Image-Wilmot-Collins-for-Montana-1563832356
July 22, 2019

He Was Told to Go Back to Africa. Instead, He May Go to the U.S. Senat...

A March 1995 headline in the Helena Independent Record, a Montana newspaper, lays it out starkly: “Black man told to go home — to Africa.” The article lists racist threats made against an unnamed “black political refugee from Liberia who has lived in Helena for about a year.” The subject of that article remained anonymous at the time, and he did not heed the suggestion. He stayed, and nearly 25 years later, he is the mayor of Helena and a Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate. 

In July 2019, the president of the United States told four Democratic congresswomen — including a refugee from Somalia — to “go back” to their home countries. The ensuing national debate brought Wilmot Collins’s early experiences in this country to the front of his mind. They also brought out the worst in his GOP opponent, incumbent Steve Daines, who stood alone among his colleagues in firmly defending Donald Trump’s attack on the four members of Congress.

Collins fled Liberia in the midst of the nation’s civil war, decamping to the relative safety of Ghana with his wife. “I was 92 pounds,” he recalled. “My wife was 87. We were literally dying of starvation.” 

Maddie Collins, his wife, had spent time during high school in the United States, and she called her former host family to ask for help. They did everything they could and eventually helped her make her way back to the U.S., where she got a scholarship for nursing school. Two weeks before she left Ghana, the Wilmots learned that she was pregnant. Her daughter would be born in Helena. More than two years later, Wilmont Collins won the chance to join them, landing on February 17, 1994. There was snow everywhere, the first time he’d seen it in person.

Still, it was the warmest he had felt in years, he said, as a large crowd met him at the airport with a “welcome home” sign. Rushing out of the crowd was his 2-year-old daughter. It was the first time he’d seen her.

The next year, a different kind of sign would offer a much less welcoming message. 

First, a mock airline ticket came anonymously in the mail. “Here’s your ticket. Go back to Africa,” he recalled the note reading. Not long after, he parked his car outside a local grocery store, and when he returned, he found a note under the windshield wiper, advising that it was his “final warning” to go back to Africa. His was the only Liberian family in the overwhelmingly white town, he said. 

The notes stopped, but the next year, a neighbor knocked on his door to alert him to a new act of vandalism. “KKK” and “Go Back To Africa” had been scrawled on his garage door. His wife asked what the commotion was, and he tried to keep it from her, but, he said, she’s not the type who can be fooled. He made sure that his daughter was out of earshot and let her know about the graffiti. They reported the incident to the Montana Human Rights Network, a local anti-hate group.

It was what happened next, though, that convinced Collins that he was truly at home in Helena. One after the other, neighbors came by to help wash the garage door until it was clean. 

The incidents had long been buried in the past, when Trump unburied them with his recent vitriolic remarks toward Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib. 

Trump’s comments reminded Rachel Carroll Rivas, co-director of the Montana Human Rights Network, of the same admonition made to Collins in the 1990s. Collins responded at the time by joining the board of the network. Carroll Rivas dug up an old article from the local paper describing the threats and passed it to Collins, who remained anonymous in 1995 but has now decided to speak about the experience. Carroll Rivas confirmed to The Intercept that Maddie Collins had reported the garage door incident, which happened after the article was published, in real time. One key difference is that, as far as Collins knows, the FBI never learned the identity of the person or people who had insisted that he “go back to Africa,” but there is no mystery as to the identity of the man making the threat toward the congresswomen today. 

Reflecting on Trump’s comments, Collins said it wasn’t the president’s remark that hurt him the most. Rather, it was the response that came from Daines, Montana’s Republican senator . 

In a closed-door meeting of Republican senators last week, Daines was alone in standing up to defend Trump’s comments. On Twitter, he also proudly stood by the president. 

“It didn’t hit me until our senator decided to get involved. Really, I thought he was speaking to me also. I’m no different from the lady from Somalia,” Collins said, referring to Omar. “The only difference is she came a little earlier than me in terms of age. She’s an American. I came as a refugee. I am an American. For the president to discount that and talk about ‘go back to Africa,’ it was a slap in the face.” 

People outside of Montana may have missed some of the context behind Daines’s unusual decision to break with his senatorial colleagues and fully back the president: Collins is running against Daines for his Senate seat. 

The national media, when it talks about the Montana Senate race, glosses over Collins to focus on the decision by popular Gov. Steve Bullock to pass on that race and bizarrely run for president instead. And Bullock appears to have little interest in helping Collins win; the mayor’s Federal Election Commission reports suggest that Bullock’s fundraising network has shied away from Collins as the Bullock team focuses on elevating his lieutenant governor to the top slot. 

Montana is not out of reach for Democrats: Democratic Sen. Jon Tester has won three straight elections in Montana on a fairly populist platform. Collins, as unusual a candidate as could be concocted in Montana, threatens to scramble the typical calculus. The race will take a more partisan hue in 2020, with Trump at the top of the ticket, and Daines likely sees nationalizing it, and linking himself tightly to Trump, as his best bet for re-election.   

Collins said that Daines called him to congratulate him on his mayoral victory, and they have met a handful of times but are not close. He doesn’t think that Daines meant what he said, but is simply exploiting a political opportunity. “Why didn’t any other senator get up to say that? I think it was a campaign stunt, because that is me,” he said. “Now don’t get me wrong, I am not saying, in no way, that Steve Daines is a racist. I do not believe that. But I think that was more political than being sincere about what he was saying, because he knew these women don’t hate this beautiful country.”

Daines did not respond to a request for comment.

Image-Wilmot-Collins-for-Montana-1563832356

A story about Wilmot Collins, then anonymous, in the Helena Independent Record and archived by the Montana Human Rights Network from March 1995.

Image: Courtesy Wilmot Collins for Montana

Back in 1995, Collins laughed off the first letter, but his host brother warned him to take the threat seriously. His host family alerted the FBI, and the local news covered the threats, though Collins wanted to remain anonymous. Still, he said, the town knew who the article was about. “We were the only Liberian refugees,” he said in an interview.

“I’ve been through worse. I’m just worried about my little girl,” reads a quote in the newspaper article. “People here have treated me well. One or two isolated cases isn’t going to make me generalize about the people of Helena.” 

At one point while the threats were being lobbed at his family, Collins said, it appeared as if someone attempted to follow through on them. During the summer, he would leave the windows of his car open a crack to let the air flow through, and his seats had carpeted covers on them. Once, when he opened his car door, he found six or seven matchsticks that had been lit and tossed onto a seat in what looked like an attempt to torch it. It failed. “We were praying it was just kids and their pranks. That was our prayer, but we knew better,” he said. He stopped leaving the windows cracked open.

All of it, though, paled in comparison to the outpouring of support from the people of Helena. “I had heard about racism everywhere,” he said, “but the reaction that I got from my community told me: I belong.”

Collins had read the spirit of his town correctly. Not only did residents rally around him and his family in the wake of the racist threats, but nearly 25 years later, they elected him mayor. Collins’s upset of a four-term incumbent in Helena made him the first black mayor of any town or city in Montana’s state history.

The post He Was Told to Go Back to Africa. Instead, He May Go to the U.S. Senate. appeared first on The Intercept.

Image-Wilmot-Collins-for-Montana-1563832356
July 22, 2019

He Was Told to Go Back to Africa. Instead, He May Go to the U.S. Senat...

A March 1995 headline in the Helena Independent Record, a Montana newspaper, lays it out starkly: “Black man told to go home — to Africa.” The article lists racist threats made against an unnamed “black political refugee from Liberia who has lived in Helena for about a year.” The subject of that article remained anonymous at the time, and he did not heed the suggestion. He stayed, and nearly 25 years later, he is the mayor of Helena and a Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate. 

In July 2019, the president of the United States told four Democratic congresswomen — including a refugee from Somalia — to “go back” to their home countries. The ensuing national debate brought Wilmot Collins’s early experiences in this country to the front of his mind. They also brought out the worst in his GOP opponent, incumbent Steve Daines, who stood alone among his colleagues in firmly defending Donald Trump’s attack on the four members of Congress.

Collins fled Liberia in the midst of the nation’s civil war, decamping to the relative safety of Ghana with his wife. “I was 92 pounds,” he recalled. “My wife was 87. We were literally dying of starvation.” 

Maddie Collins, his wife, had spent time during high school in the United States, and she called her former host family to ask for help. They did everything they could and eventually helped her make her way back to the U.S., where she got a scholarship for nursing school. Two weeks before she left Ghana, the Wilmots learned that she was pregnant. Her daughter would be born in Helena. More than two years later, Wilmont Collins won the chance to join them, landing on February 17, 1994. There was snow everywhere, the first time he’d seen it in person.

Still, it was the warmest he had felt in years, he said, as a large crowd met him at the airport with a “welcome home” sign. Rushing out of the crowd was his 2-year-old daughter. It was the first time he’d seen her.

The next year, a different kind of sign would offer a much less welcoming message. 

First, a mock airline ticket came anonymously in the mail. “Here’s your ticket. Go back to Africa,” he recalled the note reading. Not long after, he parked his car outside a local grocery store, and when he returned, he found a note under the windshield wiper, advising that it was his “final warning” to go back to Africa. His was the only Liberian family in the overwhelmingly white town, he said. 

The notes stopped, but the next year, a neighbor knocked on his door to alert him to a new act of vandalism. “KKK” and “Go Back To Africa” had been scrawled on his garage door. His wife asked what the commotion was, and he tried to keep it from her, but, he said, she’s not the type who can be fooled. He made sure that his daughter was out of earshot and let her know about the graffiti. They reported the incident to the Montana Human Rights Network, a local anti-hate group.

It was what happened next, though, that convinced Collins that he was truly at home in Helena. One after the other, neighbors came by to help wash the garage door until it was clean. 

The incidents had long been buried in the past, when Trump unburied them with his recent vitriolic remarks toward Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib. 

Trump’s comments reminded Rachel Carroll Rivas, co-director of the Montana Human Rights Network, of the same admonition made to Collins in the 1990s. Collins responded at the time by joining the board of the network. Carroll Rivas dug up an old article from the local paper describing the threats and passed it to Collins, who remained anonymous in 1995 but has now decided to speak about the experience. Carroll Rivas confirmed to The Intercept that Maddie Collins had reported the garage door incident, which happened after the article was published, in real time. One key difference is that, as far as Collins knows, the FBI never learned the identity of the person or people who had insisted that he “go back to Africa,” but there is no mystery as to the identity of the man making the threat toward the congresswomen today. 

Reflecting on Trump’s comments, Collins said it wasn’t the president’s remark that hurt him the most. Rather, it was the response that came from Daines, Montana’s Republican senator . 

In a closed-door meeting of Republican senators last week, Daines was alone in standing up to defend Trump’s comments. On Twitter, he also proudly stood by the president. 

“It didn’t hit me until our senator decided to get involved. Really, I thought he was speaking to me also. I’m no different from the lady from Somalia,” Collins said, referring to Omar. “The only difference is she came a little earlier than me in terms of age. She’s an American. I came as a refugee. I am an American. For the president to discount that and talk about ‘go back to Africa,’ it was a slap in the face.” 

People outside of Montana may have missed some of the context behind Daines’s unusual decision to break with his senatorial colleagues and fully back the president: Collins is running against Daines for his Senate seat. 

The national media, when it talks about the Montana Senate race, glosses over Collins to focus on the decision by popular Gov. Steve Bullock to pass on that race and bizarrely run for president instead. And Bullock appears to have little interest in helping Collins win; the mayor’s Federal Election Commission reports suggest that Bullock’s fundraising network has shied away from Collins as the Bullock team focuses on elevating his lieutenant governor to the top slot. 

Montana is not out of reach for Democrats: Democratic Sen. Jon Tester has won three straight elections in Montana on a fairly populist platform. Collins, as unusual a candidate as could be concocted in Montana, threatens to scramble the typical calculus. The race will take a more partisan hue in 2020, with Trump at the top of the ticket, and Daines likely sees nationalizing it, and linking himself tightly to Trump, as his best bet for re-election.   

Collins said that Daines called him to congratulate him on his mayoral victory, and they have met a handful of times but are not close. He doesn’t think that Daines meant what he said, but is simply exploiting a political opportunity. “Why didn’t any other senator get up to say that? I think it was a campaign stunt, because that is me,” he said. “Now don’t get me wrong, I am not saying, in no way, that Steve Daines is a racist. I do not believe that. But I think that was more political than being sincere about what he was saying, because he knew these women don’t hate this beautiful country.”

Daines did not respond to a request for comment.

Image-Wilmot-Collins-for-Montana-1563832356

A story about Wilmot Collins, then anonymous, in the Helena Independent Record and archived by the Montana Human Rights Network from March 1995.

