Jeeni Criscenzo is the best congressional candidate you have never heard of.
While the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee supports candidates who disappoint voters by trying to look more like Republicans than Democrats, there is a small group of Democrats running for Congress with an honest progressive message: America has tried the Republican way of doing things for years now. The right wing agenda of the Republican government has failed. So, it is time to return to the course of America's traditional values of freedom, the rule of law, and high moral standards for our political leaders.
I spoke with Jeeni Criscenzo earlier this month after reading about the ideals which motivate the Criscenzo for Congress campaign. The transcript of our conversation can be read below.
We went to Amman, Jordan, and the purpose was to meet with members of the Iraqi Parliament and other Iraqi leaders to start a dialogue with the intention of talking about how we get out of Iraq. How do we end the U.S. occupation of Iraq?
I was invited to go with a group of what I would call citizen diplomats, peace delegates among who many had been participating in a fast to bring the troops home in Washington, D.C.. They had hoped to meet with the Prime Minister of Iraq when he was there seeing George Bush. He turned them down. What happened is that members of the Iraqi Parliament were so upset by that, that they sent a message to these people saying, "If you come to Amman, we will meet with you."
What was it that upset them about that maneuver by the Prime Minister?
Well, they are very interested in ending the U.S. occupation in Iraq, and the people in Iraq are not hearing about the high numbers of Americans who are opposed to the continued occupation. They didn't realize that the polls now show that it's a majority. So, just like we're not hearing their point of view, they're not hearing ours. This was very important in the meeting, to share with them.What is the impression that they're getting if they don't know that there are so many Americans opposed to this war?
They're very frustrated by it, that we can continue to supposedly support this administration's lies. It's clear that they do not want us there, and that there is no hope of us leaving according to the criteria set by the Bush Administration, because Iraq can never have their army in place and their government in place as long as we are there as occupiers. Anyone who cooperates with the United States might as well just put a big target on their back.So what were they asking for? What is their vision to end the problem?
Their vision is that we leave, including closing our bases. There are 14 permanent bases, huge bases, being built in Iraq that show that we do intend to stay. Our tax dollars are paying for these huge constructions. They''re like cities.So, here in America, we hear over and over again that if we leave, Iraq will fall apart and it will become a bloody mess.
That's why I wanted to go. I've been saying all along that nothing good can come from us being there one more day. I live in a military area here. Camp Pendleton is right here at my doorstep. It's part of my district, and I talk to marines all the time. I can tell you, I've seen a major change in the last six months. These young guys have been there, and they're being sent back, and they know that there's no mission. They're just being sent to be targets.
So, from the point of view of our troops, and what it's costing our country, a billion dollars every two and half days, what that translates to in loss of money for domestic things, what it translates into in the immoral idea of that we are indebting our great grandchildren, what it translates to in that we have no more credibility for diplomacy in the world, I know that we have to get out of Iraq. But, I have always been very concerned about what happens to the Iraqi people when we leave. That's why I wanted to go.Did the members of the Iraqi Parliament that you met with seem concerned about that?
No. I can tell you that we met with people from the Sunni, the Shia, and many other factions. Not from the Kurds, but these people had just returned, less than a week earlier, from meetings in Cairo for putting together a reconciliation plan, so they were able to convey to us the wishes of the Kurds as well. Number one, it is unanimous that they want the United States out of Iraq now - as fast as possible.
Number two, I saw Shia and Sunni sitting side by side, leaders of the two largest coalitions, and they said, "We are friends. We go to one another's homes for dinner." The one man who is Sunni told me that his wife is Shia. We heard over and over again from many different people that Sunni and Shia have been living together, side by side, neighbors, married to one another, friends, for hundreds of years. The difference between Sunni and Shia goes back hundreds of years to the time of Mohammed, when one faction decided that the descendants of Mohammed should lead, and another faction felt that someone else should lead. So, it's the same as the difference between Catholics and Lutherans.
