will be a challenge. He said okay, set up a meeting and see where we go with it.

Fast forward a couple of months, there were nine different organizations or interests trying to apply to be the developer. We won the day, were fortunate enough to get through the process, and did our due diligence on it and figured out we couldn’t make any money as the developer. So we approached the nonprofit group doing the RFP and said, let us be your general contractor. You share the risk with us. You market them, you sell them, and we’ll build them for you. At that point they didn’t have too many other people in line, so they said let’s do it.

To me, the gratifying thing about this project is, it had its challenges, but right around Thanksgiving of last year the first 21 families moved into the units. In April or May the next 27 units go online. It’s a beautiful place. They’re all brand new, modern homes. There are low, moderate and market rate units, they’re singles and they’re duplexes, about 1100 or 1200 square feet apiece, they’re all two stories and three bedrooms. They’re not huge, but they’re home. To give someone the opportunity to have a new home, to me, is really exciting.

I’m running for Congress in part to extend the opportunity to everybody in this district whether they were born in a middle class family, an upper class family, or came from a lesser background, which I feel I did. I was raised by a single parent. My father and mother divorced when I was five months old. I didn’t find this out until I was in college or high school, but my mom had to rely on her large extended family, she was one of eight, to try to keep us together, and I further found out that she had to rely on welfare for several years. My brother and I were both students in the Head Start program. My mom became a teacher... To me, when we talk about not leaving a child behind today, I’m just grateful that the federal government, that the Democratic party, that people just generally in society said it’s important to be there for those families and for those kids. In my case, somebody didn’t leave five of us behind and I’m grateful for that.

It’s in part why I have the activism I do in the Democratic Party, and on behalf of candidates for president or governor or Congress. To me, it’s to give something back and extend that opportunity to everyone, whether you’re born in a single parent household or whether you grow up in Lawrence or Lowell or Haverhill or Concord. You deserve a shot. The beauty of this country is we’re born here. If we were born in some other country, the likelihood that we’re going to have to live on $2 a day is very high. The likelihood that we’re going to die before our 30th birthday of some waterborne disease is very high. We’re blessed in this country. We’re blessed to be born here and we have the opportunity to make something of our lives provided we have proper education and proper nourishment and proper health care and proper upbringing. But just being born in the United States isn’t enough. That’s where I think the federal government has a role to play, to give people an even hand and an even shot at it. That’s in part why I’m running.
Q: How can people get involved with your campaign?
We’re going to be putting up my web site probably in the last day or two, it’ll be and it should be up within 24-48 hours.