Shenna Bellows (AP/Clarke Canfield)

Meet America's most progressive Senate nominee: Shenna Bellows of Maine

Former ACLU leader Shenna Bellows discusses heroin, the "surveillance industrial complex," and Medicare for all

Josh Eidelson
April 7, 2014 4:30PM (UTC)

In a cycle which may see Democrats pick off zero GOP Senate seats, longtime Maine ACLU head Shenna Bellows is out to oust popular incumbent Susan Collins. Bellows out-raised Collins in the last fundraising quarter, but was only endorsed by the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee after the passage of last month’s deadline for alternate candidates to file. Running unopposed in the primary, it looks like she’ll be this cycle’s most progressive Democratic Senate nominee.

In a recent sit-down with Salon, Bellows urged that the government legalize marijuana, break up big banks, institute “Medicare for All,” repeal the Patriot Act, halt mass surveillance, tax financial transactions, expand Social Security, reject the Keystone Pipeline, turn away from education privatization and extend Civil Rights Act protections to LGBT people. She hedged on whether she’d support the Assault Weapons Ban, and on whether heroin should ultimately be decriminalized. A condensed version of our conversation follows.


The Washington Post is reporting that a Senate report accused the CIA of misleading the government and the public about torture and about black sites. Does there need to be major reform of the CIA?

I think the first step is transparency… But certainly, given the revelations that the CIA was monitoring the computers of members of the Senate Conference Committee, I think there need to be internal reforms and stronger oversight by Congress.

How do you see the role that Senator Feinstein has played in… oversight of the CIA?

I commend Senator Feinstein for speaking out last week about the separation of powers issues involved when the executive branch is placing the legislative branch under surveillance. It is entirely inappropriate…

Equally concerning is the surveillance industrial complex that has really grown out of control…

Is there any justification for mass surveillance by the NSA?


…Mass surveillance of the citizenry is not compatible with the values embodied in the Constitution. We need to return to a day when surveillance was targeted, based upon probable cause, with reasonable court oversight…

Should everything in the Patriot Act be repealed?

When I began working for the ACLU in 2003, there were specific sections that we were very concerned about. For example... “sneak and peaks” [and] Section 215, the business records provision. We predicted in 2003 that would lead to abuse of power, and of course, over a decade later, we’ve seen the result…

It’s time to repeal the Patriot Act and put in place meaningful reforms…


Senator Collins reportedly is pursuing some kind of compromise to raise the minimum wage by what her spokesperson described as “a reasonable amount,” rather than [to] $10.10. What do you make of that?

$10.10 an hour is $21,000 a year. For the average family, that is a bare minimum to pay the bills, and put food on the table, and keep one’s home...

For members of Congress like Susan Collins -- whose salary for over 18 years was... over $100,000 a year -- to say that families can do less than $10.10 – it’s really concerning, and out of touch with the struggles of Maine families.


It gets argued often that Democrats have a better chance of passing legislation through both houses of Congress when a moderate Republican is in an office like the one that you’re running for, than a Democrat. What do you make of that kind of argument?

I have a proven track record with the ACLU of passing very difficult legislation… The key to passing good legislation is bringing together unusual partners bound around common principle. We see this in the USA Freedom Act, where you have Republican James Sensenbrenner, one of the authors of the USA Patriot Act, and Democrat Senator Patrick Leahy working together… You see it in sentencing reform…

I would be excited to work with… Republicans like Rand Paul on checks and balances on the NSA, and Democrats like Elizabeth Warren on checks and balances on the big banks… It’s a new type of leadership, which is: Instead of bipartisanship meaning compromising one’s principles in the name of getting something done, it’s standing up for core principles and reaching out across difference to get it done.


Should bankers have gone to jail for foreclosure fraud?

I think it’s very concerning in this country that so often white-collar crime is treated differently than crimes committed by working class people. And I think that we need huge sentencing reform…

That said, Congress -- including my opponent, Republican Susan Collins -- failed when they did not enact meaningful checks and balances on the big banks. I support Elizabeth Warren’s 21st century Glass-Steagall Act to break up the big banks…

What’s your assessment of how the Obama Justice Department handled the big banks?


I think there is a lot of work to do. What we have seen is that the regulations pursuant to the reforms have not been completed. Republicans have been incredibly obstructionist in this area…

Barney Frank argued to me last fall that we should “legalize people taking substances, as long as they don’t make them likelier to harm other people.” Including, in his view, heroin and cocaine, as well as marijuana. Do you agree?

I don’t think that the country is ready to legalize heroin and cocaine. But I do think we need significant drug law reform. We need to treat drug addiction as a health problem rather than a criminal problem, in general… We need to find meaningful ways to reduce incarceration, help people who are addicted deal with their addiction, get reintegrated into the community, get back on track…

In Maine, there is an epidemic of heroin overdose right now. And there are things that we can do -- there’s a bill in Maine right now, for example, to allow treatment to be made available to people…


From a policy perspective, do you think Maine would be better off if heroin were decriminalized?

I think it is really is too soon to have that conversation. I think the issue with heroin addiction right now is that government -- Republicans, including Governor Paul LePage, are blocking meaningful treatment alternatives. They have slashed funding for treatment in our communities, and we have seen a rise of addiction. And as a result, really harrowing overdoses that are really hurting our community.

So it’s time to reduce overdoses and addiction, and that means investment in treatment and prevention. That does not mean immediately going to making heroin and cocaine legal…

Where we need to start is meaningful drug law reform in a sensible, common-sense way. And that starts with the decriminalization of marijuana. I think all policy needs to start with a common-sense approach, bringing together stakeholders, bringing together the health community and the law enforcement and the medical community to come together around what the best pathway forward is.


Should marijuana be legalized as well as decriminalized?

