WHY LIBERTARIAN IN 2016?
An Interview With Thomas Simmons
June 2016 was a highly emotional time for LGBT Americans. This year's annual New York City Pride Parade, held on June 26th, drew record numbers of participants and supporters. However, the event was sadly marred by the still-open wound of the Orlando nightclub shooting two weeks prior. It was widely speculated that the massacre in Florida would cause tensions between American Muslims and the LGBT community, two groups that were already used quite frequently as political pawns through the years. In reaction to Orlando and other recent tragic events, a vigil was held in New York City's Times Square on the evening of the Pride parade. The event, which featured speakers from both the Muslim and LGBT communities, was actually more than just a vigil; it was a rally to speak out against further violence, fear-mongering, and post-tragedy political opportunism. One of the speakers was 56-year old Thomas Simmons of Shelbourne Falls in western Massachusetts. A professor of business and economics at Greenfield Community College, the 56-year old, openly gay adoptive father of six children is running for Congress in Massachusetts' First District, on the Libertarian ticket. He will go up against the incumbent Richard Neal, a Democrat. Simmons grew up in Baldwin Harbor, Long Island, which just under 30 miles from New York City. He is quick to point out to me, however, that his ancestors actually came to New York City in 1642. They were Dutch sea captains. Simmons moved to Massachusetts in 1991.
It's easy to forget that there are more than just two political parties in the United States. The Libertarian Party, officially formed in 1971, is the third largest nationally organized political party. The main platforms of the Party are the promotion of civil liberties, non-interventionism, laissez-faire ("hands off") economics, and the abolition of the welfare state. Thomas Simmons is always happy to educate the masses on the benefits of less government in our private lives. He is against government-mandated gun control, an issue that has occasionally put him at odds with some of his fellow liberal-minded peers, both gay and straight. However, he believes that the LGBT community has much more to gain in terms of civil rights with the Libertarian model:
"So often we run to the government as our savior. Pull back a little bit. With DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act), who was the adversary to us exercising our right to marry? It was Congress. It was the government. Right now, there's the whole transgender bathroom issue. McSorley's Old Ale House in New York City has figured out how to have people in a bathroom without a problem for decades. Target has figured it out. Individual businesses have figured it out. Who is the problem? It's the State of North Carolina, saying, 'You can't do this! You have to do THIS instead.' Look back to when blacks and whites couldn't marry. Who was the problem? The government. We run to the government for the answer, when many times they are the problem. They are always, sadly, behind the times. At the rally, I wore my Stonewall Inn T-shirt. Think back to those incidents that sparked the Stonewall riots in . It was a reaction against the agents of the State who were sent there to harass gay people. The State is almost always the problem because they have power and authority. They can jail, fine, confront, or arrest you. They have been the problem, not the savior."
Articulate and knowledgeable, yet always jovial in personality, Thomas Simmons spoke with me about the Libertarian Party and his political vision for both Massachusetts and the entire nation:
JR: Hello, Thomas! Thank you for speaking with me. So, for starts: What was the goal behind the recent rally in Times Square?
TS: The goal behind the event was to bring a groups of people from different perspectives within the Libertarian party, to talk mostly about civil rights from our perspective. We billed it as a vigil for dealing with people as individuals and not as members of groups. What we've seen, especially in the wake of the Orlando shootings, is that politicians were really quick as to who the "bad guys" are: "Muslims are the bad guys". "Gay people are the bad guys." "Legal firearm owners are the bad guys." It was very quick. In this country, every time there's a crisis, there's a call for immediate, instant action... and every time that happens, there's an erosion of civil rights. The examples we brought up were: World War II, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Crisis! So lets take Japanese-Americans out of their houses, out of their jobs, and put them in--let's call them what they were-- concentration camps.
JR: Yes. There was a recent musical on Broadway about that, "Allegiance".
TS: Yes! Another example: September 11th happens, and the immediate reaction is The Patriot Act. Now the government wants your library records, and they want limitless search and seizure, and they want a Secret FISA Court to get a warrant. In 2016, after the Orlando shootings, it's like, "We gotta do something! We gotta do it now!" Whenever we act out of fear and crisis, we tend to do it in the name of national security, and we tend to be willing to give up civil rights. The groups that were present at the Rally included Muslims for Liberty-- a group of Muslims mostly in the New York area, who actually believe in freedom and constitutional rights. They are not terrorists, and they don't want their name on a "No Fly List" simply because it sounds Arabic. Another group was Outright Libertarians, who I represented, which is the gay/lesbian/transgender caucus within the Party. Pink Pistols did not show up because there was a scheduling conflict. So, it was a number of groups who all believe in holding up the Constitution and not giving in to crisis mentality, hate, or the "Who are the bad guys?" kind of thinking.
