2016 Elections

Meet Bernie Sanders's Establishment Guy

Paul Kirk once chaired the Democratic Party. Now he likes the insurgent.


Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Bernie Sanders has attracted liberal activists and young voters to his presidential campaign. Hillary Clinton dominates with elected Democratic politicians and party officials. A notable exception is Paul Kirk, who endorsed Sanders last week. He was party chairman from 1985 to 1989 and was the longtime chief political aide to Senator Edward M. Kennedy. When the Massachusetts lawmaker died in 2009, Kirk was appointed to his Senate seat and served for four and a half months. Here are Kirk's comments from an interview this week, slightly condensed and lightly edited.

AL HUNT: Why Bernie Sanders?

PAUL KIRK: Bernie Sanders deserves an endorsement because he’s speaking to the fundamental values of the Democratic Party -- economic, political and social justice and, not least, the renewal of a fair and truly representative democracy. I chose to endorse him because of what he's focusing on.

The stakes in this election are huge: whether or not we will live up to our basic inherited obligation to leave our democracy better than we found it.

This huge economic inequality that exists in America is wider and growing faster than in any other developed democracy. Also, a dangerous and connected issue is the massive flow of money into our political system from the most powerful and wealthiest special interests, from fictionally independent super-PACs. The Supreme Court opined that a public corporation is equivalent to a private person and that money in politics is equal to free speech, effectively making a mockery of the cherished concept of fairness, "one person, one vote."

HUNT: Given the court's decisions, it would appear that no matter who's elected president, there's not much that can be done about it.

KIRK: I reject any "it is what it is" sense of resignation. I believe there's an undercurrent of disgust in the country that is reflected in the very lowest voter turnout; we're 31st of 34 developed countries in voter participation. And I think part of that is that people are cynical, they're outraged, they think the process is for sale, they don't think their vote means anything, all the power brokers and wealthiest interests are controlling the process.

Instead of voters turning out, they're turning off. I believe that Bernie Sanders alone is addressing that issue and he's basically saying I will not sign up for the corrupting rules of the game that presently exist because they're undercutting the fairness of our democracy. And he's attracting a huge following and is walking the walk of campaign financing that says you other candidates can go on your own, I'm going to show by performance that I to adhere to my principles, and I will raise money from small donors across America. And, guess what, he's basically competitive with his opposition in the Democratic Party, and getting a huge response.

And so, what can be done about it in the short term is to support Bernie’s campaign.

HUNT: Clinton has also said she would reform the campaign finance system.

KIRK: I understand that. Everybody says I'll get to that after this election.

Bernie Sanders's authenticity and trust is based on his record of credibility and conviction. And in this, the most important candidacy in his political life, which is hugely expensive, his performance sustains his principle. He’s saying "No!" I'm going to show that it can and should be done a different way. And that's the huge distinction between the campaign financing path he's chosen and the one Secretary Clinton has chosen.

HUNT: The Washington Post reported some months ago that the Clintons, over the last four decades, have raised something like $3 billion for political and foundation reasons. Are they an integral part of this system that you so dislike?

KIRK: Everyone is taking advantage of a system that, from a political sense, has been licensed by the Supreme Court and that, by the way, everyone knows is outrageous and undemocratic. But Bernie is walking the walk and reaping the rewards of small donations and surging support from the people. In May, Bernie Sanders was hardly a household name. Today, from a standing start, he's running a dead heat against the most famous name in our current politics.

HUNT: Do you think he could win, actually?

KIRK: I don't dismiss that possibility at all. He's the insurgent underdog in an anti-establishment year. He's a principled and authentic patriot with a compelling and inspiring message that resonates with those many who are turned off and know we can do better. People are really prepared to sign up for serious change. Bernie’s message, his small-dollar donor base and his momentum to date represent that change. So, stand by!

HUNT: You served with him in the Senate. Could he govern?

KIRK: Sure. He’s a talented guy. His passionate and patriotic message of a more representative democracy translates into a better America, and when he looks like he may be the nominee, then everybody is going to rally around him.

HUNT: When you were party chair -- it was more than a quarter of a century ago -- was political money as corrosive?

KIRK: The amounts of money financing campaigns then was nowhere near where it is today, Al. I always felt there was too much big money in the political system even then, but there's a quantum leap between the amounts of unlimited money pouring in today, some of it undisclosed.

HUNT: You think that's related to the other question that you first mentioned of growing income inequality.

KIRK: Absolutely. They're directly connected because when you look at where the money is coming from into campaigns, an inordinate amount of it comes from the very wealthiest and most powerful interests -- in return for which they get easy access and outsized influence with the public offcials.

Contrast that with the average working family losing its own struggle to make ends meet, striving for security and upward mobility while feeling abandoned and effectively disenfranchised because they believe, with good reason, that their democracy belongs to someone.

For me, my endorsement is really a statement of conscience. I decided if this guy is out there on the point essentially alone in openly and honestly confronting the systemic failures that now threaten our democracy and that, by the way, threaten the basic fundamental values of the Democratic Party itself, then I'm not going to just go into the silence of my own voting booth to support him. He deserves more than that from one who once led the party we care about.

HUNT: You were the first establishment figure, major Democrat, to endorse Bernie Sanders. What was his reaction?

KIRK: He admitted that he was surprised.

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