This year’s race for the Sixth District’s congressional seat is noteworthy because it’s the first time there hasn’t been an incumbent on the ballot since the 1960s. The clean slate offers voters two dramatically different options for the future. Gary Palmer, a right-wing policy wonk on the GOP tip, embodies the Tea Party’s vacillation between ideology and idiocy. Mark Lester, former assistant U.S. attorney and current history professor at Birmingham-Southern College is all about…well, we visited the candidate on campus last week to determine that.
Weld: You’ve got a good life, a great family, a lovely wife — what crazy compulsion would make an otherwise sane individual want to go to Washington, D.C. to represent the Sixth District?
ML: There were two things that came up. The first was, when Gary Palmer won the Republican nomination. I, along with a lot of other people, had assumed it would be Paul DeMarco, a moderate sort of Republican. … I know the Sixth is one of the most Republican districts in the country. I was shocked when Palmer, being as extreme as he is, got that nomination. But there wasn’t much anyone could do about it. The Democrats had Avery Vise, who’s a very nice guy, but I think he was there just so the Democrats would have a name upon the ballot. He thought he was going to be running against DeMarco, and running against a moderate Republican, you don’t have any chance in the Sixth District. So, when Avery withdrew, it caught my attention. Then some people came to me and said, you’ve got to step in, Palmer only got 12 percent of the registered voters to get that nomination, we’ve got to have a moderate choice to give the people one more chance not to send this guy to Washington. So I said, yeah, I’ll get in it. I’ll give this a shot.
Well, it was sort of getting on a horse I didn’t realize would take off. I started raising money very quickly. I’m convinced this is going to be a very close race, and the reason is because — even though I have the (D) by my name — I am the moderate in the race. This is not an extremist district. It is a moderate district. That’s where I think I have a window to win this thing.
Weld: Can you exploit the schism among local Republicans and turn out disgruntled DeMarco voters?
ML: Yes. Over and over again, people have come up to me and said, I’m a moderate Republican and I’m supporting you. Now, these are people who are not going to want their name on an ad, they’re not giving me money (because anything above $250 has to be reported), but they are coming up to me and saying, you have my support.
I think they’re very angry about what the Tea Party has been doing to the Republican Party. Already, Gary has gone to Washington, has met with Speaker [of the House John] Boehner and told him he wasn’t going to support him as Speaker. I can’t believe he would do that. He’s already aligned himself with 10 or 15 of the really extreme Tea Party Republicans, they’ve already contributed to his campaign. I told somebody the other day, if I’m elected, the very first call I would make the next day would be to Speaker Boehner. I’d say, look, in a way I knocked off this Tea Party guy for you, and I want to work with you. I think that could get a lot more done than aligning yourself with extremists.
Weld: Is your centrism based in any way on the Arkansas politics of the Clinton family?
ML: Yes, it is. I was very much a Clinton Democrat. My wife [Jeanne Jackson, president and CEO of The Women’s Fund of Greater Birmingham] actually worked in Clinton’s first administration when he was governor. She was the liaison for all departments that dealt with the environment. So, yes, I would put myself as a kind of Clinton moderate, a more fiscally conservative Democrat.
Weld: In the 20 years since Newt Gingrich led the radical insurgency in the U.S. House, the negotiating power of a centrist moderate Democrat has dwindled considerably. Given the structure of the House these days, what leverage would a moderate Democrat have?
ML: First, let me give you a little background, and then I’ll answer your question. The problem, of course, is the gerrymandering of districts, both by Democrats and Republicans. [Republicans] are worried about being attacked in their primaries, so they swing as far as they can to avoid that primary attack. Then they go to Washington and they can’t work together because they’re so nervous about being attacked by their own party.
If I pull off this election, it would be national news that a Democrat had won in one of the most Republican districts in the country. That would give me a moment of opportunity, where maybe I can begin to lead a group that says we want to work with the Republicans. Here’s the real problem. If the Republicans gain the Senate, my fear is that they would just start passing legislation that President Obama is just going to veto, so that nothing gets done.
Weld: Would that be any different than the intransigence of Boehner’s House currently?
ML: The reason Boehner hasn’t been able to work is because he can’t control his caucus, because of these Tea Party people. That is the problem. So, again, as a freshman congressman in a minority party, I’m not going to be up there changing Washington. But I might have an opportunity right at the first to reach out and touch base with some people and convince the Republicans to get something together, rather than just passing legislation that’s going to be vetoed.
Weld: What shape is the Sixth District in after 11 terms of Spencer Bachus?
ML: Congressman Bachus is somewhat of a moderate. I don’t believe, and you may need to check me on this, I don’t believe he has endorsed Palmer. [As of our deadline, we could locate no such endorsement.] I don’t believe Senator Shelby has endorsed him. [Ditto.] Bachus is a Republican, he’s with the party and that sort of thing, but he did some things, like Bread for the World [an anti-hunger initiative ], he got very interested in that and he’s done a lot for helping keep money for research into disease going, so he’s done some things that I would consider moderate. He hasn’t been an extremist. And I don’t think he approves of the Tea Party’s way of doing things.