JR: Congratulations on that event! Now, it's safe to say that a lot of Americans see only two political parties in this country. They only see Democrats and Republicans. What would be the most important thing that you'd want the masses to know about the Libertarian party?
TS: We start from the perspective that the majority of Americans-- or at least the plurality if not the majority-- actually see themselves as Independents: Not as Democrats and not as Republicans, even though they may naturally gravitate towards those parties. They are registered as, or consider themselves to be, Independents. They have really rejected the Establishment politics of both, and the nonsense that both parties play. A great example of that nonsense is the recent four votes on gun control in the House. The difference in those four proposals was minute. It was a hair. Yet, the Democrats only voted for their proposals, and the Republicans only voted for theirs-- because to them, voting for their proposals was more important overall than actually doing anything. So, if you start from the perspective that the majority of Americans are really Independent and are sick of both parties-- as evidenced by both the Sanders phenomenon and the Trump phenomenon-- then the Libertarians actually represent what most Americans are. That means: Get the government out of my life. If I'm not hurting anybody, let me live my life. We represent Americans who are fiscally responsible and socially tolerant. It's just hard for us, as Libertarians, to get on the national stage. We've done better this year than any year previously, because Gary Johnson and Bill Weld leading the ticket are credible candidates. This year, there is a credible third choice. I think that we are very used to "Democrat versus Republican", but Americans are very willing to go "Third Party". Ross Perot got 18 percent of the vote. John Anderson did much better against Reagan and Carter than anyone thought. We simply need to get on the main stage... but there's such a fixation that it's only Democrat and Republican that it's hard to do that. In my case, I am running for Congress and there's no Republican in the race. It's still a two Party race. It's me against the incumbent Democrat.
JR: I understand! So, for people who have never been in your district in Massachusetts, what is unique and/or distinctive about where live and where you hope to represent?
TS: Western Massachusetts is very different from the rest of the State. With the exception of the city Springfield-- which is kind of an anchor in the Southwest corner of my district-- my district is very rural. It is very liberal. These are "farmers with PhD's", as I like to describe them! They are organic farmers. They are people who believe in local economies, local networking, small business... They are this interesting dichotomy of both sportsmen and hunters, and Bernie Sanders supporters. Our district voted for Bernie Sanders three to one in the Democratic primary. And then there are the colleges! We call it the "Pioneer Valley" along the Connecticut Valley-- that's where U Mass Amherst is. We also have four community colleges, and the Five Sisters consortium of colleges-- all private. The people in my district are very highly educated, very open, and very tolerant. We have a town meeting form of government, and everyone participates. It's very realistic. People are very bent on having conversation and on coming to a consensus to govern. It's just very different from living in a big city like Boston or Bedford.
JR: On a larger level, what characteristics are in your district which also would apply to the proverbial "Anytown, USA"?
TS: What applies to "Anytown, USA" would be the emphasis on small business. In this economy, small businesses have been creamed. A lot of Congressional legislation is all geared towards helping large corporations. Bailouts, for example, were geared towards keeping large corporations afloat. The Import/Export Bank was geared towards helping military contractors in Washington stay afloat. The "small guy" is actually getting wiped out. the Berkshires, which are in my district, is a big vacation spot. You can see motel after motel after motel boarded up. Restaurants come and go. They turn over after three or four months because they can't make it. Being a small business person in this climate is really tough. I think that is the case in "Smalltown, America" all across the country. There's the whole idea that if you're big and wealthy and have connections in Washington, you can get bigger and wealthier and have more connections and more government support. But if you're the little guy, that doesn't happen.
JR: Living in New York City, I have seen much of that through the years in many neighborhoods. It can be depressing and discouraging to see so many small businesses close down. So, as a political candidate, what issue or issues do you feel most strongly about?
TS: There are a couple of issues which really prompted my run against the incumbent. The first is Common Core. It might not be a glitzy issue, but for teachers-- and I have been a teacher for 18 years-- it's a big issue, especially in Massachusetts. The students and the teachers themselves have their hands tied. It interferes with teaching students to think critically, to explore things, and to pull information from different disciplines together to come up with new ideas. Instead, what they are told is, "Here is the curriculum package we bought from this big curriculum company. Here are the A, B, C, and D multiple choice tests. This is how you answer the test." That's what they spend their time doing. As long as they get the right percentage of students to do well on the tests, then the federal government releases funding to the schools. So, everything is incentivized to get good grades on a test, and not to teach students how to think critically. They come to the college level after high school, and the ability to think critically and to integrate different disciplines is a lost art. When we are dealing with complicated economic questions and having a discussion, a student will ask, "So what's the answer?" In other words, "Don't make me think through it and say, 'Well, it's complicated.' Is the answer A, B, C, or D?" That's what they are being trained to do. I watched this happen for 18 years. That's coming out of the Federal Department of Education--which is, quite frankly, in league with curriculum textbook-publishing companies. There are only four or five of them. The gentleman I am running against has been one of the biggest promoters of this. This actually launched my campaign.
