Meet Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s First-Ever Primary Challenger: Tim Canova

The six-term congresswoman and controversial head of the DNC finally has her first primary challenger, who calls her "the quintessential corporate machine politician."

Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the six-term congresswoman from South Florida and chair of the Democratic National Committee, has been embroiled in numerous significant controversies lately. As the Washington Post put it just today: “DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s list of enemies just keeps growing.”

She is widely perceived to have breached her duty of neutrality as DNC chair by taking multiple steps to advance the Clinton campaign, including severely limiting the number of Democratic debates and scheduling them so as to ensure low viewership (she was co-chair of Clinton’s 2008 campaign). Even her own DNC vice chairs have publicly excoriated her after she punished them for dissenting from her Hillary-protecting debate limitations. She recently told Ana Marie Cox in New York Times interview that she favors ongoing criminalization of marijuana (as she receives large financial support from the alcohol industry). She denied opposing medical marijuana even though she was one of a handful of Democratic legislators to vote against a bill to allow states to legalize it, and in her interview with Cox, she boasted that her “criminal-justice record is perhaps not as progressive as some of my fellow progressives.” She also excoriated “young women” — who largely back Bernie Sanders rather than Clinton — for “complacency” over reproductive rights.

In general, Wasserman Schultz is the living, breathing embodiment of everything rotted and corrupt about the Democratic Party: a corporatist who overwhelmingly relies on corporate money to keep her job, a hawk who supports the most bellicose aspects of U.S. foreign policy, a key member of the “centrist” and “moderate” pro-growth New Democrat coalition, a co-sponsor of the failed Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), which was “heavily backed by D.C. favorites including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the music and motion picture industries” and which, if enacted, would have allowed extreme government and corporate control over the internet.

In 2012, at the height of the controversy over the “kill list” that the New York Times revealed Obama had compiled for execution by drone, she said in an interview she had never heard of it and mocked the interviewer for suggesting such a thing existed. In 2013, she demanded that Edward Snowden “be extradited, arrested, and prosecuted” because he supposedly “jeopardized millions of Americans” and then called him a “coward.” “The progressive wing of the party base is volubly getting fed up with her,” declared the American Prospect last week.


Tim Canova

Photo: Tim Canova
This year, however, Democrats nationwide, and in her district, have a choice. For the first time in her long congressional career, she faces a primary challenger for the Democratic nomination. He’s Tim Canova, a smart, articulate, sophisticated lawyer with a history of activism both with the Occupy movement (he’s against the Wall Street bailout for which Wasserman Schultz voted and the general excesses of big banks and crony capitalism) as well as a steadfast opponent of the Patriot Act (for which Wasserman Schultz repeatedly voted).

He has worked with former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson against the drug war and private prisons; worked with the Sanders campaigns of the past; and was a former aide to the late Sen. Paul Tsongas. He is an outspoken advocate of the Ron Paul/Alan Grayson-sponsored Audit the Fed bill, and a vehement opponent of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. And he has vowed to run a campaign based on small-donor support, calling Wasserman Schultz “the quintessential corporate machine politician.”

As David Dayen reported last week in the New Republic, the widespread dislike for Wasserman Schultz around the country has already triggered substantial support and donations for Canova. To compete, he will need much more. You can visit his website here. But beyond that, I spoke with him late last week to explore his views, his motives for running, and what he believes are the greatest contrasts between him and the incumbent he is challenging:

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GREENWALD: My guest today is Tim Canova, who recently announced a primary challenge in Florida’s 23rd congressional district to the Democratic incumbent, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who, in addition to representing that district, is the chair of the Democratic National Committee. It is the congresswoman’s first primary challenge ever.

Tim is a former aide to the late Sen. Paul Tsongas and currently a professor at Nova Southeastern University Shepard Broad College of Law. Tim, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me. I want to begin by asking you:

It’s one of the most difficult things in American politics to challenge an entrenched incumbent, and in this case, Congresswoman Wasserman Schultz is sort of the embodiment of an entrenched incumbent. It’s her sixth term that she’s currently serving. She hasn’t really been challenged very successfully in the past, and she’s also the chair of the DNC and has that whole apparatus behind her. What are the motivators that led you to take on this challenge?

