Neal Simon is running for United States Senate. The successful businessman is an affirmed independent, and he is competing in bright blue Maryland against incumbent Democratic Senator Ben Cardin as Cardin seeks a third term.
Simon threw his hat in the ring at an interesting time in political history: Republicans are ‘retiring’ in droves, the House of Representatives appears broken, the Senate seems to be kind of holding it together, the White House is unpredictable, and the Supreme Court has Maryland's landmark redistricting case on its hands.
Meanwhile, Simon is going about his business making a case for independent voters and independent lawmakers – those who, more often than not, reside in the aisle rather than on either side. He filled me in on what he is out to prove, why people who denigrate unaffiliated voters are about to be straight and which recent media headline irks him the most.
First of all, let's talk cash. Your numbers are clearly very good (as of early April finance reports show more than $625,000 in total receipts and $465,000 cash on hand). You raised more in the first quarter than anyone who has challenged Cardin’s Senate seat. But money doesn't always equal momentum, what is the state of your campaign?
Neal Simon: Cash is important, and we did, in fact, raise 2 to 1 against the incumbent in the first quarter. We also feel momentum in the digital universe where we have more and more people following us and sharing our content, and we also feel tremendous momentum as I'm out in the field. So, I'm in the middle of a listening tour where I'm visiting all 24 counties, one of them is a city, over 36 days and we're about halfway through and everywhere we go we're met with so much enthusiasm. People are starved for something other than partisanship and bickering, so we've got momentum in every aspect of the campaign.
The state’s monumental redistricting case now rests in the hands of the Supreme Court, and the country is watching. Maryland’s fight between the two party’s over how district lines are drawn could affect every state in the nation when we get a ruling. What is your opinion on Maryland’s gerrymandering situation?
Neal Simon: People in this state understand that the parties have altered certain aspects of our government structure to benefit the parties, and to benefit the extremes of the parties, and we need political reform in this country. And one important aspect of political reform is gerrymandering. We have elected leaders who are choosing their voters rather than the other way around. And what the Democrats have done to the voting map in Maryland is a perversion of democracy. I think it's completely unacceptable. The Republicans have done the same exact thing in other states, including Wisconsin and Texas, so both parties do this every chance they get, and not everyone in the country understands this.
Then in your opinion who should decide how the lines are drawn?
Neal Simon: I'd be in favor of an independent, non-partisan commission or I'd also be in favor of algorithms that are now developed, where you can draw district lines that are much more sensible. You take out all the partisanship rather than have districts that are locked for one party or the other; where the most extreme candidate wins that primary and then that's who ends up representing us. You'd end up with more moderate representatives and that's what the country wants. Also, I think the fact that we have closed primaries in Maryland is part of it, we need to open our primaries and that should happen all around the country. Campaign finance plays a really important role in this. I'm in favor of term limits as well.
WISHY WASHY INDEPENDENTS?
I was at a meeting here in Washington not long ago, where a group of us were gathered to talk about a recent study on how voters feel about political parties and one person there piped up with, “Well if independents want to vote in an election they should register an Independent Party.” Your thoughts?
Neal Simon: Our founding fathers feared what we have today, George Washington said it in his farewell address. His greatest concern was that Americans would develop more loyalty to parties than to their country. George Washington was an independent, so our country is not supposed to work this way. Whoever said that is completely wrong. This country is supposed to be represented by elected officials who put the interests of their constituents ahead of the interests of a political party, and we have the opposite right now and it is tearing our country apart. Most of my state feels like the people in the US Capitol are representing the two political extremes and that those of us, those 60 percent to 80 percent of us in the middle of the political spectrum, are unrepresented.
Another person at that event also threw in that independent voters are essential low-information voters (note to the reader: Maryland’s unaffiliated voters are mostly clustered around college campuses and military installations) and that they just bend and sway if the messaging is convincing enough. Do you think independents are more malleable than they admit?
