In 2017 #WeThePeople interviewed David Benac – candidate in Michigan’s 6th C.D.

David Benac on Nestlé; Green energy; Gun laws; Public history; Small dollar donations; Charter schools; Defense budget.

NB Some audio issues with the video.

David Benac is running in Michigan’s 6th Congressional District. His opponent Fred Upton is a Republican who has been in office for 30 or so years. The latter isn’t very good when it comes to the environment. David - a Berniecrat and History Professor with some different opinions in this regard, was interviewed by #WeThePeople on August 16th, 2017.

David was a delegate to the Platform Committee in Orlando. Senator Sanders chose 3 people from the State of Michigan to represent him at the National level, and David was one of them. It was an outstanding experience to see how the Party worked from the inside and he refers to the people he worked with and those he had conversations with. It was an exciting time – David says, and during a lot of the conversations when there were controversial issues under discussion, there were at least 100 people at the back of the (gallery) who would cheer and boo. It was great to see that much attention. It was a little distressing though as it really showed what we’re all talking about now. What is the future of the Party – with regard to money, progressive values …? I kind of saw it all as growing pains, as a moment of struggle for the future of the Party – he says. This was also the point at which David saw how desperately the Party needed some new blood in leadership. The Bernie contingent went there with some incredibly high-minded ideals about expanding Social Security and Medicare, stopping the Dakota (Access) Pipeline, putting a stop to fracking and placing some real serious regulations on Wall Street. However we weren’t able to get most of what we wanted passed. It was a really frustrating moment – he says. He learned though that getting upset and trying to leave the Party didn’t have to be the answer, and what Sanders was really trying to do was to transform the Party from within, so it would be the Party that we wanted it to be. David doesn’t believe there is a need to burn down the Democratic Party. We have this amazing infrastructure and the Democratic Party has been around for a really long time – he says. It has done a great job of creating organizations and leaders and grassroots connections to communities all over this country. We need to take advantage of that, so it really truly is a tool of the people. That’s what I understood he meant too – John says, and he tells David that he himself had wandered around and felt lost for a while after the Primary, until he decided to do something about it. John is a PCP (Precinct Committee Person). I took a little step – he says. You’re making a massive time commitment what with being a Professor and all. You need a lot of support. Upton is loaded.

What is the key to winning in your district - John asks him? Having the right message, the right energy and the right strategy David replies. By energy I mean that we have made a concerted effort to be very active. We go to beach clean-ups, park clean-ups, Black Lives Matter meetings, sports (and) club meetings, to city council meetings … As a matter of fact we have even been to a (rock) concert - where the band members are big fans, so they let us get on stage and talk a little bit. Our strategy is to get in front of enough voters so that we can convince those voters that we are a legitimate choice; that we can win and that we have their best interests at heart. It sounds very Bernie-like as strategies go – John says. Not surprising - David responds, as his campaign is full of Bernie people. Speaking of strategy, Upton hasn’t had a town hall in a little over a decade in so far as David knows. He does do tele-town halls – all organized in a very safe way. There is very little interaction or chance to criticize or even discuss. John agrees that David’s campaign strategy will make the difference especially with the unpopularity of the Republican Party just now (08/16/2017). David continues. We’ve done about 5 town halls so far and have a few more (planned). They are completely open public events which we publicize pretty widely. We try to get as many people to show up as we can, and I present my pitch, what I’m running for. I say – this is what I’d vote for in a candidate - as I show my literature. However I want you to vote for me, so let’s have a conversation. Tell me what I have to do to earn your vote.

(Patti Ross) in YouTube chat says that Fred Upton lied to us. What about – says John, or is it a lot of things? Probably – says David, and laughs momentarily. The most egregious (lie) was about healthcare. You probably heard of the Upton Amendment. Fred had said he was not going to vote for the repeal of the ACA. The President calls him into the office and the following day Fred writes the Upton Amendment which was exactly the momentum the bill needed to get it from Congress into the Senate. He did that directly after he had said that he was not going to, and one of the great groups that is protesting in St. Joseph covered the steps of his office with flip flops and called him Flip-Flop Freddie. So – John says, Mitch got him the right amount of money (for his vote). Pretty much – replies David. That would have taken over half a million people in Michigan off of their healthcare and 40,000 people in this district alone. You can’t vote (like that and keep your job). It’s just unconscionable. So, what is your stance on healthcare – John asks. What do we do? First off – is David’s reply, in the short term the ACA is the best healthcare system that we have and we absolutely need to protect it. We can’t tolerate these continued votes against it. Fred so far has voted against it 60 (16?) times! Oh my God – a shocked John mutters. David continues. Then we need to move as rapidly as possible to Medicare for All. No questions. No qualifications. We absolutely must have Medicare for All.

