UP with STEVE KORNACKI
April 26, 2014
Guests: Ben Jones, Rob Christensen, Doug Wilder, Darnell Autry, Jordan
Schultz, Swin Cash, Paul Finebaum, Michael Dukakis, John Malcolm, Mary
Price, John Stanton, Susan Page
STEVE KORNACKI, MSNBC HOST: The South rises again for Democrats.
KORNACKI: The conventional wisdom was set. Republicans were licking their
chops and Democrats were bracing for the worst. But all of that was turned
on its head this week after near misses in 2010 and 2012, near misses that
were aided by their own self inflicted wounds, Republicans opened the 2014
election cycle in decent position to finally break through and win back
control of the Senate.
Then came a round of polling this week that significantly raised the
possibility that Democrats could hold on after all and that they might just
do it in one of the most unlikely ways imaginable.
Right now Republicans need six states if they are going to take back the
Senate majority and they are likely to win open Democratic seats in West
Virginia, South Dakota and Montana. That would leave them needing three
But what has made 2014 such a promising year for Republicans is they have a
bunch of juicy targets in the heart of the most Republican-friendly Obama-
phobic region in the country.
Look at it here, incumbent Democrats Mark Pryor in Arkansas, Mary Landrieu
in Louisiana, Kay Hagan in North Carolina. All seen as prime candidates to
be knocked off by their GOP challengers.
We found out this week that all three of these incumbents, all three
representing states that President Obama lost in 2012, are more than
holding their own at least so far. "New York Times" Kaiser Family
Foundation poll out Wednesday shows Pryor, a second term incumbent from
Arkansas, is up by 10 points over Republican Congressman Tom Cotton. Kay
Hagan in North Carolina is in a dead heat with her likely Republican
challenger, state Speaker of the House Thom Tillis. In Louis, Senator Mary
Landrieu has a solid lead against her nearest Republican opposite, though
those numbers are a little deceiving if Landrieu doesn`t break 50 percent
in November. There`s going to a runoff between the top two candidates,
that one will obviously get much closer.
And in Kentucky the one state where Democrats have a chance to unseat a
Republican incumbent -- and not just any incumbent, the minority leader,
Mitch McConnell, in Kentucky, we now have the makings of a true toss-up.
This is just one poll, but it shows that all these races across the South
are very competitive.
It may seem surprising that the South could save national Democrats. For
the last two generations, it`s the South that`s been transformed into a
deeply Republican bastion. Obama lost the Deep South by huge margins; Mitt
Romney crushed him by more than 20 points in Arkansas and Kentucky in 2012.
Obama`s approval ratings in these states are dismal. But Democratic Senate
incumbents have long done better than you might think in Dixie as "The New
York Times" Nate Cohn points out this week, Southern Democratic incumbents
have won 77 percent of the time since 2000.
It`s largely when there have been open races that Republicans have been
able to pick up seats down there. Republicans` focus in the South as
across the entire country has been on health care, health care, health
care, or as they are phrasing it, ObamaCare, ObamaCare, ObamaCare.
Three-quarters of all Republican sponsored general election spots for House
and Senate races so far have attacked the Affordable Care Act. Here`s this
week`s edition to the earworn (ph) in Louisiana from the conservative group
Americans for Prosperity.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): I did two tours in Iraq. I was able to
get a health care plan that worked for me. So I get a letter from my
insurance company that said my insurance costs were going way up because of
ObamaCare and, oh, by the way, you should be happy about it.
Mary Landrieu said that ObamaCare is going to make things better. Better,
not for people like me.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KORNACKI: The Koch brothers have already sunk $35 million into bashing
ObamaCare this year. But it hasn`t been as much of a slam dunk as they`re
banking on, at least not yet.
Well, this week`s new polling shows voters in these tightly contested
Southern races are not big fans of the Affordable Care Act. More people
say they want to improve the law than want to throw it out.
Bonnie Broom, a Republican from New Orleans, told "The New York Times,"
quote, "I`m a Republican, but I`m tired of them saying repeal, repeal,
repeal. They need to make it better."
And that provides the backdrop for Mary Landrieu standing firmly behind the
new health law this week, Landrieu telling "The Washington Post" Greg
Sergeant, quote, "It`s a solid law that needs improvement. My opponent
offers nothing but repeal, repeal and repeal. And even with all the law`s
setbacks, we`re seeing benefits for thousands of people in Louisiana. I
think the benefits people have received are worth fighting for."
So the politics on the Affordable Care Act may not be as sure-fire as
Republicans have been hoping and the South may not be as easy a target as
they were counting on, either. So as we see these competitive races
heating up, what`s behind the resiliency of these Democrats in the South?
Can they keep defying the political gravity of their region?
And why are Republicans faltering?
Are there lessons from these races to be applied to other contests around
Joining me at the table we have Susan Page, she`s the Washington bureau
chief for "USA Today."
Former congressman Ben Jones, Democrat from Georgia, you may also know him
as Cooter from the television show "The Dukes of Hazzard."
Rob Christensen, he`s a columnist from North Carolina`s "The News &
And from Richmond, we have joining us former Democratic governor of
Virginia -- former Virginia Democratic governor, Doug Wilder.
Thank you for being here, sir.
Susan, I`ll start with you because it -- you know, we knew that Kentucky
was going to be a close race. We had some signs maybe that Arkansas was in
the same category.
But overall, just the surprise takeaway to this is that the South, of all
regions, is the one that can save the Democrats.
Are you surprised by these findings?
So you think they are sustainable?
And what do you think is driving it in the South?
SUSAN PAGE, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, "USA TODAY": One thing we should be
cautious about one set of polls. I mean, for instance, a poll in Arkansas
that shows Pryor at 10 points. That hasn`t been replicated in other
surveys in the state.
But I think it is clear that all these contests are competitive. And that
we have got six months to go. And I do think Democrats who are not really
defending the Affordable Care Act by name, they are starting to frame the
debate as do you want to repeal it or fix it. And that may be a more
successful argument with voters who don`t really like the law even yet.
KORNACKI: Yes, actually that`s -- we can put some stats up on the screen
here. So the Medicaid expansion, this is part of the Affordable Care Act.
It`s the discretion of each state whether they`re going to do it or not.
Here`s polling from Louisiana and North Carolina states with Republican
governor states where the Medicaid expansion hasn`t happened.
This is the poll. Do you want the Medicaid expansion in your state? It`s
popular in both states. Both Republican states, both states that did not
vote for President Obama and then here, so here trying to capitalize on
that, we`re talking about one of these ads.
Here`s an ad that was launched on radio this week against Thom Tillis, this
is a -- he`s a possible or likely Republican nominee in North Carolina. So
take those stats on the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid expansion and
listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thom Tillis has a proven record fighting against
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Tillis stopped ObamaCare`s Medicaid expansion cold.
It`s not happening in North Carolina. And it`s because of Thom Tillis.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KORNACKI: So Rob, you know New York -- New York -- North Carolina
politics. You`re in New York now, but you cover North Carolina politics
and you know as well as anybody else.
When you see that polling, when you see in your state, 54 to 36 support the
Medicaid expansion and then you hear an ad like that, Thom Tillis is still
running on opposing Medicaid, is there a sense right now among Republicans,
is there a sense in North Carolina that maybe Republicans are finding out
right now they are not quite on the right side of this issue like they
thought they were?
ROB CHRISTENSEN, "THE NEWS & OBSERVER": Well, you`re playing to a
Republican base in a primary which is very, very conservative. And say you
cannot possibly run too far to the right in a Republican primary.
And Tillis is the House Speaker in North Carolina, is essentially the
establishment candidate there. He`s fighting off a Republican insurgency
from a Tea Party candidate from an (INAUDIBLE) candidate.
So right now he`s -- his problem is propping up his conservative
credentials. So he`s running basically as far to the right as he can,
which is what he has got to do in the primary. Of course, that gives him
problems in the general election, when he has to face a Democrat and then
he can be painted as too far to the right.
So what he`s doing now is going to the right, to the right, to the right in
order to avoid. His problem is he has to get in the May 6th primary, he
has to get 40 percent or he gets into a runoff, that`s the North Carolina
If he gets in a runoff, that`s July 15th is the runoff, the middle of
vacation, you get a very low turnout, you get a very low turnout, that
favors activists. Get activists, that favors Tea Party candidates,
evangelicals and that gives him problems. And the one thing the Republicans
don`t want is they don`t want a Tea Party candidate going up against Kay
KORNACKI: Yes, and that`s -- we`ll talk a little bit more. We`ll pick
that up in a little bit because I want to talk about that primary that
he`s facing and that challenge that he`s facing.
I heard, Governor Wilder, I heard you having a reaction there a little bit.
Curious just to get your thoughts on that.
