A Q&A with Rich Lazer, self-described 'labor candidate' for Congress with a super PAC | #PA5

When Richard Lazer launched his campaign for Congress, he said he backed the Bernie Sanders platform: a $15 minimum wage, free college, and Medicare-for-All. He also railed against “right-to-work” laws.

He staged his kickoff event in South Philadelphia, where he was born and lives today. That was likely no mistake: In order to win the May 15th primary for Pennsylvania’s Fifth District, which is largely based in Delaware County but includes a portion of South Philly, political observers say Lazer will need to capture most of the city’s votes.

Two of Lazer’s most prominent supporters are natives of South Philly: Mayor Jim Kenney and electricians union leader John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty. Lazer, 33, worked almost all of his adult life for Kenney, starting as an intern for him and eventually becoming his deputy mayor of labor. Dougherty encouraged Lazer to run and launched a super PAC for him, which has spent significantly more money on TV advertising than any individual campaign.

We asked Lazer about super PACs, whether he supports a national jobs guarantee, and more. Our interview with Lazer is the second in a series of Q&As with all of the Fifth District’s candidates, except for two did who did not respond to our request for an interview. It has been lightly edited for clarity.

Seven Quick Facts About Lazer’s Agenda:

  • His plan to create jobs: Make it easier to unionize, boost “economic engines” like the port, pass paid sick leave
  • On a $15 minimum wage: For it
  • Student loan debt: Backs free college
  • Marijuana: Supports legalizing recreational pot
  • National jobs guarantee: “I support it. I think that we need to make sure that we’re pushing for good-quality jobs”
  • Super PACs: “The structure is what it is. I don’t agree with it”
  • The budget deficit: To reduce it, roll back Trump’s tax cuts and close tax loopholes

Why are you running for Congress? I’m proud of the work that I did in the Mayor’s Office fighting for working families, and I really want to go down to Washington to represent working families and make sure they have a seat at the table, especially on economic issues, education and health care. And that’s one of the main things that, as I go through the district, whether it’s in South Philly or in Southwest or in different parts of Delaware County, it’s all about job creation, health care and education. They are the issues we continually talking about, especially with all the economic engines along the river in this district, with the port of Philly, the port of Chester, the airport, the Navy Yard, Boeing. I mean they’re just good, union-paying jobs that pay good wages that support families, and that’s something that I’m proud to hopefully go support down in Washington and represent those folks.

What are the biggest accomplishments of your career? The stuff that I’m most proud of is definitely the [Philadelphia Federation of Teachers] contract that we worked out. It was one of the most important things that we did when we came into office, knowing that the teachers were almost five years without a contract, and education was a big part of the … Kenney campaign. … So we knew we had to make sure to get that we contract done and it was the right thing to do, because teachers were going five years [without a contract]. We were losing good teachers. Teachers were doing two or three jobs, which is crazy. And they’re paying for supplies in the classrooms because the school district can’t supply them with it. So I was happy to kind of be instrumental with that.

Another big piece was the work we did down at the airport with [the Service Employees International Union] and UNITE HERE with the subcontracted workers with the airlines. To see, to just go down there and see what folks, what kind of working conditions they had, what kind of pay they were receiving, it was just sad. And to see that they really wanted to collectively bargain so they could get better wages, so they get better health care, and get better working conditions. You know, that was another issue that was constantly going on over the past administration, and we stepped in there. And at this point, they’re on their way to make $15 an hour with a collective bargaining agreement.

And I was proud of the work I did with UNITE HERE, as being the chair of the [city’s] Living Wage Working Group Committee. We’ve limited the amount of waivers we’ve been giving out. So that now folks — more of our city contractors are paying the $12, and $12.20 an hour. And the work we did with UNITE HERE down with the Sky Chef company, on how they made — they were making $7 an hour. Folks were working 60, 65 hours a week, living in poverty. Mostly people of color, immigrant workers. And just to step in there and get them $12 an hour … is something that I was proud of.

Anywhere we made strides making people’s lives better, especially making them have their pay, health care and retirement benefits, was something I was always proud to work on. And being involved the SEPTA strike, sitting down there with Congressman Brady and Congressman Evans to work with [the Transport Workers Union] and SEPTA, and just all those issues. And another piece I was proud of was with the building trades that we worked on: the diversity program that we kind of rolled out last year with PHL Pipeline. We kind of got together with Jerry Sweeney from Brandywine [Realty Trust], with [the University of Pennsylvania], and with the city to work with Councilwoman Blackwell and kind of use this pilot program to take [Career Technical Education] students from our schools and loop them into apprentice programs, where we have over 40 kids now that came out of Philadelphia CTE schools that now are in building trades apprentice program. So we’re giving folks in Philadelphia a great job through an apprentice program, but were also helping diversify the building trades.

