Wall Street Democrats vs. the People

Our democracy is for sale. Every day. It is the reason people are just fed up with the dysfunctional political system. People want real change that will give them back a smidgen of security. The Republican Party has shown itself to be incapable of managing our economy. But, there is a fight underway for the soul of the Democratic Party: between Wall Street Democrats and the people.

I want to start this story by recounting a very recent conversation with a seasoned political operative in New York, a good, decent person who plays the political game quite well. This person said, "your opponent is totally beatable and can win this race if you raise the money and I know how you could get money from Wall Street by making an alliance with X person." I stopped this person immediately and said, "I won't take that money." There was silence on the phone and this person said, "Then, you can't win." I replied, "I do not want to win if the price is to be corrupted by that money."

We do not have to wait to get full public financing for campaigns (which I support) or to undo the Supreme Court decision with legislation or constitutional amendments (though I was glad to sign on to this effort immediately after the SCOTUS' decision). We, Democrats, can say now -- we won't accept corporate PAC money, we won't accept the corrupting money that hurts the American people.

In particular, right now, millions of dollars are flowing from Wall Street to defeat the president's reforms of the financial system -- I will say, needed reform but, in my view, too modest reforms. The Wall Street lobbying money, aimed at defeating any real change, should be viewed as toxic, unpatriotic and, essentially, an attack on the livelihood and futures of the American people.

Apparently, my opponent, Kirsten Gillibrand, does not believe that. Today's New York Times (which, frankly, is a newspaper that is incapable of writing about issues in the race) makes clear that my opponent is awash in Wall Street money--the very interests who cratered the economy:

Nowhere is the intensity of the clash between Ms. Gillibrand and Mr. Ford more evident than inside Manhattan's sprawling penthouses and boardrooms, where wealthy families and titans of finance are being stroked, wooed and pressured to choose sides in what could be the marquee political battle of 2010.

...And that has touched off a war for the city's richest donors, especially those on Wall Street, as both camps race to nail down financial support and demonstrate the breadth of their Rolodexes. [emphasis added]

This is our democracy for sale -- to the highest bidder.

And the consequences for any chance at reform and change are huge:

In recent weeks, both Ms. Gillibrand and Mr. Ford have sought to portray themselves as allies of the financial industry, even as they acknowledge public outrage over extravagant executive compensation deals.

Mr. Ford, a vice chairman of Merrill Lynch, is promoting himself as unabashedly pro-business, calling for a big reduction in the corporate tax rate and for exempting many businesses from payroll taxes, while Ms. Gillibrand has expressed misgivings about a bank tax proposed by President Obama that is opposed by Wall Street firms. [emphasis added]


Her persistent style and attention to detail has garnered high-profile contributors: Jamie Dimon, the chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, Gary D. Cohn, the president of Goldman Sachs; and Meyer S. Frucher, vice chairman of Nasdaq OMX Group, have donated to her Senate campaign, according to filings.

Let us be clear about what the above means.

President Obama has proposed a modest tax on banks who got our money to bail them out. It is a modest amount of money. It should be money that Wall Street pays not as a penalty but as a part of contributing back to taxpayers who support a government that makes it possible for the people on Wall Street to have a business and earn a living (an obscene living for the elite on The Street).

Candidly, I believe that the president has not gone far enough. I have long-supported a financial transactions tax (along with a broad base of economists and commentators from Dean Baker to Bob Herbert), which would tamp down speculation and bring in at least $150 billion to fund health care, schools, and the very domestic programs the president's 2011 budget calls for freezing.

But, my opponent has "misgivings" about the modest tax proposed by the president. I know--I can hear all the politicians in our state parroting the same line: Wall Street is a key industry and we have to look out for Wall Street's interests.

I understand exactly the problem my opponent faces. When you are a wholly-owned subsidiary of the financial industry--an eye-popping $1.2 million of my opponent's money comes from the financial-insurance-real estate world (combining perhaps the three industries most responsible for our financial bubble and health care crisis), you are not capable of speaking for the people.

People like Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan care about one thing--their own wealth and power. They do not understand what average Americans endure, as is clear from this comment:

"I don't think just because someone's underwater they say I don't have to stay there. But they're supposed to pay the mortgage, and we should teach the American people, you're supposed to meet your obligations, not run from them. Because you have a mortgage doesn't mean you should run away as it goes down."

Some people can pretend and some people are willing to live in a world of fantasy when a politician says, "money does not effect how I vote" and we can be seduced by a torrent of public relations efforts that people are now more progressive.

But, let's be real and let's be honest about what is happening: the same forces that have destroyed the livelihood of Americans are out there trying to make sure they keep their power and control--and they are buying our politicians every day. And there are politicians willing to be bought for the sole purpose of hanging on to their power.

I know--I can hear all the politicians in our state parroting the same line: Wall Street is a key industry and we have to look out for Wall Street's interests. I care too--about the tens of thousands of anonymous workers in the financial sector who don't live the life of Jamie Dimon or a Goldman Sachs executive. I care about the many other millions of people whose lives have been devastated over the past 30 years by the Jamie Dimons of the world who have pocketed a vast fortune made by the sweat of the brow of regular people.

The campaign money corrupting our system is not aimed at looking out for the regular person. It is about protecting the interests of the elite bankers and other people who own our politicians.

I believe voters have had it with the lies and the phony games and public relations overhauls--all of which have led to a financial crisis that has bankrupted millions of hard-working Americans.

Yes, money is important in elections--unfortunately, in our system, it is often all that matters. And, it is absolutely true that at this point I am, in fundraising terms, no match for my opponent.

But, it is striking to me that we have 5 TIMES the number of ActBlue contributors (as we know, mainly modest donors) than my opponent (and, as an aside, twice the number of donors from the other New York Senator from Wall Street).

Not a dime from financial firms like Goldman Sachs. And that will never change.

The lesson of Massachusetts, in my view, is that people have had with the political dysfunction in the country. And I don't blame them.

Friends, real change is possible. But, real change can't wait.