If the name Brian Keeler rings a bell or two, don't be surprised. He's one of the founders of ePluribus Media, and while working under the blogging name of NYBri, his has been one of the leading voices at Dailykos, Political Cortex -- another site he participated in founding -- and all throughout the left side of the blogosphere..
Keeler, 53, has spent most of his life as an actor, teacher and writer. He has lived in Hopewell Junction, NY with his wife, Peggity Price-Keeler for the past 17 eyars, and, after becoming involved in online activism and then reading Jerome Armstrong and Markos Moulitsas Zuniga's' Crashing The Gate, he decided to be one of the first front-line bloggers to run for political office. Thus his race for the 41st State Senate seat in New York was born.
Keeler sat down with ePluribus Media correspondent Timothy D. Smith at YearlyKos last June, and engaged in what Keeler later called one of the oddest experiences in his life. "I'm so used to being on the other side of this," he admitted, "and I'm used to being the one asking the questions. I'm even more likely to ask questions on the campaign trail, because I'd rather know what other people need than tell them what I think they need." For more information about Keeler's campaign, visit his website at keeler2006.com
This is ePluribus Media's only interview with a candidate for a state office. We couldn't pass on the opportunity to speak with one of our founding members who has chosen to run for public office.
ePluribus Media: Hello, Brian. Thanks for sitting down for this interview.
Brian Keeler: I remember when Aaron Barlow called me up when we had just started ePluribus and we were starting to collect articles, and he said he wanted to interview Chuck Pennacchio who was running against Bob Casey Jr. in Pennsylvania. I thought it was a great idea,and I wrote back and said “What do you say we have a series of interviews of candidates for this election cycle?” When I wrote back to him little did I know that eventually I was going to be interviewed, because I hadn’t really considered being a candidate at the time.
ePMedia: So you’re running in the 41st district of New York?
BK: It’s the Hudson Valley – it takes up ¾ of Dutchess County all along the Hudson River, and all of Columbia County. There is a population of 310,000 people in our district and about 120,000 voters. Registration is about 34% Republican, 33% Democrat and the rest are either other parties or not committed, so it’s wide open. Historically it’s voted for Republicans, but in the last two election cycles, in town governments and local governments up and down the Hudson, in both Dutchess and Columbia Counties, the Republican local government has gone from red to blue. So the whole trend has been going Democratic the last two years.
ePMedia: What’s the district like? Are these people who work in the city, or are they working here?
BK: Some of them work in the city, especially in southern Dutchess County, but most of the others live and work in their county.
ePMedia: Tell me about the opposition.
BK: My opponent (Republican Stephen M. Saland) has been in the (State) Senate for 16 years, and he was an assemblyman for 10 years before that. So he’s spent the last 26 years creating this mess in Albany that we now unfortunately have to fix.
ePMedia: At a glance, Saland seems to be a popular guy. He’s a member of the Fraternal Order of Eagles, he seems to have all the involvements that the traditional Republican has, and he seems to have some choice appointments in the State Legislature.
BK: One of the things he has is the chairman of the Senate Education Committee. Everything that has to do with education comes across his desk. Right now in Dutchess County, and all across New York, people are being killed not literally, but figuratively. Their finances are being decimated by skyrocketing school tax, which is part of their property taxes. The way we fund our schools is, because we’ve given tax cuts to the wealthy over the last 12 years, we’ve gone from 15% of the upper income bracket to 6.5% and it’s really had an impact on the state budget, so the state has no other alternative than to turn to local municipalities and local districts to pay for education by attaching it to property taxes. My opponent was the chief architect of that change in how we fund our schools.
ePMedia: Education and finances are two of your major planks. How did that happen?
BK: Well, the voters told me. Everywhere I go I ask people “What are your main concerns?” Property tax is usually the first answer.
ePMedia: It’s not terror or gas prices?
BK: The property tax problem has repercussions on down the line. Let’s say my parents own a home in Dutchess county, and let’s say they’re 85 years old. And let’s say they bought that home 45 to 50 years ago, for $86,000. Now what’s happened is that the value of the property has risen to half a million, and now the rate of the property tax has gone through the roof. They flat out can’t afford their house anymore and they’re simply forced out by the taxes. So they’re forced to move. And their kids can’t afford to buy a house in the area anymore, so it’s having an amazing effect on the community and people’s lives. People are uprooting their lives at the age of 80, 85 and families can’t afford to stay and take care of their parents. So it’s not just taxes it has a ripple effect throughout our whole system.
ePMedia: Your opponent, though, has become a fairly powerful person with his committee. You’d think he’d have brought some benefit for the community.
