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Massachusetts state Rep. Carl Sciortino at a 2007 rally to protest MBTA bus fare increases. (Carl Sciortino/Flickr)

‘FDR Democrat’ Vies for Congressional Seat

In a five-way Democratic race in Massachusetts, Carl Sciortino is jockeying for leftmost.

BY Cole Stangler

'I thought it was a disgrace for Democrats here in Massachusetts to be doing something far too similar to what Scott Walker had done in Wisconsin.'

On Tuesday, Democratic voters in Massachusetts’ solidly liberal 5th Congressional District will cast their ballots in a primary to effectively determine the district’s next congressional representative.

The winner of the primary will go on to compete in a special election in November to fill the House seat vacated by 30-year-veteran Senator Ed Markey, who in June won the race to replace John Kerry after Kerry became Secretary of State.

The race is shaping up to be tight. According to a poll released by the Katherine Clark campaign on September 30, Clark (currently a state senator) leads with 27 percent of the vote, followed by 18 percent for Karen Spilka (also a state senator), Middlesex County Sheriff Peter Koutoujian with 16 percent, state Rep. Carl Sciortino with 15 percent and William Brownsberger (another state senator) trailing with 12 percent.

It is perhaps unsurprising that in such a comfortably Democratic district—which includes Cambridge and stretches across suburbs to the north and west of Boston—the five competing candidates have all painted themselves as progressives to varying degrees. But Carl Sciortino, who’s raked in endorsements from the sitting co-chairs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, as well as former congressman Dennis Kucinich and groups like Progressive Democrats of America and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, says he has the record to back that label up.

A Massachusetts state representative since 2005, Sciortino supports expanding Social Security and implementing single-payer healthcare. He also calls for a carbon tax, opposes the Keystone XL pipeline and was an early critic of military intervention in Syria. As a state legislator, he’s perhaps best known for introducing legislation—which passed in 2011—that bars employment discrimination against transgender people. He spoke with In These Times on the phone.

People like to throw the word “progressive” around a lot. What do you mean when you say you’re a progressive?

I consider myself a progressive Democrat because I’m an FDR Democrat, an Elizabeth Warren Democrat. I’m a Democrat who believes that government can and should play a positive role in building up communities and strengthening our families and opportunities for growth in this country. I think that gets shied away from even by a lot of Democrats.

It’s not just about saying you’re a progressive when running for office or when it’s convenient to the campaign. Taking a very active role is important to being a progressive in the legislative context. The way I have worked as a legislator in the last nine years [is that] I didn’t just show up and cast good progressive votes and send out press releases—I organized, I built up support, I worked to build coalitions to move progressive legislation, I co-founded our Progressive Caucus to organize within the legislature.

What do you think is your biggest legacy as a state legislator?

I think anybody that served in the state House the last decade would probably agree the biggest issue was the marriage equality debate, which is what first got me in the legislature in 2004. [Sciortino, who’s gay, campaigned that year against then-State Rep. Vincent Ciampa, who opposed gay marriage]. That was a very powerful debate to take part in. In 2004, it was not clear whether marriage equality would be just a blip—whether we were going to lose it or whether we could actually keep it and be able to build a movement across the country.

It’s something I’m incredibly proud of. To see it now a reality in many other cases, having unfolded in such a quick period of time, and to have the federal government finally recognizing marriage equality is pretty powerful.

I’ve heard the critique that the Democratic Party leadership tends to focus mostly on social issues like marriage equality, and not enough on class issues and economic justice. What do you think?

It was actually the Elizabeth Warren campaign last year that gave me any sense that my politics might have a place in a national context. Her ability to literally change the conversation about economic justice, to really hone in on the problem of the growing gap between rich and poor, her ability to tell the American story through the lens of economic inequality is a very powerful story that really has to be told right now. And she’s one of the masters at both the policy that underlines those values, but also the ability to weave the story in a way that connects with people.