Neal Simon: Lindsay, bring me next time - I would love to get into that with anyone. One of the problems is that there are more people in this country now, and you know this stuff better than anyone, who self-identify as an independent than those who self-identify as either Republican or Democrat. The uninformed voters are the ones who go into the voting booth and blindly check one party or the other, and thank goodness in the state of Maryland we have a lot of people who don't do that. We have a lot of people who go into the voting booth and want to vote for the best candidate, and that's part of why we have, despite the fact we're 58 percent registered Democrat, the second most popular governor in the country. I think he might now be the most popular governor in the country who's a Republican with a 69 percent approval rating.
You mentioned the closed primaries in Maryland. The parties have decided a voter must register with one or the other to vote in primaries and 11% of your people are unaffiliated. What gives?
Neal Simon: So, our job is to educate more and more people about this. Independents should be permitted to vote in primaries. When you have closed primaries, people like me cannot vote in a primary and that's not fair. What happens is that you end up with more polarizing candidates because if only the most liberal Democrats are voting in the Democratic primary, you're going to get the most liberal Democratic candidate, and if you have only the most conservative Republicans vote in the Republican primary, you're going to get the most conservative Republican candidate. And that's part of the problem in this country. We need people who are going to represent the middle, who are going to bring us together and who are going to actually work across the aisle to get things done and not just try to beat each other every day.
There are moderates on the Hill who have a lot of power to swing the vote. A number of them are independent, but they place a ‘D’ or ‘R’ next to their name. Do they lack the guts to erase their respective letters?
Neal Simon: I think it's a combination of a lack of courage and the dependency on the party infrastructure and the funding. I think there are a lot of people who show up on Capitol Hill with good intentions, and they show up as moderate, and they want to help us make progress, but they show up with a party label and the first thing that happens when you're elected is you’re skirted off with the group from your party, and you're immediately part of that team rather than part of the entire organization.
And then you learn what the party position is on everything and you begin to understand that the continued funding from that party is dependent upon you voting along the party line and it's just so much easier to go along with that. So I think a lot of good people go to Capitol Hill and they end up, sadly, changed by the partisan system and we need people who are going to stand up to that and people who are going to be on the hill without party labels.
THE YOUNG PEOPLE PROBLEM
You spend a lot of time on college campuses talking to students. What are they most worried about on Capitol Hill?
Neal Simon: I've spoken on four college campuses in the last two weeks, and one of these students raises his hand and says to me, “Our generation does not understand why our government is two teams trying to beat each other. Why isn't it one team working together?”
I was speaking to the group about how not only are they being left with an infrastructure we haven't invested in, an education system that's now average globally, and a healthcare system that's twice as expensive as other countries and social security that we haven't shored up for them and lots of social issues where there is obvious compromise that we are not resolving. We are not only leaving them with all of those problems, but we're leaving them with an absolutely irresponsible amount of debt.
Is there a struggle to get younger people to run for office?
Neal Simon: I think they need to get involved because they're not represented, and it shows. It shows in the way our government is being run, right? We're not investing in their future. We're not investing in education and infrastructure and our healthcare system, in all the things we need to have a successful country in the future. We're not prepared for the jobs of the future, and instead, we are spending money like we're a kid using a parent's credit card and we're leaving them with that future instead. And it's unfair to them. They are being treated unfairly by the generation ahead of them.
Do you think of the younger generation is a bit scared off from running for office because of the smear campaigns and character attacks that are so rampant now?
Neal Simon: I think it does. I think at some level your character matters. So unwarranted personal smears. There is never any room for that. And I have tried to run a campaign that is respectful and uses civil discourse. At the same time, character matters. And if people have done things in their past that has demonstrated bad character, I think it's OK for somebody to point that out. And so as young people consider running. - I mean they've got shorter life histories than I do at this point - hopefully, there's not too much there for someone to attack. But they do need to get involved either by running for office or by getting involved in other people's campaigns or by voting in primaries and supporting candidates. And getting involved in movements, whatever they feel passionate about that generation to get involved.
You have a substantial business and investment background. How do you plan to bring that to Capitol Hill?
