Interview with Francine Shacter, Democratic for Congress in AZ CD8

Meet Congresswoman Mom.

It’s not her chosen campaign slogan, but I think it sums up Francine Shacter’s iconoclastic campaign for Congress in Arizona’s 8th District pretty well. When asked, Francine chose as her (purely provisional) slogan, “I will listen to people and represent their views and bring back to them good ideas.” Not so snappy.

A divorced Jewish woman, 77 years old, who raised four kids by herself begining in 1961 (the result was nearly the Jewish trifecta – she got a lawyer and a doctor, but no Rabbi, just a scientist), Francine is a graduate with honors of the school of life (and of Goddard College in economics). She wants to use her life experiences to represent and work with and for the people of Arizona’s 8th District.

Francine proclaims herself proudly to be a Roosevelt Democrat; a highlight of her life was meeting Eleanor Roosevelt as a young woman. She clearly believes that government has a duty to make life better for people and is capable of doing so, given the right leadership. She is also bucking against the trend of incivility in the current political climate. She pleads for the Democratic nomination campaign to be more civil and less divisive.

At the same time, however, and perhaps contradictorily, she in unabashed about her criticism of Randy Graf, whom she would likely face in the general election if she wins the primary. She told me to quote her specifically when she said, “There is something gross about him” and that he “embodies values I abhor.” There seems little doubt that she’ll be very forthright in her critique of the opposition should she be nominated. If you are worried that the Democratic nominee will fail to draw clear contrasts with the opposition, that’s not a concern with Francine. At the same time, she makes it clear that she feels no personal animosity toward her political opponents. She says of Bush that she doesn’t hate him; she just wants him out.

Francine’s philosophy of leadership is cooperative and constructive, despite her blunt opinions. As a major qualification for the calling she now pursues, she emphasizes her career of public service, where she gained experience in working across interest communities to achieve policy objectives. Francine worked for 30 years in government on the Hill and in the executive branch as a manager and statistician. The result is an enthusiastically people-oriented person who also delights in policy minutiae and numbers. During my formal interview with her, I asked her to refrain from details and focus on the big picture. Suffice it to say that I’ve had to edit for length nonetheless.

Francine believes that Congress should be representative, not just in a formal sense, but also in reflecting the demographics of the populace. In this regard, Francine may be representative of views and persons not currently well represented in government. Francine was a pioneer of now common lifestyle, that of working single mother, and that experience gives her a perspective on labor and family issues, education, poverty, and government assistance that currently has little foothold in the corridors of power.

Francine holds out her life experiences and her “smart and incorruptible” character as her best qualifications for office. She points out that she sees holding office as Congresswoman as a privilege, a public trust, and a capstone of her career in public service, not as the stepping-stone to higher office that others in the race may seek. She opines that it does not reflect well on a candidate to abandon one’s recently elected office as soon as an opportunity for advancement presents itself.

On the subject of the logistics of her campaign, Francine is forthright about her unconventional approach. She does not currently employ any staff, relying entirely on volunteers. She describes her current fundraising situation as dismal. She intends to run a very lean campaign and thinks that if she could raise 50K, she should be able to mount a successful campaign. She wants to limit her exposure to big money donations on principle, and she says the campaign she most admires is that of a certain current candidate for Congress who has 400 volunteers working actively on her campaign.

While I do have opinions about the candidates I interview and their views, I am not interested (at this time!) in choosing a candidate to recommend to other voters. The transcript of the interview that follows is as close I could come to a verbatim transcript, except that it has been edited for brevity. My opinions or comments about specific answers are in square brackets and do not constitute part of the transcript.

I interviewed Francine on February 28, 2006 in Tucson:

Me: What do you think makes a great Representative?

Francine: I think a great Representative is somebody who can connect with the people in the District, carry their message back to the Hill, forge the kinds of alliances that are necessary to accomplish the common good, and stay in touch.

M: Whom do you admire most, outside of your family?

F: Eleanor Roosevelt. I met Eleanor Roosevelt.

M: Do you want to tell me about that?

F: I worked with Montgomery County Democratic Women and she came speak to us once. I was in this small group of people that met with her before she spoke. She shook my hand.

