Would this Philadelphian make a good U.S. Senator?

In late January, PoliticsPA reported the registration of a few Web domain names that suggested a possible U.S. Senate run by current state Senator Vincent Hughes (D-Philadelphia). We’re not talking about subtlety here — we’re talking “Hughes4USSenate2016.com.”

Rumor promptly began swirling about whether or not Hughes—a state legislator who’s represented the 7th District for nearly 30 years, and the current ranking Democrat on the state Senate’s Appropriations Committee — was serious about trying to make the leap from Harrisburg to Washington. A few days later, the senator sat down in the Philadelphia Weekly office for a wide-ranging chat about the state of state politics, the Philadelphia schools, the struggle of urban communities and police to cope with one another, and more.

You’ve been a politician since 1987; you started in the state House when Ronald Reagan was president, then moved on to the Senate. What’s changed in the state legislature since then? Tone. Today’s it’s very harsh—mostly on the right. There was a willingness to work together years before. We’re going to hope that now we can find common ground [again] with the new reality in Harrisburg—you know, with the Democratic governor, a Republican-controlled legislature, and also a furtherance to the right in both Republican caucuses. [Also], the money that’s involved is way out of line, way out of bounds.

When you say “way out of line,” what do you mean? It’s basically unlimited cash. You have unfettered corporate funds that can engage themselves in political campaigns and messaging politics. They don’t have to report where they’re from. Pennsylvania was always at the edges of campaign contributing, because basically, at the state level, you can contribute whatever—[but in the past] you had to report everything. Now you can set up quasi-entities, PACs that don’t have to be connected with anyone, independent expenditures that really don’t have to report. It’s best evidenced by the Koch brothers. I disagree that entities [should be allowed to] set up these multimillion-dollar campaign-influencing operations without having any level of responsibility of reporting who they are, what they are, what they can do.

What would you say to someone who says that campaign donations are just an expression of freedom of speech? That’s bullshit.

So money doesn’t equal speech? No. No. Hell no. Come on. Corporations are not people, all right? To some extent, money is an expression of a viewpoint, but I’ll be damned if it’s a spoken word. It’s an expression of power, that’s what it is.

When you look at the trends over the last ten years, you see where income has grown: basically, in the top one percent. The average person’s income has declined over the last ten years, fifteen years, twenty years. So, this ability to influence public messaging, which is what most of this is about, to influence people’s outcomes—it’s an expression of power.

You’ve been a pretty staunch opponent of voter ID laws. One of the arguments that people on the right make is: “It’s not that hard to get a state-issued ID, so if you’re an honest voter, this is no problem.” What would you say to that? Tell that to an 80-year-old woman whose original information is in Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina—a place like that—and she’s got to go down and retrieve that information. Tell that to, even that same individual, who’s got to figure out their way to the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, to spend an extra 20 or 30 or 40 dollars they don’t have. Tell that to the person who understands that there has not been an abuse of this issue.

If there hasn’t actually been this kind of voter fraud, why do you think people are pushing the issue? They’re pushing it to repress voter participation. That’s all.

In certain populations? Absolutely. Poor folks, people of color.

So, voter ID is… Racist. OK? Senator Hughes said voter ID is racist! Did anybody see the movie Selma? Are we not reliving that whole reality?

Unlimited funding advantages the expression of power—you have that strategy, and then you have the strategy to deny people opportunity to vote. It all comes out of the Koch brothers and ALEC [the American Legislative Exchange Council, the conservative nonprofit that drafts possible state legislation for conservative lawmakers to localize and propose in states across the nation]. Unfortunately, I named my son Alek. A-L-E-K, all right? In the joy of his birth, I kind of didn’t realize.

[Editor’s note: ALEC’s work to develop voter ID legislation officially ceased after the dissolution of its Public Safety and Elections Task Force in 2012.]

Last summer, the city GOP photographed your official state-issued car with an “Obama 2012” campaign bumper sticker on it. Absolutely!

