Grounded in a ‘Last Are First’ Worldview
By Seth Kaper-Dale
(adapted from an article appearing in the Summer/Fall 2017 issue of Green Horizon Magazine)
I’m running for Governor of New Jersey on the Green Party ticket and I’m running to win. Here’s my story.
My wife and I have been co-pastors of a church in Highland Park, NJ since 2001. When we arrived, our church had 35 members. Today it has grown to approximately 500 congregants. We have also gone from being a primarily white congregation to being a congregation that has over 50 nationalities represented through first generation immigrants and extensive racial and ethnic diversity. In addition, over 3,000 people come through the church every week participating in a multitude of social justice and community building programs.
People often ask, “How it is that your congregation has grown when most others are shrinking?” I explain that we are a church that is engaged in working for justice, and thus we attract victims of the world’s abuses and solidarity-minded people committed to confronting injustice. We are a church that lives out the mantra ‘the last shall be first’ and we have found that those who feel that they are ‘last’ and those who are concerned for ‘the last’ come in droves. We also find, in our congregation, that those who are ‘last’ don’t stay ‘last’ for long, because we offer resources and create opportunities like a wellspring from below to accompany the transformation of bad situations into positive scenarios.
Our church works to be truly progressive and inclusive. We have been marrying gay couples since the early 2000’s. We rage against war and torture, Guantanamo Bay, hunger and solitary confinement. We join fights for raising the minimum wage and stopping climate change. In 2012 we provided physical Sanctuary to immigrants with ankle tracking devices on their legs for eleven months after they were ordered to report for deportation.
We’ve created an affordable housing corporation which currently manages 23 properties for 115 tenants, providing homes for populations like young women aging out of foster care, homeless veterans and the formerly incarcerated. Our church coordinates programs for Hurricane Sandy relief, community re-entry for the formerly incarcerated, after-school care for children, refugee resettlement, an emergency response team to stop immigrant detention and deportation, and a multi-cultural café run by refugees.
Swimming Upstream: Transforming A System that Relegates People to the Bottom
While I deeply love the work I do in the church and all of the programs of which we are a part, I’ve recently been feeling myself obliged to seek political office.
As I’ve engaged in building housing, defending LGBTQ rights, fighting for immigrant rights, and trying to end solitary confinement, I’ve felt like state and federal decisions (or lack thereof), have often created the problems that we in the non-profit, faith, and advocacy communities are always trying to fix. I could only throw stones at tanks from the trenches for so long, working to clean up messes made by the heartless, profit-driven acts of a government driven by a neoliberal agenda. Eventually, I felt like I needed to climb into the tanks and beat those tanks into plowshares and pruning hooks.
We need politics to be divorced from Wall Street and instead wedded to people’s needs. That is the only way to lay the groundwork for beauty instead of the groundwork for poverty and despair.
Through my work, these past 16 years, I’ve learned I’m a good administrator. As I’ve watched the current governor of our state, Chris Chrisite, bully his way around, I’ve felt like the administrative processes themselves that operate under the executive branch of government have suffered unnecessary stress and therefore limitations in their effectiveness. And, policy-wise, everything this governor has offered up has been about slashing money from programs for the common good while expanding tax-breaks and incentives for the wealthy.
People have asked why I didn’t start by running for a lower office—maybe assemblyman. It is precisely because I don’t want to only legislate; I want to administrate. I’ve had real administrative experience that makes me ready to lead the state.
Sadly, we have a state where many are disenfranchised. Among those who can vote, more and more are rejecting the existing political structure and parties. Electoral participation is often below 50% (in the last gubernatorial election only 39% of registered voters turned out to pull the lever). The focus of my campaign is on those who are last. Engaging them is not only morally the right thing to do—it is also the way to win.
Wealthy Wall Street-ers hold our nation and our state hostage. We need an economic revolution that benefits and transforms life for all of us who are not among the grotesquely rich. We need to undo the cruel policies that plunge a huge portion of people in New Jersey into abject poverty. As progressives we must put the last first.
The ‘Last are First’ Lens
In all honesty, for those who trust in the neoliberal agenda, I have no interest in seeking “converts.” For those feeling obligated to support the “lesser of two evils” with their vote, I reject their approach. The suggestion that there are only two serious choices in this state, and so we must choose the lesser wrong, is just not true. The problem is that no one starts with ‘the last’—with the disenfranchised who do not vote—and that is exactly where my campaign is digging in its heels.
The last are first lens is the filter I will use to view all my decision-making as governor. When I apply that lens what do I see? I see children in poverty—438,000 kids in New Jersey live in households that bring in less than $35,000 a year. I see affordable housing voucher programs that have been depleted—reduced by millions of dollars each year while rents only keep rising. I see apartheid towns—too expensive for poor working people who are largely minority. I see those same rich towns complaining about the high cost of public school in the cities—even though they have shirked their responsibility to increase affordable housing at a rate that would allow poor families to enjoy the benefit of their own public schools. All this can change.
