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Full Q&A with Stern adjunct professor and congressional candidate Suraj Patel

Stern Opportunity Langone Managing Editor David Kalan recently visited the East Village campaign headquarters of Suraj Patel, an adjunct professor at the NYU Stern School of Business and a candidate for the Democratic nomination for the House of Representatives in New York’s 12th congressional district. Patel previously ran for the seat in 2018, losing in the primary to incumbent congresswoman Carolyn Maloney. 

In a wide-ranging conversation, Patel discussed his campaign, several of his policy positions and the personal experiences that have informed them. Below is a full transcript of that conversation. 

[READ: Stern’s Suraj Patel eyes New York’s next progressive upset]

Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Why are you running? Both in general and again?

There are several reasons why I’m running, but frankly, the promise of New York — education, opportunity, mobility — those things that allowed my family to come here and succeed, allowed me to live my American dream, it has been broken for a long time. We are in the most unequal district in America. In fact, we lead in almost every facet of American life — media, entertainment, culture, technology, finance, you name it — and inequality. And in politics, not at all. I think that in an election like this, which is probably the most important of our lifetimes, this is a change election, we have to get Donald Trump out of the White House. I completely believe that is an existential-threat-to-democracy-type question. But if you want change in November, you have to lead with change in June. You can’t keep sending the same types of people to Washington who have created and exemplify some of the worst parts about the system that we’ve come to detest, that created Donald Trump, and expect change. You can’t do that. So, I think that this time, after 25, 26 years it’s time for a bold progressive voice. 

What do I mean by that? I mean someone who’s not beholden to corporate PAC money. Someone who doesn’t regulate the very same industries they are on the payroll of or take money from for their contributions. I mean somebody who hasn’t exhibited bad judgment and priorities over 25 years. I’ll give you some examples. The incumbent voted for the 2006 border wall before Donald Trump ever proposed it or was even on the scene. In fact, just two years later, Donald Trump contributed $2,000 to Carolyn Maloney’s campaign. Inexplicably, she has not donated those proceeds like so many other politicians. She voted for the Iraq War. She sided with Trump on Iran over President Obama in 2015. I was working on that. I was helping as a White House advance associate to sell that deal and do events around the country and I was like, “How is my congressperson one of the 20, 25-whatever people, the other ones are all in Ohio and Texas and in purple districts, why is my congressperson again on the wrong side of things?” These aren’t even progressive positions. These are now Republican positions. Voting for the crime bill, voting to create ICE. Time and again we’ve seen poor judgment, so I don’t think we can risk another term, considering we’re hoping that we don’t have Donald Trump in the White House, we will have a Democratic house, senate and president, and we’re going to want to know what kind of Democrats we want to rebuild this country and it’s institutions.

You ran against Carolyn Maloney in a primary challenge in 2018, which in this district is basically the real election. You lost by about 8,000 votes out of about 45,000 votes cast. That’s a bigger percentage than anyone has taken away from her in more than two decades. That November, when the entire House was up for vote, but not the President because it was a midterm election, turnout in the 12th district was about 250,000. Do you see this as a matter of trying to stake out better positions than her on the issues and convincing voters of that or is it really a matter of just trying to drive the turnout necessary so people understand this is the real election for this seat?

It’s both. Last time we really focused on the mobilization component. In 2016, 6.8% of eligible voters turned out to vote in the primary. I think about 16,000 total votes. The turnout for millennials, 18-35-year-olds was something like 1.2 percent. We focused on engaging forgotten communities, who don’t tend to vote in primaries. This district spans three boroughs: north Brooklyn, a little of western Queens and then a lot of Manhattan. And the north Brooklyn and western Queens parts of this district heavily voted for me, partially because they just haven’t been represented for decades. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out where the incumbent’s wheelhouse is when it comes to demographics and where she lives and where she’s represented. 