I absolutely support marijuana legalization… What we see is racial disparities that are creating, as Michelle Alexander says, “The New Jim Crow.”

The ACLU has faced a good deal of internal and external controversy over its stance on Citizens United. The national ACLU currently maintains that “any rule that requires the government to determine what political speech is legitimate and how much political speech is appropriate is difficult to reconcile with the First Amendment.” Is that correct?

I support meaningful campaign finance reform… Maine has a clean elections system, so in the Maine legislature we see a diverse array of elected officials… I think we need to see national public funding mechanisms that are very similar to what we have in Maine…


And the regulations that were overturned in Citizens United -- should they have been overturned?

I think Citizens United is one of the gravest threats to our democracy…

Susan Collins is on the wrong side… She opposes disclosures of corporate contributions into the system, and she voted to confirm Sam Alito and John Roberts to the court…

Who should President Obama appoint to the Supreme Court if he gets another appointee?


There are many worthy nominees…

As senator, I will never vote to confirm a justice who is anti-abortion…

Why did you join the NRA, and why did you leave?

I’m passionate about the Constitution and the Bill of Rights… I joined the NRA because I do believe strongly in the Second Amendment. And at the same time, what I observed reading the NRA magazine month after month was that the NRA became too extreme…

I also think the NRA could have done more to oppose the USA Patriot Act… and could be advocating now for meaningful NSA spying reform and meaningful Fourth Amendment protections in all areas. I mean, look at the issues of domestic drone surveillance for example…

Should the Assault Weapons Ban be revived?

This is an area that’s hotly debated in Maine. Because the meaning of “assault weapon” is hotly debated…

I think it’s a conversation worth having, again, with reasonable people on all sides… I think we can have meaningful checks and balances and gun safety laws that also comply with the Second Amendment. But it needs to be -- we need to have a debate that is not black or white, but instead is sitting down and having a reasonable conversation with all sides. I think that’s been missing in a lot of areas in Congress. That we’ve become so polarized…

The Assault Weapons Ban that was law and then expired, would you have voted for that?

In 1994?

Or to revive it?

[Pause] The reason I’m reflecting is, I’m going back to me in 1994. In 1994, I was definitely of the side of the NRA, and probably would have been against it. But again, I think both technology has evolved and our views as a society have evolved, and I think it’s really important to have a nuanced conversation about this.

So I honestly would have to see the legislation. It would really depend on the details. That would be extraordinarily important to me -- extraordinarily important to a lot of Mainers.

And the Manchin-Toomey proposal, would you have voted for that?

I would have voted for Manchin-Toomey. It was legislation that was the best sort of bipartisan compromise.

If the Obama administration approves the [Keystone] pipeline, what will that mean for the president’s environmental record?

…We’re already seeing both the health and economic consequences of climate change. I oppose the Keystone pipeline, and I hope the Obama administration will too…

Would you support fast-track authority for the Trans-Pacific Partnership?

No, I oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and I oppose fast-track authority…

Is there any hope at this point in your view of the Trans-Pacific Partnership becoming a good deal then?

What was unfortunate about the Trans-Pacific Partnership is that it was negotiated in secret. Lobbyists from business interests were at the table, but advocates for workers and environmentalists were not…

Is Race to the Top good policy?

…What I think we’ve seen in the last few decades is congressional underfunding of education in both urban and rural communities. Truly, a lack of investment in teachers and also in facilities. So across the country there’s been an emphasis on testing and an emphasis on measurements -- sometimes at the expense of an investment in education itself. And I think that the trends in education nationally toward privatization of education are somewhat concerning…

In Maine… teacher pay has not kept pace with the professional sector in general, and we need to recruit more good teachers…

I also support universal pre-K…

We need to confront the crisis that is student debt… We are losing an entire generation that is truly hampered by high student interest rates and student debt burdens.

Should we tax financial transactions?


Should we expand Social Security?

Yes… If we were to scrap the cap, and make sure that higher-income earners pay their fair share, we could, in a fiscally responsible way, expand Social Security…

Last month, you told The Hill, “We certainly need to eliminate the individual mandate as it currently stands.” Given the insurance regulations in the Affordable Care Act, would that lead to a collapse of the private insurance market?

Honestly, I support universal healthcare. I think we need Medicare For All. I think that some of the biggest challenges with the Affordable Care Act were compromises struck with insurance companies, that have really undermined its implementation and the goal of getting universal access.

That’s partly a result of Republican obstructionism… Maine’s governor has been blocking expansion of Medicaid…

So would you propose, or would you support, just getting rid of the individual mandate without creating a “Medicare For All” system?

As we work on the Affordable Care Act, we need to make sure that we’re doing it in an integrated way, that we’re not just addressing one problem without putting in place a solution. So I think that it is important that we not just eliminate unpopular provisions without moving toward our goal of universal access…

Should there be public accommodations protections like the ones in the Civil Rights Act for LGBT people under federal law?


We need a federal Freedom to Marry. I think it is flawed that lesbian and gay couples in one state, like Maine, have a higher level of protections from discrimination than couples in any other state…

What should be the federal minimum wage?

I support President Obama’s proposal to raise the minimum wage to $10.10. I also think that we need to make sure that it’s indexed to inflation so that it continues to increase to keep pace with the cost of living.

And the minimum wage for tipped workers -- how much should that be?

I’d have to review the president’s proposal. I waited tables throughout high school and college, so I think it’s really important that we make sure that tipped workers’ wages are also increasing at the same time that other workers’ are increasing as well.

What should the president be doing with executive authority that he hasn’t so far?

He could place limits on the CIA, the NSA and the FBI.

What would those limits be?

Well, he could end the mass surveillance program. He could end the executive orders that allow for backdoor surveillance by the NSA.

Josh Eidelson

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