Image: Courtesy Wilmot Collins for Montana

Back in 1995, Collins laughed off the first letter, but his host brother warned him to take the threat seriously. His host family alerted the FBI, and the local news covered the threats, though Collins wanted to remain anonymous. Still, he said, the town knew who the article was about. “We were the only Liberian refugees,” he said in an interview.

“I’ve been through worse. I’m just worried about my little girl,” reads a quote in the newspaper article. “People here have treated me well. One or two isolated cases isn’t going to make me generalize about the people of Helena.” 

At one point while the threats were being lobbed at his family, Collins said, it appeared as if someone attempted to follow through on them. During the summer, he would leave the windows of his car open a crack to let the air flow through, and his seats had carpeted covers on them. Once, when he opened his car door, he found six or seven matchsticks that had been lit and tossed onto a seat in what looked like an attempt to torch it. It failed. “We were praying it was just kids and their pranks. That was our prayer, but we knew better,” he said. He stopped leaving the windows cracked open.

All of it, though, paled in comparison to the outpouring of support from the people of Helena. “I had heard about racism everywhere,” he said, “but the reaction that I got from my community told me: I belong.”

Collins had read the spirit of his town correctly. Not only did residents rally around him and his family in the wake of the racist threats, but nearly 25 years later, they elected him mayor. Collins’s upset of a four-term incumbent in Helena made him the first black mayor of any town or city in Montana’s state history.

The post He Was Told to Go Back to Africa. Instead, He May Go to the U.S. Senate. appeared first on The Intercept.

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July 19, 2019

Democrat-Backed Centrist PAC Is Supporting a Republican Against a Vuln...

The political action committee affiliated with a bipartisan caucus on Capitol Hill is spending money to back a Republican challenge to Rep. Katie Hill of California, a freshman Democrat who has been an independent and at times progressive voice in the House, despite serving in a district previously held by the GOP. 

Hill is what’s known as a “front-liner” in Democratic caucus politics, because she’ll face a difficult challenge to hold on to her seat in California’s 25th District. Mike Garcia, an Iraq War veteran, launched his campaign in April, and the With Honor PAC jumped in to support him that same month.

House Democratic leadership crafts its entire political and legislative strategy around protecting front-liners like Hill, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi recently chastised the caucus for criticizing vulnerable front-liners, suggesting they hit her instead. 

That makes the support for a Republican challenger from the For Country Caucus, which includes at least 10 Democrats, fairly remarkable, particularly as House incumbents have launched a full-blown counterrevolution against the so-called Squad and the organization that backs them, Justice Democrats, accusing them of undermining the party by targeting incumbents. 

Justice Democrats, which became a prominent actor in Democratic politics after helping elect Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, however, has so far not endorsed a single challenger to a front-line Democrat, even as a new centrist caucus backs a Republican against Hill. The caucus is co-chaired by California Democrat Jimmy Panetta, who was first elected in 2016 and is the son of longtime Democratic operative and former Rep. Leon Panetta. The caucus also includes Democratic Reps. Seth Moulton, Mass., Chrissy Houlahan, Pa., Gil Cisneros, Calif., Jason Crow, Colo., Jared Golden, Maine, Conor Lamb, Pa., Elaine Luria, Va., Max Rose, N.Y., and Mikie Sherrill of N.J. None of the caucus members responded to a request for comment.

In 2018 primaries, Crow, Luria, and Cisneros faced progressive primary opponents and won with the weight of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee behind them. They are now linked up with a PAC working in direct opposition to the interests of the DCCC.

The For Country Caucus is an offshoot of the With Honor PAC, and it initially planned to call itself the With Honor Caucus, according to internal emails obtained by The Intercept. Despite the name change, the caucus’s affiliation with With Honor is still widely apparent. The For Country Caucus adopted a pledge identical to one With Honor’s endorsed candidates had agreed to. An affiliated super PAC, called the With Honor Fund, was bankrolled in 2018 by billionaires Jeff Bezos, Howard Schultz, and others, and similarly focused on electing veterans to Congress. 

According to FEC records, Mike Garcia, a Republican challenging Hill, has gotten more than $3,000 in in-kind assistance from the With Honor PAC. That might not sound like much, but the type of assistance is likely much more valuable than that. The help is listed as fundraising consulting, travel costs, strategic consulting, and legal services, suggesting that With Honor PAC is using its links to ultra-wealthy people to assist Garcia with fundraising. A former Naval officer, he raised just over $250,000 in his first quarter on the trail. 

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Financial disclosures from Mike Garcia’s congressional campaign, seen on the Federal Election Commission’s website, show contributions from the With Honor PAC.

Screenshot: The Intercept

The With Honor PAC’s support can also give Garcia the sheen of bipartisan credibility, highly useful in a swing district. Hill won the district by 9 points after more than two decades of Republican control. 

“We support veteran candidates across the country – Republicans, Democrats, and independents – who pledge to serve with integrity, civility, and courage. With Honor Fund has not endorsed any candidates for the 2020 cycle,” the PAC said in a statement.

In addition to contributing to For Country Caucus members, With Honor has also given money this cycle to the campaigns of several incumbents, including Pelosi and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy; the DCCC; EMILY’s List; and the National Republican Congressional Committee.

In March, caucus members and the affiliated PACs repeatedly denied the two had anything to do with each other. In an email to The Intercept, the With Honor PAC said they hoped members have the “courage to collaborate across the aisle” and one of the ways they can do that is with a “cross partisan caucus,” adding, “we’re supportive of them doing that, but like I stated, there is no With Honor caucus.”

“The caucus is folks that focus on, among other things, working on policy that promotes public service and just members of the caucus have agreed to a civility pledge to commit to working with integrity, honesty, and drive to find common ground across the aisle. But this is not, this doesn’t have to do with With Honor,” a Panetta spokesperson said at the time. “That’s separate.” 

They’re so separate, in fact, that the For Country Caucus is now featured prominently on the With Honor PAC’s website.

Correction: July 19, 2019, 12:25 p.m. ET
A previous version of this article incorrectly described Rep. Jimmy Panetta as a freshman representative. He is in his second term. 

 

The post Democrat-Backed Centrist PAC Is Supporting a Republican Against a Vulnerable Swing-District Incumbent appeared first on The Intercept.

July 18, 2019

Chuck Schumer, in Meeting With Progressive Caucus, Said He Was Surpris...

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., ventured across the Capitol complex on Tuesday afternoon to meet privately with House members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. 

Schumer’s attendance at a House meeting was unusual, and a handful of CPC members, including Reps. Jared Huffman and Barbara Lee of California, and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, took the opportunity to press Schumer on the Senate’s performance during the fight late last month over an emergency spending bill related to the border crisis. 

House Democrats broadly considered the Senate bill to be far too weak, handing President Donald Trump billions of dollars with no real requirements that the federal government improve conditions at the camps where migrants are concentrated. Many House Democrats worried that, under the Senate bill, Trump would be able to siphon money away from humanitarian relief toward policing migrants. The House, in response, passed an alternative bill that mandated that contractors improve conditions or lose contracts. The Senate took up a vote on the House bill and rejected it, instead sending its own version over to the House. 

CPC leadership had invited Schumer to the meeting prior to the border bill blowup. His attendance, however, came at a time of serious internal crisis within the Democratic caucus, as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has lashed out at the so-called Squad, the four Progressive Caucus members — Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib — who voted against the bill and vehemently opposed its passage as complicity with the abuse of the adults and children held there. 

Schumer, in response to questions, told the Progressive Caucus members that the Senate had always expected the House to pass a stronger bill, after which the two chambers would negotiate a compromise — either informally or through a conference committee. Instead, House leaders simply waved through the Senate bill without letting him know they planned to cave. Schumer “truly didn’t expect the House to pass the Senate bill unamended,” said one person in the room — a recollection that was confirmed by multiple others. 

“He said he was surprised the House didn’t ask for a conference committee. It could have,” said another member in the room. “But he also gave a somewhat lame answer on Senate Dems actions.”

Schumer, in his opening remarks to the caucus meeting, which roughly 30 members attended, was at pains to make clear that he had no intention of undermining Pelosi, with whom he said he has a constructive working relationship. But, he said, he was glad to meet directly with the caucus to make sure that communication channels remain open, and he hoped to make such meetings a regular occurrence. 

The House bill, which was strengthened after negotiations with the CPC, required detention center contractors to meet certain humane conditions or have their contracts revoked, among other mandates. That bill passed the House but failed in the Senate, and House leaders have blamed the lopsided Senate vote against the House version as forcing their hand. 

The House still had the opportunity to move to conference, but elected not to do so. Schumer’s analysis maps with that of Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., who made a similar point at the Netroots Nation conference last week. “The complete assumption on the Senate side was that Speaker Pelosi would take it to conference, and she didn’t,” said Merkley

Drew Hammill, deputy chief of staff to Pelosi, said that the way Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., refused negotiations cut off the possibility of a conference. “We were just as hopeful as Senate Democrats that McConnell would honor our wishes to hold a conference to get a stronger bill for the children,” Hammill said. “Leader McConnell’s actions have changed how the House and Senate will be relating to each other in the future.” 

A spokesperson for Schumer also put the blame on McConnell. “Sen. Schumer was honored to have been invited to meet with the progressive caucus on Tuesday,” he said. “They had a good discussion and agree that Democrats are united in realizing that Senator McConnell and Senate Republicans are the biggest impediment to achieving our shared progressive goals on a number of issues.”

Merkley, on the Senate floor, had voted against even the more aggressive House measure, finding it too weak. He was joined in that assessment on the House side by the Squad, who voted against the House proposal as not going far enough to rein in Trump administration abuse at the border, by not putting in place legal mandates that conditions be improved. Pelosi later mocked the four no votes for being unable to rally more of their colleagues. “All these people have their public whatever and their Twitter world,” she told Maureen Dowd of the New York Times. “But they didn’t have any following. They’re four people and that’s how many votes they got.”

Trump soon joined Pelosi in attacking the four Democrats, suggesting that they “go back” to their countries, and that Pelosi would be happy to make arrangements. The president again assailed the Squad at a campaign rally in North Carolina on Wednesday night, with a particular focus on Omar, culminating in a frightening crowd chant of “send her back.”

The post Chuck Schumer, in Meeting With Progressive Caucus, Said He Was Surprised House Democrats Waved Through the Senate Border Bill appeared first on The Intercept.

GettyImages-534815018-democratic-congressional-campaign-comittee-1563311889
July 17, 2019

Maureen Dowd Asked Rahm Emanuel to Weigh In on an Immigration Debate. ...

In 1999, Rahm Emanuel had just left the Clinton White House, taking a short break from public service to do a stint with a Chicago-based investment bank, Wasserstein Perella & Co. By the time he was elected to Congress in 2002, he had banked more than $16 million. 

“Frequently, Emanuel turned big Democratic donors and others he’d met during his White House years into clients for Wasserstein Perella, a firm that was led by Bruce Wasserstein, a hefty financial supporter of Clinton,” Politico would later report, noting that Emanuel developed “a reputation as a deal guy who focused on mergers and acquisitions among companies that were subject to heavy government regulation.”

That same year, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd won a Pulitzer Prize for her columns on the Monica Lewinsky scandal, which consisted of the famously tart stylist slaying the former White House intern for her diet, her feelings for President Bill Clinton, her shopping, and her alleged money-grubbing. After Republicans lost seats in the ’98 midterm elections, Dowd penned a column, declaring the saga over, and lamenting the tragedy that Lewinsky would now be unable to cash in. 

GettyImages-534815018-democratic-congressional-campaign-comittee-1563311889

From left, then-House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi gathers with then-Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chair Rahm Emanuel, then-Democratic Senate Campaign Committee Chair Chuck Schumer, and then-Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid at a midterm election night party for the Democratic Party on Nov. 8, 2006, in Washington, D.C.

Photo: Brooks Kraft LLC/Corbis via Getty Images

“Ms. Lewinsky was one of the big losers in the election. She lost her chance to be Oliver North and rivet the country at a Congressional hearing. So now all she has to sell is her voice. It is all that hasn’t been heard. It is a voice that men say they find alluring, not the ditsy Valley Girl voice the world is expecting,” Dowd opined. “Poor girl. No wonder she’s in a bad humor. Her commercial window of opportunity is slamming shut.”

Of course, the fight wasn’t over, and Republicans would in fact pursue impeachment despite the election results, but it was good enough for Pulitzer work. “Monica must be in a panic to squeeze the last drop of profit from this sordid tale,” the columnist observed. (Or, perhaps it wasn’t good enough. She neglected to include that column in her Pulitzer submission.)