We did a lot of mobilization. I’ve learned however, that you can’t win a race by only appealing to people that agree with you. Only in the rarest districts in the rarest sneak attack lucky chances will you be able to win an election by sneaking one past the incumbent or by the opponent by appealing to just one crowd. We’re about coalition building in this race. We are looking to try and broaden our appeal and name recognition frankly to — a lot of this is just about being known — to older voters. To Manhattan upper east side voters. To 40-60-year-olds. To young families, parents, professionals. People that I identify with. People that own laptops, for example, given that I don’t believe the incumbent has a computer. There is such a representation gap in the country. Candidly speaking, I’ve been surrounded by staff for a couple of months now and even I start having those moments like, “I don’t know how to program my own phone,” and becoming completely out of touch. Or I’ll just be going through the motions. I’m thinking to myself, “Man, if you had been surrounded by staff and taken care of and all of those things since 1982, the year before I was born, you probably aren’t really in touch with the lived experiences of every day New Yorkers and every day Americans.” 

When you compare the turnout you had in 2018 to the previous challenges Maloney has had, where people have gotten something like 9 percent of the vote, you had more than 40 percent. You said you did a lot of work trying to drive out the vote among minorities and millennials. What kinds of specific things do you think really gained traffic with those communities?

I think some of it is just all-of-the-above type stuff. We created an 800 percent increase in 18-35-year-olds turning out vs. 2016. That’s the base year. That’s huge. We knocked on something like 100,000 doors. We did around the same number of phone calls. We did hand-written notes. We gave out 30,000 coffee cups from coffee carts around the district. We did a lot of surveys and found out the main reason people don’t vote is because they don’t know the election is coming up. For decades, New York City’s machine has held these primary elections three different times per year to keep turnouts low to protect incumbents. No one knows they’re supposed to vote on June 23rd. This year’s going to be even worse because the Presidential Primary is April 28th. Everyone’s going to think they’re done. And then June 23rd and then November. I promise you we’re going to have that challenge again. 

All of those things work, but there is no getting around this. I can tell you what we thought were big, traffic moving moments, and we can tell you that by google traffic, donations, those proxies that you normally don’t get because you don’t know how you’re doing in a campaign. We’re the first campaign to call for the defunding of ICE, for it to be reformed as an agency and moved back to the department of justice. ICE was created in 2001 during the Homeland Security Act by George W. Bush. Prior to that, immigration was considered a law enforcement problem. It sat in INS in the DOJ. The Department of Justice is imbued with a sense of due process because of what it is. When you move a function like that out of something that was an adjudicated body, into Homeland Security, and you put it in the national security bucket, there’s a sliding scale of security vs. liberty. This one falls way on the security side vs. how the Department of Justice would handle it. A lot of the problems we’re dealing with with ICE come from the fact that it sits in an agency that is tasked with national security. If you think immigration is a national security problem, then I think you’re crazy. 

So we were the first campaign to call for the defunding of ICE. And we were covered nationally by The Nation and all that, and that just starts motivating you. You realize you can create pockets of people who are hyper-motivated by issues that no one’s talking about. Similarly, we’re the first campaign to call for the repeal of FOSTA-SESTA, which is a bill that shut down Backpage and then put sex workers back out on the streets. There are thousands of sex workers in this district and there are thousands of sex work clients in this district. The amount of violence, harm, especially in trans communities of color where 60 percent of people are engaged in sex work for survival — we just thought, “This is a human rights debacle and we did it because of some easy vote for people to say they’re against trafficking and all that,” without any evidence. 

It wasn’t an issue I knew anything about. Let me be frank with you. I had no idea what this was. We just got inundated with people online saying Maloney was a big FOSTA-SESTA pusher. And for the first few weeks I thought, “I don’t know what this is. We’re not going to touch this.” And then the drumbeat kept going and people kept coming to the office and we finally said, “You know what, let’s have a town hall. Let’s meet with UNICEF, let’s meet with every, across the spectrum, anti-sex trafficking activists, sex work activists, all the way across.” Because this is the kind of position you better get right if you’re gonna get it out there. We circulated a white paper, I think eight different times to 11 or 12 different activist groups and NGOs so that it was air-tight, and then published it. 

Things like that, having the courage to be bold, I think it motivates people a lot. If nothing else, ideologically, what does progressive mean. I always used to talk about this in my speeches because a lot of people throw around the word progressive like it’s a slogan. You know? The other day I was in an endorsement meeting, and I rattled off what I just said to you. The Iraq War. The Iran deal. Corporate PAC money. More than 51 percent of [Carolyn Maloney’s] money from last quarter is from corporate PACs. She’s beholden to it. 51 percent. Anti-vaccine activism. For 15 years. Donald Trump’s an anti-vaxxer. Jenny McCarthy’s an anti-vaxxer. Carolyn Maloney was at a rally with Jenny McCarthy. We don’t need anti-science people. I was at this endorsement meeting and Jerry Nadler was in the audience. I said, “Jerry Nadler, did you vote for the Iraq War?” He did not want to answer me, but he said, “No.” And she calls herself a progressive. How does that work? What do you think? Does that cheapen it for you? He didn’t answer. 

