A key goal here at Winning Progressive is to use the 2012 elections to get more true progressives into elected office. As we’ve discussed previously, we have a great opportunity to do so in Illinois’ 10th Congressional District with community organizer Ilya Sheyman. Winning Progressive had the opportunity to interview Sheyman recently, and an edited transcript of that interview is included below.
Illinois’ 10th Congressional District is a prime opportunity for a Democratic pickup. The district historically votes Democratic at the Presidential level, and is being made even bluer as part of the redistricting process. The current Representative, GOP freshman Bob Dold, has already taken a number of unpopular votes, including to abolish Medicare. And Sheyman is off to a good start, having set up a campaign headquarters in Waukegan, put together a team of volunteers, and earned the endorsement of Howard Dean and Democracy for America.
The first campaign fundraising reporting period closes today, June 30, at midnight. So, a great way to help get a true progressive elected to the House is to donate to Sheyman’s campaign now by clicking here.
Winning Progressive Interview With Ilya Sheyman
WP: How did you get involved in the progressive movement?
IS: My involvement in progressive politics really started with my opposition to the Iraq War. I came to realize that the conventional wisdom was not right and that we cannot wait for leadership in DC to change things. So, I decided to get involved and started by organizing opposition to the Iraq War in Lincolnshire, Buffalo Grove, and other areas here in the 10th Congressional District. This work helped me realize the importance of empowerment politics – namely, that we don’t need permission to change our politics, but instead must engage in a bottom-up movement to achieve change. And that realization led me to work for then-Senator Obama, and later as Field Director at Democracy for America and as National Mobilization Director at MoveOn.Org.
WP: Are there specific issues that drive you as a progressive?
IS: While there are certainly issues I feel most passionate about, my primary focus is on the progressive movement as a whole. All of the issues that progressives work on – whether it is equality for gays and lesbians, teachers unions fighting for their jobs and benefits, or expanding access to health insurance – are connected by the fundamental belief that government should be about helping all Americans grab their part of the American Dream. As progressives, we need to be careful not to let the right wing divide us by boxing us off into individual interests, and instead work from the focus that we are all part of a broader effort to help bring the benefits of our society to all Americans, rather than just a select few.
WP: How do you define the American Dream?
IS: The American Dream means different things to different people but, at its core, what it is about is helping all people realize their full potential. And in order for that Dream to be realized, government and politics must be aligned toward doing good for people. In particular, we have to ensure that if you work hard, we will be there to lend a helping hand. And we have to provide the type of safety net that is needed to allow people to take risks.
WP: What would you say to conservative critics who argue that the safety net encourages laziness, rather than risk-taking?
IS: The conservative assumption that a government safety net encourages laziness is simply not true. And on that point, my parents, who were Jewish refugees who immigrated to the U.S. from Russia, are a great example. As with tens of millions of immigrants who came to the U.S. before and after them, my parents worked hard to build a good life for their family, but they also needed help from their community and government every step of the way to succeed. And by providing that help, we as a society have thrived in ways that we simply could not have if we followed conservative canards about laziness.
WP: Given your belief in grassroots organizing and change coming from the bottom, why are you running for Congress?
IS: I am running to bring a voice to Congress that gets it, that understands that our political system needs to respond to and reflect the concerns of the people, not just the powerful. Last November, the voters sent a clear message that they want jobs, yet since then all that D.C. has offered is more tax cuts for the wealthiest few, counter-productive hysteria about deficits, votes to abolish Medicare, and attacks on Social Security. D.C. needs to listen to the people, and I want to be in Congress to help bring the voice of the people into the conversation.
WP: With the vast amounts of money that have to be raised and the cocoon like atmosphere that insulates DC from the rest of the country, how do you plan to stay true to those beliefs and goals after you are elected to Congress?
IS: One of my core political beliefs is that the way you run a campaign impacts the way that you will govern. Most campaigns today revolve around raising tons of money to pay for expensive political advertising. And, as a result, most Congresspeople and candidates spend virtually all of their time hearing from wealthy donors and corporate lobbyists, rather than from the people they represent. I am committed to taking a different approach and keeping in tune with the interests and concerns of the people of the 10th District. And that commitment starts with running a different sort of political campaign that is focused not only on building a grassroots movement to support my candidacy, but also on having volunteers and supporters feel that this is their campaign. That way, if I am fortunate enough to be elected by the people of the 10th District, my supporters and volunteers can hold me accountable and take me to task if they feel that I am failing to uphold the principles upon which we built the campaign.
WP: What are the most important ways that people can become involved in your campaign and make it their own?
IS: There are three critically important things that people can do right now to help us get the 10th District back into the progressive fold. First, help get the word out to people you know who live in the 10th District. Even if the people you know are not involved in politics, it is valuable to start speaking with them about the economic and social issues that are stake, our progressive vision for helping people achieve the American Dream, and the radical approach taken by the current GOP Congressman for the district.
Second, financial contributions are incredibly important. We are not planning to take the traditional approach of amassing a large warchest to be used on advertising in the closing few months of the campaign. Instead, we are investing the money we raise now into building a grassroots effort that can focus over the next seventeen plus months on getting our message out to the residents of the 10th District. And every little bit helps that effort.
Third, take ownership of the campaign by volunteering. We are committed to having the volunteer experience not be just transactional. In other words, we won’t just ask you to show up on a Saturday afternoon, knock on some doors, and go home. Instead, we are focused on making sure our volunteers get something more out of being involved by getting connected to other volunteers and community service opportunities, and by taking ownership of a campaign that is as much theirs’ as it is mine.
WP: Who are your political inspirations?
IS: I have been most inspired by Howard Dean and Paul Wellstone. Dr. Dean because he firmly believes that political power can and must rest at the grassroots, and seeks to have our politics guided by a genuine belief in empowerment. And Senator Wellstone because of his commitment to standing up and fighting for what he believed in even when it was politically unpopular. As Wellstone once said, “if we don’t fight hard enough for the things we stand for, at some point we have to recognize that we don’t really stand for them.” My goal is to make sure that everyone knows where I stand because I am willing to fight for what I stand for.