Patrick Gaspard gained notoriety when he responded via Twitter to the U.S. Supreme Court upholding Barack Obama’s health care overhaul with: “it’s constitutional. Bitches.” As the executive director of the Democratic National Committee — the body in charge of coming up with a platform for the party and campaigning in support of its candidates — he is much more eloquent when describing the differences between the president and his Republican rival, Mitt Romney. On his way to meet with Ohio steelworkers on Sept. 29, Gaspard sat down with CityBeat for an exclusive interview during which he previewed his remarks to the steelworkers (he planned to contrast the two candidates’ visions) and talked about Hamilton County’s importance to the contest.
CityBeat: Would you mind giving me a preview of what you plan on talking to the steel workers about?
Patrick Gaspard: Well, I think, fortunately enough for us, the steelworkers are already pretty actively engaged in this contest, but I’m probably going to try to remind them of what some of the sharp contrasts are in this election. Remind them that this is truly a make or break point for middle-class Americans.
I’d be practicing political malpractice if I didn’t have a conversation with them about Mitt Romney’s 47 percent video and what that says about his values versus the middle class values that inform all the tough decisions this president makes.
CB: What are some of those contrasts you plan on talking with them about?
PG: Well I think that Mitt Romney, to his credit, has done a very good job as of late of laying out some of those contrasts. Look, I think that if you look at the arc of this campaign, for the better part of Mitt Romney’s effort he did all he could to stay away from substance, to stay away from detail, to be as vague a candidate as he possibly could with a few very pronounced exceptions.
When he was in that Republican primary he embraced things like the Personhood Amendment, embraced the regressive bill in this state to take away collective bargaining rights from workers, embraced voter suppression laws. So and of course he said that he would veto the DREAM Act if he was elected to the presidency.
CB: So then what does the president offer to counter what the Romney/Ryan campaign is now…
PG: First, I would start with the jobs bill the president has had before congress for the better part of a year now going back to September of 2011. A jobs bill that borrows from the very best of ideas from Democrats and Republicans. A jobs bill that already, if enacted, would put over a million folks to work, particularly police officers in our streets, fire fighters in our communities and teachers in classrooms where they are absolutely sorely needed. And clearly hard hats as well: construction workers who’d be out there repairing our roads, our bridges, all of the material infrastructure that makes the long-term investment possible in cities like Cincinnati. I would start with the jobs bill that Mr. Ryan has played a leading role in blocking and obstructing for the better part of a year now.
Just recently the president went before the World Trade Organization and levied a charge against China because of the ways in which they have been illegally supporting their auto exports and illegally supplementing their auto industry. And the president’s made it clear that we’ve got to protect our manufacturers from that kind of disadvantage in the marketplace.
And clearly if you look at budget documents as an indication of someone’s priorities, if you look at Mitt Romney who, when he gets behind closed doors with his donors, says that he intends to not only significantly reduce education aid and college aid and not only has he in town hall meetings told young people that if they can’t afford college they should either borrow money from their parents or go shop around, when he gets behind closed doors with his donors he tells them that one of the very first acts that he would take on as president would be the elimination of the Department of Education.
CB: You’ve mentioned the jobs bill. A lot of the jobs that would help create … the argument could be made that those are public sector jobs that would actually be growing the size of federal and local governments.
PG: We know that in times that when the economy’s retrenched, the government absolutely had to step forward to put more liquidity into the economy and to make certain that Americans have protections with their mortgages, to make certain that cities and municipalities are able to continue to function and to provide the essential services that we all hold dear. Not only security services, but the kind of services that make it plain to the world that we continue to invest in our young people so they can out-compete and out-innovate anyone on this planet.
If you look past some of the rhetoric around economic stimulus and you pay attention to independent economists, even some economists who have been associated with the Republican Party, it’s pretty clear that the general consensus amongst people who have conducted analyses is that the stimulus actually, irrespective of the grenades that have been thrown, had the desired impact, that it stabilized this country, that it stabilized states and municipalities at a time when banks were on the verge of collapse or going under.
To your other point about how the jobs bill would in effect grow the workforces in cities and states, we all know at a time when we’ve grown the economy back at about 5.1 million jobs over the course of the last 30 months, the place where we’ve had significant downturn is at the state level and at the city level, and we’ve got to do whatever we can to make certain that our cities are full from this recovery.
CB: Here in Cincinnati we have two major universities and a number of community colleges and technical institutes. What could students hope for from a second-term President Obama?
PG: I’ll tell you one thing they will get from an Obama/Biden White House that they will not get from a Romney/Ryan White House: you can trust under Barack Obama’s leadership institutions of higher learning … can trust that in an Obama/Biden second term science will continue to actually be at the table.