My point is, for me, progress wasn’t an option. It was required. People that are not born necessarily to certain zip codes in America. I don’t have to name them. My family moved here in the late 60s, just like so many other immigrant families. You’re not going to J.P. Morgan or Goldman-Sachs right out of getting here as an unskilled worker. My dad was an engineer for the MTA. I remember him coming home in the morning, when I was going to school in the morning from fixing tracks, because night time is when MTA engineers work. We were in Bloomfield, N.J., right off NJ Transit, and we ran a bodega. We fit, I think, 11-13, depending on the time you were there, Patels in a one-bedroom apartment. We were sleeping on the floor in a line essentially. And then we started a business, and we bought a motel, and we grew up, and my three brothers sort of — I remember washing hotel laundry and playing hide and go seek in laundry rooms. Things like that. Sweeping floors, filling vending machines. Our allowance was to go to Sam’s Club, buy coke, fill vending machines and whatever money came out, we kept half. 

I am an ethics professor now, but I will admit that we skimmed from the top on that. Oftentimes.

You’re not worried about that being controversial?

(Laughs) That might be controversial. I was seven years old. 

So we did that and I went to college and I got to be an attorney here at NYU, and I got to work for the greatest president of our lifetimes. I got to work for Barack Obama. I went first as a field organizer in 2008 to his campaign, but eventually started doing advance travel seven days ahead of him or Joe Biden, and preparing rallies and carrying their bags and opening their doors, cleaning up after they left and skipping ahead seven days. I lived out of a suitcase for seven months. In motel after motel or hotel after hotel after hotel. There’s something really special about that. Campaigns are massive, right? You can be in Chicago at headquarters and probably doing really, really important work. You can be in a field office knocking doors. And there’s a small group of you. A couple hundred of you traveling, crisscrossing this country. Almost the tip of the spear of the campaign. You are preparing, during 18-20-hour days on seven day’s notice, a 50,000-person rally, a town hall, and a fundraiser in St. Louis. And you do this massive, adrenaline-filled day and you see 100,000 smiling faces of people who get to interact with the campaign in a rally setting or something, and you get to watch them line up for six hours before. You see how powerful a campaign can be if it is premised on hope and a positive, bold vision of the future. You can also see how awful a campaign can be because CNN inexplicably takes Trump rallies live every fucking time, a campaign that is based on hate, division and/or harkening back to a past. 

Related to that, in this race what campaign is going to talk about how scary change is? How we’ve got to stay the course? How experience trumps new ideas, new vision and energy? Brookyn used to say ‘Let’s get back in the future business.’ Campaigns are about the future. You are running to write laws and govern our kids and their kids, so you should be talking about the future. I hope this comes down to Carolyn Maloney talking about scary changes, how we’ve got to stay the course, the economy is great. You might as well say that for Donald Trump. You might as well say that same argument to stay the course for him. We’ll talk about the future, because I think people do vote on what you’re going to do. It doesn’t matter what you did for your first 14 terms. It matters what you’re doing for your 15th. 

Your campaign launch video is in English, Spanish, I don’t want to butcher this, but–

(laughs) It’s in Gujarati.

Gujarati. It seems pretty clear that you view not just your diversity, but the diversity of your district and of the country that is …

Celebrated.

Celebrated, but important for you to latch on to as a way to — I don’t mean to say this self-aggrandizingly — but to promote your campaign, because I’m guessing you feel this is emblematic of the country as a whole. 

I do. I feel that’s a sign of the country as a whole. We’re one of the most diverse, dynamic districts in America. In 2016, when I started full-time organizing, and formed this group called The Arena to get young people motivated to run for office, I was sort of thinking, “Do I do this race? What do I want to do?” I do know I want to do something in politics full-time because Donald Trump is out there attacking my very existence. A week after the inauguration, I was at JFK as a volunteer attorney for the ACLU fighting the Muslim ban. I’m not Muslim, but the fact that there was a religious test placed on people coming into this country directly attacks my right to be in this country. Stories like mine wouldn’t be possible under the preferred immigration regime of Donald Trump and Mike Pence. 

