Thursday, August 26, 2010

Conversations with Candidates: Jim Holbert (KY's 5th Congressional District)

[This series of conversations with candidates is part of a new feature on Education Matters, and is entitled, "New Blood Needed For Bold Change: Cryn's Conversations With A New Type of Candidate." If you are a candidate running for office (city, state, or at the national level) and would like to be promoted on my site, please contact me at All candidates will have the opportunity to review the material I publish about them, so none of your words will be misconstrued. I'm happy to be of assistance in spreading the word about your candidacy, your values, and what you intend to do once elected. So far, I've interviewed Kevin Bradley (who's running as a Democrat for the House of Representatives, CO-5) and Rick Staggenborg, and he's running for U.S. as a Progressive in the state of Oregon.]

Talk about being hit by homesickness again - it had abated until this conversation. While speaking to Jim Holbert about politics, the past, and what needs to be done to help ordinary Americans, I noticed birds chirping in the background during our talk. I don't know when I heard birds chattering last, so it was a nice reminder that beyond the second largest city in the world, Nature in all of Her Glory is still alive and well, especially in the State of Kentucky. Those chit-chatting birds also reminded me of why I need to get back home. And it wasn't just the birds that made me feel that sense of urgency to return, but Jim's political ideas and passion. Here's what we discussed about his run for the U.S. House of Representatives in the 5th-Congressional District of KY:

CCJ: Jim, please allow me to first thank you for speaking to me about running for U.S. House of Representatives. You are a progressive Democrat, is that correct?

JH: Yes, that's right. That's fairly rare around these parts, but I think people are looking for 

CCJ: I see, and you're running for the 5th Congressional District in the fine state of Kentucky. Have you always described yourself as being a progressive Democrat?

JH: No. As a matter of fact, I was a Republican for many, many years. In the profession I was in - the military - political conservatism tends to dominate. But as I matured and got more work experience around the U.S. and paid closer attention to developments, I found that the prescriptions that the conservative movement had promoted were a failure. Republicans have prescribed some attractive solutions, but they don't seem to work in reality. We can just look at what has happened in the last 30 years in this country. It has been a series of disasters. Their theories sound good - you had that idea of trickle down economics, for instance, and that did not happen. Again, their ideas sound good in theory, but they don't  work. Instead, their ideas allowed the corporatists to take the money and the jobs. They gutted American jobs and have destroyed the American middle class.

CCJ: That sounds quite dismal, and I don't disagree. I think that President Reagan did a good job of unraveling a lot of the successful programs that FDR implemented, and that's one of the major problems with the U.S. From my perspective, I think it's easy to be hopeless. Based upon your remarks, are you as well?

JH: No, I have hope . . . a good deal of it, as a matter of fact. You're probably familiar with the saying: 'there's nothing done that can't be undone.' The people have to elect a critical mass in Congress, and I would say it will take around 300 progressive people in the House, and this will be the framework for change.

CCJ: I really like this idea that you just mentioned, i.e., that there's noting done that can't be undone. That reminds me that there is a lot of reason to still be hopeful. That's one of the reasons why I am seriously thinking about running for office, too.

JH: You should. There are lots of reasons to be hopeful.

CCJ: Who are your two favorite authors, and why?

JH: The fellow who had most influence on me early on is Bernard B. Fall. He was a Viennese refugee who fought in the resistance in France. His mother died in a concentration camp and his father was tortured and killed by the Gestapo. Fall moved to the U.S. and during his Doctoral work, he was encouraged to write about IndoChina during the years the French were fighting, and before we became involved there. He did a lot of research there, and wrote several books. As a young man coming up and preparing to get a commission as an Army officer during the last years of the war . . . . I never went to Vietnam, I graduated and was commissioned in 1975 . . .  but Fall was read by a lot of us. He left a lasting impression upon me as a younger man. He analyzed the France's political and military mistakes in Vietnam. He later predicted the U.S. debacle in Vietnam, too. That's because we began to make the same mistakes the French had made.. He was a tremendous scholar and remains highly regarded.  There are a lots of others . . . but for more general policy analysis, I'm looking at . . . hold on, I'm taking a look at my bookshelf [I hear rustling in the background]. Oh, here it is . . . have you heard of a guy named David Sirota?

CCJ: Yes, I am very familiar with his work.

JH: Well, he wrote a book called Hostile Takeover. That to me was a very well done expose of the past 30 years. On this topic, another very influential fellow who I think he should be read more is What's the matter with Kansas? by Thomas Frank. He followed-up with another excellent book called the Wrecking Crew.

