A former Sanders aide exposes the brothel of Washington politics
David Sirota is a rare breed among political strategists -- a successful idealist. Capitol Hill is rife with ambitious, young wonks with overachiever resumes and public-policy degrees from elite institutions like Harvard, Georgetown and the LBJ School. But few are able to convert their elite academic pedigrees into careers of national prominence, while still remaining true to their populist roots.
Sirota, a former press secretary for Congressman Bernie Sanders, has earned his populist credentials and his whiz-kid reputation -- at age 30, he's already considered a veteran campaign operative, nationally acclaimed commentator, blogger and now bestselling author. Like his former boss in Vermont, Sirota is also known as a straight-shooting iconoclast who isn't afraid to call bullshit on Washington's powerful movers and shakers who suckle at the corporate teat. His first book, Hostile Takeover: How Big Money & Corruption Conquered Our Government -- and How We Take It Back, may be the most scathing indictment yet of how both political parties have been hijacked by Big Money.
"Just as the mom-and-pop store in your town was bought out by the big corporate conglomerate, so has our government been the victim of a hostile takeover," Sirota writes. "Over the last 30 years, Corporate America has applied its most effective business tactics to the task of purchasing the one commodity that's not supposed to be for sale: American democracy."
In Hostile Takeover, Sirota reveals his vast knowledge on such issues as energy policy, pensions, taxes, health care and tort reform, while exposing the many myths and false narratives that Corporate America have spun into the national dialogue. Among them: that lawsuits and jury awards are out of control; that universal health coverage would lead to rationed care; that energy conservation would kill jobs and stall the economy; and that low unemployment figures mean the economy is humming along. More than just an unrelenting assault on Capitol Hill influence peddling, Hostile Takeover offers tangible solutions for how Americans can reclaim their government and get the country back on track.
A New Haven, Connecticut, native who grew up in Philadelphia, Sirota got his start in national politics while still a college senior. In 1998, he took a semester off from journalism school at Northwestern to work on the Chicago Democratic primary, which eventually helped land him the job as Sanders' press secretary.
In 1999, Sirota took a leave of absence from Sanders' staff to work as a political consultant for Brian Schweitzer, then an unknown mint farmer from Whitefish, Montana, who was making his first-ever run for elected office -- a nearly successful bid for the U.S. Senate against entrenched Republican Sen. Conrad Burns. Though Schweitzer lost that race by four percentage points, Sirota teamed up with Schweitzer again in 2004, this time helping him become Montana's first Democratic governor in 16 years.
To describe Sirota as driven would be an understatement. While on Sanders' staff, he began writing a twice-weekly newsletter for the Progressive Caucus. When he later went to work as a spokesman for the House Appropriations Committee, Sirota began penning similar pieces about that committee's work -- a precursor to the blogs and newsletters he would later found.
As a fellow at the George Soros-funded Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C., Sirota launched "The Progress Report," a daily newsletter and political analysis of national and international news. Today, he works as senior editor for the progressive magazine In These Times, and is the founder and co-chair of the Progressive Legislative Action Network, a blogger for Working Assets, and a twice-weekly guest on "The Al Franken Show." He's also a regular contributor to The Nation and The American Prospect, and has been a guest on, among others, National Public Radio, CNN, CNBC and MSNBC.
On June 14, Sirota is the featured guest on Comedy Central's "Colbert Report." Sirota stops by Burlington June 17 to promote his book. His former boss, Sanders, is expected to make an appearance.
Seven Days spoke to Sirota last week by phone from his home in Helena, Montana, where he lives with his wife, Emily.
SEVEN DAYS: You've worked both as a campaign operative and a political commentator. Which do you prefer?
DAVID SIROTA: That's a good question . . . I only want to work on campaigns and for people whom I feel really, really inspired by . . . I actually thought I would be one of these campaign junkies when I first started out. At the beginning, it can be addicting. But after a couple of campaigns, I was like, "I can't make this my life." You'll notice there are a lot of people on campaigns who have dysfunctional lives, whose marriages are bad. It's so grueling. I also think that if you become a professional, you almost lose what's great about American politics, which is the authenticity and the inspiration.
SD: Why aren't there more politicians like Bernie Sanders and Brian Schweitzer, who speak honestly to their constituents?
