Fixing American Politics With Aaron Huertas (Pt. I )

The days of bipartisanship in Washington are long gone but there are many on the Hill still clinging for dear life to this antiquated notion which really hasn’t existed since the 1980s. This week on Sea Change Radio, we are joined by political consultant Aaron Huertas in the first half of a two-part conversation to look at the variety of political options facing a Democratic Party which is currently holding a razor thin majority in the Senate. We discuss the current state of the filibuster, dive into the many ways to craft policy with and without it, and look at the role that unions and grassroots organizers will play in moving us away from this obsession over bipartisanship.

Narrator  0:01  This is Sea Change Radio  covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.

Aaron Huertas (AH)  0:17  They might not want to get rid of it entirely. They might want to do reforms like have a talking filibuster, or put the onus back on the minority to have everyone who’s in the minority who wants to stop debate show up.

Narrator 0:29  The days of bipartisanship in Washington are long gone. But there are many on the hills still clinging for dear life to this antiquated notion, which really hasn’t existed since the 1980s. This week on Sea Change Radio , we’re joined by political consultant Aaron Huertas. In the first half of a two part conversation, to look at the variety of political options facing a Democratic Party, which is currently holding a razor thin majority in the Senate. We discussed the current state of the filibuster, dive into the many ways to craft policy with and without it, and look at the role that unions and grassroots organizers will play in moving us away from this obsession over bipartisanship.

Alex Wise (AW)  1:31  I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by Aaron Huertas. Aaron is a political consultant, and he is currently working as a communications director for catalyst. Aaron, welcome back to Sea Change Radio.

Aaron Huertas (AH) – Thanks for having me back. It’s great to be in touch.

Alex Wise (AW)  Yes, for our listeners, we’ve had Aaron on several times over the years, and I find him to be one of the more astute political observers. And last time we spoke Aaron, I believe, Donald Trump was still president, though. So things have changed quite a bit.

AH  2:00  Yeah, yeah, we made it. You know, we’re on the other side of that now, actually, I live in downtown DC. So I can see the very tippy top of the Capitol right now from my home office. And being here on January 6, was pretty scary. You know, we had a lot of Trump supporters in my neighborhood, staying at hotels, that was the first time I saw local activists in DC, totally stand down and say, This is really dangerous. We don’t want our people out there on the streets. Let them fight with the cops and the feds. So that was a really scary moment for all of us. But, we made it through it. And Donald Trump isn’t president and he’s, he’s off Twitter. And he just had to cancel his blog. So that’s good for us. But it’s, it’s still a very scary time for democracy.

AW  2:47  Yes. And that’s why I wanted to talk because you posted something on your own blog, Aaron The post is from May 28. And it’s entitled US politics is broken. But what if politicians don’t fix it? We’ve been talking a lot over the last few months about the filibuster and people who had never heard of Kyrsten Sinema at Joe Manchin, the senators from Arizona and West Virginia respectively, are thinking about them much more than they had thought they might six months ago. Do we face a time of choosing between the filibuster or democracy in your opinion, Aaron?

AH  3:25  I think that we do because we’re in democratic decline. And I don’t think it’s totally binary. Right now, this decline could take place over many election cycles. And over a long period of time, it could happen very rapidly. I think that we were lucky on January 6, that none of the elected officials were killed or harmed, right. They were in physical danger. What happened was very dangerous. Ultimately, it was a mob, right. And there were people who were deeply organized in that mob, but a lot of folks were there for the show. Right? The q anon shaman was not or he fed, he still got into the Senate. Well, so the people, the militia types, the people who are facing federal charges now. They were mixed in with sort of the menagerie of Trump supporters that have come out there that Trump incited that day. So that’s really dangerous. The other big danger signs we’re seeing now are these fake audits that republican state legislators are calling for? We see Republicans who reject the election results running for election official positions like Secretaries of State, and for many years, the secretaries of state even in places where they would run with a partisan label. They took the nonpartisan nature of their jobs very seriously. And last election cycle. I interviewed a lot of election administrators from across the country and you know, at that at that local level, at the county level, it’s really rare that you’re run into people who are, Twitter or Facebook level conspiracy theorist types. And I think, now what we’re seeing is a lot of those election administrators. They’re facing a ton of political pressure from their state legislatures. And, you know, in some cases from the governors, and we’re also seeing things like an Arizona threats to strip the democratic Secretary of State there of her powers. So stuff like that. It’s it’s not voter suppression, its election, subversion. Its attempts to ignore the results of an election. And there might not be direct policy solutions to that sort of thing. The solutions to that might be, you know, with us broadly, with civil society with the kind of kinds of counter mobilizations that we saw in the 2020 election around the country. So there’s a lot of policies we could pass that could fight voter suppression, that could make doing this sort of stuff harder, that could make it easier to organize right across unions and across the progressive movement. But ultimately, a lot of the solutions to these problems remain political. So this might not be the kind of problem we get, we can fix with a law. This, this is a very deep problem in our political culture.

