This interview is third in a series with candidates for the House and Senate. The first, with Chuck Pennacchio, was conducted by Aaron Barlow with contributions from Todd Johnston on May 18th, 2005. The second with Christina Cegelis was conducted by Brian Keeler on 08-01-05. We hope this series encourages candidates to address issues important to grassroots organizations.
Sheldon Whitehouse is a Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate in Rhode Island in 2006 who hopes to unseat the Republican incumbent, Lincoln Chafee. Whitehouse's top Democratic opponent is the vibrant 34-year-old Rhode Island Secretary of State, Matt Brown.
Whitehouse, a former attorney-general of Rhode Island, was appointed U.S. Attorney for the District of Rhode Island by former President Bill Clinton. He has argued before the U.S. Supreme Court and is a major advocate for health-care reform in Rhode Island. Most recently he has been a member of the law firm Edwards & Angell in Providence.
ePluribus Media: Why did you choose to run for Senate and not governor, as expected?
Sheldon Whitehouse: The state of our country right now is precarious, with a Republican administration in Washington that has seized power in all the major political parts of government -- the executive branch, the House and the Senate, that seems hell-bent to achieve political power in what is supposed to be the independent branch of government as well -- the judiciary. And I frankly don't like the direction the Bush administration is taking the country. The best chance for our country to restore some balance is to take back the Senate. And when I look out at a true-blue Rhode Island that went strong for Gore and for Kerry, and I see us sending a Republican senator down to Washington who votes for the Republican leadership that is on board with the Bush agenda, I think that we need to do something about it. We need a new agenda for this country -- things like Social Security, environmental protection and health care are all up in the air right now, if not directly under attack by Republicans.
Particularly after Jim Langevin and Patrick Kennedy indicated that they did not intend to run. I would have supported either of them, because I thought they were the strongest candidates, and it's most important for our country to try to get this seat back. But when they said no to running and that they would support me, I believe I became the strongest candidate, and I need to give it my shot. I just wouldn't be able to live with myself if 2006 came and went and '08 came and went, and we had a Senate on the bubble with a Republican vote keeping that leadership group in power. So I threw myself into this race.
ePMedia: It was expected that Representatives Langevin and Kennedy were going to run for the Senate from Rhode Island. Originally they may have been competition. Now, not only do they endorse you, they co-chair your campaign. How did you pull that off?
SW: Yes, they are my campaign co-chairs and I'm very proud of that. I think that we all agree on some fairly basic principles. One is that we need to have Rhode Island represented by a Democrat in the Senate. We need to have our strongest candidate available in the race, and I think Pat and Jim, who are down in Washington and see how tough it is for Democrats every day, are committed to getting a Democratic senator. I think they concluded that, based on my experience, I was the strongest candidate. I'm proud of their decision and of their support. We're now going forward together to win this state.
ePluribus Media: Mindy Myers manages your campaign. She headed former Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle's political-action committee and served as deputy director for constituency outreach for Al Gore's 2000 presidential run. She also worked in the legislative affairs office in the Clinton White House. Daschle and Gore lost their elections and are now out of politics. How will Myers help your campaign with her history, her record?
SW: She had a very good relationship with the Senate during her days as a staff person for the Senate majority leader, and she has considerable experience dealing with Senate campaigns around the country; she was the person Daschle would send out to check on his colleagues' races. She brings a lot of Washington and Senate experience. So she is a great asset. The bottom line is that it's going to be Rhode Islanders who make this decision, based on the message, on the candidates and on their appreciation of the country's condition.
ePluribus Media: Let's talk about the Democratic vision. Many are accusing the Democratic Party as lacking in viable ideas, of not providing leadership and not providing a clear message to the people. Others see Republicans walking all over Democrats as well -- a view strengthened recently by the passage of a massive, pork-infused energy-spending bill, which Democrats strongly opposed; the highly controversial recess appointment of John Bolton, again strongly opposed by Democrats, and an overtly unapologetic White House regarding the weakening premise for war in Iraq. Howard Dean's response, to cite one example, is to change the language used by the party. Do you think the Democratic Party is in trouble? Is there a Democratic message? How will you contribute?