DOUG WILDER, FORMER VIRGINIA GOV.: Well, I think that the turnout is going
to be most important. And I was intrigued with your question that you
asked of Susan Page as to why these seats are competitive and I think
there`s one reason and that is the turnout in recent years and the
registration of African-Americans to vote.
If you took those votes out of those states that you speak of, you wouldn`t
have any close races. Republicans would take them all.
And so that`s why the Voting Rights Act has been so important. That`s why
the affirmative action decision that was passed down by the courts is
And that`s why it`s important for people to understand that election time
is not the only time to be concerned about African-Americans. You should
be concerned after the fact in terms of why you`re asking these people to
vote and show what voting means to them and as a result of a fair piece of
KORNACKI: We can -- actually that`s -- you raise an interesting point
because there was a really interesting analysis of this of Southern voting
patterns in "The New York Times" by Nate Cohn this week. And he looked at
Let`s put the map up on the screen. He looked at where in the South Obama
won less than 20 percent of the white votes. Actually national, but you
can see heavily concentrated in the South there. And he estimated what he
defined as the Deep South, he said Louisiana, Georgia, Alabama,
Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas, Texas.
If you can pick that Deep South, Obama got 16 percent of the white vote is
what he estimates, and less than 10 percent in some of the countryside.
Ben Jones, AKA Cooter, maybe I`ll ask you about this. But what the
strategy that Governor Wilder is talking about there, is Democrats
recognizing how key African-Americans are to winning Senate races for them
in the South this year.
There`s also a question of Democratic support for the president and his
agenda falling off the cliff with white voters down South.
Is there anything that you could see them doing maybe with the Affordable
Care Act, with the benefits of the Affordable Care Act, to bring those
numbers up this year?
BEN JONES (D), GA., FORMER REP: Well, I think Governor Wilder is
absolutely right. And I think there is going to be a large turnout, even
though this is a midterm. And I hear these people who always presume that
there`s some reason that black folks aren`t going to vote in midterm
elections, that`s absurd.
And this election is the most important election that all of them are. So
they come along.
But this will -- winning these races will justify and support President
Obama`s agenda. That`s what this is also about. Otherwise he`s a totally
lame duck president for the next two years. And this is something that
people have fought for a long time.
But and I think there will be a very strong turnout. What we`re seeing
here though is fascinating. You say that people assume once again that the
South is solidly Republican now.
But I think there`s been a high water mark reached and that tide is
receding. That`s what we`re seeing in these polls. People are just tired
of hearing the agenda of ObamaCare, ObamaCare, ObamaCare, ObamaCare, tired
of hearing it. Now it`s out there, it`s had some success, it is the law.
People do want to strengthen it, to change it, to fix those flaws, but they
don`t want to repeal it.
KORNACKI: Well, see, that`s interesting because it`s -- when you look at
the polling now, what I`m seeing is when you ask people about the
individual components of the law, the individual components of the
Affordable Care Act, they seem to poll very well.
And I`m noticing the strategy it seems of Democrats who are -- they may not
say ObamaCare in their ads, they may not say Affordable Care Act, they may
not use President Obama`s name, but they talk about the benefits that would
lost if it`s repealed.
I wonder, Ben, you`re a former congressman, you`ve run in Georgia before.
Georgia is the site of another marquee Senate race this year where
Democrats think with Michelle Nunn, she`s Sam Nunn`s daughter, they might
actually have a chance of picking off a Republican seat, one of those rare
If you were running in Georgia this year in this climate, in nature of a
midterm election, how would you handle the issue of the Affordable Care
Would you embrace it head on?
How would a -- how should a Democrat in Georgia be handling this?
JONES: I think -- and what those polls show, that people, you know, that`s
what the people are saying. We want to keep it. We don`t want to repeal
it. A majority of the people in the South is saying this. We want to
strengthen it. We want to fix it and that`s true of any gigantic piece of
It is law. And millions and millions of people, more people than they
thought, have already signed up. So I`d say, yes, there it is; let`s fix
this thing. It`s a good thing. All gigantic laws, thousands of pages, are
I want to personally, by the way, thank the Koch brothers for pouring all
that money into the Southern economy. It`s been a big (INAUDIBLE) --
KORNACKI: There you go.
JONES: We need that. We hope they keep coming down and losing more races
and losing more --
KORNACKI: There`s some stimulus out of this, if nothing else.
We`ll pick this up, talking about the Affordable Care Act, talking about
the South, talking about the battle for control of the Senate. We`ll look
a little closer at some of these individual races, too. We got a little
taste of North Carolina. We`ll pick it up right after this.
KORNACKI: So you say you want to look a little closer at some of these
Senate races in the South that really that right now, the poll, the
headline from the poll in this week is could save the Senate for Democrats
kind of unexpectedly.
Rob, we started to talk about this a little bit earlier in North Carolina.
But there`s a primary.
So Thom Tillis is the candidate that Republicans would like to nominate --
the establishment Republicans would like to run against Kay Hagan. The
poll this week showed basically a dead heat between the two of them. But
there is, as you mentioned, there is this primary that he has to get
And the -- we can put this up here. There`s a head line from BuzzFeed.
This was this week, this is "13 Things You Won`t Believe the Man Who Could
Be North Carolina`s Next Senator Said." Now this is not about Thom Tillis.
This is about someone named Greg Brannon. And here we actually have sound
of him. This is a taste of Greg Brannon, who is running against Thom
Tillis, in this primary, the Tea Party candidate.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
GREG BRANNON, REPUBLICAN SENATE CANDIDATE, N.C.: He believes in a
socialist government. OK? He plays class warfare. It`s -- I mean,
dictatorship, what he`s trying to do with the way he`s pushing it forward,
how much faster he`s pushing these -- this police state aspect of the NDAA,
of his Supreme Court cases, the ObamaCare.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
Speaking about President Obama there in case that wasn`t clear from that
quote, but so talk a little bit about this race, Rob, because you said you
need 40 percent to avoid a runoff. That`s Tillis` initial goal.
I guess my question is we looked at 2010, we looked at 2012 and we saw the
Tea Party candidates who were prone to say outrageous things get nominated
in a few states and lose races that Republicans otherwise would have won.
We even saw in 2012 how Democrats got a little smart like in Missouri and
Claire McCaskill helped Todd Akin get that nomination with some strategic
Is that taking place in North Carolina right now?
Are Democrats doing anything?
Is Kay Hagan`s campaign doing anything to try to get Greg Brannon this
Republican nomination? Because that would make a big difference, Brannon
versus Tillis as the nominee.
CHRISTENSEN: The answer is yes and yes, Steve. First of all, the
Republicans have gotten smarter so that you have some of the big groups
like the Chamber weight in -- Chamber of Commerce weighing in, NRA weighing
in, National Right to Life weighing in for Thom Tillis because they want
the establishment camp, they`re very concerned about Brannon. Brannon`s
gotten some significant Tea Party support like -- from people like Rand
Paul and Mike Lee and so forth.
But they are very concerned. They have seen this show before with other
Tea Party candidates (INAUDIBLE) and they don`t want it to happen again.
They think that if Brannon is the nominee, that they could -- think Hagan
could be elected.
Once again, we`re seeing the same game plan that we saw in Missouri with
McCaskill. We saw the PAC that`s closely associated with the majority
leader, Reid, coming in and running ads attacking Tillis and attacking
Tillis on essentially a sex scandal that doesn`t involve him personally but
it involved some of his aides, which he fired and he gave some golden
parachutes to. It`s the sort of thing that might offend evangelical voters
who may be voting in the Republican primary.
So even if -- so it`s designed to hurt Tillis just in the weeks leading up
to the primary. So even if it doesn`t defeat Tillis and nominate Brannon,
to at least designed to help --
KORNACKI: Force the runoff.
CHRISTENSEN: -- force the runoff.
CHRISTENSEN: Yes. So the opposite are playing in the Republican primary.
We have seen this before. This is actually a very old tactic. Jesse Helms
used that back in 1990 to help Harvey Gann (ph) get the nomination over a
more moderate opponents. So it`s an old tactic in politics.
So we are -- what`s happening in the Republican primary really is a
microcosm of what`s happening across nationally. We have a Tea Party
candidate. We have establishment candidate and we have in Mark Harris, a
Baptist minister from Charlotte, an evangelical candidate. So it`s really
representing three segments of the Republican Party.
This is not the Republican A team. There`s no Elizabeth Dole. There`s no
Richard Byrd or Jesse Helms here in terms of major figures in the
Republican Party from North Carolina in the past. None of them are really
The reason Tillis is having a hard time sealing the deal, he should be
sealing the deal. He should be getting 40 percent. He`s the majority
leader, he led the legislature, which was moving the state`s policies from
a modern state to a pretty conservative state. He should be very popular.
But he`s not trusted by a lot of movement conservatives. He`s just -- he`s
had -- there`s been a number of ethical issues that have been raised. And
so he`s just had a really difficult time --
KORNACKI: SO he`s got the challenge of every establishment Republican.
