Matt Brown is a 35-year-old, “tell it like it is” 2006 Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate from Rhode Island. In what’s turning out to be one of the most watched races in the country, Matt Brown joins Michael Cote of ePluribus Media for a lively discussion ranging from Brown’s extensive past in community-building and grassroots voter efforts, to his controversial petition calling on President Bush to start withdrawing the troops in six months, to the future of the Democratic party. While chasing Rhode Island Republican Senator Lincoln Chafee, a moderate, Brown talks about Chafee’s “weak leadership,” the John Bolton nomination and solutions for health care.
Matt Brown attended Yale School of Law. Against all odds and many political naysayers, he was elected Secretary of State for Rhode Island in 2002 at age 32. He has advocated successfully for open government and combated government corruption, and he has been especially successful exposing lobbyist-money ties between politicians and insiders.
ePluribus Media: Matt, thank you for speaking with us. Let’s start with this recent quote from The Providence Journal:
More than a year away, the 2006 U.S. Senate election in Rhode Island is already developing as one of the nation’s most closely watched races. Republicans control 55 Senate seats, Democrats 44, and there is one independent who votes with Democrats. In next year’s midterm election, Democrats will defend 17 seats and the GOP 15.
Republicans see this either as a chance to embolden their party by keeping their seats or as an opportunity to gain even more seats. Because — according to several media reports — Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania are the most vulnerable senators, Rhode Island is one of the nation’s most closely watched races. It’s early in the race, Matt, but already things are hot; Cranston Republican mayor Steve Laffey has yet to announce that he’s running for Chafee’s seat, and he’s very elusive on this point. What are the stakes for the Democrats? And how do you see this race playing out?
Matt Brown: The stakes are very high in this election and in races across the country. We’ve got a president who has been wrong on this Iraq war every step of the way. So we’ve got American men and women, including 600 Rhode Islanders, serving in Iraq. They have sacrificed everything people can sacrifice, some of them tragically have given their lives, and meanwhile the president still has no plan to finish the job in Iraq and bring the troops home. This is unacceptable. It is a failure in leadership by the commander in chief.
We need to start holding President Bush accountable. That’s why last week I called on him to finally set a plan to finish the job and begin bringing our troops home, finish training the Iraqi Security Forces so we can start handing their country over to them, and start bringing our troops home. And we’re gonna keep fighting for that.
ePMedia: How do you think the Democrats are going to win a majority of seats with that position? There seems to be a pretty big split among Democrats on how to attack the Iraq question. Do you think that Democrats can come together, actually unify on that position?
MB: Well, we should do what we know is right. We know that President Bush has been wrong every step of the way on Iraq: There were no weapons of mass destruction, [the Iraqis] didn’t welcome us with flowers in the street, the “Mission” wasn’t “Accomplished,” and [there are] no plan and no exit strategy for bringing our troops home. So we need to stand up for what we know is right, even against political pressure, even when it’s not the politically popular thing to do. And the right thing to do now in Iraq is for the president to set a plan to finish training the Iraqi Security Forces so we can start bringing our troops home. And we, the American people, need to hold him accountable for that.
ePMedia: You attended Yale Law School, correct?
ePMedia: We read that while at Yale, you studied voter-turnout statistics in Rhode Island and were shocked to find that they were very low, or at least on a downward trend.
MB: Well, across the country. This project, the Democracy Compact, came from my experience in starting and running City Year. With City Year we dramatically increased volunteerism among young people.
Thousands of young people across the country volunteering through City Year and Americorps were giving an entire year of their lives to serving others. They got stipends and scholarships for college upon completion of the program. We saw that the program was very successful in getting young people to serve their country, but voter participation had continued to decline. I have always believed that one of the most important and basic ways people can do their civic duty is to vote. So I started an organization called the Democracy Compact, now called Vote for America. We launched it in Rhode Island in 2000; it was a very successful civic education and voter-participation program, and it has grown across the country.
ePMedia: You wanted to sign up 75,000 new voters in 2000. How did it go?