The most insulting thing you can say to an Iraqi is, "Are you a Sunni or a Shia?" In fact, we met one man, there was one session we had that was with survivors of Abu Ghraib, and one young man, a schoolteacher, had been abducted in the middle of the night and detained. He was taken in to be interrogated, and the first question they asked was, "Are you a Sunni or a Shia?" He said, "What an odd question to ask." With all that fear, even in that situation, thought that was an unusual question to ask.
So, what is all this sectarian violence that we keep hearing about? It is occurring. It is not them. It's coming from outside. They want it to be very clear that there are two types of entities that the United States is fighting. They're fighting what we call insurgents, which are what they call resistance fighters. The others are these militia, the paramilitary, the death squads. They are foreign. They are not the Iraqi people. Some people implied that they were the United States, that we were deliberately creating this civil war so that we would have an excuse to stay.
You actually met with survivors of Abu Ghraib. How do you communicate with voters in your district about that?
Well, I wrote a blog, and in the blog I said I'm ashamed that this is being done in my name. Some people wrote back and felt that that was wrong to say that I'm ashamed. I can tell you that everyone in the room that was listening to these people was crying. It is beyond belief what human beings are doing to other human beings in our name. It has to stop. I have a very conservative district. We're mostly working class people. We're struggling to survive, but I believe that they're good people, and that they're decent and they would never condone this being done.
You've taken something called the Peacemaker Pledge. What is that and why did you decide to take that pledge?
Well, I actually created the Peacemaker Pledge. When we left Jordan, we had a meeting, kind of a debriefing meeting to summarize everything that we learned, and discuss what do we do with it. I felt that we need to empower the American people. If we're a majority that wants to be out of Iraq, how do we empower the people of the United States that their will is followed by our supposedly elected government. We have this election in November. The Iraq War should be the defining issue, and every voter should be able to say to potential candidates, "I will not vote for you unless you show me that you have a commitment to ending this occupation of Iraq."
So, I said, we need a way that voters can easily identify where the candidates stand on this, and we came up with the Peacemaker Pledge. It's a simple branding that you can put on your web site, and put on your printed material, that says that you signed a Peacemaker. It's very simple. It just shows that you have a commitment, that this is a priority, to work with your colleagues in the 110th Congress, to put through legislation calling for a speedy withdrawal from Iraq. It doesn't say how to do it. It doesn't even say exactly when to do it. It just shows that you have a will to do it.If the majority of Americans are against staying in Iraq, how come we've got the Congress which is refusing to act to get us out of Iraq? How does that happen?
The Congress we have right now is not representing the will of the people. They're representing the will of special interests. It's the military industrial complex that we were warned about by Eisenhower. It's there in full force. The Progressive Caucus and members of Congress who really do get it and care about the people that they're representing are helpless. They just have no power. So, we need to replace not only Republicans. We need to replace Democrats who have no spine in Congress. We need to have a powerful voice for the will of the people.Back in 2002 and 2003, what was your stand on the war in Iraq in the months before the invasion?
I was out in the streets protesting it. It's the thing that pulled me into politics.That's what pulled you into politics? What was your relationship with politics before then?
I was more interested than most people. I had written a novel about the ancient Maya and had done a lot of research about conditions in Chiapas, Mexico. That made me aware of the fact that our press wasn't telling us what was going on there, and so there was an evolution where I finally started to realize that we weren't being told the truth. So, I was out there trying to educate people about what was really happening.What are your impressions of the months before the invasion of Iraq and the movement that was put together to try to stop that from taking place?
My daughter was in Spain just before we went into Iraq, and she called to tell me that there were millions of people marching. She said, "There's no way that we're going to go into Iraq. There are millions of people all over the world marching against this thing." We did it anyway. That was the rude awakening, that it doesn't matter. What the people want doesn't matter. At least this administration doesn't think so.