You refused to take it off, saying that — “When they vote for the minimum wage, I’ll take it off.”

Do you still hold to that? Absolutely! To $10.10 an hour, though, not [Republican state Sen. Scott Wagner’s $8.75] version.

The thing is, though, you were saying when we started that the tone has changed. What would you say to somebody who says, “Well, Senator, your tone is just as combative as the Republicans’ tone?” My tone’s been consistent. The first bill I cosponsored when I came to the legislature, in January of 1987, was a bill to raise the minimum wage. I’ve always been for: health insurance. Advocating for poor folks. Access to reproductive healthcare services. I’ve been consistent. OK? The right to vote, voter participation, rebuilding neighborhoods, helping out low-income individuals, health insurance for everybody. I’ve been there since 1987. The truth of the matter is that those of us on the left of things, our positions have been consistent for 20, 30, 40 years. Those on the right have moved further to the right, and so there is this conversation that both sides have gone to the extremes, and that’s just not true. It’s only one side that’s gone to the extreme. It’s only one side that’s tried to stop people from voting. It’s only one side that’s tried to lock in low wages. It’s only one side that’s tried to deny folks equal access to health insurance.

Absurd as it may be, there are people today who believe every single investment in social services — whether it’s funding for healthcare or public education—represents government interference in the free market. It isn’t government interference. Please. Come on. What we have with the Affordable Care Act is a privately run healthcare system. It is not socialism. It just so happens that Pennsylvania has one of the best operations in the country that provides care for low-income individuals. But the Affordable Care Act socialism? Please.

Why do you think people characterize progressive programs as somehow anti-American? Because they’re looking to try to marginalize progressive ideas. Raising the minimum wage is not some socialistic, communistic viewpoint. It’s about trying to lift up the middle class, where the true greatness of this country lies. A “Marshall Plan” to revitalize third-class cities—the Readings, the Harrisburgs, the Wilkes-Barres, the Eries of Pennsylvania, and the distressed communities within Philadelphia—that kind of public policy was a hallmark of the Roosevelt administration, a hallmark of the Johnson administration. The truth of the matter is, that’s where most folks want us to get back to, those grand ideas of rebuilding America, repositioning America to its greatness.

How do we do that at the state level, in Harrisburg?  First of all, we’ve got to advocate for it. We can’t run away from it. Have you heard the speeches that Wolf made to the congressional Democratic members? “Don’t run away from your values.” President Obama said the same thing. Don’t run away from those values, run toward those values, because that’s where the people are. I think Tom Wolf embodies that, and I think you’ll see that reflected in his budget address on March 3.

If that’s where the people are, though, then why do the Republicans control both houses of the state legislature? Gerrymandering. Redrawing senatorial districts, legislative districts, congressional districts to advantage one party over the other. The redistricting process in most states in this country is the height of [partisan] politics. Every decision that was made in the redistricting process in Pennsylvania for state Senate and state House districts over a 20-year period was advantaged by the majorities that the Republicans had at that time. That’s it. And that’s what’s happening in just about every state in the country.

So: Some web domains were registered just recently that seem to indicate someone named Hughes might be running for U.S. Senate in 2016. Do you know anything about that? How should I say this? The U.S. Senate is one of the most powerful places to govern from in the world. The idea of being a U.S. senator has probably been on the mind of every elected official from city councilperson to township commissioner. It’s been on my mind; it’s something we think about every once in a while. Most importantly, a very progressive agenda has to be espoused in that Senate race leading up to challenging Sen. Toomey, assuming that he runs for reelection. We made a decision to hold onto that domain name in contemplation of that move—should we decide to make it.

Do you think Pennsylvania is ready for that kind of progressivism on the statewide level? Yes. Whether it be me or anyone else. Somebody from the Elizabeth Warren wing of the Democratic Party. I’ve never met her, but I sure like what she stands for. We need to be talking about those kinds of issues, those kinds of values. We cannot reclaim this country by piecemeal progress. We need a “Marshall Plan” for this country to turn this nation around.