MB: Yes. There were some extraordinary results. We ended up with a record increase in the country. We actually had the single highest in the country among young people, among 18-to-30-year-olds. It shows you that if you go out into communities and talk to people about the important issues and ask them to get involved, they will. And that’s what we did.
ePMedia: Vote for America is now a national program. Do you still chair the program? Are you still involved?
MB: No, I’m not.
ePMedia: Are you building a grassroots program now?
MB: Yes, my campaign! [Laughs]
MB: I started and ran those nonprofits for about 10 years, and I loved it. We were able to make a big difference. I saw and learned what was going on in peoples’ lives and communities all across this state. Nothing can give you a better understanding of what people are facing than being out there and working with them every day, year after year. So through this community service work, I really saw what people are up against in their everyday lives in this state.
But, after doing it for about 10 years, I became frustrated with the fact that the basic things people needed in life — decent schools, healthcare, colleges they could afford — they didn’t have. It was because of politicians who failed to do their part. So that’s when I decided to run for office in 2002.
ePMedia: Prior to that, did you have political aspirations? Did you decide early on that you wanted to be a politician?
MB: No. Running City Year and working in the community was very fulfilling work. You feel good at the end of the day. You can see the difference you have made in people’s lives. Every day we were helping turn around the lives of a lot of young people. We helped them overcome some pretty serious challenges: kids who had dropped out of high school, kids who were in gangs, and we got them on a track toward education, toward work, and toward being good citizens. I loved it. I think we made a big difference.
But I became frustrated; these people were having to fight against the odds because politicians failed to do their jobs — to make sure people had the basic things they need. Not any special treatment, but just the basics: decent public schools, affordable college, healthcare. Just the basic things anyone would need to climb the ladder in this country. So that’s why I decided to run for office.
ePMedia: In 2002 you ran for secretary of state — controversial at the time because you were so young. You won the seat, which is a great accomplishment in itself. First, what experience have you gained as secretary of state that will allow you to be effective as a senator? And second, you’re so young. Are age and experience factors in the current climate?
MB: One of the nice things about being in public office, especially in a state as friendly as Rhode Island, is that wherever you are — even in your private time — people come up to you and tell you the problems they’re facing, hoping you might be able to help them a bit. The number-one problem I heard when I became secretary of state was from senior citizens who came up to me and said, “I can’t afford my medicine anymore because the prices of prescriptions have jumped so high. Is there anything you can do to help me?” And I heard it from hundreds of senior citizens. I heard it from a woman from Cranston just as we were getting into the holidays; she couldn’t afford the clothes she and her husband needed to stay warm because the costs of their prescriptions were so high. Dozens of senior citizens were cutting their pills in half because of costs, obviously putting themselves at risk.
So I decided to do something about it. We started one of the first Web sites in the country to provide Rhode Island seniors with information about getting the same safe medicines they could buy here, but at about 50-percent lower costs from Canadian pharmacists. We took a bus trip with seniors to Canada, and in fact they saved 60 percent on the cost of prescriptions.
And then I helped to bring a program called RIMEDS to Rhode Island, which was one of the first in the country to let seniors buy their prescriptions — again with 40- to 60-percent savings — through a toll-free number and on-line. It was a battle, as you can imagine. First of all, a lot of politicians criticized me, and I couldn’t figure out why — clearly this was important and good for the people of the state. I think [they did so] because it didn’t make them look very good that they hadn’t done anything about it. Then the FDA threatened to come after me. I said, well, these are just scare tactics and we’re going to go ahead and do it anyway. And we did. And, of course, the FDA didn’t do anything about it. Since then, the Web site has had over 400,000 hits.
ePMedia: When did you start RIMEDS? Are you still involved in it?