We know little about how the deals Emanuel so lucratively cobbled together during that time worked out for the companies — or their workers — in the end, but we do know how things have gone for him and Dowd ever since. Just wonderfully, thank you. 

Emanuel would go on to become chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in the critical wave year of 2006, then White House chief of staff, then mayor of Chicago, and now back to banking, along with sinecures at The Atlantic and ABC News. Dowd has continued to have and share opinions, and the pair came together last week to referee the debate between “the Squad” — the four freshmen women who’ve shaken up the House of Representative — and Speaker Nancy Pelosi over the appropriate response to the crisis at the border. 

The purpose of her newest column is to simultaneously humblebrag — “Writing a column that sparks an internecine fight among the highest-profile women in the Democratic Party is nerve wracking” — and disclaim responsibility for starting that fight — and put it on me instead.  

The A.O.C. crew threw down the gauntlet in a recent opinion piece in The Washington Post by The Intercept’s Ryan Grim. He wrote that when Pelosi and other Democratic mandarins try to keep the image of the party centrist, they are crouching in “the defensive posture” they’ve been in since the Reagan revolution.

Corbin Trent, a spokesman for A.O.C. and co-founder of Justice Democrats, the progressive group that helped propel her, told Grim: “The greatest threat to mankind is the cowardice of the Democratic Party,” with the older generation “driven by fear” and “unable to lead.”

Message: Pelosi is past her prime.

Both Dowd and Emanuel rose through their acerbic wit and slashing rhetoric, and they have often been a joy to behold; even if they weren’t making sense, they were fun to watch. As the years have worn on, though, they’ve lost some juice on their fastballs. Twenty years ago, Dowd would never have needed to dial a friend for help demolishing the target of a column — in this case, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her chief of staff, Saikat Chakrabarti — but could dispatch of the task solo, like a proper assassin. Yet had she gone to Emanuel, known for his creative use of foul language, back then, he’d have dished her out a memorable put-down, the kind that can stick with a person for the rest of their career. Instead, Emanuel wound up, reared back, and fired off his best heater: Chakrabarti, Rahmbo declared, is — wait for it — “a snot-nosed punk.”

“What votes did you get?” sniffed Emanuel. “We fought for years to create the majorities to get a Democratic president elected and re-elected, and they’re going to dither it away.”

What was most startling, and most instructive about the rot at the heart of today’s politics, is that Dowd’s column didn’t touch on the actual issue that the Squad and Pelosi were litigating — namely President Donald Trump’s cruel and inhumane treatment of asylum-seekers and other immigrants at the border. Even more startling was that Emanuel was allowed anywhere near that question. 

When it comes to immigration, both the politics and the policy, perhaps no Democrat has been more destructive over the past 25 years than Rahm Emanuel. 

For people who have come to understand politics in a post-Great Recession era, the immigration debate during the mid- to late 2000s would be entirely unrecognizable. In 2005, President George W. Bush teamed up with Sens. John McCain and Ted Kennedy on a push for comprehensive reform, and there was genuine optimism that it could happen, giving a path to citizenship for people here without proper documents, as had happened under Ronald Reagan just two decades earlier.

In some ways, having Bush in the White House was better for reform’s prospects than under Clinton. In the 1990s, Democrats had been the party of immigration enforcement, with Emanuel urging Clinton to get as tough as possible. Bush, waging war around the globe and clearing brush on his ranch with a cowboy hat, was confident in his reputation for toughness, so he didn’t mind compromising on the issue. As a border-state governor, he also had a better understanding of the realities of the immigration system. As a pro-business Republican, his fealty to the Chamber of Commerce pushed him further toward reform.

In some ways, having Bush in the White House was better for reform’s prospects than under Clinton.

While the Senate worked on its 2005 proposal, Republican hard-liners were whipping up their own hysterical bill in the House, led by Wisconsin Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner. Co-sponsored by Peter King, R-N.Y., it was a preview of the rightward lurch of immigration politics to come. It included no pathway to citizenship, no protections for people already in the country, not even a guest worker program. It criminalized immigration violations that had long been civil affairs, turning even a visa overstay into an “aggravated felony,” empowering local and state police to become immigration enforcement officers. The bill also made it a felony to aid someone in the country illegally in any way, and funded new fencing on the border and a surveillance and monitoring regime in the interior of the country. 

As the vote approached, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus met to talk strategy. One of its most conservative members, John Salazar, who represented a swing district in Colorado, gave a rousing speech, saying that this was a moment to stand together, according to a CHC member in the room. Salazar pledged to oppose the Sensenbrenner bill. 

“For the first time, Latinos were going to vote as a caucus, not talk smack but actually go out and vote,” said the CHC member, who asked not to be named so as to stay out of Emanuel’s crosshairs. 

But the unity wouldn’t last. “Rahm went to Salazar and told him, ‘Don’t expect any money from the DCCC, or my help, if you vote against Sensenbrenner,’” the CHC member said. It was a painful choice to make. “Salazar’s wife was like, ‘This is a piece of shit legislation.’ I remember her saying that.” 

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Rep. James Sensenbrenner answers questions during a press conference on immigration legislation and an intelligence reform bill in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 8, 2004.

Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Emanuel, serving by then as chair of the DCCC, saw an opportunity for a win-win. Bush wasn’t going to sign the bill, and the Senate would never pass it, he argued, so it was essentially a free vote. He urged moderate and conservative Democrats to back the bill, including Chicago freshman Melissa Bean, whom he had helped elect in 2004. That would burnish their conservative credentials, but there would also be an added benefit for the party: The bill was so vicious and racist that it would prompt an outpouring of anger from the Latino community, which Emanuel hoped to channel into votes in the 2006 midterms. 

“I remember immediately after that, he was like, ‘We’re gonna take the majority over.’ Rahm was gonna do what Rahm was gonna do. If that meant telling Latino members of Congress to vote against their conscience, that’s what he was gonna do,” said the CHC member.

“Rahm was gonna do what Rahm was gonna do. If that meant telling Latino members of Congress to vote against their conscience, that’s what he was gonna do.”

Emanuel was right that the immigrant rights community would respond forcefully. The bill passed in December 2005 with just 203 Republican votes, 15 short of the 218 needed. But 36 Democrats put it over the top, including Bean and Salazar. The name Sensenbrenner became profanity on Spanish-language TV and radio, and the Latino community mobilized millions in mass demonstrations. 

The protests began in Chicago, with 100,000 taking to the streets in March 2006. Then more than a million people rallied in Los Angeles. In April, simultaneous protests erupted in 102 different cities. On May 1 — May Day, honoring workers and unions — millions across the country again took to the streets. 

As the protests grew, so did the backlash. Right-wing radio was obsessed with Mexican and Central American flags being flown at the rallies, and counterprotesters began burning Mexican flags at their own demonstrations. Membership in the Minutemen, an anti-immigrant militia, surged. States and cities passed their own draconian laws, such as Arizona’s notorious SB 1070. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement responded by stepping up raids. 

Emanuel may have thought working to pass the legislation would be harmless, but deportations soared in the final two years of the Bush administration, with ICE feeling emboldened to hit back at organizers of and participants in the demonstrations. ICE has been on a war footing since. The move helped unleash a wave of nativism that has only grown more powerful as the years have gone by, culminating in the election of Trump in 2016.

“Rahm epitomizes the spineless approach to immigration that many in the Democratic Party have taken for three decades,”said Angel Padilla, national policy director of the Indivisible Project. “Under Clinton he helped criminalize immigrants, and under Obama he got in the way of permanent relief for families.”

Emanuel did indeed get this slight uptick in the Latino vote share: Hispanics were more likely to vote in the 2006 midterms because of the Sensenbrenner bill, according to a study in “The Almanac of Latino Politics” calledImmigration and Its Impact on Latino Politics.” 

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Protesters march to city hall in Los Angeles on March 25, 2006, to protest HR 4437, an anti-immigration bill that opponents said would criminalize millions of immigrant families and anyone who came into contact with them.

Photo: Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Two years later, when Barack Obama was elected president, he brought Emanuel on as his chief of staff. Early in Obama’s term, it became clear that his campaign promise to move quickly on immigration reform wasn’t going to be kept, particularly as the tea party protests rocked the summer recess of 2009. “There’s always a sense that no matter how hard we work, to get through the White House, we have to get through Rahm,” said Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., in 2010, quoted in a Los Angeles Times article headlined, “Democrats point the finger at Obama’s chief of staff for immigration reform’s poor progress.”

“I would like immigration not to be part of the chief of staff’s portfolio. It would make our ability to convince and access decision-makers in the White House a lot easier,” Grijalva said.

It’s going to be much easier for this issue to move after Rahm Emanuel leaves the White House,” Simon Rosenberg, head of the New Democratic Network, added in the same article. “Rahm has a long history of a lack of sympathy for the importance of the immigration issue.”

Dreamers, the name given to undocumented people whose parents had brought them to the United States when they were children, began to put pressure on the White House and on the immigrant rights community itself. They formed the group United We Dream in 2009, pulling together disparate youth organizations that had been shut out of the larger infrastructure.

In May 2010, a more radical group, The Dream Is Coming, took what was the first step on the path the movement has been on since. Five undocumented people sat down in McCain’s Senate office, demanding that the Arizona Republican support the DREAM Act as he had before. Four were arrested, with three given deportation orders.

In July, New York Dreamers pressured Sen. Chuck Schumer with a 10-day hunger strike. In November and December, a 43-day hunger strike in San Antonio sought to pressure Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Republican who had previously backed the DREAM Act but was now wobbly. 

In November, Democrats were washed out of the House by the tea party wave and lost six seats in the Senate (in addition to the one they had already lost to Scott Brown in January in the special election). The lame duck was the last chance. Activists flooded phone lines, staged sit-ins, and launched new hunger strikes. The bill passed the House, still controlled by Pelosi, and got a Senate vote on a Saturday morning in December. 

The immigration reform legislation carried the day by a vote of 55-41, but because Democrats hadn’t eliminated the filibuster, it needed 60 votes to pass. It fell five short, with six Democrats against it. “This bill is a law that at its fundamental core is a reward for illegal activity,” crowed Jeff Sessions, then a senator from Alabama. 

A new immigration approach did not come naturally to White House officials.

On December 21, with the window for legislative action closed, Obama reached out to Luis Gutiérrez, then a Chicago congressperson. “He calls and he says to me, ‘We lost the House, and we’re weaker in the Senate. So now I have to defend immigrants, and we need to defend them together,’” Gutiérrez told me. “So he says to me, he says, ‘Luis’ — I remember exactly the words — ‘I want you to put your thinking hat on. I know you’re going to Puerto Rico. You know I’m going to Hawaii’ — it’s kind of jovial, right? — ‘and when we get back, give me your best ideas on how we protect them.’”

From there, Gutiérrez said, came the executive orders and memos on prosecutorial discretion that would reverse the administration’s approach to immigration. But a new immigration approach did not come naturally to White House officials. “I come back [in February 2011] and I meet with [new chief of staff] Bill Daley,” Gutiérrez said. “Bill Daley’s response was, ‘Well, wouldn’t Mexicans just cross the border en masse to find American citizens to get married to?’ And I almost fell under the table. ‘Uh, yeah, some really poor Mexican migrant workers are gonna find willing American citizen women to just marry them. Uh, I think we have a little problem here.’”

Emanuel left the White House at the end of 2010 to run for mayor of Chicago, and Obama still had hopes for comprehensive reform. In a pattern that would play out from issue to issue, he believed that if he showed some toughness and compromised with Republicans early, they’d buy in to his approach. Toward the end of his presidency, he came to realize the futility of the strategy, but in 2010 and 2011, he was still wedded to it. He pushed ahead with deportations and border security, in an effort to bring Republicans to the table. 

Obama won re-election with strong Hispanic support, and the Republican National Committee, in its autopsy, concluded that it needed to embrace immigration reform to stem the loss of Latino support or be relegated to permanent minority status. 

By a vote of 68-32, the Senate in 2013 finally passed comprehensive reform, which included a pathway to citizenship and staggering amounts of money for border security. House Speaker John Boehner had promised Obama the bill would get a vote on the floor, where it had the votes to pass. But the right wing of the party pushed back hard, and as Boehner deliberated, his deputy, Rep. Eric Cantor, lost his Virginia primary in a stunning upset. His opponent, Dave Brat, had wielded the “amnesty” in the bill as a weapon against Cantor. Immigration reform was dead, and Boehner never put it on the floor. The nativist fury kicked up by Emanuel in 2005, with the aim of increasing Latino turnout, was now out of control.

This article was adapted from “We’ve Got People: From Jesse Jackson to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the End of Big Money and the Rise of a Movement” by Ryan Grim, published by Strong Arm Press. 