The establishment wants him, but he has got to prove to the base that, hey,
yes, you can trust me.
CHRISTENSEN: -- seal the deal.
KORNACKI: So that`s the challenge for him.
Governor Wilder, from Virginia, you have watched Virginia change
politically so much over the last generation. North Carolina is sort of --
I look at North Carolina and I see a state that`s going through maybe 10 or
15 years later than Virginia did but a similar transformation where North
Carolina is becoming a more competitive state.
When you look at Kay Hagan and what she`s up against in North Carolina this
year, let`s say Republicans get the candidate they want. Let`s say it`s
Thom Tillis. It`s a dead even race. This could be the closest Senate race
in the country.
What would you say the key is for somebody like Kay Hagan to win in a state
like North Carolina right now?
WILDER: First, I would agree with Susan Page`s analysis of these latest
polls because that latest poll is a poll and we have seen how skewed
sometimes these polls are, so I wouldn`t take the greatest comfort in
believing that it is as tight as many people say.
On the other hand, I think as I have said earlier, that it`s so important
for the Democratic candidate in these states that we have referenced to
make certain that that vote turns out, particularly the minority and the
And minorities are women, too, in many instances, turning out and the women
are the most active voters around. They walk the walk; men do the talk.
Now having said that, Ms. Hagan has got to make certain that she connects
with the people to the extent that they can identify with her. There`s a
perception and I have heard some of this from some of the people that I
have talked to in North Carolina that it`s not just a matter of ObamaCare,
but where are you relative to other issues that reflect on what minority
And I think it`s most important that she would do that and she would
emulate some of the things we have tried to do in Virginia. Isn`t it
interesting how Mark Warner is running now and no one is talking about how
endangered that seat is. He`s going to win because he`s done a good job of
doing the very kinds of things that we`re talking about. And at the same
time, and I think you`re absolutely right, if we were not ahead a little
bit in terms of what other people have perceived the South to be, Mark
Warner would be in difficulty. He`s not going to be in difficulty. He`s
going to win and he`s going to win handsomely.
KORNACKI: You talk about the importance of turnout, generating interest in
turnout among African-American voters in particular, with historic from
2012 the Obama campaign really invested heavily in the ground game in North
Carolina. And got a turnout of African Americans of over 77 percent. In
Arkansas, which they wrote off, the turnout among African Americans in 2012
was 47 percent.
So that shows you the difference.
We have got to squeeze a break in here. I want to talk about the flip side
of this, the Southern seat that Democrats could pick up, the real big one.
Kentucky, Mitch McConnell, interesting numbers there, not just on where
that race is but on the Affordable Care Act in that race. We`ll talk about
that after this.
KORNACKI: We want to talk about Kentucky, too. The four Senate races in
the South that we had polling for this week, three of them are Democratic
incumbents, three Democratic incumbents all thought to be very in danger to
the start of this cycle. They all could still lose, but they are all very
much in the game.
But the other one here is Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, and you can see it
right there. McConnell leading Grimes, his challenger, 44 percent to 43
percent. We`ve seen polls like this right here. This is going to be a
very close race.
The interesting part of this, though, Susan, is the polling also in
Kentucky we showed earlier on Medicaid expansion. Very popular in
Kentucky, the idea of expanding Medicaid. You have a Democratic governor
in Kentucky right now, Steve Beshear, who has aggressively implemented the
Affordable Care Act with the website, with the Medicaid expansion, all
We`re talking about a state, Kentucky, that voted for Mitt Romney by 20-
something points last year, that voted for John McCain overwhelmingly.
This is a state that`s going even more Republican in the Obama era.
So I look at the role of ObamaCare, I look at this race and obviously this
could -- this is pivotal for Senate control.
Is there a chance that the experience of Steve Beshear with ObamaCare in
that state is going to insulate Allison Grimes against some of the attacks
that Mitch McConnell will be throwing against her in this issue?
PAGE: You know, I don`t think it`s complete insulation, but I think it`s a
really helpful situation and it tells you how different could the midterms
be if the ObamaCare, if the federal health care exchange website had gone
the way it`s gone in Kentucky.
Because Governor Beshear credits, he embraced it even though there was
controversy in his state. He got a state health exchange that has worked
pretty well and people who even say they don`t like ObamaCare say they like
kynect -- K-Y-N-E-C-T, I think, is how they spell it. To emphasize, it`s a
state website, not the federal one.
But yes, I think that`s helpful. The biggest help for her is how unpopular
Mitch McConnell is after all those years, all those decades of representing
A lot of people in Kentucky are not totally familiar with her as a
candidate, but they know him and he`s built up a lot of baggage.
KORNACKI: That`s the thing. Mitch McConnell, we look at his electoral
history. He`s had close races before. In 2008 he nearly lost his seat.
Ben, when you look at Grimes versus McConnell, do you -- do you -- what do
you think of the Democrat`s chances there?
JONES: Well, I think what`s happening here I think is happening in all of
these races. And it`s that there`s an old saying, well, they might be
dogs, but they`re our dogs. These Democrats tend to be centrist. They are
well known to the voters.
She`s the secretary of state. So people have voted for her in the
statewide elections, things like that. They know her. They see these
Democrats like Mark Warner as centrist, as problem solvers and not the
bogeyman of national liberals, socialism, ObamaCare, all that stuff. They
are smarter than we give them credit for.
Or then the national quest gives them credit. These are independent people
who are going to make an independent decision and beyond all the Washington
political blah-blah and all those political -- all those ads and all that
stuff are people and that`s how people in Kentucky are going to judge this
thing, I think.
And McConnell is very vulnerable. That fact is what`s fascinating, I
think, about the polls and about this discussion.
KORNACKI: And Governor Wilder, one thing that strikes me, we`re talking
about some of these Democratic candidates, you think about Mary Landrieu in
Louisiana, who is openly embracing the Affordable Care Act, the Medicaid
expansion, making this very much a part of her campaign.
In Kentucky, I have not heard Allison Grimes talk much about the Affordable
Care Act at all. It seems like an issue she just wants to keep on the side
as much as she can. Is Kentucky a different state demographically than
Louisiana is? Do you think in Kentucky, against Mitch McConnell, that`s
the best strategy for her?
WILDER: Well, I really don`t know that that`s the best strategy. And I`m
not suggesting that it`s the wrong strategy. But what I`m saying is that
to the extent that Steve Beshear did what he did with Medicaid expansion,
showed how it worked, got the populace to accept it and to agree with it,
it`s something she could show at least a connection to.
I think it would be a mistake for the Democratic candidates in any of these
areas to be perceived as running away from Obama. That will not help them
as it relates to the turnout in the African-American communities,
particularly because that would be seen as if you`re running away from him
on this, you might be running away from us on other things. So I think she
has got to be very careful how she does that.
KORNACKI: All right. My thanks to former Virginia governor, Doug Wilder,
for joining us this morning. Rob Christensen, "The News & Observer," North
Carolina, "USA Today`s" Susan Page, we`ll see you in the next hour.
And thanks to former Georgia congressman, Ben Jones.
A groundbreaking election, the first of its kind ever held this week. It
took place yesterday. Talk about it, straight ahead.
KORNACKI: We cover a lot of elections on this network and on this show.
As Chuck Todd likes to say, if it`s a Tuesday, there must be an election
But yesterday, a Friday, this country saw a truly groundbreaking election.
Scholarship football players at Northwestern University gathered to cast
their ballots on a referendum on union representation, the first ever vote
of its kind in college athletics.
The landmark election is a result of organizing led by Kain Colter, who has
been the team`s quarterback for the past few seasons and is graduating this
He argued that he and his fellow scholarship players aren`t just student
athletes but because they receive scholarships they are in fact paid
employees for a sport that`s brought in $200 million in revenue to
Northwestern over the past decade.
And that, Colter argues, gives them the right to organize. Last month as
you may recall, the regional arm of the Labor Department agreed with the
players and recognized that right to unionize.
So yesterday 76 Northwestern scholarship football players gathered to vote
for or against forming their own union, to vote, being able to bargain with
the university when it comes to everything from health benefits,
scholarships, maybe even salaries. Votes are sealed and it may be awhile
before we learn the actual results.
On Thursday the NLRB, the National Labor Relations Board, announced that
they would hear the university`s appeal of that regional ruling that set
all of this in motion with Northwestern arguing the athletes are not
employees and don`t have a right to organize.
Over the last month, Northwestern players have been facing pressure from
both supporters of the unionization and from school leaders who are against
In an email to the players last week, football coach Pat Fitzgerald, wrote,
quote, "In my heart I know that the downside of joining a union is much
bigger than the upside. You have nothing to gain by forming a union."