BK: Some people have said, “You know, he’s the chairman of a very powerful committee” and my response is, “Yes, he is the chairman of a very powerful committee that doesn’t seem to be doing its job very well.” So I don’t see that as an advantage.
ePMedia: Would you change the state budget to put more money back into programs like the schools?
BK: One of the things I’m looking at is to return the income tax to a more progressive structure. In New York it’s essentially a flat tax. If you make $40,000 or if you make $300,000 you pay 6.75%. So what I would look to do is a more progressive structure and raise some of the higher levels to a more reasonable, fair and more equitable rate, and we would be able to raise the state budget by so much that we would be able to cut property taxes substantially. We had a plan like that back in the ’70s, and of New Yorkers were paying the same amount or less in income tax than they are today.
ePMedia: What do you see in your district that needs to change? What are the hot button issues?
BK: Our state government in completely inept. The Brennan Center came out with a report a couple years ago which rated state governments in terms of their efficacy and their responsiveness, and New York State came in dead last. The New York state government, more than any other, is wrapped in secrecy, backroom dealing, in cronyism and patronage. It’s so bad that it frustrated voters who feel like they don’t have a stake in it anymore. And New Yorkers are getting fed up with the system, so transparency in government is a key issue.
ePMedia: What are the sunshine laws like in New York?
ePMedia: Are they on the books but they’re not followed?
BK: They’re not.
ePMedia: They’re not there?
BK: First of all they’re not there. Let me give you a perfect example. There is an annual ritual that the legislature goes through as part of the budget process where they pass what’s called “member items” which as it’s written into the budget, designates $200 million to member items, and that’s as far as the description of that allocation will go.
ePMedia: What are “member items”?
BK: Aha! What happens once it’s passed they’re voting this generic thing called “member items” what happens is the speaker of the assembly and the majority leader of the Senate, take that $200 million and write checks to the various legislators, based on how loyal they are, whether they’ve done a good job, and so the amount is directly dependent on their political support of them, and the legislators can take that money back to their district and spend it any way they want.
ePMedia: So what you’re telling me is that if you beat the incumbent, you’ve just cut your district out of a boatload of money. I mean, it would seem to me that Saland has been around for so long and since he’s done such a great job that he’s probably getting a big check every year…
BK: If we do our job as Democrats and take back the State Senate, member item designations will be the first to go, and whether or not projects will be finished will stand or fall on their merit, not based upon political patronage.
ePMedia: What’s the rate of unemployment?
BK: I’m not sure about specific areas, I’d say it probably mirrors the state numbers?
ePMedia: Would you say it’s healthy? Is it flat? How would you rate the district’s economic health?
BK: I think this district is a reflection of how the country is nationwide. That is, people are losing benefits with their jobs, healthcare, pensions. People may still be employed, but not gainfully employed.
ePMedia: They’re making less for the same amount of work?
BK: Exactly. and that’s a huge problem. We’re very middle class here in this district. And that’s why the taxes are so important.
ePMedia: And so it comes back to that.
BK: It always does. Listen, a progressive income tax structure is what helped create and sustain the middle class and that’s been under attack. We’re seeing an attack on the middle class from every direction.
ePMedia: And that’s a national problem too…
BK: Absolutely. In a nutshell, what’s happening in New York is what I call a Bushwhack.
ePMedia: What wouldn’t you change? Is there anything you think is working well?
BK: There’s a growing sense in our district that people want to get involved. People are starting to get involved in local committees. They’re starting to take control of their communities, they’re starting to become more active in making decisions on a local level, and governments are becoming more responsible, more progressive, more democratic, and that’s something I would not ever want to change.
ePMedia: How well is the lawn growing? Are the grassroots strong here?
