'I Call for a Fair Tax'
L.A. WEEKLY: Tell us about yourself and then about the campaign.
PETER CAMEJO: Okay, well, you know, I spent the 60s, I worked on civil rights stuff primarily, marched with Martin Luther King in the late 60s. The 70s I worked on the political prisoners quite a bit. In the 80s I needed money. I never had any money. I got a job in the post office and actually worked for minimum wage in New York for a while to try to organize Latino workers. Thats another whole story, but anyway I ended up a friend of mine suggested I go get a job at Merrill Lynch. I told him, "How can I do that? Ive been thrown out of school. I dont have a degree. I know nothing about finances." He said, "Theyll love you. You talk so fast."
Sure enough, they hired me. They hire 400 people at a time. I became number one nationally producing the money, so they loved me. I [did] a fund for Merrill Lynch that became the first pro-environmental fund of any major firm, and it was their second best performer. And I made them give part of the profits to the environmental movement. I quit them over an issue of support to the AIDS Foundation.
What was the issue?
I wanted to do a program to benefit the AIDS Foundation, and they would let me do it for the American Heart Association, but they wouldnt let me do it for the AIDS Foundation, so I quit them over that. And I went to Prudential, who said I could do it, and then once they had [hired me], they sent me an overnight letter saying, "Were not going to let you do it." So I, with seven other people, I set up a firm, which now has offices in 16 states, and we manage about a billion dollars, and thats what I do for a living.
And that firm is?
Progressive Asset Management Incorporated. [Out of the earlier experience in progressive investing at Merrill Lynch] I helped set up the Environmental Justice Fund. And I helped set up a thing called the Council for Responsible Public Investments. Thats funded by the health department in California. Theyve given us several million dollars, where we educate people on the importance of making their investments coincide with their mission. Ive been working on several programs right now on how to get solar energy to really grow in California. It would only take a billion dollars of capital and one and a half billion in lines of credit to transform California to the world leader in solar energy. So these are the type of things Ive been doing in my life. I joined the Green Party when it was first established.
When and why did you leave the Socialist Workers Party?
For those who dont know, the Socialist Workers Party is an organization that came out of the Communist Party in about 1928, with the split between [Stalin] and Trotsky. Anyway, I became very concerned about the sectarianism of most of the left in the 60s and going into the 70s, and I tried to make changes inside the SWP, and it was very difficult. I guess its like being in the Catholic Church and suggesting that Mary wasnt really virgin or something.
Im from a Catholic background, so I can say those things. My departure was very peculiar because there was a rule in the SWP, which was there to protect our members. That if you were outside the United States, you werent a member. So if you got arrested in some other country, they couldnt say you were a member, cause you actually had a rule that youre not a member. You could actually say in court, "Im not a member." So I went to Venezuela to spend some time with my family. When I came back, they told me I wasnt a member, cause Id been out of the country.
And they didnt reinstate you?
No, thats right.
They didnt want you?
No. They actually passed a rule that no one was to talk to me. Youd be expelled if you talked to me. But anyway, thats a long time ago.
But now youre running for governor.
And now Im running for governor for the second time.
Given your experience in managing money and finances, how do you dissect the budget crisis in California and what to do about it?
Well, Im sort of glad you asked. I want to show you something which Ive been showing everybody. Okay, this is a chart of what you would need to balance the budget at the highest level ever in California history. The only way you can have a deficit is by decisions you made that were wrong. The money that came in was the greatest ever. The issue should be how big is our surplus.
Its not that every decision Governor Davis made was wrong. He increased the pay of teachers. He did some things that we would have wanted to do, but if were going to increase the expenditures, we got to figure out where were increasing the income. Instead, he did the opposite. He lowered the taxes. Remember, he lowered the DMV fee, and he lowered the tax rates on the wealthiest people. The poorest 20 percent, who dont hardly have any money, they pay 11.3 percent in taxes. The richest 1 percent [pay] 7.2 percent.
Is this including sales tax?
Everything. Let me explain, cause Im saying it too fast. This is from the California Budget Project [a nonprofit organization], and whoever you have covering the race, I really would suggest you go back, go in here and look at this. So I call for a fair tax, and if we did that, wed have a balanced budget even without eliminating anything. We could stop all the cutbacks. Thats what I call a fair tax. Okay? So thats sort of like the essence of my campaign, calling for fair taxes and pushing everybodys buttons on this.
So what would that actually do to the rates? You would do this by the income tax?
Directly by income tax. I made a proposal that we raise [the tax rate of] people that are making more than $500,000 a year by 5 percentage points, people who make $200,000 a year by 2 percentage points. Lower taxes on 60 percent of the people. Its all on my Web site, all the details.
Corporate taxes used to be 9.6 percent 16 years ago. Okay? Today, they pay 5.3 percent. So they have dropped their taxes by almost 40 percent, or even more than that. So on that, everybodys in agreement with Bustamante. For Arianna and myself, [we also want] to straighten out Prop. 13. That is, you dont overtax the poor and property owners or retirees and so forth, but obviously something very unjust is happening when wealthy people like Warren Buffett dont pay taxes, etc. A young couple that goes and buys a home is sometimes paying, you know, 20 times what Warren Buffett paid in terms of percentage.
