Betsy Sweet: "In Maine, we live the climate crisis everyday"
In an exclusive interview, Betsy Sweet, a Democratic primary candidate for the US Senate, explains why a progressive policy agenda is popular in Maine.
This interview is part of ourEconomy's series on the US election.
Betsy Sweet is running to be the Democratic nominee for the Senate congressional race in Maine. She is seeking to unseat the Republican incumbent, Susan Collins.
Backed by Justice Democrats, Sweet is a life-long activist, political organizer and small business owner. She has pledged to refuse all corporate PAC money – funding her campaign through small-dollar donations and a large grassroots network. Sweet is the only candidate in the race to fully endorse the Green New Deal, Medicare-for-All and eliminating all student debt.
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What follows is an abridged transcript of an interview Aaron White and Freddie Stuart conducted with Betsy Sweet in February.
Freddie Stuart: To begin with, could you tell us why you have decided to run for the Senate and how you are hoping to distinguish yourself from the other candidates in this primary field?
Betsy Sweet: Well, I think we're in real trouble. We have a lawless President. We have big money and billionaires calling the shots in Washington, and in Maine we have Senator Collins, who goes along to get along in Washington and who has very much become a Senator of the Washington establishment and the Republican Party, rather than the people of Maine.
We are at a dangerous point. If we have ever needed to make sure that our voices are represented, now is it. So when Senator Collins voted for Brett Kavanaugh at the Supreme Court, and 32 other anti-choice, anti-LGBTQ judges; when she voted for the tax cuts; when she says one thing in Maine and goes and does another thing in Washington, I knew it was time for us to do two things: make sure that Senator Collins is not reelected and put forward a vision of bold policies that actually affects people's lives.
The world is literally and figuratively on fire, and I don't think that bringing a watering can to the edges is adequate now. That is why I distinguish myself from other candidates in this race. I believe in Medicare-for-All, I believe in a Green New Deal, I believe we have to have free public college, I believe we need to get rid of student debt, and I believe we need to look at economic inequality and criminal justice reforms as the civil rights issues of our time.
I don't think that moderation, and one political establishment versus another, is going to address the issues that people are facing in Maine in their everyday life.
Aaron White: Do you see our moment right now as a unique possibility for progressive candidates to gain support for their congressional bids?
Betsy Sweet: I think this is the moment for that. I think that for too long the Democratic Party, when it gets power, has made sure we don't go backwards but has not moved any agenda forward. I think people, certainly in Maine, see that it’s not ok to just not go backwards on healthcare – we need coverage for everyone, not just access. People talk about how the economy was doing well, but people don't feel that on the ground because we have an affordability crisis.
All the things we can't afford – healthcare, daycare, long term care for our elderly, college – are free public goods in other democracies. It is only in this country where they are not. Now it is time for us to move that agenda forward because it’s common sense, and what is needed in the wealthiest country in the world.
Aaron White: So if you make it to the general, and you're challenging Susan Collins, she'll obviously have plentiful resources behind her. How do you plan to combat that? How will the tactics that informed your previous run for governor in 2018 help to do this?
Betsy Sweet: We will employ our grassroots funding strategy. There already is a pot of money from the Be a Hero campaign which was grassroots funding at its best. It has about $4.8 million dollars from when Senator Collins voted for Kavanaugh, which will come right away.
But the most important thing is that we can't be beholden to large corporations, to corporate PACs, to special interest groups or to lobbyists. That's why, when I ran for Governor I ran as the clean elections candidate, and I was one of the people who wrote that law in 1996, because we were seeing even back then the influence of money in politics – to the point where we're not holding elections, we're holding auctions. We have to get back to holding elections where individual people can give $5, $10, $20 because they support somebody.
I believe that how we run is how we will govern. So we have held over 30 town halls, we have been in every community in the state, and we will continue to do so – that's how we ran for Governor, and that's how I'm running for Senate.
We are saddled with a Senator who doesn't believe in talking to the public, doesn't believe in open public events. I am doing those all over, and as Senator I would continue to do the same thing. That's what democracy is about.
Freddie Stuart: We're particularly interested in the groups helping candidates who are refusing to take corporate money, refusing to do things the establishment way. One of those organizations is Justice Democrats, who endorsed Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in 2018, and who now endorse your campaign. Could you tell us about your relationship with them?
Betsy Sweet: It's been awesome to have their endorsement, and to have their help. They have been incredibly helpful in identifying volunteers, structuring our campaign, and encouraging us with grassroots funding. I am so proud that 97% of our money comes from donations under $100, but it is difficult to raise money this way, so I am more than grateful to have the help of Justice Democrats, Democracy for America, Brand New Congress and a number of other organizations that can help us amplify our message, not just in Maine but around the country.