A recent report found that most Americans can’t afford an $1,000 emergency. Wages have been stagnating for the middle class, and income inequality is high. What is your plan to create jobs and raise wages? Definitely to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour is something that’s extremely important. People shouldn’t have to work 40 hours a week and not be able to afford or have these savings. … I said this [in a previous] interview, but I really believe it: The decline of the unionized workforce and the decline is the middle class is the same thing. And as we continue to build organized labor, we’ll continue to accomplish. If you have somebody who’s — service sector is one of the prime examples, the service sector is continuously growing. They’re low-wage jobs. … When we worked with SEIU and UNITE HERE, the goal was to organize and help organize if people wanted to because that is the pathway to the middle class. So if you have somebody who’s making $7 an hour and now we just they did a collective bargaining agreement and they went to $15 an hour with health care and a retirement plan … we’re making people’s lives better.

And I just think by making folks be able to unionize if they want to, by raising the minimum wage, by protecting Social Security, and, again, all these economic engines that are in this district. We need to bring job training money home. … A ton of the job training money comes from the federal government, and goes through the municipalities, so I think we have to work with that money and help train people, not just people coming into the workforce out of school, but also the people that are in the workforce. How do we train them up so they’re eligible for promotions and continue to work up the ladder in your current jobs? I mean, you have the port of Philadelphia and you have ILA jobs and Teamster jobs — people are making $30 an hour. Those are good-paying jobs that can support families, and that’s what we have to do with the service-sector industry, and continue to bring resources home to help build all these economic engines that we have in this district. … So I think it’s training. I think it’s raising the minimum wage, protecting workers’ rights, making sure people have paid family leave, making sure people have paid sick leave, giving them the protections that they need and helping them. If a group wants to collectively bargain and wants to join a union, I think we need to make sure that pathway is clear for them and not put barriers in their way to stop them from doing that.

How would you make it easier to unionize, especially in the service industry? And why hasn’t that already been done by all of Philadelphia’s pro-labor elected officials? I think a lot of it is federal law, with the [National Labor Relations Board]. I think we need to streamline federal law allowing card checks. The process at the NLRB is very long and strenuous, and I think a perfect example was with SEIU. When they wanted to organize — the subcontracted workers — the airlines continued to throw roadblocks, continued the legal process to draw things out for years and years and years and discourage workers. I think we have to crack down on the practices that employers use to scare workers, having these concentrated meetings where they bring in firms and talk to workers and tell them about how horrible a union is and all these different things. I think we have to have fair election processes, and I think card check is extremely important. I think we should be able to recognize card check, and if folks sign a card to be part of a union and you have over 50 percent of the bargaining unit want to form a union, then that’s something that needs to happen federally. Like I said, just streamlining the NLRB process. I think just being on the bully pulpit as an elected official, as a congressperson, you have that. And you have to challenge the NLRB appointments done by the Senate. … Use the bully pulpit to make sure we’re putting people on the NLRB that are pro-worker. And I think it’s just like we did — I think you have to have the courage and determination to stand up. …

The stuff that happened at the airport, and I don’t want to jump on Mayor Nutter because I wasn’t part of [that] administration, but that stuff could have happened years ago if somebody in somebody in the administration would have stepped up and told the airlines, “This is a Philadelphia-owned airport, and we’re not going to have workers down here … who want to or may be discriminated against because they want to form a union. And that’s what we did, and that’s what we got it done. And I think it could have gotten done years earlier if somebody just would have just stood up and pushed the issue. And I think you have to have elected officials that have the courage to stand up and make sure workers are protected.

