Former Whip on Poverty, Presidential Race All of the presidential candidates have talked about American poverty in their campaigns, but former candidate John Edwards made it the focus of his White House run. Former House Democratic Whip David Bonior (D-Mich.), who advised Edwards on poverty and social issues, discusses the candidates' messages about poverty and how the issue has been received in the primaries.
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Former Whip on Poverty, Presidential Race

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Former Whip on Poverty, Presidential Race

Former Whip on Poverty, Presidential Race

Former Whip on Poverty, Presidential Race

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

All of the presidential candidates have talked about American poverty in their campaigns, but former candidate John Edwards made it the focus of his White House run. Former House Democratic Whip David Bonior (D-Mich.), who advised Edwards on poverty and social issues, discusses the candidates' messages about poverty and how the issue has been received in the primaries.


I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright says the attacks on him are an attack on the black church. We'll hear from another prominent African-American clergyman in a moment, the Reverend Frederick Douglas Haynes III. He is also a contender to lead the NAACP.

But first, last week the presumed Republican presidential nominee John McCain traveled to parts of Ohio, Alabama, Kentucky, and Louisiana, on a trip he called the Time for Action Tour, and to call attention to the concerns of some of this country's most distressed communities. But one presidential campaign started out in those communities, that of John Edwards. When he left the race, Edwards said he hoped other candidates would pick up the mantle, so we decided to ask his former campaign manager David Bonior, if in his view, anyone has. Bonior, a Democrat, served in Congress for 26 years, the last eight as his party's second in command. He represented Michigan's famous Macomb County, where the term Reagan Democrat was born. He retired in 2002 and today he runs an organization called American Rights at Work, dedicated to advancing the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively.

We caught up with him in Detroit. Congressman Bonior, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Representative DAVID BONIOR (Democrat, Michigan): Nice to be with you, Michel.

MARTIN: Congressman, 37 million people live in poverty in America. Recently we learned that the number of Americans receiving food stamps is at a record high and that the life expectancy of some women in some rural areas has actually fallen since the 1980s. What do you think has gone wrong?

Representative BONIOR: Well, it's not been on the - high on the agenda of political leaders in this country. The whole question of poverty and what's gone wrong are a lot of different pieces. Housing has gone wrong, education has gone wrong, the right to organize and join a union so you can have the wherewithal to earn a good wage and benefits. That's not happened for people in decades in the ways would alleviate poverty. So, you've got a whole host of things out there that are working against folks who are trying to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, but have no boots on, and are struggling and their government hasn't been there for them. Close to 40 million people, as you say, living in poverty in the richest country in the world. It's pretty outrageous, and it's a shame, and I'm glad that John Edwards raised that issue. It became a prominent issue while he was in the race. It's sliding off the agenda right now with all the countercharges and charges against each other - personal charges, so I hope to get it back up.

MARTIN: Why do you think that is though that both Senator Clinton and Senator Obama certainly consider themselves progressives who care about working people and poor people? Why do you think that that issue doesn't have more prominence?

Representative BONIOR: They do. I mean Senator Obama was a community activist...

MARTIN: I'm sorry, and I did mention Senator McCain who just had this event last week.

Representative BONIOR: Right. Right. And Senator McCain did the tour of the poverty areas. Senator Clinton has done some things on poverty over the course of her career. But, you know, it's not something that they think that working folks and middle-income and upper- middle-income want to talk about or dwell upon. And the idea that you could run a country with this wealth and continue to have 40 million people and not make a dent in really what's crucial to helping the society build on itself, good education, good health-care system is terribly shortsighted and myopic. There's a lot of pieces that have to be put together and John Edwards, to his credit, talked also about strengthening our labor laws so that, you know, people can more easily join unions. The union movement was and continues to be the greatest antidote to poverty in this country because once you can collectively come together, you can fight for your voice to be heard at work, and you can get a decent wage, and you can get health care, and you can get the pension benefits, and family leave time that you need to take care of your child. All that can happen when you come together, but when the country works as hard as it has in the last year to bring union density down from 35 percent, what it was when I was growing up in the city, to where it is now nationally at 12 percent... well, then, you've got a lot of people floating out there without any protection.

MARTIN: But maybe John Edwards' experience suggests that perhaps you can't run on poverty that perhaps, I mean a lot of the issues you talked about like problems in our educational system, problems in our health-care delivery, overall sort of health problems. Maybe the lesson of his campaign is you can't run on poverty. You have to run to the middle-class because that's the only way you can take care of poverty.

Representative BONIOR: I don't believe that that's the right analysis to draw. You know, he had the right message and I found as I traveled throughout Iowa particularly, that there was a hunger and a thirst out there for somebody to stand up and address these problems. Because, you know, there's a lot of people out there today in the working class and the middle class who are just one catastrophe or accident away from falling into poverty.

MARTIN: As I mentioned you represented Macomb County in Congress, the county which gave birth to the term Reagan Democrats, or so-called blue-collar Democrats who crossed over to vote for Republican supposedly because of social issues. What do you think a Democrat needs to do to win the support of these voters in 2008?