Aaron White: So clearly it is not easy challenging an established candidate, could you speak a little more to the structural impediments you've experienced running as an outsider that is dependent on these small dollar donations?
Betsy Sweet: It's very hard when you're up against a machine that can raise a million dollars in three days, that can influence the airwaves, that can buy all the media that they want.
One of the things here that we're trying to rectify is that the candidates that have all the money are refusing to do public debates with the rest of us in the primary, because they can buy their exposure on TV and social media. So we're trying to get back to some of the old time-tested ways of getting to know each other, with forums, debates etc.
Our press is conditioned to believe that electability is solely based on the number of dollars in your bank account, but what you're seeing across the country with Ocasio-Cortez etc, is that that is not the case. I think people are getting tired of these auctions, of the amount of money getting spent, and in Maine people are very angry that the establishment wanted to pick the person who was going to win the primary ahead of the people.
One advantage that we have here in this state is that we use ranked choice voting. So the race can be really focused on issues, and people stay open to candidates right through until voting day.
Freddie Stuart: I saw the advertising campaign that was run against you by the National Republican Senate Committee saying "too liberal for Maine". You tweeted that you were actually thankful for the publicity, linking you to the likes of Ocasio-Cortez, but I wondered if you could comment on your policies in relation to the traditional politics of the people of Maine?
Betsy Sweet: In Maine we are very independent, and very progressive. We do a fair number of referendums in this state, and if you look at those from the last couple of years, we have passed expansion of Medicaid to over 70,000 people, we have increased our minimum wage above the national minimum wage, we have voted to tax the wealthiest to pay for education, we have voted for ranked choice voting, and we voted for a clean election system. So the people in Maine have very progressive values. I align with those values, and have worked on all of those issues for many years. So I think if we can get away from the name-calling and the buzzwords and actually talk to people about what unites us, I think that we are exactly where the people of Maine are. The beauty of running a democratic election is that we can talk to people, they can hear us.
Aaron White: So let's assume that you win the race, and you enter an extremely partisan and divided Senate. If the Democrats get a majority, it's probably only going to be a very slim one. I'm wondering if you can comment on your view of potentially ending the filibuster and these other structural impediments within the Senate in order to pass and enact this progressive agenda of Medicare-for-All, Green New Deal, etc?
Betsy Sweet: Yes, unfortunately, I think that the filibuster has outlived its usefulness. I think now it has just become the tool of the minority to block on very key issues. So I would work to end the filibuster.
I've been an advocate in the state of Maine for the last 37 years, and the only way that I have been able to do my work and represent the wonderful people of Maine is by actually talking to people from both sides to really get to what our core values are. And you know, I helped write the First Family Medical Leave Act in the country here in Maine, before the national one was passed. I did it with a Republican legislator, because he was about to lose his job, because both of his parents were sick and he had to take three or four weeks off to go take care of them. Now in Maine, there's not a person who believes you should lose your job because you are going to go care for a loved one. And so that was a common value.
I think when we start talking about those values, we can get past the sort of political football that everybody is sick of – the do nothing Congress and the do nothing Senate, and Mitch McConnell sitting on 400 bills that the House has passed, because he wants to use them as political fodder. I don't think there is anybody who thinks that's a good idea.
So we have to go and show actually what bold ideas can do to help people's lives, and then talk with our colleagues and talk with people around this country to appeal to the common values of keeping our kids safe, of having healthcare, of doing something about this climate crisis. I think we can get there, if we just reach out and again, appeal to those common core values. And then I think remove the structural impediments exactly, as you said, that keep us from moving forward with the majority in a democracy.
Aaron White: One thing that we're focusing on in our series on the US election is the role of social movements in the political process – climate groups pushing forward the Green New Deal, but then also Black Lives Matter, pushing forward systemic racial justice issues. I was wondering if you can speak to the role of social movements that are driving these politicians forward, and perhaps how that's influenced your own campaign as well?
Betsy Sweet: It's critical to have outside social movements. And that is how I spent much of my life helping to organize outside so we can have a movement inside where the policy decisions are made. I am thrilled to be working so closely with the Sunrise Movement and 350.org and a number of the environmental organizations largely run at this point and fueled by young people, which is so important, and also a wake up call for the political establishment. We have to start paying attention to young people because they're not going to take no for an answer and nor should they.
When I was working on choice issues, women's reproductive choice issues, it was so important to have a social movement that was really pushing the boundary as far as we could on the outside. The power of social media, which is something that is relatively new in social movements, is huge in terms of moving these issues forward – to make sure that we get people's testimonials of what's actually happening in their lives.
Through the movement Black Lives Matter we see the incredible scourge of racial injustice and implicit bias and how it just laces through everything from economic development to our criminal injustice system, to the opioid crisis – we see it everywhere. We absolutely need these movements so we can be out there pushing, pushing, pushing, to move in the right direction.