I also want to mention Saul Alinsky - he called for the organizing of the middle class. He was a prophet and looked ahead thirty years. He made it clear back in the early '70s that the middle class would be sold out by the corporatists. That's why if we don't get organized today around electing some populists to office, we're over.

When it comes to the middle class organizing, I am optimistic, and that's not just rhetoric. Because there are a lot of people who have been politically asleep or politically misled, but they are starting to wake up and get involved. I can assure you I had very conservative values and for many years. That's why I am sure that a political reawakening is possible for millions of other people to wake up, too. If it could happen to a person like me, it's possible for anyone.
CCJ: I agree. It's amazing to see how many people are involved with the student lending crisis and who volunteer on behalf of the indentured educated class. I have a lot of theories on why so many Americans are finally waking up, but what are your thoughts on the matter?

JH: Well, Cryn, I think people have realized they've been sold a bill of goods, and there's nothing worse than an irate customer. We've tried with the best intentions, but it has failed.

Republicans, well, you see, they are not nonplussed about it. Even in the Reagan era Republicans had more integrity than today. But nowadays it's [the Republican Party] been hijacked by a bunch of lunatics. The struggle now among Republicans candidates is who can be crazier. Those who get marginalized are the ones who speak sensibly. That's because everyone has to throw meat that's redder and rawer than what was thrown yesterday. I think the future of the Republicans is that it will be a third party, a sort of regional party.

CCJ: Interesting. My father used to be a Republican, but that was when their values weren't so far off. For instance, he agreed with their support of small business and fiscal responsibility. Why were you a Republican for so many years?

JH: I was a Republican because the party used to have some good ideas. There's nothing wrong with fiscal conservatism. There was restraint in foreign policy, with an aversion to interventionism, and so forth. Where has that Republican Party gone? It doesn't exist anymore.

CCJ: Indeed, it used to be that the Democrats were known to be the warmongers.

JH: That's right.

CCJ: So shifting gears, let's talk about the Democratic Party. What are your thoughts about the Democrats these days?

JH: I am appealing to the people and wanting to resuscitate the notion that the Democratic Party is the Party of the Common Man. Unfortunately, it still sees itself as such, and there it takes too much for granted. It takes it for granted that people will feel that it has that orientation. But people have to have concrete results to be reassured that that's the case. When the party went to the left in the late '60s and '70s and started embracing second tier issues and putting them first, that's what drove the so-called Reagan Democrats to the Republican side. The Republicans at that time talked about bread-and-butter issues and Democrats stopped doing that, and the voters bolted. Democrats have taken their eyes off the bread-and-butter issues. And now the Republicans just lie about it. The middle class has been destroyed, jobs have been outsourced, and the country has been de-industrialized. Neither party is really doing much to help or change this situation.

CCJ: There's been a lot of buzz about distancing yourself from Obama as a Democrat. What are your thoughts about this, in my view, overly "sexy" discussion?

JH: That's a very topical question. To tell you the truth I think it's a bit presumptuous. It's really a bunch of hogwash if you ask me. But I'll get to the point: I support Obama in the same sense I supported Bush, or any President: I believe the best way to support people is to give them constructive criticism. The fact is, President Obama has lots and lots of advisors, and I think he's been taking lousy advice so far.

CCJ: I absolutely agree. I was a scholar at Harvard, and am aware of what Larry Summers did to that institution. I think he's awful, and that he shouldn't be an economic advisor to President Obama.

JH: He's not getting great advice when it comes to the economy. And at this point, the best thing I can say about Obama is that he's not a Republican. He punished the right-wingers on the Republican side, drove them out of office. But it will be nip and tuck in the next 6 years of the election cycles. The biggest problem for the Obama Administration, and don't get me started on those in Congress, but here's my biggest critique of President Obama and the Democrats: they squandered political capital. I don't think Obama realized how much political capital he had when he was elected. I suppose, 'Who I am to say this . . .'

CCJ: Well, you're a citizen whose voice matters, so you ought to have a take on these issues.

