I first met Senator Jamie Raskin during my own advocacy efforts regarding issues he was working on including gun safety and campaign finance reform. I was very pleased to be able to sit down with Raskin and discuss with him his vision for Maryland and the nation as he launches his campaign to fill the Congressional seat of Congressman Chris Van Hollen, who is beginning his own campaign to fill the Senate seat soon to be vacated by the retiring Senator Barbara Mikulski. The interview was conducted in Raskin's office at American University’s Washington College of Law where he holds the position of professor of Constitutional law and director of the Program on Law and Government.
The Sentinel: What are your proudest achievements at the state level that you envision championing in Congress?
Senator Jamie Raskin: I suppose my proudest achievement is simply to zealously and faithfully serve my 150,000 constituents every day. Over the last decade, the General Assembly has passed more than 100 bills I have introduced. Each one of them is an effort to make life better for my constituents and the people of Maryland. When I was the Senate floor leader for marriage equality and we became the first state in the Union to stop marriage discrimination without a court order forcing us to do so, I was serving thousands of my constituents who were being discriminated against in their pensions, their Social Security, their medical insurance and hundreds of other rights and benefits of marriage, not to mention the insult and indignity imposed on their children. This was a great triumph for our state, and I will never forget being greeted and embraced by hundreds of people after we voted.
The Sentinel: Are there other similar moments?
Sen. Raskin: Sure, lots of them, but not all so visible necessarily. I worked closely with Mothers Against Drunk Driving and Delegate Ben Kramer for years to crack down on drunk driving. When you meet kids in your district whose father was killed by a drunk driver or parents whose daughter died in a drunk driving accident on prom night, it makes a permanent impression. So when we finally overcame the resistance of big liquor and imposed the ignition interlock device on the steering wheels of repeat drunk drivers in 2011, it was a monumental breakthrough. Our drunk driving fatality rate has fallen substantially since then.
The Sentinel: What are your top three federal issue priorities that you'll take to Congress?
Sen. Raskin: First of all, humankind’s carbon emissions in industry, agriculture, energy and transportation have destabilized the earth’s climate system. The ice caps are melting, the polar bears are drowning, there is drought and out-of-control brushfires in California, hurricanes and flooding in the east, and fracking-induced earthquakes across the land. We need to provide serious and sustained leadership to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions and develop alternative renewable technologies. Second, we have an ailing and crumbling infrastructure in America, witness the collaThe Sentineling bridges and awful Amtrak derailment that happened outside Philly. We need to make a massive investment in our transportation, housing and educational infrastructure for a strong and unified America. If you put our environmental imperatives together with our economic imperatives, we need what I call a “Green Deal,” a massive national investment in an environmentally conscious revitalization of America’s physical and social infrastructure. Right now the actual green deal is a series of special-interest giveaways and tax breaks in Washington where campaign donors and lobbyists have their way over the public interest. So my third priority is to continue to challenge Citizens United, one of the most egregious Supreme Court decisions of all time, and to fight for disclosure of all the Super Pac and dark money that is distorting public policy in America and for a constitutional amendment to reverse Citizens United. I will be fighting hard for the common good over special-interest rip-offs like the “carried interest” provision which allows super-wealthy hedge fund managers to treat their income as capital gains. We tax the labor of working people at a much higher rate than the capital gains of Wall Street traders. I’ll be fighting for the 99 percent.
The Sentinel: I am particularly interested in two pieces of legislation you championed, namely Maryland's Firearms Safety Act of 2013 and the Shareholders Protection Act. Let's begin with the issue of gun safety. In addition to currently being a state senator, you are also a Constitutional law professor. Do you see any path to addressing the misunderstanding throughout the nation, but particularly in Congress, about the Second Amendment and its serving as an impediment to closing nationally the so called gun show/internet loophole on universal background checks, something more than 80 percent of Americans favor?