The post Maureen Dowd Asked Rahm Emanuel to Weigh In on an Immigration Debate. His Record Is Abysmal. appeared first on The Intercept.

July 11, 2019

Amy McGrath Is Challenging Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. She...

Amy McGrath is everything wrong with the Democratic Party. She launched her high-profile campaign Tuesday with a multimillion-dollar burst of fundraising, with Democrats across the country eager to see her upend Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. By Wednesday, she was apologizing for a bizarre flip-flop-flip on a question — Brett Kavanaugh’s fitness for the Supreme Court — that seemed like a layup. In between, she told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that she was running on the mind-bending rationale that McConnell needs to go because he has been obstructing the agenda of Donald Trump.

Perhaps the strangest part of McGrath’s Kavanaugh answer — she said that she found Christine Blasey Ford’s accusation of attempted rape against him credible, but that such charges don’t disqualify him, and she’d have supported his nomination — is that it wasn’t hypothetical. McGrath was a candidate for a House seat in Kentucky in 2018 when she was first faced with this question. Last summer, before Blasey Ford’s allegations were made public, McGrath took to Facebook to condemn Kavanaugh:

I echo so many of the concerns that others have articulated over the nomination of Judge Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.

He has shown himself to be against women’s reproductive rights, workers’ rights, consumer protections, and will be among the most partisan people ever considered for the Court. Apparently, he will fall to the right of Gorsuch and Alito on ideology, and just to the left of the arch conservative Thomas.

Kavanaugh will likely be confirmed and we are starkly reminded, again, that elections have consequences, and this consequence will be with us for an entire generation.

After Kavanaugh’s September confirmation hearing, at which Blasey Ford testified, McGrath said, “No one is owed a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court. Let’s get this right.”

She lost that race for Congress by 3.2 percentage points in a district that Kentucky political observers say is critical to carry for a statewide candidate. Her opponent, the hapless Andy Barr, an incumbent Republican, hammered her relentlessly for a private comment that was caught on tape at a Boston fundraiser. “I am further left, I am more progressive, than anyone in the state of Kentucky,” she told donors. Whether she was lying to them about lying to voters back home about her politics is anyone’s guess, but it’s a stark contrast with her new rationale for why she should be elected, that Trump just hasn’t been given enough support in enacting his agenda.

McGrath is a perfect encapsulation of what’s wrong with the party because her rise can’t simply be blamed on the deformed strategic thinking of Democratic leaders. To be sure, sources in Kentucky say, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer heavily recruited McGrath, believing she’s just the fighter to beat McConnell. So that’s certainly on Schumer, but this one’s also on Democratic primary voters, who first elevated her in 2018: When McGrath ran for her House seat, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee was not on her side, and instead got behind Jim Gray, the mayor of Lexington.

To primary voters, McGrath had something more powerful, the intoxicating combination of imperialism, tokenistic feminism, and resistance. She launched her House campaign with a viral ad celebrating her role as a bomber pilot, going so far as to use actual footage of a bombing in which, presumably, human beings were incinerated, their nightmarish last moments becoming fodder for a political ad. It’s been viewed nearly 2 million times, and helped win a close primary.

Most Democratic voters, in fact, opposed the Iraq war and want to see an end to the ongoing one in Afghanistan. Their support for McGrath, then, was likely not because they automatically support bombings around the world. But McGrath framed her campaign video as a story of a woman overcoming the patriarchy to fulfill her dream of becoming a fighter pilot.

Schumer leapt at the chance to recruit her not because there were no other options. Matt Jones, the state’s most popular sports talk radio host, an outspoken liberal who jousted with McConnell on air, has been floating a possible run, and McConnell has been watching him warily, as he scrambles the political calculus.

Charles Booker and Attica Scott, both popular African American state representatives, have been hinting at bids.

McGrath’s loss to Barr did little to dissuade Schumer that she was the right candidate to take on McConnell. He likely figured she’d be able to raise gobs of money online, meaning he wouldn’t need to worry about the Kentucky campaign.

Until, at least, it began.

The post Amy McGrath Is Challenging Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. She’s Everything Wrong With the Democratic Party. appeared first on The Intercept.

July 11, 2019

Amy McGrath Is Challenging Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. She...

Amy McGrath is everything wrong with the Democratic Party. She launched her high-profile campaign Tuesday with a multimillion-dollar burst of fundraising, with Democrats across the country eager to see her upend Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. By Wednesday, she was apologizing for a bizarre flip-flop-flip on a question — Brett Kavanaugh’s fitness for the Supreme Court — that seemed like a layup. In between, she told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that she was running on the mind-bending rationale that McConnell needs to go because he has been obstructing the agenda of Donald Trump.

Perhaps the strangest part of McGrath’s Kavanaugh answer — she said that she found Christine Blasey Ford’s accusation of attempted rape against him credible, but that such charges don’t disqualify him, and she’d have supported his nomination — is that it wasn’t hypothetical. McGrath was a candidate for a House seat in Kentucky in 2018 when she was first faced with this question. Last summer, before Blasey Ford’s allegations were made public, McGrath took to Facebook to condemn Kavanaugh:

I echo so many of the concerns that others have articulated over the nomination of Judge Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.

He has shown himself to be against women’s reproductive rights, workers’ rights, consumer protections, and will be among the most partisan people ever considered for the Court. Apparently, he will fall to the right of Gorsuch and Alito on ideology, and just to the left of the arch conservative Thomas.

Kavanaugh will likely be confirmed and we are starkly reminded, again, that elections have consequences, and this consequence will be with us for an entire generation.

After Kavanaugh’s September confirmation hearing, at which Blasey Ford testified, McGrath said, “No one is owed a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court. Let’s get this right.”

She lost that race for Congress by 3.2 percentage points in a district that Kentucky political observers say is critical to carry for a statewide candidate. Her opponent, the hapless Andy Barr, an incumbent Republican, hammered her relentlessly for a private comment that was caught on tape at a Boston fundraiser. “I am further left, I am more progressive, than anyone in the state of Kentucky,” she told donors. Whether she was lying to them about lying to voters back home about her politics is anyone’s guess, but it’s a stark contrast with her new rationale for why she should be elected, that Trump just hasn’t been given enough support in enacting his agenda.

McGrath is a perfect encapsulation of what’s wrong with the party because her rise can’t simply be blamed on the deformed strategic thinking of Democratic leaders. To be sure, sources in Kentucky say, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer heavily recruited McGrath, believing she’s just the fighter to beat McConnell. So that’s certainly on Schumer, but this one’s also on Democratic primary voters, who first elevated her in 2018: When McGrath ran for her House seat, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee was not on her side, and instead got behind Jim Gray, the mayor of Lexington.

To primary voters, McGrath had something more powerful, the intoxicating combination of imperialism, tokenistic feminism, and resistance. She launched her House campaign with a viral ad celebrating her role as a bomber pilot, going so far as to use actual footage of a bombing in which, presumably, human beings were incinerated, their nightmarish last moments becoming fodder for a political ad. It’s been viewed nearly 2 million times, and helped win a close primary.

Most Democratic voters, in fact, opposed the Iraq war and want to see an end to the ongoing one in Afghanistan. Their support for McGrath, then, was likely not because they automatically support bombings around the world. But McGrath framed her campaign video as a story of a woman overcoming the patriarchy to fulfill her dream of becoming a fighter pilot.

Schumer leapt at the chance to recruit her not because there were no other options. Matt Jones, the state’s most popular sports talk radio host, an outspoken liberal who jousted with McConnell on air, has been floating a possible run, and McConnell has been watching him warily, as he scrambles the political calculus.

Charles Booker and Attica Scott, both popular African American state representatives, have been hinting at bids.

McGrath’s loss to Barr did little to dissuade Schumer that she was the right candidate to take on McConnell. He likely figured she’d be able to raise gobs of money online, meaning he wouldn’t need to worry about the Kentucky campaign.

Until, at least, it began.

The post Amy McGrath Is Challenging Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. She’s Everything Wrong With the Democratic Party. appeared first on The Intercept.

July 11, 2019

House Democrats Are Panicked About Primaries, but New York Shows How P...

A specter is haunting the House of Representatives: the specter of primaries. All the powers of the status quo have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this specter. Blacklists have been drawn up; arms have been locked. The ferocity with which House Democratic incumbents have rallied around each other reached absurd new dimensions this week. With Crisanta Duran, the first Latina state House speaker in Colorado history, challenging Rep. Diana Degette, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus weighed into the primary — on behalf of Degette

Democratic Reps. Dan Lipinski, Ill.; Eliot Engel, N.Y.; Henry Cuellar, Texas; Steny Hoyer, Md.; and Jerry Nadler, N.Y., are all facing primary challenges, and paranoia is being stoked inside the Democratic caucus. “The question that comes up all the time is, is there anybody internally assisting and abetting, encouraging people to run against incumbents?” Rep. Bill Pascrell, a Democrat from New Jersey, told Politico.

Those members have had an outsized role in shaping the agenda of the new caucus and shifting the national conversation to the left.

In 2018, primary challenges — including by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley — and progressive bids in open seats — from candidates like Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Katie Porter, Mike Levin, Lauren Underwood, and Jahana Hayes — yielded just a handful of victories, but those members, once elected, have had an outsized role in shaping the agenda of the new caucus and shifting the national conversation to the left. 

But without a Democratic Senate or White House, their ability to muscle through an agenda has been limited. For a real-time look at how effective winning a handful of critical primaries can ultimately be on a political agenda, look instead to New York, where this year’s legislative session produced a progressive tsunami that all started with the earthquake of Donald Trump’s election.

For at least half a century, “three men in a room” was an Albany cliche that stood in for New York state’s governing structure, a simple yet ingenious method of cooling the passions of the electorate, lest they expect the government to do something for them. 

The roles of the three men were played by different characters over time, but their job titles remained the same: governor, Assembly leader, Senate leader. The three got together and hashed out deals that the rest of the government had to rubber stamp and carry out. For decades, the arrangement worked nicely because power was divided between the two parties. They traded the governor’s mansion back and forth, while Democrats held the state Assembly and Republicans the Senate. 

But as the state became bluer, the arrangement was threatened, so a deal was pushed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo: Some politicians who campaigned for the Senate as Democrats, would, in Albany, caucus with Republicans. In January 2011, they became known as the Independent Democratic Conference. If Democrats controlled both chambers and the governorship, then voters might demand they deliver on their promises. But if power was divided, all power was then in the hands of Cuomo and the legislative leadership. Any activist or interest group who wanted anything done had no choice but to seek Cuomo’s blessing, and he had an easy mechanism to punish any group or person who slighted him. He could simply kill whatever it was they wanted passed.

As an activist, Jessica Ramos often went to Albany to push for one progressive priority or another. “You knew that your only hope was to convince the governor to take pity on you and actually want to work on your issue and figure out how to get it through the Republicans,” she said. “That was the main reason he created the IDC, was to create that [power] center for himself.”

A political concoction like the IDC has staying power because any of the interests who want to see it undone also need the power brokers on their side on a day-to-day basis. And for voters, the whole thing is too confusing to organize a grassroots movement against. Or, at least, that was the case until Trump.

The shock election of Trump in November 2016 sent liberals across the country into spiraling series of emotions, often beginning with despair, then evolving into anger, and ending with crystallized determination to fight back. The question of how precisely to do that led to a flowering of new organizations dedicated to channeling energy from blue areas and transforming it into donations and phone banking in swing districts, whether through national groups like Sister District or Swing Left. But people also wanted to take action at home, and many wound up doing so through newly formed Indivisible chapters. In New York, and especially in New York City, people assumed that there wasn’t much for them to do, because local politics was thought to be decidedly progressive. 

As people began to research their local representatives, they noticed something was off.

But as people began to research their local representatives, they noticed something was off. The Democrat they had reliably been voting for all these years was, bizarrely, caucusing with the party of Donald J. Trump. Sarina Prabasi, owner at the time of two independent coffeehouses in New York City called Buunni, said that she was stunned to learn that her state senator, Marisol Alcantara, was part of the IDC. She had trouble believing that something like it existed in reality, rather than in the fever dreams of conspiracy theorists. “I was horrified to learn that such a thing existed, and had existed for so long,” said Prabasi, author of the recent book “The Coffee House Resistance.” “By coincidence, both of the Buunni coffeehouse locations had an IDC challenger, Robert Jackson and Alessandra Biaggi, and we supported their campaigns.”

The IDC’s eight members, led by state Sen. Jeff Klein from the Bronx and Westchester, had been effectively handing away power in exchange for a little bit of it for themselves. Across New York, people began raising their hand to primary those state senators, and a group called No IDC launched in early 2017 to try to organize the effort. 