CANOVA: If we had spoken a year ago, this wouldn’t have been on my radar. Last summer, I was very active with a bunch of grassroots organizations here in South Florida, lobbying against the fast track vote for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and we were lobbying her office, trying to make contact with her or her top aides, and we got nowhere. And it was frustrating. She was one of the only Democrats in the House in the country to vote for fast track and she was the only Democrat in Florida’s delegation to vote for fast track. She had voted for the Korean Free Trade Agreement. She’s been taking lots of corporate money.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, she took $300,000 in just a two-year period, 2012 to 2014, from groups that support the TPP, and only about $23,000 from groups opposed to it. The Citizens Trade Campaign that I’ve been working with, it consists of a lot of organized labor, a lot of union people, and a lot of progressive Democrats. And these are constituencies that she’s been taking for granted, precisely because she’s run unopposed all of these years. She’s been able to take working folks for granted.

And the TPP was really a lightning rod issue. I think it should be. We saw how just a week or two ago, TransCanada, the big Canadian energy giant, announced it was going to sue the U.S. government for $15 billion for not going forward with the Keystone XL pipeline. And that’s under NAFTA’s investment protection provisions. The TPP has very similar provisions. So now we’re going to open up these types of challenges to another half-dozen to dozen countries that are not in NAFTA who will be able to challenge the sovereignty of U.S. law. And when I say “challenge it,” you probably have read up on this enough to know that these companies are not going to be able to overturn the laws, but they will be able to get the taxpayer to have to pay for their compliance with the laws. So it really shifts the cost of compliance from corporations to taxpayers.

It’s a way to enshrine in international law what these corporations could not get through in constitutional jurisprudence, which is the regulatory takings approach, the idea that whenever the government regulates in a way that impedes the value of an investment, it should be considered a taking of property requiring just compensation. They couldn’t get that line of analysis through the Supreme Court, they go around it and they enshrine this in multilateral trade and investment agreements, bilateral investment treaties. And it’s become a litmus test at this point, and deservedly so. It’s environmental laws, it’s health and safety, it’s labeling laws. It really puts an awful lot of the kinds of protections that we’ve come to rely on and need up for sale, in a way.

GREENWALD: The TPP is obviously controversial in certain policy and intellectual circles. My guess is that a small percentage of Americans have even heard of that agreement, let alone have strong opinions about it, although they probably are a lot more informed and opinionated about trade issues generally because of the effect it’s had on jobs and the NAFTA controversy.

Do you have a strategy for communicating why a seemingly esoteric conflict like the TPP is something that moved you and ought to move voters to reject their incumbent representative?

CANOVA: Well, my friends in labor who are very supportive of this candidacy, and are really like-minded in that somebody should step up and challenge her — they make the argument that it’s going to lead directly to a lot of job losses, and they’ve got the statistics about just how many job losses came about from the Korean Free Trade Agreement. I’ve been trying to link these discussions about TPP to what every Floridian should see as an existential threat, and that is climate change. In 20 or 30 years down the road, big parts of South Florida could be underwater.

It’s not just the tourist industry, it’s people’s homes and businesses that could be in danger. And if we’re going to start confronting climate change, either through regulating carbon emissions or finding funds for infrastructure investments to mitigate the effects of climate change, TPP just gets in the way right down the line. Now I hear you, and I agree with you, that most people don’t understand those connections and many people have never heard of the TPP. I’m hoping this campaign starts elevating the discussion and informing people and helping to educate voters. I think it’s already beginning to happen a little bit.

But I’ve also got to say the TPP is not the only issue we’re running on. Wasserman Schultz has been taking — and you know this, The Intercept published a piece about the kind of money she’s been taking from big alcohol PACs. She’s for private prisons.

GREENWALD: While she’s been a hardcore drug war warrior and in favor of the penal state for putting people in cages for consuming drugs.

