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The Greg Vitali Q&A: Can an environmental bulldog with little cash win a congressional race? | #PA5

Democratic congressional candidate Greg Vitali, a state representative from Delaware County, has far less campaign funding than others - but he might have a shot.

Greg Vitali is a Democrat running for Congress in Pennsylvania’s Fifth District.
Greg Vitali is a Democrat running for Congress in Pennsylvania’s Fifth District.Read moreAP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

Greg Vitali says his campaign has only one paid full-time staffer.

When he filed a recent campaign report, he had just $47,000 on hand.

Other Democratic candidates in Pennsylvania's Fifth Congressional District have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars and enjoy the support of super PACs and powerful political figures.

Common wisdom says Vitali shouldn't have a chance in the May 15th primary. But according to internal polls conducted on behalf of his campaign and others, at least, he may be a force: A survey paid by his team found him in second place (with a quarter of voters undecided). One potential reason: Vitali, 61, has represented Delaware County in the state House for more than 25 years.

"Sending a candidate to Washington without the aid of super PACs and a legion of wealthy donors and a large law firm backing them would send a great message that big money doesn't win all the time," Vitali said.

We asked Vitali about everything from foreign policy to Medicare-for-All to whether voters should really believe he wants to be in Congress after jumping out of the race earlier this year only to leap back in again. Our interview with Vitali is the third in a series of Q&As with all of the Fifth District's candidates, except for two did who did not respond to our request for an interview. It has been lightly edited for clarity.

Seven Quick Facts About Vitali’s Agenda:

  1. His plan to create jobs: Fund education and infrastructure

  2. On a $15 minimum wage: "I definitely support increasing it" but "just blindly raising the minimum wage to a set amount could have unintended consequences"

  3. Student loan debt: Make college as affordable as possible

  4. Marijuana: Supports legalization of recreational pot

  5. National jobs guarantee: "I would need to study that a little more"

  6. Super PACs: "Citizens United should be repealed"

  7. The budget deficit: "If we pull back and quit trying to make Middle East countries Western-style democracies, that might help our budgetary problems a bit"

Why are you running for Congress? My life's mission has been environmental protection. … I've been doing that at a state level for a long time. Climate change is the most serious long-term threat to the planet. I want to get up to Washington, use the experience and knowledge I have to address the environment generally and change specifically at the national level.

What are the biggest accomplishments of your career? I would say that the first thing to note is that when you work on environmental policy in a fossil-fuel state, you're playing defense. So probably the most important thing we've done are to stop bad things, but probably the most important positive thing we've done is, under the Rendell administration, enacting his energy independence strategy, which involved a $600 million bond issue for renewable energy projects. There was a smart metering piece to that, there was a piece relating to biofuels. I think probably that it was a four-package policy bill getting that passed was probably the most important policy thing I've done. … This year, stopping a bill that would have really undercut the Department of Environmental Protection's ability to regulate the oil and gas industry. [It] was a procedural vote relating to the severance tax, but I understood that were that to move forward it would really undercut the DEP's ability to do its job We stopped a plastic bag bill last term. We stopped a bill that would have had commercial development in state parks, but it's just a never-ending battle to stop weaken or slow down bad environmental things.

What is your plan to create jobs and raise wages? I think with regard to economics, while I don't have a plan per se, I think improving the economy of the region involves a number of important things, including making sure that the quality of our public education, specifically, but education generally, is at a high level. So proper funding for public schools certainly is important and I've been a supporter of that, but beyond that, in helping the economy of the region, transportation infrastructure is very important. Making sure roads, bridges and public transit are in good shape. And I have, by supporting a gas tax, helped that process along. So I just think supporting our educational institutions and infrastructure are two important components of helping the economy of the region.

Talk about your foreign policy positions. Do you see yourself an interventionist, an isolationist, none of the above, or somewhere in between? Although I've never voiced it, my passion relating to the U.S. military is equal to my passion for the environmental. I've done extensive reading about U.S. military policy. I think that we as a country are over-involved in the world — well, our military, depending on whose estimate you listen to, our U.S. military is the size of the next six countries in the world combined. I think we are too quick to get involved in armed conflict with other countries. I think our military spending to some degree is based on political considerations, with legislators viewing military programs as economic development measures, which is wrong. I'm also concerned with the amount of money that defense contractors give to the legislature. So I think we as a country really needlessly annoy other countries. … Doing military exercises off the shores of North Korea, driving or sailing our war ships too close to the artificial island created by China. Didn't think we should have tried to remove Assad from office. … I think, frankly, the reason we spend so much and have so many assets, military assets placed around the world, is to protect the free flow of oil to our country. And I think by the relationship between the military and the environment and the corruptive of influence of money is that if we invested more in renewables as opposed to fossil fuels, you would not need these military assets to assure the free flow of oil. … I think I would be, myself, a dove on military issues.

