Rep. John Delaney: A 2020 candidate you haven't heard about — and he's worth hearing

Does this Springsteen fan from New Jersey (by way of Maryland) actually have the best solution for climate change?

Published March 21, 2019 4:50PM (EDT)

 (Salon Talks)
(Salon Talks)

John Delaney is not just another of the seemingly dozens of Democrats running for president in 2020. He’s a New Jersey-born, Bruce Springsteen-loving, son of blue-collar parents who sacrificed in order for him to go to law school. He's a guy you can’t help but root for.  And yes, I’m biased because I, too, am from New Jersey, the son of blue-collar parents who sacrificed so I could attend law school, and I can also recite the lyrics to a whole catalog of Springsteen songs.

Delaney left the Garden State for law school at Georgetown, became an entrepreneur and then a member of Congress from Maryland. He was the first Democratic candidate to declare officially for the 2020 campaign -- and he knows he's a long shot. When I sat down with Delaney for Salon Talks this week, he was adamant that the No. 1 priority for him and the voters he's met on the campaign trail is defeating Donald Trump.

“The most important thing we have to do is beat Trump. There’s nothing, nothing more important than that,” he explained.

The former three-term congressman didn’t hold any punches when speaking of Trump's refusal to denounce white supremacy after the horrific attack in New Zealand: “It’s an embarrassment,” he said, one that “makes him unfit” to be president of the United States.  Delaney also slammed Trump for “lying to the American people” by denying the rising threat of white supremacy.

This son of a 60-year member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers has been described as a centrist at a time when the energy of the Democratic Party is on the left. In reality, Delaney has many progressive ideas on key issues from health care to the minimum wage to addressing climate change. It’s the way he wants to tackle these issues that makes him appear to some as more moderate.

For example, Delaney doesn’t officially support Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's Green New Deal package, but is hyper-focused on addressing climate change. In fact, his prescription to combat our changing climate was the most detailed answer I’ve heard from any 2020 candidate. His granular response literally took more than five minutes to explain and includes a multifaceted approach to “innovate our way out of this problem” that he says will end our dependence on fossil fuel while “taking carbon out of our atmosphere.”

Despite his successful business career, Delaney said that “capitalism unchecked” is “not being the right answer for this country.” Instead, he cited the polices of Franklin D. Roosevelt and other Democrats who have used the federal government as a way to provide vitally needed social programs while also creating opportunity.

Delaney isn’t serving up the headline-grabbing soundbites that some 2020 candidates are. But if you take a few minutes to listen to him, you will instantly get that he has given the issues facing our nation a great deal of thought, and he'll challenge you to consider approaches to these issues that we aren’t hearing from other Democrats — at least not yet.

Watch my "Salon Talks" episode with John Delaney, or read the Q&A of our conversation below.

We're both Jersey guys. We both like Bruce Springsteen. We're both lawyers, and both of our parents were blue collar workers who sacrificed for us to get a good education. How much of that background, not the Bruce part, but the blue-collar family part, impacts who you are today as John Delaney?

It informs everything of who am in many ways because I come, like you, from working people, people who got up every day, put on work boots or a T-shirt or jeans and stuff like that. Look, that's what most of the country is. I just think, unless you're from that, you can never truly relate to it. A lot of people talk about it, and then you realize they grew up in fancy towns with fancy families. I'm like, "You got to live it," and I did, you did, and it's the dignity of work that people under-appreciate how much pride people take in their work, the struggle for themselves and their families.

Does it affect your work ethic?

Totally. I mean, I always used to say in my business that you got to set the tone at the top. You got to show up. You can't charge from a vacation. You basically got to be there.

Another part of your background that's informed you I've noticed is your social justice orientation. Would you talk about, coming a lot from your Catholic faith, how does that inform you and influence you?

Look, my faith doesn't dictate my public policy per se, but as a Catholic, I think the finer side of my church is its work with the poor, and I think there's a great Jesuit model that we should be women and men for others. You when to a Jesuit school.

I went to Fordham, so yes, very much so.

Right, women and men for others, and I think it informs the way you should live your life. Every single person in this country should have some commitment in their life at some point in their life to try to help people. That doesn't mean you have to run for office, but you should do something in your community. You should give your time and, if you're blessed enough to have resources, you should give your resources. I just think we have a fundamental obligation to help those who are less fortunate.

At the same time, you've been very clear that you see a wall between church and state. You do not think policy should be based on religious text. I can agree with you. I'm a person of faith as a Muslim.


I was raised with Catholicism and Islam. I'm a Muslim. I absolutely agree with that. How does that impact though your pro-choice stance? How do you navigate being Catholic and pro choice?