M: Thrill of a lifetime?

F: It was the thrill of a lifetime. She exuded something noble and gentle and truly, truly wonderful.

M: What was the last book you read?

F: “What’s the Matter with Kansas?”

M: What life experiences have prepared you to represent the people of the 8th District of Arizona?

F: I think my experiences raising four children by myself. They were looking for people to manage the census offices in the 1970s, and I volunteered to go to San Francisco. They asked me what makes me think that I can handle 400 people? I said because I get four kids out the door every morning after they’ve had a good breakfast, and I get them back in and give them dinner every night. I had 400 people working for me, and it was one of the only major cities in the United Sates that didn’t demand a recount.

M: Why do you think you are a better choice than the other candidates?

F: I think I have a much broader experience, and I think I have a much longer life experience. My experience has largely been in helping people forge alliances, solve problems, and get solutions. I don’t think that compromise is a dirty word as long as you don’t lose your principles in the process, and I‘ve been able to do that any number of times.

M: What committees do you want to be on?

F: I’m very concerned about Veterans Affairs. I don’t like what they’re doing with returning veterans. I have a big beef with what is being done about how returning veterans are being treated. The government is saying that PTSD is a personality disorder. I think that is an absolute sin that anybody who has flashbacks because he has killed somebody has a personality disorder. On the contrary, I think that he is a very healthy person. There’s a lot of very hypocritical stuff going on on the part of this Administration, that I could not ever support, and I’ll fight it.

And I’m very concerned about education. I volunteer in the schools in the Rotary Club Reading Seed program. I ‘m there 3 days a week with two children. Did you know that these children spend one hour a day until May preparing for the AIMS test? I don’t think that’s very good idea. I had a little girl who saw her results on the AIMS test and told me “I’m no good.” She’s 11 years old and she thinks she’s no good because of what the test said about her. And we need to pay teachers well. They’re teaching our children, for goodness sake.

M: I see times of great trial and danger ahead for our democracy.  Are you concerned about the future of our system of government?

F: Absolutely. You better believe it. I think that when you have a President that says that anybody who criticizes him or disagrees with him is guilty of treason, the democracy is under terrible, terrible threat. Democracy succeeds not because there is a policeman on every corner but because people consent to be governed. We have more than 250 million people, and if there were not a tacit agreement that they accepted governance, there would be rioting in the streets. Once you destroy that trust with elections that are not verifiable, a President that cannot be disagreed with, you have poisoned the environment of public discourse. This is an assault on the democracy.

M: Would you vote for the impeachment of Bush, Cheney or any other Administration members, and under what circumstances?

F: Yes, I would vote for their impeachment. I don’t think the Democrats can initiate it, because it would further shrill up the environment. But any time the Republicans are willing to bring [impeachment] proceedings, they can count on me as a Democrat to support it, and many Democrats.

M: So if [Representative] Conyers were to bring Articles of Impeachment to floor of the House?

F: I wouldn’t support it right now because it would be divisive. If you absolutely cannot get something done, you don’t need to be divisive and bloody your head over it. I think the tipping point is very close.  The Republicans are not stupid, and as soon as they decide that this is what they want to do, we will help them, I guarantee you. I don’t believe in political posturing.

M: What must we do about the Iraq disaster?

F: I think that we need to get out. I don’t think that we need to announce a time table.

You might be surprised to hear that I agree with President Bush – he said that decision will be made by military men. Since we live in a democracy, the military men implement the policies of the civilians. I think that they need to be told what would need to happen in order for us to leave. That is how you phrase the question. Not “stay the course,” or any of these other things. I think we need to get out.

We need to eat a little crow and bring in some other countries.  There are enough natural resources in Iraq to bring in the money to rebuild. We broke it, we should fix it. I think we should take responsibility for coordinating with other countries to come in and help rebuild. I don’t think we should maintain any permanent bases, and I don’t think we need to lose any more human lives, and that’s been my position since the first day I spoke at Patagonia, and it has never changed.

M: What values should we bring to combating terrorism at home and abroad? What principles should we uphold?

F: I think that people are proven innocent until proven guilty. That’s a pretty good value.