So when you look at the other side and you’ve got a nominee who at one time or another actually expressed some concern at what was taking place with climate change and our weather patterns and ecology and who now has decided that he needed to make common cause with Philistines, it’s pretty clear that they are moving away from facts and they are instead they are the party that is more aligned with views of people like Congressman Akin in Missouri who come up with all manner of bizarre theories to explain some of the regressive social policies they are trying to advance.
CB: Last cycle in 2008 Hamilton County kind of surprised everybody by going blue for Obama…
PG: First time since 1964!
CB: I guess you could argue that some of that enthusiasm has died down in the last four years. How do you feel about the president’s prospects in Hamilton County and Southwest Ohio, as well as in Ohio in general?
PG: You know, I suppose that there’s some cynical people on cable television who make that argument. It’s not what any of us experience when we actually go out into the states and have conversations with the American people. It’s pretty clear that the last three and a half years or so, the last four years, have been a really tough period for all Americans. … So it’s only natural that collectively all of us would still feel that body blow – it was a real shock to the system.
I think that sometimes we are too quick to be glib about what took place in the fall of 2008 – the collapse of Lehman, the takeover of AIG, what happened to the American automobile industry and what happened with the housing bubble. We look past it far too quickly and just say, “Hey! All that hope and change stuff man, people aren’t feeling it the same they were feeling before and their enthusiasm has been dampened.”
Well what we’ve seen is despite all that shock, despite all that turbulence, the same sort of spirit that animated our movement in 2008 still gives it real urgency at its core right now in 2012.
To date we’ve already made more contacts in this state, more registrations in this state, more folks who have given some amount of their time to go and make phone calls or to knock on doors or just go out and spread the word about where we’ve come from and where we’re going then we had in the entire 2008 campaign already, and we’re not even done with the cycle.
CB: How do you feel that the president is going to fare in Hamilton County this time around? Do you see happened last election as the beginning of a permanent blue shift for Hamilton County?
PG: I think that, given the demographics in the state and demographics in the county, there’ll be some unique partisan challenges for some time to come here and I suspect that anybody who wants to be elected president for the next 20 years is going to have to pay outsized attention to the voters of Hamilton County, which is a good thing for Hamilton County.
But I will tell you that we have every reason to believe that we’re going to be successful in this election – as successful as we were in 2008 in this county, and that’s largely because folks are able to have some real context for the moment that we find ourselves in, and they know, just as Bill Clinton reminded all of us at the Democratic Convention, that the mess this president inherited form the Republicans is not a mess that any president – including Bill Clinton – could have fixed in just one term.
CB: You had mentioned demographics and unique political challenges that a county like Hamilton or a city like Cincinnati would bring for any presidential candidate – campaigns know what percent of a region they need to win a state or mitigate their losses – just how important is Hamilton County to this election?
PG: What I’ll say to you is this – we don’t approach, unlike Mr. 47 percent, we’re not slicing and dicing the electorate in that fashion. Hamilton County is important to us, there are 88 counties in this state that are very, very important to the outcome of the national election, and we’re going to continue to have a very candid, honest, thoughtful and respectful conversation with folks in the Buckeye State all up and down in each and every one of those counties, or else it’s not the kind of defensive posture you just suggested where we’re trying to cut down our losses.
CB: After the success that the president and Vice President Biden had in 2008, are you guys doing anything different in Ohio this time around?
PG: I think the greatest lesson that all of us took away from 2008 is if we give engaged activists tools and the resources they need to go out there and mobilize their own enterprise and franchise on behalf of our national effort that we’re more likely than not to be successful.
I’ve worked on a lot of campaigns, I’ve been on every national campaign going back to 1988, and the 2008 race was the very first time in my experience that the field organizing on the campaign was truly run from the … bottom up, not from the top down.
We gave them the tools and got out of their way. It took us a while to learn that in 2008, but once we learned it, it was like sitting on top of a rocket ship and just holding on for the greatest ride ever.
CB: Last I checked, I think the president’s campaign had something like two- to three-times as many grassroots offices as the Romney campaign in Cincinnati.
PG: We’ve got 100 offices statewide here. I actually think the ratio may be at about 4 to 1 at this point, ours versus Romney offices in the state. I have to check that.
CB: You’ve mentioned Rep. Akin’s “legitimate rape” comments and Romney’s “47 percent” video – people always say every cycle that politics is the most vitriolic they’ve ever seen, but this year it seems particularly bad. What kind of effect do you think this will have on voters?
