One morning back in March, Bill Shein, a Democratic candidate for Massachusetts' 1st U.S. Congressional district seat, invited voters to join him at a "meet and greet" at Fuel, a coffee shop in downtown Great Barrington, not far from his home in the tiny Berkshires town of Alford.
Nothing unusual about that; breakfast-joint campaign stops have become de rigueur, serving as convenient backdrops for pols to go Everyman, rolling up their shirtsleeves and schmoozing with some literal ham-and-eggers. But there the similarity between political convention and Shein's campaign comes to an abrupt end.
Consider, for instance, the invitation itself: alongside the details of his own event, Shein included a copy of an invitation to a rival event held that same morning by another candidate in the race, incumbent U.S. Rep. Richie Neal of Springfield. Shein, in effect, was giving some free publicity to an opponent. But it was hardly flattering.
Neal's fundraiser, organized by a D.C.-based political consulting firm, was held at Bistro Bis, a posh French restaurant on Capitol Hill where, its website boasts, "regular guests include Senators, Congressman [sic], celebrities and powerbrokers looking to dine in the ambiance and luxury of one of Washington's most popular restaurants." (While ham and eggs per se do not appear on the bistro's brunch menu, a croque madame can be found, for $15.50.)
The price of admission to Neal's fundraiser? Event "hosts" were asked to cough up $2,500 each; political action committees, $1,000. Individual donors could get in for the relative bargain price of $500.
By contrast, Shein's event ("Conveniently located in Western Mass., not Washington, D.C.!" the invitation noted) was free: "Hosts: $0.00. Individuals: $0.00. PACS and Lobbyists: Not Invited. Sorry!" And no $15 ham sandwiches at Fuel: "Our modest-budget, volunteer-powered campaign means no fancy breakfast provided."
Instead, Shein's guests were offered what is, sadly, a much more novel experience at campaign events: an opportunity to talk about how to create an equitable economy, repair the democratic process, protect the environment and "[break] the stranglehold of big money and lobbyists"—the very forces powering Neal's event 350 miles and a world away from the Great Barrington coffee shop.
There's nothing very ordinary about Shein's campaign for Congress, which will see him face the 12-term Neal and Andrea Nuciforo, a former state senator from Pittsfield and now a Berkshire County register of deeds, in a Democratic primary on Sept. 6. (With no Republicans in the race, the winner of the primary takes the seat.) Shein is running as an unapologetically progressive Democrat, with a platform that addresses what he calls the three interconnected crises—economic, environmental and democratic—that are plaguing the U.S.
And it starts with repairing a dysfunctional system in which political action committees and corporate lobbyists happily shell out thousands of dollars for the chance to break artisanal bread with members of Congress at one of the many such events that fill lawmakers' calendars. That money, Shein argues, buys access to lawmakers that ordinary people will never get, and influences public policy in very damaging ways.
Shein has never held elected office, although he's hardly a political newcomer. As an undergraduate at Tufts, he took a year off to work for Illinois Sen. Paul Simon's 1988 presidential campaign. After college, Shein worked for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in D.C., where, he writes in a campaign bio, he "saw—up close—the new ways that big money was pouring into politics." Somehow, he emerged with his sense of humor intact, and began aiming it at the absurdities of the political system, including as a writer for Comedy Central's 1992 election coverage.
In 2002, Shein, a New York native, settled in Western Mass., where he makes his living as an IT consultant and writer (the "Berkshire shuffle," he calls it). In 2004, he began writing a political humor column called "Reason Gone Mad" for the Berkshire Eagle. (The column, which has won three National Press Club humor awards, has been on hiatus since Shein entered the Congressional race in January.) He also raises backyard ducks, who are featured prominently on his campaign website—and not just for their indisputable cuteness. Shein points out that his ducks' wild cousins on the Housatonic River show high levels of PCBs, thanks to years of polluting by General Electric—one more reason to keep corporate interests away from the people who write environmental laws.
Shein has spent the past five months driving the sprawling 1st District in a Volvo that looks as if it has more than a few miles on it. (At a recent interview in Haydenville, he joked that his fancy campaign bus was parked around the corner, out of sight.) The district's boundaries were redrawn after the 2010 federal census, which cost Massachusetts one of its 10 Congressional seats. Western Mass. took the hit, with large chunks of the former 1st and 2nd Districts merged into the new 1st, which now comprises all of Berkshire and Hampden counties (save one precinct in Palmer), the western parts of Franklin and Hampshire counties and a portion of Worcester County. In perhaps the biggest change, Springfield—Neal's hometown and the biggest voter base in the region—was moved from the 2nd to the 1st, which previously had been dominated by rural communities in Berkshire and Franklin counties, as well as a few smaller cities, such as Holyoke and Pittsfield.
The 1st District has been represented since 1991 by Rep. John Olver, an Amherst Democrat. Last fall, Olver announced that he'll retire after this term. That left the 1st with an open seat, at least for a few days; shortly after Olver's announcement, the new district maps were released, making Neal the 1st's de facto incumbent.
