To most progressives, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg was a ground-breaking stalwart for the rule of law and a champion for the most vulnerable. But others resent the Notorious RBG who, despite having cancer in her 80s, chose to not step down from the bench during the Obama Administration – her subsequent death allowed Donald Trump to fill a precious Supreme Court seat in his last year. This week on Sea Change Radio, the second half of our discussion with political consultant Aaron Huertas. We focus on the fact that some of the nation’s most influential people are well past the average retirement age. We look at 83 year-old Stephen Breyer’s seeming reluctance to retire from the Supreme Court, talk about California Senator Dianne Feinstein plowing ahead with re-election plans (when she’ll be 91), and explore possible solutions to an exceedingly delicate balance of power.
Narrator 0:02 This is Sea Change Radio, covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.
Aaron Huertas (AH) 0:20 These are people these are flesh and blood human beings in these elected offices and if anything happened to a single democratic senator right now if they were incapacitated, or God forbid if they passed away, we lose the majority.
Narrator 0:32 To most progressives, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a groundbreaking stalwart for the rule of law and a champion for the most vulnerable. But others resent the notorious RBG, who, despite having cancer in her 80s chose to not step down from the bench during the Obama administration. Her subsequent death allowed Donald Trump to fill a precious Supreme Court seat in his last year. This week on sea change radio, the second half of our discussion with political consultant Aaron Huertas. We focus on the fact that some of the nation’s most influential people are well past the average retirement age. We look at 83 year old Steven briars seeming reluctance to retire from the Supreme Court. Talk about California senator dianne feinstein plowing ahead with reelection plans when she’ll be 91. and explore possible solutions to an exceedingly delicate balance of power.
Alex Wise (AW) 1:44 This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio. And this is the second half of my discussion with political consultant Aaron Huertas. So, Aaron, can you give us some examples of how activists and other leaders are trying to change the minds of a Joe Manchin or Kyrsten Sinema when it comes to doing away with the filibuster?
Aaron Huertas (AH) 2:05 Yeah, well, I think the first thing is to realize that it’s not just mansion and cinema, right? There’s a lot of democratic senators who have not explicitly said that they want to reform the filibuster. So you might have a relatively progressive senator, or a senator who exhibits a lot of national leadership, who still needs to hear from their constituents that this is a priority. And even the senators who are supportive of eliminating the filibuster, you know, it’s always worth saying, Okay, great, you know, what, what are you doing about it? is there is there something else that you would be willing to hold up? Because we haven’t dealt with the filibuster yet? Like, can we can we keep hammering on this and going back to it. So you may look at somebody like Senator clover char, she, you know, following her presidential run had much more of a national profile. her, her committee on the hill deals with voting rights and with election administration, and she’s much more open to reforming the filibuster now, and part of that is seeing where the Republican Party is at a part of that is also just a huge push from activists and for people who supported her presidential campaign. So we’ve seen some of that, with Senator cinema, like her former staff, some of her former staffers spoke out a lot of activists and donors to help support her win in the Senate, which was crucial for taking back the Senate. Yeah, they’ve spoken out about this, too. Yeah. So she has room to move. I think she’s in a similar position to somebody like Senator Ross off in Georgia, where, you know, they’re they’re younger, they could have very long careers in the Senate. They’re running in swing states where, you know, they’re in potential danger of losing their seats in a way that senators from some deeply states aren’t. Similarly, Senator tester from Montana, he’s tried to persuade Senator Manchin and really just appealing to his sense of patriotism, and kind of that deeper older sense of bipartisanship that Republicans are portraying now. And he’s somebody who could speak a little more credibly to Joe Manchin, because he’s also he also has one really tough races in a relatively red state. But you know, mansion is just such an outlier politically, because of how far to the right the West Virginia electorate has moved or put it another way how much the republican party has changed his coalition to make West Virginia much less competitive. So he might be the last of the Appalachian State by Democrats at the federal level.
AW 4:24 And if he decides to retire, it’s really hard to see how that seat gets taken back by a democrat anytime in the future. But in the same breath, what about let’s just hypothetically say the mansion comes around this month? We won’t be talking about Joe Manchin for the next couple years. And his power is pretty much at an apex right now. Right?
