Interview with Steve Pemberton​ — Transcript

This transcript, from our interview with Steve Pemberton, has been lightly edited to improve clarity, but we kept our editing to a minimum. 

Q: What does the word “progress” mean to you?
A: Progress means never declaring victory. It means always trying to find out what your best is. It means challenging conventional norms, even when it’s uncomfortable; especially when it’s uncomfortable. Progress is almost always a “we” centered conversation, particularly when you’re thinking about the future and future generations. There’s a natural tendency to be comfortable; to seek security is part of the natural human condition, to want to be content with where we are — but that’s not the nature of the world, and it’s not the nature of societies and how they grow and evolve. So, progress to me is necessary for the sustainability of any society. And that might seem to be an oxymoron because there’s always some kind of turbulent nature to progress, but a fulfilled life is one that is always in progress — pushing, challenging, daring, dreaming, believing — that’s progress.

Q: Why are you a good candidate for Senate?
A: I’m a good candidate for Senate because I represent and come from a completely different experience than that which I see in the Senate today. There’s a lot of wonderful people in the Senate and I respect them; the causes that they’ve taken on and the ones to which they’re currently committed. But, my experience — with all due respect — is a very, very different one from what I see. I grew up in New Bedford, in foster care, and my family was quite literally ripped apart by a lot of the issues that are really impacting citizens across the Commonwealth and across the country today. My mother was battling alcoholism — that’s why I was taken from her when I was three. I lost my father to gun violence where I was five. Then I wound up in foster care, which is, in essence, family separation. It had quite an effect on me for the rest of my childhood — I’d argue for the rest of my life. So, I bring a certain kind of urgency to this race. On one hand, my journey reflects America’s pain — but also her possibilities. I should not have emerged from that situation intact. Fortunately, I was able to break the cycle. My father was an orphan; my grandfather was an orphan. I would’ve been next in line. But my children — my children are not. I am their dad. 

Q: What do you think is the biggest issue facing America today?
A: It’s virtually impossible to pick out one single issue because we have delayed and ignored so many issues for so long. The environment. Gun violence. Addiction. The foster care system. Affordable housing. The infrastructure. Washington has a tendency to look at issues in singular lanes as if it’s a swimming pool. Each lane has a different issue. But, Americans don’t live like that. We wake up every day trying to juggle lots of those things. We don’t wake up with a single litmus test. We don’t decide between one issue and another. I will tell you that there is one issue in particular that has a convergence around the others: income equality. We are looking at unprecedented, historic income inequality, which has disrupted the American Dream. The American Dream wasn’t actually coined by the Founding Fathers — it was coined by a Depression-era writer named James Trislow Adams who said that the American Dream wasn’t about material things. It’s about whether or not you will have the opportunity to move upward and forward — in other words, whether or not you will be able to progress through society. And when that gets denied, like it is now, then America as you know it fundamentally shifts and changes right in front of you. We have to summon the will to deal with all of the avalanche effects of income inequality. It’s no coincidence that when you see record levels of income inequality, you see record levels of addiction, family separation, and suicide. When you’re locked out and believe that your zip code will determine your future from the moment you’re born, it has a cascading effect. We cannot say that there’s one single issue greater than another. We must summon the will as an American people to take on all of them. And, we can, because generations past did. They never saw issues as too big for them to handle. Hitler was not too big for us to go defeat. Segregation was not to big a monster for us to overcome. It wasn’t. We can’t, as the inheritors of those sacrifices, say it’s too hard. We can’t say that.

Q: What can the government do to improve K-12 education?
A: Invest. Absolutely invest. Education is the single greatest mobilizer in our society. We begin to make education the center and the core of who we are as a nation — when we start paying our teachers more, investing in the infrastructure of our schools, and when we start creating a societal drive in valuing and celebrating education — things will improve. It’s the core of who we are. The whole ecosystem of education is an investment — better resources and tools and paying our teachers better. These things require us to make that commitment and that investment. You just don’t hear us, even at the presidential level, having many serious discussions about education. It finally got some attention in the debate {deb debate 4}, finally — but that was long overdue. My wife was a teacher. I began my career in education. To me, it should be the first and the last thing we talk about. Because it is the definition of progress — the definition of the future. If we’re going to be globally relevant and globally competitive, there’s going to be a direct reflection on how well we educate and how much we make this a centerpiece of our culture. It’s a complete shift from where we are.

Q: What should we do about the ongoing student debt crisis?
A: There are particular times in American history and in our society when we have found ourselves in such a deficit — pun intended — that we have to shock the system. And so we should absolutely have a student loan forgiveness program. We absolutely should. Our oldest son attends Morehouse College and their commencement speaker last year forgave the student loan debt of the senior class. But he did so with a condition that they’ll invest back into America, which is a wonderful platform. Not every commencement speaker can do that. But, when you’re saddled with student loan debt, it just delays everything else that you’re doing in life. Buying a home. Starting a family. All of that gets delayed, now. But I will tell you that like a lot of other things, especially when it comes to higher education and student loan debt, we have this common thread that we’re constantly dealing with the consequences and not the causes. So, if we have a one-time forgiveness program, that’s still dealing with the consequences. That’s not dealing with the cause. The cause is a lack of investment in higher education. And so, more of those burdens are getting passed on to families who are taking out higher loans and the cost is skyrocketing. We have to deal with the issue, because at Morehouse College — where Robert Smith spoke — next year’s commencement speaker is not going to forgive that class’s student loan debt. It shouldn’t be happenstance like that. 