A plan of infrastructure, of education…? Of people. Investment in people. The infrastructure includes roads, but it also includes neighborhoods that have been devastated from decades of neglect and decades of folks just sucking the money out of these communities. We need to have—like the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe [after WWII]—a plan of the human infrastructure, the social infrastructure demanding that every school be a top-flight school, that we have a bias toward education, toward investment in our social structure. We cannot be a nation that allows any veteran to fall into a homeless status. That is one of the greatest sins of this country—that we have, at any moment in time, 1,500 homeless veterans in Pennsylvania. These are people who put their lives on the line to allow us to have this kind of conversation. And we allow that? That’s an embarrassment, all right?

Look, you gotta fight for the right thing. Whether you be from Philadelphia or Phillipsburg, it doesn’t matter. Whether you be from Pittsburgh or Pittston, or…

Come on, more alliterations. Pottstown… [laughs] No, no, I got it — Pottstown or Punxsatawney!

You mentioned education in there. You’ve gone on record suggesting maybe we should abolish the School Reform Commission, the state body that oversees Philadelphia’s city school district. Yep. The SRC has advocated in recent years for programs inconsistent with the success of the students of Philadelphia. It chose to walk away from a fight for more funding for public education. It talks about policies that mathematically don’t add up. We don’t have a fully-funded fair funding formula.

Why hasn’t Philadelphia been getting greater education funding from Harrisburg? Because Tom Corbett was the governor for the last four years. He’s gone. We’ll get it back.

Even with a Republican legislature? Absolutely. They have an interest that is similar. Many legislators across the state have a problem with a dramatic increase in property taxes. Philadelphia’s not the only community that’s had a dramatic increase—and I salute the city council for taking the hard votes over the last couple years that they’ve taken to make a commitment to deal with the loss of [school] funding from Harrisburg. There’s a politic that’s come together: The number one issue in Pennsylvania is funding for public education, the number one issue. Because of a lack of state funding for public education, local property taxes are going up all across the state of Pennsylvania. And the hue and cry from local folks has been: “We can’t have this anymore. We need more funding from Harrisburg.” So I believe that there’s a confluence of issues that are coming together that will allow for us to rewrite the education formula to more appropriately fund it at the level it needs to be funded. Now, we’re all going to have to fight for this — it’s not going to be easily provided. We have to marshal up our resources and commitment to really fight for something I think is important. No community survives if its education system is not strong.

That said, do you feel that there is a certain attidude in Harrisburg against Philadelphia? Of course.

So how do we — Here’s what’s funny. And it’s not funny, it’s tragic. I hear, “Philadelphia gets this, Philadelphia gets that, we’re always doing something for Philadelphia, we need to stop doing stuff for Philadelphia. Oh, by the way, Senator, my granddaughter is sick — can you get her into Children’s Hospital for me? Oh, by the way Senator, I got this application for my son for University of Pennsylvania or Saint Joe’s or Drexel, can you help me out with that?” So there’s a little bit of hypocrisy.

I’m tired of hearing these politicians who vilify the city of Philadelphia but come here constantly to raise money out of the city. Philadelphia and southeastern Pennsylvania makes up about 40-50 percent of the state’s total economy. You can’t take money out of the city but be unwilling to put money back into the city.

Mayor Nutter, I think, has done a good job over the last several years, making the city’s case to Harrisburg in very difficult times, in a very difficult environment. We have to keep on doing that; we have to continue to show Philadelphia’s vitality and its importance to the commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The innovation at the Science Center in University City, in West Philadelphia, the only Ivy League university in the state of Pennsylvania. The growth of Drexel University. The Barnes Foundation, a world-class museum. Philadelphia is, I think, the second most populated Amtrak station in the country, only behind Penn Station in New York.

