Joe Kennedy’s decision to try to unseat the U.S. Senate’s leading voice on climate change has opened up a scramble for Kennedy’s fourth district seat in Congress. It’s a race with a lot of talent, including a man who brings a combination of lofty idealism and a track record of translating those ideals into reality. That distinguishing combination makes him quite special.
With his elite education at St. Paul’s School, Harvard and Harvard Law School, Alan Khazei could have made a lot of money in the corporate arena. He has the executive skills necessary to do so, but that was never his definition of the good life. It was never in his DNA. The son of an Iranian immigrant doctor and an Italian nurse, Khazei instead has lived a life of public service, starting with legal aid and tenant organizing while still in law school.
In 1988, Khazei and his then–Harvard roommate Michael Brown founded City Year, a non-profit organization that offers 17- to 24-year-olds the opportunity to spend a year in full-time community service. Khazei and Brown saw that service as a meaningful bridge between high school and college. Thirty years later, expanding national service, especially in this time of rancor and raw partisan and tribal divisions, is part of what drives Khazei to run for Congress.
Since its founding, City Year has provided tens of thousands of young people with their first job. It operates in 29 U.S. cities as well as in South Africa and the United Kingdom. City Year service has provided mentoring for two million children. It was the inspiration for President Clinton’s AmeriCorps. Khazei worked with Clinton to develop the initiative.
He built solid bipartisan support for the program, and, when the Bush Administration cut AmeriCorp’s funding by 80 percent in 2003, Khazei worked around the clock for 100 hours, bringing young people into the halls of Congress to testify. They slept on the floor in sleeping bags. They went back and forth between Senate and House, in rooms reserved for them by Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy and Republican Congressman Chris Shays of Connecticut. The young people told their stories, and the strategy worked. They saved a billion-dollar agency; the cuts were restored, and they got a 50% increase.
Khazei played a key role in three major bipartisan legislative accomplishments around national service. In 2008, he organized a summit including Republicans John McCain, Orrin Hatch, Mitt Romney, and Laura Bush along with Democrats Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and Caroline Kennedy. They were joined by some 30 generals and other veterans. The collective effort produced the Serve America Act , Ted Kennedy’s last piece of legislation, the largest national service initiative since the Great Depression, expanding participants to 250,000 a year. Notably, the bill received 79 votes in the Senate, including a majority of Republican senators even though Mitch McConnell was opposed. (“Intersectionality” is a key word in Khazei’s lexicon, the idea of building coalitions to accomplish realizable goals.)
Some 265 school shootings since Donald Trump took office have reinforced Khazei’s commitment to new gun safety legislation, and he envisions similar “endless” hearings of victims of gun violence to drive home the message. “I know we can win,” he said. “I’ve done it before.”
He sees this as the worst of times and the best of times. The worst, for obvious reasons: Trump’s daily assault on our fundamental values, an existential threat because of his failure to acknowledge the climate crisis and his sowing hatred and divisiveness. But, he says, it is also the best of times, citing the Women’s Marches, the national network of sister marches, in both of which he was involved. He enthusiastically supports the March for Our Lives on gun violence, the Sunshine Movement around climate change, and Stacey Abrams’ efforts to ensure voting rights. We haven’t, he said, seen this level of activism in 50 or 60 years. He makes a cynic want to believe.
Khazei wants to harness all this energy and bring it to bear on – and in – Congress. This great-grandson of a coal miner is intent on restoring the American dream of social mobility, reducing economic inequity, and creating a public option for Medicare. Not surprisingly, he has a plan to expand national service for people between the ages of 18 and 28. That service would qualify them to use special accounts for purposes of education, setting up a new business, putting a down payment on a home, even for lifelong learning. (He proposes that the special individual accounts, which he would like to see set up at birth, be seeded partly by monies from the estate tax.)
This level of idealism stands out because it comes from someone with a track record of accomplishment and also because it comes without the anger you hear so often from other candidates modeling themselves after Bernie Sanders. Asked to identify his Congressional role models, he notes Ted Kennedy, Paul Tsongas and Harris Wofford.
Khazei ran for U.S. Senate twice and failed, but he feels that this run for the MA fourth district House seat is his time. I don’t know if he’s correct, but I do know that every other candidate in the race who may share similar policy goals should be challenged to spell out how he or she would be able to actually get things done in the gridlock that is Washington today.
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