Q: What is your stance on the issue of healthcare?
A: Well, let’s begin with what we value. And I think most of our conversations have to begin there. What matters is what you get out. And I think that we have to begin with this fundamental belief that healthcare is a human right. And you have to begin there. Because when you begin there I think it has an effect on everything else. The debilitating and devastating effects of a lack of access to quality health care are all around us. All around us. I experienced this actually, firsthand, growing up in foster care. Many, many years later, after a very turbulent experience, I went looking for my biological family and I found them. My mother and father both passed away. And I had no memory of that. I didn’t know who they were. But as I got a little bit older I thought, “well, what happened to them? What happened? What happened to my parents that, literally separated me from them?” And it was this issue of healthcare because my grandmother — Mary Cabral my father’s mother — died at the age of 40. She was a young mom. She left behind 13 children who then were scattered to the streets, different schools, and foster care. My father was 15. So his mother passed away, they had her services, and then next week they sent him to reform school. Not because he was a bad kid. Not because he did anything wrong. But because society didn’t know what to do with him. What was that really about? That was a matter of healthcare and Mary Cabral getting access to quality health care because if she did, my father would have had his mother and the matriarch of the family. The arc of it all is completely different now because she would have had exactly what we so desperately need. I do think that we have to allow Americans to retain their right of choice. And so if you’re happy with the current plan that you have you should be able to keep it. That’s your right as an American that you have the right to choose your plan. But if you lose your job or you’re dissatisfied then you ought to be able to buy into a plan that’s going to provide the care that you need. 

Q: So you agree with keeping private healthcare as an option? 
A: Absolutely. I’m completely supportive of the choice.

Q: So one of the biggest issues today that many voters and constituents alike are really concerned about is gridlock in Washington. So how would you as a senator work to resolve said gridlock?
A: I think I have to be part of a class that brings a different perspective. I think we need to seriously visit the issue of term limits. I think we also have to create a sense of national community. Because what is unfolding now when we’re demonizing someone who looks completely different than you, votes completely different than you, and might have a different faith than you — not just in Washington but across the country — is costing us. And it’s not just the gridlock. The gridlock is coming from a place of animus, that if a fellow American is seemingly beneath you because they disagree with you on an issue. We can create a national conversation about the commonality, the commonality of the human experience. We all experience difficulty. None of us has cornered the market on that. So we must find this kind of common thread and say OK so we can at least agree on this. Can’t we agree that healthy children are essential to our future? We just need to have some baseline agreements. This division is weakening America. It’s weakening us globally, and it is quite literally making us the target of our enemy. We saw what unfolded with our elections. That was Russia saying “listen: we’re not going to be able to defeat America. Not militarily. Their form of government is better than ours. What’s their Achilles heel? The Americans tendency, especially in times of uncertainty. tend to lean towards divisiveness. And that’s what we’ll use against the. And we will attack their elections.” The way to beat America is to pit one of her citizens against the other. A specific strategy. And Putin is not our friend — he doesn’t have our best intentions when he’s doing that. He’s trying to weaken this nation. And Donald Trump, and his party, and the policies they pursue, are changing the course of our country; the character of our country. And it’s inexcusable. It’s unconscionable. And we can’t let that happen on our watch. My generation can’t let it happen. Your generation can’t let it happen. If that means you vote out an incumbent, then you vote out an incumbent. If that means that you take on and have to disagree with somebody who’s popular, then you take on somebody who’s popular because America first does not mean America against each other. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t say America’s great and then not realize that it was our ability to unify and collaborate that made us so. 

Q: There’s currently a debate in the Democratic Party; a split if you will between being a relatively centrist party versus being a leftist, progressive party. This is a debate that is really splitting the party. People are splitting between backing Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi versus Bernie Sanders and AOC. Which side of this schism do you fall on? 
A: I don’t.

And this schism has been going on for a long time, by the way. A long time. And what we have to do as the Democratic Party is doing what most Americans do. Most Americans who work in organizations, who have families — you know we do? We compromise. That’s how we live every day. We don’t wake up like so much of Washington D.C. does. We don’t wake up saying “let me prove how wrong you are.” We don’t wake up trying to figure out what we can stop or who we can stop. You didn’t begin your day like that today. I didn’t begin my day like that today. I’m always thinking “well, how can I work and align?”