MB: About six to seven months ago. Yes, we go to senior centers, show the seniors how to use the program, and provide information about it.
ePMedia: It sounds like a fantastic program. However, this is a temporary solution to a greater issue: rising medical care in general.
MB: It’s an immediate near-term solution. It provides Rhode Island seniors with a way to afford the medicine that otherwise they wouldn’t be able to get.
We do have to look at long-term solutions. But when you hear from senior citizens right now, today, that they can’t afford their prescriptions, that they’re going to get sick, when you know that right over the border, six hours away, the same medicines cost about half as much, it is unacceptable to make it impossible for senior citizens to get access to those medicines. So we have to do whatever we can. There’s no one solution. We have to do everything we can to help senior citizens get and afford the medicines they need.
The other thing regarding my experience as secretary of state is the issue of going after corruption in this state. As you well know, we’ve had a long and very damaging history of corruption. At the heart of the corruption are very powerful, wealthy interests giving money to elected officials to influence the decisions they make.
So one of the things we do at the secretary of state’s office is to oversee lobbyists’ reporting of their activities at the Statehouse. It became clear that they were not complying with the requirement to report the money they had been giving to elected officials. We went after them to make sure that they complied, shining a very bright, very public spotlight on financial transactions between lobbyists and elected state officials.
There was a lot of resistance to change. People who have very powerful interests want to keep things the way they were, but it’s not good for the public. So we called them, we wrote them, we tracked them down in the halls of the Statehouse, and made sure they filled out their forms. Whenever they didn’t, we posted on-line the names of the lobbyists who had failed to file their reports. And believe me, they started filing them after that!
ePMedia: Sheldon Whitehouse is loading up on endorsements, whereas you are focusing on your grassroots background. You’re running two different styles of campaigns. How do you intend to defeat Whitehouse — he’s perceived to be strong — and eventually gain his endorsement?
MB: I know from experience that elections are decided, not by political insiders and the special interest groups, but by people who live in the communities across this state. And I know, from the years I’ve worked in these communities, what they are up against; I know that they need help and some change. From my experience, from my record, people know that I’m going to do what’s right regardless of the political pressure. That’s why we have over 700 people on my campaign committee. That’s why Pablo Rodriquez launched “Viva Brown,” a group of Latino leaders committed to making sure we win this race. That’s why Tony Pires, Tony Costa, and Councilman Tony Nobrega just yesterday [August 25] launched “Vote ’Em Brown,” our committee of Portuguese leaders across the state. So people in the communities know my record, they know that I’m going to stand up for them, and they know that I take on very powerful special interest groups in very tough political fights. I do what’s right. And that’s why we’re going to win.
ePMedia: And Whitehouse’s endorsement?
MB: Absolutely. One thing we agree on is that the state would be better off with a Democrat representing us. I will certainly call him immediately to ask him to get on board with us.
ePMedia: The current state of the Democratic Party deeply concerns not just the left but many Americans. The Democrats seem not to have, first, a consensus message as the Republicans do, and second, a visible plan to win seats. It is early. What do you think of the state of the Democratic Party, specifically on the unification of their message? And do you think Democrats generally are in trouble?
MB: The basic idea of the Democratic Party has always been the basic idea of this country: that is, whoever you are, whatever your background, everybody should get an equal chance to live a good life. And that is also the founding principle of this country. We — and other Democrats running in other states — must talk to people in our communities and help them understand that not only is this what we believe, but that we have the ideas to make that happen. We have the ideas to keep that first promise of America, that everybody gets an equal chance to live a good life. And if we do that, and we have the right candidates, and we run good grassroots campaigns, we’ll win.
ePMedia: But the gulf is huge, especially with how divided — at least perceptually divided — we are. Do you think you are appealing to Republicans in Rhode Island?