Representative BONIOR: They have to show some fight. And Senator Obama and Senator Edwards were the candidates of change in this race, but the problem that I see with Senator Obama's campaign is I don't get that sense of fight somehow, the way he presents himself, the language that he uses. It doesn't ring true to people in Levittown or in Macomb County, or in San Fernando, California. These are people who, you know, get up every day and pack a lunch, and they punch a clock, and they pour their heart and soul into their work, and they come home. You know, they want somebody there that's going to fight for them and talk in a language that they can understand, not...

MARTIN: You think Senator Clinton is that person?

Representative BONIOR: She's evolved in this campaign much better in that direction than I think he has. I don't think she's that person because of the issues. I think Obama's got a better set of issues, but she's got a lot more fight in her. I mean, she's feisty, she's tough, and...

MARTIN: We talked a lot about race in this campaign that, you know, is there a racial dynamic at work here even though Senator Obama's won white voters over in places like Iowa, Virginia, Utah, and Missouri and so forth, but in Pennsylvania and in some of the other big states the white working class voters have tended to gravitate towards Senator Clinton. Why do you think that is?

Representative BONIOR: You know, I don't think that we can deny that race is not a factor, it is a factor. But, one of the great messages of this campaign so far has been that it is far less of a factor than people would have thought. And he has, well he did not transcend the race, he's really coming very close. He's doing an incredible job of bringing new people in, celebrating diversity, doing all the things that are important and wonderful. What I sense, this is just in my gut right now, is Obama's problem is not so much race, although it is part of the problem, but it is class.

MARTIN: And what is that again? Is that because of the way he talks or because of his biography or?

Representative BONIOR: It's academic background. I'll give you an example. Remember when all that broke in Pennsylvania about...

MARTIN: Bitter?

Representative BONIOR: The bitter comment. Well, that's not the example I'm going to give you, but what I'm going to tell you flows from that. A few days later he apologized for his remarks, but he, I think he used the word, if I'm not mistaken, it wasn't artfully said. Well, people in the neighborhoods I'm talking about don't talk about artful words, you know? I screwed up. I messed up. I... up. You know, I deleted my own words there, but you know what I'm talking about. When I saw him throw a bowling ball, I know this sounds petty, but he just didn't look strong, OK? He looked great on a basketball court. I saw some film with him playing hoops. I mean he does that very well, but the tie thing, the white shirt, the cool thing, I mean I don't know that that relates really well. It's like John Kerry doing the parasailing or whatever that thing he does under the - he did under the bridge on the water. And Al Gore had a penchant for, you know, being the kid in the class that answered all the questions right and raised his hand. And that's kind of the way you lose people.

MARTIN: What about her?

Mr. BONIOR: They're not comfortable with her either. And the...

MARTIN: Who are you comfortable with?

Mr. BONIOR: I'm struggling. I'm comfortable with John Edwards but, obviously, that's not going to happen so, I'm trying to get there with either him or her. My natural inclination wants to go with him, but I don't want anybody in the finals who can't punch their way into victory here a little bit. I mean, I don't want an angry president, but I want someone who at least shows me they got a little anger, and can get mad at the right things, and I haven't seen that from him yet. And with Senator Clinton I've seen the fight, but she's associated herself with, you know, some folks that, Mark Penn, for instance, who was her strategist. You know, he runs a company that's a union-busting company, I mean, what does that say? How can you be running a union- busting company and represent the candidate for President of the United States?

MARTIN: What about John McCain? He certainly knows how to fight.

Mr. BONIOR: He does. And he's tough. But, you know, on the question that we started out with here, Michel, poverty, he's not for raising the minimum wage to a living wage. I mean, he's not for a lot of the things that you need, improving education, universal early-childhood education. You know, he talks a good game, he visits the right places, but in the end you have to look at what people did or did not deliver on. And he's not been delivering on the issues that I care about.

MARTIN: When you ran for your party leadership, you had a bruising battle with another member of Congress, Steny Hoyer. And there were some feelings about that after, you know, that race was over. It, you know, got kind of intense there for a while. Some Democrats are looking at the primary battle now and they're worried that the party won't be able to come back together after this. Do you have any advice about that, or thoughts about that, or how you bring unity back after a lot of people have gotten their noises out of joint over an inter-party fight?

Mr. BONIOR: Listen, as negative as I've been here, and I know I have been, probably, overly so, but you asked me my true feelings and I kind of gave them to you. I do think, infinitely, Barack Obama or Senator Clinton is better than John McCain so, I mean, people will come around. It will take a little bit longer than, maybe it should, but they will come around. My sense is that the candidate - the Obama candidacy is - nomination is inevitable. She's got to win every remaining eight states just to close the gap on the total vote and on the delegate count. She'll never catch him on the delegate count and probably won't catch him on the total vote if you exclude Florida and Michigan, which should not be included because they weren't contests. So, you know, the question is what's going to happen to Hillary Clinton's folks? And I think they eventually will come around and support Barack Obama. I don't think they're going to end up voting for John McCain.

MARTIN: Former Congressman David Bonior, the former House Democratic Whip. He runs an organization called American Rights at Work. He joined us from WDET in Detroit. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. BONIOR: Thanks Michel.

MARTIN: Just ahead, defending the Reverend Jeremiah Wright.

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