Faithful activists grill US Senate hopefuls here

November 20, 2009
By

David Taber

Hundreds fill Forest Hills church for forum

The four Democratic US Senate contenders met with an enthusiastic standing-room-only crowd of close to 800 people at Bethel AME Church in Forest Hills Nov. 15 to discuss a four-point agenda put forward by the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO).

The spirit of the evening was summed up by candidate Attorney General Martha Coakley’s response to the agenda. “Yes, yes, yes and yes,” she said.

Coakley; US Rep. Michael Capuano; City Year founder Alan Khazei; and Boston Celtics co-owner and managing director at Bain Capital Steve Pagliuca, speaking in alphabetical order, were asked to, and mostly agreed to:

• Prioritize protecting low- and moderate-income families covered under the Massachusetts state health care plan if less comprehensive federal legislation is passed, and work to restore Commonwealth Care coverage for legal immigrants in Massachusetts.

• Work to set a 10 percent national cap on lenders’ interest rates.

• Support legislation tying private student loan interest rates to federal student loan rates, and changing rules that bar students from seeking debt relief through bankruptcy.

• Bring $100 million a year for job training and supportive services to the state.

Republican candidates state Sen. Scott Brown and businessman Jack Robinson did not participate in the forum.

The candidates expressed some variations in emphasis, and, on the question of federal caps on interest rates, Khazei and Pagliuca expressed reservations about the GBIO’s call for a 10 percent cap.

Khazei said an 18-20 percent interest-rate cap would be more likely gain supports at the federal level. Pagliuca said he tentatively supported a 12-13 percent cap.

“We need a cap, and I will fight for a cap, but I am not going to tell you 10 percent because it’s not going to happen,” Khazei said.

“We will circle right between the ‘yes’ and the ‘no,’” responded Rabbi Stephani Kolin of Temple Israel, who was questioning Khazei.

Another point of dispute between the candidates was aired when they brought up their positions on the Stupack amendment. That amendment to health care reform legislation recently passed in the House bars federal funding for the purchase of insurance plans that cover abortions.

Both Khazei and Pagliuca said they would vote for a final version of health care reform that includes the amendment.

They both said they would then fight to overturn it. “I would fight like a dog to get rid of the Stupack amendment,” starting the next day, Pagliuca said.

Coakley, who recently said she would not have voted for the bill, remained silent on the issue. Capuano, who voted for the bill, but later said he would vote against final legislation that includes the amendment, also did not refer to it directly, but did say, “The bill still needs to be amended in the Senate and in Conference Committee.”

The interest-rate questions brought out the starkest religious themes of the evening. Rev. Marty Curtin of the Capuchin Franciscans introduced the topic by saying “Usury is a scriptural term. It is a sin. It’s an abomination before God…It is sinful to charge [people] interest in such a way that they become in bondage to their debt-holders.”

Sharing a personal real-life student debt nightmare, GBIO presenter Ray Geldart said she graduated summa cum laude from Lesley University after having put herself through two years at Middlesex Community College “working three jobs with no permanent housing and no personal computer.”

She said she had planned to join the Peace Corps after graduation, but found she could not defer her $30,000 in student loans. She found herself paying $1,200 a month at a 13 percent interest rate, she said. Her 25-year payment plan will likely end up costing her $250,000, she said.

This is “a reality in which the best and the brightest are a commodity for the profit of lenders,” she said.

The evening’s format included similar testimonials illustrating the rationale behind the GBIO’s platform items. The crowd’s responses—both gasps of shock at those stories and enthusiastic responses to the candidates—were animated.

Despite the serious and often somber subject matter, the mood in the room remained upbeat and confident. “We are powerful,” Rev. Bruce Hammond of Bethel AME, said at the close of the forum, “Those in positions of power treat us with respect. We are powerful because we organize.”

Capuano

Capuano mostly pointed to his record as evidence of his commitment to the GBIO platform. He said he and other House members had held out for “several million dollars” for job training in the American Relief and Recovery Act this year. “In order to get it passed they needed our votes,” he said.

He said he worked with Massachusetts Congressman John Tierney to pass a much more modest 36 percent cap on interest rates, and that he had voted against legislation barring people from dealing with student loans through bankruptcy.

We are “trying to write a new [interest rate cap] bill as we speak right now,” he said.

The Massachusetts Congressional delegation made sure the health care reform bill recently passed in the House includes protections for those already receiving subsidized health care in Massachusetts, he said.

