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'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. That’s 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? I’ve been thrown out of school. I don’t have a degree. I know nothing about finances." He said, "They’ll 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 wouldn’t 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, "We’re 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 that’s 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. That’s funded by the health department in California. They’ve given us several million dollars, where we educate people on the importance of making their investments coincide with their mission. I’ve 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 I’ve 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 don’t 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 it’s like being in the Catholic Church and suggesting that Mary wasn’t really virgin or something.

I’m 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 weren’t a member. So if you got arrested in some other country, they couldn’t say you were a member, ’cause you actually had a rule that you’re not a member. You could actually say in court, "I’m not a member." So I went to Venezuela to spend some time with my family. When I came back, they told me I wasn’t a member, ’cause I’d been out of the country.

And they didn’t reinstate you?

No, that’s right.

They didn’t want you?

No. They actually passed a rule that no one was to talk to me. You’d be expelled if you talked to me. But anyway, that’s a long time ago.

But now you’re running for governor.

And now I’m 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, I’m sort of glad you asked. I want to show you something which I’ve 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.

It’s 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 we’re going to increase the expenditures, we got to figure out where we’re 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 don’t 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 I’m 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, we’d have a balanced budget even without eliminating anything. We could stop all the cutbacks. That’s what I call a fair tax. Okay? So that’s sort of like the essence of my campaign, calling for fair taxes and pushing everybody’s 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. It’s 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, everybody’s in agreement with Bustamante. For Arianna and myself, [we also want] to straighten out Prop. 13. That is, you don’t overtax the poor and property owners or retirees and so forth, but obviously something very unjust is happening when wealthy people like Warren Buffett don’t 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 I’m pushing the envelope here. I mean, it gives Bustamante some room. He’s 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.

We’re 36th in property taxes, 43rd in carbon taxes.

Define carbon taxes.

On oil, on gasoline.

You also have said something about a marijuana tax?

I’m against the criminalization of plants. The whole drug thing’s wrong. It’s 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 there’s three political parties in California, really. There’s the ideological right, you know, like Bill Simon and state Senator Tom McClintock. Then there’s what I call the corporate center, which really doesn’t care about issues like free choice and gay rights and stuff. They’re interested in the fiscal policies, business policy. Gray Davis sort of fits in that. And Arnold’s trying to make himself appear that he fits in that, but I’m really very nervous about what Arnold is. I think he’s a real threat. I’m very scared of him. And then there’s the progressive party, that’s very into the issues of the environment, the long term, saving the planet, and social justice and equality issues.

It’s how you handle yourself. I think there [are] a lot of people I could work with. But to have a governor that’s 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?

That’s 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 we’re 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 he’s far more open than Davis.

I think it’s like the national elections. Having a good Green run for president, it’ll 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 Bush’s victory.

I think Nader did more to stop Bush than Gore. And if it weren’t 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. They’re voting Green ’cause they’re fed up with the Democrats and Republicans. They’re not fed up with an independent who’s talking pro–instant-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 don’t think it’s 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," you’re going to have a different reaction than when you say point-blank [as I do]: "Raise taxes." That’s 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, here’s what I thought. In the debates I’m surrounded by Democrats and Republicans. You have this lone voice, right? What’s the image to people? "Well, there you have the nut" — whatever. Hey, having a woman as articulate as she is — she’s absolutely, unbelievably brilliant — and having her articulate a progressive agenda, and you got two voices. You’re 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. He’s got Pete Wilson and George Bush behind him. And they’re 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, I’m for the single-payer, [though] some Greens are torn on this. But the [employer mandate] is a step forward. I think I’m for it.

So how do you critique Davis on education, an area he’s 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. That’s just the truth. I’m not going to call him Mr. Education, but it’s silly to oppose Democrats or anybody when they do something right.

In education, there’s the money part of it, then there’s the overwhelming emphasis on testing as a core of reforms.

I’m opposed to the testing mania.