Aaron White: The existential crisis of our age is going to be climate change. It's very local and very personal for a lot of people. You support a Green New Deal, can you speak to the impact that a Green New Deal would have within your constituency and for the people of Maine?
Betsy Sweet: It's huge for us here in Maine.
The backbone of our economy is based on our natural resources here. So we are seeing our lobster fishery go down as the lobsters head deeper, and north to cooler water. It is very difficult to make a living off clams now because the green crabs love the warm water and they eat the clams, our shrimp fishery is basically dried up completely. We also see it in our woodlands, we have a big wood industry. We have a big agricultural industry, and a lot of small farmers are suffering the effects of extreme weather conditions. We had a huge lyme disease outbreak because the winters don't get cold enough anymore to kill off the ticks.
In Maine, we live the climate crisis every single day. And at the same time, we have this incredible opportunity, because we have the chance of a Green New Deal, which is good for our economy, and good for jobs. That is the beauty of the Green New Deal.
Maine could be one of the epicenters of green energy production – between the ocean, wind and sun that we have, we could not only make Maine fossil fuel free, but we could be an exporter of that renewable energy to the rest of New England, and potentially the rest of the country. That would help us with our economy and create jobs.
But we don't yet have enough investment to make those technologies sustainable. So one of the things I would do immediately, as part of the Green New Deal, is take the $20 billion that we are currently using to subsidize the fossil fuel industry with our tax dollars, and invest it all in new technology – to create new businesses and productive green energy. This would create good jobs that pay well, but also immediately address climate change.
Sustainable agriculture is another very exciting possibility here in Maine. With just a small change in how we do agricultural policy, we could sequester about 80% of the carbon that is currently in the air in the next three to five years through rotating cover crops, mob grazing of herds – which small farmers are doing already.
And of course, the only people who oppose it are big agribusiness, who are lining the pockets of politicians. But if we can show how we can do regenerative agriculture, regenerate our soil and sequester that carbon, and as a byproduct, have more nutritious food and all that kind of stuff. I think that's a huge opportunity, especially right here in Maine.
Freddie Stuart: In this series we’re trying to focus on the topics that aren't so much in the national discourse, and just following the Democratic primary there's been an absence of discussion on foreign policy. It's something that's particularly important when you consider the role of the executive versus that of the Senate. I wondered if you could speak a little bit to how you stand in your policy platform on curtailing the role of the president in military interventionism?
Betsy Sweet: Yes, absolutely. I think that Congress and particularly the Senate has basically given up their authority and their participation in foreign policy since 9/11. With the Authorization of the Use of Military Force bill that came in right after 9/11, they basically gave the president the ability to go into armed conflict without the approval of Congress. I think we need to immediately reverse that, and reassert the War Powers Act that gives Congress its rightful role back in foreign policymaking.
Now one thing that I think is very disturbing and speaks a lot to how our system is so broken, is that when these things have been tried recently, many legislators and congresspeople, actually don't want that power back because they think it's politically untenable. They don't want to have to vote on armed conflict, whether or not to engage in war or not, because they're worried about the political fallout. To me, that is a Senate without a spine, and that is a Senate without the good of the globe and the country in mind. So that is one of the things I would work very hard to fix.
I also think that we have to reexamine our foreign policy completely. For two reasons. One is the size of the bloated military budget – just 3% of our military budget could end world hunger. We spend more than the top seven other countries combined. And that is really driven by two things. One is by our desire to protect natural resources, particularly oil, but other ones as well. But it's also driven by the pipeline from defense contractors to politicians pockets. So much of what we do, what we build, and how we grow our military is based on the needs of defense contractors, and not the real defense needs of this country.
Look, let's face it. The next wars that we have, and the current wars that we have, are not going to be fought with battleships and tanks, they are going to be fought with drones and in cyberspace. We should not be involved militarily in other countries unless there is a humanitarian need or there is some strategy to get in and out for some very specific purpose – with our allies. We have to put more cotton with the international organizations, the United Nations and the alliances that we have. And we should not be doing our foreign policy as sole lone cowboys.
Another important issue that is underlying here in Maine, and I think around the country, is our relationship with the tribes and tribal sovereignty. It's important not just for how we have treated the tribes over the years, and what they can teach us about how to address the climate crisis and the Green New Deal, but also for so many of the issues – water rights, clean water, pipelines, gas oil pipelines going through native lands. It is time for the United States, Congress and the Senate to stand up and allow tribes to be the sovereign nations that they are, and all that entails including the protection of our natural resources. This is an important issue that doesn't get enough air time.
You can listen to segments of Betsy Sweet’s interview on the first episode of our podcast series on the US election.
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