DS: Being a populist, being authentic, standing up for ordinary people, is not just about the morality of doing it. It's actually a winning political strategy. . . Why haven't more people done that? Because it's definitely a harder path. You've got to be comfortable making enemies . . . You've really got to believe both in yourself and in what you're pushing, to the point where you're willing to tell the Establishment to go fly a kite. At this point, that takes extraordinary people.
SD: A common thread that runs through all your writing is the idea of reclaiming democracy and reviving populism. How did populism fall out of favor?
DS: Every force in modern American politics . . . is trying, in one way or another, to encourage candidates to bend to what big-money interests want. And obviously, if you bend, that's the antithesis to being a populist . . . It takes an extraordinary politician to be a populist, and to be a populist who's got a chance of winning elections. What I'm trying to do with my work is help create a movement and infrastructure
. . . where you don't have to be an extraordinary politician to be a populist.
DS: Couldn't it be argued that voters are caught in a Catch-22? By voting out a senior congressman or senator who doesn't always do the right thing, they lose a powerful voice who brings home the bacon.
DS: That's the same argument that [Montana Senator] Conrad Burns uses . . . Most people think that all politicians are basically corrupt and that in a corrupt system, most people can bring money back to their state if they hang around long enough. Right now, especially, there's a premium on authenticity and there's a premium on no more politics as usual. So I think we have a major opportunity to throw out that argument. I just don't think it moves people anymore . . .
What people want are real people who behave like real people. It explains why . . . somebody like John McCain is popular. He . . . came off as a straight shooter. He was willing to talk about taboos. Bernie Sanders, same thing. Brian Schweitzer, same thing . . . Real people have real convictions. People are sick and tired of politicians being a separate species from the human race.
SD: Why has it taken so long for the Democratic Party to clean house? How does a political machine with such a lousy electoral record still wield power over its rank and file?
DS: I think that increasingly, it doesn't wield power over its rank and file . . . After every election, it was always the [Democratic Leadership Council] and the Washington Democratic establishment taking election results and building a false story around them. Up until very recently, those narratives were created by the DLC. After Al Gore lost, they wrote, "Oh, it was because he was too populist," and that sunk into the conventional wisdom. But what I'm encouraged by now is, there's an alternative movement being built where the real narratives are being told.
SD: In Hostile Takeover, you attack the media for "telling us stories about birds and bees" instead of the ugly truth about X-rated public policies. Yet, many of the most egregious examples of Big Money's abuses were uncovered by the media.
DS: There are two issues. One is that . . . most of the stories that were covered were never given the kind of play or attention they deserve . . . One of my fundamental critiques is that the media have, in many cases, treated the most political issues -- or the issues that should be the most political -- as nonpartisan business issues. They've gone along with the politicization of what should be the least political issues, issues about religion and privacy . . .
The other thing is how the media has not played its watchdog role. Not everything is a he-said-she-said issue. One of the media's roles is to point out when somebody says something that's an egregious, calculated lie. The media's role is not to just get some Democrat and say, "Well, according to this Democrat, it's a lie." It's their job to point out when people are lying. So, yes, I relied on the media to get some of the information, and so I'm thankful that that information was reported. But as I make clear in the book, the story lines with which the facts are presented are a huge part of this hostile takeover.
SD: With the president's approval rating hovering at around 30 percent, why isn't the Washington press corps more aggressive?
DS: Two things. The first is that the administration has threatened them with access. So there's a direct threat. Secondly . . . in Washington there is a very tightly knit consensus. The connective tissue is relationships. People just don't want to talk about certain things. People don't want to be confrontational about taboo issues. There's a wink-and-nod complicity to all this. It's not a conspiracy. If a reporter asked a really embarrassing question about a lie that the press secretary of the White House told and everybody in the room knows it's an egregious lie, they're going to have to see that person at the White House Christmas party. That sounds like a cliche, but that really is part of the corrupted culture there . . .
That's the thing I couldn't stand about watching the U.S. Senate. You get the feeling that . . . after they have their fights on the Senate floor, when they go into the cloak rooms, all of them are friends. I'm of the belief that these issues are too important. I can't be friends with somebody who is trying to destroy this country and who is waging a class war on ordinary people.
SD: So you're an idealist.