I just think what better way to fight that type of bigotry and hatred spewing from the White House than to contrast it with an example of what actually makes America great? Talking about the immigrant story. Talking about the necessity of having people come here from around the world who really want to be here and simply want to be American. 

Whether you speak Spanish or Gujarati or Hindi or whatever, It creates a camaraderie around that vision. It’s a counterpoint to Trump and Maloney.

On a visceral level, how were you affected by the 2016 Presidential election considering the type of campaign Donald Trump ran? You were already involved in politics, but did it spur you to run for office? Or had that already been stirring in you? 

I’ll tell you something I haven’t said since about that night and the next couple of days. I was with my girlfriend and bawling. I was at the Javits Center that night because I was working as a Clinton consultant over the last few weeks. I was managing front of house at that victory party event, and I ended up, funny story, I actually ended up drinking in one of the finance tents that night after everything got shut down and cleaned up. The next day my brother and I at noon went to the Olive Garden in Chelsea at 23rd and 6th and we were there for six or seven hours. Our friends cycled through, and you know they charge you twice if you stay that long for all-you-can-eat pasta and breadsticks. They charge you twice for lunch and dinner even though it’s technically endless.

That seems like an issue you should run on. 

(Laughs) I know. It really bugged me a lot. I was told, by the way, not to tell New York that I went to Olive Garden, but whatever. It’s delicious. But in all seriousness, I kept muttering, what do you do with a country that doesn’t want you over and over and over. And my girlfriend at the time was like, “Stop saying that. That’s just not true,” But it just had that feeling. It had that weird personalized feeling. It was devastating. It was like a morgue here for days. It was like three days later, four days later a friend of mine who co-founded The Arena with me, sent an e-mail around to people and said, “Hey. Off the mat, guys. This is our time. This is a crisis. This is also an opportunity to rebuild the political system in our own image, because this is rock bottom.” And what I say about hitting rock bottom is you’ve got some sturdy ground to start building up onto again. I’d say we’re at rock bottom still, more or less, except for busting our ass to take back the House [in 2018], though how much good that has done I’m not sure yet.

It’s tough when you only have one chamber of Congress.

It’s really tough when you only have one chamber, and I’m sure it’s blocked a lot of the worst — maybe, I don’t know. But that’s what I mean when I say we really do face an existential threat to democracy. I think four more years of this and we will not be able to recognize the country, and we probably won’t be able to fairly win an election again. If you give four more years to Mike Pence, Donald Trump and the Senate Republicans, we will be gerrymandered out of existence to the point that it will be structurally impossible to win elections. And that terrifies me as a person who taught law and democracy. I just think the voting rights stuff is really terrifying. Structurally we’ve seen this lesson play out, and maybe America has been fortunate as an almost 250-year democracy that has not fallen victim at least once to an authoritarian autocrat. Democracies tend to be very fragile in that regard, and every other one has done that at least a couple of times in the time that we’ve been around and it’s terrifying. 

I don’t want to go into the whole origin story, but you’re the son of immigrants. You’re a first-generation American. You guys lived like a dozen people in one apartment while your parents built themselves up from nothing essentially.

Correct.

So they came to this country with pretty much nothing, and now they’ve got a son who in his mid-30s, has degrees from three of the top universities in the world, who’s worked for somebody who was the most powerful person on the planet at one point, and who’s now running for Congress. In one generation, that’s a pretty dramatic shift. Do you think your parents, when they came here, could have ever fathomed that their children could make that big of a jump?

That’s a good question. I didn’t really look at their perspective on this and we tend to not do a lot of self-congratulations in this office or in my household, so none of us — everyone’s just running all the time.

Maybe you’re still trying to impress them.

