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Heffner: I’m Alexander Hefner, your host on The Open Mind. When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez did the improbable and defeated an incumbent party leader and possible successor to the next speaker of the house. It was because of a new movement of dedicated Democratic Party activists. They call themselves the Justice Democrats, their mandate: it’s time to usher in a new generation of diverse working class leaders into the Democratic Party, a party that fights for its voters, not corporate donors, it’s platform emphasizes popular initiatives that Senator Sanders champion during the ‘16 campaign, ones increasingly adopted across the party today, a Green New Deal, a Living Wage, Medicare for All, Free College Tuition, criminal justice reform, immigrant rights, and a ban on corporate PAC money. Representative Ocasio-Cortez alongside three other newly elected House Justice Democrats are already influencing the trajectory of House leadership, including a proposal for a Green New Deal Select Committee. Joining me to discuss his Justice Democrats, executive director, Alexandra Rojas, a millennial grassroots organizer who’s leading this movement. Welcome, Alexandra.
ROJAS: Thank you so much for having me on.
HEFFNER: When you and your cofounders branded your movement Justice Democrats, in Tennessee, where you’re headquartered, what were you thinking, What was the grounding of Justice, we want to be a different breed of Democrat.
ROJAS: Yeah. I think what we, what we’ve seen over the past 40 years, right, with wages being stagnant. What we’ve seen over the past decade with Democratic leadership, we’ve seen, not just the presidency and the congress, but throughout every down ballot race across the country, we’ve seen Democrats lose seats. And we feel that if there’s been a failure on both sides a sort of bipartisan establishment to actually be leading the agenda with policies that are going to directly benefit the working class people that make up the United States. And so when we think about the Democratic Party, we understand, that we live in a two party system and that this is going to be our best vehicle to actually create the change that we want to see that we need, in the sense of urgency that it is, and justice being something that we haven’t really gotten, right for every person in this country. And we want Democrats that stand for that and also are attached to all of those policies that you just laid out. Especially making sure that they accept no corporate PAC or corporate lobbyist money. So I think the term Justice Democrats really comes from the idea that we haven’t fully achieved that and we want Democrats that are mission driven and focused on you know, transforming the Democratic Party to lead with justice.
HEFFNER: And your first mandate or mission right out of the gate is a Green New Deal: green jobs, environmental stewardship, the livelihood and security of the planet. And I understand using that as an opportunity to increase wages and build infrastructure that’s going to sustain our communities. How can this progress in a way, in an environment now with one chamber in control by the Democrats, one chamber by the Republicans, how do you envision working these next two years on that issue?
ROJAS: Absolutely. So we’ve teamed up with the Sunrise Movement and Alexandria Justice Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to push for a Select Committee to draft the plan for a Green New Deal. So we understand the political climate that Republicans aren’t going to budge on this and that we only control one chamber. But what we’re saying is that there’s a lot of committees that are working on this right now, but there’s not one that is coming up with that comprehensive plan that addresses the scale and the urgency of the, what we believe the existential threat facing our nation. And so if you look at what we’re pushing for, is that because we control this chamber, we have the time to actually create this plan right, draft it, so that assuming that we take back the Senate and the White House in 2020, we’re actually prepared and have a plan ready to go, to pass a Green New Deal. And I think the reason why we’re calling it that, and I think why we’ve come right out of the gate so to speak, is because I think we have a chance to be a Democratic Party that inspires the nation again, you know, we’re the ones that you know, had leaders in our party, fight for electrifying the highways in the United States. We put someone on the moon, we did those things and I think Americans are really hungry for solutions as radical as the problems that we face and truly credible and authentic leadership to deliver that message. And folks like Bernie folks like Alexandria, I think are the perfect deliverers of this message and we want to make sure that going into 2020, this is at the forefront of the Democratic agenda. And for the 2020 presidential candidates that we’re going to run, it’s totally a litmus test that Justice Democrats will be running on.
HEFFNER: You have an opportunity on an issue where the President, President Trump has to be accountable because he promised the nation, which you said was plagued by third world infrastructure, he promised revitalization. If you wrap, as I think you want to do the New Deal, the Green New Deal in a commitment to infrastructure and jobs, then you might get some Republican support too.