PG: I actually feel differently about that. I think you could say that every election cycle, but if you go back and, hell, read the coverage of Jefferson vs. Adams in 1804 and that was a pretty nasty race. I think that campaign seasons are always cruel, always tough, but at the end of the day what usually wins out is the sense that the American people have of which of the two candidates shares their values and is more likely to not fight the other party, but fight every single day on behalf of working folks in the country to move them forward. So I don’t know that the campaigns today are more vitriolic than they’ve been in the past, I don’t think they are.
I think we all should be concerned about the corrupting influence of the lack of transparency that exists with some of the Super PACs that are out there, just making a hash of them or misrepresenting the issues or making a caricature of our record, but for the most part I think that the electorate is still gravitating toward whatever positive vision the candidates have.
Now on the question of the 47 percent remarks, I think that that is an important inflection point in this campaign because those are Mitt Romney’s own words. This is not what we’re saying about Mitt Romney, this is what Mitt Romney is saying about himself and his values and for me the most important part of that whole video is when Mitt Romney makes it clear that he’s not making an electoral point – there are some people who are saying “well he’s just saying there are some people who will never vote for him, and that’s true in all campaigns,” – that’s not what he’s saying. The most important part of that video is when Mitt Romney looks at the millionaires and billionaires who are in that room and he says, “these are people who don’t pay any taxes, and I will not ever be able to teach them a sense of responsibility.”
CB: A lot of the recent polling shows the president with a significant lead in Ohio…
PG: Don’t believe it.
CB: So how confident are you about his ability to take Ohio?
PG: I’m always confident in the ability of Barack Obama to win this election. I’m confident of his ability to persuade a majority of the electorate over the course of the next 38 days that he’s got a vision that they share that intrinsically comes out of the same values that they have, I’m confident of that.
But this is still a time when people are going through enormous struggles in their lives and there are still undecided voters that are asking all the right questions about what kind of stake they have in this system and whether or not they can trust any institutions at all in this country.
So while I’m encouraged by some of the polling that we’re seeing, I’m more encouraged by the activists that I just came from. Earlier today I was at one of our Obama For America offices and I met four great people who had just came up from Kentucky – just came up from the Bluegrass State – and they came up here because the contest is not in doubt in their state, but they wanted to talk to some of their neighbors, some of their relatives, some of their friends in Ohio about what the stakes are right now, what the defining issues are and how this president’s got a real vision to continue to lead us forward.
CB: Are there any downballot races you’re paying attention to here in Ohio?
PG: We’re paying attention to all of the contests in this state. Obviously Ohio was a bellwether in the midterm elections of 2010 and we lost a number of congressional seats and there are opportunities to make strides in this campaign and we feel in general nationally that Democrats are poised certainly to maintain the advantage that we have in the U.S. Senate and to regain seats that we lost in the House of Representatives in 2010.
The reason why we’re confident in our ability to make some progress in the House is that I think at this point it’s abundantly clear to the American people and to folks in Ohio that in 2010 when they went to the ballot boxes they were sold a bill of goods by tea party candidates across the country who told them, “If you elect me, I’m going to work on pouring jobs into this economy.”
But instead, once they got into office these folks were invested in taking away collective bargaining rights for workers while trying to impose invasive measures against women who are making some of the toughest personal health care choices anyone could ever have to make.
CB: You mentioned the Senate: how important would it be for sitting Sen. Sherrod Brown to win his race against Josh Mandel?
PG: You know, it’s important for Sherrod Brown to win, not because Democrats need to maintain their majority in the Senate. It’s important for Sherrod Brown to win because Sherrod Brown’s tenure in office ought to demonstrate to people in this country, particularly the young people who some day themselves may have the ambition they may like to be engaged in the process by running for office, I think it’s important because Sherrod Brown is someone who has always been honest with the folks in the state and the American people.
This is not somebody who is just a partisan ideological warrior, he shows up in Washington D.C. thinking about not what’s best for Sherrod Brown, not what’s best for Barack Obama, but what’s best for the people of his state and the people of his country, which is why he’s had the kinds of positions he’s had about our excursions overseas, the position he had about Iraq, that’s why he’s been one of the real champions about what we’ve done to grow out manufacturing jobs in this country. So his reelection is important not because it’s important for Harry Reid to continue to be the majority leader of the Senate – I think that’s important, but it’s more important because we need more people who are involved in public service who have the kind of deep integrity that Sen. Brown has, as opposed to his opponent, who just has demonstrated the kind of ambition that will lead you to say just about anything to win an election, but not that will allow you to really govern in this country.