JH: Well, yes, that's right. In any event, when Obama was elected . . . I was running for Congress back then, already . . .  I was calling for a 'New' New Deal, and I think that if the Obama Administration had ramped it up by an order of more magnitude, and if Pelosi in the House, and the Dems in Senate, could have enforced party discipline, we could have had in just the first 6-8 months the following: real single-payer health care, an end ri both wars, and real work plan policy that would have created millions of new job. The last point would have been based upon a bottom up method. But frankly the Congress fooled around and Obama deferred to much of their foolishness. My wrath is really reserved for the Dems in the House and the Senate, especially the Senate. You see, when people are out of power, everyone is united. But once they've won and had that glass of victory champagne, it goes right to their head, and they get dis-united. Where did these Blue Dogs come from? And what about all this in-fighting? There should have been party unity. I fault Pelosi and Reid for that. They should have forced party discipline. People in the nineteenth century . . . they would've been very surprised to see Congress turning into a rubber stamp for the Executive Branch; it used to set National policy, and we need to get back to that. Obama should have shot higher. He came out with moderation, and that was a mistake, in my opinion.  If you go into negotiations wanting $1000, you start out asking for $10k; it’s the same principle.. I've been very disappointed over the last 20 months, especially with the lack of decisive action to end the wars and our involvement in that region, and with jettisoning the public option in health care, but the game is not over yet. He's [Obama] facing the biggest problem with the mid-terms and when he goes up for re-election in 2012. He's done a lot of good, yes. But is it going to be enough to get the economy out of the trash? Will it be enough to show people tangible benefits?  We’ll see.

CCJ: Sure. I can't disagree with what you're saying . . .

JH: Let me make one more point . . . The people who are really responsible are the Democrats. Because they are in charge. The thing to do is cowboy up, stop pointing fingers, and stop looking at the past. But if they want power for a generation, as they enjoyed after the Roosevelt era, they should start acting like it matters.

You see, Democrats used to be the party that got things done.

The best example is Franklin D. Roosevelt - early on in his administration he was already acting. The country demanded bold experimentation like that now. At that point, Roosevelt decided, 'We're going to try something. If it doesn't work, we'll admit it, and try something else.' This spirit has been completely lost. I always encourage Democrats to get back to their roots. The Democrats used to believe in things being possible. They used to believe that it was important to get things done, so for God’s Sake, we gotta get back to that.

But let me tell you that I have a burning message that I need to get out. Here's what I believe with all my heart. We waste time, money, and effort trying to lobby elected officials to vote in a populist way. They are not going to be lobbied like that. Why? Well, it's an easy answer. The other side has so much more money power than we do. The only way to solve it is this: we need to find progressive, populist people who are electable, and get behind them, and actually get them in office. The only way to make change is by electing new people into Congress. That's when Congress will vote our way and not the corporatist way. That's what it boils down to.

[Author] Charles Beard made it clear in 1913. He returned to Madison's original point, that's to say the Government is set up to protect monied interests, and it's done a great job of that so far. But bottom line is that they [the corporatist types] cut their own throats. Capitalism almost killed itself during the Great Depression, but Franklin Delano Roosevelt managed to save capitalism by making changes which were needed. Republicans hate Roosevelt, and yet he's responsible for saving capitalism from itself.

But the problem is that we needed Obama to be more of a Roosevelt. You see, in my view, capitalism is morphing back into a new age of feudalism. I don't think it's going to get that way, and I'll tell you why, because there will be a revolution first. It happened in the French Revolution. Worldwide unimpeded capitalism is morphing today into an Anciens Regime, and when that happens, revolution interposes itself. You know, I don't want to see my country in a revolution. It's bloody, it's messy, and it's economically draining. That's why we need that greatness that was felt from Roosevelt. Before Franklin, we had Teddy Roosevelt during the Guilded Age, and he interposed change and saved capitalism in his day, too. Then Franklin D. Roosevelt came along and saved it from itself again. But no one is here to save capitalism from itself now. Yet that's exactly what we need.

CCJ: I'm intrigued by your remarks about the uselessness of being an activist. You see, I am currently an advocate for student loan debtors and am oftentimes very frustrated by the silence from the Hill, the White House, and the Department of Education. It's as if nobody inside the Beltway really cares about the fact that millions of Americans are drowning in student loan debt, are defaulting, and suffering tremendously. That's actually one of the reasons why I am thinking about running for the U.S. House of Representatives, because we need to ensure that debtors' voices are also represented in D.C. At this juncture, they aren't being heard, and instead the student lending industry with all their lobbyists dominate those offices 24/7. I mean, I can't blame a lot of public servants. If that's what they're being fed, and that's who is supporting their campaigns for reelection, well, then of course they're going to side with the lenders. That needs to change.

