The track record for winning an election as an independent is far from good. However, Neal Simon of Maryland hopes to strengthen those numbers come November. We sat down with the U.S. Senate candidate to discuss how he plans to win, the issues he would tackle if elected, and how he would impact the people of Maryland. Check out the full interview below.
FWM: Tell us a little bit about the day you decided to run for a U.S. Senate seat.
NS: So, the journey started awhile back and it started because I felt politically homeless, like so many other Americans and like so many people in my state. And I had felt that the two parties had been pulled to the extremes. I felt unrepresented and I felt frustrated by the dysfunction in my government. And I was voicing that to a lot of people around me, to friends, to business colleagues, to my family at our kitchen table, and I got to know other people who felt like I did and I realized that not only am I not alone but most Americans feel like I do.
And through that, through those discussions, I met some of the folks in this national movement that’s now called Unite America. And the first time I actually thought about running was at a dinner with Charlie Wheelan, Nick Troiano, and Joel Searby— three guys who have been part of this movement for a while. Charlie, in a lot of ways, I think was the founder of it.
It was at a moment over dinner with them where they were talking about the Fulcrum Strategy in the U.S. Senate where the idea first came into my head.
FWM: So, from that contemplation period of deciding to run as an independent, and now that you are officially running as an independent, what have you found are the biggest obstacles?
NS: As I’ve gone through this journey, I’ve had at least a dozen people say, “Neal, why don’t you run as a Republican,” and I’ve had at least another dozen people say, “Neal, why don’t you run against Carden in the Democratic primary.” And for me, neither was even a thought. I am, at my core, a moderate independent.
I believe that the two parties are doing an injustice to America — the leaders of the two parties are doing an injustice to America — and that we can do better. And I just believe that the country needs leaders that bring us together. I think we need to change the dynamic on the Hill in a way that you can only do without those party labels next to your name.
Now, running as an independent, as you suggest, is hard and you don’t have that party infrastructure. You don’t have that natural base and that natural fundraising machine. What we need to do is mobilize the bulk of the country that actually is in the middle.
There was a great research report that you guys probably read by Pew a few months ago, and they divided the country into quintiles politically. And there’s only 10 percent of the country that’s on the far left and 11 percent on the far right, and 79 percent is either center-left, center-right, or true moderates, and we need to give a voice to those people. We need to represent them, we need to lead on their behalf.
Because what’s happening in our country is those 21 percent of the two extremes are dominating every discussion and they’re being represented by more and more extreme leaders in our legislative branch. And it’s creating this polarization and this dysfunction. And not only does it make our government ineffective, but it’s had this insidious side-effect.
The partisanship on the Hill infiltrates society and causes all the divisiveness that we don’t need to have. Because leadership starts at the top, right? If the people on Capitol Hill are acting in a partisan manner and are putting their party’s interests ahead of the country’s interests, then everybody else starts to imitate that and starts to attack each other; and we’ve got to stop this.
FWM: So, Neal, with the campaign, we already know people are very frustrated by the parties like you said, they’re excited for candidates like you that are going to come and say, “I’m going to put the people first, not party first.”
One thing we noticed, however, when we looked through your website, is that you don’t have very many positions on there about common issues. What would you say to someone who says, “Oh, you know, he’s an independent candidate and claims to fight for the country over party, but he’s just the mushy middle,” you know, “He’s just a wishy-washy guy that’s not really going to serve me any good.”
What would you say to someone who says that?
NS: So, first, we’ll be publishing more and more positions and we’re going to relaunch the website with a whole lot more. So, you’ll see more of that. And I’ve also published a few op-ed type pieces that are available on Medium, so you’ll see stuff there. So, I don’t worry right now. We don’t have as much content on the site as we could, but I’ve been out in Maryland talking to people and talking about real issues and I’m happy to address any real issues you want to address now. I don’t hide from anything.
FWM: You seem to have an A-plus resumé as a political candidate. You have immigrant grandparents, you graduated from one of the best business schools in America, and you’ve worked in over 30 countries. However, independents have a poor track record of winning. How are your business endeavors and cultured background going to help you achieve the goal of being an independent candidate that actually wins?
NS: I think all of the things you mentioned are really relevant. First of all, my business career has been running a few different businesses and they’ve all been in the professional services group. They’ve all been companies where I’m surrounded by really smart people with a lot of energy and a lot of different ideas that want to go in a lot of different directions.
My role has been, as much as anything, to bring them together, find the truth, communicate, collaborate, and make decisions based on the information that’s there in a way that builds as much consensus as possible. And that leadership style, I think, is hugely relevant to the U.S. Senate.
