When Alan Khazei graduated from the Harvard Law School in 1987, he did something that almost no one else does: he turned away from private practice, to do something real for others. There were plenty of high paying jobs at prestigious law firms. There was an easy path to a career that his parents, children of immigrants to America, would have been enormously proud of. But instead, Alan and his friend, Michael Brown, launched a project to help kids serve their communities. And thus was City Year born — a nonprofit that today gives kids in 29 cities across America the chance to spend a year helping rebuild America, and in the experiences they have, a year building their own character as citizens too.
To me, this story captures everything about this person who I’ve known for 25 years, and who I am supporting for Congress in MA-04. It is a story about courage and idealism, but also a story about success. Many of us have dreams. Few of us make them real, and fewer still, real in a way that continues to matter to the lives of thousands of kids each year. City Year inspired AmeriCorps, which today gives more than 1.1 million Americans the chance to tutor children, build parks and homes, provide disaster relief, restore our environment, and support working families, veterans, and seniors. Service has always been a central part of Alan’s message and campaign. If he were in Congress, no doubt, he’d press for an even more ambitious plan to let anyone serve and to give every young adult the chance to serve beyond the service they could offer the military.
But it is a second part of that story that clinches it for me. When Tom Delay and the Republicans put AmeriCorps on the chopping block, the future of this incredibly important program was thrown into doubt. Or actually, there was no doubt. Every sane soul would have said that it was dead. Yet Alan made it his mission to persuade Republicans in Congress to change their minds. With colleagues, he built a national and bipartisan coalition of 44 Governors, 150 Mayors, 250 business and nonprofit leaders, and 200 University Presidents to defend AmeriCorps. The climax of the effort was a 108-hour around the clock, people’s hearing in Washington DC, taking testimony from people across the country about how AmeriCorps had changed their lives. That campaign succeeded in flipping the Republican House. What no one thought was possible — by even a Member of Congress, let alone a private citizen—he had done.
I know there are many who think that progress is made by vilifying the other side. That’s plainly wrong in an institution like Congress. Progress is made by convincing others of your principles, by bringing them to see why they are their principles too. We’re not going to convince a majority of Republicans to support single-payer health care tomorrow. But it takes a certain kind of person, with a generous, if earnest soul, to persuade them to see the right in what our side believes. Congress needs more like this. And literally no one I have ever met does this work better than Alan.
Alan is now in an eight-person battle for what was Barney Frank’s seat, and the seat now being vacated by Joe Kennedy. The seat will go to a Democrat. The question is which Democrat will win in the primary. The campaign has seen the worst of sleazy SuperPAC spending, and for me, it draws a clear line between those who say they are reformers and those who practice reform.
The attacks have come from Emily’s List’s SuperPAC. Since there are four women in the race, Emily’s List can’t say anything nice about any one of them. Instead, it has launched an extraordinarily dishonest campaign against Khazei. Based on a single quote from an 11-year-old article in Politico, in which Alan Khazei said he supported Nancy Pelosi’s strategy for passing Obamacare, the SuperPAC claims that Khazei “turned [his] back on women.”
It takes just one second to see the silliness in these charges. Alan was supporting a strategy devised by Nancy Pelosi. Did Nancy Pelosi “turned [her] back on women”? It is a strategy that was supported by every Democrat in Congress, including obviously every Democratic woman in Congress. Did those women “turned their backs on women”? And as for the charge that he is against health care — as Barney Frank told me, if this strategy had not passed, Obamacare would not have passed. So is Emily’s List against Obamacare? Is Obamacare against women? The add is “misleading and irresponsible,” as Barney Frank is quoted in the Boston Globe, and “is symptomatic of destructive politics.” Even the Globe has called it a “mugg[ing].”
But Emily’s List knows that if you’re explaining, you’re losing. It knows that its $500,000 spend in negative ads will cause damage, even if its claims are patently dishonest. It doesn’t care about the truth. It cares about the effect — will it take down one man, to make it easier for one of four women to rise?
Yet even worse in my view is the reaction of the other candidates. Every one of those candidates says that they are against the sleazy influence of potentially-dark-money SuperPACs. And everyone has been unfairly attacked, at some point, by someone. Yet not a single candidate in the Democratic primary had the courage to even acknowledge the unfairness in this attack at the last Democratic debate. Every one of those candidates knew that they couldn’t get on the wrong side of Emily’s List, quickly becoming the Koch Brothers of the Left. Every one of them did the crude calculation of the practiced politician— can I afford to state the truth? Or more simply, does the truth help me, politically?
These are not profiles in courage. They are instead the worst of politics, bringing out the worst in our politicians. If they can’t do the right thing here, then seriously, when would they?
If these sleazy and false ads by Emily’s List have their effect, it will only make politics worse. The reason SuperPACs are such a corruption in American politics is that they have such an enormous power that no politician can rationally resist. And while we on the Left might like the message of SuperPACs on the Left, no one should be confused about this: The other side has wildly more money to spend, which is why, to this day, we have no climate change legislation, no real access to affordable medicine, endless spending for weapons of death, and an economic policy that cares first about Wall Street, always forgetting Main Street.
Congress needs courage, not more cowards. It needs people with integrity, willing to say what’s true because it’s true, not because it helps. As the 100 women who signed a letter criticizing the Emily’s List SuperPAC ad said clearly, Alan has been a forceful advocate for women throughout his career. He was a key organizer of the Women’s march on Inauguration Day in 2017. He is firmly and absolutely pro-choice. He has done nothing to justify Emily’s List’s attack — except not being born a woman.
This gaslighting of someone who has only ever worked for the public good is false and dishonest, and beneath an organization like Emily’s List. Yet the SuperPACs know that they are not on the ballot. Candidates are. And no one who believes in reform should support a candidate who can’t even utter a simple truth — that these ads are unfair and false.
If you are as sick of this kind of politics as I, then do something to make sure it doesn’t win. And if you are eager to support a candidate who has only ever devoted his life to making things better for all, but especially kids, then make sure that he does win.
None of the other candidates running for Congress in MA-4 can say that they’ve achieved as much against all odds in DC as has Alan. And none has explained why they can’t muster the decency to even acknowledge that false attacks should have no place in Democratic politics. Even without that weakness, I would have supported Alan. But that weakness of character in them makes the argument even clearer: Alan has led a life making idealism happen — not just across America, but also in DC. He is a man of extraordinary integrity and passion. He should be MA-4’s next representative.
You can support Alan’s campaign here. And if you’re a supporter of Emily’s List, I hope you’ll ask them to do better — or be fairer—next time.