I remember I was on a cruise when I heard that the Supreme Court had decided that George Bush was President. I was living in Florida at the time, so I was in the thick of things there. I remember thinking, "How much damage could he possibly do in four years? We'll just have to get through it." I had no idea how bad it could be. This administration has ruined this country. It's ruined our planet.When you were in Jordan, we had had this recent war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon, and across the border into northern Israel as well. What was the impression that you got from the members of the Iraqi Parliament about the connection of that conflict with what's going on in Iraq, and what are your impressions about that conflict?
I am really glad that right now there is a cease fire. I wish that there had been a cease fire right away, as Dennis Kucinich was calling for. I think that this conflict, if it fires up again before the election, will rip the Democratic Party apart, will rip the progressive community apart. I wrote about it and said that, when my children were little and one was fighting the other, I didn't hand one a tire iron and the other a billy club and say, "Go at it!" I said, "Stop it. Go to your rooms, and we'll figure out what's wrong here."
This administration should have done that right away, except that they have no ability to be mediators. They have no diplomatic credibility. There are people that feel very passionately on both sides, and we need to listen to what they're saying, and give respect for what they're saying, but first we have to stop the violence, and that should have happened immediately.What does that say to you about the nature of power that even though we're the most militarily powerful nation on Earth, we still didn't have the diplomatic power to stop that conflict before we did?
I remember growing up thinking that I was so glad I was living in this time, that humanity was so advanced. We weren't like the Conquistadores, and the Inquisition, and the Crusades, and the Romans. We could solve our problems in a humane way, and the Cold War ended, and there was so much potential for humanity. We squandered it all. We have to get it back. We have to get back on track with that. We had a peace dividend. It's gone.Domestically, your opponent, the incumbent, voted against something called the Scott Amendment which, effectively, was a vote to keep language in a bill that would have allowed non-profit organizations that get federal funding to discriminate against people in hiring on the basis of their religion. If the employees weren't of the same religion as their bosses, they could be fired. What's your philosophical position about the relationship that religion and government should have in the United States?
It should be absolutely separate. People who call themselves Christian or Judeo-Christian should look into their own Bible, where it says "Give unto Caesar what is Caesar's, and give unto the Lord what is the Lord's." They should be completely separate. Religion has no place in government. Morality and ethics, yes, but religion, no.I'm wondering which candidates for President in 2008 are catching your attention, and what that would say about your political identity that you would bring to Capitol Hill.
Right now, no one is catching my attention. I want someone with some spine. I don't want someone who is going to blow with the wind every time something is politically convenient to say or not say, or do or not do.
Where is the person deep down, who they are? When I talk to someone, I say, "You can ask me where I stand on the issues, and that's fine, but we have idea what the issues are going to be a year from now, so what you need to know is who I am, as a person, and what decisions I will make based on who I am."What would you tell them about who you are, and what decisions you'll make based upon who you are?
Number one, I respect all human beings. I practice nonviolent communication, and I see how powerful it is.
In my background in marketing and as an entrepreneur, I've had a lot of sales training, and I know that the best thing to do is to work out any kind of conflict so that everyone walks away thinking they got the best part of the deal. It can be done.
I personally live by a lifestyle called voluntary simplicity. I own nothing. I have no interest in consumption and material acquisitions. I am driven, my happiness comes from doing good, from leaving this world a little better than I found it. That's what drives me.How does that philosophy of voluntary simplicity affect the way that you run your campaign?
Well, I can't be bought. People know that. There's nothing that you can offer me that I want more than the reasons that I'm running, which are to bring about some change, and to bring about some integrity and honesty and compassion into our government, and to care about the common good. So, my fundraising is way behind, and there are powers that be in the Democratic Party that don't respect me as a candidate because of that. They only evaluate the viability of a campaign by how much money we raise. I won't take money from special interests. I won't take money from anybody who has anything to do with war or violence or anything against the environment or against human life. So, we'll just have to be creative and do this in a nonviolent way.
I have told Darrell Issa that I will not attack him personally. I think people are sick of that, and I asked him to give me the same respect.And did he?
He didn't have an answer. So far, yes. He has not.