That’s a good point, I guess. I always joke about this when people talk about immigrants. Most immigrants aren’t coming to the United States of America for our freedom of the press, or our freedom to assemble, or our freedom to worship. Most people are coming here for the freedom of commerce. For opportunity. To make money. Because frankly, building generational wealth in a place where they were in a dead end on a teeny tiny farm in India, that’s not happening, right? Especially as the family grows larger and larger. It’s just not happening. So people move all around the world looking for opportunity. They came here for that, and, you know, in retrospect it seems like a forgone conclusion that they were going to work as security guards, and gas station attendants and clerks until they could raise enough money to buy a store or a restaurant, because that’s what they all do. The first business that they actually bought was a burned down seafood restaurant in southern Mississippi. They convinced three doctors in town to stake them to buy it for, I think, $20,000, and we opened a Mexican restaurant in southern Mississippi. It was called Cuco’s. It was a tex-mex chain back in the ’80s and ’90s. 

I think I remember it. It wasn’t big in this area.

No, it was mostly in the south, maybe 30 or 40 restaurants in sum total they had at one point. You know franchises are funny. As you can see, you’re in business school, there’s a reason why a lot of immigrants run franchise businesses. It’s a huge wealth-creation ladder for immigrants. Dunkin’ Donuts, motels, restaurants, whatever. These are people that are coming here, who really will work their asses off. They have in many cases just a really strong operational, balance sheet, sort of old school cash flow-generating background. They don’t know the language that well. Don’t know how to market or brand something for this population that well, but that’s the part you’re outsourcing. Dunkin’ Donuts, you don’t need to know how to make donuts or how to market it, you just make the damn donuts and sell them and work 24 hours a day and just do it. You look around, and that’s a very very uniquely immigrant business. It’s why the Cuco’s thing — look, these are a bunch of Indian people in Hattiesburg, Mississippi with 25,000 people south of Jackson in Dixie. They’re smart enough not to open an Indian restaurant there, that’s for sure. (Laughs) The spices are similar, and they look similar, and you’re like, “Yeah, we’ll authentically serve tex-mex food.”

Well, cumin and tamarind are similar.

Yeah, exactly. A lot of cumin. So we did that and I think that as we grew up working our businesses, we got to sort of do this in a really unique way. We didn’t take any outside funding, the family reinvested money, we built a motel and then a year later we built another and another. We never took pay. We built 16 motels of Super 8, Holiday Inn Express-type caliber, and by the time we got to high school, we were still living in — we had, like 14 motels at that point — still living in a two-bedroom apartment. 11 people. Just never built a house or bought a house. For the first few years we were actually living in the motel itself. A lot of people do that as well, because you can work the desk, you can sleep behind the desk at night so you don’t have to pay a desk clerk at night, you can work in the morning, you can do laundry, your grandparents can do laundry… You don’t have to speak English for too many of those things, so it turns into a business/home hybrid. 

Commerce was imbued in our blood, and I think that gives me a unique perspective. I’m running as a progressive, and I’m a professor at NYU Stern. I’m not a socialist. I think that the free market economy has been the greatest poverty-reducer in the world in its history. I think it’s got a lot of problems in this country and, maybe more like Elizabeth Warren, I think consolidation of industries, market power, or asymmetric market power, market failures, externalities, those kinds of things really, really need dramatic structural change and reform. But I don’t think we need to throw away the thing that brings so many people like my family here. It’s sort of the envy of the world. We are very low now on social mobility, though. I think we’re something like 27th in social mobility. And when we say the promise of New York is broken, that’s the promise of New York: Upward mobility. The ability to work hard, get an education, get ahead and build wealth for your kids and for yourself is, unfortunately, now more likely in a country like France or England than it is in the United States. That’s not a problem that Donald Trump made. That is a 30-year problem in the making. A 40-year problem in the making. And I think that’s tied directly to priorities, politicians, corporate PAC money, things like that.

So you were born in Mississippi you said. I think Hattiesburg is also the birthplace of [Hall of Fame NFL quarterback] Brett Favre.

Brett Favre, yeah. Kiln, Miss., is where Brett Favre was born and went to high school, Hattiesburg is where he went to college at the University of Southern Mississippi, He was one of the first football jerseys I had because of that, and then his house is in Hattiesburg now, too. I’ve met him a few times.

Oh really? How was that?

Awesome. He’s just awesome. I like gunslinger quarterbacks. Fits the personality profile, I guess.

You were born in Mississippi, you grew up in the New York area, but then you lived in Indiana for a while, too. It seems like you really identify with New York, but at the same time you’ve lived in multiple parts of this country that are very different. You’re looking to represent this area, but if you’re elected, you’re going to be in a federal, nation-wide governing body. So do you feel that your perspective has been impacted by growing up in such different environments?