Democrats need to learn really important lessons from her campaign and from her success as an elected official. Because that is the story we need to be telling and the work we need to be focusing on right now in this country.

Another candidate in the race, Karen Spilka, got a lot of endorsements from labor unions. And you don’t have a section on your website devoted to labor. Do you see yourself as an ally of organized labor and the union movement, which is facing a lot of difficulties both at the federal level and the state level today?

I have a very strong labor record in the state legislature—I’m very proud of that record. I have stood up to House Democratic leaders as they’ve tried to strip away collective bargaining benefits, both pensions and healthcare benefits, while others in this race [like frontrunner Sen. Katherine Clark] were the ones leading the charge trying to force a compromise to happen. I thought it was a disgrace for Democrats here in Massachusetts to be doing something far too similar to what Scott Walker had done in Wisconsin. It was a terrible message and terrible policy, and I opposed it.

I’m very proud of my labor record. A lot of public employee unions have been really thrashed around the country and in Massachusetts, and I’ve always stood on their side. We have, I think, a national attack on the right to organize, on the right to form unions, on the right to collectively bargain. I would say it is the requirement of Democrats in public office to defend those rights and not compromise on those core values.

Do you have any feelings about the Employee Free Choice Act, long-stalled legislation that would make it easier for workers to organize unions?

I support it. I was also a supporter and a co-sponsor of card check legislation here at the state legislature we passed a couple terms ago as well.

Let’s say you’re elected. There are a number of different ways you can go about legislating. You can be really outspoken—the Dennis Kucinich sort of approach. There are other progressives in Congress who work more behind the scenes, somebody like Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio).  What’s your strategy?

I’m an organizer. I think the job of a legislator is to figure out how to develop a strategy to win, whether it’s short-term or long-term depending on the issue, develop that strategy and organize towards it. It’s why I co-founded the [Massachusetts] Progressive Caucus to create a space for progressive organizing in the state legislature. It’s why I have the endorsements of at least five members of Congress now.

It’s really easy to show up and cast a vote, issue a press release, and go home and say you’ve done something good for the progressive community. It’s much harder to show up and do the organizing work day by day over years to build up support for some of the most challenging issues we face.

When I got into the legislature, the minimum wage was going to be increased. And the Speaker of the House agreed to a small increase. Most of my Democratic colleagues said, thank you, Mr. Speaker, we’re preparing to send out the press releases. I didn’t. I organized a number of my progressive colleagues and I filed an amendment to increase it to $8 an hour, the highest in the country at the time.

I lined up the votes, person by person, working with a coalition of organizations that were working on the bill with us. And the Speaker called me into his office, and said we’re going to $7.50 an hour, that’s it. I said, no, Mr. Speaker, we have a majority of the votes lined up for $8 an hour and we’re calling the vote. And all he could say was congratulations, it’s $8 an hour. That wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t get in the trenches to figure out what the strategy was to win on that particular issue. And that’s a role I take very seriously.

What long-run goals are you most passionate about?

The gap between rich and poor is the biggest long-term economic justice issue that we have to bring direct focus on. We’ve seen the gap grow over the last 30 years—my entire lifetime essentially, I’m 35. It’s only gotten worse. Within that long-term conversation, there are specific economic policies we need to be focusing on: increasing the minimum wage, progressive taxation reforms, and [ensuring] that capital gains are taxed at the same rate as income for people that work. We need to make sure that we close some of the corporate loopholes so that you don’t get paid to ship jobs overseas and not subsidize Big Oil and Big Gas anymore. We can’t fix the gap overnight, but we have to begin putting in place policies that shrink it.

Cole Stangler is an In These Times staff writer and Schumann Fellow based in Washington D.C., covering labor, trade, foreign policy and environmental issues. His reporting has appeared in The Huffington Post and The American Prospect, and has been cited in The New York Times. He can be reached at cole[at]inthesetimes.com. Follow him on Twitter @colestangler.

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