AW  6:16  Yes, I mean, just thinking on these, these local elections that are being contested by the people who don’t win them, usually, these republicans who have now kind of taken a page out of Donald Trump’s book, in not accepting the results, irrespective of the reality of the results. And when we have a party, where the orthodoxy is kind of tested whether or not you’re going to accept the Biden Trump results, you can see how that could easily trickle down to the Secretary of State race in Arizona.

AH  6:52  Yeah, yeah, I think it’s the combination of voter suppression, making it harder to vote, creating multiple steps where something might go wrong with a ballot, and then elections aversion. So now you’ve created a different category of ballots that you say are going to count or not count after the fact. So what we saw in 2020, that, you know, there was an attempt there from the republicans and from the Trump campaign to say these late arriving mail ballots that we think are heavily democratic, because we’ve politicized how people think about different vote methods, we want to go and cancel these late arriving mail ballots now turns out, Biden and Harris assembled a pretty big coalition and won the swing states by enough where those late arriving mail ballots weren’t decisive anyway. So there, we dodged that circumstance, and the courts were able to shoot down these silly lawsuits. And of course, the Trump campaign wasn’t doing this stuff in a competent way, they were doing their very farcical way. And there’s aspects of it that are funny that we can make fun of, but it’s still deadly serious. They’re trying to subvert a presidential election that’s at a state level in a coordinated way. So there’s an alternative timeline where that election was even tighter, and it would come down to something like that in one of those states. And I think what we’re seeing now is an attempt by a lot of Republican state legislators, to say, we want to give ourselves more flexibility when it comes to subverting election results we don’t like after the facts. And you know, that’s, that’s not new in American politics, right. This is part of what happens with reconstruction and attempts to undermine elections in the south after the Civil War. But this is the modern version of it, right? This is this is a retrenchment and this is resistance to democracy.

AW  8:38  It’s definitely not the type of democracy that we aspire to. And it’s definitely not the democracy that we’ve been used to when the minority party is trying to cheat its way into the majority. That’s essentially what we have right now is that they’re using any means necessary, state, local and federal levels and through the courts to try to get the 40% who they represent to represent more than 50% that’s that’s the basic calculus right. It’s definitely anti democratic efforts that they’re using, but it will it shake the bedrock of our system is the question, I guess.

AH  9:22  Yeah, political scientists would say it’s anti authoritarian right. So we don’t have a purely democratic system. We have a democratic republic, we have a republic with regular elections. And we we live by the results of those elections. And that’s what’s being challenged now. And when we look at things like you know, debates about the filibuster, that the filibuster is one of the most anti majority Aryan things in our system. And if you look at the Constitution, there’s no filibuster in there. This is a custom in the Senate. It goes back to the pre Civil War era in pro slavery senators trying to find ways to block the anti slavery majority from you know, going after slavery. So that’s still with us and the filibuster has been chipped away at over time. And you know, now it’s very clear that if you want to do something on voting rights legislation, if you want to do something on the democratic right to organize your workplace, through something like the pro act, even if you want to do basic stuff, like pass a budget or do some COVID relief, you got to work around the filibuster one way or the other. And on, on budgetary issues, we can go through a reconciliation process through the Senate parliamentarian, and again, none of this is in the Constitution. This is this is all the Senate’s own rules. And on these budgetary matters, we can do a 5050 vote on partisan lines, and vice president Harris can break the tie. But then on these non budgetary matters on things like the proact voting rights, DC statehood, if we ever get there, you need to deal with the filibuster. And we saw that and and really, you know, I’m not sure if there’s going to be any more dramatic way to demonstrate this, but even the creation of a commission to study what happened on one six and bring some sense of transparency and justice and maybe even reconciliation to that attack on our democracy. That vote failed, even though 54 senators voted for including six Republicans. So you had especially for our era, a pretty bipartisan majority vote, representing senators who represent a majority of people in the country, saying they wanted to form this commission. And it failed, right? It’s to see headlines that say, the 54 to 36 vote happened in the Senate and the side with 36. One, right, it’s a, it offends our sensibilities if we love democracy, and what’s really happening is that the majority that keeps showing up for elections and electing Democrats, that majority is not able to roll, and the filibuster is a big reason for that. But of course, there’s also gerrymandering, there’s also the nature of the senate itself, and how each party’s Coalition’s have changed. So, you know, if you’ve got two senators from California that represent a heck of a lot more people than the two senators from Vermont, or the two senators from Alabama, so there’s always going to be that population disparity there. And have the sentence constituted. But something like the filibuster just makes it so much worse.