AH 4:46 Yeah. I mean, we saw this with some of the negotiations around relief bills to write and I think this is also important to understand that, you know, senators have a lot of leverage as individuals in ways that House members don’t write like if you’re an individual senator, you have the power to deny unanimous consent to move things forward. A lot of the Senate’s business is done through unanimous consent. So it’s really easy to just raise your hand and say, I object, and you slow things down a lot. And you know, senators are busy people, they got schedules that you know, they have lives, they want to go see their families, they’ll have to travel to DC to do business. So that threat of Okay, this guy’s gonna make us work through the weekend. You can do that, right. And so they do have that leverage, as individuals took Schumer, as Majority Leader, he doesn’t have the same leverage over democratic senators that Nancy Pelosi has in the house of her house members, right? When it comes to things like committee appointments, or even how things run day to day power is really concentrated in the house at the speaker’s at the in in the Speaker’s office in a way that it’s not for the majority leader in the Senate. So I think that part of it is, is tough. And with any of these reforms, I think it’s very difficult for advocates, because we’re in the position of asking people who have succeeded in that system, and asking people who have built great power in the system to change the system that they that they figured out. And I really hoped, you know, after the GA wins that a lot of the Democratic senators would look at the electoral mash, they would, they would look at the races that are coming up, they would look at their majority. And they would say, Good god, this might be our last chance intergeneration, to do some big stuff to get rid of the filibuster to do some court reform, to make dc a state to maybe create a pathway for Puerto Rico to become a state of Puerto Rico wants to become a state. And it’s incredible to me that as even given that Confluence, we didn’t see a rapid change among some of these holdout senators, we did see some rapid change among senators broadly. But if if your future in the Senate is going to be in the minority, and you’re never going to chair a committee again, versus you might have a chance to keep chairing a committee, it seems like you’d be more open to reform. But you know, that hasn’t happened. And I think that, you know, when Joe Manchin repeatedly says he doesn’t want to revisit the filibuster, in the back of our minds, we got to think, Well, you know what, he might be serious about that. And the clock is always ticking. Every legislative session, you know, a day in the Senate is worth more than a day out in the real world. There’s only so many days that you can go and actually get legislative business done. And that window is really narrow, right? So it might not happen here. And I always want us thinking about our long game to Katie Lauer. She’s the CO director of West Virginia Can’t wait, which is a progressive advocacy group there. And you know, she said after the election, and after the senate runoffs in Georgia, specifically, national groups are just flooding her with phone calls and say, Katie, you got to tell us how to get to mansion, you got to tell us how to flip mansion. So instead, look, I’ve been to West Virginia a long time, you can write. I think one of the more successful things and getting mansion to flip a vote recently was on the proact. And he hasn’t he hasn’t been explicitly in favor of it. But he did come out in favor of it because he knows that unions are important West Virginia. He supports the right to organize, and he came out in favor of it. I think there’s some other some other holdouts who said, Oh, you know, I support the right of workers to organize. But I don’t know about this bill. Senator Warner and Virginia is one of those. And that’s just up to you as an activist to keep plugging away. You know, that that one might be doable, but then you got to get it through reconciliation, too. But you know, Lauer’s main point when she spoke out was to say, you know, don’t come to groups like mine, after the after a big win to say, Okay, what can we do now with a lot of late money? And can can people kind of parachute into West Virginia and commence your mansion to do stuff? And our answer was no. You know, that’s, that’s been my experience with working with organizers in some of these states where things are a lot politically tougher than they are in purely blue states. And it’s like the long term infrastructure is just got to be there. I did an event is this a while ago now, but I did an event with Jeremy Richardson. And he’s from West Virginia. He’s a physicist, he jokes that he’s the black sheep with his family, because his brother’s a coal miner and his dad was a coal mine manager. And Jeremy did a great event in Charleston. And it was about what do we want the future of West Virginia’s economy to look like in 30 years. And so climate and clean energy were part of that conversation. Coal is part of that conversation, but he had it in a non defensive way. He got a lot of, you know, state level policymakers to show up the in showed up is a great conversation. You know, it really fostered some good relationships for policymaking down the road. And one thing I distinctly remember from that was an activist, telling me you know, thank thank you all so much for doing this. This was through the Union of Concerned Scientists, which is a national advocacy group based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. And we had an office in DC and this activist said, you know, national groups just ignore us. And they’ve given up on West Virginia. So thank you for coming here. And thank you for remembering us. And please, you know, don’t forget us. And that really stuck with me because for, you know, a national advocacy group with