AFT town hall welcomes presidential candidate Tom Steyer

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Democratic presidential candidate and self-made businessman Tom Steyer never intended to run for president, but he believes government is broken and he has a formula to fix it. “I’m running for president because the government is working for corporations and not for the people of America. We have to break the corporate stranglehold on government and get the power for ourselves,” said Steyer during an AFT Votes town hall at Milwaukee Area Technical College on Nov. 6. The event was hosted by AFT Local 212, which represents faculty at MATC, and it included AFT members and retirees from both Local 212 and the Wisconsin Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals.

steyer townhall

The town hall with Steyer was the 10th in a series of member events the AFT has been holding with presidential candidates across the country. AFT Votes town halls are part of the AFT’s 2020 presidential endorsement process; the town halls give candidates like Steyer an opportunity to hear directly from members about the policies affecting their lives, and give members a chance to hear about the candidates’ campaigns and how they plan to increase voter participation, strengthen the right to organize, and fight for high-quality, affordable healthcare.

In her introduction, AFT President Randi Weingarten called Steyer a friend and colleague who has used his wealth to help others. Steyer created the political action group NextGen America to mobilize young people to vote in crucial elections. NextGen also combats climate change and promotes social justice. In addition, Steyer has spent millions on his "Need to Impeach" movement, which includes an ad campaign that advocates for the impeachment of President Trump.

“I started a business and built it over 27 years and pledged to give away half of my money,” said Steyer. “Mr. Trump is a fake business person. He doesn’t understand that the prosperity of America is built on the prosperity of the American people and education is the best way to prosperity.”

During the event, Steyer called for term limits for Congress and for enabling voters to make laws through national referendums. He also fielded questions on student debt, college access, affordable health, pensions and climate change.

When asked about student debt, Steyer told the crowd that student loan rates should be subsidized, and for those in public service, like teachers, nurses, social workers and members of the military, student loans should be forgiven. “That’s what’s supposed to happen under Public Service Loan Forgiveness,” Weingarten interjected—but it’s not. In fact, the AFT is suing Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and the Department of Education for gross mismanagement of the federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. The lawsuit seeks immediate loan forgiveness for eligible applicants and a court order requiring the Education Department to adopt a process to identify and account for its errors and loan servicers’ misrepresentations. “We’re trying to get DeVos to follow the law, but if we could have a president who isn’t going to wait until so many people are in extremis, that would be even better,” said Weingarten.

Asked by a WFNHP member about his views on healthcare, Steyer said he believes healthcare is a right for every American but noted his preference for a public option for health insurance rather than “Medicare for All.” “If we can make the public option cheaper and better, let’s make it work [for people],” he said. “Why don't we make it good, prove it's good and let them choose it."

A paraprofessional at MATC asked about addressing the cost of higher education, and Steyer pointed to the community college system as one of the best ways to get a good technical education or move toward a four-year college. “Community college is gives people a chance to rise,” he said. In California, where Steyer is from, community college tuition is free and that’s what he wants for the country. “I know that giving people free education for two years is the minimum, but it’s a first step.”

Steyer said the country is “rich enough to have affordable healthcare as a right, quality public education from pre-K through college, a living wage, and clean air and clean water. We can afford it, and we deserve it. This election is about determining how we do that.”

He pointed to the election victories in Kentucky and Virginia as a prelude to an even bigger victory in 2020. “We are going to turn the page on these people—all we have to do is show up.”

“I agree with Tom that there is a sense of change in the country,” said Weingarten, “but we have to get out and vote, and we have to be the activists to get others out as well.”

[Adrienne Coles]