AW  13:02  This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio , and I’m speaking to political consultant, Aaron Huertas. So Aaron, let’s dive a little deeper into the struggle over the filibuster. First, let’s assume that the filibuster is not going away. And then we’ll dive into those logistics a little later. And instead of getting into the characters behind it in there, and their motivations, let’s just assume that we’re in the status quo right now. And that it’s the step that the filibuster is not going away. And that’s pretty much the thesis of your post. So what can progressives do to try to break the status quo in terms of policies when they’re not going to be able to, hypothetically break the status quo of the the system itself?

AH  13:52  Yeah, and this is a possibility. I really want people who work in progressive politics to think about because I remember, I stayed up late on the night of January 5, to see the results come in from Georgia. And you know, things were looking good with their early vote. But I don’t think anybody was sitting here saying, oh, we’re definitely going to win Georgia. We feel great about this. And that was a genuinely surprising result and having the ability to govern again, have a trifecta. in DC, that was huge. So that now there’s this window for governing, and it’s a lot more limited than the window Obama came in with in 2008. Right. It’s a smaller Senate Majority. It’s very slim. So I take I take Senator Manchin at his word when he says he doesn’t want to mess with the filibuster, and he doesn’t want to do DC voting rights is for the proactive and some of these other priorities. But I think when you step back and look at the Senate, structurally, there’s a lot of senators who are open now to the idea of reforming the filibuster, and they might not want to get rid of it entirely. They might want to do reforms like have a Talking filibuster or put the onus back on the minority to have everyone who’s in the minority who wants to stop debate show up.

AW  15:06  Yeah, explain how that works, because that seems to be the lowest hanging fruit for those who want filibuster reform.

AH  15:13  Yeah, this is something Senator Merkley from Oregon has talked about many times and his ideas that you would have to do the, , Jimmy Stewart, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington style filibuster again. And that is traditionally like when you learn about the filibuster, and you know, high school civics class, if you were lucky enough to take a high school civics class. That’s what you pictured the one senator either bravely standing up for something great, and convincing their colleagues to go along with them or, you know, in the history of the actual use of the filibuster, standing up for states rights to do things that are racist, right and preventing the majority from ending racist practices. So in practice, the filibuster in the modern era just works as a threat, right, the minority leader and you know, a handful of senators can say, Well, you know, we’re going to filibuster that. So don’t go there. And you can just say that you’re going to filibuster something, you don’t actually have to go through it. And then if the majority leader bring something to the floor that people have to vote on, they have to vote to end debate and break the filibuster. So there’s not actually a filibuster happening. There’s not actually a senator standing in the well of the senate with the TV cameras on and everyone’s saying, Well, look, you know, look at this guy holding up the people’s business in the Senate. So that lack of public scrutiny, probably makes it easier to filibuster, right. And in a world where we change that there would be a higher price to pay politically for filibustering, something especially filibustering something popular, right. The senators who refuse to vote for the one six commission that didn’t have to stand up for, 17 hours explaining why a commission was a bad idea, reading from the phone book or what have you.

AW  16:56  Beyond the filibuster, what are some of the best ways for the Biden administration to move forward? How can enact policies that will, let’s say save voting rights in states where they’re very much under fire?