I don't think the teachings of my church should inform the public policy decisions that I make in this country. I mean, Roe v. Wade is the law of the land. I support Roe v. Wade as the law of the land, and as the president of the United States, I will be an unwavering supporter of that.

Our faith informs things my wife and I would do in our own personal lives, but that should be separate than the government. I mean, to me, it's pretty simple actually. Everyone has the ability to have freedom of religion in this country, which is so sacred, and to basically live their personal lives pursuant to an approach or a code, and all religions have different things that people do, whether they're kosher or they're this or that, but when it comes to governing, the separation of church and state is incredibly, incredibly important.

I could not agree with you more, but there are certain people on the right who have blurred that line completely, including this administration. That's part of the battle as progressives.

Look, people again can have public policy views. If they differ with me on whether Roe v. Wade is the law of the land, they have every right to express that. I mean, freedom of speech is obviously central to who we are, too, but it shouldn't be based on a morality test that flows from your religion because we want those to be separate.

Again, people can disagree with me on my decision to support Roe v. Wade and they have every right to speak up about it, write op-eds, vote a certain way, try to change laws. They're allowed to do that, but it shouldn't be based on this notion that the policy of this country should come from religious doctrine. That's how I think about it.

You have been running for president since 2017?

Yeah, the end of 2017.

You were the first candidate. As people get to know you more, is there an issue or a concept you want people to think of when they hear the name John Delaney?

I want them to view me as what I am, which is a problem solver, who has really big ideas and wants to bring the country together. I think I'm running on exactly what this country needs. I think we're a terribly divided nation. I think the president wakes up every day and tries to divide us. I literally think he sits there and says, "Okay, what can I do to pit the American people against each other?" because, in that division, he sees strength for himself. I think the president should get up every day and have a quiet moment and say to themselves, "What can I do to try to bring this country together?" It's the way we get things done.

The story of the United States of America, of course, for the last 20 or 30 years is we've changed so much because of technology and globalization, and we didn't do the basic things we should have done to prepare our citizens for that change. I want your viewers and your listeners to think of me as someone who wants to bring us together, actually solve problems, and I have new ideas about how we rethink our future. I'm an entrepreneur, so I'm an ideas person. I think there's nothing more powerful than a great idea.

Do you view yourself as a capitalist?

Yes, I'm a capitalist.

We've had this odd debate in this cycle about capitalism.

It's crazy.

To the right, socialism is frankly any program that helps anyone, except for the wealthy. Those programs are fine if you're helping the wealthy, but everything else is somehow socialism. Why are we having this odd debate though about capitalism right now?

It’s a silly debate because, in reality, what the United States of America is is we're a free market economy that allows the free market to do what it does best, which is to innovate and create jobs, but we moderate it with really strong social programs. We build great societal infrastructure, at least we used to.

We used to have appropriate regulation, workers' rights and appropriate tax policy, but, in many ways, the genius of our country historically is how well we balance that. We allowed capitalism to do its magic, but we moderated it and channeled it with great societal infrastructure, regulation, tax policy, workers' rights.

What's happened over the last several decades, Dean, is we stopped doing that. We stopped doing the social program stuff and we let capitalism just go somewhat unchecked, so the right answer isn't to have this debate between socialism and capitalism. Socialism in its pure form is not the right answer for this country, but capitalism unchecked with strong social programs is not the right answer for this country. The right answer is to get back what we used to do, what FDR did and what people did, which is to say, "Listen, how do we make sure people are prepared for the future? How do we make sure a quality of opportunity exists in the country? What do we need in healthcare, in public education, in infrastructure, in tax policy, which is the way you pay for all that stuff?" I mean, we just got to get back to our roots.

It's interesting you mention FDR and LBJ. If people look through history, Social Security was called socialism by its opponents.  And Medicare, even Ronald Reagan was out there as a paid spokesperson saying this is socialism. Now, they're the most popular programs in our nation.

Yes and public schools.

It's like these labels are done by some who want to prevent a conversation that actually helps people.

That's right, and we shouldn't fall into the trap.


We shouldn't fall into it. We should say socialism in its pure form where government controls production is a terrible idea.

Nobody wants that.

Right, no one wants that, but we should also say capitalism unchecked is not a good idea. We just got to get back to what really has been the historical approach or model of this country. It's really not that complicated.

You are, I think, sometimes described as a centrist by the media. In reality, you're actually a progressive from what I've seen on many issues, but maybe not as progressive as some wings of the party right now. A lot of the energy, and you know this, is on the left side.


How do you navigate that, because you need that energy to win the 2020 Democratic primary, so what do you do? 