"The New York Times" reported this week that the university also gave
players iPads when they arrived for the first day of practice after the
NLRB decisions. But Northwestern says the iPads were not related to the
union decision and they had been planning to hand them out for months
As for the governing body of college sports, the president of the NCAA
called the union, quote, "grossly inappropriate." The statement provided
to our show, the NCAA`s chief legal officer said, quote, "Whatever concerns
or issues one may have with college athletics turning student athletes into
employees and changing the relationship between students and their
universities is certainly not the answer.
"For nearly three years, NCAA member schools have worked on specific
proposals designed to enhance the student athlete experience and support
their success in the classroom, on the field and in life."
And the president of Northwestern circulated a letter to other university
presidents, saying, quote, "The university has the right to campaign
against the union in order to encourage our student athletes to vote no."
With the eyes of the nation upon them, what will these 18- to 22-year olds
Has Kain Colter`s effort regardless of the outcome put pressure on the NCAA
to improve its treatment of college players?
Now to answer these questions, I`m joined by Jordan Schultz. He`s a sports
reporter for the "Huffington Post." WNBA player and University of
Connecticut alum Swin Cash is a member of the University of Connecticut
national championship team and a 2012 gold medal winner at the U.S.
Darnell Autry is a former Northwestern University football player.
And Paul Finebaum is a college football analyst on ESPN Radio and an author
of the book, "My Conference Can Beat Your Conference".
He joins us from Charlotte. It`s a good title of that book there, good
Darnell, let`s start with you. As the resident Northwestern alum at this
table, you were on Northwestern`s last Rose Bowl team, I believe, almost
20 years ago.
DARNELL AUTRY, FORMER FOOTBALL PLAYER: Yes.
KORNACKI: So you`re still plugged into the Northwestern community. I just
wonder obviously what you make of the question of unionization but what
being in the Northwestern community during all this has been like.
What have you been hearing from alumni?
Have you spoken with any players, officials at the school?
What is going on in the Northwestern community as all this has been taking
AUTRY: Well, I think the initial response for the community is good for
us. We`re pretty proud of our guys, we want to support our guys. We want
make sure we create an environment that`s in the interest of our student
And then I think the fear has kind of set in and the fear of what does this
all mean, what`s going to be the ramifications. And then I think the fear
then started swaying people to say, well, I`m against it. I just -- we
don`t know what`s going to happen, we don`t know what the -- it`s
KORNACKI: Do you think that fear is justified?
Do you that think there`s a good reason to be.?
AUTRY: I don`t think so. I don`t think so. I think, in the end, I think
it`s going to be more than unionization that`s going to change this whole
thing. It`s not just the ability to unionize, but it`s also all the
lawsuits that are happening, all the -- there`s going to be interest groups
that are going to happen.
Regardless of whether or not they voted yea or nay on it, there`s going to
be other universities that will jump on board. So I think all in all, in
the grand scheme of things, I think it`s the right move. But regardless of
whether or not they say yes or no, it`s not the point. The point is just
it brings attention and gets going.
KORNACKI: Well, we -- one of our enterprising producers actually emailed,
just tried all the players at the Northwestern formula email address and
got a response yesterday from one of the football players who voted
yesterday, asking how did you vote, we want to explain it.
So Northwestern player Collin Ellis actually wrote back to us, told us he
voted no yesterday and explained it this way.
He said, "Northwestern has treated me as family from day one and I truly
believe they have had my best interest in mind. This idea was founded on
creating change within the NCAA and it has turned into a Northwestern
versus Northwestern issue.
"While the union could serve as a blueprint for other schools to adopt and
possibly create change within the NCAA, I was personally not willing to
risk all that I have at Northwestern for the potential for change within
Jordan, just in terms of the mechanics of where this is all going, I --
from what I`ve been reading -- and tell me if I`m wrong, the expectation
has been growing, that the vote was going to be no on this. So there`s
But then it`s also, OK, it`s still pending with the National Labor
Relations Board. The whole thing that set this in motion was a regional
ruling. So there`s the question of how the players actually voted, but
then there`s also the question of how the National Labor Relations Board
handles this because if they uphold their regional ruling, I guess it opens
it up to other schools.
JORDAN SCHULTZ, "HUFFINGTON POST": It does. And we started to see the
power of five conferences, 65 schools, what`s going to happen there now,
like the Big 10, they`re going to have more power potentially than the
other nonpower schools.
See, but for me it`s an issue of if you -- this is actually to Darnell`s
point, the fear question.
If you become a union, then you start to lose that student athlete effect
and you become in turn employees. And that`s what scares me.
I believe this is going to ultimately be no, but I also believe that -- you
mention the $200 million of revenue, well, $76 million in net from `02 to
2013, and my question to the NCAA, Steve, is why can`t you maybe create
some kind of thing where guys are getting medical bills taken care of, a
fund. And that`s what the NFL has done, $765 million, that was actually
considered a light amount. Maybe more should have been created but,
nonetheless, a fund created for guys that have sustained injury so that at
least then after their football careers are over, regardless if they go to
the NFL or not, they are going to be taken care of.
But I do believe ultimately, Steven, this is going to be a no on the union.
KORNACKI: OK, that`s interesting. So Swin, maybe you could take us
through -- we talk about the health care being one of the issues. I`ve
also heard the idea of scholarships.
Right now a lot of school scholarships are year to year. They have the
ability to revoke your scholarship after one year. The idea of making
scholarships four years. You get the scholarship, you have four years of
college covered. A lot of players say we want that to be uniform across
What are the major concerns that you had and that players in general would
have at college that could be addressed by a union?
SWIN CASH, 2-TIME OLYMPIC GOLD MEDALIST: Well, I think for me, I think a
lot of what Jordan said is that, I think this may be a no, but at the end
of the day it`s brought a voice to the table. And I think that the one
thing for student athletes is that, over the course of your career, you may
And the NCAA is -- they have a megaphone. And when they are talking about
only one of how many go pro, eventually all these students who are student
athletes, they have to finish their career. They have to get jobs, but
then you have back injuries, you have neck injuries, all these different
No one is really paying attention to that. So you have the medical aspect
The next aspect of it is you have kids there on campus. You see all these
new buildings being put on campuses and coming along. You see jerseys with
your number on it but not your name on it.
And so then you`re feeling like your likeness and you`re feeling like
you`re being used to an extent. And that`s the thing I want the NCAA to
really step up and say, you know what, we`re going to take control of this
We`re going to be the advocates for change. I don`t feel like they have
done that. They have been very dismissive and I know they can do better in
that regard. I feel like the students wouldn`t want to unionize if they
had a board that was governing properly.
KORNACKI: So, Paul, let me ask you about this, I mean, you live, work and
breathe college football in the region of this country that lives, works
and breathes college football -- the South.
The concerns that you heard that Swin outlined, you talk about, long-term
injuries, you talk about players who see the university making a fortune
off them, you think of the conference you have down there, the SEC, Johnny
Manziel, you think of him at Texas A&M.
What do you think of a union to address these concerns since the NCAA
hasn`t stepped up in all these years? Is the union the way to go?
PAUL FINEBAUM, COLLEGE FOOTBALL ANALYST, ESPN: Well, as someone who was on
college campuses in the late `70s, and we looked at the `60s as the golden
era, I love what the students are doing at Northwestern.
I think they are wrong, but I like the fact that they have made Mark
Emirate (ph) very nervous and frankly have almost usurped all of his power.
His response to this is embarrassing.
The students have won though. They have gotten the attention of the adults
in the room. They have a voice now whether this vote goes through or not,
and I don`t think it will. But there are so many issues, and I do a talk
show that`s predominantly in the South. And people call in and they don`t
understand the issues, they just know they don`t like unions. It`s very
As the grandson of a union organizer a couple blocks away from where you
folks are right now, it pains me to go against them, but I think there are
just simply too many issues. I think the NCAA will not get it right
because the NCAA really has no power.
But I think what we`re seeing right now in college sports are the
commissioners of the five big conferences take over. And I do think,
having spoken to some of them, they are listening to what`s happening in
Evanston and I think they will react. I think they already have reacted to
KORNACKI: OK, I want to -- we got to squeeze in a break here and I want to
pick up the point and get you to talk a little bit more about what your
specific concerns are with the union but then also that broader discussion
about, OK, hey, if these Big Five conferences are taking over now, maybe
the NCAA`s rules will decline.
What will happen? If there is no unionization in college sports, what will
happen? We`ll pick that up after this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
KAIN COLTER, QB, NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY: Student athletes don`t have a
voice. They don`t have a seat at the table. The current model resembles a
dictatorship where the NCAA places these rules and regulations on these
students without their input or without their negotiation.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KORNACKI: That was graduating Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter earlier
this year, speaking about the NCAA and his efforts to unionize.
Paul Finebaum, I just want to go back to you quickly and just pick up a
point you were making. You were talking about how you sympathize with the
athletes and their situation, your own family ties to unions, but you`re
saying ultimately you don`t think the union is the right answer.
