Truthdigger of the Week: Progressive Congressional Candidate Tim Canova
Every week the Truthdig editorial staff selects a Truthdigger of the Week, a group or person worthy of recognition for speaking truth to power, breaking the story or blowing the whistle. It is not a lifetime achievement award. Rather, we’re looking for newsmakers whose actions in a given week are worth celebrating.
The urgent question in American politics is a simple one: Who, in contests for every available public office in the country, will stand with the American people against the indifferent power of special interests?
By the account of The Intercept co-founder Glenn Greenwald, Debbie Wasserman Schultz will not. A six-term representative for Florida’s 23rd Congressional District, chair of the Democratic National Committee and co-chair of Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, Schultz became a villain of the 2016 Democratic primary when she severely limited the number of Democratic debates and scheduled them for times that ensured low viewership. This led to widespread perceptions that she had breached the obligation to neutrality that comes with her position of leadership within the party and was working for Clinton to limit the exposure of her opponent Bernie Sanders, a candidate with enormous populist appeal.
“In general,” wrote Greenwald, “Wasserman Schultz is the living, breathing embodiment of everything rotted and corrupt about the Democratic Party: a corporatist who overwhelmingly relies on corporate money to keep her job, a hawk who supports the most bellicose aspects of U.S. foreign policy, a key member of the ‘centrist’ and ‘moderate’ pro-growth New Democrat coalition” and “a co-sponsor of the failed Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA)” who demanded that NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden “be extradited, arrested, and prosecuted” because he allegedly “jeopardized millions of Americans”—a version of events that Clinton has endorsed without demonstrating it to the satisfaction of independent experts.
For the first time in her career, however, Wasserman Schultz faces a Democratic challenger for her seat in Congress: Tim Canova, “a smart, articulate, sophisticated lawyer,” in Greenwald’s words. A law professor seeking to help Sanders and other progressives resume the New Deal project of transforming the United States into a genuine social democracy, Canova supported Occupy Wall Street and opposed the Wall Street bailout and the Patriot Act, both of which Wasserman Schultz supported with votes. He served as an aide to the late Sen. Paul Tsongas, worked with former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson against the drug war and for-profit prisons and advised Sen. Sanders on Federal Reserve policy on a committee that included economists Joseph Stiglitz, Robert Reich and James Galbraith. He vocally supported the effort led by then-Reps. Ron Paul and Alan Grayson to audit the Federal Reserve and has never wavered on his opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an international trade treaty championed by President Obama that has long been negotiated by corporate lobbyists in secret. Sen. Elizabeth Warren has written that the agreement would “undermine U.S. sovereignty” by “allow[ing] foreign companies to challenge U.S. laws” in international courts “and potentially to pick up huge payouts from taxpayers.”
Canova also spent part of the 1990s warning against both Bill Clinton’s dismantling of Glass-Steagall, the Depression-era law that for six decades prevented disasters in investment banking from spilling over into Americans’ savings, and the then newly developed financial derivatives — both of which precipitated the financial crisis of 2008. (You may recall that derivatives are so complicated that a vice president of Lehman Brothers and a Harvard economist struggled to explain them in filmmaker Michael Moore’s 2009 film, “Capitalism: A Love Story.”)
I first encountered Canova in San Rafael, Calif., in 2013 when he spoke to attendees of a two-day conference organized by the Public Banking Institute, the organization founded by Truthdig contributor and public banking advocate Ellen Brown, about the need to reform the Federal Reserve. (Investigative reporter Matt Taibbi and Icelandic parliamentarian Birgitta Jonsdottir also spoke.) “I think it’s so important here to understand the forces that have undermined our democracy, undermined our economic prosperity and are destroying the middle class and harming the poor,” Canova said at the start of his remarks. “And of course, the importance of understanding our own roles, our own responsibilities as citizens, as agents of change, not alone, but acting together.”
In closing he said, “We have to see ourselves as benefactors for future generations fighting for democracy. We have to see ourselves as redeemers of our broken democracy.”
In an interview Greenwald conducted with Canova shortly after the latter announced his campaign, Canova continued with his theme of “making our institutions more democratically accountable,” a commitment that he said “has animated me throughout my career.” The conviction drives his challenge of Wasserman Schultz, whom he has described as “the quintessential corporate machine politician.” With Bernie Sanders closing in on Hillary Clinton in the polls before the caucus in Iowa, we at Truthdig were intrigued to learn that another credible public advocate was seeking to recover official power from the iteration of the Democratic Party that has kept its back to American workers for 2½ decades. What we learned compelled us to make him Truthdigger of the Week.