The state’s Commonwealth Care Program “is a serious program. The rest of the country is jealous,” he said.

In his closing statement, Capuano recited a litany of issues he has worked on in Congress. “This race is about a lot of things,” he said, including affordable housing, reforming Wall Street, and working to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and to end the genocide in the Sudan.

Capuano is the co-founder of the Congressional Sudan Caucus and has worked with Rev. Dr. Gloria White Hammond of Bethel AME on the issue.

“I am proud to have worked with you and your leaders on every issue that affects you,” Capuano said, “The things we have talked about tonight are not just words.”

He closed by asking the GBIO body to pray for all of the candidates. “Every one of us needs your prayers. People in Washington are not waiting with bated breath for [any of] us to get elected.”

Coakley

“In this room I think we all know there is something more important than us and our families. Part of our responsibility in civic life is to do a little bit of the saving of souls,” Coakley said in her introductory comments.

Pointing to her record as Massachusetts Attorney General, she said she has fought both predatory mortgage lenders and worked to increase transparency in the student loan industry. That work has led, according to her web site, to significant settlements with financial service agencies, including an agreement by Goldman Sachs this spring to set up a $50 million fund for restructuring sub prime loans.

In addition to supporting the GBIO platform, Coakley said that, on the consumer protection front, she would support legislation that increases the autonomy of state Attorneys General to go after unscrupulous lenders. “We have to make sure that states are not prevented, as we have been here, from protecting [people],” she said.

She also said she would work to overturn the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which limits federal recognition of marriages to male-female unions. As Attorney General, she sued the federal government to have that law overturned this year. And she noted that she had negotiated settlements with 20 landlords across the Commonwealth after they posted discriminatory housing ads on Craigslist. That settlement was reached in October of this year.

“I have been working in the Attorney Generals Office on big and small issues,” she said

Khazei

Khazei (pronounced KAY-zee) came closest during the forum to breaking the rule articulated at the outset that candidates focus on the issues put forward by the GBIO and refrain from attacking each other.

He apparently could not resist pointing out that he is the only candidate in the race not receiving donations from PACs, lobbyists or special interests. “I am not spending any time with them. I will work for you every day.”

Khazei, who in the early 1990s founded City Year—the model for then-President Bill Clinton’s Americorps “domestic Peace Corps” program—and more recently founded the national organizing and advocacy coalition Be the Change, described himself as the only “movement” leader among the candidates.

Citing the “citizen soldiers” who fought in the American Revolution, the abolitionists and the civil rights movement as inspirations, Khazei situated himself as part of a “new movement” focused on “jobs, health care, stopping the wars…fighting poverty and reclaiming the American Dream.”

Speaking to the Gazette following the debate, he reflected on the similarity of his campaign pitch to the one that propelled President Barack Obama into office. “It is hard for a governor or a president to be a grassroots leader,” he said. “You have a government to run.” Legislative leaders are not responsible for dealing with day-to-day crises and provision of government services, he said. They have the leeway to build movements, he said. [See www.jamaicaplaingazette.com for more of his remarks.]

Pagliuca

“I am the ‘jobs senator,’” Pagliuca (pronounced pah-lee-OOH-kah) told the GBIO audience.

Speaking to the GBIO’s request for $100 million in federal funds for job training, he contrasted the federal allotment of $21 million for job training in the state this year with the close to $770 million the state is paying out in unemployment.

Echoing other candidates—they spoke in alphabetical order—Pagliuca said $100 million would be his minimum goal for job training funding for the state.

“My grandfather was an immigrant who worked in a shoe factory. My father was a salesman and a soldier. I have lived the American dream,” he said. But, “We are not giving our children the American dream.”

Pagliuca said rebuilding the country’s “key industries” including the production of “clean cheap energy,” would have the double advantage of rekindling that dream and taking a bite out of the country’s $13 trillion national debt. “That is $80,000 per working American,” he said.

On the question of capping interest rates at 10 percent, Pagliuca at first tried to avoid committing to a number. “That is a difficult conversation,” he said.

He said he had not studied the issue closely, but when pressed, went with “12 or 13 percent.”

Recalling that when he bought his house in 1981, the prime rate for mortgages was 16 percent, he said was not in favor of the idea of attaching other credit limits to the prime rate, an idea suggested by Capuano. “We should look at it by product line,” he said.