I`m just curious, what is the specific concerns you have of why you don`t
think the union is the right answer here?
FINEBAUM: Well, listen -- I`ll try to give you a short answer because we
could go on all day. But I think it`s going to be very complicated. There
are varied explanations that I could give you, from taxes to employment
issues, but my biggest complaint here is the fact that it totally disrupts
what we have in college athletics.
I happen to think college football is the best sport in the country. I go
to games every weekend. There are 60,000, 70,000, 80,000, 100,000 people.
I went to a game this year at Northwestern that was a prime time game on
ABC that was one of the most watched games of the year when Ohio State came
And I think this issue of giving to the players, I heard this debate with
Johnny Manziel that he deserved something for what he was bringing to Texas
A&M. The bottom line is these students signed deals, yes, I know they are
one-year contracts, but everything is taken care of.
And I think when you become employees, then you`re responsible and I think
you open Pandora`s box.
KORNACKI: So, Swin, curious what you make of what Paul just said and if
we`re talking about if there ends up being a no vote on this unionization
and it doesn`t happen elsewhere, but the pressure is increased on the NCAA
or more importantly on some of these conferences, what are the reforms that
you think could come out of this?
CASH: Well, there`s two things with Paul I disagree on. One, I think,
women`s basketball may be a little bit more popular for me.
But two -- and, two, I don`t think everything is covered. I don`t think
everything is covered. I`ll give you an example. I was at the University
of Connecticut and for me, my mom was a single mom at the time that she got
engaged. I asked my mother to not get married so that I`d be able to get a
Pell grant because I needed extra money. I couldn`t work. You`re talking
about a schedule that`s at training in the morning time, school class, you
have mandatory study hall, there`s all these demands that are on students
that they cannot be able to work and get money.
So reforms that I would like to see is how can you allow all student
athletes the ability to either have a stipend of some sort, but also to be
able to maybe put money away for them when they graduate if it`s off their
likeness ,if it`s off working. We need to find a formula.
And I don`t think it`s just the NCAA. I think the commissioners of the
leagues, I think there are other people that have to be at the table, but
the student`s voice has to be there as well.
KORNACKI: Can you see that happening, Jordan?
SCHULTZ: I actually can see. And you know what, to dovetail off of Swin`s
point, we had Jimmy Keane (ph) from the Fab Five on our HuffPost live show
a couple of weeks ago.
He mentioned when he -- and this is obviously at Michigan in the early
`90s, but it`s still relevant today. He mentioned that when he was at
Michigan, Steve, Nike couldn`t sell a shoe. They came in to Michigan
basically to tell the Fab Five, you guys wear this so we can sell it. They
obviously made the black socks popular, the long shorts.
And there`s so many things that happen in the NCAA that, in terms of on the
field, guys selling merchandise, and we have seen what happened with Ed
O`Bannon`s (ph) case against EA Sports, there`s a lot of situations where
guys are making money for the university and they don`t see a dollar from
And Swin just mentioned something so simple, getting a grant. Guys, we had
Derek Anderson on two from Kentucky, they won a national championship, yet
he couldn`t go home to see his family during the off season because he
didn`t have $200 to put on a bus ticket.
KORNACKI: Yes. So, and so, Darnell, I mean, also University of
Connecticut won -- the men`s team Shabazz Napier (ph), the star player,
talked about he goes to bed hungry some nights. The NCAA apparently is
changing that rule.
So do you think the response is going to come fast enough from the NCAA or
from any governing body here to forestall more Kain Colter?
AUTRY: Yes, I think the response is going to come by. I mean, I think
it`s interesting. I just was sharing with the -- during the break that I
was really encouraged at how fast Northwestern responded in the campaign
against the union.
And basically what that says is that they are very nimble. They can -- in
a short time they reached out to all the universities to vote against it,
it went public.
KORNACKI: It took pressure.
AUTRY: It was public, it was on the Internet. They were out there, out
front and again, this isn`t about Northwestern. My experience with
Northwestern was incredible.
And I have nothing but great experiences and they gave me an opportunity to
be something, to be sitting here today where people care about what I have
to say. It`s not about Northwestern.
And I think that Northwestern, and I had the opportunity to be there as a
student athlete and as a regular student, who now has $40,000 in loans, and
an academic adviser. SO I have been able to see Northwestern through three
And by and large, Northwestern does things the right way. I mean they do
the best --
AUTRY: -- and they do it the right way.
KORNACKI: It`s a question then of the bigger system. That`s one thing I
think Northwestern, if this vote fails, hey, maybe it passed; we don`t
know. But if it ends up failing, that`s one thing it looks like
Northwestern were going to successfully appeal to, was like, hey, here,
we`re not -- I won`t name other names, but --
KORNACKI: I want to thank ESPN`s Paul Finebaum and a former Northwestern
player, running back Darnell Autry, Jordan Schultz with the "Huffington
Post" and college and pro basketball player Swin Cash.
A guy who came pretty close to becoming President of the United States, he
joins the show for the full hour, that`s coming up.
KORNACKI: The Obama Justice Department this week took another step away
from the old war on drugs. The latest in a series of actions that would
not long ago have been unthinkable for a Democratic administration or
really for any administration. Attorney General Eric Holder announced
Monday that some nonviolent drug offenders currently serving long sentences
in federal prison will soon be eligible for clemency or reduced sentences.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ERIC HOLDER, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: There`s too many people in federal
prison who were sentenced under the old regime and who, as a result, would
have to spend far more time in prison than they would if sentenced today
for exactly the same crime. This is simply not right.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KORNACKI: The old regime has its roots three decades ago back in the 1980s
when the country was in the grips of a crack cocaine epidemic, when violent
crime rates were soaring, with fear of violence spilled over from the inner
city into suburban America and vaulted crime to the top of the list
whenever voters were asked what the most important issue facing the country
It was 28 years ago in June of 1986 that Americans watched a
basketball phenom who already being likened to Michael Jordan get picked by
the Boston Celtics in the NBA draft only to end up dead two days later, the
cause cardiac arrest, the culprit, cocaine. The shocking of Wynn Bias was
a traumatizing event for a nation already panicking about the rise in drug
use and crime.
It only took a month after that for Democrats and Republicans in
Washington to respond with a new law imposing stiff mandatory penalties for
drugs including an automatic minimum of five years in jail for possession
of just 5 grams of crack cocaine. That`s what the politics of drugs and
crime were like back then.
Republicans pushing hard for tough on crime laws while looking for
any and every opening to paint Democrats as too soft and too lenient. The
Democrats trying to rebut the charge by going along with the new tough laws
and in many cases proposing them. It was Bill Clinton, remember, who
championed a federal three strikes and you`re out law.
But now a generation later, the crack epidemic is a distant memory.
Violent crime has steadily dropped to levels that would have been
unimaginable in the 1980s and early 1990s. So the politics of drugs and
crime are now changing. Some very surprising ways. The announcement that
Holder made this week has to do with the lingering effects of that anti-
drug law that was passed in 1986 just after Wynn Bias` death.
A couple of years ago, in 2010, President Obama signed a new law
that erased the five-year mandatory minimum for low level crack possession
and then also severely reduced the crack powder disparity. Under that old
1986 law, you needed to be in possession of 500 grams of cocaine to be
charged with a felony. That was 100 times more than the amount of crack
you needed to have to be charged with the same crime.
But the law only dealt with cases going forward. Holder`s
announcement this week has to do with those who are still in prison now
serving long sentences under that old 1986 law. The Obama administration
is saying that if you`re one of those inmates and served enough time, that
under the new law you might be eligible for release then you can soon be
able to apply for clemency.
This comes only a few months after President Obama himself commuted
the sentences of eight men who fell exactly into that category that comes a
little less than a year after Holder said that low level, nonviolent drug
offenders would no longer be charged with crimes that triggered mandatory
sentences. It wasn`t that long ago that steps like these would have
produced serious political blowback, especially for a Democratic president.
But what`s so notable is there really hasn`t been a loud outcry from
the right. Republicans largely haven`t seen any of this as a tool to scare
voters about how soft and weak the administration is, something they would
have had no problem doing before. That`s because the politics of drugs and
crime are changing rapidly and radically within the Republican Party.
It`s one of the most conservative members of the Senate. Utah`s
Mike Lee who led a Tea Party uprising against an incumbent Republican
senator in 2010. It`s Mike Lee who has teamed up with Dick Durbin, the
second ranking Democrat in the Senate to sponsor what`s called the Smarter
Sentencing Act which would cut mandatory, minimum sentences in half for
non-violent drug offenders and make far more defendants ineligible to face
mandatory minimums at all.
It`s another top Senate Republican, Texas` John Cornyn, who is
working with Rhode Island Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse on a bill that would
make tens and thousands of federal inmates potentially eligible for early
release if they complete a rehabilitation program. That bill passed the
Senate Judiciary Committee on a 15-2 vote earlier this year.