Other people see the importance of the city and the region, and they’re making conscious decisions to come here and to invest here. We’ve got to continue to do a job that requires a lot of work to make sure the people in Pennsylvania also understand it’s a worthwhile investment. But: We also have to invest in their communities too. I’m not going to offer a plan to build up the devastated communities in Philadelphia without also offering a proposal to build up devastated communities in Scranton, in Harrisburg, in Reading, places like that. We have to have a program that revitalizes the entire state of Pennsylvania. I know you’ve heard this number repeatedly: When Governor Corbett took office, Pennsylvania was seventh in the nation in job creation. We’re now 50th. And we’re last amongst the seven-state region in terms of private-sector job creation.

What about people who say we need to frack the hell out of the environment in order to create energy jobs? I’m not with that. The job yield out of that is as, my lawyer friends would say, de minimis. Because once you do a fracking site, there’s only a handful of people who actually work that site. We really have to question the math on how many jobs are actually created in terms of that.

I agree with Governor Wolf when he signed the executive order to stop the drilling of state park lands. Pennsylvania is known around the country for its state parks and state lands and how we value them and treasure them. We don’t need to allow, without the appropriate regulation or oversight, access to these lands. We need to hold off until we get clarity in terms of what oversight is really occurring. There was a report released several years ago in Harrisburg that there are thousands of wells in the state of Pennsylvania that are not on the state’s DEP website. They don’t even know that these drilling sites exist. So how do you monitor them? How do you check and see if they’re being appropriately run? How do you make sure that the wastewater is being treated appropriately? Do we have the appropriate oversight? Are we staffed appropriately in the Department of Environmental Protection to monitor what’s going on? You know, we need to take a strong look at that stuff. Not to mention the earthquakes in Ohio!

Moving to the conversation about policing in America that’s been unfolding since the Ferguson case: President Obama chose our own Commissioner Ramsey to head his task force, and we’ve had a lot of #BlackLivesMatter protests in and around Philadelphia. Recently, there was a young man, Brandon Tate-Brown, shot and killed by the Philadelphia Police Department during a traffic stop. The police have an account of the killing that says Tate-Brown reached for a gun. There are community members who don’t trust that account. So, first: Do you understand why some people would be distrustful? Mm-hmm. You’ve got a very messy environment when it comes to policing. You’ve got communities in serious distress. There’s a lot of tension, a lot of pain, a lot of problems. It’s like a tinderbox for abuses. Folks are living on edge—and so are the police officers. We have the proliferation of guns all over the place, and we don’t need to take that lightly: There are guns all over the place in this city and this state. So every circumstance comes out of a tinderbox.

There’s been a history of abuses by police, there’s been a history of mistakes by the police, and there’s been a history of problems in the community. Police are here to clean up the messes that occur in the neighborhood. So what we’re trying to take a look at in Harrisburg is a more holistic look at the situation: How much police training is going on? Are police being trained at the appropriate level so that the training matches the 21st-century reality, so that the training matches what’s happening in the community, so that the training matches the proliferation of guns that exists in our communities, so that the training matches the tension that exists in most communities? How many folks in the community really understand that when an officer comes up to you and says, “All right, chill out,” that the best thing to do is to follow that lead? Now, if the officer abuses that situation, that’s unacceptable.

What about people who are tired of being stopped by police and say that they’ve had enough, like the Eric Garner case? I didn’t see Eric Garner resisting arrest. What I saw in that situation is a guy who was probably harassed a lot, but in this circumstance, I didn’t see him doing anything wrong. They came at him in a way that was inappropriate; [police] have to use [a person’s] history to inform [their actions], but you also have to deal with each situation independently.

But if people are tired of police harassment and they say something, the police, as we see in the Garner case, might respond in an excessive way—so should people not say anything? They should say something! If a person feels they are being mistreated, they have to speak up. Now, if we’re talking an arrest, I think the worst thing to do is to resist arrest, because that clearly leads to something much more problematic. If an officer comes up to you and says, “Yo, you’re under arrest,” you just gotta kind of go with it. There’ll be an opportunity down the line to try to get you off that circumstance through the process. I’m not saying the process is perfect; we’ve gotta perfect a very organic process that changes and evolves with the times. But that’s the best way to keep your life. When you self-escalate, then the environment lends itself to escalation, and in that circumstance the officer has the advantage.