Neal already had one opponent at that point: Nuciforo, who announced his plans to run back in 2009, well before Olver's announced retirement. Olver's decision to leave the seat prompted Shein to jump into the race as well. Shein considers Olver a "true progressive" and was concerned that Western Mass. would lose that progressive voice if Neal or Nuciforo took the seat, he said: "I think the two of them are of a piece, regardless of election-year rhetoric. Neither of them has been a champion of fixing the things in the system that need to be fixed."
In February, Olver endorsed Neal for the 1st District seat. Shein responded with a press release saying he "strongly but politely disagree[d]" with the decision and noting that his own positions are much closer to Olver's than Neal's are.
Shein's platform is a decidedly progressive one. He supports a national healthcare system; equitable tax-code reform; a government job creation program, like FDR's Works Progress Administration, that would make much-needed infrastructure improvements; economic policies that favor local, not global, business; and a serious commitment to addressing climate change.
In addition to "robust" public financing of campaigns, Shein supports the overturning of Citizens United, the 2010 Supreme Court decision that lifted restrictions on political contributions by corporations and unions—in the process, opening the floodgates to unprecedented spending by so-called Super PACS ($100 million so far in the current election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics).
That money has a devastating effect on public policy, Shein noted. Lobbyists and other corporate representatives are happy to attend pricey fundraisers to gain access to lawmakers, and most politicians are happy to accept their big checks. It's a closed environment in which corporate agendas can drown out other voices. "You start to see the world through their perspective, their eyes, and not the eyes of the people back in your district who aren't writing $25,000 checks," Shein said. "That's narrowed the agenda. It's left some of the best ideas off the table."
It's also led to a breakdown of public trust in the government. At a campaign stop in Southbridge shortly after news broke about "pink slime"—the beef additive used as a filler in cheap meats—Shein met a voter who saw the scandal as an example of the uselessness of government regulation. While her distress was understandable, he said, "The problem is not the idea of government regulation. The problem is that the process has been so distorted by those with economic power," like giant agribusinesses that resist effective regulation.
Shein calls for tax policies and economic supports that help local businesses, not "global interests that do not have our best interests at center." He points to the Wellspring Institute, which is working to create employee-owned businesses in Springfield, as the kind of effort that can lead to well-paying jobs without relying on big companies that squeeze tax breaks out of state and local governments by threatening to go elsewhere—and, too often, fail to come through on the job creation promises they make to get those breaks.
Our economy, Shein said, relies on a model of "infinite growth on a finite planet." It's a dangerous and unsustainable model, but, he said, "our political conversation doesn't acknowledge that."
As a candidate, Shein is putting his money—or lack thereof—where his mouth is: he's vowed not to accept donations of more than $99, or any money from PACs, lobbyists or officers of corporations that hire lobbyists. Similarly, he promises that, upon leaving Congress, he would never take a job as a lobbyist; too many lawmakers spend their time in office seeking committee assignments that will make them marketable in their lobbyist afterlives and fighting policy changes that would weaken the lawmaker-lobbyist link, he said. (Shein supports banning former members of Congress from ever taking work as lobbyists.)
In truth, Shein's campaign asceticism—aside from the $99 donation cap—is mostly symbolic. Given his platform, it's safe to assume that corporate fat cats aren't exactly crowding Shein with open checkbooks; likewise, his career path to date hardly suggests a man destined for K Street. Still, it's a symbolism that comes in handy for highlighting the dramatic differences between him and his opponents, particularly Neal.
In the first quarter of 2012, Shein's campaign raised $11,235.99; Neal raised $122,875. By Shein's reckoning, that's a victory for his campaign, which noted in a press release that he raised 172 percent more money from small contributions than Neal had: "In just two and a half months as a candidate, Shein outraised Neal?a lifetime politician?by $11,235.99 to $4,125 in small contributions from regular, non-lobbyist, non-corporate persons. Shein's low-dollar fundraising outpaced Neal's by a factor of 2.7-to-one."
According to the non-profit Open Secrets, Neal has $2.8 million on hand, including the combined $1.1 million that his campaign committee and leadership PAC have raised so far in the 2011-12 election cycle. Of the $833,465 raised by his campaign committee alone, $158,278 was classified as "individual contributions," with $6,025 (or one percent) coming from donations of $200 or less. Seventy-six percent of the donations to Neal's campaign committee —$636,700—came from PACs. The top five industry groups contributing to his campaign: insurance, securities and investments, health professionals, pharmaceuticals and health products, and real estate.
"[I]n first-quarter contributions from PACs," Shein's campaign noted, "Neal thoroughly crushed Shein by a whopping $101,250 to $0.00—a factor of infinity. Through the end of 2011, Neal's principal campaign committee had raised $498,097 from corporate PACs and just $22,500 from labor PACs—a roughly 95 [percent] to 5 [percent] ratio that any Republican member of Congress would be proud to call his or her own."