Also Rand Paul who`s teamed up with Vermont Democrat Pat Leahy on a
bill that would make mandatory sentencing guidelines optional for judges.
The change on the right is driven partly by the huge financial burden that
all the harsh laws enacted over the last generation has placed on the
At the federal level incarceration costs about $30,000 a year for
one prisoner. If one quarter of the entire budget now goes to funding the
federal prison system. At the state level, the strain is more pronounced.
Major sentencing reform bill is expected to be taken up by the Senate soon.
If you want to know how significantly the politics of this issue have been
reshaped, consider this.
According to the "L.A. Times" this week, there`s this much concern
about Democrats sinking it as conservative Republicans. Dick Durbin, the
Democrat who is working with Mike Lee, explained it this way. Quote "The
ghost of Willie Horton has loomed over any conversation about sentencing
reform for over 30 years."
Durbin`s math is a little off there. Willie Horton if you`ve
forgotten was the convicted felon who was introduced to the nation by
George H. W. Bush`s team in the 1988 presidential race. Convicted
murderer, he`d been given a weekend furlough from a Massachusetts prison
and while on the furlough committed armed robbery and rape. It was the
image of Willie Horton that Republicans used to paint Bush`s 1998 opponent
as soft on crime.
And according to Durbin, if Democrats stand in the way of sentencing
reform, it will be because some of them are still afraid the same thing
could happen to them. Here to talk about the changing politics of crime
and drugs and the prospects of serious sentencing reform this year is
someone who knows that history very well. Someone who lived that history.
His name is Michael Dukakis and he is the former governor of
Massachusetts and the 1988 Democratic nominee for president and he joins us
now from Boston. Governor Dukakis, I really appreciate you`re taking the
time with us this morning. We`ve been hoping to get you on the show for a
On this issue of sentencing reform, there`s a lot of ambitious
proposals on the table. There`s a prospect of a major bill, bipartisan
bill, coming up and getting through the Senate this year. I wonder what
you make of that from Dick Durbin who says the ghost of Willie Horton still
haunts my party, still hunts his Democratic colleagues in the Senate. What
do you think when you hear that?
FORMER GOVERNOR MICHAEL DUKAKIS (D), PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE: It`s probably
true. On the other hand, there has been a change. It`s thoroughly
bipartisan. One of the state legislatures leading this effort is the Texas
legislature. So this is not a partisan thing. It`s not an ideological
thing. Part of it is driven by the expensive incarceration here. You
can`t change the sentencing laws. The real question is what do we do with
these folks who are drug offenders and what do we do with them when they
And we`re doing many more interesting and effective things these
days. For example, drug courts. They are under strict supervision and the
point of this is to have them deal with their addiction. That`s what
drives them to engage in that kind of activity. That`s working. There are
a variety of other things we are doing.
When these folks are incarcerated, what happens to them while they
are in jail? What are we doing with them? Are we working on their
addiction problems, are they getting their GEDs, prepare them for jobs so
when they get out they can live responsible lives. We`re not doing enough
of that. But we`re doing more than we used to. It`s a combination of all
these things which is driving down violent crime in the country and
producing genuine bipartisan support along these kinds of lines and these
kinds of reform proposals.
KORNACKI: I wonder too just about the shift when it comes to crime. The
political culture when you were running for president, and this stretched
well into the 1990s. This is a poll from 1994 that asked Americans what is
the most important issue facing the country. Crime comes in at 26 percent
in that poll. Number one issue by far over health care was 15 percent.
And then you look 2013, Gallop takes a poll again, crime and
violence is down at 2%. Drugs is at 1%. When you look at how a statistic
like that shaped the political debate, it created such an urgency around
crime and you look at where that number is now, did that have to happen?
Did that have to get down to this level to make a serious conversation
DUKAKIS: It certainly had to come down. You can`t deal politically with
this kind of a situation with people getting shot every day. It was very
violent in the `80s and `90s and much of it was drug driven. So the fact
that different approaches to law enforcement, different approaches to what
happens to people when they are sentenced to these kinds of crimes have
made a difference. If we didn`t have this level of crime I don`t think you
would have the kind of receptivity you have to these kinds of proposals
So there`s no question that the effective work that our police, our
prosecutors and in some cases our probation officials, which has brought
this down significantly really has contributed directly to this kind of
reform. Without it, I don`t think we would see these kinds of proposals.
KORNACKI: Give us a firsthand history of being a sort of leading political
figure, candidate for president. In this era we`re talking about, an era
of the crack cocaine epidemic where crime was the leading national concern,
within the Democratic Party back then, what was the climate like? How much
was the Democratic Party being driven back then by the fear of Republicans
saying, you know, soft on crime, too lenient. How much did that govern
with the Democratic Party?
DUKAKIS: It`s always been a line of attack on the part of Republicans.
Whether you`re talking about crime here at home or what`s going on in the
world, Democrats are soft on defense, Democrats are soft on crime, we have
heard that for a long time. I think what happened was that lots and lots
of Democrats started getting serious about crime, and we were. And point
of fact, notwithstanding the crack epidemic, we were doing some great
I did a terrible job with the furlough issue. When I was running
for the presidency against Bush, the most liberal furlough program in
America was the furlough program in the Reagan-Bush federal prison system,
and I never said that. But in any event, it was at that time, something we
were all concerned about and I spent a lot of time as governor working on
crime issues. Even if I didn`t explain that very effectively during the
It wasn`t as if we were I guess ignoring this, but it was tough.
When you have the kind of violence which was taking place at the time, much
of it drug driven, it shouldn`t surprise us that people were scared. And
when they are scared, we react. We react with extreme measures.
KORNACKI: That`s sort of the story of that Willie Horton ad.
DUKAKIS: As a matter of fact, when I was defeated my first time for re-
election by a conservative Democrat, he was after me because I oppose
mandatory sentences. So one of the things that Ed King used against me in
that Democratic primary among Democrats was the fact that I was soft on
crime. Now fortunately I turned around and beat him four years later, but
this was a very, very tough and a very potent issue.
And you and I can say now this is a dumb reaction of mandatory
sentences for this kind of thing, but when people are scared, we tend to do
extreme things and we shouldn`t be surprised in the `80s and `90s there
were these kinds of reactions. The results are clear. I`m still not
satisfied, however. That we`re doing the kind of job while people are
incarcerated and preparing them for re-entry, as we say.
When they leave prisons that we should be doing a lot more in my
judgment in those prisons. Both with respect to drug addiction and the
kind of education and job training we need not because we want to be nice
KORNACKI: That`s a point to that John Cornyn has made. Rehabilitation is
a center of his bill. We have to take a break, but the governor will be
staying us with.
When we come back, more on this issue, we`ll bring a panel in to
talk about the change in the politics of crime and what that could mean for
sentencing reform after this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It`s time for elected officials to focus on solutions
like flexible sentencing guidelines. Our goal must be a justice system
that avoids unnecessary incarceration and irresponsible spending.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KORNACKI: That`s Martin Sheen from the west wing in a PSA calling for
passage of the smarter sentencing act. We`ll pick up the conversation we
just started. Former Massachusetts governor and presidential nominee,
Michael Dukakis is still with us from Boston and joining us now at the
table, we have John Malcolm. He is the director and senior legal fellow at
the Heritage Foundation Center for Legal and Judicial Studies, Mary Price,
she is a general counsel at Families Against Mandatory Minimums, and John
Stanton, he is the Washington bureau chief at buzzfeed.com.
And John, I`ll start with you because you represent sort of what I
see as a fascinating and significant change in our politics. You`re a
conservative at the Heritage Foundation. And you`re looking at the
sentencing laws and saying, yes, this is -- let`s reform them. Three
strikes and you`re out era might have been painting with too big of brush
JOHN MALCOLM, THE HERITAGE FOUNDATION: I was a former prosecutor. Ten
years I was in the Justice Department. Look, drugs are bad and drug
dealers pose a threat to public safety. It`s just really a question about
whether they should be punished, but whether when it comes to mandatory
minimum sentences particularly for low level drug offenders potential has
swung too far. It is my belief that the pendulum has swung too far.
As you pointed out before, you know, the Bureau of Prisons is now 25
percent of the department`s budget. It`s projected to grow to 30 percent
within a couple years. Federal prisons are now 38 percent over capacity
projected to grow to 44 percent over capacity. That means less money for
prosecutors, investigators, victim services. I think it`s safe to say
given tight budgetary times, we`re not going to go on a building tour.
And so I think of each one of the prison cells is very, very
valuable real estate. While I don`t condone drug dealing and believe the
drug dealers do pose a threat to public safety, we have too many low level
drug dealers. By the way, drug dealers are now over half the federal
prison population and a quarter of those were street dealers.