DS: Yeah, sure! That doesn't mean that you can't work with someone who's bad on lots of issues if they want to be good on a certain bill. That's not what I'm saying . . . Ultimately, at the end of the day, we're all Americans, but I'm the kind of person who thinks that the political system in this country is not as polarized as the public policies that are being forced down America's throat.
SD: Why is religion such a thorny issue for the Left?
DS: I don't think it has to be. I think it's because progressives have allowed the Right to own religion, to make it their property. We've allowed religion to be defined exclusively on issues like choice and gay marriage . . . You can see the corporate big-money motive to that. Corporations have no problem if choice is a big issue. "Great! We're not talking about how we're ripping off people's pensions. That's terrific!" But I don't think it's because people feel more strongly about those social issues than they do about fundamental issues like economic fairness, poverty, etc. . . . So if fundamental economic issues have been depoliticized, how do I choose my vote if both guys are corporate whores? I have to find some other way to decide how to vote. I'm either not going to vote, or I'll decide that I like the guy who is like me on cultural issues.
Over the course of his 25-year political career -- from Burlington City Hall to the U.S. Congress -- Rep. Bernie Sanders has hired legions of like-minded Lefties. Many have gone on to do some very intriguing things. In the partial list of alumni below, the ripples extend from the Burlington City Council to Fox News.
Don Edwards, Washington, D.C.
THEN: Veterans Affairs Advisor, 1997-1999
NOW: Vice President and Director, SRA International
Edwards, a 38-year Army vet, went to work for Bernie after serving as adjutant general of the Vermont National Guard. In 1999, he left Vermont for Washington, D.C., to manage IT programs for companies that work with the Department of Defense; he's currently a vice president and director for one such company, SRA International. Despite still being a "Bernie fan," he also appears as a military analyst on Fox News.
Sarah Kenney, Burlington, Vermont
THEN: Staff Assistant and Press Assistant, 1997-1998
NOW: Public Policy Coordinator, Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence
Kenney left Sanders' office to work for the Women's Rape Crisis Center. She's currently the public-policy coordinator for the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, a coalition of 16 programs that provides services to abuse survivors across the state. Kenney runs trainings for law-enforcement agencies, and works on policy issues at the state and national levels.
Eric Olson, College Park, Maryland
THEN: Legislative Assistant, 1995-1999
NOW: City Councilor
Sanders gave Olson his first job on Capitol Hill. From there, Olson went to the Center for Voting and Democracy, where he served as deputy director; in 2003 he took a job with the Sierra Club and is now director of its Healthy Communities Campaign. He's also a city councilor in College Park, Maryland -- elected while he was still working for Sanders in 1997 -- and is now running for a seat on the Prince Georges County Council.
Joel Barkin, New York, New York
THEN: Communications Director, 2002-2005
NOW: Founder, Progressive States Network
Post-Bernie, Barkin helped found the Progressive States Network. This group of state legislators, policy wonks and organizations from all 50 states seeks what Barkin calls "a progressive consensus" on economic and social justice issues -- many of them causes he watched Sanders successfully champion in Vermont and around the country, he says.
Brendan Smith, New York, New York
THEN: Senior Legislative Aide for International Affairs, Defense Policy and Labor, 1995-2000
NOW: Co-Director UCLA Law School Globalization and Labor Standards Project
Smith, a legal scholar and writer, is also co-director of Globalization and Labor Standards Project, an NGO that helps unions confront the challenges of globalization. He's published two books: Globalization from Below and In the Name of Democracy: American War Crimes in Iraq and Beyond, which he co-edited with former Sanders staffer Jeremy Brecher. He is a co-founder of WarCrimesWatch.org, and co-directed an Emmy-nominated PBS video, Global Village or Global Pillage. His commentary has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, CBS.com, The Nation, Baltimore Sun and Asia Times.
Jeremy Brecher, West Cornwall, Connecticut
THEN: Policy Analyst, 1999
NOW: Author and Historian
After a very brief stint with Sanders, Brecher resigned over the congressman's stand on U.S. military action in Yugoslavia. He's written nine books on labor and social movements and won five regional Emmy Awards for his documentary film work. He and Brendan Smith -- who are frequent co-authors -- share a byline in this week's Nation.