ROJAS: I think that’s right. I mean the thing that comes to mind that always sticks out to me for some reason. I don’t know if you remember, but when Trump was running for president, he stood behind a big garbage facility out in Pennsylvania and he talked about building factories and bringing back industrialization here in the United States and we’re going to create millions of jobs, right? And people are fired up by that. I think what’s unique about the Green New Deal is that we’re taking a very intersectional approach that I think actually captures the human aspect of it. It’s not just sort of like climate wonky, but it’s talking about what you said, I think, which is we need massive investments in infrastructure. When we think about the level of work it’s going to take to retrofit, weatherize buildings to just, you know, take out all of the pipes and rebuild our roads and bridges to get to where they need to be. We can do that with a renewable energy angle. And I think that it’s very apparent already that our economy is already transitioning that way. It’s not a surprise. And I think Republicans and, just again, like everyday American people can get behind the idea of actually mobilizing our nation around a unified purpose that creates millions of jobs in the same way that we addressed our existential threats during World War Two.
HEFFNER: And acknowledging the dignity of work and the dignity that those who were seeking to revitalize our infrastructure deserve. In one of your party planks, the Democrats who were newly elected as Justice Democrats support Healthcare for All, whether it’s Medicare or Universal Healthcare, some combination. But to me this is no more radical. Or no, it’s not new school. It’s something Harry Truman supported.
HEFFNER: Do you have conviction in this party and its history that, you know, that’s how you can ground your arguments and logic and persuasion campaign, not something that is really extraneous and not innate to our history, which is socialism? Are you, and you think representative of Ocasio-Cortez prepared to make that commitment to the Democratic Party?
ROJAS: Yeah, I think we’re already doing it. I think everything that we’re doing is about transforming the Democratic Party to actually be one that stands for the base of voters that it supports, right? That’s women, that’s, especially black women, that’s working people of all backgrounds and people of color and now millennials just like myself. I think everything that we’re doing is a to actually, again, create a Democratic Party that can inspire the nation. And like you said, there’s historical precedent for all of the solutions that we’re putting forth. We don’t believe that it’s a socialist or democratic or put any labels on it. I think this is just common sense, right? When we think about the existential threats facing our nation, like climate change, I think like our healthcare crisis, like the stagnation of hourly wages in our economy, I think we have to address those with solutions as big as those problems are. And I think what we’re putting forward is just very, very common sense when you look at the scale of the crises that we’re facing and the historical precedence of you know, past precedents that come from the Democratic Party.
HEFFNER: Do you think that if Governor Bredesen in Tennessee had embraced this generation of Democrats, and not appeal to a constituency that he thinks the old Tennessee and maybe the older Tennessee Democrats, maybe those older Tennessee Democrats wanted to hear your call to invoke Truman and Roosevelt and Johnson and not believe that his saying he would have voted for Kavanaugh would be a badge of honor to Tennessee voters. Having been based in Tennessee in these last years. Do you think that if he had not run to the right as he did a to curry favor people, he thought would be his natural constituency, that crossover vote or the independent voters that he might have actually had a better shot at winning that election?
ROJAS: Absolutely. I think that 100 percent. My, a good friend and a colleague who’s also a board member, Corbin Trent was born and raised from Tennessee and we met on the Bernie campaign and his background comes from, you know, his family, like literally when we had terrible trade deals like NAFTA come through and just wipe out industry comes from one of those towns where there were factories. His family actually owned a furniture manufacturing facility. And over time, right, we’ve seen those completely get wiped out in places like the south and the Midwest and people are extremely receptive to, when you talk about, especially in the context of a Green New Deal, people want to work, people are ready to get to work. And it’s a shame that we as a nation aren’t able to provide a high wage, I think, but industrial sort of jobs. And we have a ton, a ton of work to do. And so I think this message really resonates and it’s proven. When you look at like Bredesen lost, Heitkamp lost, Donnelly lost, kind of ceding into the right’s agenda. But when you see plate, you know, candidates like Stacey Abrams, Beto O’Rourke, Andrew Gillum, in places that are historically purple or flat out red, we’ve seen massive gains for the progressive movement and they’re not, you know, Beto was not talking about anything really light. He was calling for things that are pretty radical for the status of the state of Texas.
HEFFNER: In his first debate…
HEFFNER: Against Ted Cruz, he invoked Truman as you’re now invoking. Truman and Roosevelt.
ROJAS: Yeah, it’s inspiring and I think that we can be a Democratic Party that doesn’t always have to play defense. I think we can go on the offense and actually paint a picture of what America could look like if we believed in the human, the best resource we have, which is the human capital.