Weld: Let’s compare how you and Gary Palmer stand on the issues. Your esteemed opponent, right at the top of his website, wants to repeal Obamacare.
ML: The problem with our healthcare system is not Obamacare. We had tremendous problems with the system before Obamacare and we still have plenty of problems with it. What I have found when I’ve been out campaigning is that when you talk about the elements of Obamacare, individually, people are very much in favor of it. There are some very good things that Obamacare has done; for example, putting ranges where the premium dollar has to go for healthcare. If the company does not fall within that range, they have to return part of the premium. Most people think that’s a good idea. Obviously, insurance for people who have pre-existing conditions; that tends to be very, very popular.
When you break down the elements, that’s what is helping. Now, the fundamental problem with our healthcare system, that we have not addressed yet: we have got to put more, in my opinion, economic incentives in healthcare. When I go to the hospital, I’m fortunate. I have insurance. I don’t care what anything costs, that economic incentive is totally taken away from me. Whatever it costs, insurance pays for it.
We have got to get control of these costs, and the only way to do that is to see that people have some sort of economic incentive. I’ve seen where a mammogram in one state costs $500 and in another state it costs $1,700. It’s the same procedure. That’s ridiculous. We’ve got the most expensive and complicated healthcare system in the world. If you take what we spend on health care, you can combine the next 10 nations and we spend more than they spend. We spend 17 percent of our Gross Domestic Product. That is not sustainable. We’ve got to bring that down.
Weld: Would a single-payer system have appealed to you had you been in office during the debate on affordable healthcare?
ML: A lot of Democrats supported the single payer system. What Obama was trying to do was to compromise, and use Romney’s plan from Massachusetts. What I don’t understand is why Republicans turned against this so much, because it was a kind of merger of the single-payer system and private insurance. Realistically, if we are going to get down our costs, we’ve got to have a system that includes everyone. We cannot have free riders who stay out of the system until they get really sick and then they come into the system, going to the emergency room or whatever, and we wind up paying their healthcare costs. Everybody has to be in the system if we’re ever going to get control of the costs.
Weld: Meanwhile, Obamacare seems to have lost its allure as a campaign issue, at least among thinking Republicans, mostly because people like it too much.
ML: It’s not going to be repealed. But it’s a way for them to say, this is how we’re going to solve the problem, we’re going to repeal Obamacare. That would not solve our healthcare problem.
Weld: Let’s switch topics. Your esteemed opponent thinks that Common Core is a way for the federal government to take over our local schools.
ML: That is absurd. I don’t know how to say it any other way. That is the myth that is out there, that he is perpetuating, that in some way Common Core is the federal government telling teachers what they should teach. It is not that at all…as a nation, if we are to remain competitive, we have got to raise the standards of our students. In my 23 years of teaching college, I have seen a real decline in the preparation of high school students, and we have got to get a hold of that.
We talk about wanting to bring in jobs, industry and that sort of thing into the Sixth District? You’ve got to have an educated work force, and we’ve got to have standards. Some teachers favor Common Core, some don’t, but anything that is raising our level, our standards, I’m absolutely in favor.
Weld: Speaking of workers, your esteemed opponent is opposed to amnesty for undocumented workers, mostly immigrants.
ML: Again, that is a slogan, it’s not an answer, to say no amnesty. Okay, if you have no amnesty, what is your plan? We have approximately 11 million undocumented people in the country today. We’re not about to ship them out, so we have to have some sort of pathway to citizenship. What we don’t want, under any circumstances, is two levels of citizenship, where you have kind of “real citizens” and “sub-citizens.” That is horrible for a democracy.
I think we could do a better job policing our borders, but as far as those who are here, we’ve got to move toward making sure they pay their taxes and that they’re on a pathway to be full citizens. But saying “no amnesty” — so what? What does that get you?
Weld: In your TV ad — which, in the spirit of full disclosure, I picked out the music for — you speak positively about women’s issues. To a lot of people, Gary Palmer is like kryptonite to women’s rights. Is it possible for you to win the Sixth District through women’s votes?
ML: It absolutely is, and the reason is, if you look at the demographics, the census data nationwide (but it’s true in the Sixth District, too), what a lot of people don’t realize is that the idea of the husband being the primary breadwinner and the wife being at home caring for the children is just not America anymore. The statistics show that, of all households that have children, in 40 percent of them the wife is the primary, or the only, breadwinner.
If your idea of the home is having the woman at home, it is easy to oppose equal pay for women, because the woman should be at home. If your idea is that the woman should be at home, then, of course, you are not going to support quality pre-K programs, because your idea is that they should be done at home. Their whole idea there is not representative of a huge section of America, and that’s the reason a lot of women are for me and are supporting me. But even women at home believe in fundamental fairness for women in the workplace…the median salary for women is 81 percent of what the median salary is for men. We still have this discrepancy.