SW: I do not think the Democratic Party is in trouble; I think it stands for the aspirations of average Americans. As an old friend from West Virginia told me years ago, "Over the long haul the Democratic Party stands up for the people who need help, and the Republican Party stands up for the people who don't."
That remains true and it provides a solid foundation going forward. I do think that the Republicans outmaneuvered us politically, particularly in the last two elections. I think we can learn some lessons we can learn from that, including some of the talk in Democratic circles about our ability to frame messages and so forth.
But there are also some fundamentals we can stay with. We can be the party that promotes a health-care system providing universal coverage so that all Americans can receive health care. We can reform the health-care system to make it affordable and raise the quality of medical care people receive in the United States. We can make sure the Democratic Party continues to be the party that recognizes Franklin D. Roosevelt's "freedom from want," that stands up for a decent and dignified old age for average Americans, rather than taking risky gambles in the stock market. We can be the party that stands for energy independence, as a security as well as an economic issue. We can be the party that sticks up for average consumers -- regular folks. And finally, we can be the party of governmental integrity. With the Haliburtons, with the crying need for campaign-finance reform, there are opportunities for those to be Democratic issues. These are core issues that the Democratic Party can be proud of and can rally behind. The public supports these issues.
We also have to be the party that gets it right. The Republicans allow government programs to become obsolete and inefficient so that they can privatize them, or end them outright. We've got to work hard to make sure that the programs we support continue to be effective and efficient.
ePluribus Media: Do Democrats have a chance to regain a political majority in 2006? How can Democrats be successful?
SW: I think there's a chance of it. From my perspective what's most important is that we win the seats we can. I'm in a race we can win and take a seat back. And that's what's important to me: to win and to take a seat back.
ePluribus Media: A lot of eyes are on Rhode Island right now.
SW: They should be. This is a very winnable race for Democrats. We need to take these seats back where we can, if we're going to restore a balance in the government to relieve the monopoly on power now exercised by the Republicans.
ePluribus Media: On the subject of taxes, Republicans know that if the Democrats come to power, they will probably reverse Bush's tax cuts. Grover Norquist has signatures from something like 90 percent of congressional Republicans pledging not to raise taxes. If a signatory is caught trying to raise taxes for any reason, he or she is pressured and shamed. So there's a lot of pressure, first for Republicans to sign the pledge, and second for them to live by their pledge.
This leaves the door open for major attacks against the Democrats: If they come to power, they'll be smeared as "tax and spend liberals," and the fight could be brutal. Do you think Democrats collectively are prepared to stave off these attacks if they obtain power?
SW: I support rolling back the tax reductions that went to America's wealthiest individuals. I think it's unfair that the administration seeks to reduce Social Security benefits for the middle class and at the same time gives huge tax refunds to the wealthiest and most successful Americans -- and all this at a time when the gap between America's richest and poorest is at its greatest since the stock market crash of the 1930s.
I'm not the least bit ashamed of that. I think average Americans see a lot in government that they like: a military that we are proud of, police officers who protect us day and night, child-protection agencies that work to help troubled children and their families. There's a lot about government in America to be proud of. And we can be the party of getting it right. As long as people think the tax system is fair, that they're getting value for their taxes, average Americans who're proud of this country and don't want the quick and easy deal will pay taxes that are fair in order to have the kind of life we enjoy -- where we have the freedoms from want and from fear that FDR spoke of.
I call the Republicans' general anti-tax strategy a political strategy on purpose, because it's really not an economic strategy at the rate they're spending. They're creating massive deficits that can only be paid back through taxes. Democrats can talk about things like the $150,000 in national debt that each child born in America inherits. That's part of the Republicans' legacy.
