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Doing the Reich Thing

The former labor secretary makes a bid for the Massachusetts governor's mansion in the hopes of reviving the progressive wing of the Democratic party.
 
 
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Since his late entry to the Massachusetts governor’s race in January, Robert Reich has confounded skeptics and mobilized a network of volunteer activists that invites comparisons to Robert Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign. Win or lose, he hopes his effort will jumpstart a revival of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.

Although Reich has never run for elected office before, he has considerable name recognition as labor secretary in the first Clinton administration, a prolific author and frequent television commentator. Still, he stunned the experts by flooding the party caucuses and electing hundreds of delegates to the state democratic convention. (Full disclosure: I was one of them). Reich is running neck-and-neck with State Treasurer Shannon O’Brien for the lead in the polls for the September 17 Democratic primary.

Reich is connecting with audiences by presenting himself as a battle-hardened public servant and unabashedly declaring progressive positions on issues from health care to public education to gay marriage. He is now barnstorming the state with a caravan of supporters called the “Reich Reform Express.” He speaks openly of “social justice,” tough enforcement of environmental laws, and addressing the “inordinate power” of corporations in the political process. Reich, who stands less than 5 feet tall, steps up to the microphone on a small platform and jokes, “As a candidate, I stand on my platform.”

He faces three formidable rivals in the primary: O’Brien, state Senate President Tom Birmingham, and former state Sen. Warren Tolman. The winner will face Republican Mitt Romney, best known for his stint as head honcho of the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. The Green Party is also fielding a gubernatorial candidate for the first time, physician Jill Stein.

I sat down with Reich just before the state Democratic convention to talk about his campaign and his critics.

You have been a sharp critic of corporate power and its influence in society and government. How do you see that playing out in the campaign?

The public is sick and tired of corporations that are self-serving, executives who are making fortunes and, at the same time, laying off their workers and overriding the democratic -- “small d” -- will of the public. I plan to reduce influence-peddling and the kind of back-scratching that has characterized the place for so long. ... I think the public will get behind that kind of an agenda. I don’t think that’s a hard sell at all.

How will you respond to the inevitable charge from the business community that “Reich is just another anti-business liberal. He will cost us jobs and raise taxes”?

Quite the contrary. Good businesses are very supportive of efforts that rein in big and irresponsible businesses. It’s the good businesses that suffer, as much as anyone, because they can’t compete when big or politically well-connected businesses horn in on their markets and get special favors from the legislature. No, I’m not anti-business at all. I’m anti- the kind of business that uses its power to corrupt the democratic process.

Progressives are feeling kind of homeless in Massachusetts. In the last presidential election, Ralph Nader got about 7 percent -- one of his highest totals in the country. But of the more than 4 million registered voters in Massachusetts, only about 4,000 are members of the Green Party. Almost half of the registered voters are independents, and less than a third declare themselves as Democrats. What do you think is going on?

I think a lot of people are trying to figure out whether it is worth trying to get back involved with the Democratic Party -- or whether the Democratic Party is basically dead, and they have to look elsewhere. I am of the view that it is still possible to revitalize the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. And that is what, in my own modest way, I’m trying to do here in Massachusetts. Now, I don’t know that I will be successful. I hope so. The polls are very encouraging. The momentum is there. But my long-term hope is that we can revive a Democratic Party in which progressives feel welcome.

Why do you think that progressive ideas can power your candidacy, when the conventional wisdom says they can’t?

Well, the conventional wisdom is absolutely wrong.

How do you see yourself as a progressive?

Labels mean far less than someone’s record and what they actually stand for. My record is very clear. As secretary of labor, I fought very hard to raise the minimum wage over the opposition of the Republican leadership in both houses of Congress; to fight sweatshops at home and abroad; to give people better pension protection and more opportunities for lifelong learning. I have been a strong advocate for affordable health care, affordable housing and early childhood education. I am very committed to getting money out of politics and ending all forms of discrimination regarding sexual orientation, gender, race, ethnicity and religion. Now if any of this is thought to make me a progressive or a liberal, then I accept the label.

These principles are not marginal. Most Americans believe in them. They want better schools. They want more affordable health care. They don’t want to be in a society that discriminates. And they certainly don’t want to be in a society in which the rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer, and the middle class is barely holding on. That’s not the kind of place we want our children to grow up in. There are many people who describe themselves as conservatives, or even Republicans, who buy into these ideals.

Some of your critics say, “Bob Reich is a visionary; he doesn’t know Beacon Hill.” How do you take your outsider status to push an agenda through the legislature?

Exactly the way I did it when I began at the Labor Department. I was not a Washington insider. I was not an insider to the labor movement. But I hired talented people. I worked very, very hard. I made the kind of deals that had to be made without compromising my principles. ... What you need is tenacity, a certain degree of cunning, a thick hide, a willingness to fight and take a stand, and to go and really communicate well with the public about why you are doing it and what you want to accomplish. ... These are precisely the same qualities I will bring to Beacon Hill. I don’t owe anybody anything. I can start fresh. I can make some fundamental changes that may be far more difficult for people to make if they are part of that entrenched, insider culture.

Other critics say Bob Reich is too intellectual, too liberal, too left. They wonder if he can connect with regular people. I saw in the Boston Globe that Mitt Romney’s spokesman nicknamed your new book, “Das Kapital.” This could be a tough race for a progressive.

This race is going to be fought on the basis of who is going to make the best governor. People know what I did as secretary of labor. They know I worked hard for working people. Truck drivers, bus drivers and taxi drivers pass me on the street and give me a thumbs-up. Obviously conservative Republicans will call me names. Big deal. You know, I used to say when I was secretary of labor that if the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page didn’t excoriate me every two or three weeks, I started to worry that I wasn’t doing my job. ...

I have spent half of my life in academia and spent the other half of my life in public service. I have fought some very tough fights and won most of them. Anybody who accuses me of being an ivory tower intellectual is not paying attention to the half of my life when I was in the trenches. Public management is not easy. I have run a department of the federal government whose annual budget is larger than the state of Massachusetts’. We had to downsize. We had to do more with less, and we had to face a very hostile Congress. Those were difficult times.

How does that translate into talking to ordinary people -- the cab drivers and bus drivers?

My cabinet colleagues went to the great capitals of the world for international conferences. But as labor secretary, I went to industrial cities like Buffalo and Cleveland. My job was to represent blue-collar workers and the working families, and I spent huge amounts of time doing just that.

I did not have the advantage of growing up in a rich household. I never got an inheritance. I had to work my way to where I am. I relied on education -- went to a wonderful public school -- and that’s why I’m so committed to education as an avenue of upward mobility. ...

It is very important to think big and give people a sense of hope. ... So it’s important to operate on two levels. Talking to real people about very particular issues they have, but also to set a large-scale agenda -- that’s the essence of leadership.

Frederick Clarkson writes about politics and religion. He is the author of "Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy" (Common Courage Press).