I think that’s fair, but I don’t think it’s just the different environments. I think that’s part of my experience as a first-generation American. Stability and living in the place you were born comes with having roots in a place and the presence of opportunity there. When your family comes two hemispheres across the globe looking for opportunity, they’re not going to land and find it immediately. Their willingness to bounce around to find where they would fit in in this country, is pretty much the experience that colors my life, and in some ways, though geographically it’s not, there’s nothing more New York than that. So I think that colors my experience in a way that just isn’t normal. 

Now let’s flip it forward. Let’s think, “I have kids and I’m in New York and I’ll probably just stay in New York.” That’s some of the privilege that comes with being second generation. I always think about the sacrifices of my parents. They pretty much sacrificed themselves as a bridge generation. They sacrificed their comfort and the stability of whatever they could have done so they could be a bridge generation and get us on this side of the bridge. More than the geographic diversity of where I grew up, I think that covers it the most. The feeling that you’re upwardly mobile and trying to find your place in an America that is very diverse.

There is one thing I’d like to say though. I do take a lot of offense to so many on my side who discard white working class Americans or paint the entire midwest with one simplistic brush of “Backwards, evil, Trump, blah blah blah.” People are pretty empathetic everywhere you look at the ground level, and some of the loudest voices on things like Twitter may be very negative. That’s not my experience. You don’t go to an American mall and see half the people just screaming and fighting the other half of the people. They tend to pretty much just hang out. It’s a little easier to be negative when you’re online, and it’s really easier to be negative when you’re behind an avatar and some stupid Twitter handle with 18 numbers in it. I think that unfortunately is then picked up by media as the reality of the country, and I just don’t buy it. I don’t think people are in their core that bad.

We do coffees, “Meet Suraj,” where anyone can just book a coffee and meet me. Two years ago we started that and I had 300 coffees with random people. I didn’t stop after the election either. I thought it was kind of nice to just meet people, strangers who had lots of things to say. But we were terrified that was going to be just Maloney troll after Maloney troll being like, “Why are you running against this progressive champion, blah blah blah. Go back to the country you came from.” People could do that easily online, but I found no one takes 25 minutes of their day to come down to the Bean on third avenue to come scream at you. That doesn’t feel that good. I think it just confirmed that people really aren’t that bad. It’s really easy to otherize, and I think liberals can be as guilty of that as conservatives, and that’s something we all have as a task to rein in. 

One important question I did want to ask given your time growing up in the New York area, and your time growing up in Indiana is if you had to pick one Manning quarterback to start a football team with, which one would you pick? Remember where you’re running.

(To communications director Cassie Moreno) You didn’t prepare me for this question. First off, my dogs’ names are Peyton and Eli, I have two twin labradoodles. Peyton wears Peyton jerseys and Eli wears a Giants shirt on gameday. 

Ok, so, you just have to choose Peyton. You have to choose Peyton because he’s the greatest quarterback in history. I don’t care what anybody says about Tom Brady. I really still believe that. He revolutionized the game. He changed the way you plan. It’s just a night and day difference. Eli’s great. I went to the Super Bowl in Indianapolis when he played the Pats. It’s like somebody who has these long bouts of mediocrity, with random dots of greatness, which is nice, too, but it’s not Peyton.

I am a fan of Danny Dimes [current Giants quarterback Daniel Jones] though.

President Trump recently moved his primary residence from New York to Florida, but if you end up winning this seat, theoretically he’s going to end up being one of your constituents, or at least will own significant property in your district. Have you thought about that at all?

I have absolutely thought about that. Last time, I ran we sidewalk chalked in front of Trump Tower once. I’ll tell you what I won’t be doing is going to Hamptons parties and cocktail parties with Jared and Ivanka or Donald Trump. The current incumbent in this seat has been known to do that as late as 2017. I think some people are just not worth your time to hang out with, and certainly that family is not. 

Of course I’ve thought about it. It’s crazy. I mean, it’d be fun. I don’t know what investigative powers a congressperson has on their own citizens in a district, but it’d be really fun to dig deep into the law to see what you could do. I don’t think he’ll stay here, though. It seems like he’ll wall himself off at Mar a Lago and only have sycophants meet him.

One of the things you said in your campaign video is college in this country is too expensive to pay for, but it’s too costly not to go. What types of initiatives would you promote to help bring the cost of college down?