Fred Upton – David tells us, until about 2009 voted around 70% of the time against environmental legislation. Then he decided he wanted to become Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, so in 2010 and 2011 he voted 100% against such legislation. And then (what do you know) he becomes Chair of the above-mentioned Committee. That’s when the LA Times wrote that piece. “…due to recent electoral challenge from his right … because of his powerful position and newfound disdain for green regulation, he represents one of the biggest threats to planet Earth on planet Earth.” Since 2011, the Energy Industry is his number 1 or 2 donor and now he’s raising twice what the average Congressional (legislator does?). John shows a slide with information from OpenSecrets. We see that Fred gets a lot of money from oil and gas, electric utilities, the National Association of Broadcasters, Energy Transfer, Equity … and all he has to do – John says, is agree to destroy the environment 100% instead of 70% ... What an upstanding person! Presently, he’s at about 90% - David says. If you didn’t know this was reality, it sounds like a dark comedy. It doesn’t make any sense –John says. The really scary, sad thing though – David continues, is that Fred continues to paint himself as a moderate, a champion (of the environment). How, I don’t know! The one thing he does do is he is a pretty good champion for the Great Lakes – for issues to keep them free from pollutants primarily. But, John adds - he has no problems selling the water to Nestlé for nothing. David agrees.

Speaking of which – John asks, where do you stand on Nestle bottling up all our lake water? David thinks that Nestlé are being corporate bad actors. All of this water mining has to stop – he says. We can’t tolerate a corporation where the CEO said that water is not a human right! John has one more question about water. You are in Michigan. How is the water in your district? We’re actually pretty lucky – David responds. I live in Kalamazoo. You’re probably referencing what is happening in Flint, where they have a pretty awful situation. It shows the problems with the emergency manager system primarily. It’s a real disaster that is still not sorted and people are suffering desperately. Then there are issues in Detroit, where people’s water was shut off for (unpaid) bills – terrible! We do have significant lead problems in the city here (actually lead paint in the housing). There are soil issues too because there are a lot of Superfund sites in this area. So – says John, downgrading (downsizing) or the destruction of the EPA is not helpful for those sites - or are they covered or funded? Some of them are in the process of being mediated – David replies, but (this part inaudible).

Someone in YouTube chat asks about David’s position on Green energy and whether he would support a tax on carbon. Yes to the second part David replies. He likes the proposal that Sanders put into the Senate aiming for 100% renewables by 2050. It seems incredibly ambitious but in fact it’s not. It’s something we can absolutely do. We’ve got all the technology already in place for it. We can finance it with the kind of subsidies that we are already giving the oil and gas companies (and other types of infrastructure) and create thousands of jobs across communities all over this Nation. I think Green energy has to be our future. John agrees.