What's your position on President Trump's strikes on Syria? It's something I opposed. Again, I think Trump's attack on Syria was just one more example of our country using its military too quickly.

What is your position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and how to end it? I've taken the time to visit Israel and it certainly is an extremely difficult problem to solve. I'm concerned with Israel's continuing to build settlements. I think that's an impediment to an ultimate solution. I'm concerned with Trump's plans to move the embassy to Jerusalem. I thought that was unnecessarily antagonistic. It's a situation where both sides have very valid positions, and certainly understand Israel, given the tragedies it suffered in the Holocaust, having a need for a homeland. But at the same time, I certainly understand the feelings of the Palestinians having been displaced in the 1940s, feeling resentment. So it's a difficult, certainly a difficult problem, and I just think you have to approach it with the spirit of compromise and good will.

Let's say it's 2019. The Democrats have taken back control of the U.S. House, and Nancy Pelosi and Tim Ryan are running against each other for Speaker. Who do you vote for? At the outset, I'd like to say I have participated now in 13 leadership elections. So I understand the dynamics of them and I think a wise position for a freshman legislator is to keep his powder dry, have many discussions with sitting congressmen, and just listen to the debate and make an informed decision. That's what my experience tells me to do.

John Paul Stevens, a retired U.S. Supreme Court justice, has called for the Second Amendment to be repealed. Where do you stand on that idea? And can you talk generally about your views on gun laws? I think it's madness. We have so many guns in this society, and assault weapons can be purchased so easily, and we certainly need the tools at our disposal to really limit the type and quantity of guns in society. I certainly would be open to listening to any proposed changes to the Second Amendment. Obviously it was written at a time where people were using muskets and our founding fathers simply did not anticipate current society as it is and the gun problem out there. So I certainly would be open to proposals to modify the Second Amendment, to keep it in accordance with the demands and needs of modern society.

We asked our readers to submit questions to the Fifth District congressional candidates. One was: Is your campaign staff unionized? No. There's only one paid staffer. The overwhelming majority of the work is done by volunteers, so unionization is not practical.

Many candidates have come out in support of the so-called Bernie Sanders platform of a $15 minimum wage, free college and single-payer health care. Where do you stand on those issues? On the minimum wage, I definitely support increasing it. I guess there are a lot of nuances to that issue — what amount to increase it, what categories of people do you exempt, the issues of training wages. I mean as a person with an economics degree, I understand that raising the minimum, just blindly raising the minimum wage to a set amount could have unintended consequences and deleterious impacts on people who we want to protect. So it's a question that I don't want to give the quick soundbite answer of saying, "Yes, I support an immediate $15 an hour minimum wage. But I'd support an increase in the minimum wage, and to what extent and how it's done, I don't think requires a little more study than I've given it. …

With regard to health care, my position has been, if I'm elected, initially I would support and try to improve the Affordable Care Act in the short run, working for a single-payer Medicare-for-All system in the long run. …

I think we should work toward making college as affordable for all as possible. … Considering the financial limitations we're operating under … doing what we can to make community colleges and state universities free or low-cost … and providing the best possible grant and loan packages we can for state-related and private institutions.

Do you agree with Nancy Pelosi, who said that Democrats can be pro-life? Or do you agree with Tom Perez, who said "every Democrat" should support abortion rights? I am pro-choice. I have a 100 percent voting record with Planned Parenthood. I support funding for Planned Parenthood and every permutation of the abortion question as it has come up in the state House … opposing shortening the amount of weeks allowed for a woman to choose a pregnancy and so forth. Having said that … I am very comfortable supporting Bob Casey even though he is an anti-choice candidate. So although I am 100 percent pro choice, I do support Bob Casey for U.S. Senate.

