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Pagliuca: Business Experience Is Exactly What America Needs

Stephen Pagliuca started the race unknown to most Massachusetts voters, but he used an advertising blitz to introduce himself and surged to second in the polls.

Now the Bain Capital managing director and co-owner of the Boston Celtics has dropped to third. We spoke to Pagliuca this week as part of a final series of conversations with the primary candidates, and started by asking him if there was "buzzer beater" on the bench with the primary in just a few days.


Stephen Pagliuca: Well, we look like we're surging again and, you know, the message of jobs, fixing the financial system and being a reliable vote on health care has resonated.

Bob Oakes: On the subject of money, the NBA has a salary cap to make sure that one team doesn't have an unfair advantage over the others by buying a championship, stacking the team with high-paid players. Does politics need a spending cap or a salary cap?

Well, I think we have to look at the whole way campaigns are financed. The No. 1 problem is PAC and special-interest money. There's been over $3 billion from the top thousand organizations going to our politicians. And with that kind of money going in there, no wonder we don't get things done, no wonder special interests stop bills for energy, they stop the health care bill. We haven't had health care reform in 60 years now because of special interests.

Some might say that your career at Bain Capital as a managing partner has brought you great wealth, but it's also at odds with your socially liberal views and the socially liberal campaign that you're running for U.S. Senate right now.

In the first debate, when asked if we needed another economic stimulus, you blamed the Bush tax policies for the poor getting poorer and the rich getting richer, and then called yourself an unfortunate beneficiary of those policies. Then you called for a tax increase on everyone.

Reconcile all of this, will you, for regular people out there confused about who Steve Pagliuca might be: Is he one of us or is he one of them?

Well I think there should be no confusion, absolutely no confusion. I was going to be a teacher. And then, because I had to pay $20,000 of student loans and actually got married to my wife who brought just as many — she says it was less, but I think it was around $20,000 as well — we were $40,000 in debt.

So, instead of being a teacher, I got a job with a company called Bain & Co., consulting firm, and they taught me how to build businesses. I've done three or four turnarounds of businesses that were losing $10 to $15 million per year, might have been shut down — the Gardner Group, for example, was losing $15 million a year, was going to be shut down or sold, we bought it, it had 250 people, it has 4,000 people today.

I've served 18 years on that board, that's been my  record and my career, and that's exactly what we need in Massachusetts right now.

On to some issues under debate across the nation: While you've questioned the need for sending additional troops to Afghanistan, you also said earlier this week you wanted to hear President Obama out. Now that you've heard what he has to say, how do you stand?

My gut tells me that we'll be sitting here, Bob, 18 months from now and we'll say we haven't really made much progress, it's unclear what the situation is and we need to stay in longer. And I don't think we want to risk American lives — this is about American lives on that.

So just so we're clear on this: Yes on the 30,000 troops or no on the 30,000 troops?

No on the 30,000 troops.

Even though the president says, and I'm reading this right out of The New York Times, that "the continued existence of al-Qaida across the border in Pakistan is a cancer on the region which directly threatens the United States," and he was talking there about al-Qaida both in Pakistan and in Afghanistan?

Well, you know, we're actually not going into Pakistan. That's the whole point here: I don't think we can effectively get those terrorists in Pakistan without working with Pakistan. So, I would not put the troops in, I'd try to train the Afghans and have a judicious and safe withdrawal as soon as possible.

Work with Pakistan to root out their terrorists and help them economically and help put in programs and get the whole rest of the world doing this as well because terrorism is not good for the region, it's not good for the world, and we can get Russia and China and the other countries on side. President Obama is great at a multi-national approach, and that's the approach that I would follow.

Some congressmen and senators, and your opponent Alan Khazei, are calling for paying for the war with a temporary war tax. Where are you on that?

I'm not for a temporary war tax. We're putting actual dollars in one way or the other, and so if we're gonna look at taxes, we ought to look at a comprehensive tax reform policy. What we've done wrong in the past is, we do an incremental move, an incremental move and then we have a tax code that doesn't make sense anymore.

So I think we need to look at our whole tax policy. First what we have to do, though, is get jobs back. We have a huge deficit because we've lost so many jobs. We've lost seven and a half million jobs in this recession, the worst since the Great Depression.

If you look at the last six recessions, the way to get back into the black is job growth. Two-thirds to three-quarters of the deficit gets paid back just purely by job growth without any change in tax policy. So that's where our eye on the ball has to be: on job growth.

Our eye on the ball has to be on health care. We spend $2.4 trillion on health care — 17 percent of the GDP, twice any other country — we've got to get this health care reform bill passed. It gets us on a path to cost, it's the moral thing to do, we've got to cover 30 million Americans who don't have health care, and recent studies have shown that 45,000 Americans are dying because they have no access to health care, so it's a life-and-death issue for them. We've got a chance to grab the brass ring on that now, and we should grab it.

What is it you want voters who are making their decisions now about who they're going to cast a ballot for on Tuesday to know about you?

I am passionate and I have the exact skills, built over 25 years, to fix the crises we're in now: the jobs crisis, the health care crisis and the financial crisis.

Now, we have classic politicians running for this office. If you want more of the same approach, then they should vote for them. If you want an approach of someone who is fact-based, going to get things done, has a huge amount of knowledge on the ground building businesses, huge amount of knowledge on health care and how to fix that system, I have the boldest plan to fix the financial system — if you want that, you should vote for me.

There are people who are trying to run the economy without having been in the economy. No other candidate has any experience in doing what I've done, and we need to bring that to Washington.

Is there going to be what some political observers in Massachusetts would consider a stunner? Is there going to be a Steve Pagliuca win on Tuesday?

I think we're moving towards that. Our polls are showing us gaining, so I'm anticipating a stunner. I'm out there working hard until the bell rings. If we gain as much shares as we've gained in the last seven weeks, we'll win this election.

Steve Pagliuca, thank you very much for coming in, good to see you.

Thank you, it was great to see you again and you guys do a wonderful job covering this election and I appreciate it.

This program aired on December 2, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.

Bob Oakes Twitter Host, Morning Edition
Bob Oakes has been WBUR's Morning Edition anchor since 1992.

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