I spoke with Canova by telephone recently about the political prospects of U.S. progressives. The following transcript of our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
* * *Alexander Reed Kelly:
Thanks for taking the time to speak with me, Tim, and on behalf of all of us at Truthdig, congratulations on your campaign.
Tim Canova: Thank you for the honor of being called a Truthdigger, Alex.
Q: I’m interested in your campaign as an expression of what many people feel is a revival of populism underway in the United States. You’re a progressive critic of the status quo mounting a congressional campaign against the Democratic Party establishment. Some people suggest that candidates like you should not be supported because they assume such candidates will not be able to work with the existing system. How do you respond to these claims? And if you obtain office, what will you see as your chief functions and responsibilities?
A: My responsibility would be to represent the interests of the people in my district, and by that I mean real live people, not corporate persons. The real live people of this country have been neglected for way too long. To those who say that there’s no room for progressives in our party’s politics, my response is that they don’t have much faith or confidence in democracy, and that progressives have done plenty of good in this country’s past. Are they going to dismiss the administrations of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy? The progressives going back to Teddy Roosevelt? It’s a way of basically trying to restrict democracy to big corporate interests. When Bernie Sanders is elected he’ll be able to work with Congress if we have a wave election that brings us a Democratic Congress with many progressives.
Q: That answer deals with pundits, political advisers and other public figures who resist challenges to the status quo. But what do you say to working people who find themselves repeating what these figures say?
A: I felt the same way for two or three years and have just in the past six months to a year come around to believing that now’s not the time to be discouraged. This is a great moment of opportunity for this country. The Bernie Sanders campaign has galvanized people all over the land. It’s OK to be demoralized now and then. It happens, especially when you’ve been on the losing side for so long. It’s OK to get down. But it’s also in the nature of human beings to get back up and fight.
Q: At the Public Banking Institute’s conference in San Rafael in 2013 you were bleak about our nation’s “prospect for reform” given what you described as our “two-party, corporate-owned duopoly.” You said: “It seems to me that nothing’s gonna change in this country under the Republicans and the Democrats. I’m sorry to say it as a lifelong Democrat: To me it suggests the need for a third party united by core principles.” Today you’re running for Congress as a Democrat. What changed between 2013 and now?
A: What changed for me was Bernie Sanders’ candidacy. Perhaps an Elizabeth Warren candidacy would have done this as well. It was the corporate establishment of the Democratic Party that I was criticizing in San Rafael. It was demoralizing to see the progressive wing of the party so marginalized during much of the Obama administration. But over the past six months or so, the growing movement behind Bernie Sanders’ campaign renewed my hopes in progressive reform within the Democratic Party and inspired my decision to run.Q: What will be your first priorities if and when you enter office?
A: I will try to form a bipartisan caucus on campaign finance reform—to try to take money out of politics. I say that because almost any other agenda that we’re concerned about, from Wall Street reform and job creation to climate change, all the corporate money in politics gets in the way of those agendas. That would probably be my first course of business. Right under campaign finance reform would be Wall Street reform and job creation and trying to be part of the effort to end this drug war and start us down the path of transforming this economy toward alternative energies and getting very serious about climate change. I’m here in south Florida where the projections are that in 20 to 30 years a lot of south Florida could be underwater. Climate change is not theoretical here in Florida’s 23rd Congressional District. People have to understand that it’s an existential problem.
Q: How do you pursue these objectives with colleagues who oppose them?