Jeffrey Pearson in YouTube chat wants to know if David would be willing to introduce an Amendment to make hate-speech illegal, like they did in Germany. In general yes – David answers, I think hate-speech is violent. It’s a cause of violence. I think it absolutely should be prohibited. John agrees that this needs to be dealt with and asks Laura if there are more questions for now. One more from Markus, who is up (in Germany) - she says. He wants to know your position on gun laws? That’s tricky in Michigan – David replies. We have a very long tradition and culture of gun ownership in the State. I have owned guns, my parents had lots of guns and I don’t have any problems with ownership of firearms. We do need universal background checks just to make our community as safe as possible. John would like to know more. Based on what we’ve seen which has been brought to light just recently, but that we (also) know of historically, namely escalating violence with our police officers and a 2015 report from the FBI that indicated that our police force was infiltrated by white supremacists, where do you stand on the training of our police force? How do we stop our cops from killing so many people? David says that that’s a tough question and that the reality is that we need to restore trust in the police force and the police force needs to stop being afraid of the citizens. It’s justified fear on both sides after a couple of decades of escalating police brutality which causes backlash. This is a problem that can be solved – he says. We need to find the right leaders and help them fix their culture. David talks about a police chief (from his district) whose presentation he listened to the previous day and he was very impressed. She had a progressive vision of policing like he had never seen come from a police officer before. She’s completely in favor of body cameras, and of having the officers out on the streets instead of always in their cars. She wants the members of the community to know the police officers by their first names and tries to create opportunities where people can meet the police officers so that there is not this great divide. David came away hopeful that there are more people like that out there. We need to find them and give them a platform where they can spread those visions to their fellow officers. John talks to David about Longmont Colorado and Restorative Justice and mentions that it might be good to connect the Chief of Police in Longmont Colorado - Mike Butler, and the officer David just spoke of. Where do you stand on private prisons David - he continues? Shut them down - David replies. There is absolutely no excuse for people profiting off of putting other people at risk. They grin when the Cuckoo clock goes off (behind David) … that’s fitting says John.

Laura is interested in David’s thoughts on open carry. I don’t personally like it but I’m not going to say that I would be a legislator who would be eager to revoke that law – David answers. John is unsure and says - if you can push for tighter regulations just on who gets to own a gun maybe open carry wouldn’t be so insane. I do agree with you though I don’t see it’s necessary unless you’ve got a Wild West zone or something. David continues - we do need universal background checks so that we have some certainty that the people who have firearms don’t have a violent past, mental instability issues, connections to organizations (that create) the type of problems that we saw in Charlottesville. Those types of people should not have guns. He thinks that would help a lot of us sleep easier, when we see someone carrying a firearm in public. John says he’s less worried about whether someone has a driver’s license than whether they know how to use a gun. Most people can figure out how to drive and don’t want to hit people, guns are a little trickier. Illinois just listed Nazi groups and White Nationalist groups as terrorist organizations. Would you seek to do the same in your own State David? I’ve long been a proponent of free speech and a free right to assembly … even when it’s uncomfortable – David replies, but I think we’ve reached the point where we have to. There are certain groups, such as the one we saw in (Charlottesville) and they just cannot be allowed to exist legally. There is no reason anyone should be able to legally be a member of the KKK group, and anyone who is promoting Nazi ideology - it’s the same. These are groups which exist for no other reason than to spew hatred and inspire violence, and when that’s the case they should not be allowed to exist. Well answered - says John, laughingly saying that these weren’t the questions he had said he was going to ask in the Green room ... so good job! I like questions – David smiles. As a teacher you should – John smiles back. Yes - says David.

They move on. Where do you think the statues, the Confederate monuments should go? In a museum, be melted down, left as they are … - John asks? I think that there are a lot of those monuments and particularly ones that are glorifying things such as the Confederate war that have to be taken out of those communities because they cause nothing other than problems – David replies. They exist for no other reason than to glorify people who were promoting awful ideologies. He thinks that a lot of those monuments probably should be saved in museums. As a historian, one of the areas I teach is public history … which is about how to use history to educate the public, rather than just having one set of academics talking to another set of academics. It is about how to use history in public settings. There are really controversial and often difficult monuments that can be turned into platforms for us to have multi-cultural discussions, for us to learn more about other people who have had different experiences than us and who have been oppressed throughout our Nation’s history. This is absolutely the case, but I think we have to be really careful. They need to be removed from places of prominent display in our public settings where they are center of communities, but if we treat them as textbooks essentially we can use them to inspire greater cooperation and greater understanding and hopefully some sense of community from the different groups. John speaks about the white-washed history books he had as he grew up and wonders what to do about that, given - as he says, that our history is not accurate. I don’t know about college level books these days - he says, but I know that my junior high and high-school level history books were not telling the truth. How do we fix that? Do we need to revise our history, to be honest about it? Well – David says, without delving into the alternative truths mire, they are not necessarily false when they are giving a completely one-sided history and ignoring everyone else’s reality. We need to recognize in these history books that there are a lot of different types of people, a lot of different communities and there are some people who have been oppressed and who have suffered hatred and violence at the hands of other groups of people. Slavery was real. The genocide of Native Americans was real. We need to come to grips with those problems in our past if we are ever going to have any understanding about the legacy that we are dealing with today. That’s a huge, huge statement right there – says John, because that is something that I think America has not really done and what is happening right now is that we’re coming face-to-face with that same past that we’ve refused to look at. They agree.