What I tell people is, listen, I think we're all fighting for the same thing. I think climate change is a huge issue. I got my approach to dealing with it. I think income inequality and opportunity inequality in this country is a huge issue. I have my approach to dealing with it, so there's got to be some appreciation by the voters that we're actually all fighting for the same things.

If you looked at my record, I pursued really big progressive things, but I also want to get them done, and the path to getting things done in this country is to find common ground, seek solutions that really work and advocate for them.

If you keep moving the goal posts, that's not how you make progress, so, I mean, I just think that, people, they're going to get there. We're having a great debate right now and I think it's healthy, I really do, but I think, as we get closer to the election, I think what people are going to focus on is the most important thing we have to do is beat Trump—nothing, nothing is more important than that.

You've been in New Hampshire and Ohio, Iowa countless times. You're out there. What are people in Iowa and New Hampshire saying in terms of what they want you to focus on when you're president?

They're really focusing on us winning. That's not really your question, but I mean it all comes down to that, and it shows you that they're right, they're smart, because that's what we should focus on, right? This election is really about beating Trump, and I personally believe the way you beat Trump is to beat him in the center because he's going to turn out his voters, and I'm pretty darn confident our voters are going to turn out. It doesn't matter which one of us is the nominee. We're going to turn out, and the best example we have for that is the last midterms where Democrats turned out in every district in this country and we had all different types of candidates running, and they all turned out Democrats.

The 2020 election is going to be fought in the center. Independent or unaffiliated voters is the largest, the fastest-growing voter block in this country. Who wins those voters is going to win in 2020, so voters are asking me about that. They're also asking me about the kind of things you talk about around the kitchen table, healthcare, if there are going to be opportunities for my kids, what's going on in the public schools

In Iowa in particular, people are very focused on how many of the towns have been hollowed out because there's not a lot of jobs. I mean, if you look at this country, the stock market is up, unemployment is down, it looks really good, but when you go behind the curtain what you realize is half the country can't afford $500, literally, according to the Federal Reserve. 80 percent of the venture capital invested in the United States of America last year went to 50 counties. There are almost 3,100 counties in this country and 50 of them got all of the money for startup businesses.

This is the first generation of Americans that won't do better than their parents. I mean, when we were born, the chances of earning more than our parents was like 80, 90 pecent. Today, it's down to 20 percent. It's the first generation that won't do better than their parents, so that's what they're concerned about.

What do you do about it? I mean, there's no easy remedy or prescription for creating jobs. We know that. If it was easy, you could just be like, "We're going to do this."


We've heard a lot. Trump in the GOP, it was the massive tax cut for corporations which turned into stock buybacks, dividends and corporate bonuses. The rest of the workers did not see that.

It was a corporate tax cut. That's all it was.

From you being out there, seeing different parts of this country, is there a national prescription to try to create jobs? What is that?

I think there's a couple of things we need to do. First of all, we would have a national infrastructure program. Nothing creates middle class jobs like building infrastructure. Ronald Reagan actually had a few good lines. One of his lines was, there are no easy answers, but there are simple ones. Building infrastructure is actually a simple answer to a lot of things that are ailing our country. It creates middle class jobs. It improves the lives of our citizens. Think about all the stories you read about where people have, Flint, Michigan, in small town in Iowa where their water is terrible. It makes our businesses more competitive, so we need to do that.

We need to do something called double the earned income tax credit. The earned income tax credit, which I like to call the worker's tax credit, it puts money in your pocket if you're a worker when you double that. Then we need to do things to make sure people invest in all kinds of communities, so I've called for 25 percent of the government contracts in this country to go to firms that have half of their employees in communities that are left behind.

You combine that with building infrastructure in those communities and you combine that with something that I led in the House of Representatives that actually passed as part of this terrible tax cut bill. It had a couple of things that I think was good. It was called the Opportunity Zone Legislation, and it creates a federal tax incentive for investors to invest in communities that are left behind, which is much better than all these states competing with each other for jobs. This is actually a federal tax incentive, so there are real things we can do to actually help people, and I've got a plan.

I think it's so important. There are people who have worked hard, they've done everything they're supposed to, it seems the rich are getting richer in their view, and they're struggling to make ends meet, and it seems, not just seems, it is true that this administration's focus are the wealthy and the corporation.

You mentioned Ronald Reagan in a positive way.

I did in a quote.

No. No. It's fine. No. No. I'm kidding. [laughs]

I thought it was a good quote.

