Jacob Meister and his campaign manager, Lowell Jaffe, were standing outside of a CVS Pharmacy on DuPont Circle, in Washington DC the morning of the National Equality March. Jaffe stuck his hand out as I passed and they started a campaign pitch, and I smiled and rolled my eyes. Candidates are always stopping folks outside of Wal-Mart or inside of Bob Evans, and I think at a certain point most politically active people have been desensitized to these awkward attempts to schmooze.
Hearing that Jacob was openly gay and was running for a state-wide seat in Illinois got my attention, however, and we exchanged information before I ran off to get my press pass and line up. I didn't think much of the encounter, and let it roll to the back of my mind until I started getting emails from the campaign.
Last week, Jacob Meister opened up a local campaign office here in Champaign, right on Green Street, the campus community's vibrant business center. The event couldn't have come at a more inconvenient time, but I decided to sandwich a quick visit between working out and making dinner.
The atmosphere in the Meister campaign office was really light as we awaited his arrival. The DJ was spinning Soul For Real, New Edition, TLC--it was quite the trip down memory lane. To my surprise, by the time Jacob arrived, his campaign office had become a joyfully wall-to-wall packed party. There was definitely a vibe in this room--young and old, people believe in Jacob Meister.
Speaking to Jacob the next day, I began to realize why he garnered such wide appeal. I quickly forgot I was talking to a politician, and began hearing something else. Jacob Meister is a guy who gets it.
Jacob Meister has had many years to get acquainted with politics and the law. Before practicing business and commercial litigation in Chicago, he worked campaigns in Milwaukee, Madison and on Capitol Hill in Washington DC for Representative Jim Moody as he earned his bachelor's degree in international relations and political science at American University.
The politician that made me forget he is a politician.
Jacob, however, doesn't sound like a politician when you speak to him. Jacob had a front seat view of the economic collapse of our economy as a lawyer for small business, and is emotionally invested in making positive change in Washington, DC. Jacob believes that the recovery is going to start with the small businesses that he's been representing in his practice for decades, and that helping them grow will also help stave off our rising unemployment levels.
Illinois, as the nation knows, is notorious for its corrupt politicians, and Jacob is determined to support ethics reform in Washington DC, but "[sensational stories] about corruption won't put food on the table," Jacob says when talking about what America really needs. Taking a stand against scandals is the easy move. Writing and passing legislation that will change America for the better takes a lot more.
The current Illinois state treasurer, Alexi Giannoulias (who endorsed marriage equality earlier this year), is making "corruption" a centerpiece of his campaign, something that will surely play well here in Illinois since the Blagojevich and Rezko scandals of the last two years.
However, Meister--whose eye is on the very historic seat that was once held by Carol Moseley-Braun and Barak Obama--wants to focus on education, green jobs, banking reform and civil rights, and thinks that rather than play to people's fears, presenting a real plan for the future of America will eventually resonate in voters' hearts.
Fighting against a meltdown: a focus on domestic green jobs.
It is precisely this economic meltdown that inspired Meister to break from his lucrative law practice to get into the race. Rather than focus on going on witch hunts, Meister sees the real issues as "good government, good public policy," and he believes he's the only candidate who will pursue the real issues. "We're at a crossroads right now," he says of the recession, "We need someone who understands public service and business."
Jacob imagines that making substantial investments into smaller domestic companies that develop green technologies needs to be at the center of our focus. Instead of continuing to "hemorrhage millions of dollars" and "billions in stimulus" to the oil nations of the world, we need to be replacing petroleum technology with home-grown green technologies to lift us all up. "That money needs to stay at home. We can invest it in our telecommunications infrastructure," continues Meister, talking about building a nationwide broadband internet network.
Growing up in a still very industrialized Detroit, I was impressed that he wants to see a growth in manufacturing, "I have an eye on industry growth and building a strong workforce. We need better tech investment. The growth industries are going to be high speed rail, biotech, and wind turbines. What's good for the environment is good for the economy."
Meister unveiled his 2020 Proposal for the Economy last week in Springfield Illinois. Among the bills in the plan is a telecommute tax credit--which is both a business booster and a green measure. Meister believes that we can use technology to save money and save on carbon emissions. "If you can get 20% of the commuters off of the road, you cut down on road congestion and carbon emissions. People spend less time traveling, and more time doing important things," going directly from your family and home life to your work duties with the click of a mouse.
He also wants to begin working immediately on reforming banking and security regulation to encourage more lending so that these same small businesses will have the opportunity to grow faster.
Meister believes that--while the handsome and young Giannoulias has name recognition, and a popular message--Jacob offers something that Alexi can't as a career candidate: real world experience dealing with these issues.
Having worked in Washington for years also gives Meister a leg up over Giannoulias, in his opinion. The extent of Giannoulias' experience is campaigning, and he's certainly very good at it. However, Meister has the history in his own practice dealing with banking regulations, business and commercial litigation that is going to give him the springboard to create real, effective reforms in Washington.
"Politics as usual? You know it when you see it." Jacob says while we were talking about the other candidates in the race. "People who get elected as State Treasurer and then the next day start running for the next higher office. Its all about them, not about public service. They use their soap box not for principles they believe in but what advances their career."
Education--the Welcome Back Kotter plan.
I hadn't revealed to Meister my background in teaching before the interview, and I was not expecting what I got when I asked him about his ideas for education reform--one of the major planks in his 2020 Plan for America, unveiled last week in Springfield.
His grasp is quite impressive, however, of the significant damage that "No Child Left Behind" had done to the teaching profession. I felt as if I was talking to a fellow teacher, when he described the policy as a "straight jacket" on teachers. "Education is an art, not a science," he complains about the clinical and arbitrary instruments and benchmarks in the law. "It takes some of the most talented and dedicated people in public service and treats them all like they're under suspicion all of the time," Meister says of the law. Meister much prefers a "One Child at a Time" approach, and wants to fund microgrants allowing creative teachers to experiment and explore with smaller, more targeted classrooms.
"More funding toward technical and vocational education will help the economy," says Meister, who envisions training a generation of masters of their chosen fields in all crafts, trades and businesses. The idea for the microgrants came from a television favorite for Meister, Welcome Back Cotter in which an innovative teacher concentrated on creating a tighter relationship with a small group of troubled youth with potential for success.
The openly gay Meister and I came back together to discuss his LGBT plan later that day, and I will share that with you tomorrow. The first half of our conversation, however, really impressed upon me that Jacob Meister is not running for glory, but for good, and really does believe he can make a difference in Washington. As an old idealist myself, I have to say that he draws a stark contrast to our most prominent openly gay politician in America, Mr. "Can't," Barney Frank. The idea that we could have a positive and energetic gay leader on Capitol Hill working for America makes me even more excited about Meister, but I think once you read his LGBT plans tomorrow, you too will see how much Jacob Meister really just "gets it"!
Stay tuned for Part II tomorrow!