Friday, March 23, 2007

Interview with Rep. Jamie Eldridge

Earlier in the week, I had the opportunity to talk to state Representative Jamie Eldridge (D-Acton) who is one of the candidates running to replace outgoing Congressman Marty Meehan (D-Lowell) in the 5th Congressional district. We chatted at length about his accomplishments in the legislature, and he talked about increasing local aid to schools and the Individual Development Account program as well as his work building legislative coalitions. I asked him whether he was too young to be a Congressman and he pointed out that the district has already elected candidates younger that he is. We talked about the war in Iraq -- he's in favor of stopping funding for that war as a way to end it; health care -- he's in favor of a single-payer system; and campaign finance reform -- he would like to see public financing of elections and would not like to see political blogs regulated by the FEC (something the current occupant of the 5th district Congressional seat is in favor of). He also mentioned that he would like to see the federal government help communities pay for the needs of special education students.

His website launches next week, until then if you would like to help with his campaign, email his campaign address ( or call the campaign office at 508-274-0055.

Look for more interviews with candidates in the 5th district Congressional race. There are, I believe, a total of eight candidates for the race and my goal is to get at least half of them to talk to me. My thanks go out to Rep. Eldridge for being the first.

Read excerpts from the interview inside
Q: You are the youngest candidate in the field, and you have just over two terms as a State Rep.

That’s right, just beginning my third term.
Q: Do you think you have the experience necessary to be a congressman?
I do, and it’s interesting, the 5th Congressional actually has a history of being represented by young Congressmen -- Chet Atkins, Paul Tsongas, Jim Shannon, were all Congressmen before Marty Meehan, and they were all in their late twenties to early thirties, so they were actually all younger than me when they ran and won. In terms of my experience, I think my strengths are that, yes, I have the legislative experience, but before that I was a Legal Aid attorney in the city of Baltimore and worked for Merrimac Valley Legal Services doing community economic development law, and then I had worked for State Senator Pam Resor and Bob Duran, and had been the Senate coordinator for the Deval Patrick campaign. What all that means is that I have experience working throughout the 5th Congressional, a mix of experience that I don’t think anybody else has.

On top of that I have a record of building coalitions, whether in the legislature where I served as the 4th division whip for the effort to stop the amendment to ban gay marriage, worked with a coalition to pass the minimum wage in the past year, and last year worked with my colleagues on establishing minimum education aid for every community, which meant an increase in state aid for all Massachusetts communities. On the grassroots level, in addition to my work for Deval Patrick, I have worked with a lot of different organizations in the district I represent, Habitat for Humanity, I’m on the board of directors of the Watershed Council. So I have a real progressive approach, not just ideology, but also a commitment to the grassroots, to outreach, to keeping my ear to the ground about what people are thinking and what their concerns are.
Q: Speaking of that, what do you think are the biggest concerns of the people you’ve talked to so far in the 5th district?
The biggest issue, probably around the country, is ending the war in Iraq. I was opposed to it from the beginning and believe we need to bring our troops home immediately. That seems to be the biggest issue, and it’s not just the fact that thousands of Americans and tens of thousands of Iraqis are dying overseas. It’s also that it’s destabilized the region and created a whole new generation of terrorists who hate America. In many ways, most countries have a problem with our federal government, so it’s destabilized things. The other side of it is our soldiers coming home injured, having physical or mental stress and the burden that’s putting on the veteran’s administration in providing for the needs of our veterans. I think it’s really affecting the psyche of our country and that seems to be the biggest issue for people I’ve gone out and talked to over the last five weeks.
Q: Currently the supplemental funding bill for Iraq is being debated. Would you be in favor of voting for that particular bill at this point?
I’m not in favor of that. What I would be in favor of is expending the funds to bring the troops home and the military contractors, and reinvesting money in peace efforts, diplomatic efforts, a regional diplomatic approach to the conflict in Iraq. I think, especially given the arrogance of our President and that the war powers lie within Congress, it’s time to cut off funding because that’s the only way we’re going to get this President to change.
Q: What was your most important achievement in the legislature?
I would point to two things I feel equally strongly about. The first, which I referred to earlier, is when we passed in the budget last year for the first time ever, minimum state education aid for every community. There were many Massachusetts communities that were not receiving enough state aid for education, and it was not only hurting the schools but was proving a real burden on middle class families and seniors with rising property taxes. I worked with a group of House and Senate members and a lot of town officials and filed legislation to establish minimum education aid. The bill that I filed did not pass but it was part of the effort for the Chair of the House Ways and Means to pass education aid. That’s had a real positive impact; education aid increased by 173 million dollars last year, and now under the governor’s budget it’s an additional 200 million. I was proud to be part of that effort.

The other piece, which goes back to my roots as a Legal Aid attorney doing community economic development law, is that I worked with some nonprofits in Lowell and Lawrence which had a program called the Individual Development Account program, or IDA. The program is geared toward the working poor and allows a family that saves $100 a month, through a program with the respective nonprofit, to take a financial accountability class and learn how to save money and avoid getting bad credit. Through government funding, that savings is matched 3 or 4 to 1 and can only be used to buy a house, start a business, or send a member of that family to college. What we passed in the budget last year, and I filed the legislation, is creating for the first time a statewide IDA pilot program. I was able to get $500K appropriated to that, and that money is being used right now to help families across the state.