The movement’s greatest gift, it turned out, would be Cynthia Nixon. The “Sex and the City” star, a longtime activist and educator, volunteered to challenge Cuomo in a primary, a move nobody in New York politics who wanted a future career was willing to make. What Cuomo lacked in organizational structure, she made up for with celebrity. She used her high name recognition and ability to draw the media to events to highlight what became her core issue: the IDC. 

“The moment that Cynthia got into the race, it helped my campaign, because she started talking about the IDC almost incessantly,” Biaggi, who upset IDC leader Klein, said in an interview on CNN. “Every day, the IDC, the IDC, the IDC, and for people who didn’t know what it was, it gave them the education about what had been going on.”

Nixon’s run also diverted Cuomo’s attention on to her rather than on to the IDC challengers. He fired off more than $20 million worth of negative advertising to disqualify her in the public’s mind. He was also focused on making sure his ally Letitia James, rather than his 2014 primary challenger Zephyr Teachout, won the attorney general’s race. That left him little time and money to attack the IDC challengers. In the spring, the IDC formally dissolved under pressure, but activists suspected it would reform the day after the next election. 

The IDC formally dissolved under pressure, but activists suspected it would reform the day after the next election.

Teachout, too, made the IDC a major part of her campaign, and raised millions in small dollars. Teachout and Nixon both endorsed the IDC challengers, and also endorsed Ocasio-Cortez. AOC, too, made the IDC central to her congressional campaign. She told me that her focus on it helped her demonstrate a distinction between herself and then-incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley when he endorsed IDC member Jose Peralta over challenger Jessica Ramos in May 2018. “When he made that endorsement, it made things much clearer to residents that he is part of supporting that Cuomo/IDC camp. That’s how we ended up getting Indivisible and TrueBlue/NoIDC endorsements this week,” she told me in early June 2018, ahead of her primary.

Later that month, Ocasio-Cortez shocked the political establishment with her victory over Crowley. That win made voters think that ending the IDC was also possible. “We had been building and building, knocking on doors and doing everything we could, but a lot of the rhetoric I was met with from day one was, ‘You know, [Klein] is so powerful, and you have an uphill battle and I don’t know if I want to donate. I received so many no’s and so many question marks, asking if it was possible,” Biaggi told CNN. “Then June 26th happened.”

Ocasio-Cortez campaigned heavily for the IDC challengers until the state primary in September, 2 ½ months after her congressional primary. On Election Day, the IDC was annihilated, with six of the eight senators going down. One of those to win was Ramos, the activist who’d witnessed Cuomo’s three-men-in-a-room routine up close. Zellnor Myrie, John Liu, Robert Jackson, Ramos, and Biaggi won throughout Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx, and Rachel May, a prominent academic and environmentalist, flipped a Syracuse seat.

Outside of the IDC contests, insurgents scored victories as well. Julia Salazar, with backing from Ocasio-Cortez and the New York City chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, beat her incumbent opponent, Martin Dilan, an ally of the IDC. In a Jackson Heights state Assembly race, Catalina Cruz, an attorney who once was undocumented, knocked off a machine incumbent. 

In January, when the new members were sworn in to the New York state Senate, Democrats fully controlled the state legislature, and progressives were driving the agenda. As its first act, the new body passed into law the Reproductive Health Act, a sweeping defense of reproductive freedom that Cuomo had long claimed to support, but the IDC had bottled up. 

On January 22, 2019, he signed the bill into law. In February, in alliance with the newly elected women in the legislature, the Sexual Harassment Working Group held its first hearing, geared toward rooting out what had become an endemic rape culture in Albany’s men’s club. 

The rest of the session saw win after win. When the legislature finally adjourned, the New York Times editorial board would marvel, “Albany, of all places, has provided a glimpse of what can happen when politicians believe that they owe the voters rather than the donors.”

Indeed, the real estate developers who watched in dismay as Dilan and the IDC fell one by one on election night could hardly have imagined just how much influence their money had previously purchased. With the developers in retreat, Albany pushed through a sweeping affordable housing package that was so tilted toward renters that landlords and developers decried it as having been pulled from the campaign website of Cynthia Nixon. 

On climate, New York passed the most ambitious legislation any state has attempted to implement, pledging to zero out carbon emissions by 2050, banning most kinds of single-use plastic bags, and implementing congestion pricing aimed at reducing traffic in Manhattan. 

A criminal justice reform bill eliminated cash bail for many crimes and required prosecutors to come clean about evidence much faster. Undocumented immigrants won the ability to obtain a driver’s license and apply for scholarships and financial aid to college. Sexual harassment laws were toughened up. Conversion therapy for children was banned. Hate crime laws were expanded to cover transgender people. Farm workers won overtime pay. 

One of the ways machine politicians had held on to control for so long was by making it super difficult to vote, but major election reform will change that in New York. The practice of allowing companies to contribute directly to campaigns was banned. Tougher gun laws were passed. Over the objections of insurance companies, the Catholic Conference of New York, and the Boy Scouts of America, a bill making it easier to prosecute child sex abuse passed. And even the anti-vaxxer crowd took an L, with the legislature stripping their ability to refuse vaccination by citing religious objections. 

Marijuana legalization came close to passage, but advocates had to settle for decriminalizing it for now. It was, however, a legislative session unlike anything that had been seen in living memory. “Not everything we advocated for passed, as evidenced by marijuana,” said Rebecca Katz, a progressive consultant who worked on the Nixon campaign. “But what happened in Albany was much more in line with the Albany we believe in, versus the one Cuomo was advocating.”

The post House Democrats Are Panicked About Primaries, but New York Shows How Potent They Can Be appeared first on The Intercept.

July 9, 2019

Jeffrey Epstein Shipped Himself a 53-Pound Shredder and a Carpet and T...

Jeffrey Epstein shipped a shredder from the U.S. Virgin Islands to his Palm Beach home in July 2008, shortly after reaching a non-prosecution agreement with then-U.S. Attorney Alex Acosta, maritime records show. Then, in March of this year, shortly after a Florida federal judge invalidated that agreement, Epstein shipped a tile and carpet extractor from the Virgin Islands to his Manhattan townhouse, the records show.

Epstein, a billionaire financier, was arrested in New Jersey last Saturday on charges of running a sex trafficking ring that involved luring underage girls to his New York and Florida residences, and taking them on global flights on his airplane, dubbed the “Lolita Express.” Epstein was first accused of abusing underage girls, some of them as young as 14, more than a decade ago, and he evaded prosecution potentially due to his high-profile connections.

A key challenge investigators faced when first targeting Epstein in the mid-2000s was an inability to obtain evidence through subpoena. A 2005 search of Epstein’s Palm Beach home came up empty in its quest for computers that investigators suspected contained critical evidence connected to his alleged sexual abuse of young girls.

In 2007, a federal grand jury subpoenaed the computers. That August, Acosta, who is now Donald Trump’s labor secretary, entered into plea agreement discussions with Epstein. Because of those talks, a motion to compel production of Epstein’s computers was delayed, according to the Miami Herald. Epstein held out, however, resisting the deal because it would require him to register as a sex offender. The FBI continued investigating and in March 2008, according to the Miami Herald, preparations were being made to take the case to a new federal grand jury.

That would prove unnecessary, as Epstein agreed to a deal with Acosta. Without notifying the 32 identified victims, the federal government reached a non-prosecution agreement with Epstein in exchange for his guilty plea in state court to a minor offense. He pleaded guilty on June 30.

On July 7, 2008, federal prosecutors told Epstein’s attorneys via email that they intended to notify the 32 victims about the agreement. Epstein’s lawyers and the prosecutors debated how much of the agreement to reveal, settling on a less than full accounting.

A week later, on July 15, Epstein received a shipment at his Palm Beach home from the port in the U.S. Virgin Islands closest to his home there, according to maritime shipping records compiled by ImportGenius and provided to The Intercept. The shipment was a 53-pound shredder.

For the next decade, Epstein’s legal troubles appeared to be behind him. Then, in November 2018, the Miami Herald published a new investigation into Epstein’s alleged child sex trafficking ring, which prompted federal investigators to take a new look at the case. However, the agreement not to prosecute first had to be invalidated. That came on February 21, when a Florida federal judge ruled that Acosta’s office had violated the Crime Victims’ Rights Act by keeping the women in the dark.

On March 11, 2019, Epstein got a new shipment from the port in the U.S. Virgin Islands. This time, it was sent to his New York townhouse, and it’s listed in maritime records as a tile and carpet extractor that weighed 191 pounds.

William George, an analyst with Import Genius who found the details of the shipments in the company’s database, noted that both shipments could, of course, be entirely unrelated to the alleged crimes and the prosecutions. Indeed, many people own shredders or tile and carpet extractors do not run child sex trafficking rings to service the global elite. Still, the timing could require an explanation from Epstein. He is currently in jail awaiting trial and unavailable for comment. His legal representatives did not respond to a request for comment.

Ryan Grim is the author of the newly released book, We’ve Got People: From Jesse Jackson to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the End of Big Money and the Rise of a Movement

The post Jeffrey Epstein Shipped Himself a 53-Pound Shredder and a Carpet and Tile Extractor, Maritime Records Show appeared first on The Intercept.

June 28, 2019

Joe Biden Bragged About Getting Republicans to Raise Taxes in 2012. It...

It didn’t take long for the political classes to decide that the biggest loser in part two of the first Democratic primary debate was former Vice President Joe Biden. California Sen. Kamala Harris ripped Biden for bragging about maintaining relationships with segregationists, leading Biden to bizarrely defend the right of local governments to pursue segregation as a policy. And the moderators raised his vote for the Iraq War while in the Senate.

The most unlikely Biden call-out, though, came in the form of a recent-history lesson by longshot candidate Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet. Bennet turned one of Biden’s own talking points back on him by pointing out the former vice president’s revisionist version of when he was taken to the cleaners by Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell.

Biden attempted to defend his acumen for negotiating with Republicans during Thursday night’s debate by citing his ability in late 2012 to convince McConnell to raise taxes. The problem for Biden was that multiple people on stage had witnessed Biden’s effort, and it was an utter catastrophe for Democrats.

Bennet jumped on Biden, laying out the reality of Biden’s faceplant. The episode was the subject of an Intercept article published earlier this week, drawn from my new book, which looked back at the pivotal “fiscal cliff” negotiations.

Tax cuts from the George W. Bush era were set to expire, which would have brought $3 trillion in revenue to the federal government over 10 years. Biden settled with McConnell for a mere $600 million, making the rest of the tax cuts permanent.

“I got Mitch McConnell to raise taxes $600 billion!” Biden said.

Bennet wasn’t having it. “The deal that he talked about with Mitch McConnell was a complete victory for the tea party,” Bennet said. “That was a great deal for Mitch McConnell. It was a terrible deal for Americans.”

Fact check: True.

Biden botched the late 2012 talks badly, but the cascading effects of the deal were even more damaging for Democrats. The deal did not address the debt limit and punted what’s known as the sequester — automatic spending cuts — only to March, rather than eliminating it, as Democrats had been pushing for.

Senate Democrats urged Obama to threaten to veto any spending bill that didn’t fix the sequester, but Obama declined, saying he didn’t want to risk a government shutdown. As Roll Call reported at the time, “By making all of the tax cuts permanent but only avoiding the sequester for two months, the president traded away most of his leverage in return for only half of the revenue he had been seeking — and no clear way to force Republicans to the table for more.”

The Obama administration expected that, by the spring, it would be able to win further concessions from McConnell. It turned out — quite obviously to many observers at the time — that McConnell had no interest in negotiating: He had gotten everything he wanted, and wouldn’t agree to lift the sequester. That meant spending was cut to austerity levels, which slowed economic growth and kept unemployment higher than it otherwise would have been. Obama himself warned the sequester would cost 750,000 jobs and knock half a point off GDP. “We’re not making that up. That’s not a scare tactic. That’s a fact,” Obama said.

It did indeed take a bite out of the economy, and that slower growth helped Republicans take the Senate in 2014. In 2016, when Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died, Obama nominated Merrick Garland to replace him. But without control of the Senate, Obama couldn’t force a vote. McConnell held the seat open, and after Donald Trump’s election filled it with Neil Gorsuch.

The post Joe Biden Bragged About Getting Republicans to Raise Taxes in 2012. It Was Actually a Disaster for Democrats. appeared first on The Intercept.

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June 27, 2019

Elizabeth Warren Lays Out a Theory of Change at First Democratic Debat...

Elizabeth Warren’s political obituary was written in a thousand hot takes, each one burning hotter than the last. She seemed to be the latest challenger who President Donald Trump had trolled into oblivion, deftly exploiting identity fractures on the left. But standing center stage at the first Democratic presidential debate on Wednesday night, Warren was back.