HEFFNER: Speaker Pelosi, she may be speaker at the time this airs, she hasn’t marginalized Justice Democrats or the values that you’ve espoused here. Now, if you look at the other chamber, the Senate, Senator Schumer has marginalized those values in the way he’s operated and the way he’s led the party. What next for Senate Democrats, The Justice Campaign can’t just operate in one chamber, can it?
ROJAS: Yeah, I mean, I think that we’re going to be really focused on building sort of our team in the House just because we have Alexandria there. We have Ilhan, we have Ayanna, and as most people can see, right? Prior to this, our Congress is currently made up of a majority of men, majority white, majority millionaire. And it’s really difficult when the first thing that you walk into the door is hey, can you, can you spend four or five hours a day fundraising for us? We need more people alongside them to really build a sort of mission driven team in the house to be able to, you know, push the legislation that we want to see, right? So I think that’s going to be a huge focus for us. And then specifically for Senate, we’re going to kind of keep an eye out of what seats make the most sense for us, but it’s definitely not something that we’re ignoring but also know the enormous amount of resources that it takes just for even one house race.
HEFFNER: So your game plan now is to assess within the House the Democrats who are genuinely committed to this Justice Reform agenda and if they are, I imagine you and representative or an Ocasio-Cortez will endorse them, will champion them, but there may be Democrats who are not willing to accept this mantle of the next generation of New Deal politics, and your mission in 2020, I presume would be to elect Democrats who are committed to those values.
ROJAS: Yeah, I think a huge part of our strategy is primarying Democrats that should not be in there.
HEFFNER: And you’re going to assess it over the next year and then sort of determine who’s on that map.
ROJAS: Yeah, we’re doing that work right now. So we’ve been setting up a sort of prioritization of districts using a number of different predictors. I think in 2018 we learned what districts we perform really well in. And so in the case of, and I think also one of the biggest lessons learned is that one race can change everything. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s race I think shifted the “Overton window” in people’s minds of what’s possible politically, especially when it comes to primary challenges within our own party and actually having a robust conversation about what the agenda should be. And so the reason why we’re talking about a Green New Deal is because primaried a Democrat that was accepting millions of dollars from Wall Street who wasn’t super ideologically driven, and had a conversation with the people in that district, and I’d say, I’d argue the country, about what solutions are going to be best for the American people. So that’s absolutely going to be our strategy to double down in 2020.
HEFFNER: My only bone to pick with you in your vocabulary as you espouse these positions is this notion of Free College or Free Healthcare, Free Tuition. It’s antithetical to the system that we have. We have a capitalism system. It’s corrupt, it’s crony, it’s, I like to say it’s a cannibalistic capitalism- it’s eating alive America right now. That’s something Senator Sanders has acknowledged, Senator Brown too – they’re really the stalwarts of those values in the Senate. I think that Brown may acknowledge something that Sanders doesn’t and I want to know if you do too, which is that these things cost money, so if you are going to want to provide basic human dignity to every citizen, then you’re going to have to increase taxes for the very wealthy, which we know is not what’s out there now. And increase taxes roll back that the tax cuts on corporations. But even then there’s a cost to doing business. So I’m wondering, is it most compelling to make the case for free this or that when we know our very core is capitalistic. now, should it be a compassionate capitalism? Yes. But is it, is it most compelling to argue for free this and free that or maybe do it a different way?
ROJAS: I think the language that we use on our website specifically for something like college, and we say the same thing about trade school, right? I think it’s tuition-free education at all public colleges, universities, and trade schools because it’s the, I think in and of itself that’s not a radical concept. I think providing health care to every single American, not just as a right, but to take the burden off of small businesses who shouldn’t be in the business of healthcare, they should be in the business of innovation, right? It’s common sense. And when we talk about how to pay for these things, I think you named, you know, some of the tools in our toolbox. But I think there’s also a question of what are our priorities as a nation, right? What do we currently pay for that we can shift, right?
And also acknowledging that we have the power of the purse to be able to do a lot of these things and everything that we’ve done in our past, whether that’s deciding to make universal high school education a thing, build an interstate highway system, and you know, do things like the GI Bill like we did back then. Those were decisions that we made as a government, as a nation that that is going to benefit our, the people of our country. And I think when we talk about a universal education, it’s an investment in our economy. It’s an investment in the health and wellbeing of our citizens and it provides equity and the opportunity for all people here. So I understand the sort of question of how do you pay for it because that’s the one that I ask myself everyday. That’s the one that you ask yourself everyday. But at the end of the day, I think that we do have to have a discussion about what do we prioritize as a nation. What do we think is important? And I think education, healthcare, having a living wage, being able to have an opportunity to work in dignity is absolutely something that we should be putting at the forefront of this conversation.