We should be vigilant but not crazy. I remember … watching the McCarthy trials. People were so stigmatized by this man. Frequently he had no information whatsoever. Innocent lives were ruined. People committed suicide. I don’t support innocent lives being ruined. I think we have enough honest techniques at our disposal that we can keep an eye out for terrorists and not perceive that everybody who isn’t “us” is “them.” It’s an “us and them” philosophy.

M: What about the use of what they call “extreme interrogation techniques” or torture?

F: I’m 100% against it. I’m appalled that the President signed McCain’s bill and then made that speech that said I’m signing it but I don’t have to do it if I don’t want to. He is not above the law. He is not above the law. Every time we support torture we put one of our people in jeopardy, and that is a sin.

M: Do we spend enough on foreign aid, and should what we spend now be spent differently?

F: I believe in the principle that if you teach a man to fish, he’ll be able to take care of himself. I think we should work cooperatively, and we could get people working cooperatively. We could supply seed money. There should be a basis for cooperation and we should foster it.

M: What should our goal be in foreign aid?

F: Helping people to help themselves. Is there a more noble goal?

M: So humanitarian assistance rather than military aid?

F: I don’t believe in military aid. I think that we have to stop solving problems by killing each other. Soon there won’t be anybody left.

M: So you’d be in favor of stopping foreign military aid?

F: Yes.

M: What is your view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

F: I have a solution for it. Both sides must decide not to kill each other anymore. We need to find some way to make them economically interdependent. And through that kind of economic interdependence and mutual respect, there may be a solution. It’s a better hope than anything we’ve got now. I don’t believe in killing as a solution.

I think it’s ridiculous to think that just because the Palestinians had a democratic election we should have gotten the outcome that we wanted. All a democratic election means is that the people have decided what they want. I would hope that … instead of sitting in judgment on them and telling them what we were going to do against them, we [could ask them] what would have to happen for us to be able to resolve these issues.

I can’t believe, except for Jerusalem, which is much tougher, that it’s that intransigent. If they see a benefit in cooperation, and they are reinforced for cooperation, you will have more cooperation. [Right now], they’re not being reinforced for cooperation, they’re being threatened. If you threaten me, what will I do? I’ll fight you. But if you say how can we do this together? If there’s something in it for me? Then I will listen.

M: Under what circumstances would you allow this Administration to use force again?

F: How does “never” grab you?

M: Okay. Iran is emerging as a possible crisis, with its alleged program to build nuclear weapons. What’s your approach to this problem?

F: Same approach I have to most problems. Get in there and see what we can do to work cooperatively with these people. They had a democratic election, and they elected what they wanted. If we can find some way to find a communal interest instead of threatening them. When people challenge each other, this is what happens. I think it’s very scary.

When we went into Iraq we destabilized it. I’m not taking up for Saddam, don’t misunderstand me, and I’m not taking up for the way he ran that country, but there was a certain equilibrium there. They were no threat to us. There were long-standing Christian communities, there was a long-standing Jewish community, everybody lived. It wasn’t a theocracy. It wasn’t great, don’t get me wrong, but what we did, we completely destroyed the equilibrium. Then we wondered why everything went to hell in a hand basket.

[Editor – After the interview, Francine used the analogy for Iraq of “a gnat in your eye.” When you get a gnat in your eye, you can’t do much else until you get it out. It’s just too irritating and painful to ignore or do anything else. To the Iraqis our occupation is a gnat. They will never be able to move on with coming to grips with their new situation and rebuilding the country’s infrastructure and economy until the gnat is gone. I thought that was a pretty good analogy and an astute observation.]

M: Would you take force as an option off the table in regards to the putative Iranian nuclear weapons program?

F: I can’t really answer that question because I don’t know enough about the pieces. Force would be my last choice, and only if it were with a community of nations. I firmly believe that we can find a better choice than force.

[Editor – This is the second time that a candidate has refused to eliminate the use of force as an option for dealing with Iraq’s nuclear program. For the reasons I laid out in detail in my interview with Patty Weiss, I think this is a mistake, and probably reflects a general failure to seriously think through this issue by the candidates. This is a serious issue. Most likely the Bush Administration will be attempting to bring this crisis to a head about the time the newly elected CD 8 Representative is taking his or her seat. These candidates need to be ready to make an informed decision.]