So while it’s true that great minds think alike the inverse of that is that one of them is redundant. You actually need both ideas to coalesce into a platform. That’s what you need. I will say — with a caveat, what I said earlier — there are times when where America stands is so fragile, like right now, that we have got to fundamentally revisit the covenant between America and our citizens. Income inequality is one of them. Climate is another. These are unprecedented, historic, and seismic shifts in our country. You’re not going to be able to fundamentally and systemically, in a sustainable way, address that, unless you fundamentally revisit the way in which we are approaching them.

Q: How would you as a senator help Massachusetts and your constituents?
A: This is the birthplace of America, and some of the things that I talked about earlier are affecting Massachusetts in particular. We have experienced an unconscionable number of fatalities in our foster care system. Children dying in our care. We’re seeing record levels of suicide. We have massive income inequality, particularly in the western part of the state where you have people who are shut out of the information economy who are having a hard time finding meaningful and dignified work. And so, we need in the United States Senate, not people who are interested in the legacy or their incumbency or their privilege, but people who wake up everyday thinking “what can I do that is best for this state?” If you wake up every day with that as your lighthouse, as your north star, as what you’re sailing your ship towards. “How can I bring greater federal funds to address climate change and the impact of climate change?” Like my community in New Bedford that is being affected by climate change where environmental justice and social justice are colliding over this very issue.

Who wakes up every day thinking about that? I’m not convinced that we see that in Congress. It is time — being respectful of generations past — to say that it’s time for a new generation. It’s time to bring a heightened degree of urgency.

Q: What do we do about climate change and concerns about the environment?
A: You have a multiplicity of strategies.

We have to invest aggressively in research. Right now, I don’t think we have a full and complete understanding of those things. Right now, we also have to spend a fair amount of time looking at all of the issues that we know are accelerating, climate change in particular. And we know what they are. Fossil fuels. We need a drive towards clean, renewable energy. Again, we have to bring forward this new way of thinking, this new way of acting, this new way of operating, and not continue to make investments in fossil fuels that we know are having this unprecedented impact. I think to have this tick-list of how we stand on a daily basis — when you’re watching sea levels rise and making a more convincing argument about the collateral damage of that, I don’t think we’re fully understanding that. Let me give you an example: our oceans are warming. For so many of us, we don’t understand what that means and the collateral effects of that. But from New Bedford, from where I’m from, here’s what that means: the center of New Bedford’s commerce is fishing, particularly scups. When the ocean temperature warms, the scups migrate away, and fewer boats are leaving the New Bedford harbor; and those that do are having to move further and further away. And that is the core of the fishing industry. So what does that mean for the fisherman, whose sons and daughters I went to school with? The captains of fishing boats? And so, they have to go further or find a different species to catch. Every coastal city along the East Coast that has relied on fishing is being affected by climate change. So I think we have to make a more convincing argument of the daily impact on your daily life, paint this future picture of what happens to a community like New Bedford if this continues unchecked. Lastly, I think we can summon the will. That’s what we have done as Americans. We kind of know when it’s time to course-correct. We have this sense that we’ve overreached here. But, what’s currently unfolding here — the avoidance, the obstruction, from Donald Trump’s party that aids, abets, protects him — is costing us. It’s costing us with gun violence. It’s costing us with climate change, this divisiveness. In America, we have got to find a way of creating a national community that’s less about what you look like and who you vote for but more these common threads of humanity: what have you seen? What’ve you experienced? You and I sit down and talk about that. You and I are different ethnicities and different generations. We could sit down and unpack a whole list of what makes you and I different, But, if the most important thing that I think that I can learn about you is what makes you different from me, then I really have missed the conversation entirely. If I begin the conversation with “OK Kash, I’m from New Bedford and you’re from Shrewsbury, you’re Indian-American and I’m African-American, you’re in high school and you’re long past high school, but hey, what can we resolve together?” and me being wise enough to see wisdom in you. Just because you’re younger than me doesn’t mean you don’t have wisdom, and just because I’m older than you doesn’t mean that I don’t know my way around technology. But imagine how much richer the world is when you and I are having that discussion. That means we can address gun violence. That means we can address climate change. That means we can address income inequality. But if our first conversation is about collision, and anger, and dissonance, and discord? No, we won’t take on the great challenges of our time. That’s why I’m optimistic; your generation makes me optimistic because by you beginning The Blue Club, your generation’s saying “no more. We’re tired of listening to you older folks, and you don’t have the urgency that we do, so we’re going to handle it ourselves. We’re going to start an organization, and we’re going to show up to the Democratic convention, and we’re going to interview this guy that’s running for United States Senate,” and that’s what you have to do. And don’t let anybody dissuade you from that. Don’t ever accept the idea that because you’re younger, your voice is not the same and not as important as mine or anybody else who’s older. I remember people telling me that, and they were wrong. Anybody who tells you that is wrong. You’re supposed to have a voice. Be reasoned, be considered, be respectful, but be insistent, and be passionate. 


  1. […] The interview in it’s entirety proved to be quite lengthy, so if you would like to read the entire thing — including Mr. Pemberton’s views on the education system & student debt crisis — you can find it here. […]

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