CANOVA: Exactly. And, you know, that’s not popular in this district. In 2014 there was a statewide referendum on medical marijuana. Fifty-eight-and-a-half percent of the voters in this state voted for it, for medical marijuana. It needed 60 percent to pass, so it came close. She was against it. Her votes in Congress have been against medical marijuana. I say, allow states to decide these issues on medical marijuana and recreational marijuana. We should not be locking people up, for what? Using the same drugs that apparently the last three American presidents, and, by some surveys, a majority of the American people have tried.

GREENWALD: One of the things that I do think people understand relating to the TPP and some of the other critiques you’ve voiced is the idea that there are a lot of people who go to Washington, take lots of money from corporate interests, and end up serving those interests at the expense of the ordinary voter, often contrary to the rhetoric they like to spout. That’s probably part of the reason for Donald Trump’s success, who has sold himself as a self-funder and therefore immune to those influences, and it’s definitely a big part of Bernie Sanders’ success as well, critiquing this kind of systemic, legalized corruption.

Where does Debbie Wasserman Schultz fall on the spectrum of political officials with respect to how much corporate money she relies on, and then how much corporate interest she serves?

CANOVA: OK. First, let me say, your first question was what animated me to jump in, and I started with the TPP. But this question really gets to the thematic heart of the campaign. Across the board, whether it’s the TPP or the drug war, she’s taking a lot of corporate money, and she’s been taking it for years. She talks the talk about campaign finance reform — she will say she’s for campaign finance reform — but she’s not walking the walk.

She voted recently the way most of Congress did on this latest omnibus spending bill. There were a couple of terrible provisions that allowed dark money to remain in our politics. One provision that she voted for in this omnibus package was to prevent the Securities and Exchange Commission from writing rules for transparency — to require corporations to disclose to their shareholders the extent of their campaign contributions; their political spending. Another ties the hands of the Internal Revenue Service from creating rules to curb special interest donors from forming these sham social welfare organizations that hide political spending.

She’s been raising corporate money for herself; she’s been giving it away to other candidates. She is the quintessential corporate machine politician. She really is, across the board. And then it influences her votes. And it’s not just TPP and the drug war, it’s Wall Street issues, and this is really what I’ve been teaching and writing about for many years. Just in the past few months — the past year or two — she has voted to prevent the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to write rules to regulate payday lending, to prevent racial discrimination in car loans.

In December 2014, she voted to eliminate the part of Dodd-Frank that had prevented big banks from using deposits to speculate in financial derivatives. So she doesn’t have any real vision for public finance other than lining the pockets of her donors.

GREENWALD: So, one of the issues that has arisen over the past few years, most prominently with regard to the Federal Reserve, is this movement to subject the Fed to comprehensive, probing audits. And what I’ve always found interesting about that debate is that it had lots of support from people on the left like Dennis Kucinich and Alan Grayson, who were prime movers of that in the House, and then also from elements on the right. People like Ron Paul, this sort of libertarian faction who sees the dangers of crony capitalism.

Where do you stand specifically on the question of auditing the Fed, and more generally, do you see this potential for — on economic issues and on issues regarding Wall Street and the Fed — for there to be some kind of a union between ordinary people on the left and the right who are both being victimized in the same way by these kind of systemic corruptions?

CANOVA: Absolutely. In 2010, I worked with Alan Grayson’s staff, and with Bernie Sanders’ staff, and with Ron Paul’s staff, on the transparency and provisions that went into Dodd-Frank. The transparency of the Fed — the two GAO audits. That I’m sure you know about. The GAO had one audit that dealt with the governance of the Fed and their conflicts of interest, and the second one dealt with the Fed’s emergency lending facilities, which lo and behold, rewarded those big banks that dominated and continue to dominate the Fed’s governance.

So I am very much in favor of auditing the Fed on a regular basis and reforming the Fed so that its governing boards more reflect the diverse interests of society, and not just bankers.

This is a tradition that goes back to John Commons, the great institutional economist of the 1930s and 1940s, [and] Leon Keyserling, the head of Harry Truman’s council of economic advisers. This used to be, some decades ago, part of the discussion as far as reforming the governance structure of the Fed. It needs to be part of the conversation again. And, you’re hitting it on the head when you say this is a discussion — this is an agenda — that spans the spectrum from right to left.