I actually got an award from Lawrence Community Works a few weeks ago – they’ve had the IDA program and because of the additional state funding, they’ve been able to expand their number of graduates. It was great to go to the graduation ceremony and see – in this case it was all women in the program – and see what a difference it was going to make in their lives to own a home or start a business and go to college, and how it would change their lives and the lives of their families. That was a program we passed last year, and Governor Patrick in his budget made a commitment not only to spend that same amount of money but also to increase that program this year. That was great to see in the budget, and I’m equally proud of that program.
Q: Is that something you’d like to see expanded to a federal level should you make it to Congress?
Absolutely. Right now there is some federal money through community development block grants. I would look to specifically create a federal IDA program specifically tailored to nonprofits across the country to make a difference in people’s lives. The big issue there is making sure everybody has equal opportunity to buy a house, to go to college, if they’re an entrepreneur to start a business. Without that initial capital, you’d have a lot of families who, because they’re starting out poor, would never be able to go to a bank and get a loan. But through this program they can take the next step.
Q: Now you are the only candidate elected through the Clean Elections Law, as I understand it.
That’s right, the Boston Globe referred to me as mere footnote in history, which I’m proud to take.
Q: What solutions do you favor for federal-level campaign finance reform? I know Congressman Meehan has been a big advocate of that. At what point would you continue the work that he’s done?
I’m proud of Congressman Meehan’s work on that. His progressive legacy on campaign finance reform and his work had been an inspiration for me to work as a volunteer to pass the Clean Elections law in 1998. So when I had the opportunity to run, I ran under the law. Unfortunately I was the only clean elections candidate to win.
Q: Maybe the only clean elections candidate ever to win.
Exactly. Basically what I believe -- especially now after four weeks having to raise money to be competitive in a congressional race -- is that public finance of federal elections is even more needed due to the fact that in a competitive race, you have to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars. Public finance, not only improves the system in that it eliminates the influence of special interest money and rich donors, but also I look at it as a civil rights issue in that someone who might be very qualified, might be an elected official who just happens to be poor or working class would not have the same opportunities to run for higher office. The person who doesn’t come from wealth or have a lot of connections or is not a professional, I think deserves to participate in democracy and should have the option to run for office.

Without public financing, you not only lose that opportunity but really once you get to the federal level, when you look at the line items for pork projects -- infamously the bridge to nowhere in Alaska -- where big contributors get public works projects that are not in the public interest to happen, public financing could actually save the federal government a substantial amount of money.
Q: You mentioned that you have to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to be competitive. How is that going -- are you going to be able to compete under the rules as they are now?
I am, yes. I’m associated at the statehouse to this day with clean elections, which I’m very proud of. Unfortunately that law was repealed in 2003. In the beginning of my first term, I had to start raising money privately. I’ve been successful at it; I’m good at raising money. As a state rep, I’ve always had an opponent. I’ve raised money in my state rep campaigns and now I’m stepping it up to the next level. I’m doing very well. I have a lot of support, and a full-time finance director. We had fundraisers in Boston and elsewhere, and I will be successful enough to be competitive.
Q: Now one thing that Congressman Meehan was in favor of, regarding campaign finance reform is that he was looking to apply campaign finance rules to political blogs. Basically what he was in favor of was counting political blogs as contributions and having them subject to FEC regulations. Is that something you’d look to continue or is that something you disagree with?
I would not be in support of that. I think that one of the great things that has happened over the past couple years – and I really saw it with the Deval Patrick campaign – blogging has brought so many new people into the process and created a real community. I think that’s the kind of free speech we need to encourage, and not the special interest dollars that have been determined to be free speech by the Supreme Court.
Q: What do you think the Federal Government can do to combat rising health care costs?
Well, as proud as I am of what the Massachusetts legislature passed last year with the health care law, I think it’s clear from reports in the Globe that the law is not providing comprehensive health care to all Massachusetts citizens. I think because of all the money and resources that need to be invested into it up front and the fact that health care costs are so large cuts across state lines, that we need universal health care. I’m a strong proponent of that.
Q: Do you favor a single-payer health care system or are you more flexible in how it’s implemented?
My preference would be for single-payer. I’m open to other models, but certainly from the books I’ve read about different health care systems, I think that would be the best way to reduce administrative health care costs while improving the general quality of care. I think that America is a country that’s rich enough that we can do it in a way that can surpass the other health care systems in the world.
Q: If you win, you will be the least senior member of the majority party. If you can only do one thing to help your district, what would it be?
One thing that I think would make the greatest short-term difference and solve a source of frustration would be to have the federal government take over the special education costs for all communities. The special education law is a federal mandate, but the federal government does not pay for any of the costs. What I’ve seen in the towns that I represent is that you have a school district that due to a couple of children who might move into a school district midyear that have high special education costs, it really skews the budget for the school district and the municipalities. The value of the special education law, which I fully support, is that it guarantees that every child gets a great education. But oftentimes small towns, and in many ways all communities, cannot provide for all these education costs.

So if the federal government could step in, which I think is reasonable since a federal mandate and pay for those costs, it would first of all guarantee that all children receive a great education. Second of all it would relieve a burden for homeowners, for property taxpayers, and I think as a result would reduce some of the division that happens between parents of schoolchildren with special needs and without, and that’s something I don’t think should happen in any community.
Q: How can people get involved with your campaign?
I’m going to be launching my website next week. In the meantime, I have my campaign email which is so they can email me there, and the campaign number is 508-274-0055. My campaign manager is Mike Moschella.