Nuciforo's campaign, at last report, had $133,917 on hand. He's raised $170,953 in the 2011-12 cycle, none of it from PACs; instead, $30,000 is money the candidate loaned to his campaign, and the rest came from individual contributions. Nuciforo also has criticized Neal for collecting large amounts of money from lobbyists. And, like Shein, Nuciforo supports overturning the Citizens United decision. (Neal, too, has added his voice to that chorus; after months of pressure from the Progressive Democrats of America, he recently agreed to co-sponsor a proposed constitutional amendment to overturn the ruling.)
But Nuciforo himself has come under fire for the corporate money he accepted during his four terms in the state Senate, where he chaired the Committee on Financial Services and sat on the Ways and Means Committee. For example, in 2004, as he ran for his final term, Nuciforo raised $191,383, with $30,375 coming from the finance, insurance and real estate sectors, and $26,800 from lawyers and lobbyists, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
Nuciforo's campaign is also haunted by his opposition, as a state senator, to Massachusetts' Clean Election law, which would have provided public funds to candidates who agreed to strict spending and fundraising limits. The law had been passed by voters, by a two-to-one margin, in a 1998 ballot initiative. But legislators refused to fund the law, eventually killing it in 2003.
Nuciforo, at the time, described his objections as philosophical; in 2002, he was quoted in the Eagle saying, "I believe that public money should be used to provide services to the public," not to "[pay] ... candidates to run for office."
While Nuciforo is running for Congress as a progressive, Shein urges voters to consider his Senate record. "I suspect he'd like much of that to disappear down the memory hole," he said.
While Shein's views position him firmly on the political left, his grievances with the overall system are nonpartisan. Indeed, many of his criticisms are directed at his own party, which time and again has failed to live up to its stated ideals, instead letting corporate influence shape public policy. One example: it was the Democrat Bill Clinton, he noted, who in 1999 signed the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, the Depression-era law that installed a firewall between investment and commercial banking—a move that many contend contributed to the recent economic collapse.
And while in 2009 the Democrats, running on promises of change, took the White House and increased its majorities in both branches of Congress, the gap between the wealthy and the poor remains staggering. "A lot of us think we didn't get all we hoped for," Shein said.
Earlier this month, Shein skipped the Massachusetts Democratic Party's convention in Springfield to protest what he considers the party's clear bias for Neal. Among other things, he pointed to the party's sharing of office space with Neal's campaign and its decision to invite the incumbent to address delegates at the convention, but not his challengers.
So why does Shein stick with the Democrats? Why not join a third party—say, the Greens, who share his positions on issues like single-payer healthcare and public-funded campaigns?
Shein suggests asking a different question: why do so many Democrats stay in the party while failing to advance the issues it's supposed to stand for? "We need Democrats to be Democrats again," he said. Right now, "too many 'bipartisan' bills are coming from the far right and the moderate right." That includes the recently passed, Neal-supported Jobs Act, which, Shein said, purports to help small businesses but in fact is a "grab-bag of long-sought-after and dangerous deregulation."
Last week, Shein criticized Neal after The Hill reported that the incumbent would "listen to a proposal" to extend what Shein calls "the deficit-ballooning, income-inequality-widening, starving-our-communities-of-necessary-resources, bending-over-backwards-for-wealthy-interests Bush-era tax cuts for the one percent." Neal voted against the cuts when they were first enacted but would consider an extension now "if he thought a substantial deficit deal could be achieved," The Hill reported. That, Shein retorted, is "precisely the kind of embarrassing 'give-it-away-before-negotiations start' positioning that has passed for 'compromise' in the Congress for too long."
If elected, Shein vows to be a leader for reform—something, he says, that Neal has failed to be. While Neal's supporters say the district can't afford to lose a Congressman of his stature—he's been there for almost a quarter of a century and sits on the House Ways and Means Committee—"what is that seniority being used for?" Shein asked. "If I sat in a safe seat in Congress for 25 years, I wouldn't keep silent."
But first, of course, he has to get elected—and that won't be easy.
"This is not a big-money campaign, so I spend as much time talking to people as I can," Shein said. He's stood with nurses picketing at Baystate over a contract dispute, attended an anti-foreclosure protest organized by Springfield No One Leaves, joined residents rallying against violence in Springfield's Mason Square. The experience, he said, has been "exhausting, inspiring, heartbreaking." Many of the people he's met "have given up on the process. They don't think anything can fix it. I don't blame them for having the feelings they do."
But, Shein said, his shoestring campaign offers a model for a different way of doing things.
"In just a few short months we've framed the debate in this campaign," said Shein, who believes his presence in the race has forced conversation and movement on some key progressive matters—for example, Neal's recent decision to back the anti-Citizens United amendment and several other issues pushed by Progressive Democrats of American. "Rep. Neal took an awfully long time to 'stand up' against Citizens United," Shein noted in a campaign release. "That's not leadership. It's followership." It was also a shrewd move by Neal, making it less likely that PDA will endorse Shein or Nuciforo.
"We don't need big money to organize, make phone calls, knock on doors, and connect with voters across the new district," Shein said in a campaign release. "Instead, we rely on small contributions, progressive ideas and a winning argument: That you can't properly fight against the forces undermining a fair America if you fund your campaign with their money. Period."