You know, that didn't exist when Bill Clinton was president. Americans are sophisticated enough to see the total economic picture. I think a lot of Americans say, "If I get a $300 tax rebate but my kids end up owing $150,000 each to pay for the deficits run up by the Republicans, that's not a good deal economically for my family."
ePluribus Media: At the same time, though, the Republican Party across the aisle has a large and loyal constituency. They're not going away. Our readers are interested in knowing whether, as a senator, you'd try to bridge the gap between the two parties. Besides putting up the "good fight" for people, are you also prepared to work with Republicans? What will you do, specifically?
SW: There are a lot of areas where Democrats and Republicans can and should be working together. For example, there's no Democratic or Republican way to run an efficient, effective health care system that reduces medical errors and provides coverage to all Americans. That's an administrative, intellectual task that Democrats and Republicans can accomplish together.
A well-trained, effective military that is supported at home and is provided adequate armor when sent into the field -- there's nothing Democratic or Republican about that. That's just getting it right.
On a lot of these issues, the Republicans have not done a good job. That gives us room to maneuver. But I think Americans very much want to see members of the House and Senate working together, rather than engaging in partisan squabbles. I think the best way to put an end to this partisan squabbling is to take back one of the houses so that members must work with each other, where the Republicans can't run roughshod over what opposition remains in government, forcing their agenda on the American people. They'll know they'll have to deal with a Democratic-majority Senate in ways that make more sense.
ePluribus Media: Who has inspired you most in your life?
SW: I've mentioned Franklin Delano Roosevelt twice already in this interview, and I've got a picture of him on my office wall [laughs]. So I think he was a great inspirational figure.
In my own family my father dedicated his life to serving his country and to fighting environmental battles. He's been a constant source of inspiration.
Then people around me day-to-day are a source of constant inspiration. We had a story here in the Sunday Providence Journal about a woman who lives in South Providence, a challenged neighborhood, who gets up every morning at 3 a.m. to walk to Warwick. Miles and miles she walks in the dark to get to her job at Wal-Mart.
ePluribus Media: Yes, we read that piece. She has to walk something like five miles through a tough neighborhood to a low-paying job.
SW: Yep. And when you see a story like that, that certainly is inspiring.
ePluribus Media: What disappoints you most about politics?
SW: The time and energy that get wasted on point scoring and partisan squabbling when there's real work to be done.
ePluribus Media: Let's talk about health care a bit more. This is something that is clearly important to you. You've done a lot regarding health-care reform in Rhode Island. You're on the board of directors of the Rhode Island Quality Institute, which advocates improving health care in the state, and you chair the Rhode Island Cancer Council. [Editor's note: Whitehouse's parents both died of cancer.] Can you talk about your accomplishments and goals regarding health care? What do you want to achieve nationally, as a senator, regarding health care?
SW: I think that America's health-care system is both our biggest national problem and our biggest national opportunity. We've seen double-digit increases in health-care costs for most of the last decade. We've been unable to provide coverage to all Americans. The outcomes that people get from the American health-care system compare unfavorably to those of people in other industrialized nations, and the cost is higher. At the same time we have the best doctors, the best nurses, and the best procedures of any place in the world. The problem is with the administration of the system, and the bureaucracy surrounding the system, and basically the shape and nature of the system itself. I have enough experience with the system here in Rhode Island to believe very deeply that we can provide universal coverage, lower the cost of health care, and improve health-care outcomes all at the same time.
Everybody has a moment when he or she has a chance to get involved in something really significant and to add some value to it. I think I can potentially add some value here. It's a very exciting time because I think we are ripe for reform in our health-care system. It can be done in a nonpartisan, win/win way that puts consumers at the front, that reestablishes the role of doctors in determining the direction of medical care, and that substantially reduces the 40,000 to 80,000 deaths every year from medical errors.
We can do all this so much better, and it's just crying out for attention. I read an article in The Economist recently saying that information technology had penetrated the health care industry less than any other industry except mining! There are just huge opportunities to bring into the health-care system some of the technologies and quality-control strategies that are prevalent in other industries, and to turn a tremendous corner for our country, for the medical profession, for consumers, for patients, for families. It's a very exciting prospect!
ePluribus Media: Republicans will probably attack hard against a national health care system.