Her presidential campaign rolled out of the gate with anemic small-dollar fundraising, raising less than $300,000. Mired in the single digits, she was eclipsed in media attention by an embarrassing pair of contenders: Beto O’Rourke, the former congressman, and Peter Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who was paraded around magazine offices as the candidate with brains — never mind the Harvard law professor.

But on the ground, Warren began connecting with audiences starting the first day she hit the trail — and launching her campaign early allowed her to more or less put “Pocahontas” behind her and reset with an endless stream of new policy ideas. So far, she has risen in the polls along with Bernie Sanders, suggesting that the left is growing its share of the vote. The second choice of most Joe Biden voters, meanwhile, is Sanders, suggesting that he and Warren could continue rising together for some time. But at some point, the two will naturally begin to cannibalize each other, which will test the good will that has long existed between their respective camps.

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Sens. Elizabeth Warren, left, and Bernie Sanders greet one another during a rally in Boston, Mass. on March 31, 2017.

Photo: Steven Senne/AP

Though Warren and Sanders now occupy a similar space on the ideological spectrum, Sanders arrived at his positions by moving from the left and moderating over the years, while Warren began further to the right. Both embrace the vocabulary of the fight and are eager to name villains, though Sanders is more prone to connect his politics to his theory of change, the political revolution, which involves mustering a mass social base and deploying it against the structural obstacles in Washington. Warren, throughout the Obama years, was adept at deploying outside progressive forces — typically online progressive groups and labor unions — to bring power to bear internally, but she does not make that element of her politics part of her stump speech.

That absence is a reminder to backers of Sanders that Warren is not of the left. There’s a worry that Warren’s political journey leaves her ill-equipped to lead the type of movement that could successfully implement an agenda in Washington over the objection of entrenched forces. That skepticism seemed to be on her mind as she took a question from NBC’s Chuck Todd on Wednesday night about how she would approach Congress if Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is still in charge of the Senate. Her answer alluded to the decision by President Barack Obama to shut down his campaign operation in 2009 after his election and focus instead on the inside game.

“The will of the people matters,” she said. “You better understand, the fight still goes on [after the election]. It starts at the White House and it means that everybody we energize in 2020 stays on the frontlines come January 2021. We have to push from the outside, have leadership from the inside, and make this Congress reflect the will of the people.”

Warren has returned to top-tier status the same way she rose a decade ago, through her use of plain storytelling, connecting her own upbringing “on the ragged edge of the middle class” to the country’s broader problem of economic inequality and immobility. She often begins the story during the nightmare that was the 1930s. Her first political memory is from around the time she was 6 years old, she told me, listening to stories about the Great Depression in Oklahoma from her grandmother, Hannie Crawford Reed. “They lost money when those banks closed up,” she said of her grandparents and extended family. “They watched these little towns shrivel up when the bank was gone. There was no money, there were no jobs. So my grandmother used to say one thing that was political that I can remember. She’d say, ‘Franklin Roosevelt made it safe to put money in banks,’ and she would say, ‘And he did a lot of other things too.’”

The Depression loomed especially large in her family lore. “I wasn’t born until long after the Depression, until after World War II, but I grew up as a child of the Depression, because my grandmother and grandfather, my aunts, my uncles, my mom and my dad, all my older cousins had lived through the Depression,” she said. “And it was such a searing experience in Oklahoma, that the Depression hung around our family like a shroud. It was always there.”

“It was such a searing experience in Oklahoma, that the Depression hung around our family like a shroud.”

Her politics today have been heavily informed by her childhood experiences — not just by Grandma Hannie’s stories of FDR, but also of her family’s Native American background. Her parents eloped at a young age, she was always told, because her father’s parents objected to him marrying Pauline Reed, citing her Native American roots, which dated back to Hannie’s own grandmother, O.C. Sarah Smith Crawford. Whether family lore is rooted in truth or in myth has little influence on how it is received by a child and later incorporated into an adult’s life story, and in Warren’s case, those perceptions would eventually be weaponized by her opponents into a political liability.

Her telling of her family’s financial difficulties, however, has not been challenged. Warren often talks about her father, Donald Herring, suffering a heart attack and being unable to work, the family nearly losing their home. It was only when her mother landed a minimum-wage job at Sears that catastrophe was averted, and the senator has regularly talked about how different a time it was, that a single minimum-wage income could support a family of three. (Her older brothers had left the house by then and joined the military.) The experience marked a starting point in her narrative of the destruction of the middle class over the next several decades, as workers’ wages fell in real terms and capital seized the growth from their increasing productivity.

Warren escaped Oklahoma by winning a debate scholarship at George Washington University but got married at 19, dropped out, and moved to Texas to finish college. She was just 21 when she had Amelia, who’d later become her co-author. At the time, the responsibility of caring for her new daughter was an obstacle between Warren and her plans to go to law school. Amelia was 2 when Warren started at Rutgers University.

That experience, too, has become part of her 2020 cycle stump speech. Her anecdotes of parenting struggles routinely evoke knowing laughter. She recalls her furious determination to potty-train Amelia by age 2, so that she could get her into daycare and go to class. In another, she highlights the tyranny of naps, remembering driving Amelia home after class, one hand to both operate the wheel and shift gears, and the other hand precariously stretched into the back seat, gripping and shaking Amelia’s foot so she’d stay awake. One nod in the back seat, the afternoon nap is ruined — along with her only opportunity to study.

Next came Alexander, and the family moved to Texas, where Warren tried her hand at homemaking. It was not her thing. Washing dishes one night, she turned to her husband and said simply, “I want a divorce.”

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Then-Professor Warren teaches at University of Pennsylvania Law School in Philadelphia, Pa., in the early 1990s.

Photo: Leif Skoogfors/Corbis via Getty Images

Warren’s path to becoming a prominent left-wing, anti-corporate politician was anything but direct. She was for decades what a political consultant might refer to as an infrequent voter, often missing midterms and primaries. And, despite her formidable education and intellect, she was a low-information one at that.

As the decade wore on, Warren’s career as a law professor had taken off. She got a job teaching at Rutgers Law School, then, in 1978, at the University of Houston Law Center. There, she began what would become her landmark research on bankruptcy in 1981, with Jay Westbrook and Terry Sullivan, a study that continues to the present day. When Warren started it, she was still a believer in free-market orthodoxy and influenced by a conservative law school ideology called “law and economics.” She approached the research from a right-wing angle, expecting to prove that people filing for bankruptcy were trying to bilk the system.

The results of the research woke Warren up politically, and she rejected the law and economics ideology she had tried on. “When we went into the whole consumer bankruptcy thing,” Westbrook said, “I think her attitude was very much balanced between, on the one hand, No doubt there are people who have difficulties and they’re struggling and so forth, and on the other hand, By golly, you ought to pay your debts, and probably some of these people are not being very committed to doing what they ought to do.”

Warren said that doing the work changed her politics. “Terry and Jay went into that with a pretty sympathetic lens that, These are people, let’s take a look, give them the benefit of the doubt that they had fallen on hard times,” she said. “I was the skeptic on the team.”

“I had grown up in a family that had been turned upside-down economically, a family that had run out of money more than once when there were still bills to pay and kids to feed — but my family had never filed for bankruptcy,” she said. “So I approached it from the angle that these are people who may just be taking advantage of the system. These are people who aren’t like my family. We pulled our belts tighter, why didn’t they pull their belts tighter?”

“When I looked at the numbers, I began to understand the alternative for people in bankruptcy was not to work a little harder and pay off your debt. The alternative was to stay in debt and live with collection calls and repossessions until the day you die.”

But then she looked into the stories of those who had. “Then we started digging into the data and reading the files and recording the numbers and analyzing what’s going on, and the world slowly starts to shift for me, and I start to see these families as like mine — hard-working people who have built something, people who have done everything they were supposed to do the way they were supposed to do it,” she said. Now they “had been hit by a job loss, a serious medical problem, a divorce, or death in the family, and had hurtled over a financial cliff. And when I looked at the numbers, I began to understand the alternative for people in bankruptcy was not to work a little harder and pay off your debt. The alternative was to stay in debt and live with collection calls and repossessions until the day you die. And that’s when it began to change for me.”

The research the team produced is widely cited around the issue of bankruptcies driven by medical emergencies, but it contains a less-heralded, though no less poignant finding: Many bankruptcies were caused by families moving to better neighborhoods than they could afford to get better schools for their kids.

From there, said Warren, she zoomed out from the particular stories of hardship she was encountering and began asking why she was seeing so much more of it in the 1980s than she had before.

“This happens over the space of a decade, I began to open up the questions I asked. I started with the question of the families who use bankruptcy. But over time it becomes, So why are bankruptcies going up in America?” she said. “What was changing in the 1980s and 1990s? What difference was there in America?”

The answer to that question, she said, led her to become a Democrat. “I start to do the work on how incomes stay flat and core expenses go up, and families do everything they can to cope with the squeeze. They quit saving. They go deeper and deeper into debt, but the credit card companies and payday lenders and subprime mortgage outfits figure out there’s money to be made here, and they come after these families and pick their bones clean. And that’s who ends up in bankruptcy. So that’s how it expands out,” she said. “And by then, I’m a Democrat.”

In 1995, Warren was named to the National Bankruptcy Review Commission. That role and her activism that came after it gave her a first taste of national politics, but it was the 2007 financial crash that brought her to Washington for good. Congress finally approved its bailout of Wall Street in early October 2008, and one of the conditions tacked on was that a commission would be established to audit how the money was being spent. The elections in November came and went, and Washington forgot about that provision. So the Treasury Department’s inspector general took matters into his own hands, and told the Washington Post that the bailout was “a mess” and there was nobody watching the billions of dollars go out the door.

Harry Reid, then-Senate majority leader, and Nancy Pelosi, then speaker of the House, scrambled, but Reid had somebody in mind: the Harvard professor he remembered from the fight over bankruptcy.

Reid phoned Warren at home in Cambridge in mid-November 2008. She was about to host a barbecue for law students when the call came. “Harry Reid,” the soft voice said.

“Who?” she asked.

“Um, Harry Reid,” he repeated softly, pausing. “Majority leader, U.S. Senate.”

“Oh,” she said.

He asked her to chair the commission that would oversee the bailout funds, and with no clue what that entailed, she said yes on the spot. Reid, who does not do small talk, simply hung up.

“I found her, put her on the debt commission. I read one of her books on poverty. She was a Harvard professor and she was just good from the get-go,” Reid told me.

Warren demonstrated an ability to create power where it didn’t exist before.

The commission was virtually powerless, but Warren demonstrated an ability to create power where it didn’t exist before. As chair of the commission, she used the platform to brutalize Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner every time he came before her. The exchanges went viral and earned her an enemy for life. She wasn’t thinking of her long-term career. “Growing up, I never saw an appetite for politics. Even now, I don’t think she really likes Washington or politics. She’s just there to do this one thing,” her daughter, Amelia Warren Tyagi, told a Vogue reporter in 2010.

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Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, center, talks with then-Congressional Oversight Panel Chair Elizabeth Warren before the start of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) oversight panel on Capitol Hill on Sept. 10, 2009.

Photo: Susan Walsh/AP

The gavel also put her in closer contact with members of Congress, and she used the proximity to push her idea for an agency dedicated to regulating consumer financial products, which she had first spelled out in an essay published in the journal Democracy in the summer of 2007. Its title, an homage to Ralph Nader’s consumer protection days, was “Unsafe at Any Rate.”

When she sat down with Barney Frank, then the House Financial Services Committee chair, he told Warren that he wanted to regulate the banks before turning to her consumer bureau. She told him about Grandma Hannie. “One of the earliest conversations we had about how to think about financial reform in the wake of the 2008 crash was, What goes first? What’s the first thing we need to think about? And Barney wanted to start with the nonbank financial institutions,” she said, “and stronger regulations over the largest, too-big-to-fail banks.”

Warren agreed that the argument made sense on a policy level, but politically it was important to win people’s trust. “I argued back to Barney that we needed to start where the crash had started, and where families understood it and felt it and that was, family by family, mortgage by mortgage, how those giant banks had taken down the economy. He and I were kind of going back and forth and then I said, Barney, let me tell you about my grandmother, and I told him that story,” she said. “Once he made it safe to put money in banks, my grandmother trusted Franklin Roosevelt. And so my argument to Barney was, Start where people will understand what we’re trying to do. And that’s with the consumer agency. And you know Barney, he has the quickest mind on earth — he cocked his head, took about 3 seconds and said, You’re right. We’ll start with the consumer agency.”

It was an uncanny insight for a politician, if she could be called one by then, and it was made possible, perhaps, by the decades she spent before becoming one. If Warren’s launch into politics can be pinpointed to 1995 with her commission appointment, that would mean that well into her 40s, she was still living, voting, and thinking, politically speaking, at least, like a regular person.