Obviously, all of you will understand that Im pushing the envelope here. I mean, it gives Bustamante some room. Hes calling for an increase in taxes of about 2 percentage points, and to have the Green pounding that I want 5 percent and then everybody calls me irrational it gives him a little room.
Were 36th in property taxes, 43rd in carbon taxes.
Define carbon taxes.
On oil, on gasoline.
You also have said something about a marijuana tax?
Im against the criminalization of plants. The whole drug things wrong. Its just irrational. These are medical-health social problems, and if you criminalize them, you actually increase the problem. If we were to decriminalize marijuana and tax it, it would generate a lot of money.
How do you get these plans through the Legislature?
I think theres three political parties in California, really. Theres the ideological right, you know, like Bill Simon and state Senator Tom McClintock. Then theres what I call the corporate center, which really doesnt care about issues like free choice and gay rights and stuff. Theyre interested in the fiscal policies, business policy. Gray Davis sort of fits in that. And Arnolds trying to make himself appear that he fits in that, but Im really very nervous about what Arnold is. I think hes a real threat. Im very scared of him. And then theres the progressive party, thats very into the issues of the environment, the long term, saving the planet, and social justice and equality issues.
Its how you handle yourself. I think there [are] a lot of people I could work with. But to have a governor thats fighting for these things . . .
Do I vote for Peter Camejo and not get him as governor, or do I vote for Bustamante and at least have a shot at not getting Schwarzenegger?
Thats a decision the voters have to make . . . Now I have to use this [candidacy] to beat Arnold. I will knock him by a few points. So were fighting to stop him, but also to have a voice that is critical of the role of people like Cruz Bustamante. I do sort of like Cruz. My first impression of Cruz is that hes far more open than Davis.
I think its like the national elections. Having a good Green run for president, itll be one voice absolutely pushing the premises. The danger is that Democrats bend to the premises of the Republican Party and make it easy for Republicans to win.
But that kind of absolves Nader from any responsibility for Bushs victory.
I think Nader did more to stop Bush than Gore. And if it werent for Nader, Gore would have lost by more votes.
I want voters to understand that Arnold is a far greater danger to California than Bustamante. [But] the people who are going to vote Green are not voting Green because I tell them to vote Green. Theyre voting Green cause theyre fed up with the Democrats and Republicans. Theyre not fed up with an independent whos talking proinstant-runoff voting [and] against the death penalty.
So are there any policy distinctions to make between you and Arianna Huffington on the issues?
I think there might be. I dont think its all that important to push it.
Take a shot at it.
If you say [as she does], "Lower the corporate loopholes and raise the [property tax] assessment," youre going to have a different reaction than when you say point-blank [as I do]: "Raise taxes." Thats one difference. And we differ on the question of whether to build the Green Party or not.
Does her campaign help the progressive movement in California?
I think so. Let me tell you. When you saw me so excited that she was getting in look, heres what I thought. In the debates Im surrounded by Democrats and Republicans. You have this lone voice, right? Whats the image to people? "Well, there you have the nut" whatever. Hey, having a woman as articulate as she is shes absolutely, unbelievably brilliant and having her articulate a progressive agenda, and you got two voices. Youre backing each other up.
What are your worries about Schwarzenegger?
What Bush is doing is an enormous danger to the world. And I think Arnold for whatever his personal motives are, and whatever his personal values may be about some things like gay rights is an instrument of this thing. Hes got Pete Wilson and George Bush behind him. And theyre all orchestrating this thing to confuse the public and get him elected.
So what do you do as governor of California to address what you have called a corporate crime wave?
Change the 1937 act, reorganize the pension funds, democratize them. Have labor present, have others. So when you get an Enron or an El Paso, you change the board. You remove them, put on law-abiding citizens, take over the corporations through to the ownership of shareholders. The truth is, workers owned these companies, but they have no recourse.
What about the health-reform alternatives of government-funded insurance (single-payer) versus requiring large employers to provide insurance?
Well, Im for the single-payer, [though] some Greens are torn on this. But the [employer mandate] is a step forward. I think Im for it.
So how do you critique Davis on education, an area hes taken pride in?
The California Teachers Association said to me: "Hey, he did what we wanted. He gave us the money." And it was a lot. And it moved California from 40-something [in education funding] to 27th. Thats just the truth. Im not going to call him Mr. Education, but its silly to oppose Democrats or anybody when they do something right.
In education, theres the money part of it, then theres the overwhelming emphasis on testing as a core of reforms.
Im opposed to the testing mania.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss LA Weekly's biggest stories.
- Street Artist Highlights Hollywood Racism (PHOTOS)
- Minorities Target Oscars Luncheon for Protest
- Super Bowl Weekend DUI Crackdown Starts Tonight