Tuesday, May 29, 2012

A Tale of Two Fundraisers - Elizabeth Warren and Scott Brown

by BBT

A month ago, a friend invited me to a fundraiser for Elizabeth Warren.  I had actually never attended a political fundraiser before, but was very interested in learning more about Warren, so I eagerly accepted the invitation and made a modest donation to the campaign.  The event took place a few days ago, on a beautiful day in a town near where I live.  It turned out that I knew quite a few of the people who attended, so I was having a good time catching up with old friends.  At that point, Elizabeth came up to our group, was introduced to us all, and we talked for a few minutes about the work we do and our interests.  She is very down-to-earth and friendly.  A little while later, she gave a wonderful, moving and heartfelt speech to the crowd of about 100 people.  She was very relaxed but also energetic as she spoke without notes for about a half hour, telling her life story and emphasizing the theme that the American way that has served our country so well is to invest in education, infrastructure and research, and to expand opportunities for the next generation.  During the Q&A, she handled a lot of questions very deftly, expanding on her remarks and fluently covering a range of issues that have not been discussed in the media about her campaign.  She knows her stuff.

Her life story is very compelling – she grew up in a modest middle class home, the “baby sister” with three older brothers, her father a maintenance man whose serious health problems caused financial hardship to the family; her mother worked at Sears; Elizabeth babysat (for 35 cents an hour) and began working as a waitress when she was 13, later attended  college, married when she was 19, graduated and taught special needs elementary school students for a short time, then had her first child, started law school when her daughter turned two (she told a funny story about needing her daughter to be “dependably potty trained” so she could go to day care on that day), graduated from law school just before her second child was born, and practiced law from her living room with two toddlers at her feet, before eventually combining law and teaching. 

She talked about how grateful she was for the opportunities she had; how, when America had suffered the Great Depression, it began 50 years of public investment that led to tremendous growth in our national economy and of the middle class, as the country invested in its people, its roads and bridges, and in research and the “pipeline of ideas” that drives innovation.  But then, in the 1980s under President Reagan, there was a shift away from the commitment to invest in our future, toward an I’ve- got-mine-and-rest-of-you-are-on-your-own mentality, which of course has become so much more extreme in recent years.  She talked passionately about burdening our young people with unsustainable debt, breaking the social contract that had helped so many people have a better life. She also talked about deregulation of the financial sector, moving away from regulations and policies that prevented dangerous risk-taking in the banking sector, rules that had served the country well since the Great Depression.   She covered other topics, including some issues that have not gotten too much coverage, such as her stand on environmental protection.  She debunked the false dichotomy between jobs and environmental protection, pointed out the importance of clean air and clean water to healthy families and communities, and also talked about her own personal interest in and commitment to the environment.  She also had some strong points to make about Senator Scott Brown’s voting record. 

I went to the event expecting to agree with Elizabeth politically, and that she would be articulate and well-informed, but I was also pleasantly surprised to find her so warm, approachable, personable, energetic and yet relaxed in a setting with so many people whom she had never met.  She seemed like a "regular person" who is very smart, but not an elite, aloof wonk that some would like people to believe she is.    


Senator Scott Brown also had a fundraiser recently, one of many, of course.  This one in particular caught my eye, because the name of one of the hosts was familiar, thanks to Patrick’s recent post of the two documentaries by Jamie Johnson.  In “The One Percent,” Johnson had featured Florida’s Fanjul family, including “sugar baron” brothers Alfie and Pepe, who own the sugar companies and control what is close to a monopoly on sugar production in the U.S.  Unbeknownst to me before Patrick’s post, the U.S. taxpayer heavily subsidizes sugar production, which a former Secretary of the Interior and others in the documentary scathingly criticized – similar to the oil industry, the subsidies pad the profits of an already highly profitable industry, and the profiteers use their money to buy political influence and prevent adequate regulation of their activities.  (This part of the film begins at the 30 minute mark and runs for about 10 minutes.)  The film also pointed out the terrible poverty among the Fanjul family’s workers, who were routinely cheated out of fair wages (estimated at $10 million a year in minimum wage violations).  Instead of a fair wage, they were functioning essentially as slave laborers, subjected to extremely dangerous and hard work and living in deplorable conditions in the town of Belle Glade, just a few miles down the highway from the lavish lifestyle of Palm Beach.  The film also mentioned that the sugar industry in Florida is one of the big culprits in damage to the Everglades, even as the U.S. government spends hundreds of millions of dollars trying to restore and protect that ecosystem.  Yet we subsidize the Fanjul empire with our tax dollars. 

Pepe Fanjul

If I had read Think Progress’s article a few weeks ago, it would not have meant nearly as much to me as it did after seeing the Jamie Johnson documentary.  Here is the report:  Scott Brown attended a fundraiser hosted by Pepe Fanjul, who is described as a “sugar baron” accused of “modern day slavery.” The report echoes the documentary insofar as the conditions of workers in the U.S., but paints an even more horrific picture of the exploitation of workers in the Dominican Republic

Thus it seems that my Senator, from Massachusetts, is consorting with a slave master whose reputation for labor violations and environmental degradation is well-known.  So, first, why is Scott Brown schmoozing with Fanjul?  Money, of course.  The better question is, what does Fanjul expect to get in return?  Obviously he already has access to the halls of power in Washington; that’s why his family gets the huge sugar subsidies.  I imagine he sees hosting the fundraiser for Brown as pocket change – a trivial investment to make sure his subsidies, and labor practices, and the environmental damage his businesses cause, can continue without hassles from the federal government. 

I already knew that Brown was beholden to the Koch Brothers, and had kissed up to them for money in the past.  (Here are reports from the Boston Globe  and Rachel Maddow on the Koch Bros. funding of Brown and, from Rachel, of “every scummy political scandal.”) Seeing Brown’s interaction with Fanjul, it felt like another slap in the face to the voters of Massachusetts, whose interests were undoubtedly the farthest thing from Scott Brown’s mind when he was wining and dining in Florida.  

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