M: How about defense spending? It takes up over half of the discretionary federal budget. What priorities should we change about how we spend our money on defense?

F: It depends on our perception of the world in which we live. If our perception is that somebody is going to get us if we don’t get them first, then we have big spending on defense. If our perception is that we want to take responsibility for making a decent life for our people and work in harmony with other countries and develop alliances with other countries so that we don’t have to be constantly defending ourselves, it is much better. To some extent we have to be strong  – you  don’t want to be a sitting duck for someone who’s going to come in and topple you. I’m not naïve.

[It is clear that Francine sees the world as a much less threatening place than current political culture conditions our leaders and citizens to perceive. I think this may be a product of being born in 1928. The current security challenges we face are serious, but hardly as dire as they have been in Francine’s adult memory. I laud her sense of proportion, though many people will wrongly accuse her of being Pollyanna-ish.]

M: So you would be in favor of cutting defense spending?

F: Yes. But, we have to take care of our soldiers. We have to take care of our veterans. That’s an irreducible minimum as far as I’m concerned. That’s honorable. As far as the weapons we build, I think some engineers are having a lot of fun building toys. I’m not interested in funding those kinds of toys. My principle is that people come first, and taking care of people comes first.

M: What sort of role should America play in international affairs?

F: A cooperative role. I think we should take leadership when it comes to defending democracy as long as we first restore our democracy at home, which I don’t think is in very good shape. The President considers himself a king, and considers [that] anybody who disagrees with him is treasonous. We’re not setting a very good example al all. If we work with societies from where they are, to try to move them to a better place, this is a good role for us.

M: Immigration is going to be a big issue in the general election. What values and convictions do you bring to border policy?

F: Immigration policy has to be humane. There are two things that I don’t want to see happen. I don’t want to see illegal immigrants coming over and working for half of what Americans work for. They should be treated humanely. One thing that is pointed out is that illegal immigration is a great stress on our infrastructure, schools and medical care. If we are in a position to educate and provide medical treatment for them, we should work out some kind of treaty arrangement – it’s largely Mexico we’re talking about – with Mexico to reimburse us for those costs. That takes getting together and figuring out how we can work in some kind of harmony. I think that families should be able to be reunited, … if they have a patron family that is willing to stand up and sponsor [them], which is the old way people used to come in to this country.

You need to take the money out of it. People here who hire illegal immigrants should be found and fined. People who charge these poor souls to try to bring them into this county should be found and fined. We need to take the money out of both ends of the operation. We need to find a way to work with Mexico to improve the economy for their people.

The border here has always been very porous. In Bisbee, people can’t go back and forth now and the people there are suffering financially. I want to get into these communities and listen to them. They call it the House of Representatives. Involve people in the solution. They probably have a lot of good ideas.

[Editor – While I agree with Francine in general terms, this is probably not a strong enough statement of the issue to counter Graf in a debate on this subject. And that debate will occur: ad nauseum. I would recommend that Francine sharpen her policy focus on this major and divisive issue.]

M: What‘s your viewpoint about how we should reform the provision of health care services in this country?

F: I think we should have a single payer system. We should get the insurance companies out. I think John Kerry had a good suggestion in 2004. One thing you can do is at age 55 enroll people in Medicare. Private insurance has to get out because their administrative costs are often in excess of 20% whereas Medicare’s is only 2%. There are 36 countries in the world that have universal insurance. Do you mean to tell me there’s not a model out there? There has to be the will, and there isn’t. We are in a situation where the corporations come first. And I think the people come first.

[Editor – Again, thank the writers of “The West Wing” for so nicely slipping this devastating factoid on administrative costs firmly into popular culture. I’m glad to see multiple candidates running with this particular ball.]

M: What do we need to do to fix the Medicare drug benefit?

F: Hah! I think it is a hopeless disaster. There is a lot that we need to do with the pharmaceutical companies. Right now, they can deduct every penny that they pay for advertising. They claim that they’re spending all this money on research. It’s not so. They’re spending money on advertising, on “me-too” drugs. You turn on the television any night and you could throw up from all the advertising. When I see that, I think to myself, “This is coming out of my tax dollars,” which drives me crazy. These problems are solved in other countries. This is not rocket science.

