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With a week to go until the primaries in the special election to fill Massachusetts’ open U.S. Senate seat, City Year co-founder Alan Khazei lags in the field. The latest polls show him fourth in the four-person race for the Democratic nomination.
But Khazei is undaunted. In fact, he says he's running even more effectively right now than he’d anticipated and believes he can "absolutely" win the race. “This is exactly where I thought I'd be,” he says. “I'm actually ahead of where I thought I'd be. Classic dark-horse campaign that is surging at the right time.”
In his final pre-primary conversation with WBUR’s Bob Oakes, we asked Khazei what separates him from the rest of the Democratic field.
Alan Khazei: First of all, in background, track record and experience. I haven't been in politics, but I've been in public service for 22 years. My fundamental approach is to say: We have to empower citizens. That's been my life's work, getting citizens more involved in our democracy, that's why I started CityYear and I've led the service movement.
I've had tremendous experience in Washington, as well. I worked closely with Sen. Kennedy for 20 years; I was appointed to a national commission when I was only 29 years old, I had to be confirmed by Sen. Kennedy and appointed by President Bush 41. And I worked to get three major pieces of legislation passed.
There's also a big difference in our views on the issues. I was the first candidate to say: Yes, we need another jobs stimulus. And I laid out a comprehensive jobs plan. We need to take action.
Bob Oakes: Has the president failed in creating jobs?
I wouldn't say the president's failed, I think we need to do more. I mean, look, when he took office we were on the verge of another Great Depression and because of his leadership we avoided that. But, we've had 22 straight months of job loss — so jobs is a difference.
Health care: I'm for universal health care and a strong public option, but I'm also for improving patient safety and medical malpractice reform. No one else has put out a plan on that, I have.
Education reform: Newsweek magazine said that I'm the only true reformer in the race. I stand with the president on that, the others stand with the status quo.
PACs and lobbyists: I'm not taking that money.
Casino gambling: I'm opposed.
Afghanistan: I was the only candidate to raise it on day one and I'm the only one still that's put out a comprehensive strategy. It's easy to have a slogan: Let's just bring them home. But how do you get that done? I've put out a comprehensive 10-point strategy. There are huge differences among us.
So the president tonight is going to outline his new war strategy for Afghanistan and Alan Khazei is going to be first in line, saying, "No, Barack Obama, I don't agree with you"?
Most likely. I'll listen to the president — he's our commander in chief, he's my president. But I took the time to actually study this and lay out a strategy. I'm encouraged — I do not support sending more troops, I don't think we need them, I talked to 20 different experts on this — I'm encouraged by the news that it looks like he's gonna set a timetable.
I believe I was the first candidate — I think I'm one of the only people in my party, in the Democratic party — that said we need to set a timetable. And I'm encouraged, it looks like he's gonna do that. That's essential. There are other points to my plan, which I hope the president will be adopting.
As you know, debate is raging on Capitol Hill over how to pay for the continuing costs of the war, and there are many proposals floating out there right now. Some senators are suggesting trimming the health care reform plan or postponing it altogether; some Democrats are suggesting a surtax on the income tax. Any of those ideas get any traction with you?
Well, you know Bob, this is why I laid out the plan. First, it's lives at stake. Secondly, economically it's a disaster to approve this troop increase. How are we going to pay for it? You know, we cannot sacrifice health care.
We could put millions of people to work for the cost of adding 30 to 40,000 more troops. We could provide college education for millions of young people. So, that's another big reason why I'm opposed to it. This is a domestic issue.
And here's what I would do. I support a war tax. Absolutely I support a war tax. If we're going to do this — look, there are 1 percent of our country — military families — that have made all the sacrifice for the past eight years. All of it.
This is the first war since the Revolutionary War, when our country was barely existing, that we've borrowed money to pay for a war. And on top of that, we got a tax cut thanks to the Bush administration. It's outrageous. So, yes, if the president approves this and it happens, we absolutely should have a war tax.
How high a war tax? There are some suggestions of as much as 5 percent on high-end earners.
I think that it should be high enough to pay for it. The cost of this is going to be $75 billion a year if we approve this troop increase, and the real cost is twice that because it's not just the direct cost. It's the injuries that people have, it's replacing military equipment, it is the increase in the deficit. So, absolutely I support a war tax.
And it shouldn't just be on the highest-income earners, by the way. You know, all of us have to have some skin in the game on this. Military people are sacrificing their lives. So to say that we're gonna all be hitting our pocketbooks, yes, and then maybe people will say: Wait a minute, maybe we should rethink this before we rush to add all these troops.
Health care debate opened in the Senate this week and could by some estimates rage on for a full month before a vote. A month because the bill and its many, many amendments make it such a huge package to tackle.
It's such a potentially clunky process that Senate Democratic leaders asked senators to focus on only one amendment each. If you were on Capitol Hill right now for this debate and vote, what amendment would you be focusing on and pushing?
First of all, I think the next senator from Massachusetts is going to be the 60th vote and I am a reliable 60th vote on health care; I support universal health care and a strong public option.
The amendment I would be focusing on is to make sure that we repeal the anti-trust exemption for the health insurance industry. It's a monopoly. It's why costs are going up. Forty states have one dominant provider. But I'll tell you the reason it's not in there, Bob: It is the PACs and lobbyists. There's six health care lobbyists for every member of Congress. They've spent $384 million on lobbying, on PAC donations and on negative ads to get the health care they want instead of the health care we need.
As you know, many potential voters in Massachusetts are only just now beginning to focus on the Senate campaign now that the first part of the holidays, the Thanksgiving holiday, is over with. With election day a week away, what is it that you want voters to know most about you as they get set to make that decision?
What I want them to know is it's not about me — it's about you, it's about them, it's about the citizens. My whole life has been about empowering people to participate in our democracy. It's why I started the CityYear program, it's why I've been a leader in the service movement, it's why I worked with Sen. Kennedy to get the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act done, which will bring about 250,000 people a year — I think it should get to a million.
To understand that I have a different approach to politics and a different agenda. There are very good conventional politicians running for this office. If you want more of the same, then vote for one of them. But if you want somebody who's been an innovator and an entrepreneur, somebody who's gotten things done in Washington, somebody who has a fundamentally different approach that can lead to real change, then I hope you'll support me.
Despite what the polls purport to show, will Alan Khazei win next week?
Absolutely. I am extremely confident, Bob. We are ahead of where I thought we'd be. This grassroots campaign is working. We're going door to door. We're getting a tremendous response. I'm going to win this election.
Throughout my life, people have said: You're trying to do the impossible, Alan. You know, starting City Year, spreading CityYear around the country, inspiring AmeriCorps, saving AmeriCorps, beating Tom DeLay as a citizen — I did that. People always say it's impossible, but somehow I manage to get it done because I understand it's not about me.
I get it done because I empower citizens, I work with them, I rely on them, and that's why I'm going to be the next senator from Massachusetts.
Democrat Alan Khazei, thank you very much for coming in.
Thank you, Bob. It's always great to be here with you.
This program aired on December 1, 2009.
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