Background: Professor of social work at Syracuse University's Aging Studies Institute and co-founding director of the Social Security Works coalition
The Race: U.S. House of Representatives, New York's 24th District
Dr. Eric Kingson, a gerontologist, signed up for Social Security after he turned 69. But talk to Kingson, who has a Ph.D. in social work and teaches part-time at Syracuse University, and you’ll hear someone who sounds like a young idealist. At a time when most people his age are either retired or thinking about it, Kingson is running for Congress for the first time in his life because he wants to help change the country's direction. “I’m proud to be running for office at 69, because I have a lot to offer," says Kingson, who was active in the Civil Rights Movement in college. Kingson is running on a platform to expand and strengthen Social Security and Medicare and to improve women’s healthcare. But most of all, he wants to stop Republicans from dismantling Social Security.
He and Sen. Bernie Sanders found themselves aligned in that fight in 2012, when they were among 200 people who took over the Senate floor to protest Social Security cuts. “Bernie played a pivotal role in coordinating the pushback to proposed cuts to the annual cost of living adjustments,” Kingson says. Although Sanders has not endorsed Kingson—or anyone—in the 24th district race, the admiration appears to be mutual: Sanders praised the book Kingson co-authored in 2014 with Nancy Altman, Social Security Works! Why Social Security Isn’t Going Broke and How Expanding It Will Help Us All.
“Social Security Works! puts expanding Social Security front and center on the national agenda, where it belongs. Everyone who has a stake in the debate should read this important book,” wrote Sanders.
The 24th district, which leans Democratic, is currently represented by Republican John Katko. Kingson charges that Katko wants to either cut or privatize Social Security; Katko says he believes that "anyone at or near retirement age should not face cuts,” but that he doesn’t support “anything that raises taxes.”
Kingson is running against two Democrats in the primary: Colleen Deacon, former central New York regional director for U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), and Steven Williams, a former U.S. Navy JAG Corps officer.
The big guns are supporting Deacon, a single mother. Her former boss Gillibrand is backing her, and so is Sen. Charles Schumer, (D-N.Y.), who is expected to become the Democratic leader of the U.S. Senate in 2017 when Harry Reid retires.
Deacon also has the backing of EMILY’s List and of a number of Democratic elected officials in the 24th district, whose largest city is Syracuse. But Williams just picked up the endorsement of Congressman Steve Israel, a Democrat who represents New York's 3rd District.
Key Endorsements: Steve Israel, U.S. Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), Blue America
Latest Polling: None available Primary: June 28
Why are you running for Congress?
Eric Kingson: I am running because I am concerned about the direction the country is headed. I want Social Security expanded so it reaches more people. I am calling on Congress to expand, not cut, Social Security.
What are the three most important issues facing America today that should be addressed in the Democratic Party platform?
Economic security, retirement and the nation's investment in infrastructure. We have lost our democracy because of Citizens United and its role in helping the very rich. The Democratic Party platform must address the disrespect some have for our fellow human beings, particularly African Americans and Latinos and low-income whites, like the laws that make it more difficult for people to vote.
How have social movements like Black Lives Matter, Occupy and climate change activism influenced your campaign?
These movements change the way people think by bringing attention to the 1%. Black Lives Matter makes us think about the role of racism in society. Black teenagers’ parents warn them to keep their hands on the steering wheel in full view if they are stopped by police. A white parent would never have to give their sons and daughters that kind of warning. The Occupy movement has also [called attention to the fact that] trickle-down economics doesn't work. The movements are causing people to think and become more active in their communities.
Democrats have lost their majorities in both the House and Senate. What do you think the Democratic Party needs to do to gain them back?
We have to show that we stand for something. We have to begin by pushing forward with new ideas. That includes working with unions, providing more Social Security and returning to the traditional values that made the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party has to let voters know that the party's business is the people's business.
Bernie Sanders’ campaign has galvanized young progressive voters across the country and attracted a lot of independent support. What are the lessons here for the Democrats and for your campaign in particular?
Bernie Sanders has encouraged people to get involved in the election. The lesson is that many young people care and they must be activated. We desperately need them in the political process. The general message for the Democratic Party is that young people want politicians to stand for a strong set of values and mean what they say.
When the Democratic Party chooses its nominee in Philadelphia, the party will come together for the November election. What stands in the way of Sanders supporters and Hillary supporters working together under the Democratic Party big tent?
I don't think a lot stands in the way. The Democratic Party has to move toward action because Ted Cruz and Donald Trump are fundamentally dangerous people. These two candidates are totally unqualified to be president of the United States. These are not Everett Dirksen Republicans who worked both sides of the aisle to reach agreements. The new Republicans have opened the door to David Duke of the Ku Klux Klan. This would be a very different agenda for our country.
What does the legacy of the New Deal mean for Democrats in 2016, and how can the Democratic Party best defend the values of the New Deal and expand on the promise of social and economic democracy?
To this Democrat, it means a lot. The New Deal was about investing in our economy and our future. Unlike conservative Republicans, I am not out to destroy our institutions. People need jobs. One of the great things the New Deal did was to create jobs through agencies like the Civilian Conservation Corps, a government-funded public work relief program that helped the unemployed find jobs.
Sanders has struggled with winning over people of color and a generation of women who find inspiration in Hillary Clinton's struggles and accomplishments. Clinton has struggled with youth voters and with the party's left base. What sort of bold progressive platform can unite these constituencies in November, and in years to come?
We have to deconstruct the monster we have created with Wall Street. We need to provide free college tuition, and we need to make it more difficult for companies to move off shore. We also need to block trade agreements like the Trans Pacific Partnership that create income inequality. I think what will ultimately bring us together will be the fear of what the Republicans are putting up. The Republicans have put up a very scary set of candidates. The country has too much to lose with either Trump or Cruz in the White House. There’s too much at stake.
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