Jan Schakowsky: ‘I Grew Up in a Different America’
On Friday, I posted part one of my interview with Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, in which she promoted her new jobs bill and blasted Republicans who "are willing to bring the economy down" to defeat President Obama. Here's part two, in which she discusses why she broke down during a recent meeting with constituents, how middle-class America is disappearing, and more.
CF: On the president’s vacation in Martha’s Vineyard, a hot topic, what do say about that?
CF: Is that the same as no comment?
CF: There’s a chorus of people saying, "A five-week break for members of Congress is ridiculous—who gets five weeks of vacation? They ought to be back in D.C. working."
JS: Of course it isn’t five weeks of vacation at all. My constituents certainly wouldn’t think I’ve been on vacation; I’ve been all over. I was at the Norridge senior center; the Norwood Park senior center. We had the announcement of my jobs bill—really kind of a rally of over 100 people. Sunday, I’m going to Springfield to speak to the Illinois State Council of Machinists Union. I’m doing a Business and Employment Expo in Skokie. I’m going to be speaking with the Jane Addams Senior Caucus in Chicago; I’m going to tour a business in Evanston. I’ve organized a roundtable with municipalities and school districts to connect them to federal resources.
[After this recitation she revisists the subject of the President vacationing in Martha’s Vineyard.]
JS: I do want to comment on the president taking off time and going to a place of his choice. If he’s relaxed and comfortable somewhere with his family, then I say more power to him to go there. I think it is so petty. I have no problem with any choice that he makes.
CF: The meetings with your constituents that you mention—were they calmer than the angry, loud town halls of the summer of 2009?
JS: I think the Republicans are experiencing this more than we are, the raucous crowds, and that started with the [Congressman Paul] Ryan plan which literally destroys Medicare. They can call their proposal whatever they want—they can call it “sort of care,” “maybe care,” “I don’t care”—but they cannot call it Medicare because the chief feature of Medicare is that there is a guaranteed benefit. They send the seniors out to the not-so-loving arms of the insurance industry to find an insurance policy that might cover them. My constituents are nervous; they’re very nervous about what’s going to happen to Medicare. They’re nervous about unemployment benefits being cut off. They’re frightened about losing their homes, about a double dip.
CF: Are we in a double dip now?
JS: I’m not going to characterize it that way. But I cosponsor some foreclosure workshops. One out of four homes in the USA is under water. You go to these workshops, and there’s a room full of people, one at Truman College, which was just loaded with people of all different ethnicities and ages and income levels. Also one in Des Plaines, which is solid suburban, middle-class and, again, all ages. People are totally depressed—not angry, but depressed. I actually had to walk out because I was so moved by it, and cried a bit. I felt like I was watching the American dream just slip through their fingers. I stood behind one fellow in his mid-50s who did rehab stuff in homes. He had a little manila folder with his monthly bills, and he said, "I’ve had very little work, and here’s my bills. What am I supposed to do?" They felt like the banks were bailed out, and now the banks are foreclosing on their homes, and who’s gonna bail them out? Then I was at Norwood Park the beginning of last week, and this man came up to me. He just looked at me and he said, "I am 100 percent dependent on the government. I get my veterans benefits; I get my social security; I don’t know what I would do if those things are cut. That’s my life." And tears started running down his face. The sense that I want to counter is that somehow we are helpless in the face of these crises, and of course we’re not. It’s Congress, and it’s the Republicans that are completely out of step here and obstructionist when it comes to real solutions. And they’ve pretty clearly stated that at least a major motivation is that they want to defeat Barack Obama, so they are not really interested in the economy working and improving and people going back to work, even though that’s their rhetoric.
CF: After all your work-related commitments, will you return to Michigan City?
JS: No. My brother-in-law is the head of the Federal Aviation Administration in Brussels for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. We’re going to go see him, and then a friend of mine, Fay Levin, who is the ambassador to the Netherlands. We’re going to visit her in the Hague. [Levin, an Obama bundler, will leave that post in September.]
CF: Is your Michigan City house on the water?
JS: Across the road from the water. I grew up summers here as a kid. I’ve been on this Michigan City beach for sixty-some years. It’s kitty-corner from what was my family’s house that my father literally built. I grew up summers on this beach, and it was a different place. We’re not far from the steel mills in Indiana and on the South Side of Chicago. You could have one worker in a family—good union job at the steel mills, health care for their family, a pension that they could count on. You could live a middle-class life. You could potentially even have, and a lot did, a little cabin, not heated for the winter, but a little cabin on the lake and the spouse and family could go for the summer there, and that was what America was about. I grew up in a different America, where everyone was on board with the idea of a robust middle class and that people who worked in a factory could still lead a middle-class life.
CF: In your beach community, you don’t see steel workers with cottages anymore?
JS: Oh, no, those are all tear downs. It’s a whole different community out here now, mostly of weekend people. There are some super-duper—and they may call it a beach house—but pretty fabulous mansions on the beach now.
CF: Former Mayor Rich Daley lives nearby. Do you ever see him?
JS: He used to bike by sometimes and stop and chat. I haven’t seen Rich Daley lately and I don’t know if he’s coming out much.
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