AH  17:13  They would have to decide, and this is at the federal level. And then because the Senate is so because the Senate is so closely contested? Vice President Harris has some more leverage there as the deciding vote on tie breaking vote split the vice presidents also President of the Senate. So she actually has a lot of flexibility in these parliamentarian rulings that are coming down about so called reconciliation bills. So traditionally, the parliamentarian advises the Senate on you know, what’s admissible to do per the sentence rules and people can ask the parliamentarian different questions, the parliamentarian cancer them it’s it’s a very non partisan position, although occasionally parliamentarians have come under political pressure, often from Republicans on budgetary matters, and Republicans have gotten their way.

AW  18:00  Yes, we just learned who the parliamentarian was when the $15 minimum wage that they wanted to put in the initial budget, correct?

AH  18:10  Right. Yeah. So the parliamentarian decides whether or not something has budgetary impact, and you can get real loosey goosey with that, right. So something like the minimum wage, you can say, Well, of course, this has budgetary impact that affects people’s wages and the taxes they pay pretty quickly down the line, you got something that’s related to the federal budget. And if you put on your lawyer hat for a second, and really, really want to plead your case, you can say to the parliamentarian Well, you know, voting rights to the budgetary impact to because the federal government spends money to support election administration in the state. So this would change how the federal government looks at some of those state allocations, right. So that, you know, the the parliamentarians rulings, they can’t be arbitrary. You can imagine a scenario where the vice president says, Why don’t accept the parliamentarians ruling on this? So we’re going to go ahead and do it the way we want to do it, or like we saw with the minimum wage, okay, well, let’s have a vote on whether or not this should go in there, as opposed to just being included, you know, on its own in this reconciliation package. And in that case, some of the senators, they either were not in favor of a $15 minimum wage, or they said, You know, I don’t I don’t want to do it this way. I want to have a more robust debate about the minimum wage, and I actually want to have that, like, I don’t want to just put it into this package. But realistically, you know, has this stuff going to get through? If we’re in a system where even for something like the one six commission, just something that should be in normal times a bipartisan slam dunk, is only going to get six Republican votes? Right, how do you pass anything, and that that’s kind of a time of choosing now. So I think they have some flexibility there that they’re not using right now that they could use in the future that maybe they have some leverage over. And of course, Senator Sanders is, you know, the progressive champion and the democratic coalition. He’s the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. So he has a lot of say in this matters to and you also write about the role that grassroots activists and union leaders will have and have had in preventing democratic backsliding during this very fragile period.

AW  20:00  Why don’t you expand on how grassroots activists and unions can make a significant impact moving forward?


AH  20:24  Yeah, I was really proud of what all the progressive groups and local activists and unions did in 2020, when we faced this very immediate threat to the integrity of the election. And in the pre election period, this included things that the postal carriers union did to ensure the integrity of the mail and to make sure that we got our mail ballots and that we could return our mail ballots on time. And they were doing that in direct opposition to Trump’s appointee as Postmaster General. So that was really impressive. Then at the local level, the local activists in DC, we did a wake up call for the joy outside his condo in DC, right. And we got a lot of media attention for that we showed massive public support for, you know, our ability to do mail ballots in the middle of a pandemic. And we’re able to do, you know, our activism in a socially distance, pandemic friendly way, we’re all messed up, we kept our distance from each other. We were outside, right. So that sort of flexibility across the progressive movement was really important for making sure we could have the election and the people did have access to the ballot, including mail ballots. Then in the post election period, I was I was blown away by how strategic and coordinated and thoughtful and tactical everyone in the movement was right. And this was from the level of like, people doing live messaging research every day, every week, and informing the entire progressive movement about how people were thinking about the election. It involves a lot of strategic foresight, I think from the Biden campaign, and the Biden and the now Biden administration to and not feeding into Trump’s election lies and not making the election about whether or not Trump was going to subvert the election, because we had a big worry there. And that was that that the messaging research that if you talk too much about something like coup, or a stolen election before people actually voted, it demobilize people it made them want to vote less, right. And that makes intuitive sense. Because if you’re telling somebody your vote might not count, well, are they going to go fill out the application? Where are they going to go to the early voting site? So I think that was very smart to then, when the republicans actually started to try to subvert the election, we saw a lot of very smart local activism. So you know, in in Michigan, when they had an election board, certify their election results, and there were some threats from Republicans there to mess with that process. You had an overwhelming turnout, you know, in virtual meetings and on the streets to say this is unacceptable, you need to certify our votes now. And they got these local board, the republicans on that local board to switch their votes, right. And that was happening all across the country directly or indirectly. I did an action at National Airport here in DC, where we intercepted a couple michigan state legislators who Trump had invited to the White House to talk to them about subverting their election. And so they had local activists in Michigan, with you know, we call it bird dogging, but bird dogging them, asking them tough questions, taking videos and those interactions at the airport when they left. And then they had a bunch of local activists here in DC greet them. When they came here, they ended in DC. So, you know, we got to ask them a ton of tough questions. And ultimately, they didn’t take the bait. They said, Oh, we just had a nice conversation that you know, about priorities for economic recovery in Michigan or whatever. And they didn’t go into full subversion mode. You know, they’re still doing bad stuff. But in that moment, I think that public pressure and then activism made a huge difference in in making it just that much harder for these Republican legislators to get away with election subversion.