Very timely that you bring that up because this morning (Note: This interview was conducted on Feb. 24) at 7 a.m. we just published our K-14-Plus education policy. So in 1892, I think, a group of ten school administrators and experts got together and said middle school education is no longer enough for the modern economy.

Middle School education.

Middle School education. And they pushed for the standardization of high school training and curriculums so that over the next 20-30 years every state would standardize high school. We as a country decided in the late 1800s that our workforce would not be competitive enough in an industrializing world if we only educated people through middle school. I think we’re in that moment again. I think that we now know with competition from China, India, with AI, with things such as automation, you’re going to need more critical thinking education skills for people to stay gainfully employed throughout their lifetimes. That means continuing adult education, too. So we released a plan called K-14-Plus, and that is adding after 12th grade, to the public schooling system, more schooling. And roughly speaking, what we’d provide are matching grants to states to build, maintain and offer an array of educational options tuition free for people to continue getting an education. That’s free community colleges, free vocational training for two more years, and free public college tuition in those states. 

We also include debt-free college options and private school loan-repayment options, a reform on the current loan system that Australia and New Zealand implemented — it’s called the Australian system. If you decide to go to NYU and you do take on college debt, you can cap your repayments at 8 percent of your monthly income going forward. If you lose your job, it pauses and then it picks back up. Australia now has a near-zero default rate on its student loans. We can do some things to reform this. Much of this is held by the government anyway. It doesn’t even take private actors to reform current debt levels. We can outlaw for-profit colleges; 60 percent of student debt is held by people that went to for-profit colleges like Trump University. These are shams. It should have been regulated or outlawed a long time ago. So I think there are ways to concretely resolve the student debt problem, but I think first you have to recognize the economic reasons for it. We’re not just saying, “Let’s give away free everything.” That’s not what we’re saying. What we’re saying is the country needs reform of our education system, actually K-12 as well, but also giving higher education options to people without having to graduate with a mountain of debt, which seems unfair. 

If we’re telling you you have to do this, but also take on all this debt, that’s bad economics. 20-40 years old is when you’re at your lowest income levels, probably starting to have a family, trying to have kids, taking on debt for all those things, and then the imbalance of when you do finally get paid a lot is when you don’t really need that much money. As anyone knows, money early without having to deliver later would have massive effects on your personal economy and therefore on the aggregate as well.

You also have a plan called UBI for Kids. UBI (Universal Basic Income) was Andrew Yang’s big thing and he’s left the Presidential race, but he also stuck around a lot longer than people thought he would. It’s a controversial idea. I think some people think it’s important to give everyone a piece of stability as they go through major life transitions, but at the same time there are others saying the principle and also the economics behind it don’t add up. I know your plan is slightly different than his, but what are your perspectives on that?

We didn’t even call this UBI for Kids until we realized this would pretty much be UBI for kids. Our plan is not born from the same things like automation. It’s born from 20-40-year-olds having kids. It’s difficult to raise a kid in New York City or anywhere frankly. It’s expensive and it’s an economic activity that is not being compensated by our economy or by our current market. Raising a child is a necessary part of what we do. We need young people to grow up and become workers in this economy. So we’re saying that to some extent, some of the uncompensated work that’s happening in the country needs to be compensated. $500 a month and $350 a month after age five is just to give people some compensation and stability while they’re raising a kid. 

Now, why we chose those numbers is because it isn’t that much more expensive than what we’re already doing. What we’re already doing with the child tax credit, the dependent care credit and an alphabet soup of other credits is providing families that make enough money with a refund at the end of the year. It’s inefficient. It costs a lot of money to apply for these credits and breaks and have H&R Block sort it out for you. There’s a lot of bureaucracy around it. And the families that need it the most don’t get any help because they don’t make enough money to qualify for credits. And most families budget weekly or monthly in our country. Getting a $500 check every month is significantly more helpful than $6,000 at the end of the year. So we’re reforming this in a way that Canada just did in 2016. Seventeen other countries have some other form of child allowance. It would halve child poverty in the first year alone. Halve. And the ancillary benefits of this would more than pay for itself. 