Sen. Raskin: Well, look, there has been this traditional debate between liberals, who say that bearing arms must be tethered to militia service, and conservatives who say that the prefatory clause to the Second Amendment is separate and detached and so everyone has a right to bear arms even without participating in a “well-regulated militia.” But I think this debate, in the wake of the Heller decision anyway, is obsolete. The five conservative Justices prevailed. But it doesn’t make much difference because even the conservative Justices concede that individual gun rights are subject to reasonable regulation in service of public safety. Even Justice Scalia, for instance, says that guns can be kept from felons, the mentally ill, public places and so on. The constitutional right to have arms for self-defense and recreation must exist in the context of other competing and compelling social interests. So I introduced legislation to give the State Police authority to inspect state gun dealers, most of whom are honest and law-abiding. But a certain number of unscrupulous gun dealers are dealing guns directly into the criminal underground, making life hell in a lot of neighborhoods. We passed that, and we passed my bill to require all stolen and lost guns to be reported within 72 hours so the dealers don’t claim six months later after someone is killed by one of their guns in a gangland execution that the gun was lost but they forgot to report it. It’s the same thing with the assault weapon ban which I introduced and which became part of the broader gun safety package I worked on with now Attorney General Brian Frosh. It’s perfectly constitutional to eliminate assault weapons. Nobody hunts with an assault weapon, nobody needs one for self-defense, and we know exactly what they are good for. So when we got rid of those assault weapons after the horror of Newtown, Connecticut, we made Maryland a little bit safer for our people.
The Sentinel: Your Shareholders Protection Act, also called “Shareholders United”, is similar to Congressman Van Hollen's Disclose Act in that it also attempts to introduce transparency into the campaign finance process. The Disclose Act failed to pass in Congress; how do you plan to proceed to make inroads into much needed campaign finance reform? I noticed that the Supreme Court just ruled in the Williams-Yulee v the Florida Bar case that states may prohibit judicial candidates from personally asking their supporters for campaign contributions for fear that such a request may "compromise public confidence in their integrity". The Court, in the Citizens United v the FEC case, failed to see the same need for legislators to avoid the same appearance of impropriety.
Sen. Raskin: That’s an excellent point. The Court is realistic about the role of money in judicial elections but lives in a fairy tale when it comes to money in legislative elections. It has also ruled that the West Virginia Supreme Court violated due process when it allowed one of its justices to rule in a case where he had benefitted from a huge independent expenditure on behalf of his judicial campaign by one of the parties in the case. It saw that as a complete distortion of due process and the rule of law and blind justice. But, on the other hand, the court continues to wipe out campaign finance law as applied to legislative elections and presidential campaigns to turn corporate treasuries into political slush funds for the CEOs. If you don’t think big money distorts legislative decision-making, you’re too innocent to be let out of the house by yourself. So my “Shareholders United” bill says simply that no corporation can engage in political spending without a prior vote of the shareholders and no company can engage in spending without immediate disclosure on the corporate website. I will be very proud to take over from Congressman Van Hollen the fight for the Disclose Act.
The Sentinel: Republicans still refer to Reagan's "Trickle Down Economics" as a viable economic course of action even though 90 percent of the economic gains have been going to the top 1 percent. Do you believe that raising the minimum wage is an effective mechanism for breaking the logjam at the top and getting some of that "trickle" to trickle down to the workers?
Sen. Raskin: Yes, increasing the minimum wage is a great start, and I’m proud that, as Chair of the Montgomery County Senate delegation, I organized all of our colleagues to come out early for the minimum wage hike that we passed. But, in truth, we’re looking not just for a better minimum wage but for a real living wage for every Marylander who works to support his or her family. Fifty years ago, the largest employer in America was General Motors and the average employee was in a union and earned $35 an hour. Today the largest employer is Walmart and the average employee makes less than $10 an hour and has no union. A half-century later, the middle class is eroding. We need policies to bring back high-wage jobs in a high-road economy.
The Sentinel: How did you deal with partisanship at the state level and what adjustments do you anticipate if you make it to Congress?