AW  24:07  This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to political consultant Aaron Huertas. So the motivations of the Feinstein’s and cinemas of the senate are quite different. So connecting these dots, how can the grassroots activists and unions overwhelm the motivations of these few individuals who have kind of clogging progress?

AH  24:34  What I think Senator Ed Markey’s experience on this was really illustrative and a huge Ed Markey fan, because I’ve worked in climate policy for so long, and Senator Markey has always been a climate champ. And a few years ago, if, and this was when they were unveiling some green New Deal legislation, not in this Congress, but in the last Congress. Senator Markey was asked, Well, how are you going to get a green New Deal through or anything like it through the Senate? So we’re gonna we’re gonna convince enough Republicans to get on board and we’re going to do this thing. And of course, people who work in the climate movement will say, Well, you know, we tried that in 2009. It didn’t work out. Well, we didn’t get national climate legislation, things are even worse now. Yeah. how’s that gonna happen? And Senator Markey wind up getting a primary challenge from representative Joe Kennedy. And Joe Kennedy was trying to run to marquees left on the filibuster and saying, we need to nuke the filibuster to get this good stuff done. And, you know, Markey, he said he was open to it, Republicans would have to show him a lot of intransigence first. And I think Markey has actually come around on it, having had that debate in a primary, haven’t had the climate movement, really, you know, stand arm and harm with him to win that primary. I think he’s the first Massachusetts politician to defeat a Kennedy and statewide race. So you’re inspired a lot of people in the climate movement, a lot of young voters. And, you know, now when you talk to him about the filibuster, and when you see how he answers questions for journalists, he’s much more of the mind that Republicans have shown their intransigence, and it’s time to do something about the filibuster, otherwise, we’re not going to get any of this stuff done, including climate legislation. So when I think about other senators, you know, did they have room to move? Do they have room to grow on this? I think they do. But I am really skeptical that it’s going to happen this Congress, especially after that last vote, I really do hope that something changes. But when we look at the real long term here, and the Democratic Party’s ability to have a majority in the Senate, and in the house, and its ability to elect people who are going to put some of the reforms in place that make the system more democratic, I think it’s up to these progressive groups to really elevate democracy and voting rights, when they’re thinking about their candidate endorsements, when they’re thinking about contested primaries and who they want to back. The other big area of growth I’d like to see is more of an emphasis on workplace organizing and democracy and where that fits in. Because I do think the average activists donor who might be active with say, a swing left or an indivisible, they might be a college educated person who maybe has limited experience with unions. And I think that that the democratic coalition is those folks and the working class who are, you know, in unions and want economic opportunity, and want racial justice, and many of them are quite active through their unions. So you know, the combination of those two things that’s really the core of the Democratic coalition, especially when it comes to the activist voices that are pushing for policy. So more unity between those things, I think is good. And the unity that we did have in 2020, in that post election period, I think was really critical for, you know, ensuring that all the votes were counted and making sure that the win that Biden Harris were able to assemble resulted in a real win where they got sworn in.

AW  27:52  And where does thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio . Thank you. Be sure to tune in next week for the second half of my discussion with political consultant Aaron Huertas.

AH  28:03  Thanks

Narrator  28:17  You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio . Our Intro Music is by Sanford Lewis and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by Joe Henry and The meters, check out our website at to stream or download the show or subscribe to our podcast. Visit our archives there to hear Bill McKibben, Van Jones, Paul Hawken, and many others. And tune in to Sea Change Radio  next week, as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio , I’m Alex Wise.