Warren still seemed like a regular-ish person when I first encountered her on April 10, 2009, at a Capitol Hill press conference where she joined a handful of House and Senate Democrats in introducing a bill to create something then called the “Financial Product Safety Commission.”

I quoted her at length in an article in the Huffington Post that day. Finally, here was someone talking in plain English about how the banks had caused the financial crisis by ripping off regular people, and how it could be stopped: “If there had been an agency, like the Financial Product Safety Commission, that had said, You just don’t get to fool people on pricing, then what would have happened is there would have been millions of families who got tangled in predatory mortgages who never would have gotten them.”

Without all those predatory mortgages that quickly imploded, she continued, there’d have been no housing bubble to pop. “It never would have been as profitable for mortgage brokers and others in the financial services industry to market these products, because they would not have been such high-profit products,” Warren explained. “If we never would have started at the front end, we never would have fed them into the financial system.”

She cultivated relationships with members of the blogosphere and progressive media in a way that few politicians were doing at the time.

The Wall Street reform bill that would come to be known as Dodd-Frank was being dragged through Congress by Warren’s consumer agency throughout 2009. The law professor and blogger worked the halls of Congress with her longtime aide Dan Geldon, who had previously been her student. Warren and Geldon, who would become her presidential campaign manager in 2019, both had an understanding of her ability to drive media coverage toward a particular element of the debate. She cultivated relationships with members of the blogosphere and progressive media in a way that few politicians — though she wasn’t quite one yet — were doing at the time. But she also met privately with as many lawmakers as she could.

In the summer of 2009, Warren and Geldon stopped in for a meeting with Chicago’s Melissa Bean, who had expressed interested in Warren’s idea for a consumer financial protection agency, but raised one objection after another. “Well, she didn’t agree with much of anything, but at least she was talking. Maybe we have a shot at persuading her,” Warren told Geldon. “For a moment, Dan looked like he was weighing whether to give me the bad news,” Warren later recalled. The bad news was that Bean had just run through, in order, every talking point that had been included in a press release sent that morning by the American Bankers Association.

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Then-President Barack Obama greets Elizabeth Warren, who at the time was head of the Congressional Oversight Panel for the government’s TARP program after Obama signed the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection financial reform bill in Washington, D.C., on July 21, 2010.

Photo: Charles Dharapak/AP

Warren first met with David Axelrod, a senior adviser to Obama, by coincidence, the day after Democrats lost a special election for the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts in December 2009. Axelrod recognized that there was an anger in the population that the White House needed to understand and grapple with. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, he told Warren, was a clear way to do that. “We need to fight for this thing, need to show we’re standing up for people and not just banks,” he said. The White House had always been publicly supportive of the CFPB, but now it was committed on a political level too.

As the Dodd-Frank bill moved to completion in the spring of 2010, Reid saw a chance for a political win-win. He put the bill on the floor, knowing it didn’t have 60 votes, but from his perspective, there was no bad outcome. Either Republicans blocked Wall Street reform, which would make them look awful, or they’d support it, which would be its own good thing.

As cloture vote after cloture vote failed, Reid eventually grew impatient. He wanted to pull the bill off the floor and move on, said Chris Dodd, then chair of the Banking Committee. “I and others were able to convince him that no, that we thought we could win the issue and we ought to keep it up,” Dodd said.

That May, in an interview with the Huffington Post’s Shahien Nasiripour, Warren put it in simpler terms: No more compromises. “My first choice is a strong consumer agency,” she said. “My second choice is no agency at all and plenty of blood and teeth left on the floor.”

She got her first choice.

Once the CFPB had been created, the question turned to who would run it. Geithner, the treasury secretary, argued internally it absolutely could not be Elizabeth Warren, but his well-known animosity toward her had the counterintuitive effect of blunting his criticism.

“My second choice is no agency at all and plenty of blood and teeth left on the floor.”

Geithner found an ally in Rahm Emanuel, White House chief of staff, who called Harry Reid following news reports that Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., opposed Warren’s nomination to the post. “We don’t like her either,” Emanuel told the majority leader. The “we” in that formation was only partly true, as Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett were pushing for Warren internally. Though Reid had been a patron of Warren’s, there wasn’t much he could do, as the White House controls appointments. He spread the word that it wouldn’t be Warren, and Nelson got on board. “We wanted her to be the person who led the consumer [bureau] and I had a little pushback from my own caucus,” Reid said, “mainly one senator whose name I won’t announce, but with that, I didn’t feel I could push it at that time.” I asked if Emanuel had relayed the White House’s concerns. “I do not remember that, but with Rahm,” he said, “the first few words of any conversation was a bunch of swear words, so maybe we never got to the crux of the conversation.”

Keeping Warren off the agency she had created, however, was a difficult position to hold publicly. Warren, after all, had come up with the idea for the agency and then had been its most vocal champion, both publicly and privately, as it ran through a sewage pipeline of bank lobbyists and came out clean on the other side.

Before the administration announced its decision, it invited first-term senators to the White House for a meet and greet. Among them were several allies of Warren, including Bernie Sanders and Jeff Merkley. Sanders pressed the point, asking Obama if he would name Warren to run the agency. Obama held up a glass of water. “That’s the problem with you progressives,” he said. “You see this as half-empty.”

It was clear, however, Warren didn’t have 60 votes to be confirmed to the position. But Nasiripour discovered something useful in the way the law was written: The president was entitled to name somebody to establish the agency while the Senate deliberated on a permanent director. Progressive groups led a pressure campaign for Obama to name Warren to that temporary spot, and Geithner was overruled. Warren’s condition for accepting the job was that she would also be given the title of senior adviser to the president, so Geithner couldn’t push her around.

Still, he set out to embarrass her early, leaking to the press that she was demanding a fancy new paint job in her office. Warren confronted him about the egregiously sexist attack and the leaks stopped. Geithner and his chief of staff, Mark Patterson, under pressure from an embarrassed White House, both apologized to Warren, and she set up the agency without Geithner’s interference.

Scott Brown, whose 2010 special election victory earlier had blown up Democrats’ 60-vote supermajority, was up for re-election in 2012. His approval rating in Massachusetts was through the roof, and it looked like favorite son Republican Mitt Romney would be running for president, making it a tough year for Democrats to win back the seat.

Guy Cecil was in charge of recruiting candidates that year for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. He traveled multiple times to Massachusetts, but couldn’t find anybody willing to take Brown on. “Scott Brown is unbeatable,” Cecil was told. “He’s too good. None of the old guard wanted to run against him.”

He knew she’d make a good candidate because of the questions she asked.

He turned his sights on Warren, part of a DSCC strategy that year to recruit the most progressive candidate they thought was electable in each state, a conscious policy he said they had not employed in previous cycles. “I’d go to Elizabeth’s apartment on Friday nights and we’d have a beer,” Cecil said. He knew she’d make a good candidate because of the questions she asked. What is my job description as a candidate? What do I do? What decisions am I responsible for rather than my campaign manager? Chuck Schumer, too, knew that in Massachusetts, in the right political environment, Brown could be beaten. So the man nicknamed “Wall Street Chuck” helped recruit Wall Street’s No. 1 enemy to run for the Senate.

During her last day at the White House, Warren sat down for an exit interview of sorts with Obama. She gave him the same advice she would later give Hillary Clinton ahead of her run for president, that he needed to understand how much anger was out there, and to surround himself with people who understood that, rather than with people from Wall Street and from the Rubin wing of the party. The housing and foreclosure crises were still ripping through the country, and she pressed him to take them seriously. He said that he wanted to hear more from her on what his approach to housing policy should be. “Get my email from Anita,” he said, explaining that it was a complicated pseudonym.

As she left, she told his assistant, Anita Decker Breckenridge, what the president had said. Well, just email me and I’ll make sure he gets it, she said, in what was likely a choreographed routine. Warren later emailed her some housing policy ideas, though nothing came of it.

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Warren, center, talks with people at a diner in Framingham, Mass., during her first day of campaigning for the U.S. Senate, on Sept. 14, 2011.

Photo: Josh Reynolds/AP

Not long after Warren announced she’d be running for Senate, I went to Massachusetts to watch her campaign. But first I stopped at the encampment of Occupy Boston, which was then in full swing in the city’s financial district. I wanted to know what the occupiers thought of Warren, fully aware that many of them eschewed electoral politics entirely. I was surprised to find about half of the people I spoke with were fully in support of Warren’s run, even as they condemned the idea of electoral politics as a viable path to change.

Later that week, at an event at a VFW hall in Brockton, somewhere in the middle of the state, she greeted people as they entered, gabbing amiably. I asked her how she was enjoying retail politics, and she said that she got a thrill from engaging with so many people. “I was born to do this,” she said, quickly clarifying that she was referring to how much she enjoyed it, not that she was God’s gift to glad-handing.

Moments into her speech, with my video camera running, she was interrupted by a tea party supporter who stood up and began berating her. He said he’d been unemployed since February 2010, objected to Warren’s expressed affiliation with the frustrations of Occupy Wall Street, and argued that the tea party has been protesting Wall Street excess for longer than the nascent global movement camping out in downtowns across the country.

The crowd tried to shout the man down, but Warren told her supporters to let him speak. “No, no, it’s alright. Let me say two things,” she said. “I’m very sorry that you’ve been out of work. I’m also very sorry that the recent jobs bill that would’ve brought 22,000 jobs to Massachusetts did not pass in the Senate.”

Warren went on to address his question about her association with Occupy Wall Street. “I’ve been protesting what’s been going on on Wall Street for a very long time,” she said, adding that the movement had its own independent agenda and would proceed along its own course.

“I actually felt sorry for the guy. I really genuinely did.”

“Yeah, so has the tea party,” the man said, before losing his cool. “Well, if you’re the intellectual creator of that so-called party,” he said, “you’re a socialist whore. I don’t want anything to do with you.” The crowd now shouted him down as he added that Warren’s “boss,” presumably referring to the president, was “foreign-born.” He then attempted to storm out through a side door, but found it locked. “So, we are here to do work, and I think we have a reminder that we have a lot of work to do,” she said as the heckler continued to struggle with the door, before awkwardly retreating out the back of the VFW hall instead.

A Republican tracker with a video camera was at the event, too, so after it ended, in order to conduct an interview, Warren and I ducked into the back seat of her car, parked in the VFW lot. With two of her aides in the front seats, the tracker shot footage of the car from just feet away.

Warren, in the darkness, reflected on the man’s outburst, which she said was her first such encounter: “I actually felt sorry for the guy. I really genuinely did. He’s been out of work now for a year and a half. And bless his heart, I mean, he thought somehow it would help to come here and yell names.”

The assault stuck with Warren, and she continued to think about it throughout the night. I did, too, and I was conflicted about whether to report on it. It was an interesting exchange, and it foreshadowed the furor of the 2016 presidential campaign, a glimpse into the twisted rage that was transforming politics, rooted in economic anxiety and expressing itself as dangerous racism and misogyny. On the other hand, I didn’t want to encourage copy cats and put her or other politicians at greater risk. Earlier that year, Gabby Giffords, one of the friendliest, warmest members of the House, had been shot in the head and nearly killed.

Warren emailed me later that evening to say she still wasn’t upset with the man himself, but rather with those who attempt to channel his anger in a malevolent direction. “I was thinking more about the heckler. I’m not angry with him, but he didn’t come up with the idea that his biggest problem was Occupy Wall Street,” she said. “There’s someone else pre-packaging that poison — and that’s who makes me angry.”

I ended up deciding to publish the video, and Warren later said she was glad that I did, even though that night she had hoped I wouldn’t.

Warren turned out to be a strong candidate and began out-polling Brown. Cecil said that when he’d talk to the old guard in Boston, they remained unimpressed, “complaining that Warren should be up by more.” Her campaign would be tested in April 2012, when an article appeared in the Boston Herald that continues to resonate. It originated with a tip from a Native American Republican, who reached out to GOP operatives and told them that Warren had previously claimed Native American status, a claim he found questionable.

As Warren had surged in her career, she started moving in circles that were further and further from her Oklahoma roots. At the same time, her aunts began passing away, leaving her feeling unmoored. It’s not at all unusual for non-Native families in Oklahoma to grow up with stories about Native heritage, and Warren’s was among them. In the 1980s, she began listing herself as Native American.

The Herald article noted that claims of Native American heritage were fairly common. “Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama claim to have Native American heritage, but we were never able to find evidence of that, and in both cases we traced their ancestry fairly thoroughly,” Christopher Child, a genealogist at the New England Historic and Genealogical Society, told the Herald.