national fundraising dates and, you know, big foundations this, this was a little event in Charleston, you know, a couple of us got out there, put it together. Ken Ward, shut up is a great local journalists there, he got to ask a bunch of great questions of all the all these leading figures in state politics. And I feel like the advocacy that, you know, people at the national level can do if they form real long term partnerships, if they do real infrastructure funding, at the local level for some of these activist groups that can really go a long way. And again, I think Stacey Abrams, and folks in Georgia, they’ve helped people internalize that lesson a bit. Like, when I was offered Warnock, for running in Georgia, they knew there was going to be a ton of money coming into that state, right, because people who wanted to take back the Senate, people were fired up for that race. And what they did was very smart. And it not just them, but a lot of other organizations, they encourage people to just simply split their donations with the campaign’s and local groups. And that’s really important, because, you know, one, it’s easy to do. If you’re a progressive donor, you’ve seen an act blue page aqueles, a big piece of our progressive infrastructure, for donations, and you get to split your donations, you can make that automatic for the folks when they when the fundraising page, they know that it’s going to be split. And that’s really important because if a campaign win or lose, that campaign has gone in an election cycle campaigns are like startups that you know, except when a startup succeeds, it becomes a giant monopoly that sticks around forever. When a campaign succeeds, they win. And then that person becomes a house member or senator, and they go on to their next campaign and kind of restart things, right? When a campaign loses, it’s like poof, right? Some of the day that I leave, stay there, some other stuff stays there, people have that campaign experience. But yeah, it’s gone. They don’t employ people anymore. By contrast, as local activist groups, right, they’re gonna be there for years, and they’re not just gonna work on elections, they’re going to be doing year round organizing, they’re going to be working on policy, they’re going to be talking to people and canvassing people all year long, not just about elections. So you know, trying to figure out ways that we can get resources to local organizers, as we also do national electoral politics. I’m fascinated by that. And I think the grassroots donor base and the Democratic Party has gotten a lot savvy with that, because it is they have better access to information now than they did 10 or 20 years ago. And we’ve got, you know, these all stars like Stacey Abrams, who are just, you know, very directly making this case to people and I think treating grassroots donors with the same respect, and level of information that was usually reserved for, you know, high level donors, really letting them in on that strategy and seeing how their money can have the most effect.
AW 13:33 This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to political consultant Aaron Huertas. We kept thinking, well, the Voting Rights Act is going to be the straw that breaks mansions back in the metaphorical sense, and that there’ll be something that will just move the cinemas and mansions of the Senate to finally say, Alright, enough’s enough. These are not good actors that we’re dealing with. And I saw that Ben Nelson, the former senator, has said that the Biden administration would be foolish to trust McConnell and the Republicans. When it comes to trying to move good infrastructure legislation down the road that they’re being played, it seems like any democrat who’s working in good faith with a republican on the hill right now is being played because the Republican Party only answers to one person right now. And he’s nuts.
AH 14:29 I think the 1-6 commission is a huge wake up call on that. We’ve already had so many Wake Up Calls, though. And, you know, my experience is in climate policy. So I’ve seen the Republican Party walk away from climate policy, you know, a long, long time ago, right? So maybe maybe climate change wasn’t the canary in the coal mine. There’s a lot of other issues that can maybe lay claim to that to including reproductive freedom, but on climate in particular, you know, we we really did try a bipartisan approach in 2008 2009. And once the Tea Party came came up, it was probably hopeless for us to try to get anything through the Senate. And folks, you know, folks remember this when I remind them of it my experience, but like, Democrats had a supermajority, they had the ability to pass a lot of legislation. The President still wanted it to be bipartisan, that was falling apart. You know, he asked chuck grassley at the end of the day, is there anything I can do with this health care bill with Obamacare, to get you on it? And he said, Mr. President, I guess not right, after months and months of negotiation. And meanwhile, you know, during that legislative process, Senator Kennedy, Senator Ted Kennedy, he passed away, right. And I think about that often, a couple of weeks ago, Patrick Leahy went to the hospital, and my heart was in my throat, right? these are these are people these are flesh and blood human beings and these elected offices. And if anything happened to a single democratic senator, right now, if they were incapacitated, or God forbid, if they passed away, we lose the majority in certain states, right.
AW 15:54 I mean, like Dianne Feinstein is about to turn 88. She thinks she can run again. But if she were to pass away or be incapacitated, have to resign. There’s a democratic governor, and she would be replaced by a Democrat. But I think in Vermont, it would be tricky, because you have a republican but a progressive Republican in Vermont, who says he would have replaced Leahy with a Democrat, I believe, but that’s still in play. Right?