Talk about your foreign policy positions. Do you see yourself an interventionist, an isolationist, somewhere in between? I think somewhere in between. I think you have to look at every situation differently. Syria’s a perfect example of, you have this complex situation. You have the Assad government, and who is being supported by Russia and Iran. You have the U.S. is involved with the Kurds. You have splinter terrorist groups that are all throughout the country. I think you need congressional authorization for use of force. I definitely believe in that. I don’t think the executive branch should be able to use military force without getting sign-off from Congress. I believe you need a comprehensive strategy when you do these things. I mean, we bombed Syria before with no avail, and this is still happening. So it’s not working. I think I’m very big on how do we exhaust diplomacy. I think getting involved in too many conflicts stretches our troops. I just think you need to have a comprehensive [strategy], I come from the Obama part of how he used the state department, how he used diplomacy. … And like I said, we’re not privy to the information some of the Congress folks are privacy to now, so we don’t know all that’s going on on the ground. But I’m somebody who will really think that comprehensive strategy is important. But like I said, it’s back to Syria, we’re bombing a country that we know he’s using chemical weapons on his own citizens, his own people, and we allow 11 refugees from Syria in the country … since [President Trump] came in office until now. So if we really are serious about helping Syria and helping the folks, people of Syria, then I think we should be more serious about helping folks from war-torn countries and we have not done that in his administration. And I think that’s why comprehensive strategy is important.

How many Syrian refugees should be admitted into the country? I think I’d have to see. I think there’s some information I’m not privy to, but I think if we want to be serious about helping folks, we have to see what it looks like and who wants to come here and who do we make people’s lives better. And I would be for looking at that and for allowing Syrian refugees into our country.

What’s your position on President Trump’s strikes on Syria? I think we should have had a comprehensive strategy, and I don’t think they had one. I think they did something and it was a reaction, and as we know, President Trump is very reactionary. And I think we need to have a better plan and have a better comprehensive plan on how we’re going to deal with Syria than just dropping bombs.

Let’s say it’s 2019. The Democrats have taken back control of the U.S. House, and Nancy Pelosi and Tim Ryan are running against each other for Speaker. Who do you vote for? I haven’t put much thought into this, because I want to get past [May] 15th, and getting elected, getting past the 15th, being the Democratic nominee. I don’t know Nancy Pelosi well, but I know how she’s been on issues. I know her legislative record. I know what she’s done. I know Tim Ryan and I know where he stands. I probably think, on policy and background, I probably relate better to Tim Ryan on a lot of his issues. But I can’t say who I would vote for at this point because it may be somebody else who throws their name in the ring.

John Paul Stevens, a retired U.S. Supreme Court justice, has called for the Second Amendment to be repealed. Where do you stand on that idea? And can you talk generally about your views on gun laws? I think the Second Amendment is taken out of context. I don’t think it’s meant — we definitely don’t need semiautomatic weapons or assault weapons on our streets. We definitely don’t need weapons of war. I think it was, if you read the whole Second Amendment, it’s in a militia. It’s prohibiting individuals with domestic violence convictions from purchasing firearms, banning assault weapons, bump stocks, high-capacity magazines. I think it’s too widely interpreted. I don’t think it’s meant to be widely interpreted as it is now. I think we should limit the interpretation of the Second Amendment to how it was really meant to be. …

I think we just need to start with common-sense gun legislation and making it harder for folks that shouldn’t have guns to get them, making our streets safe. Because I think at a lot of these forums we talk a lot about issues specifically with semiautomatic and automatic weapons, but as you know, a lot of the issues that are killing folks in urban areas are illegal handguns. And that’s whats killing folks on the streets, so we also have to figure out how to get the mass influx of handguns out of the hands of folks on the street. And I think a lot of it is attacking poverty, funding education properly, making sure there’s job training and job creation, because I think if folks have good jobs and you tackle poverty, then crime goes down and a lot of the issues that we face will go away.

You’ve said you support Medicare-for-All. What does phrase mean to you? Single-payer? I am for single-payer. I just think that we need to make sure that everybody in this country has access and is covered by good-quality health care. And I want to get there. How do we get there the quickest way, and the most reasonable way? I mean we have less people covered this year than we did last year because of of the attacks by the Republicans and the Trump administration on the [Affordable Care Act]. We shouldn’t be going backwards. I think this phrase comes up so much, but it’s so true: We’re one of the richest countries in the world and we can’t provide to health care to all the people in this country. To me, that’s insane.

Do you agree with Nancy Pelosi, who said that Democrats can be pro-life? Or do you agree with Tom Perez, who said “every Democrat” should support abortion rights? I think every Democrat should support women’s reproductive rights and women’s right to choose.

So should someone like Congressman Conor Lamb not be  allowed in the party? I come from a strong Irish Catholic neighborhood, but I never had a problem saying that I believe in a woman’s right to choose and a woman’s reproductive rights. I mean I don’t want to exclude anybody from the party. We need to widen the tent, but I just know from my own decisions and my own beliefs in life, I just believe that women should be able to make decisions themselves and not have government or somebody else telling them what to do. … That’s how I feel. I don’t want to say we should exclude Conor Lamb from the party because he may be pro-life, but I know where I stand on the issue and I know where I’ll be on the issue in Congress.