The Violence Against Women Act — that was supported by Senator Shelby. That was supported by Congressman Bachus. A lot of Republicans supported it. It has been tremendously successful. Violence against women has been reduced by 67 percent. The hot line that it established gets 22,000 calls a month, and it went up 80 percent when this Ray Rice thing came up, because, I think, a lot of women said, I’m not going to put up with this anymore, and I’m going to get some help. Why would you want to de-fund something that has proven to be so successful?
Weld: You mention extremism in your TV ad, speaking of “extremists on both sides.” Whom would you characterize as extremists in the Democratic Party?
ML: That’s a good question. I don’t have an answer to that off the top of my head. I’m sure there are some from gerrymandered Democratic districts who are nervous about an attack from the left, but, no, I don’t have any names off the top of my head.
Weld: How would you characterize your relationship with the Alabama Democratic Party?
ML: I did not know the Alabama Democratic Party, because I had not been involved in politics at all here in Alabama. Once we moved here and I changed careers to become a college professor, I really didn’t get involved, so, to be honest with you, I don’t really know the Alabama Democratic Party that well. I went down to Montgomery, they gave me their nomination, they have been very supportive and encouraging. I know people say there are problems within the party, but I sort of have a luxury, I guess, of not knowing the ins and outs.
Weld: How do you fit in campaigning with your full-time job at Birmingham-Southern?
ML: I just have to be very careful with my time. I’ve only had to cancel one class this term, and I’m caught up with my grading. I spend 18-hour days, I’m prepping my classes sometimes late at night for the next day, I have no real leisure time, but these are classes I’ve taught before and I’m familiar with. But it’s been a lot of fun. A lot of students and former students have gotten involved with the campaign, worked on the phone banks, and it’s been wonderful reconnecting with former students.
Weld: What kind of response have you received out in the far-flung parts of the district?
ML: People have been very polite and nice. I’ve had only one or two occasions when I felt somebody was being rude to me. Everybody says thank you very much, I’ll look this over. Campaigning has actually been a lot of fun. I had really hoped that there would be more candidate forums, maybe not in the form of a debate, but where Gary and I could get up and present our views. I’ve searched for them, but there just aren’t many candidate forums. Of course, the YWCA and the Junior League issued an invitation for us to debate, and he didn’t accept and I did. He wouldn’t even appear at the editorial board of al.com at the same time with me.
There are some things he does not want me pointing out. The principal one is the financing of his campaign. I’ve raised over $125,000, all from individuals. I’ve had one PAC contribution, and it was from the railroad employees, and we all know who they are.
Another thing I did was, when I announced, I produced all of my tax returns for the last five years, so everyone can see my W-2 from Birmingham-Southern College, and I get income from investments like everyone. I challenged Gary, and the reason I challenged him to produce his income tax returns is that the House of Representatives requires that you give your sources of income for the last two years. That report shows that, in one year, he received $35,000, and in the second year, $40,000 from a special interest called American Majority Action, which amounted to 25 percent of his income. We’re not talking about campaign contributions. This is money you buy your groceries with…then I said he should reveal who the contributors are to the Alabama Policy Institute that’s been paying his salary for the last 20 years. He won’t do that.
The Nation did an article on my race, where they looked into Gary Palmer’s contributions and where they were coming from. These things are very difficult to pin down, but…I think, probably, Gary has received about half of his money from the Koch brothers, one way or another. He’s very much tied in with them.
There are going to be some IOUs there, and that’s why I’m very excited, if I can pull this off, that I really would be able to go up there beholden to absolutely none of [the special interests].
Weld: And to pull this off, getting out the vote is absolutely crucial. How do you go about doing that?
ML: I like to think we have a very, very sophisticated ground game. We have been working phone banks for about five weeks. We’re doing about a thousand calls a day. We will identify by Election Day who my supporters are, so that will make for a very effective Get Out The Vote. So I’m feeling very good about our ground game. Right now, I’ve got to raise more money to put into ads on social media. I wasn’t able to budget that at first, because I had to budget for TV.
Weld: Does advertising on social media translate into actual votes?
ML: I think the verdict is still out on that, but what piqued my attention was that, in these very close Senate races across the country, they have totally bought out social media. So what I’m doing is piggybacking on that. They must have smart people running those campaigns. …
The excitement is definitely getting out there. I do think that I’m the campaign in this area that’s getting the interest. When I first got into this race, nobody was thinking about an election much. That’s been the advantage of a short campaign for me; I didn’t have to pay for a staff for a year.
Where I think I’m going to surprise some people is — no Democrat has ever raised this much money in the Sixth District. You mark my words: there is going to be a recount in this election. Either I will barely win it, and he will want a recount, or he will barely win it and I’ll want a recount. It is going to be that close. Every single vote will count. That’s what’s going to be really exciting Election Night.