Internally, Warren’s staff scrambled to find documentation to back up the stories told by Grandma Hannie, but came up empty. “I’m very proud of my heritage. I’m very proud of the stories my grandparents gave me,” Warren responded, as pressure continued to mount. Her staff urged her to make clear to the public that she had not received any special treatment in the hiring process at any university. Though it was true — and an exhaustive Boston Globe examination in 2018 would find that it never came up in Harvard’s decision-making — she refused, telling her aides she didn’t want to appear as if she were undermining affirmative action, or implying that affirmative action was somehow wrong.

Because she genuinely believed the family lore, she was in a difficult position and felt she couldn’t simply apologize and move on without betraying her family. Her efforts to explain how prevalent the lore was in her family only backfired, coming off as tone-deaf, as when she relayed the story of her grandfather’s photo that sat on her mantle. “My Aunt Bea has walked by that picture at least a thousand times,” Warren told reporters, and “remarked that her father, my papaw, had high cheekbones like all of the Indians do, because that’s how she saw it. She said, And your mother got those same great cheekbones and I didn’t. She thought this was the bad deal she had gotten in life.”

Right-wing protesters stalked her at events, regularly breaking into whoops and chants and tomahawk chops. Despite it all, she beat Brown on Election Day by 8 points. Victory has a way of burying scandal, with the unwritten rule being that it will remain buried unless and until the politician seeks a higher position. But for now, she was on her way to becoming a senator, and I tagged along to watch her become official.

GettyImages-158911806-biden-warren-mann-1561584117

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, left, participates in a reenacted swearing-in ceremony with her husband, Bruce Mann, center, and then-Vice President Joe Biden at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 3, 2013.

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Warren was sworn into office on January 3, 2013. As we ascended a staircase in the capitol building that morning, Warren was directed by an attendant to an elevator marked “Senators Only.” “Pretty cool,” she said, when I asked how it felt to take the exclusive ride.

Though she had been lobbying the Senate on bankruptcy issues on and off since that first rodeo with Kennedy, being on the floor was a new experience. “That’s the first time I’ve ever been on the Senate floor, literally the first time,” said Warren of the dark blue carpeting she had threatened three years earlier to cover with “blood and teeth.”

Senators get sworn in twice — once for real, and then once ceremonially in the Old Senate Chamber. She gathered with friends, family and supporters in the Kennedy Caucus Room before that ceremonial swearing in to take Kennedy’s seat.

I noted that Sen. Daniel Webster had delivered his famous “Liberty and Union” speech in the chamber Warren was about to enter. She would be taking Webster’s seat, though not his desk.

“Daniel Webster’s desk goes to the senator from New Hampshire, not the senator from Massachusetts,” she noted, ever the professor, adding that she had heard it skipped over the border by dint of the great orator’s last will. Webster, she noted, wasn’t just a senator from Massachusetts but held Kennedy’s seat, as did former President John Quincy Adams and the famous abolitionist Charles Sumner — who left actual blood on the Senate floor when he was brutally beaten within an inch of his life by a pro-slavery South Carolina congressman.

As she and her husband Bruce Mann waited in line outside the old chamber, which is bathed in a plush red velvet, they watched as other women were sworn in. One of them was Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat from North Dakota. Joe Biden, as vice president, was charged with emceeing the proceedings. “Spread your legs, you’re gonna be frisked,” Biden told the Heitkamp family. Warren was speechless, as was Heitkamp. Biden, through decades of saying idiotic and offensive things on the regular, had effectively raised the bar on what could possibly be considered a gaffe. But even he seemed to sense he may have managed to clear it with that one. Apparently, when a photographer had told Heitkamp’s husband to move one of his hands, Biden’s mind had gone to a police pat-down, and his mind had gone, as usual, directly out of his mouth. “You say that to somebody in North Dakota, they think it’s a frisk. Drop your hands to your side, y’know?” Biden added, trying to make the joke land. Warren and her husband looked at each other.

Biden turned to Heitkamp’s husband, hoping for a bailout. “They think you’re in trouble, right? You drop your hands to the side …” Her husband did his best to ignore him. “Ahhh, I’m a little formal, I know,” Biden concluded.

“We’re going to not only make history, we’re going to change history.”

Biden was on better behavior swearing in Warren. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., the first woman elected without following a husband to the upper chamber, found Warren later on the Senate floor. She barely came up to Warren’s shoulder as the two embraced. Mikulski attached an official Senate pin to the lapel of the incoming senator’s pantsuit. “Think of it,” Mikulski said she told Warren, “like the Croix de Guerre for all the battles we women have fought.”

“Congratulations,” Mikulski said, with her eyes watering as she beat her hand against her heart. “You stand here now in the footsteps of so many women who for so long would have liked to have been here, should have been here, but didn’t get the shot. You’ve got the chance. You have a band of sisters. And we’re going to not only make history, we’re going to change history.”

This article was adapted from “We’ve Got People: From Jesse Jackson to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the End of Big Money and the Rise of a Movement” by Ryan Grim, published by Strong Arm Press. 

The post Elizabeth Warren Lays Out a Theory of Change at First Democratic Debate appeared first on The Intercept.

June 24, 2019

Joe Biden Says He Can Work With the Senate. The Last Time He Tried, Mi...

As the year 2012 wound down, Democrats hopefully eyed what looked to be one of the last opportunities for genuine legislative progress in a divided government. The party had just stomped Republican Mitt Romney at the polls in a post-Occupy campaign that centered on economic inequality. Democrats picked up two seats in the Senate, expanding their majority to 53 and adding Elizabeth Warren to their ranks. Though Democrats won more House votes nationwide and picked up a net of eight seats, Republicans held onto the newly gerrymandered lower chamber.

The hope was tied to the expiration of the tax cuts passed under George W. Bush. Republicans, despite losing the popular vote and only taking the White House in 2000 by a 5-4 Supreme Court decision, moved swiftly to pass an enormous tax cut tilted heavily toward the rich. To do so, they used a parliamentary procedure that could get around the filibuster in the Senate, known as budget reconciliation. The cost of doing so, however, is that policy enacted through reconciliation must expire in 10 years’ time.

By the time the legislation was set to expire in 2010, the tea party wave had shaken up Congress. The Obama White House urged Senate Democrats to extend the tax cuts, arguing both that they had a difficult political hand, and also that extending them in an unstable economic environment was good policy. White House economic adviser Larry Summers told a private meeting of Finance Committee Democrats that allowing the tax cuts to expire would “tank the economy,” according to a Senate aide at the time.

This makes Biden’s role in the tax-cut fight, perhaps his most significant involvement in policymaking as vice president, critical to examine closely.

The ensuing negotiations would involve a whole cast of characters from throughout the White House and across the aisle in the Senate. Its resolution, though, ultimately hinged on the intervention of then-Vice President and now-leading contender for the presidency Joe Biden. He has cited his ability to work with Republicans and conservative Democrats — up to and including segregationists — as one of his top qualifications for president. This makes his role in the tax-cut fight, perhaps his most significant involvement in policymaking as vice president, critical to examine closely. And up close, it doesn’t look good.

The Senate agreed to a two-year expansion at the end of 2010, but only after Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., delivered his viral, eight-hour old-fashioned filibuster on the Senate floor to draw attention to the fiscal giveaway.

The extension meant that the tax cuts were now expiring in 2012, and in order to repeal all of them — to go over what the media began calling the “fiscal cliff” — all Congress had to do was nothing. That, Harry Reid told me in an interview for my new book, was precisely his plan. “I wanted to go over the cliff,” said Reid, the Senate majority leader at the time. “I thought that would have been the best thing to do because the conversation would not have been about raising taxes, which it became, it would have been about lowering taxes.”

In other words, let all the rates go up, and then bargain with Republicans to reduce taxes just for the middle class and the poor. Then-Minority Leader Mitch McConnell similarly knew the difficult position going over the cliff would put him in, and in preliminary talks with Reid, he agreed to let rates on people making more than $250,000 per year go back up, if to slightly lower levels to pre-Bush. (McConnell aides would later say that McConnell had not firmly conceded anything, and that negotiations weren’t finalized.)

McConnell had a strong sense that Reid intended to go over the cliff and put Republicans up against a wall. Told that Reid had since confirmed that he indeed wanted to go over, a Republican operative said he found the admission unsurprising. “That’s consistent with his body language at the time,” said the operative, who wasn’t authorized to talk on the record about the negotiations. “He knew he could blame it successfully on the hard right in the Republican Party. Negotiations had reached an impasse. It wasn’t just spin, Reid was ready to go over.”

Reid felt like he had successfully pushed McConnell to the brink, buoyed by House Speaker John Boehner’s inability to get his unruly conference to agree to anything. It was now Sunday, December 30, and Democrats only had to hold out until Tuesday to find themselves in a dramatically improved political position, as the dawning of the new year would mean the tax cuts expired and automatically reverted to pre-Bush levels. At that point, it would be Republicans left pleading for rate cuts.

In desperation, McConnell reached out directly to Biden, calling him on the phone and explaining that Reid was refusing to be reasonable. Over the course of the day, McConnell and Biden struck a deal. “Biden gave Republicans everything they wanted in exchange for fixing the fiscal cliff problem,” the GOP operative recalled.

Biden, who served in the Senate from 1973 to 2009, and as vice president from 2009 until 2017, is now locked in his third Democratic primary contest for the presidential nomination. “The reason he has such good relationships with Republicans in the Senate is he never hesitates to put aside the highest priorities of his base in the interests of compromise,” the Republican operative said. “That’s also how you make life difficult in a primary.”

On the morning of New Year’s Eve, Reid was still feeling good about his position. That was until he saw McConnell take to the Senate floor and announce that he’d been in talks with the vice president, they were progressing well, and he was hopeful that they’d have legislation to move by the end of the day.

“He never hesitates to put aside the highest priorities of his base in the interests of compromise.”

As details of the deal began leaking out, progressive Democratic senators were floored. A large group of them — including Sanders, Sens. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, Al Franken of Minnesota, and Tom Harkin of Iowa — stormed over to Reid’s office.

The deal was awful, they told Reid, and it had to be stopped. Reid told them what had happened, that it was out of his hands and that McConnell had gone around him to Biden. He said he was working on improving it and would be in touch throughout the day.

None of the senators had any business scheduled — it was New Year’s Eve, after all — so Sanders invited them back to his office in the Dirksen building. The Hart building has a popcorn machine, so Harkin asked his staff to bring some by. The crew ended up spending several hours together in Sanders’s office, thinking through potential strategies of opposition and waiting to hear from Reid.

Instead, one senator’s phone rang, and it was Joe Biden, calling to sell the deal he had cut. In classic Biden fashion, he offered a 10- to 15-minute soliloquy, a meandering argument that largely boiled down to: You can trust me; I’m your friend; this is a good deal. The senator could barely get a word in before the conversation ended.

Moments after he hung up, another cellphone rang, and it was Biden again. Unaware that the group was all together, Biden proceeded to call each of them, one after the other, delivering the same spiel. Biden’s flimsy argument, and his filibustering style of delivering it, became a running joke among the senators. “No one found it remotely persuasive,” said one person in the room.

Biden’s own characterization of his lobbying effort didn’t differ substantially from the recollection of those in the room. Asked that day by reporters what he had said to wavering senators, he replied: “I said, ‘This is Joe Biden and I’m your buddy.’”

Ultimately, it fell to Reid to drag the progressive senators into line. Once it was clear that the White House was on board with Biden’s deal, and McConnell was all in, that meant that there would be at least 70 or 80 votes for it. The progressive bloc could vote no, but it would only send a message of discord and have no effect on the outcome, Reid told them, coaxing them to support the deal he himself loathed. In the end, all the progressive senators except Harkin voted for the deal. It passed 89-8.

Years later, Reid still regrets how it went down. “If we’d have gone over the cliff, we’d have had resources to do a lot of good things in the country — infrastructure development — but it didn’t work out that way,” Reid said. Letting all the tax rates go back to pre-Bush levels would have yielded the Treasury around $3 trillion over 10 years. Instead, the deal ultimately brought in around $600 billion (or would have, if taxes hadn’t been slashed again by Republicans in 2018). Without the deal, taxes on dividend payments to the rich would have been set at 39.6 percent. Under the terms of the deal, they would be set at 20 percent, meaning that the super-wealthy would be paying lower tax rates on their passive dividend income than some working people would pay on their salaries.

I asked Reid how Biden defended the strategy that day.

“It wasn’t one that I agreed with,” he replied politely, “so you’d have to ask some of his people.”

His people declined to comment.

Ryan Grim is the author of “We’ve Got People: From Jesse Jackson to AOC, the End of Big Money and the Rise of a Movement,” published by Strong Arm Press.

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