Moving on to some more easy questions, because this has been like some really deep stuff - says John, to David’s smile and Laura’s chuckle ... Money in politics… You’re a Berniecrat. Your opponent is loaded and will have lots of GOP money coming from all sorts of crazy places. Where are you funded from? I am completely funded by small dollar individual donors and we have made a commitment to not take corporate dollars or PAC money, which is almost akin to disarming in the midst of a war because Fred has wads of money, close ties to the DeVos family and the Koch (brothers) … so for all practicable purposes he has unlimited funds. However, I still don’t think that that is the way you win. The way you win is by getting people to trust and have hope in you, and by showing them that we really care about the people in our district and that we’re going to do everything we can to represent them. Yes, we do need enough money in order to be viable. We’ve heard that more than once from candidates – Laura says. “I don’t need money, I need votes.” David although on the same page, specifies again that running a campaign is an expensive endeavor. We need to break free of what has become a political industrial complex – he says. Politics has become an industry onto itself - raising and spending billions of dollars. It has become absurd. In partnership with media – Laura adds. Exactly – David responds! How much money is spent on media buys, on commercials from these two main parties who are raising money from the same sources to spend on the same sources. It’s clearly circular – he says.

In YouTube chat (Xander) has a question about fixing the voting system – Laura says. Do you support rank-choice voting for instance? David thinks it is a really interesting proposal and would completely support it, if it were proposed. In terms of fixing the voting system, one of the things we are able to do here in Michigan is address gerrymandering. We can put an initiative petition to get something on the ballot and we can vote on it as citizens. There is a group of people called Voters not Politicians who are going around the State and are just about ready to start circulating petitions so that we can have a non-partisan re-districting commission and get rid of some of the gerrymandering issues that we face. I think that we can do this at a federal level too. We have the authority to do that. Congress has already demonstrated that we have the authority to say that you cannot redistrict based upon racial lines. In that case we should be able to say that it’s not possible based on partisanship (lines either). Publicly-funded elections are the gold standard – David says. My line is that if I could wave a magic wand and just change the one thing that I think would have the most far reaching effects to fix the entire political system, it would be publicly-funded elections. I think that that would put the power back in the hands of the voters and take it away from the corporations - who currently wield such an enormous influence.

I see on your list of issues – John says, stop (for-) profit charter schools … so you’re not a fan of charter schools then? I’m not a fan of charter schools in general, at all - David replies. Now, I lived in New Orleans for a while, where the charter schools / the charter system had integrated with the public system ... and they had done a pretty good job of improving the educational system there. They were however still running it as a corporation and the people who really suffered were the teachers. I knew a lot of people who were teaching in those charter schools and they were being worked so hard. The burnout rate was very high. They weren’t properly trained. They weren’t given proper support, so even those charter schools that were not for-profit charters and were actually doing a pretty decent job of providing education, were not providing a real service to the community. Going from that to the for-profit ones, it’s like the for-profit prisons. All the for-profit charter schools do is put a profit motive on the backs of children.

Your answers are phenomenal – John says. As a professor, you deal with criticism. Some students like you, some students don’t … You’ve got one thing going on that is a bonus and I don’t think that Fred Upton is going to be able to compete. They grin about something called Rate my professors. Apparently David is considered a tough teacher (as he expects students to learn) - however he has a hot pepper, which means the students think he is hot stuff. They laugh. David says he could improve his overall grade by going easier on them, but he challenges them to think and to communicate. That’s a skill we need more of. That’s why STEM education is really important and we need to keep funding it, but we also need to make sure we are not giving short shrift to arts and humanities. David refers to a study from the (inaudible) Higher Education, which just (08/16/2017) reported that liberal arts Majors make more money over the course of their lives in their careers than STEM students do. That is because in liberal arts we are teaching students how to think, how to read, how to engage with other people and how to communicate effectively. So, in the world we live in where people change jobs so often, these skills help people to be more flexible and able to move on to that next job or next stage in their life (with greater ease). John is surprised by the statistic but asks and answers the following question - what do you do with a liberal arts degree? You learn how to survive. Right - says David. Laura adds that her degree is in art history and that what she learned was how to talk about anything. Explain, compare and contrast - Laura and David comment.