We have a lot of street dealers taking up prison cells for five
years and ten years and 20 years and those are prison cells that are not
available for people who, in my estimation, pose a far greater risk to
KORNACKI: You`re talking about the financial aspect of this. The number
of people incarcerated, the cost that comes with that. When I listen to
John Cornyn talk about this, he stresses rehabilitation. It occurs to me
in generating support for this on the right, there`s a financial aspect of
it, but there`s also sort of this the rehabilitation aspect maybe appeals
to sort of the Evangelical, Christian base of the Republican Party. Is
there buy in from them? His bill calls for non-profit groups to be part of
MALCOLM: Well, there are sort of two efforts that are going on. What I
was referring to before was front end sentencing, how long are you going to
put somebody away? What Senator Cornyn in the Senate or White House are
dealing with their bill is back-aimed release and what they are talking
about is, look, we have these people. Eighty five percent of them are
going to be released into the community. What shape are they going to be
in once they are released? Do they have a chance of becoming productive
members of society?
So what their bill tries to do is encourage people not just to
behave themselves while in prison, but to take affirmative steps to improve
their lives. Go to alcohol counselling, drug addiction counselling, get
job training skills and then if they are deemed to be, based on objective
assessments, a low risk of threat to public safety and they have taken
these affirmative steps to really improve their lives, perhaps they deserve
a break and I agree with that.
KORNACKI: So Mary, you two are allies. We`re talking about what is going
to happen in the Senate and the Durbin bill we`re talking about -- both
parties. I mean, you`re talking about cutting minimums in half. There was
a Rand Paul thing that would have given total discretion to judges. That
doesn`t seem to have the same kind of momentum. What would you like to see
come out of the Senate this year and realistically what do you think might
come out of the Senate this year?
MARY PRICE, FAMILIES AGAINST MANDATORY SENTENCING: Well, I certainly
applaud efforts about back end reform and releasing people earlier who take
the steps that they can take and are supportive in the steps to
rehabilitate and re-enter society and be safe. But we can`t bail out fast
enough. We have a prison crisis that John laid out very well with an
overcrowding crisis that is presenting a public safety crisis.
The leading edge of the numbers flowing into the federal bureau are
those being convicted of mandatory sentences and sentences that are tied to
them. We have to do something about sentencing. Attorney general talked
about sending too many people for too long for too little reason. That too
long period of time is a big factor in the prison crowding crisis we have
So I think that, yes, we need to talk about beginning to end, from
the very beginning to the end of the problem that we have, but if we do not
address the incoming, if we don`t address the front end reform, we`re not
going to take the steps necessary to relieve this crisis.
And we`ll have the problem that John laid out, which is that we are
taking dollars that ought to be spent on supporting victims and finding
criminals and keeping our community safe. We`re taking one out of every $4
from the Department of Justice, and using it to keep the Bureau of Prisons
KORNACKI: So John, tell us. You know, we had a quote from Dick Durbin
saying my party suffers from the fear of the ghost of Willie Horton.
Dianne Feinstein, she said that the idea of reducing mandatory minimums,
she`s not sure. We have been wrestling with it. So is that fear of Willie
Horton syndrome real? How real is it among Democrats? In terms of
Republicans saying, no, this is weak on crime. Is there a chance here`s
going to be a backlash?
JOHN STANTON, BUZZFEED.COM: I think in the Senate, there`s a greater
chance to get something done. I think folks are clear indication of the
Democrats are looking at this as a trap and saying we don`t want to fall
into this. But I think that Republicans in the Senate seem to be moving in
this general direction. I think the chairman said he`s not going to do
this. Even if they do get it done in the Senate, it`s going to be a
victory because the House is not going to take up anything. Even if they
were willing to, that`s hardening positions and right now we`re stuck in
KORNACKI: It`s the same thing in Washington where maybe will get through
the Senate. We have to squeeze a break in. John seems like he might
disagree. We`ll pick it up after this.
KORNACKI: So John Stanton has just said at the end of the last segment, it
was said that this particular pattern seems to be setting up that
sentencing reform could very plausibly get through the Senate here. Then
you`re going to hit this dead end in the House. And much more conservative
body in general. John, you seem to be shaking your head at that. Curious
what you wanted to say.
MALCOLM: I want to say this is a tough vote. It`s not just people are
afraid of being labeled soft on crime. There`s a fear if too many drug
offenders are released who have a high rate of recidivating, we`re going to
have an uptick in crime. There are Republicans on that bill. It`s gotten
a number of co-sponsors. So it has a chance of passage. I have to say
that the president just announced this initiative.
A lot of what he seems to want to accomplish is to address the fact
there were crack cocaine dealers sentenced under the old regime before the
fair sentencing act of 2010. It would allow people who would have now been
subjected to sentences to petition for a reduction in sentence. It would
accomplish what the president wants to do. By once more taking action,
picking up his phone and his pen, I think he`s acted and what makes a tough
vote for conservatives perhaps a little bit tougher.
KORNACKI: Mary, do you agree with that? What do you see if the bill
addresses the pre-2010 people stuck in jail, what was the point of what the
PRICE: The clemency initiative is not limited to prisoners for crack
cocaine. It`s absolutely not the case that those are the only people who
would benefit. There are many people in prison who are low level,
nonviolent offenders who have served ten years for that offense and who
today would have sentences shortened by operation of law who will watch the
people sentence them and leave before they will ever have a chance to
That`s an initiative that is somewhat parallel with the smarter
sentencing act, but it`s not completely covered by it. The second thing I
want to say, there were two dry runs in 2007. Sentences for crack were
lowered two times. Once at the direction of Congress. And those changes
were available to people who were serving crack cocaine sentences in prison
at the time.
Twenty thousand people to date have been released from prison
pursuant to those retroactivity decisions and we have not seen the crime
wave that was predicted by the right and by Republicans about this and the
rates are not as high as for some other crimes. The rates for these people
are tracking just about equal with people who would serve longer and what
has been repudiated.
KORNACKI: I want to get to Governor Dukakis from Boston. As we said a few
minutes ago, you experienced firsthand the past of the politics and
listening to this discussion here, I wonder, where do you think this is
going? Where do you think the idea is going this year and in the years
ahead if nothing comes through Congress this year?
DUKAKIS: You got to remember one important thing. That is the vast
majority of these folks who are convicted and incarcerated are doing so in
state systems. It has nothing to do with the federal systems. So it isn`t
just Congress. A lot of it has to do what`s going on at the state level in
Republican and Democratic states. So these folks are moving. Texas, as I
pointed out, is one of the leaders. But I cannot emphasize enough that I
hope we`re not just talking about saying to folks, good luck. See you
later, you`re free. That`s not going to work.
I teach at UCLA in the winter time. My colleague out there has done
some very good work on this and it involves some structured handling of
this so folks that are not only engaged in drug crimes, but are addicted,
are not being shown the door with a good luck and $50. It takes more than
this and in those states that are doing this, it`s working quite
effectively. So I think it`s very important that we focus on that. It`s
not a wholesale exiting from prison systems. We have to do better than
KORNACKI: It`s important point about the state level in Texas is the
ultimate example about how the politics has changed. Rick Perry, John
Cornyn, Texas is one of the states. Former Democratic nominee is going to
be sticking around with us. I want to thank both the Heritage Foundation`s
John Malcolm and Mary Price with Families Against Mandatory Minimums and
Buzzfeed, John Stanton will also be sticking around. More next.
KORNACKI: Elizabeth Warren is having a nationwide impact even out in
California where an excerpt from her book has become an issue in the
governor`s race. A Republican is seeking to challenge Jerry Brown. In
late 2008, he was overseeing a $700 billion troubled assets relief program,
more popular remembered as TARP. Warren was chair of the Congressional
In her book, Warren accuses him of lying to her on negotiations for
a multibillion bailout. He`s made his experience running the tarp program
a central component of his campaign and one of his senior advisers said
Warren`s account is false and questioned her timing saying Warren has had
many opportunities to mention this before and hasn`t.
The fact that a Freshman Massachusetts senator is in the political
waters in California is further testament to the force that Elizabeth
Warren has become an American politics and especially in the Democratic
Party. A new Republican anointed her as Hillary`s nightmare, a liberal
voice that can connect with the Democrat`s surging populous stream.
Warren insisted again this week that she`s not running for president
in 2016. Everything you read about this tour is how Elizabeth Warren is
not running for president. At the very least she`s actively campaigning
for the ideas she wants represented, with or without her, in the next race
for president to start building pressure now.
So if Hillary Clinton ends up in the White House, she will feel
compelled to pursue a Warren-like agenda. Top donors will gather in
Chicago for a meeting of the democracy alliance. These donors could play
an important role in determining whether the post Barack Obama Democratic
Party embraces the rising tide of progressive populism or hues to a more
cautious, centrist course.