How can the police rebuild trust with communities? Just full engagement. There’ve been stories where police officers have worked through the local police athletic league, or have set up programs working with the community, so the folks in the neighborhood have a better relationship with them. There are a tremendous amount of police officers doing a great job who, for years, follow cases and eventually wind up locating the person who was a shooter or something like that. There’s a lot of great policing going on. We’re in an environment, this tinderbox, with no money, lots of tension, more guns, more drugs all over the communities, the heroin epidemic that exists—all that stuff that only lends itself to really heightened situations and really heightened problems. Better policing, better relationships between the community and police officers, and really thinking through how to interact with police in a stop so that the situation doesn’t become escalated.

Now, none of that exonerates a police officer from using excessive force, from taking the power of the badge and the power of the gun and inappropriately using it. So you’ve gotta have the body cameras. I think there was a study done recently where police officers who were hesitant toward body cameras, after about eight or nine days of using them, were like: “This is great. This is fantastic. This works all the way around. It helps me do my job.” And it helps the community with trust, and it also helps with preventing circumstances and situations where officers have kind of nudged and twisted a situation to create a problem where none necessarily exists.

Do you support the idea of “broken windows”-style policing? No. No. No. The best way to do good policing is to have an engaged relationship: The police know what’s going on in the neighborhood, the neighbors know the police they can trust and believe in and have confidence in. That’s the best way.

You’ve been active in HIV/AIDS advocacy for a very long time. HIV is rarely talked about even though 20,000 Philadelphians live with it, myself included — Oh, really? You look great, man!

Thanks. I’m good. The thing is, even though I’m a gay guy and it affects my community more, I only started to pay attention to HIV/AIDS, truly, when it affected me directly. Why do you care about HIV/AIDS? I don’t know if it’s my parents and how they raised me or whatever, but when the HIV struggle first materialized, folks with HIV were—as my wife [TV star and activist Sheryl Lee Ralph] can tell you the story so dramatically and so clearly—being dropped off at hospitals, left on gurneys in the hospital not being treated, not being touched, they were shunned like, to use a biblical term, like lepers.

In my early time in office, you couldn’t talk about HIV. A lot of folks don’t necessarily want to go to those [topics], there’s not a lot of votes there. But [my team] did newsletters, we held community meetings, we tried to educate folks—because sex, one of the most fundamental things that we do as humans, as a species, was becoming a vehicle for death. We gotta break that cycle, we gotta stop that. We do a lot of work around mental health—another area a lot of folks don’t want to touch. That’s what we do, because the issues of mental health are devastating.

Which is why we tie in the HIV medical assistance benefit with psychiatric care. You got to. All of it’s gotta come together if you want to try to make a person whole again. That’s why health insurance is so important. Because people were not going to care, because they didn’t have coverage. They weren’t getting the drugs — which, as you know, ten years ago you had to take 20 pills.

Yeah, I take one pill a day, no side effects, I can’t transmit HIV, my life expectancy is standard. But the minute that that goes away, then I have maybe seven years ahead of me. My life expectancy with those drugs is 75. But without? 40. See, it took a lot of work to get to the point where people would have insurance that would cover those medicines. It took a lot to get to the point where people could accept folks who were HIV-positive and living with the disease. We’re big advocates of the rapid test. The company that makes the rapid test is a Pennsylvania-based company, OraQuick; they’re out of Bethlehem. The issue of testing, knowing your status, being aggressive about knowing your status, is fundamental.

I have one quick last question. Does having a mustache make you cooler? I’ve been thinking about shaving off my beard and just having the mustache. You rock it, but I’m not sure I could rock it. Thank you for the rocking of the mustache.

So, does it give you power, having a mustache? I don’t know. It all depends on what my wife says. If she says, ‘It makes you look sexy,’ I’m going with it.

I hear that. I shaved my head largely because my wife approved of it. It did wonders. You can quote me on that, too.

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