When I use the last are first lens I see African-Americans locked up for smoking marijuana while white millennials in Colorado are making a decent living off legal weed. I see African-Americans stripped of the right to vote while they are in jail. I see our society treating these same inmates as indentured servants, obliged to work for peanuts while their families on the outside suffer in poverty, because a breadwinner is locked away. All this must change.
When I use the last are first lens I see half-a-million undocumented immigrants living in fear. They are New Jersey residents who desire to be fully respected, fully recognized and entitled to the rights of our state. A driver’s license should be available to all residents, regardless of immigration status; it will be safer for all of us.
When I use the last are first lens I see we need a $15/hour minimum wage, legalized cannabis, more housing vouchers, affordable childcare centers in all neighborhoods, after-school programs for all, places for poor kids to go swimming, less-expensive and more available public transportation . . . these are the kinds of issues that are morally right to focus on, and, they will motivate the 61% who didn’t turn out to vote in the last gubernatorial election.
But, just because they are essential issues to focus on, in terms of putting the last first, meeting people where they are at, they are not the key issues that will transform the state for all of us. If we care for those who are last, and are able to win their true support, we can actually focus on three central goals that will bring about truly revolutionary change in our state to benefit the commons.
Three Key Issues that Will Open the Door to an Economic Revolution in New Jersey
1. State-based Single-Payer Medicare for All
The most important issue for the transformation of New Jersey, something that will benefit all of us, in terms of health care but also in terms of economic transformation, is Medicare for All. With an employer payroll tax of 6%, and an employee payroll tax of 2%, we could pay for cradle-to-grave Medicare for All with no premiums, no deductibles, no co-pays, mental health, dental health and prescription drugs included. And, most significantly, by moving to NJ Medicare for All, we would kick off an economic revolution in our state.
Without the burden of exorbitant health insurance costs we’d lower municipal budgets by 15-20%, we’d see college costs go down, we could tackle paying for tuition for all (no longer paying for the health insurance of faculty and staff) and we’d see property taxes and rents reduced.
Without the burden of exorbitant health insurance costs we could pay our state pension contributions in full—instead of constantly pushing it off. If we have NJ Medicare for All, employers could easily pay $15/hour now, employees wouldn’t be cut off at 28 hours, and businesses would flock to the state—no longer concerned about the unregulated rates of private health insurance.
We are trapped right now in a fiscal morass largely resulting from being at the mercy of the private insurance industry and its bedfellows in the two-party duopoly.
2. Progressive Taxation
New Jersey currently has only seven brackets in its tax system. Other wealthy states have ten or more. Currently those earning more than $500,000 a year are all taxed at a marginal rate of less than 9%. We need more brackets—and higher rates at the top. Those growing grotesquely wealthy off disaster capitalism should be expected to kick back significantly more to the state, for the sake of all of us.
3. A Public Bank
Currently we invest our taxes and other holdings in hedge funds on Wall Street that turn every $1 into $10 that are loaned out, around the world. Our money goes, in unregulated fashion, to the creation of bombs, to building pipelines, and to clear-cutting and mining. We, in turn, get a small return on our investment.
It’s time for New Jersey to create a not-for-profit state-run bank with public oversight, to turn every $1 into $10 for the creation of renewable energy, for infrastructure improvements to our water system, for mass transit improvements, and for low-interest college loans. Let’s see our money go to the creation of loans that serve the needs and priorities of the common good in our state.
The Progressive Movement Must Foster a Well-Spring from Below
The middle and upper socio-economic layers of our society tend to be committed to the two-party duopoly. Even those among them who identify as ‘progressive’ often support the Democratic Party because they’re stuck in a ‘lesser of two evils’ view of the world. If the Greens will start at the bottom, addressing those who have no more illusions about the system or its establishment parties; if the Greens will share real progressive values that are good for ‘the last’—and that are good for all of us—we will create a wellspring from below (instead of relying on trickle-down from above). This new kind of politics has the potential to thoroughly shake up the moribund status quo. It’s generating excitement around the state of New Jersey. And it has more and more campaign supporters saying: “Let’s win this thing!”
We can do it.
Seth Kaper-Dale is a pastor, social-justice activist and community organizer who has a proven record of getting things done as an administrator and crafter of legislation. He is known on a national level through his leadership on defending families facing deportation. He has been married to Rev. Stephanie Kaper-Dale for 20 years and they have three daughters. Seth’s favorite word is beauty. Life on this earth should be beautiful for all. To get involved in his campaign go to kaperdaleforgovernor.com