Dean Corren, Burlington, Vermont
THEN: Vermont Outreach Director, 2000-2002
NOW: Director of Technology Development, Verdant Power
Corren is working for a Virginia-based firm that develops kinetic hydropower -- that is, hydropower that doesn't depend on dams. He calls the technology "a follow-up" to a kind of water turbine he developed as a research scientist at NYU. He predicts, "There will be a multi-turbine array of kinetic hydropower in the East River in the near future."
Jeanne Keller, Burlington, Vermont
THEN: Assistant City Clerk, City Treasurer's Office, 1982-1985
NOW: Health Care Consultant
Keller belonged to the first wave of Sanders' mayoral appointees. He put her in charge of administering the city's health-insurance program, and she created a risk-management office in the treasurer's department. She later worked for Peter Welch, then spent 12 years advising an employer coalition on health care. She's now a consultant who trains hospital-risk managers and works with clients such as the Vermont Department of Health.
Joanna Berk, Richmond, Vermont
THEN: Administrative Secretary in the City Clerk's office and Assistant City Clerk
NOW: Information and Assistance Coordinator, Champlain Valley Agency on Aging
After her stint at City Hall, Berk took a series of short-term jobs that let her focus on her activism for Central American and antinuclear causes. For the past 16 years, she's been working for the Champlain Valley Agency on Aging. She's currently an Information and Assistance Coordinator who fields calls from seniors, service providers and caregivers. She says, "We help them to navigate the system."
David Weinstein, Cambridge, Massachusetts
THEN: Coordinator of Constituent Advocacy Services, Communityand Economic Development Outreach Liaison, 1993-1999
NOW: Research Assistant, Stay-at-home Dad
From 1999-2003, Weinstein worked as the statewide director of federal housing programs for the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board. He left Vermont in 2003 to attend Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. He and his partner Erin Hanley still live in Cambridge, where Weinstein is now a stay-at-home dad. He also works part-time researching campaign finance and electoral reform for the Weiner Center for Social Policy.
John Fairbanks, Montpelier, Vermont
THEN: Press Secretary, 1997-1998
NOW: Public Affairs Manager, Vermont Housing Finance Agency
Since 2000, Fairbanks been the public affairs manager for the Vermont Housing Finance Agency, where he handles communications, marketing and government relations.
In Vermont electoral politics
Anthony Pollina, Middlesex, Vermont
THEN: Senior Policy Advisor, 1991-1996
NOW: Founder and Director, Vermont Democracy Fund
As co-founder and former executive director of Rural Vermont, Pollina helped Vermont farmers challenge unfair increases in their property taxes. He served as VPIRG's policy director, and was instrumental in the legislature's passage of the nation's most
comprehensive finance reform law. Pollina made two bids for statewide office on the Progressive Party ticket -- for governor in 2000, then lieutenant governor in 2002. Currently, he's focused on his WDEV radio show, "Equal Time," and Dairy Farmers of Vermont, an association of more than 300 large and small dairy farms across the state.
Chris Pearson, Burlington, Vermont
THEN: Scheduler and Press Assistant, 1999
NOW: Vermont State, Representative
Pearson worked on Sanders' congressional staff for just one year, but helped with his reelection campaign in 1998. He's since served as executive director of the Vermont Progressive Party and was the campaign manager for Anthony Pollina's statewide bids in 2000 and 2002. Pearson now works on National Popular Vote, a reform effort to change the way the president is elected. Gov. Jim Douglas appointed him to the House seat vacated by Burlington Mayor Bob Kiss.
Tim Ashe, Burlington, Vermont
THEN:Field Representative, 1999-2001
NOW: City Councilor, Burlington
Ashe went to work for Sanders right out of the University of Vermont. Next came a stint with the American Federation of Teachers. He ran a successful campaign to unionize LPNs at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital and launched the eventually successful campaign to organize part-time faculty at the University of Vermont. After graduating from Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government in 2004, he was elected to his first term on the City Council in a special election. His day job is director of the Mobile Home Project within the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity.
Clarence Davis, Burlington, Vermont
THEN: Outreach Assistant, 1996-98
NOW: City Councilor, Burlington
Davis, a 33-year-old carpenter and Navy veteran, had lived in the Old North End for only four years before getting elected to Burlington City Council this past March, with strong endorsements from Vermont's Progressive politicians. After leaving Sanders' staff, he spent seven years working in the insurance industry. In 2005, he decided to give himself "a break from the corporate world," and currently works as a carpenter in Burlington.