M: We face a serious structural deficit in the Medicare system estimated at as much as $30 billion over the next 75 years. That’s a much bigger issue than Social Security and it’s not being addressed. What do we need to do about that?

F: It may sound like a simplistic answer, but find a solution. There are solutions. I need to study it thoroughly before I give an answer. Part of it will be bringing in people at 55 to provide more money.

M: Would you provide private accounts as part of a compromise on Social Security?

F: Absolutely not. Under no circumstance.

M: What’s your take on our current fiscal position regarding taxes, especially Bush’s tax cuts?

F: I believe in a progressive income tax. As you earn, so you pay. I think it’s a crime to give all this money back to people who don’t need it. I think that anybody who works 40 hours a week should be able to live a decent respectable life

M: So you are in favor of raising the minimum wage?

F: To a living wage. Yes.

M: We have huge budget deficits. Are you in favor of a balanced budget?

F: Yes

M: How do we get there? Do we increase taxes or cut spending?

F: Both. We have to stop building bridges to nowhere for 50 people. People in Congress who get set-asides for their districts have to realize that they have to look out for the interests of the whole country too. There has to be a different ethic on the part of Congress.

[Editor – what taxes Francine would raise is an open question. I admit, I’m not a perfect interviewer. I will update this answer if Francine wants to supplement.]

M: We’ve had a series of spectacular corporate failures over the last several years. What can Congress do to restore confidence and integrity to our financial system?

F: We can start with Sarbanes-Oxley. Some transparency in the system. We have to change what we allow corporations to do. A corporation cannot transcend the government. They don’t have any responsibility to the public, and that’s not in the best interest of the people. We have to change some of these laws.

M: There are some serious problems with the nation’s pension systems. Boomers are retiring and record pension defaults are occurring.

F: One thing they can do is not allow corporations to walk away from their pensions in bankruptcy like United Airlines did. The bankruptcy laws are dreadful. They’re not set up to protect people. They’re set up to protect corporations. If we believe in government for the people by the people, we have to put our money and our practices where our mouths are.

M: What’s your opinion of the recent changes in bankruptcy laws?

F: I think they’re disgusting. Most of these people are not malingerers who just ran up credit card debt. They are people who have had very serious medical bills, and that’s why they’ve gone under. It’s also affecting people in the National Guard and Reserves, they’re in the service and they’re families are living on charity. I think the last bankruptcy law is probably one of the most mean-spirited laws that I’ve ever seen.

M: What must we do to prevent the ethical abuses in our own government, including Congress?

F: We have to get the money out of it. We have to make iy so they cannot make contributions in return for favors. It’s very hard. Money is very sticky stuff. Passing laws is the first step. Transparency is the first step. Public financing of elections is imperative. We have it here in Arizona. I wish I could run “clean,” but that’s a state program.

M: What must we do better to protect our environment?

F: We have to stop the ‘dumbing down’ of science. The Union of Concerned Scientists has said the number of lobbyists has more than doubled since 2000. There has never been a situation where scientific opinions have been ignored for political reasons. Science is not there to serve the President’s agenda.

M: What are your views regarding the hot-button values issues the Republicans are using these days? And what strategies would you use to counter or deal with these issues, such as gay marriage, abortion, etc.?

F: I believe that we need to get government out of the bedroom and keep sex in the bedroom and protect people’s right to privacy. And I believe that abortion is between a woman, her conscience, and her doctor. And I don’t see how creating more families threatens families. I have a real problem figuring that one out. What threatens families is poverty. If you have two parents working, sometimes one parent is working two jobs, to keep a roof over their heads and to keep food on the table, that’s what threatens families. This government’s policies threaten families. The so-called religious right is not religious or right.

M: If you could go to Congress and get your way on just one thing, get just one reform passed exactly as you wanted, and then you had to leave, what would it be?

F: Progressive income tax. If you change the system so that people who make more, pay more, and people who make less, pay less, you will institute a system that will have other side effects. I think that adopting that kind of system requires an expression of values that people who can’t, don’t, and people who can, do, in paying income tax.

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