I’m not someone who believes that just because you ran some big organization, with a commandingly tall structure, where you’re dictating what should be done and everybody’s jumping in line, that that’s necessarily a good background for the U.S. Senate, that -- at its best -- is a collaborative and deliberative body.
I think 30 years ago, 40 years ago, the Senate used to be the world’s greatest deliberative body. Today, it’s a highly dysfunctional institution that resembles more a grade school than a highly functional legislative branch. So, first, my business background, I think, is highly relevant to what needs to be done in the U.S. Senate.
In terms of the immigrant background, my grandparents spoke seven languages, none of which were English. They were immigrants. They believed that this was a country where you could work hard and you could get ahead. And I believe that at my core. That’s what this country should be about: the ability to work hard and get ahead.
And they came here also because they thought it was a place where they would be accepted, a place that embraced diversity, and I think that’s what our country should be and I think that we need people who can mediate differences and who can talk to people of different backgrounds.
Whether it’s ethnic backgrounds or economic backgrounds or geographic backgrounds, we need people who can talk to people and bring them together and understand their needs and help everybody get ahead. And we’ve lost that in this country. Our government has become, rather than a source of bringing people together, it’s become a source of divisiveness, and I think that’s a tragedy.
FWM: You bring up a good point. We listened to you on a Unite America video, and you talked about the Fulcrum Strategy, using your ability to communicate, collaborate, and come together to kind of throw your weight around. Is there anybody right now in the U.S. Senate that you look forward to working with? Because you’re a lone ranger going in, where the Fulcrum Strategy calls for about five or six independent senators. Is there anyone you who you’ll approach and be like, “Hey, I’ll start working with you guys as we push forward to make this a more deliberative body than it has been recently.”
NS: So, first, the Fulcrum Strategy can work with as small a number as two moderates. If you imagine a Senate with 49 Republicans and 49 Democrats and 2 moderate independents in the middle, with as small a number as two, it could work. We do have candidates in at least two other states; Craig O’Dear launched in Missouri. And we also, as I think you’re well aware, have four governor candidates.
In terms of the caucusing, I’ve spent time talking to a former Senate parliamentarian, I’ve spent time talking to lawyers about it, and the words “political party” are not in our constitution. There is nothing that says that the system is supposed to work the way it is now. And the rules that we have in the Senate that make the entity so dysfunctional, things like the filibuster and the things like the holds that the members use to postpone indefinitely important discussions, that’s not in the constitution; that’s just precedent, and those things can change.
I think if we have the leadership from the middle, we can change everything about the caucuses, everything from the majority leaders to how the committee chairs are assigned to actually changing some of these roles — and I can get into that if you want. But the potential for impact is staggering.
FWM: Let’s say you’re elected, you’re an independent senator, what does a successful first term look like for you? What are some major goals that after just one term you’d love to say, “I’ve been successful because I’ve accomplished this.”?
NS: So, a few things, well, you’re asking for only one, but if I may –
FWM: Go ahead.
NS: I may have to give you more than one. The first one’s going to feel a little fuzzy, but it’s changing the culture in the Senate. I have been able to change the culture in my companies that are about the size of the Senate. And I think that if we can get people to communicate, to trust each other, to work together on issues that we all know is important and do it in a constructive way where we’re not just trying to win the news cycle and make the other guy look bad, I think that that would go so far.
So, to me it starts with silly things like — I live less than a half-hour from the U.S. Capitol. I would like to have everyone in the U.S. Senate come over to my house for dinner, in small groups, and get to know them and form human relationships with them. Right?
There are only a hundred people in the U.S. Senate. The fact that these guys don’t have a level of trust and mutual respect is disappointing, to say the least, and I think is inexcusable. It reflects the fact that they haven’t made an effort.
A lot of these guys are smart and well-intentioned. They just are stuck in this horrible two-party system. So that’s the first thing; we’ve got to change the culture.
In terms of specific legislation, some of it will depend on the moment in time. Right? If it were right now and I was elected tomorrow, I think immigration is one where some leadership from the middle would get this done.
I think the compromise that they need to make is evident to basically everybody in America except for these guys on Capitol Hill. I think the majority of this country favors giving a path of citizenship for the Dreamers, the overwhelming majority of this country is fine spending some more money on border patrol; I’m certainly fine with both of those things. Just get it done, guys, it’s not that hard.
Well, another thing that’s in the news right now a lot, obviously, is gun control, also, because of the tragedy in Florida. Which, by the way, struck really close to home for me. My brother and his family, his wife and daughters, live not too far from that high school in Parkland, Florida. And I think, even there, if everyone just puts their special interests and party ideologies aside, I think we can do some sensible things there.