I saw it when I was involved in Occupy Wall Street, at the Occupy Los Angeles encampment. There were plenty of tents and banners, you name it, saying “End the Fed.” I taught at the People’s Collective University at Occupy LA, and I taught a workshop on the Federal Reserve, and I was making the case: “Let’s not end the Fed, let’s mend the Fed. Let’s reform the Fed.” And it’s a discussion that people on the right and people on the left can get engaged in very quickly. Unfortunately, in Washington, it’s the mainstream establishment center of both parties that resist this kind of reform.

GREENWALD: Speaking of the mainstream establishment center in both parties resisting reform, obviously a lot of the topics I write about and that The Intercept covers center on surveillance policy and foreign policy, where there is an enormous amount of agreement between Republican and Democratic establishment wings.

Can you just sort of give me your general perspective on where Debbie Wasserman Schultz is in those areas, and how you differ from the standard Democratic orthodoxy and the Republican orthodoxy on those questions as well?

CANOVA: The Patriot Act is probably the original starting point in this discussion, and I was not a proponent of the Patriot Act at the time, and Wasserman Schultz is. So I’m very skeptical of concentrated power in this national security state. Dismantling that power and exposing it to the light of day is a job and a half, as you know personally, and how to do that? Congress is a place where you can start doing it.

I certainly hope if I’m elected and if I serve in Congress, that I would be a critic of this concentration of state power that’s being used for surveillance. And not just surveillance, I’ve got to say, it really goes to a lot of the United States’ approaches in its foreign policy abroad. I think the drone war has been a disaster. It’s a way that the president and the administration can talk tough and look tough, but in my estimation, it is creating far more enemies than it is killing. It’s not serving our long-term interests.

We should be looking for a general disarmament in this part of the world, instead of the United States leading this race among major powers in arms sales to these regimes. The conflicts that exist between Arabs, Muslims, Jews, Sunnis, Shiites are centuries old — decades old, centuries old — and arming these countries to the teeth is not a solution. At all. For foreign policy. At least not in a way that’s going to serve the interests of humanity and try to bring peace to that part of the world. It used to be, 100 years ago, the world would have disarmament conferences. How effective they were, the history books can write about. But it’s not even discussed at this point.    

GREENWALD: Yeah, even Reagan and Gorbachev and Nixon and Brezhnev had incredibly successful disarmament conferences as well, and ultimately, treaties, and you’re right — it’s essentially off the agenda.

CANOVA: That’s right. And with Reagan and Nixon, the arms treaties [we] are talking about are thermonuclear weapons. In our day and age, yes, we have to have disarmament of thermonuclear weapons, but we also have to have disarmament of all other kinds of weapons that we see being used in these proxy wars throughout the Middle East.

The proxy wars have been a disaster. There’s something to be said for the critique that I’ve heard Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump actually make, that we should have left “well enough” alone in Syria. And this policy of trying to continue with regime change — you know, Bush was criticized for regime change; it’s continued under the Obama administration, and all it has done is created vacuums for more radical groups like ISIS to gain greater influence, greater strength.

It’s led to all kinds of — not just destabilization, but massive death, dislocations of people. It’s a horror show. It’s got to stop, and disarmament and talking through peacefully to resolve disputes has got to be put on the agenda, and I don’t see it on the agenda from most of these candidates, and certainly Wasserman Schultz doesn’t talk like that.

GREENWALD: Absolutely, she does not. Let me just ask you a couple of last questions here. People are just now for the first time hearing about your primary challenge, and becoming familiar with you, and who you are, and what your positions are, so could you just talk a little bit about your history of political activism and your professional background as well?

CANOVA: Sure. I am a lawyer by training. I studied at Georgetown University, and then was a Swedish Institute visiting scholar at the University of Stockholm. I practiced law in Manhattan for a large firm for a few years, and then went into teaching, and really my entire legal career was animated by the study of, you can say, making our institutions more democratically accountable. The thesis I wrote as a Swedish Institute visiting scholar was a comparison of Swedish and American labor law and corporate law, and comparing how in Sweden and in other European countries, labor had a seat at the table. Fifty percent of the board members were labor. And in the United States, labor doesn’t have a seat at the table. They get run over. So that is the orientation — more democracy — that has animated me throughout my career.