JH: In my view, activism and lobbying are worthless. The bought-and-paid-for politicians’ positions on all sorts of things are clear.
Dirksen said long ago 'when I feel the heat, I see the light.' But that attitude no longer exists. That's to say their positions are staked out, bought and paid for, and therefore not subject to change despite political pressure from people. So . . . you have say Exxon-Mobil’s, or whoever it is, that guy in Congress, and he really doesn’t care how many people call his office, or shout in town halls. He knows he’s facing multi-million dollar campaign bills is now and those bills get paid by sticking to voting for the corporatist interests, so, they'll vote that way, end of story. That's why we need to get 'em out of Congress and get some populists in there.

CCJ: I agree entirely with you, and that's why I will run . . .
JH: Do it, Cryn. Just run. I decided to run in 2008 and ran as an Independent, and in this 2010 cycle I sought and won the Democratic nomination. My goal is to win the election, but failing that by running I can get things discussed in newspapers and on TV and radio that aren’t getting discussed now.  That's one level of victory.  I know I won't push Hal Rogers off his position, his positions are bought and paid for by the corporatist campaign money that keeps him in office.  But I am not going to allow the guy to run unopposed, as he has roughly half of his tenure. To do that is a complete perversion of democracy. The incumbent re-election rate is north of 90%, and yet the Country is falling apart. Something has got to be done. Whether we succeed or not doesn't matter. We have to do it. We have to step up. If we get beat, so what? We've lost nothing.

CCJ: That's inspiring, and I am sure my readers will agree with you. It's worth the fight. That's for sure. That's why I want to help spread the word about your candidacy.
JH: Let me give you an idea and see what you want to do with it . . . someone needs to do it, and maybe you are the person who could succeed at it - focus on having one goal and one goal only.

CCJ: I do. I am focused on the issue of education and the student lending crisis.
JH: That's good. Sign people up to commit to your cause, and have them send an allotment, let's say $10 a month. I know things are rough for people, but pretty much everyone can afford around $10 a month. If you can get a million people out of the US to do that over the course of an election cycle, you would generate $240 million. Let's say your overhead is nothing.

CCJ: My overhead would be next to nothing. I am doing all this advocating now, and I'm able to finance it on my own. That's thanks to the fact that the cost of living in Korea is so low, and I am able to teach. However, I'd like to find a way to actually return to the U.S. and make this a full-time job.

JH: Sure. I understand. If you were able to raise that type of money, you could channel it into progressive candidates. In one fail swoop, you would in effect enact the same thing as Government financed campaigning. At this juncture, we can't raise any money, because corporations won't give us any money. Moreover, I'm in one of the poorest districts in the U.S., so there aren't a lot of donors.

If I had twenty-five thousand dollars, that would could farther in this district than 10 times that amount in a NY district. If I had that type of money, I could rock this campaign. Right now, I'm rockin' a lot of boats. Problem here, this guy has never had any real opposition. He's made deals with everybody in both Parties. If he goes away all these rice bowls get broken. 55% of this District is registered as a Democrat, but when they vote, 66% of them vote for Republican Hal Rogers. Why? Because he's Mr. Pork. Everybody has some kind of deal with him. If he goes away, the rice bowl goes away.

Sad thing is, these coal operators are destroying this part of the country. When that resource is gone, this place is going to be a crater. They have about 20 or 30 years of resources left down here. When it’s gone, they’ll be gone too.  All these coal and energy companies in these parts . . . it's all remote ownership - most the companies are located up in Pennsylvania, New York, and Virginia. The only reason they care anything about this region is because of the money that can still be made here. Sure they'll come down here ever once and in a while, with crocodile smiles, and when someone gets killed, they shed some crocodile tears. But they only really care about getting the resources the cheapest way possible, and that is with mountain top removal mining - consequences be damned, the public will end up paying for the consequences, not them. When the resource is gone the corporatists will pull up stakes, and the morning after they are gone this region  will make Tobacco Rd look like New York’s Upper Eastside.

CCJ: Interesting. That sounds pretty devastating. On another issue, what are your thoughts on education?
JH: Well, you see, when it comes to education issues, this is what I think: jobs and education are on two sides of the same coin. As Alinksy pointed out, all of these problems are interrelated. If you try to address everything in a context you begin to see behind the problems, and you understand that there is a common source for all of these crises. That's to say the capitalists have hijacked the Government, and they are the reason why we have all these war problems, job problems, education problems, and so forth.

CCJ: Well, I don't disagree. Jim, it was an absolute pleasure to speak with you today, and I look forward to supporting your candidacy. Please let me know how I can be of service.
JH: You bet, Cryn. You feel free to call me anytime. I'm happy to talk with you. Good luck with your own plans to run for U.S. House of Representatives!

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