I’m so glad you brought that up – John says. You’ve seen the “wheel” going around on social media showing how much of our budget goes to the Defense Department / the Military Industrial Complex, and then the little sliver that goes to education. If you could reallocate that, how much would you want to put into education? Would you put money in it at the Federal level? You have to support education from the federal level – says David, because this is a nation-wide issue. Conservative friends say it’s a States’ Rights issue to allow a State to provide sub-standard education to their kids. That’s not appropriate because those kids cannot pick up and move to a different State where they can get a better education. Every single kid in this country needs to get a world class education and if we need to support education from a federal level then so be it. Agreed - says John, and he asks how David’s constituents feel about this. As we travel around – David says, education is one of the issues that most frequently comes up. It comes up at every level. Having better grade schools is of concern, and often having safer grade schools - which says something about our society when parents are worried about how safe their kids are at school. College education and the astronomical amount of student debt that this nation has, is a worry. It’s the next bubble that is going to burst. It’s going to destroy the economy in a way that 2008 didn’t (come) close to. We need ways around this. I like to say we need to re-envision the educational system and make it Pre-K to 16. We need to adapt to the reality of modern life. We need to provide that 4-year college degree, or trade-school or apprenticeship program or vocational school to absolutely every student, because that is what you need to be successful today. It’s not in the best interests of the Nation to cover the kids for 12 years of school and then send them out to get into debt for tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in order to get a job that may not exist.

On the military budget now, do you think it is too big David? Yes it is too big – is David’s reply. There are probably lots of ways to talk about shrinking the budget. One way, is to start off by just auditing. Sure, there are areas that could be protected for National Security purposes. We need to be more transparent about where that money goes. I think we can look at how that money is spent (for instance) when the planes we spent a trillion dollars on still don’t fly. John says he’d like to get away from being the global arms dealer that the U.S. seems to be. David says that one of the things we could do is to look at overseas military bases. I’m not saying just shut them all down, that would be a bridge too far. Let’s carefully evaluate which of those overseas bases we do need for strategic (purposes) and that are important for our National Defense, and then start shutting some of the others down. Let’s look at how much money we then have for our educational system. I agree - says John, referring to the number of people at the Federal level that need to start thinking that way. It all comes back to money – David comments, and the Military Industrial Complex that Dwight Eisenhower was warning us about. It was a problem 60 years ago, and it has only gotten dramatically worse. We need to make some of those hard decisions and to be more realistic about where our money is going.

Laura tells him that he has a lot of support in YouTube chat and John tells everyone that David needs help in the air, on the ground and definitely in the bank account.

So why should we vote for you David – John asks? My entire campaign – David replies, is built around the idea of talking to people, of being accessible, of listening. We have gone to every single group that would give us an audience. We are trying to accomplish the very radical idea of up-ending the corporate ownership of the political system. We haven’t had effective representation for decades because we have what I want to call NASCAR politicians - with all the logos on their jackets so that we know who really owns them. What we need is someone in Washington who really cares about the people and who will go there to represent them. I was asked recently what I would do when the constituents want me to vote in a way that I disagree with. I said that I will vote the way they want me to, unless I feel like it compromises my moral code. If it does so, then I have to go with what is right. That goes back to the idea that elected officials in my opinion are rarely leaders, they are almost always followers. Do they follow the will of the people or that of the donors? That’s want attracted me to Sanders’ political career. He voted against the war in Iraq. It was something he had to do. It took courage. Nice - says John. I think the moral code aspect is something that seems to have been lost in Congress. I’d love to see that instilled in all of our new Representatives. Bernie seems to be one of the few left who considers it at this point. Thank you for being on the show David.

The links are in the video description. Good luck on August 7th, 2018 David Benac!


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