MB: My view of these things is that someone who’s trying to earn the support of people in the neighborhoods has to say what he believes is right. Say and do what’s right on the issues that are important to people. That’s the best way to do it. If you do that, you earn people’s respect.
ePMedia: Let’s get to your controversial statement about Iraq. You call for a six-month timeline for troop withdrawal just after December. Is that right?
MB: To begin the withdrawal.
ePMedia: Why is that reasonable?
MB: We have been training the Iraqi Security Forces for two years now; we ought to be able to get it finished in six months. Commanders on the ground have suggested that we can start bringing troops home early next year. The only people who seem to disagree with this are President Bush and some of the politicians in Washington. From the time we declared war in World War I to the time it was over was a year and a half. Two and a half years into World War II, we launched a new naval fleet, invaded Africa and Italy, and had preparations for the invasion of Normandy underway.
We’ve been training Security Forces for two years. We ought to be able to do this with in the next six months. But it’s clearly not going to happen unless we, the American people, hold this president accountable. He has moved the goal line of the mission every step of the way. He hasn’t been straight with the American people; he doesn’t have a plan to get out. And when you get into a situation like this, the only thing to do in a democracy is for the people to speak out and hold their leaders accountable.
That’s what I’m doing with this petition. The petition says it’s time to hold President Bush accountable, it’s time we had a plan to finish the job, finish training the Iraqi Security Forces … you ought to get that done in the next six months and start bringing the troops home. And anybody can sign that petition at our Web site.
ePMedia: The Washington Post reported last week on the split within the Democratic Party about how to approach the Iraq question. Yes, Russell Feingold last week called for a troop withdrawal by a specific deadline. But Harry Reid, Joseph Biden, Hillary Clinton and many others in the Democratic leadership reject any notion of a timeline. On television a week ago, Democratic National Chairman Howard Dean deferred such questions, saying that the decision was entirely up to President Bush. Why are you splitting with the Democratic leadership?
MB: Of all issues, when we send our men and women in harm’s way and when we bring them home should not be a partisan issue. This is a time where everyone must do what he or she believes is right. I congratulate Senator Feingold for having the courage to say that the president needs to have a plan. This is why I have said that the president needs to have a plan. I think it’s the right thing. I’ve been to the deployment of troops here in Rhode Island. I’ve been to the funerals of the soldiers we’ve lost. We owe it to them to finish this job, do it right, and bring them home to their families.
ePMedia: What do you say to a red-state Marine serving right now in Iraq?
MB: I say that the best way to honor you is for the leadership to do this job right, to have a plan, and to bring you and your brothers- and sisters-in-arms home as soon as possible, but that your commander in chief has failed you. You, who have completed every single assignment we’ve asked of you, that the President has asked of you, have carried them out with courage and distinction. But there has been a failure of leadership from the president. We need to hold him accountable, finish this job, and bring the rest of the troops home.
ePMedia: Prominent neocon William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard and chairman of the Project for the New American Century, enormously influential on the White House....
MB: He’s still looking for weapons of mass destruction, right? [laughs]
ePMedia: He points out that there is no civilian uprising in Iraq. The citizens of Iraq are not collectively, actively opposed to our actions. We can debate whether Bush lied till we’re blue in the face, but the facts are — as Kristol correctly points out — that Iraqis want secure borders, military training and rebuilding of their infrastructure, not to mention a constitution and the ability to vote in free elections. How will a deadline reasonably achieve any of this? The notion of a six-month timeline seems really tight. Iraqis aren’t massively protesting us, and they do need help.
MB: Yes, but keep in mind that two different things are going on here. One is combat operations; the other is helping and supporting the Iraqi leadership make improvements they need to make. What I’m talking about is not abandoning Iraq. It’s beginning a phased withdrawal six months from now, after we’ve trained enough Iraqi Security Forces to bring our troops home. The training would continue during the withdrawal process; then after the withdrawal, as we do with many countries around the world, we would have ongoing military advisors as well as economic assistance to support the Iraqis. That’s the kind of help they need now and we should provide it.
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