In other words, whether the Hillary Clinton wing or Elizabeth Warren
wing will reign. A lot of the money she raised, the core is not aimed at
big donors. Railing against the political power of those with the biggest
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SENATOR ELIZABETH WARREN: What we have to remember is that they have
concentrated money, concentrated power on their side and it shows up. It
gives them great advantage. But what we have on our side, we are our
voices and we have our votes. And as long as we stay active, as long as we
stay engaged, we can win.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KORNACKI: All right, joining the conversation, another well-known figure,
former Governor Michael Dukakis with "USA Today`s" Susan Page who recently
sat down with Senator Warren for an interview and Buzzfeed`s John Stanton
is back as well.
Susan, I will start with you. Just this last week you had a chance
to spend time with Elizabeth Warren. I`m curious what your take away is
about what she`s trying to do with the book, what she`s trying to do in
politics and your impressions generally from spending that kind of time
SUSAN PAGE, "USA TODAY": The power in her appeal is she believes what
she`s saying. When you ask her a question, she`s inclined to give you an
answer. So when I was interviewing her, I said should some bankers gone to
jail in the aftermath of the financial meltdown? First she said these are
complicated issues that are involved in the courts. Then she stopped and
said, no, wait, let me try that again, yes.
KORNACKI: So everybody raises the question, but I read somewhere that she
said she`s not running for president, why does she write a book that by the
title and wording, is this the kind of book that a candidate would put out?
PAGE: I think she`s not running for president. It`s not surprising she
put out a book and the desire she has to influence the debate. But I don`t
think she`s ruling out the idea of running for higher office. She signed
the letter urging Hillary Clinton to run. It`s unlikely she challenges
Hillary Clinton, but we have a lot of time until 2016. I think if Hillary
Clinton didn`t run, I would expect to see Elizabeth Warren out there.
KORNACKI: We have already seen in the polls when she`s included with
Hillary Clinton now, Hillary Clinton wins big, but there`s a big block for
Warren. John, what about Elizabeth Warren in the Senate? It`s only been
about a year and a half. What is her reputation like there and how has
that gone so far?
STANTON: Her reputation is one of having built a very good PR machine.
She`s sort of created this bad problem for her in the Senate because she`s
created such a huge profile for herself. What have you done? She hasn`t
really done that much in the senate but she`s only been there a year and a
half. She`s created this perfect persona. There`s a huge operation around
her, which a lot of times it`s unclear of how much she`s involved in it and
whether or not she`s giving a blessing to push her as a potential rival
so there are some members who say u there she is.
KORNACKI: That`s the idea, the clubby Senate, the freshmen are supposed to
be seen and not heard. It takes decades to build. If she convinced first
herself and if she convinces the rest of the senate she`s not running for
senate is there a way for her to sort of become an effective member of the
STANTON: There is. There`s the model of a Ted Kennedy where a liberal
member comes in and finds a way to still work with people and get
legislation done. My concern is given the current politics and the way
that the relationships in the Senate are working, she`s more of a left
version of a Ted Cruz who comes in and is going to be after very hard line
position that`s going to be difficult to find a common ground with
Republicans who are going to a more conservative side. I`m not sure she`s
the type of member that`s going to have huge success.
KORNACKI: Governor, I wonder what you make of that. You have known her
well. It does strike me that what Susan is saying I definitely noticed
about her. How clear and direct she can be. It`s unusual in a politician
and how clear it is on what she wants to accomplish. When you look at the
slow-paced Senate with all the traditions, is the Senate a good match for
her in terms of accomplishing something or is the benefit that she has a
platform to get the ideas out?
DUKAKIS: She is who she is. She`s very genuine. But remember she succeed
a guy named Kennedy, who was very effective, but Ted Kennedy made no bones
about where he stood on things and often broke with members of the Senate
including Democrats. So she`s following on what I think is a fairly
familiar path. She has remarkably good political instincts.
I remember when I sat down with her at the beginning of the campaign
and talked about how this had to be a large campaign, every precinct, and
she did it. I had great grass roots organizations, but hers was the best
I`ve ever seen and she gets it. I don`t think there`s anything unusual
about this. She`s not going to run for the presidency. She shouldn`t in
my opinion. She has a lot to contribute.
And remember one other thing. When it comes to her effectiveness,
she`s already been very effective even before she got into the Senate. The
Consumer Protection Agency was her creation. And she got it done. She`s
not just making speeches. She can be very effective and I think she`s
going to be an effective player in the Senate. And I have enormous respect
KORNACKI: We`re going to squeeze a break in. What is next for Elizabeth
Warren? What does she want to achieve with the book tour? We`ll talk
about that when we come back.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
WARREN: I don`t think this is really about me. I don`t. I think this is
about the ideas. I think that the moment has come. America`s middle class
has just been hammered for a generation now. And I don`t mean just over
one, it`s been everywhere.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KORNACKI: Senator Elizabeth Warren speaking with Susan Page this week,
Susan Page is here. You were tells us during the break that when you asked
Elizabeth Warren what the most surprising thing to her about the Senate,
she gave you an interesting answer.
PAGE: She said there are lots of tools in the tool box. Even at hearings
when they have regulators in to testify, this is an area she has a strong
background in. She`s pushed to take tougher steps than they might have
been inclined to do. That`s a little bit of an untold story of terms of
what influence she`s had already in the Senate. No big piece of
legislation in her name. But in the two years since she`s been through,
who has pushed through anything.
KORNACKI: Anything that gets through the Senate seems to die in the House
so it`s the story of Washington right now.
STANTON: She also is becoming the voice for progressives in the Senate and
in Washington in general. She has had that effect on the conversation.
Democrats are much more willing to talk about sort of progressive populist
kind of things and she has been one of the big proponents of that. And
again in the Senate she does play the opposite to, you know, Ted Cruz or
some of the conservative people. A lot of Democrats like that. They
didn`t really have somebody in the Senate other than Harry Reid who just is
sort of a puncher, but they didn`t have somebody that would articulate
these progressive ideas in a combative I will fight back at you kind of
way, which you`ve done.
KORNACKI: Governor Dukakis, you said you don`t think she should run for
president. I think every Democrat right now, every big-name Democrat is
waiting on Hillary Clinton and if she runs I`m not sure any of them will
run against her. If Hillary Clinton doesn`t run and you have Elizabeth
Warren with this unique message, would you then tell her to take a look at
DUKAKIS: Well, running for the presidency is the toughest thing you`ll
ever do, Steve. It`s in a class by itself. I don`t care how effective a
governor you`ve been, how effective a senator you`ve been. And my own view
is that at this point in her life she should be doing exactly what she`s
doing. By the way, the point you made or maybe Susan made, very important.
As a legislator, you just don`t pass bills. You can have enormous
influence on the bureaucracy, on the regulators, on the folks that
administer the law. She understands this, and she`s already had great
impact. So she`s making her influence felt. She gets this. She`s doing
it. People respect her. I think to some extent, I`m not sure they fear
her but they`re certainly responsive to her. But that`s her role at this
point and it`s a particularly effective role she could be playing.
KORNACKI: I want to thank Massachusetts` Michael Dukakis, former governor
and former presidential nominee for spending part of your morning with us.
Really appreciate it. So what do we know now that we didn`t know last
week? Our answers are after this.
KORNACKI: Time to find out what our guests know now they didn`t know when
the week began. Susan, you lead it off.
PAGE: If you want to be a senator, act like a human being. Here`s what we
learned this week from Capital New York. One reason David Paterson
appointed Kirsten Gellibrand to the U.S. Senate seat was because she was
kind to him when he got hammered on "Saturday Night Live" so it`s like your
mother told you, you cannot overestimate the power of good manners.
KORNACKI: I wonder if it`s being a really good human being or a really,
really, really smart politician. John?
STANTON: I learned this week with the Cliven Bundy drama that there are
things politicians will never learn, one of them being when a guy gets
surrounded by a bunch of militia guys, it`s time to walk away as fast as
you possibly can. One would have thought from the 1990s with all of the
drama with the militias, that American politicians would have figured out
that armed men railing against the government are generally not that great
of an idea to associate with.
KORNACKI: American politicians and certain primetime cable hosts. I want
to thank Susan Page of "USA Today" and John Stanton from Buzzfeed for being
here this morning. Thank you at home for joining us. What was once a
bipartisan initiative is crumbling thanks to Tea Party opposition? Why
stopping common core is the latest edition to the Republican agenda.
We`ll discuss that Sunday morning right here beginning at 8 a.m.
Eastern Time. But don`t go anywhere because coming up next is MHP with
guest host, Jonathan Capehart. The Supreme Court rules on affirmative
action and millions are asking what happens next. Stick around.
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY
United States copyright law and may not be reproduced, distributed,
transmitted, displayed, published or broadcast without the prior written
permission of Roll Call. You may not alter or remove any trademark,
copyright or other notice from copies of the content.>