AH 16:26 He said, If Sanders had become president, and or, you know, perhaps received an appointment, or better VP, or whatever the circumstance was, he said he would not appoint a Republican. So you know, it’s hard. It’s hard to say, Would he play around with that a little bit? Would he give you someone who’s a democratic name? Only? Would he appoint another independent, like Sanders? But an independent? Who’s more conservative? Yes. Who’s to say, um, but yeah, yeah. And, and also, even in states where you can say, Okay, well, you know, there’s still be a democrat there, you still lose time? Right? So are they just appointing someone? How quickly can they do that? When are they going to hold a special election? it? You know, if at all, how does that go? It can vary a little bit. But that loss of time, you know, that really hurts. And in Ted Kennedy’s case, you know, we lost that seat. But even if we hadn’t, you lost time there. And they had to do some legislative maneuvering to get the health care bill through. So I, you know, I used to say, it varies a lot by issue, right. So climate, Probably not, but maybe something like infrastructure or transportation, you still had enough incentive for Republicans to come on board and say, yeah, you know, I like this, I want to, I want to go back home, and I want to do some ribbon cutting ceremonies, you know, I’m going to vote for this. And that, you know, Joe Biden, and other Democrats have made fun of this. Now, what we’re seeing is republicans that our media environment is is so wack and the local media environment is so decimated, that a lot of Republicans look at something like the infrastructure bill, they say, I want to have my cake and eat it too. I get to vote no on this, and I get to go to the ribbon cutting ceremony. That’s really, that really takes some goal. But it is the reality, what’s happening. I’ve seen a ton of bad faith negotiation from Republicans on climate, right. And a lot of demands for changes that don’t actually result in any votes. There still are a handful of Republicans in the House and in the Senate, who do want to do bipartisan stuff and do want to come along. But folks need to realize that’s a really, really small part of the party. It’s not the part of the party that’s in charge. And, you know, and unfortunately, it’s not enough in the party to actually get good stuff done. So that is really worrisome. And I think, to your point, a lot of senators are probably averaging out their lifetime of experience a little bit. So if you’ve been at it, for 20 30, 40 years, you know, is the last two years the most important thing in your mind when you’re weighing political decisions? Maybe you’re maybe your average is, you know, somewhere around 2007 when when I wish it was more like 2019 or 2020, at least. And then the other thing you got to keep in mind these senators, and and this is true for House members to these elected officials at the federal level, they really do live in a different information environment that we do even as activists, and it’s really, you know, it’s idiosyncratic to each member, kind of what their reality is and who they listen to and who their trusted advisors are. But importantly for this conversation, if you’re if your mansion if your cinema if you’re some if you’re some of these democratic senators have actually done some bipartisan stuff over time that you’re proud of, and you have relationships with Republican senators who talk to you about this. That’s a very different reality than, you know, what we see as observers when we’re looking at the results. And, you know, McConnell even advised his caucus be very nice to Joe Manchin be very nice to these other senators. Yeah, this is important for us. And but you know, the derisive take on that it’s like, well, everybody loves talking to a salesman, right? But the reality is, you know, somebody like mansion, he was able to get bipartisan COVID relief under Trump right at the end of the Trump administration. So he’s he’s seeing his methods work. And I think the reality now is okay, but, you know, what we’re seeing is that none of these methods are going to work on something like voting rights, and none of these methods are going to work on something like the proact. So what’s what then? Do we get left behind? And and again, you know, I take I take the senators, that their words when they when they say, they do not support doing anything about the filibuster. And another way of thinking about that, if you’re, if you’re an activist, lobbyist and advocate, if you have that kind of mindset is, you know, they’re they’re saying that their incentives don’t align with mine. Right? So then you really got to think long term and say, how do you change the incentives? How do you do the local organizing that convinces them that this is a winning strategy, this gets them what they want, and maybe eliminating the filibuster even leads to more bipartisanship? Because now that’s the only way you can have an effect on anything. convinced the other side that, you know, they should join up with you. And now that you know, they can get a little bipartisan clean on something if they’re really going to go ahead and threatened to do stuff.
AW 21:48 This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to political consultant Aaron Huertas. Without being ageist How does somebody like yourself, Aaron, approach, trying to get some of these powerful people to step aside due to age?