We asked our readers to submit questions to the Fifth District congressional candidates. One was: Is your campaign staff unionized? I wish they were, but they are not. They haven’t decided to unionize. I wish they were, though, because as you know me, I consider myself the labor candidate, and I would love it if they did. … I say to them every other day, I say, “Listen, you guys should unionize.”

What is your position on President Trump’s tariffs on steel and aluminum and other products? And more generally, where do you stand on free trade versus trade protectionism? I had this conversation when I was out at the Delco AFL-CIO, specifically the steelworkers, on the issue of tariffs. I think blanket tariffs are dangerous. … I think tariffs should be used, and there’s ways to use them, but I think to put a blanket tariff on steel and aluminum is not going to help much as if it was strategic and used surgically. … There’s certain ways to use it. … I was reading an article where you have a company now, an American company that imports and makes steel products, now it’s cheaper for their clients to buy the product directly from China now, the made product, because it’s too costly for that company to import the steel and make their product in America. So [Trump is] actually hurting American companies. And I think you need to use tariffs strategically and not blanket them like he has.

And on trade, I’m for fair trade. I think there’s ways to protect workers here by doing trade agreements, but also make sure, the biggest issue is you have to make sure workers in other countries aren’t being taken advantage of. There should be protections in trade agreements when we make with countries that workers are being paid fairly, are able to unionize if they so choose … all this needs to be put into the trade agreements, because if we do agreements with other countries and they’re just treating their workers like crap and they’re paying them 50 cents an hour when we’re paying folks $25 an hour, A) it’s not fair to the worker that’s doing the work in the other country, and B) it’s not fair to labor in America, because they’ll never be able to compete with that. So I think we want to raise standards throughout the world when we do trade agreements and raise worker standards so that everybody can be paid a fair wage and have the quality of work and health care and rights that we have here in America. I think all those things need to be attached to trade agreements.

What is your position on the national jobs guarantee that Sen. Bernie Sanders is expected to unveil, and that others like Sen. Cory Booker have expressed support for? I support it. I think that we need to make sure that we’re pushing for good-quality jobs. At the end of the day, that’s the most important. … My father was a Local 19 sheet metal worker. He had a great job and he got paid well, and that’s how my family had a week down at the shore, we were able to have a good life, we had food on the table, and taken care of because my father had a union card. And I think guaranteeing everyone a good-quality job would help us battle a lot of the other issues we deal with.

What is your position on legalizing recreational marijuana? I support it.

Do you support impeaching President Trump? If so, on what grounds? I think I would support the process of it. I think what he’s trying to do, what the connections there may or may not be with his campaign and the administration with Russia prior to, during the election. Obviously there’s information we’re not privy to because we’re not in the congressional hearings, but I just think there’s grounds to move on it, especially with the Mueller investigation and how he’s trying to throw roadblocks in front of that and also what the impact of that investigation may be. So like I said, I would support the process to start that and I just think that we’re  going down a dangerous path with the way that he’s been governing.

What would be the grounds for starting the impeachment process? I think it seems like high-ranking officials in his administration and his campaign were colluding with Russia. That’s what from what I read, from what I see, that seems like a plausible thing, whether he’s telling the truth or not, perjury and different issues like that, whether he’s been truthful with the investigation. I think him trying to hinder — obstruction of justice is something we could look at it. Is he trying to hinder the investigation in any way, shape or form?

Republicans passed a big tax bill last year. What would your ideal tax legislation look like? I think we first got to repeal that. It’s $1.3 trillion in cuts. I think we have to repeal that. I think we need to put in first-time buyer protection. I think we need to put in tax cuts that help the middle class. I mean, trickle-down economics doesn’t work. Giving cuts, money at the top and hoping that big corporations end up letting this flow down to workers — it doesn’t work. It’s never worked. So it’s how do we give tax cuts to middle-class families? And … I think we have to look at a progressive tax structure.

This another question proposed by a reader: Should we be concerned about the size of the federal budget deficit? If we should, what specific revenue increases and/or spending decreases would you support? I think we always should be concerned about the federal deficit. … It’s looking at closing tax loopholes, allowing … for companies that go overseas. I think it’s a progressive tax structure. I think it’s rolling back the tax cuts that we’ve given out, for the $1.5 trillion we’ve given out. And I think there’s numerous different things that we could look at in different loopholes in our tax code that help the 1 percent, and I think that’s a way we can look to close federal deficit.

