An Interview with Andrei Cherny

Andrei Cherny, who previously served as Chair of the Arizona Democratic Party and Arizona Assistant Attorney General, is running for Congress in Arizona’s 9th Congressional District. He is the co-founder and president of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, as well as a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the Truman National Security Project. He served as a senior aide in the Clinton White House, advising and writing speeches for Bill Clinton and Al Gore, and has written two books, The Next Deal: The Future of Public Life in the Information Age and The Candy Bombers: The Untold Story of the Berlin Airlift and America’s Finest Hour. He graduated with honors from Harvard College and the University of California Berkeley Law School.

The Politic: My first question is, why are running for Congress? You entered the race relatively late, so did you have a hard time deciding whether to run, or did something happen that prompted you to join the race?

It was a hard decision, mostly because of the fact that I have two young children and love being their father. A couple things made me decide to run. One is that our local and state, as well as national leaders, really asked me to think hard about it and encouraged me to run, and also because I think that we as a country are facing a real moment of crisis when it comes to our middle class and our families, and what our country is or is not doing for people right now. I thought that this is really a moment where we have a chance to make some real changes.

The Politic: In the past you’ve had an important role writing speeches for and advising elected officials on policy, so are you positive that you can make more of an impact in Congress?

I think there are so many different ways that people can make an impact, and everybody has a responsibility to try to make an impact in their own way. That’s part of what being a citizen is — it’s not a spectator sport. Over the years I certainly have helped advise others, but have also been somebody who—whether as a policy thinker putting forward my ideas in books or articles, or as the chair of our State Democratic Party — has been offering a set of ideas which I think would help improve the situation in our country. There’s room in Congress for people who are bringing a different vision there, and that’s the place where we as a country have a battle of ideas and where we settle the vision where our country needs to go.

The Politic: Do you think the behind-the-scenes work you’ve done in the past has prepared you well to run for public office?

I think there are all kinds of different roads to running for public office, and I think my career has certainly involved some behind-the-scenes work, but most of that was ten or fifteen years ago. Over the past decade, I’ve done some advising for others, but have mostly been running my own think tank [Democracy: A Journal of Ideas] and putting a set of policies and approaches that I thought needed to be heard. I think that more than anything else has probably been what’s prepared me. It’s a big transition to go straight from advising somebody to running for office, and I think the work that I’ve done over the past decade is really what’s most important.

The Politic: You ran unsuccessfully for California State Assembly back in 2002 and Arizona State Treasurer in 2010. Did you learn some important lessons that are informing your current campaign?

Absolutely. I ran for legislature when I was still in law school — it was a primary and a short-lived campaign. So certainly you learn lessons from everything, but I think what’s most important in this race is the lessons I learned from the 2010 election running for Treasurer, because it was obviously a much bigger campaign and more like what I’m doing here now. I think we got a lot of people around the state excited about our race, and we had a much higher number volunteers and contributions than had ever been involved in the State Treasurer race. What I think I saw from that race was that people really have a hunger for people who are actually going to deal with the kinds of problems and challenges we’re facing in our country and our state that at this point just aren’t being met. I think we were able to resonate in that campaign because of that. Obviously, the other lesson I learned was, don’t run in the worst year for Democrats since 1894, because all our good work kind of got swallowed up by a Republican tidal wave. But I think this year and this district are very different, and we’re taking a lot of momentum from that race into the current campaign.

The Politic: Have you encountered any unexpected challenges in running a large-scale Congressional campaign?

The challenge of putting together a campaign is you’re almost starting a small business from scratch that is one that quickly has to ramp up and gets shut down on Election Day. So there are all kinds of daily challenges of logistics, but I think the thing I’ve seen most is that people are really hungry for a different kind of government and a different kind of politics in our country, whereas in 2010, people were pointing their fingers and blaming Democrats for what was going wrong, and in 2008, people were upset at the Republicans and President Bush. My sense in 2012 is that people are just sick and tired of a political system that is working for those with the connections and campaign contributions but is not actually working for citizens and not meeting the priorities that most families have. And that is something that I think is across the board and is a building block for changing the way we do business in this country.

The Politic: Arizona has made the national headlines a lot in the past year for extreme legislation. I know there’s a lot to choose from, but what was your biggest challenge as chair of the Arizona Democratic Party?