HEFFNER: I think living wage makes sense. I think universal education, healthcare, opportunity, equity; I think that language makes sense. And I hear what you’re saying, tuition-free, maybe a more compelling way to describe it than free education. I was in Wyoming not so long ago and had a conversation with a former state legislator and he, like I think a lot of folks in Red America or what we might perceive to be Red America; they’re receptive to the idea of Universal Healthcare or High Quality Affordable Care. The one requirement in their mind is that the folks who are the recipients of this care are contributing to the country in some way. And there’s been a longstanding battle here really emanating out of Medicare and social security and not wanting to see those programs only cater to people who had means or had had a livelihood. So I understand the concern about work requirement, but one way that you all might have some Republican or Conservatives, traditional Republican or Conservative listen to this argument is if you say no, what if we just required folks to demonstrate they want to take care of this country, whether it’s in a Green New Deal or in private enterprise, and if you work part time or full time, and you don’t have a disability and you’re not over the, older than a certain age, why is that not a reasonable expectation from our society to echo Kennedy, you know, what you’re doing for your country and so maybe you all can get together with Democrats or Republicans and make, like you said, healthcare shouldn’t be incentivized by profit and make sense out of the healthcare situation and emphasize dignity of life and that folks don’t want a free ride, they want to work, but they want to have high quality care and they want it to be equitable. Could that make sense?
ROJAS: Yeah. I think, again, that this sort of comes back to I think sort of common sense solutions that I think the right and the left can both get behind. And, you know, for us I think it’s important that, we’re just presenting that at face value and we’re not trying to pander to any side. I think kind of putting it out in the way that I’m trying to talk about it right now is really focusing in on that. And I think it’s an absolute tragedy in this country that there are people who want to work that can’t find work. And I think that is something that, I think the is unifying on both sides and I think the way that we talk about it needs to be, to your point, I think centering the human aspect of it and that everybody wants to feel like they can contribute to this country and be proud of the work that they’re doing.
HEFFNER: Also, there’s this misguided, misinformed idea that everything’s hunky dory because the Bureau of Labor Statistics publishes the unemployment rate and that it’s at a record low and that’s not indicative of actually the condition of the working family or the American family. And that was salient to Sanders and Trump’s primary victories.
ROJAS: Yeah. No, I think that’s absolutely right. And I think a lot of the numbers that we pay attention to in the unemployment statistics at the Dow, all, all of those sort of things don’t actually look at the real economy and I think that, that people are a participating in an accounting for all of the people that had been looking for work but gave up and actually searching for it. So we have a real crisis and then I always reference this wage, but like over the past 40 years, we’ve just seen wages completely stagnate and not actually grow in a massive consolidation of wealth, right? And money coming out of our GDP, going to the top one percent and not flowing back in. So we can pretend like things are absolutely okay. But I think when – to your point when Bernie, when Trump talked about – on the campaign trail that we’re not, and we keep having leaders saying, no, it’s okay. That’s infuriating. It was infuriating to me watching it. Like how can you say that, you know, we’re doing okay as a country when my family is struggling to just get by. And that’s the story of I think millions of people in Tennessee where I currently live right now and across the country, not just the coasts.
HEFFNER: Public-private partnerships don’t seem to be doing the trick. And you hear that from a lot of politicians that that’s the agenda, the Green New Deal, how’s that going to be different in the seconds we have left? And how is that going to be different from the status quo of infrastructure and development in this country?
ROJAS: I think what we’re calling for is a mobilization of our economy, of our society on the scale that we haven’t seen since World War II. And I think that’s going to require, and the reason why we’re starting conversation now, an immense amount of planning because we have to acknowledge that there are industries that currently exist, especially the fossil fuel industry, right, that a house millions of workers and we’re going to need to figure out a solution of what to do with all those people and revert their capacity to work to, to other ways. And I think those businesses that currently exist we can’t just forget about. So for us, the Public Private Partnership, I know that it’s, it’s hasn’t necessarily worked in the past, but it’s something that we have to acknowledge as part of this transition.
HEFFNER: Well, we haven’t seen a mobilization like the new deal.
ROJAS: We have not.
HEFFNER: So maybe it rests more in the public trust than the private trust.
ROJAS: I think that’s absolutely right.
HEFFNER: Alexandra, thank you for your time today.