BK: The first thing we’ve done is, we’ve gone to Democratic committees, the local Democratic clubs, town committees and county committees, and built relationships with those people, because those particular organizations have traditionally done a lot of work than I can hope to do alone. I’m going to start walking neighborhoods, and we’ve got a lot of progressive people in the area joining the campaign. The last time a Democrat represented Dutchess County in the state legislature was in 1910 when a young man named Franklin Roosevelt was elected to State Senate and I’m going to be the next Democrat elected to the New York State Senate from Dutchess County.
ePMedia: Are you trying to tell me that you have other aspirations beyond the State Senate? It seems…
BK: At this particular point, Tim, I’d have to…
ePMedia: … I mean, you’re aligning yourself with a pretty powerful figure there…
BK: Let’s just hope the country doesn’t fall into a depression and need a powerful leader to dig us out…
ePMedia: Aren’t we already there?
BK: We’ve fallen into a psychological depression, but let’s hope it’s not an economic one.
ePMedia: Well, nationally, with the way our jobs are going overseas, the way we’ve spent ourselves into debt, the way our government has led us into double-digit inflation, all we seem to be missing is the harbinger of a stock market crash for it to be a full depression.
BK: Remember, though, that the stock market is populated by international corporations, whose profit margins are going to be somewhat immune to the failing cycles in this country. Their labor is in China, their money is in the Cayman Islands, so I don’t think the stock market means as much these days.
ePMedia: Let’s switch gears. What spurred you to run? You’re an experienced blogger, well known within Blogtopia, which is a term coined by our friend Skippy the bush kangaroo
BK: Ah, yes. Skippy’s Blogtopia.
ePMedia: Yours is a nickname that’s recognized by both sides of the fence. I’d say the folks Redstate would know who you are.
BK: Yes, they do, and they’ve yelled at me a few times.
ePMedia: Blogging isn’t exactly the standard training for political life your career going from pundit to player as it were.
BK: I look at the Blogosphere and writing as a background for building there’s a couple things going on here. First of all, when you’re involved in Daily Kos or what did Skippy call it?
ePMedia: The Blogtopia.
BK: Yes, the Blogtopia first of all, you’re incredibly well informed. So you’re well informed about the blog, the issues, both the plus and the minus sides of each. And if you read Daily Kos on a regular basis, you’re going to hear all sides. You might not hear all in advocacy, but you’re certainly going to hear the argument. So I find that politically, I have been trained extraordinarily well, at least in terms of the issues, and I am up to speed on that particular aspect. Now there’s another specific experience that I’ve had, which was helping to launch ePluribus. which really taught me a great deal about activism and about organizing people who are trying to organize people and come together and put their passions and talents to work towards a common goal. We were very successful in many respects. I’ve taken that particular experience to heart. It’s one that I’ve taken on the campaign trail. I talk about the Gannon experience, I talk about the group energy and about people coming together on a voluntary basis and forming this organization out of nothing. Out of bits and bytes. Because, if you really look at it, there are no assets.
ePMedia: Well, there are a couple of servers humming away, and I have a suitcase full of t-shirts (which we sold most of).
BK: But look at your normal media outlet, they have assets. They have an office, a staff, they have typewriters — well, they probably don’t have typewriters anymore, but they have computers.
ePMedia: Well, we have all of those things too, on a personal basis.
BK: Sure, but all you have is a virtual organization. And that’s what makes it unique. When I tell the story, I talk about motivating people and seeing them come together to really make a change. And then I thought, maybe I can do this on a political level. And I decided that it’s not enough to go and type it out and have it scream off a screen. That I wanted to make a real change, and bring real progressive politics, and the only way to do that is by crashing the gates and Jerome and Markos motivated me to stand up and do this.
ePMedia: You’re one of the first — there’s only a small handful who are running for office out there who are really members of the Blogosphere.
BK: And I want to say that I am here to motivate and encourage as many of the people of the Blogosphere to do exactly what I am doing. Because it is the only way that we can bring about real change.
ePMedia: So what happens if you get elected? Will you still continue to blog?
BK: Oh, yeah. As a matter of fact, if you go to our website, which is Keeler2006.com you’ll see that first of all, you can contribute there, but also it is really a blog, and I’m blogging the campaign as I go along. You won’t see a page saying “these are my issues” — instead, you’ll see blog entries on them, along with community and conversation. I think that after I get elected, in using the website in much the same format, because that’s where I’m from.
ePMedia: Will you still make the occasional comment on the Big Orange?
Photo credits and copyright Timothy D. Smith.
Other ePluribus Media contributors: Susie Dow, Newton Snookers, Standingup and ROxy