I think the biggest challenge was to choose which of the extreme ideas and people to really go after. I think my approach to being the party chair was to say it’s not enough to just criticize, but that we have to put forward a positive vision as well. For some Democrats, especially a lot of those in office currently, that was a strategy that they disagreed with. They were more comfortable with attacking what was going wrong. But I think that if you’re going to ask people to trust you to govern, you have to be willing to let them know what you’re going to do. I think it’s important, as Democrats, to stand up and say that we not only can be trusted but that we’re different than what you’re seeing from the Republicans — to act in a way that’s different, and not just be the flip side of a failed argument.

The Politic: You joined the US Navy Reserve after 9/11 and are currently a Senior Fellow at the Truman National Security Project. Do you think that Democrats need to work on their image as being weak on National Security? 

I think that that image has been around for years, and I think it’s one that is not well deserved. You only need to look at President Obama and the approach he’s taken in terms of going after Bin Laden and Al Qaeda, as well as his approach in Afghanistan of trying to wind down that war in a way that is responsible, and certainly his winding down the war in Iraq. I think that you are seeing a Democratic brand of national security that has better results than what we’ve seen in years gone by. I don’t think it should be partisan, but instead about which set of ideas really do make as a more secure country. So I don’t think Democrats need to worry about their image — I  think they need to continue taking positions that combine our military and our moral power together, because that’s really what strengthens America the most.

The Politic: You were involved in the push for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Can you give me the backstory on how it came about?

I had started and was co-running a think tank and journal that’s called Democracy and had known Elizabeth Warren, who was then a pretty much unknown law professor at Harvard, over the years. She was saying that she wanted to put forward an idea for a new federal agency that would do for financial products what the Consumer Product Safety Commission does for toasters and microwaves. We started working on a proposal that would unveil that idea, and then we put it forward and didn’t just stop there, but started building up a campaign around it. I went out and started hiring folks to help run and fund that campaign, and to get the word out so that the article and the idea didn’t just die in a publication, but was really able to have some legs and political support behind it. It was a slow beginning — a lot of Democrats were weary of the idea and taking on Wall Street in a frontal way, because of course Wall Street was opposed to the idea. But we kept at it and eventually it gathered stream. Wall Street spent $1.2 billion fighting financial reform in 2009 and 2010, and 2500 lobbyists were employed just to focus on this one issue, but we were able to win that fight. That is to me an example of the kinds of things that we want from a member of Congress—somebody who is going to put forward big ideas, build up an approach that engages citizens and get some steam behind it, and is willing to stand to their ground when the inevitable opposition comes.

The Politic: You’ve said that one of your priorities in Congress would be to hold Wall Street accountable. Do you think that the Dodd-Frank [Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection] Act goes far enough?

No, I don’t. I think it was an important piece of legislation that did a lot of good, and I think that the next steps have to be to strengthen it, to make it work better. It’s been a couple years now since Dodd-Frank was passed, and the Volcker Rule is still caught in the regulatory agency. So how things are implemented is a lot of what’s important as well. I think [Dodd-Frank] was an important first step, but I think there’s more that needs to be done.

The Politic: You’ve done a lot of work in economic policy in the past, so how do you think Obama has done on the economy as president?

Overall, I think he’s done well. He of course inherited a terrible situation that could have become a lot worse than it already was, in terms of just a complete meltdown of the American economy. He did a lot to stabilize things at a very important time, and I think as time goes by he’ll get more and more credit for that. I think [the Obama Administration] had to make some tough decisions, and having been in the White House before, I can tell you it’s easy to second guess those who are in the room at the time. But some of the decisions they made were ones that I think, in retrospect, didn’t work out the way that they wanted either. You have a situation now four years after the financial meltdown where these too-big-to-fail financial institutions are getting bigger, and I think that was a big problem we back in 2008, and I think it’s gotten worse. I think when it comes to the mortgage situation and underwater homes, what they put forward did not work well enough. It made a positive impact, but it didn’t do enough, and I think that the Obama Administration has acknowledged that. Not everybody’s going to get everything right, and we can’t expect perfection on every front, but I think in terms of its values and approach, [the Obama Administration] has been generally correct.

The Politic: My last question is, do you have any advice for young people looking to go into public service or policy?

I think the great thing about public service and government and politics is that it is a great meritocracy. People who are not only smart but willing to work hard and go the extra mile quickly rise up, and talent is rewarded in public service in a way that isn’t necessarily true in other areas of life. So I think that my best piece of advice is just to get involved. Go work on campaigns, go intern if you can in political offices. Talking about it and reading about it and thinking about it are all important, but nothing can replace the hands-on experience that you only get by getting involved at whatever level you choose.


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