Sunday, January 17, 2010

Sestak's Philadelphia Kitchen Call

Congressman Joe Sestak has been having “kitchen calls” around the state as part of his senatorial campaign. They are billed as opportunities to discuss local issues. I attended a kitchen call Saturday afternoon in Philadelphia at the Arch Street Presbyterian Church. There were about 65-70 people in attendance (enough that I could tag along with a group and avoid signing in). From the way people talked it sounds like email invitations went out although some people might have wandered in. The crowd was extremely diverse in all ways, age, race, gender, and, going by visual cues and questions asked, income and life circumstance.

Sestak came in quietly at 3:00 as advertised. He spoke for about 20 minutes, giving biographical information and a general introduction. The day’s schedule had been packed, leaving home at 5:30 in the morning and more events yet to attend after the kitchen call, which may have accounted for a few flubs that he caught and corrected. Sestak has a velvet voice and speaks well. He also has a good stage presence, gesturing to individuals in the group, walking around the chapel aisle, and speaking loud enough to avoid being tethered to a microphone.

In the introduction he said that in the military everyone has health care. In the greater Philadelphia area 60% of the uninsured are working. His office handled 4 times the average amount of constituent problems for a congressional office. While he respects Arlen Specter he doesn’t see how you can ask someone who got us into the mess to get us out of it. In regards to education he said Pennsylvania is now the second oldest state in the nation because our young men and women move out of state for jobs.

Sestak took a number of questions. The answers were broad-ranging and often brought in other topics. For example when asked about the group of hikers being held in Iran, Sestak said he had gone on tv the day after the capture and spoken about it. Then he said he was not going to try to grab headlines, which led to a comment about Specter and then to note that Specter called for hearings on the low conviction rate in Philadelphia’s courts (with a shout out to the Philadelphia Inquirer’s series on this subject), with a note that when Specter was Philadelphia’s District Attorney the conviction rate was also low.. From there he hopped over to the prison population generally, saying that the percentage of women going to prison was increasing and that in 2040 people of color would be in the majority. From there he veered into the need to address juvenile delinquency. So, as you might imagine, it was sometimes difficult to follow. Below you will find the gist of the q&a, but it is by no means a complete guide to what was said.

Q: getting rid of the filibuster
A: The 60/40 rule was brought in for civil right legislation, to protect those in the minority. Not in favor of changing that right now. Instead we need principled leadership in the senate. It is outrageous that Ben Nelson could ask for things in exchange for his vote. Recommends the book Power and Ambition. He won’t sacrifice good policy for bipartisanship.

Q: Afghanistan
A: We need an exit strategy. When failures become more costly than benefits then it triggers an exit strategy. The best thing to do in Afghanistan is teach women to read. Supports the assault weapon ban (has a 0% rating from the NRA). Pakistan is almost a failed state, with nukes.

Q: banking regulations
A: We need to require transparency of derivatives trading. There is a new consumer protection agency.

Q: no bank should be too large to fail
A: A lot of it depends on how oversight goes. Health insurance is exempt from anti-trust laws. 90% of health insurance companies have no competition.

Q: local hikers taken prisoner / hostage (see note above)
A: Went on tv the day after the capture and spoke about it. Not spoken up regularly because does not want to use this to grab headlines. Arlen Specter is holding hearings about the conviction rate in Philadelphia. The number of women going to prison is rising. By 2040 people of color will be in the majority. We need to address juvenile delinquency.

Q: senior citizens
A: Seniors are living longer. Would like to encourage seniors to volunteer in schools. Concerns with social security. Less income is taxed for social security now. As the country’s wealth has shifted to the very upper class less of it is considered income and therefore not taxed for social security.

Q: excessive military spending
A: gave examples and how he had tried to solve them

Q: Iran
A: Should engage in diplomacy with Iran. The country is going through a velvet revolution. We need a knowledge upgrade.

Q: deficits
A: Clinton administration had 3 balanced budgets with “pay as you go.” Bush administration did away with this. Obama inherited an $11 trillion deficit. We need to close loopholes that let companies keep their profits overseas. The IRS’s budget was slashed but billions go uncollected. We should put taxes on top earners back to what they were in the Bush years. That will keep Social Security solvent. Right now Social Security will be insolvent in 2019.

Q: What action do you need from the people in this room to get elected?
A: Raise votes not money. Money important but he runs a frugal campaign. Votes more important.

Q: Pay as you go is good but solving social problems often requires pre-empting them with spending in advance. Mentions housing problems for people with HIV and AIDS.
A: He agrees. Just became aware of this problem a few weeks ago.

Q: How important is Specter’s seniority?
A: Not very. Mentions things that Specter has voted against that have affected his district. One is education. Mentions that a local shipyard imports welders because can’t find properly trained welders here. Discusses training needed and why it is important to get kids interested at a young age.

That ended the formal part of the meeting. It was 4:20 at this point, nearly half an hour after the scheduled ending point.. Sestak stayed to answer individual questions. I left at 4:40 and most of the audience had left but Sestak was still there talking to people.

There were a lot more remarks about Specter that I didn’t jot down. Sestak doesn’t talk in sound bites and while that makes things much more interesting it also makes it harder to take notes on scrap paper using your knee as a desk. If you have an opportunity to see Sestak in person you should take advantage of it.

Personal note: Circumstances relating to my arrival allowed me to have a tour of part of the church. It is a lovely old building with some interesting architectural and decorative points. The two women I shared a pew with were friendly and I also had a really nice conversation with a gentleman in the pew in front of me.

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