And I think that it doesn’t get done because everybody’s got a “D” or an “R” next to their name. And as soon as something’s proposed by a guy with the “D” everyone with the “R” jumps against it, and as soon as something’s proposed by somebody with an “R”, everybody with a “D” jumps against it. And it’s just this visceral, reactive partisanship that’s got to go.
FWM: One thing, speaking of the “D”s and “R”s and stuff, you, going in with that “I” next to your name, we think gives you a lot of credibility to the American people, like, “This guy’s not going to come with a hidden agenda because he’s an “I”; he’s not a “D” or an “R”. Will you be able to use this as an advantage?
NS: I think I can. I think there are so many people that are just starved for a little thoughtfulness — that have gotten so used to dumbing everything down into seven-word communications and over-simplify everything, and that’s not who I am at my core. I am a guy who is okay with nuance. I’m okay having to dig into issues.
The tax bill is another great example. The tax bill had a tremendous amount of potential. Everyone agrees we needed to lower corporate tax rates, and I certainly did, and I think we need to provide real tax relief for working-class America. And what the Republicans came up with did some good things, like the reduction in the corporate tax rate, but it also expanded our debt by $2 trillion.
You know, I’m looking at you guys and you’re a bit younger than I am, and you guys should be up in arms about this. And by the way, the spending bill added another $2 trillion to it and if all the spending increases are made permanent, which they almost certainly will be, and the new proposed budget adds another $4 trillion on top of that. It is insane.
And before all this started, we had $18 trillion in debt, which is $150,000 for each one of you guys, right, for each household. And sooner or later that does come back to bite you.
We’re all smart enough to know that you just can’t keep endlessly borrowing money and expect everything to be okay forever; you don’t do that in your personal lives -- I don’t do that in my personal life -- and we shouldn’t be doing that in our country. We’re basically stealing from our children and our children’s children to fund our lifestyle.
So, the tax bill had a lot of potential. It didn’t need to raise the debt the way it did. The tax cuts for the working class were temporary rather than permanent, which I thought was unfortunate. And, in high-tax states like mine, we got the short end of the stick because of the limitations on the reductions for state and local income tax.
And so, what happened? The Republicans came up with that proposal and everyone saw it for weeks, we knew what was coming. And the Democrats, you know what they did? They sat on the sidelines. I went down to the Hill and I said, “Why aren’t you guys proposing an alternative?” and the answer I got was that “Because we can’t give Trump a win. We’re not going to talk to them because we don’t want to give Trump a win.”
Now, how is that patriotic? That’s just partisanship.
So, they sat on the sidelines because they thought the bill would fail the same way the health care bill failed. So, they’re sitting there playing their party games, the Republicans are doing the same, and we end up with a bad ending, where, if we had some leadership from the middle and if somebody would dare say, “Listen. Okay. Fine, we’ll lower the corporate tax rate. But rather than 21 percent maybe do 25 percent so we don’t balloon this budget. And the income tax deductions for the working class, we’ll make those permanent because that’s one of the most important aspects of this. And if we do that, maybe we don’t have to disadvantage all the people in the higher tax states.” And I actually think some of the Democrats would have gotten on board and it would have become a bipartisan bill. But because you have no one in the middle with any credibility, it doesn’t happen that way.
FWM: Neal, we’d like to give you a final say, as well, and I know we’ve taken up — we’re already at 30 minutes of your time so we don’t want to do take too much more. But do you have any final thoughts?
NS: For me, we talked about this national movement and this dynamic in the Senate and how we can change things as a country, but for me, this is also about the people of Maryland. And I think that where, at the end of the day, the reason why the dysfunction in Washington matters is because it’s getting in the way of people here. And, really, what I want to try to do is to help people here get ahead.
I think we need to lower our healthcare costs. I think we need to do things to attract high-paying jobs and make sure we get our workforce ready for high-paying jobs here. Those are a lot of things that I’m already spending a lot of time diving into and I think that that’s really important for me to get across.
At the end of the day, the thing I actually care about, the reason I’m so driven to do this, is because I just looked around my state and I thought things could be so much better for people. And it’s so unfortunate. And it’s this divisiveness that infiltrates our society but it’s also real things that we’re not doing to help people in terms of preparing them for the workforce and to help attract companies to my state and to lower healthcare costs — stuff I hear over and over again as I go around the state from people, how crippling it all is for both families and for small companies.
FWM: Well, hey, Neal, thank you very much for joining us tonight. It’s been a great conversation. Also, give thanks to your team; they’re very responsive. You have a really good team behind you with Leah and Michael. Let’s chat a few months down the road, see how things are going.
NS: All right. Thank you so much guys and have a great evening.
FWM: Yeah, you too.