By halving child poverty you’re pulling so many people out of — I’m not shutting down SNAP, food stamps, I’m not shutting down medicaid — but you would naturally be pulling people out of the eligibility of those by giving them incomes that allow them to start subsisting and saving for themselves. People don’t not pay taxes because they don’t want to pay taxes. It’s because they don’t make enough money to pay taxes. They’d happily pay taxes if they made enough money to. Well, this is the bridge to get you there. Our program is less to do with any semblance of an income — kids don’t get an income — and more to do with family assistance, especially when you need it the most: When you’re a young family. And it’s one that pays for itself economically very well.

So, one of your jobs is you’re an adjunct at NYU. How did you come to be in that position?

I got my law degree at NYU. I was potentially going to work at the White House and do all these things in 2010. Unfortunately my family’s businesses dealt with seven bankruptcies in the 2008, ’09 and ’10 financial crisis. We were under construction on projects that stalled. The bank we were banking with was one of the biggest banking failures in the country, so the FDIC took it over. Complete mess. I am acutely aware of how out-of-touch policies by politicians that have no idea what the economy and jobs and small businesses are dealing with and straining through looks like. I was on the receiving end of that. Borrowers were not helped during the financial crisis adequately. Small businesses and community banks were not helped in the way that, say, J.P. Morgan and whatever else were bailed out. Our bank failed and it was devastating. We ended up having to restructure and all that. 

So knowing that I have this legal education, knowing that I have this masters in public policy, and knowing that I always was looking to work in policy and education, I approached Stern when we were finally starting to grow out of this and restructure — we spent four years restructuring debt — to teach a crash course public policy program for Stern students. The reason is because most of the classes at Stern teach you about your firm, product maximization, marketing, finance, whatever. Very few teach you about the ether you exist in, this regulatory social cultural political environment, that affects people and also in the aggregate, what your actions do as a firm that can be detrimental. For example: The Financial Crisis. 

So, I was like, let’s do that, and they were like, “You can teach that, but we’d have to approve a class and it’s really interesting and we think students would get a lot out of this.” I think the amount of business ethics programs blowing up across the country now is a testament to the fact that we were correct on the idea that people needed this. But they were like, “Look, professional responsibility is a very similar type of track, and it used to be called Markets, Ethics and the Laws, and we still teach it in terms of market failures and all that kind of stuff. So, I was just like, “Let me teach that instead,” and sort of tailored the curriculum to how I wanted it. We’ve been doing since, I think eight, nine classes I’ve done, so that’s four or five years. 

Do you think working with people that are in that age bracket as an adjunct professor has taught you anything about people in your electorate?

Yes. I can’t say enough about how much preparation teaching a class like that, time and again with sharp students, creates for you. We do these forums and town halls and things like that, and it’s the same thing. And Stern is so global that the challenges Stern students present are the outside-the-box thinking or different perspectives, especially some of the Asian students, whether they’re from China or India, but there are very different views on regulations and business practices around the world. It’s really nice to continue learning from the students, because then you can feel perspectives differently when you’re out doing the same type of work campaigning.

Ok, so, last question: I had lunch with my grandmother yesterday. She’s 91 years old and she lives in the district you’re running in. I mentioned to her that I was doing this and she said, “Unfortunately for him, I think Carolyn Maloney is doing a great job.” So, what would you say to that person if you wanted to change her mind?

I think that you could tell that person even if someone has been doing a great job, after 25 years it behooves you to at least look at an alternative. You get credit for the things you’ve done, but you also bear responsibility for the things you have not done. Simply holding a job doesn’t entitle you to keep it. In no other business in America would that be the case: Someone’s there and therefore they’re qualified to be there. I think the plethora of problems we face — the structure of our economy, the structure of our democracy — I don’t think the incumbent’s judgment or priorities prepare her for leading this country in the next decade. 

Sometimes there’s a value in seniority. I totally understand that. But there’s also a value in transition. There’s also a value in change. I think I saw something like only 13% of Americans have a positive view of Congress, but something like 50% of Americans like their congressperson. Seems to be a very strange disconnect there with what you’re being told by your congressperson and who’s to blame for the country’s problems. I do think folks that were in office in 2008, 2009 and 2010, when we had the House, Senate and the Presidency can’t just keep blaming Republicans for all the things they’re doing while not passing and not impacting peoples’ lives. 

So I’d tell your grandmother to give me a call and let’s talk about it. I’d like to get her perspective anyway.

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