I served on Capitol Hill as a legislative aide to the late U.S. Sen. Paul Tsongas in the early 1980s. A lot of this is on my campaign website, on the About Tim page — that I was an opponent of financial deregulation very early. I was writing in the early 1980s that the Garn-St. Germain Act, deregulation of depository interest rates and lending standards, would be a disaster, that it was a repeat of what had happened in the 1920s. It opened the door to predatory lending and sub-prime mortgages. I was calling that decades before that actually came to a crisis stage, you could say. In the 1990s, both as a lawyer and as a law professor, I was warning against getting rid of Glass-Steagall — Brooklyn Law Review article in the mid 1990s, 1995. I warned against financial derivatives. So I’ve been a constant critic of Wall Street deregulation. I’m for Main Street; I always have been. I believe in the New Deal. I believe in bottom-up economics.

My activism has manifested itself in many ways, in many forms: certainly the anti-corporate globalization movement during the time of Seattle, against the Free Trade Area of the Americas Agreement. When I was a professor at the University of New Mexico, I threw myself into a grassroots campaign to get rid of felony disenfranchisement, and it was one of the great grassroots movements I’ve ever been involved in. It’s a small state and we were able to see change come real fast. It was right after the 2000 deadlock in Florida. There was a deadlock in New Mexico also, and we woke up to find that there weren’t enough electoral votes to count in New Mexico compared to Florida, but New Mexico was one of, I think, nine states at the time where someone who was convicted of a felony was barred for the rest of his or her life from voting. And we had an opportunity because we had, even though he was a Republican governor, he was a libertarian governor, Gary Johnson, who was trying to end the war on drugs.

We got a grassroots movement that lit a fire underneath him. We got Democrats in the state house, in the legislature, to pass legislation within two months, and Gary Johnson signed it. And that’s all it took, was two months of good organization and a lot of grassroots lobbying and New Mexico was no longer a felony disenfranchisement state.

And then there’s the Occupy movement, so I’ve been engaged really my whole life. I know some people have said, “Well, you haven’t run for political office.” No, but I’ve been engaged in grassroots lobbying and activism, and the focus of my mind, my heart, my soul, has really been on public policy issues and trying to create a better world.

GREENWALD: The last question. The critique that you’re making of how Debbie Wasserman Schultz funds her political career and her reliance on big corporate money is one that resounds to a lot of ears. The problem, however, is the reason politicians go in and feed at that trough, is that it’s a really potent weapon. It helps them buy ads, it helps them build campaign staff and get re-elected.

What is your strategy for being able to be competitive with someone so well-funded by large corporate interests, and how can people who want to see her subjected to a real competitive challenge, and even lose, how can they get involved in your campaign and support it and help? 

CANOVA: Well, I’m not taking any corporate money, and I think that that is resonating with folks. In the first three days after I launched the campaign, we got over 1,000 individual contributions. It’s now been a week and I’ve lost track; it’s somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 individual contributions. You don’t see that at most campaigns. I know in some ways we’re fortunate compared to other first-time insurgent challengers, because Debbie Wasserman Schultz is the poster child of a lot of what’s wrong with the Democratic Party. We’re attracting donors from all over the country.

We’re igniting the grassroots here in Florida. So we are raising money. We need to raise a lot more to compete with her, and I would just urge folks to go to, to give what they can. It doesn’t have to be a lot, but it adds up with people power. It has been adding up, so that’s our strategy, and we’re fortunate that we’ve gotten so much good attention so quickly.

GREENWALD: Well, I really want to thank you for taking the time to talk to me. I think it’s been super enlightening, and I wish you the best of luck.

CANOVA: Well, Glenn, thank you. I really appreciate you having me, and I want to thank you for your lifetime of work. You’re an inspiration to me and to a lot of other people, and it’s an honor to be interviewed by you.

GREENWALD: Thank you so much.

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