SW: You don't necessarily have to have a national health-care system to have universal health care. There are other ways to make sure that everybody is covered. I'd be prepared to work with people to figure out the best way to get there. The underlying reform needing to take place is one that lowers costs, provides coverage for everyone, and increases the quality of care delivered through our health-care system.
ePluribus Media: Are you looking at something less than, say, the Canadian approach? A regionally integrated approach, where perhaps states work with each other?
SW: Our system is so big and complex now that before implementing any massive change, we would be wise to have tried it on a regional or local basis. Some of the work I and others have done in Rhode Island have positioned the state to become potentially one of those test areas. If the United States picked three or four areas to drive change in our health-care system, and Rhode Island were one of them, we've got the foundation here already for it to be enormously beneficial economically to the state and, at the same time, to provide a blueprint for national reform.
ePluribus Media: A major percentage of the U.S. population will retire soon. Life expectancy continues to rise with the advent of new drugs and better treatments. Bill Frist recently shifted in favor of stem cell research. As you know, he frequently touts that to the public. What is your position on stem cell research?
SW: I fully support the federal government's backing stem cell research, as far as the science indicates that it provides value. It's clearly worth the investment.
ePluribus Media: We hear all the time about the dangers of alcohol, of drinking and driving, of cocaine and heroin addiction. There is abuse of legally prescribed drugs, such as Oxycontin, amphetamines, even steroids. At the government level, there are methadone clinics, alcohol-recovery programs, needle-exchange programs -- but we never hear of anyone being addicted to or dying from marijuana use. Would you support legislation that would legalize and regulate marijuana strictly for medicinal purposes?
SW: If a licensed physician believes that medical marijuana is in the best interest of the patient, I believe he or she should be allowed to prescribe it.
ePluribus Media: Three candidates are running for the Democratic Senate nomination: you, Rhode Island Secretary of State Matt Brown, and Carl Sheeler. All three of you aspire to unseat the incumbent, Lincoln Chafee. In June, the Providence Journal stated, "This is one of the most watched races in the nation" -- especially since Lincoln Chafee is controversial.
Chafee has been polling well with Rhode Islanders. He has a lot of money in his war chest, intending to spend upwards of $3 million on the campaign, the most ever in Rhode Island history. He is a powerful Republican sitting on several important committees: the Committee on Foreign Relations, chairman of the Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs, and the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. He's voted against the Iraq war, against Bush's tax cuts. He's sponsored several pro-environmental bills and he even has the endorsement of NARAL Pro-Choice America, a major national pro-choice organization.
Furthermore, he is a key member of the "Gang of 14," the group of seven moderate Republicans and seven moderate Democrats who facilitated a major compromise on President Bush's judicial nominations. In light of favorable polls, money and his liberal leanings, how do you intend to beat Senator Chafee? What distinguishes you from him?
SW: Let me start by going back just a moment and give you my perspective on the race. We believe that at this point Senator Chafee is the most unpopular statewide elected official in Rhode Island.
ePluribus Media: Really?!
SW: Yes. According to most public polls, he is polling 41 to my 36 -- and I've been in the race only three months now. I outraised him two-to-one in the last quarter. And Rhode Island is fundamentally a blue state.
He goes down to Washington and votes for the Republican leadership. And while he can walk away from them on individual votes, Rhode Island would be better-served -- and I'm going to be able to make the case that Rhode Island will be better-served, given our values and our interests -- by somebody who will not vote for Bill Frist, but who will support a Democratic majority leader. After that, there are dozens of different votes we can get into. But I think that fundamentally, when Senator Chafee aids and abets the Republican leadership of the Senate and the Bush administration, he's distancing himself from the people of Rhode Island.
And I think they know it, and I think that's why he's in trouble here. Nothing against him personally, he's a fine individual, [Sheldon and his family are long-time friends of Chafee and his family] but he is simply in an impossible position between the values and interests of Rhode Island, and the schemes and devices of the Bush administration.
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