There are other issues as well. We are a very pro-choice district. The man I am running against has voted to restrict women's medical choices on a number of occasions. I am 100 percent pro-choice. I don't believe the government should stand between person and their doctor. That could be on the question of abortion, or the prescription of medical marijuana to veterans. It crosses a whole bunch of different issues when you get the government involved; I want them out of medical decisions. Here's my real radical stance: I am running as openly gay and openly HIV-positive, which puts me in a fairly unique and very narrow category of people running for Congress this year. Just like the federal government ties transportation funding to having a 21-year drinking age, I actually would tie health care and Medicare funding to eliminating HIV transmission as a crime. There are just too many places in America where that could send you to jail for 10 to 20 years. State legislatures are free to tackle the issue because it's just not "politically safe" to do so. So, I would definitely be on the side of that issue, as well as ending employment discrimination for other gay, lesbian, and transgender people. Those are the three issues I am going to be hitting home in the campaign.
JR: On a national level, what do you believe is our most important issue?
TS: I'm going to make it a double issue: The national debt, and the erosion of civil liberties. Those are the two things that I've been concerned about as an economics teacher for the last 18 years. The national debt is now 20 trillion dollars. So what? So we owe 20 trillion bucks. How does that affect me? Obviously, in your personal life, it may not. So what if the government owes it? But when the government spends more than it takes in, it really borrows the money. It just doesn't print more on a printing press. It borrows the money from large institutions that have enormous sums of cash. We borrow from Goldman Sachs, from Chase Manhattan, from Citibank, from the House of Saud, from the Chinese government -- and then we pay it back with interest. That interest comes from the United States taxpayer through their federal income tax. We now spend five times more in interest payments alone than we do on infrastructure-- roads, bridges, et cetera. That's a lot of money coming from Joe and Jane Taxpayer. And the money gets paid to these enormous financial institutions. It's an institutional situation where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Bringing revenues and expenses in line-- both the tax system and spending--must be a top priority. Most people in Congress say that, yet they don't want to do it. They'd rather come home to their district and say, "I brought you this and I brought you that!" Never mind the fact that we had to borrow to pay for it. It gets them re-elected in two years. I've already told my district that I'm not going to come back and say that I'm bringing you all sorts of goodies if there's not a way to pay for them.
The second issue is the erosion of civil liberties. I've always been a big supporter of the ACLU. I get emotional talking about constitutional rights and civil liberties. I fear the State. It doesn't matter whether it's the Russian pogroms of Jews, the "internment" of Japanese-Americans, the jailing of draft resisters, the attack on the Waco compound... The Bill of Rights to me is very special. It says, "Government, stop! You can't get involved in my life." When you start saying, "Yes, they can read my e-mails, and they can tap my phone, and they can put me on a 'No Fly' list and not even tell me that they're doing it." then we have reached an Orwellian, authoritarian State. We have, in essence, pretty much become-- and I hate to be so bold about this, but I will-- the Soviet Union that I learned about as a kid in elementary school, and that's scary. I don't believe in government surveillance.
JR: A very hot issue right now is the concern for our country's safety with the influx of refugees from the Middle East coming into the United States. We had spoken about that a while back. You told me that some of our fears may be hyperbolized, because most of the refugees will likely assimilate into our culture over time. However, some people dispute that-- and they use recent tragic events in France and other European countries as an example. What would you say to them?
TS: It's a different scenario in Europe. What makes France, for example, unique is that they are French. They have their French language and their French culture. What makes Germany unique is their "Germanity". What makes the Danes unique is that they speak Danish and have Danish culture. America does not have that, to that extent. We are this enormous "salad bowl" of so many cultures. People still harken back to their ethnic backgrounds. You can still see ethnic Germans doing schuhplattler dances. You can see Hispanic-Americans celebrating Quinceañera. People bring with them the best of their culture. But all you have to do is walk down the street here in New York City, and you'll see an Arab, a Jew, a German, an Albanian, a Latino, and a Brazilian all working at the same construction site together. People remember who they are and they bring with them the good-- but they tend to begin much better here in the States rather than in Europe, which is so identified by their own language and their one culture. This has been the history of America.
JR: How true! Well, thank you for speaking with me. Where can people learn more about the Libertarian Party?
TS: They can go to www.LP.org, which is the national Party's website. Again, I will say that like any political party, there is a national platform and there are individual candidates. That website gives a very general, "Here's our philosophy" approach. My candidacy in general is www.Simmons4Congress.com.
JR: Thanks again, Thomas! I wish you the best of luck in your political endeavors!