Neal Simon: I am a private sector guy and I believe in private enterprise. I also believe in being fiscally responsible and what that means to me is you spend within your means, you don't take excessive debt that you're going to struggle to repay and that is going to affect your lifestyle unduly later. And as a country, unfortunately, we are no longer doing that and there is no longer a party that seems to care about the next generation so that fiscal and business orientation is one area that I bring. I will also tell you my companies have not been big, hierarchically structured companies with a command and control structure. They've been professional services businesses where I'm surrounded by a lot of really smart dynamic people with different opinions and my role as much as anything has been to bring them together, to forge consensus to help us move forward and make progress on different things and that's what I want to do in the Senate.
So… I’m guessing you aren’t a fan of the spending bill then…
Neal Simon: No. I thought it was irresponsible.
During a speech recently here in Washington, Mick Mulvaney, the interim head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, encouraged bankers to push their agendas hard on Capitol Hill. It’s well known that he and his team are scaling back the bureau’s investigations and its massive funding. As a businessman, how do you feel about this unbridled push to roll back the bureau’s regulatory reach?
Neal Simon: I think that right now we've got one party that seems to hate every single piece of regulation and another party that seems to love every piece of regulation. And I think the way we need to think about regulation is with some balance. For example, consumers do need some level of protection from overly aggressive lending and other bad behaviors by financial institutions. But at the same time, we need to allow companies to make decisions and to grow and to invest because that's the strength of our economy. So, we need to find a balance between protecting ourselves as citizens and consumers with not getting in the way of companies and I think the partisanship is getting in the way of having mature conversations about some of those issues.
I think, for example, recently there was a vote in the Senate about the scaling back of Dodd-Frank. Dodd-Frank was an important piece of legislation. It had become clear that the American taxpayer was basically acting as insurance for our country's largest financial institutions. But the legislation itself, I think, was a little overreaching. And so, we recently had a vote on a piece of legislation to scale it back. I was in favor of scaling it back and in fact, several moderate Democrats joined most of the Republicans to vote on it. To me, that felt like the right balance. We were scaling it back; we were focused on just the largest institutions, we scaled back some of the other regulations. So you get out of the way of some of these financial institutions, so they can lend money to American businesses to help them grow because all that regulation does get in the way of that. When I talk about a balance that's what I'm talking about.
You mentioned campaign finance, and I want to run a quote by you. In the same speech Mulvaney said of his time as a Republican Congressman from South Carolina, “If you’re a lobbyist who never gave us money, I didn’t talk to you. If you’re a lobbyist who gave us money, I might talk to you.” He did mention that he always spoke with his constituents. What are your thoughts?
Neal Simon: First of all, he was basically unveiling what most of us understand. America understands that right now, money is buying influence in unhealthy ways in our political system and that our politicians are incredibly influenced by the special interests that fund their campaigns, and we know that. And it's not OK.
When did you realize you wanted to run for office?
Neal Simon: It was about a year ago that I just started to consider this. Not decide to do it, but just to even consider it. I am not someone who always dreamed of doing this. I always knew I would have another chapter in my career that was more service oriented. I thought it might be something through the non-profit world, but for the past few years, I've become increasingly frustrated with the bad results we get from our government and with this partisan shift that I think it leaks divisiveness into our society and against each other in such an unhealthy way.
And in conclusion: What is the most ridiculous, irritating headline you’ve seen recently?
Neal Simon: Most mornings I wake up and I work out in my basement and I will watch 20 minutes of CNN, 20 minutes of Fox, and I keep a journal for when differences are so striking that I feel like no one will ever believe me - I write them down. Last week I had a day where CNN spent the 20 minutes entirely on Trump in 1984 impersonating John Barron and calling the Forbes writer to try to get onto the Forbes 400 list. Ok, they spent twenty minutes on that. I flipped the channel and the twenty minutes on Fox was entirely about the supposed lack of impartiality in the FBI investigation. And I sat there thinking God that part of the media is contributing to this divisiveness. And it’s a hard problem to fix. You’ve got major media outlets pushing partisan agendas rather than portraying issues in an objective way.