There was something else that Reagan did which I have to commend. When the Klan endorsed him, he was very clear in saying, I don't want their endorsement. As a candidate, he said that people can support you, you can't choose that, but you can respond, and he denounced it. Over this weekend, on Friday, we had a horrific, white supremacist terrorist attack in New Zealand. Donald Trump tweeted this weekend slamming everything from a rerun of SNL, not even an original, a rerun, to John McCain, which is cruel, to fake news and will not tweet, “I denounce white supremacist terrorism.” He will not denounce white supremacy in any way. What do you make of that?

It's an embarrassment. First of all, he's lying to the American people. The best weapon against Trump is the truth, because he just lies. It's clear that there's a rise in hate crimes generally around the world and, among that, hate crimes and violence related to white supremacy, so what is clearly on the rise.

In fact, his attorney general gave testimony to the U.S. Senate where he said they're observing a rise in white supremacy, so the fact that the president of the United States isn't honest with the American people about what's really going on, because he was asked the question, he said, "No, I don't think it's a problem," when we have data that tells us it's a problem.

Extremism is a problem here, around the world. Hate crimes are a problem here, around the world. They're on the rise, and included in that is white supremacy, so, clearly, what the president should be doing is talking to the American people, denouncing it and, basically, warning the American people about what's happening.

It's amazing we're having this conversation. I've given up speculating about what's in his head. All I know is the way he conducts himself as the president of the United States makes him unfit for the office. The president of the United States, as I say, I think the tone at the top really matters.

When I was running my two businesses, I really believe the way I conducted myself both in the company and in my community was reflective of the kind of culture that I wanted to create. I think the president has that responsibility, which is why I think a president should be a unifier, not a divider, which is why a president's voice has to be present and, ideally, physically show up when you have these incidents of intense hate.

You need to be out there talking about this. You need to be leading. You need to be setting an example. You need to have a moral compass that always heads towards those better angels that Lincoln used to talk about that he wants the Americans to really remember about themselves.

Flash-forward, you're president of the United States. John Delaney is president. There is sadly, tragically a white supremacist terrorist attack on U.S. soil akin to what we saw in New Zealand or at the Tree of Life Synagogue. How do you respond?  

God willing, it won't happen, but if it were to happen, you condemn it as clear as possible and the ideology behind it. I mean, that part of the conversation should be the shortest part, and then you should start thinking about what can we do as a society to prevent these things. The condemnation of it in its clearest terms should be immediate and unwavering.

Let’s go through a couple of issues. We’ve had a conversation before about the Green New Deal. You did not support that. Tell us why and what is your plan?

I appreciate and I'm excited about the energy that the Green New Deal has created. In fact, I've noticed since I've been campaigning that the number of questions that come up about climate since the Green New Deal came out have increased, so that's all good.

It's totally all good, but I think the American people deserve to know what the plan of the president is, so I'll tell you what my plan is, because I think climate is an existential issue and I think it's different than other problems we have because we're running out of time.

If we don't fix our infrastructure in this country for the next five years, it's a huge missed opportunity, but we're not in an exponentially worse place, but that's what's happening with climate, so I want to get something passed in my first year as president, and that is the carbon tax, and I introduced the only bipartisan carbon tax bill in the Congress.

We put a price on carbon, it was modeled by Columbia University, to reduce carbon emissions by 90 percent. We take all the money and give it back to the American people in a dividend, so it's called a carbon tax dividend. I believe I can get that passed in my first year in office with every Democrat in the Congress and all the Republicans who live in coastal states. That's the coalition. When you want to get stuff passed in this country, you've got to think about coalitions because that's how you get things done. That's my coalition for that. That puts the brakes on climate change. It doesn't solve the problem, but it slows it down.

The second thing I want to do is increase the Department of Energy research budget by five-fold. We spend 6 billion on energy research. We should spend 30. I'm calling for basically a moonshot around innovation because we need new storage in transmission technologies if we ever want to get to Net Zero in this country, and my goal for Net Zero is 2050.

The third thing I want to do which I think is the most interesting and unique is I want to create a market for something called Negative Emissions Technologies. These are machines that suck carbon out of the atmosphere, and they're existing. The technology exists. It's like an air filter going across a filter where they have minerals and materials, and carbon attaches to them, then you heat it up, the carbon separates in liquid form, and you pump in the earth. These things exist, but they're really expensive.

I can imagine.

They cost $600 a metric ton, and the price of carbon today is estimated to be 50, but this is what people used to say about wind and solar, but what did we do? We created a market for it, and then the private market innovated its way to the fact that it's really cheap, so, right now, as a country, we give $5 billion a year of tax breaks to the fossil fuel industry.