Sen. Raskin:: I have partnered with a bunch of Republican colleagues to pass important bills and make progress for our state. Conservative Republican Senator David Brinkley, who is a cancer survivor, and I fought successfully to pass a medical marijuana law for our state, and the drug is now available to tens of thousands of people suffering from cancer, HIV, multiple sclerosis, and other serious diseases. Conservative Republican Michael Hough and I introduced the Second Chance Act to give people convicted of nonviolent misdemeanors, like prostitution and possession of small amounts of marijuana, the opportunity to shield their records if they have been clean for a period of three years. I did important public transparency legislation with conservative Republican Senator Alex Mooney, now a Congressman from West Virginia because I think the public and businesses have every right to know where tax dollars are being spent. My legislation to allow direct wine shipment into our state and also by our wineries outside of state had tremendous bipartisan support. These coalitions are based not on compromise but on finding common ground of principle. Remember, the word “party” comes from the French “partie,” which means simply a part. We have to remember that our own party is just part of the whole, and there are a lot of people in other parties and some who are totally independent; I represent them too.
The Sentinel: You've talked about being an "effective progressive." What exactly does that mean?
Sen. Raskin: It means the ability to effect change and I am proud that the General Assembly has passed more than 100 bills I sponsored or cosponsored into law, and many of those are things that were considered impossible at the time-—marriage equality, abolition of the death penalty, restoration of voting rights to ex-felons, ignition interlock devices on the cars of convicted drunk drivers, the benefit corporation law, the National Popular Vote. I have also helped a lot of my colleagues get their bills passed into law, like the Comprehensive Firearms Safety Act, which Senator Brian Frosh spearheaded. My ability to effect change is also evidenced by how others have viewed my record and I am also proud that my campaign for Congress now has the endorsement of more than 55 elected officials, including Attorney General Brian Frosh, Montgomery School Board President Patricia O’Neill, Montgomery Council President George Leventhal, Congressman John Conyers, who is the most senior Member of Congress and co-founder of the Congressional Black Caucus, Congressman John Sarbanes, who represents the neighboring district, Kensington Mayor Pete Fosselman, Frederick County State Senator Ron Young, and a host of others. These are the people I work with every day so it means a lot that they are showing their faith in my service and my campaign.
The Sentinel: As we sit here in your office as a law professor, as someone who is clearly intelligent, how difficult a transition do you anticipate as you enter the world inhabited by the likes of Louie Gomert, Steve King, and the rest of the crazies?
Sen. Raskin: Well, the great thing about the First Amendment is that anyone can say anything, and they probably will. It’s actually a privilege to get to a situation where you have to completely stretch your mind to figure out what makes other people tick. I remember I had this famous encounter with Senator Nancy Jacobs, a right-wing Republican from Harford County, before I was even elected. I testified against the Republicans’ anti-gay marriage constitutional amendment as a law professor, and she said, “Professor Raskin, you keep talking about Equal Protection and Due Process, but what about the Bible? My Bible says marriage is between one man and one woman.” And I said, “Senator, with all due respect, when you took your oath of office, you put your hand on the Bible and swore to uphold the Constitution. You did not put your hand on the Constitution and swear to uphold the Bible.” It created this huge furor, but when I got elected to the Senate I ended up sitting next to Senator Jacobs and we came to really like each other. And so we did a number of bills together related to child abuse and protecting women from domestic violence. I learned from her that a lot of people will adopt very right-wing authoritarian attitudes about marriage and family just because they are surrounded by so much social dysfunction. She helped me understand politics based on a different logic. You can learn something from everybody. Senator Jacobs left the Senate but I still think about the different perspective she showed me and I miss working with her. What’s the last line from Catcher in the Rye? You know, “don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.”
The Sentinel: As we bring the interview to a close, what message do you want to send to voters that will inspire them to support your candidacy?
Sen. Raskin: My campaign is about effective progressive change in Maryland, in Washington and in America, and we are giving necessary and practical hope for the future. We are also trying to put the “fun” back into “fundraising” and believe that politics is all about education, connection and organizing, which is why our “Democracy Summer” program has attracted dozens of college and high school volunteers to come learn the art of democratic politics.
For those of you who would like to find out more about Senator Raskin's campaign, his website is www.jamieraskin.com.