What is your position on super PACs? Should they be involved in this congressional race? One funded by the city’s electricians union and other labor groups is supporting youThe structure is what it is. I don’t agree with it. I would love to overturn Citizens United. I would be for that. I would support a constitutional amendment to do so. … I said this at one of the forums: One of the worst parts of the campaign for me is calling people for money. I hate it. It’s not something I enjoy doing. As you know, the way this process is set up, it’s necessary to get your message out there and contact as many voters as possible. As you see from newspaper articles and from my own PAC, from my own congressional fundraising, it’s mostly been organized labor that has funded, either through the super PAC or through my own campaign. And I think workers should have the same voice that big corporations could have. And I think that’s why we have to change the whole structure. And I think that’s why it’s important to overturn Citizens United.

What’s your relationship with electricians union leader John Dougherty? How would you stay independent from him? Do you think it’s important to be independent from him? We work on, just like I work with any other labor leader as the deputy mayor for labor, I worked with every one of them in some capacity. … When I work with him on issues, it will be for protecting workers, fighting right-to-work legislation, protecting good-paying jobs, protecting Davis-Bacon. I think it’s about working on issues that we support together, and I’m sure we’ll have disagreements. We’ve had disagreements in the past. And I think it’s just being true to yourself, and supporting what I support, and like I said, where we mostly agree is protecting workers and fighting right-to-work legislation. … When I work with the teachers, it’s about education funding. When I work with the AFL-CIO and UNITE HERE, it’s about paid family leave and paid sick leave. So I work with each one of these groups differently, but at the end of the day, it’s all about protecting workers and making workers’ lives better. So I think it’s important to be independent, and work, when you agree on issues, work with folks on whatever that agenda is to get done.

You said you’ve disagreed with Dougherty in the past. Can you tell me about one of those disagreements? Yeah. When I first started out doing public service, I remember I worked for [then-] Councilman Kenney, and back in the day the two of them were not on the best of terms. … Me and Councilman Squilla — at the time, [he] was not a councilman — we worked the local playground we took over. We ran against a lot of folks that John was supporting for the civic association. So we had our rough and tumbles for a long time. We probably were on opposite sides of each other more than we were on the same side in recent years just because we both … had different ideas. When I ran for the civic association, he was for a different group, and I was on the other side. So we disagreed there. And so one person I always worked for and I consider a mentor of mine is Councilman and Mayor Kenney. And that’s who I worked for probably my whole career, so we’ve had disagreements there as well, so we haven’t always been on the same side.

The FBI is investigating Dougherty and his union, and last year the Inquirer reported that “prosecutors sought correspondence and other documents from three current and former members of Kenney’s administration. Among them was Richard Lazer.” The article went on to say that “the warrant sought similar information about Lazer’s wife,” who is a secretary at the union. (No one has been charged.)

Do you know what the correspondence was that they sought? And have you been questioned by federal investigators? I have not been questioned and I don’t know what the actual correspondence was. I was sending emails, from what I was told, between myself and John. … As deputy mayor for labor, my role was to communicate with labor leaders all throughout the city, and that’s what I’ve done to do my job. But yeah, I’ve not been questioned at all.

What percentage of your staff and consultants is women and people of color? My campaign manager is a person of color. We probably, if I had to break it down … both of my deputies, my finance director are all women. Out of the two consultants that we have, one is an African-American female. So I would say our campaign staff — and Ryan Boyer is our campaign chair — I think probably 50 to 55 percent of our staff is either people of color or women.

The last question is from a reader: How would you deal with the most pressing public health issue right  now — opioids and overdose deaths? Do you support safe-injection sitesI lost numerous friends, I lost two of my cousins in the same year to opioid overdoses, so I’ve seen how it hits families and what it does to folks. I think we need to strengthen regulations. We got to make sure that doctors are not overprescribing. I think we got to hold Big Pharma’s feet to the fire and continually see what they’re doing. I mean they’re one of the biggest [opponents] to medical marijuana and holistic treatment. … I do support safe-injection sites. I think that any way that we can continue to save lives is important, and I know that there is a study done out of Ithaca New York that [showed] the more folks came into contact with safe-injection sites and medical personnel, they eventually sought — the numbers were higher that they actually sought help because they continuously came into contact with professional medical professional personnel. So I think we need to make sure that we’re holding Big Pharma’s feet to the fire, that we’re holding doctors who are overprescribing these pill mills to the fire, and I just think that it’s just got to stop.