I want to take that 5 billion and I want to use it to create an auction market where the government buys carbon, and every year it buys it at a cheaper price, and then all the entrepreneurs and investors out there say, "There's a market for these machines. We're going to invest in them and we're going to compete," and then we will unleash all this innovation, and I believe we'll create the machines that can suck 20 percent of the carbon out of the atmosphere because that's what scientists believe we can do. We will never get to Net Zero unless we do that.

The other thing about this is if we create these machines in the United States of America, they'll be the most valuable technologies in the world, and we'll be able to sell them or give them to everyone in the world.

Right now, China and India are opening a coal power plant a week. We have to innovate our way out of this problem, so what I'm calling for is you put the brakes on it with the carbon tax, with the singular focus on getting that done, and then you unleash all of this innovation to ultimately solve the problem in how we store, distribute energy and take carbon out of the

That's the most unique plan I've heard and it's well-thought out in detail.

It's going to work because if you go to the American people and say we're going to tie ... and so this is some of the issues I had with the Green New Deal. When John F. Kennedy said, "I want to put someone to the moon," he didn't tie it to other issues of injustice. He just basically marshaled resources and talent and said, "Solve this problem."

What I don't want to do is I don't want to tie climate change to other things because it's either a problem or it's not. When you tie it to other things, you make it harder to get something done, and I think we have no time, like literally no time on this issue. We have to get to Net Zero by 2050.

I wish that when people on cable news were asking questions, they would let the candidates give us detailed responses to questions so that people are going to weigh them and see the sincerity first and the thoughtfulness and how prepared the person is in addressing these. Someone might agree or disagree, but they know where you stand. They know exactly how you're going to get addressing climate change. Last thing…

 Let me just make one more point.

Sure, of course.

Because I care so much about this issue, what I want people to think about is getting off fossil fuels, but I want them to think about us getting, having less carbon faster because we can't get off fossil fuels fast enough, so, in a way, what we have to do is we have to take the carbon out of fossil fuels faster than we're even getting off fossil fuels. I want to get us off fossil fuels, but I want to reduce the carbon in the world faster than we even get it, and that's what's different about my plan. I'm sorry about that.

No problem. I think it's great. You give detail for people, and I think it's important that we push all of our candidates. People are looking right now, we have an opportunity, we have the first debates in June, to push the candidates to give detailed responses to questions, not just buzzwords like Medicare for All, but what does mean? Raise minimum wage, but how are you going to do that in certain parts of the country, which might be difficult for certain part? New Jersey is phasing it overtime with Governor Murphy.

 If you talk to like Terri Sewell, who represents Selma, Alabama, she'll tell you, well, you got to go slower here. We do have to get bogged down in the facts a little bit.

So let’s say you win and you're getting sworn in in January 2021. What is your number one priority?

In many ways, my number one priority is national service because I want to look at the American people and say, "I represent every one of you whether you voted for me or not, and I want to prove it to you."

I want to focus in my first 100 days on things that we can get done where there's common ground and that will bring us together. My agenda for the first hundred days is going to be about five or six things that currently exist in the Congress of the United States on a bipartisan basis, because I'm going to say, listen, these are the things good-minded Democrats and Republicans have worked on. Why don't we get these done?

My carbon tax bill is on that list. Comprehensive immigration reform is on that list. Digital privacy is on that list. More criminal justice reforms are on that list. There's actually a bunch of really big things. Wouldn't it be amazing if the president said, "I want to get some things done right away to show you that you should have faith in your government again?"

I also am going to call for national service because we need a big unifying program, not mandatory, I don't want to make kids do it, but I want to create real incentives for every high schooler to serve their country either the military, God bless them if they do that, or community service. We'll give them a break on their student loans if they do that, or infrastructure, rebuilding our parks, our federal building, bringing them up for energy efficiency. For that, they'll get a certificate. They might be a welder when they're done with that.

I think it will bring us together. I think we'll be proud of it. I think it'll help the kids. It will give them skills, and the kids will mix with kids from all over the country because that's what we really need, and I think the American people will say, that's the kind of thing that shows we're turning the page on decades of just corrosive partisanship, and we're all in this together.

It's not mandatory. We need to create incentives. This is all about carrots. You should do this because, if you do it, you'll pay no interest on your student loans.

By Dean Obeidallah

Dean Obeidallah hosts the daily national SiriusXM radio program, "The Dean Obeidallah Show" on the network's progressive political channel. He is also a columnist for The Daily Beast and contributor to Opinion. He co-directed the comedy documentary "The Muslims Are Coming!" and is co-creator of the annual New York Arab American Comedy Festival. Follow him on Twitter @DeanObeidallah and Facebook @DeanofRadio

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