AH 22:04 I think there’s a big opportunity with the next Congress. And we should talk about judicial reform, too. So when democrats took back the majority in 2018, yeah, there was the race to see that who would be Speaker of the House among the Democrats. As part of that negotiation. Pelosi and her leadership team said, we’re going to take a look at the leadership structure in the house and how that works. And that that look has not resulted in any changes to policy. It came up a little bit again, in 2020. I think if we weren’t dealing with the immediate election emergency with Trump, it might have been a little bit different. I expect this to come up again, in 2022, whether democrats retain their house majority or not, in particular, if Pelosi steps down and decides not to run again, not to serve a final term speaker. But the age issue in the house is downstream of how seniority works on the House committees. So on the Democratic side, there’s no limits to your chairmanship. So it tends to be once your chair, you just stay chair for a while. Right. So if you’ve been, you know, john Dingell chaired the Energy and Commerce Committee for a long time, right? You have you have these House committee chairs who just wield that gavel for years and years and never give it up. It’s pretty sweet to be the chair of a committee, right? You get to make really big decisions, you get to decide what the legislation is, on the Republican side, there are term limits to chairing a committee. So you often see as or I should say, it’s more likely for a republican to retire when they hit some of those term limits. And that goes back to younger Republican legislators in their coalition, saying, Look, I’m not interested in waiting everyone else, and in this house seat for 2030 years to finally become the chair of a committee. You know, I want to get a crack at it earlier. And that was the compromise from some of the older Republicans. Well, why don’t we turn limit? Why don’t we turn limit the chairs, right, and part of that was negotiating through newt Gingrich taking over a speaker that hasn’t happened on the Democratic side. But again, that’s just the House. The Senate has always operated through seniority. And I think it’s tough, because you know, that that gets to the political economy of the Senate and how weird it is to write so we’ve got, you know, who were who were two of the longest serving oldest senators. So you got Patrick Leahy, and Bernie Sanders, who were two of the most progressive champion senators. I really like having in the senate because I’m a progressive lady and Sanders, who I love being Chair of the Senate Budget Committee, Bernie Sanders, right.
AW 24:46 Yeah, that gives progressives a lot of leverage to, but how do we convince people like Ginsburg and Breyer or Feinstein that they’re doing the country a disservice by playing with this very razor-thin margin. Have that we have in the Republic, all balancing on their survival at a very advanced age. I mean, 88 years old, that’s old as a public figure, you’re it’s acceptable to be 88 years old and one of the most powerful people in the country. But if you were 88 years old, and you’re a cardiologist operating on a on a person, I think a lot of patients would have significant pause, right?
AH 25:27 Yeah. So there are some creative ways to think about the incentive structure there. So we talked about Yeah, can you offer the rules around committee chairmanships, and I’m generally against age limits for elected officials simply because I could see that I could see that get manipulated in a way that targets specific politicians, right. And you’d never want an acuity test or something like that, it’s very easy to see how politicians could gain systems like that to try to go after specific politicians. But I do think changing the incentive structures around how long you hold the committee chair, that can make a lot of sense. I also think that there could be retirement benefits to retiring earlier, the party could, you know, put an emphasis on just recruiting younger candidates, but that’s tough, because if you’re younger, you tend to have less of, you know, less name recognition. So you know, there’s different incentives you can play around with, I think, on the federal bench, there are much more stringent policy changes you can do. And again, I think age limits can get dicey. And I think I think acuity tests would get gamed immediately, especially if you have lawyers trying to, you know, accuse a judge of not being all with it as part of their case, right? They would have that incentive right away. But if we had a system on the supreme court where you could, where you could step down to Emeritus judgeship, right, and keep doing some stuff, you don’t have to fully give up your power, but you’re not you’re not you’re not on the five, four votes anymore, right? Something like that. Unfortunately, strategic retirements are the norm. But we now have two democratic supreme court justices who are we have not been invested in strategic retirements. And that’s Ginsburg, which which did not work out is very upsetting. And now Briar is is saying, you know, you’re talking to a bunch of law students and his advice for them for persuading republicans was you know, just talk to them and keep keep saying things until they find something you agree with. And he’s very resistant to this idea that strategic retirements politicize the judiciary. And that to me, that that puts the onus on the judges to not politicize the judiciary. It’s really the republican party that’s politicized the judiciary, and it’s appointed much more conservative and right wing judges, a younger judges to try to take over the judiciary as much as possible. So I don’t know what you can do to convince the supreme court justice to that sort of stuff.
AW 27:51 I always appreciate your input. And I think we agree that some creative solutions are long overdue. Aaron Huertas. Thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.
AH Yeah, sure thing.
Narrator 28:16 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 Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus, and the English beat, check out our website at seachangeradio.com to stream or download the show or subscribe to our podcast. Visit our archives there to hear from Bill McKibben, Van Jones, Paul Hawken, and many others. and tune in to see change radio next week, as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio. I’m Alex Wise.