A: In the past I’ve worked with folks who you would not call progressive. As a law professor I worked in 2009 and 2010 with congressional staffs on both sides of the aisle on the Federal Reserve transparency provisions of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act. I worked with folks from the Ron Paul libertarian and Republican right to the Bernie Sanders and Alan Grayson camp on the progressive left. I would not write off anybody, and if they don’t agree initially you have to try to convince them. I also believe that electoral success has a powerful effect. I will be elected without a penny of corporate money. In our first three weeks our campaign has received more than 4,000 individual donations already. Electoral success speaks very loudly in Washington, and I think there will be other progressives this year and in the future who will also step up and, you could say, follow our playbook. The days when money can simply buy elections—let’s hope those days are quickly receding. Two years ago Eric Cantor spent something like $5 million in a primary that he lost to David Brat, an economics professor whom I read spent $200,000. People are clearly fed up with incumbents and business as usual, which helps explain the rise of Donald Trump as well as Bernie Sanders. Millennials in particular are less likely to be influenced by expensive 30-second commercials and more likely to just fast-forward through them. Just look at Jeb Bush’s campaign. How much has he raised—[more than] $100 million? He’s spent it everywhere and yet so far he has stayed down near rock bottom in the polls. There could be a number of reasons for this, but it seems to point to the increasing ineffectiveness of these kinds of campaigns. Hillary Clinton has raised a lot of money and it certainly seems that she’s not exactly clobbering Bernie Sanders at this point.
Q: In addition to Bernie Sanders’ campaign, did the electoral and policy successes of Seattle’s socialist City Councilwoman Kshama Sawant and Socialist Alternative, the party behind her, influence your decision to run?
A: The Sanders campaign more than Kshama Sawant’s campaign in Seattle. I was a supporter of his from the day of his announcement, and as his campaign gathered steam it struck me that even if he’s elected president he’s gonna have a hard time governing with lawmakers like my opponent, Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Her vote last summer to fast-track the Trans-Pacific Partnership — the TPP — was the final straw not just for me but for a lot of labor folks and progressive Democrats here in south Florida. Many of us thought that someone should challenge her in the primary because of her fast-track vote, yet at that time I did not consider myself for the run. However, after many months it was clear no one else would do it, and I came to feel that if we want change, then all of us — ordinary folks like you and me — have to step up. There’s a problem when you see members of Congress getting re-elected at rates of 95 percent because the state legislatures have gerrymandered so many safe House seats. Then, on top of that, if there’s no primary challenge because it’s considered bad form for a Democrat to challenge an incumbent Democrat, then we’re saying that incumbents can gather corporate money, neglect the interest of their own constituents and it’s not a problem. They’ll get re-elected because they’re not challenged in primaries and in safe districts in the general election. And that’s just not the way democracy should work. Democracy is about contested agendas, contested elections and letting the voters decide. It’s a sad state when we’re afraid of contested elections.
Q: You would welcome a challenger if you become an incumbent, then?
A: I would certainly debate any challenger, let’s put it that way. I wouldn’t do anything to stop somebody from challenging me. I would welcome a debate.
Q: Do you have a sense of how many other people who possess credentials that would make them “electable” in the minds of many voters are ready to run for office if you, Sanders and others confirm that grass-roots-funded opposition candidates can get elected?
A: Zephyr Teachout, a Fordham law professor, has just announced that she’s running for Congress in New York, and Jamie Raskin, an American University law professor and Maryland state senator, is also running for Congress. Certainly lots of law professors are quite capable of running for office and this should not be seen as some kind of elitist statement. Professors aren’t making fortunes. They have devoted their lives to the study of ideas and to political activism. And that’s just one profession; there are many others to draw upon. What prevents so many ordinary people from stepping up is the view that they’ve internalized: that it’s futile, that they don’t stand a chance and they should just sit on the sofa and watch politics as a spectator sport. Those who want progressive change have got to step up and put their time and money on the line.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add regarding particular policies you endorse or any other topic?
A: We have already discussed the priorities of job creation, Wall Street reform, climate change and the drug war. I would be remiss if I did not ask for help from other concerned people, from truthdiggers everywhere. My opponent today is scheduled to have a $5,000-a-plate fundraiser. She can raise more today from a handful of CEOs than our campaign has raised in three weeks from 4,000 small donations. Just like the Bernie Sanders campaign, we need ordinary folks to step up and make small contributions—not just once, but again and again. I would urge people to go to our campaign website at TimCanovaforCongress.com and to join our campaign Facebook page and to spread the word and help in any way they can, including small contributions. Certainly one law professor cannot take on the machine alone. This is the fight between people power and a big, heartless corporate machine. I urge people to join us. I think it will send a major message to Washington that progressives in this country cannot be taken for granted by the corporate-dominated establishment. The progressive wing of the Democratic Party and progressive values and policy agendas were for many years great for our party, they made this country great, and they need to be the future of our party.
Alexander Reed Kelly is an assistant editor at Truthdig.