What is your position on President Trump's tariffs on steel and aluminum and other products? And where do you stand on free trade versus trade protectionism generally? I think it's a complicated question. I mean, again, as an economics major, I understand that the global economy works best when global market forces are able to play out and … then we minimize barriers to trade between countries. Yet at the same time, it needs to be sanctioned and measured to address when other countries like China are imposing tariffs and other measures that hurt our ability to export our products to them. It's a complicated question and it just has to be decided on a case-by-case basis.

Trump's tariffs are a specific case — what about that case? I don't have a strong feeling one way or another on that.

What is your position on the national jobs guarantee that Sen. Bernie Sanders is expected to unveil, and that others like Sen. Cory Booker have expressed supportfor? I would need to study that a little more. … Concerns that come to mind are, one, how it would affect our deficit. And two, whether that would be implemented in a time of full employment versus high unemployment. I would simply need to take a closer look at that.

Earlier in the campaign, you were running for Congress. Then you dropped out. Then you jumped in again. Why should voters believe you truly want to be in Congress? I think you have to appreciate the fact that this was a congressional race where we didn't even know what the congressional lines were until very, very late in the process, so I was making my decisions in an environment where I simply do not know whether this is going to be an unwinnable gerrymandered seat or a D+13 Fifth Congressional seat, which it ultimately turned out to be. … I was going to explain the fact that in addition, it's very difficult to ask a person to risk a state House seat and all the work that's important to him, not knowing whether he's going to be running for an unwinnable seat or not. So that's the environment in which I had to make my decisions. I have wanted to be a U.S. congressman for a long time. And I think how I've conducted myself over the past two months with an unwavering intention to get to Congress should send a message to voters of the seriousness of my intent.

Your critics have said you haven't passed a signature piece of legislation in Harrisburg. What would you say to that? A couple things to consider: One, when you work on environmental policy in a fossil-fuel city, you're playing defense, not offense. Two, of the 26 years I've been in the legislature, all but six in the minority, which makes it difficult to pass legislation. Three, I tend to work on the big issues like climate change. If my intent was to pass bills, I could simply introduce legislation to make the crimes code tougher because that's like shooting fish in a barrel. So my role, my work has been recognized and honored by many objective sources. I've received statewide awards from almost every statewide environmental organization such as the Sierra Club, Clean Water Action, Clean Air Council, PA League of Conservation Voters, and on and on. I also received the endorsement this year from Clean Water Action, so it's the nature of what I do that makes it difficult. The analogy I use with people if Fletcher Cox of the Eagles doesn't score a lot of touchdowns, but you don't criticize him for that because that's not his role. His role is to stop the opposition from scoring touchdowns, and that's my role. When you do environmental policy in a fossil-fuel state, you're playing defense, not offense.

What is your position on legalizing recreational or medical marijuana? I voted for the legalization of medical marijuana, and if a bill legalizing marijuana for recreational use was put on my desk for a vote, I would vote yes.

Do you support impeaching President Trump? I think the country would be best served by removing Trump as soon as possible. I think he's the worst president this country has ever had and he's a threat to world safety. But having said that, as a lawyer, I would need to look at the legal standard and factual basis upon which articles of impeachment were brought.

Republicans passed a sweeping tax bill last year. What would your ideal tax legislation look like? I view that tax bill from an environmental perspective, and the provision that allowed drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge caught my eye and obviously that's an objectionable feature. … It would certainly do things like end subsidies to the fossil fuel [industry]. … I would go down our tax code, line by line … and look for those provisions that were put in there because they had some special interest benefactor. Certainly end subsidies to the fossil-fuel industry, certainly remove the provision related to drilling in the Arctic. That would be my starting point

This is a question from a reader: Should we be concerned about the size of the federal budget deficit? If we should, what specific revenue increases and/or spending decreases would you support? I think that we certainly should. I do think our military budget is too big. … I think that the fact that our military is so involved in the world is driving spending to a huge degree. So I think we have to reanalyze how involved, militarily, we want to be in the world. And I think if we pull back and quit trying to make Middle East countries Western-style democracies, that might help our budgetary problems a bit.

What is your position on super PACs? Should they be involved in this congressional race? I think Citizens United should be repealed. It was an extremely bad decision by our U.S. Supreme Court. I think there should be limits on the amount individuals and PACs can spend. I think here should be total transparency as to who is giving what, and super PACs should not be a vehicle, should not be allowed to be a vehicle to mask the spending of donors. So I do think we need to do what we can to repeal Citizens United.

What percentage of your staff and advisers is women and people of color? Essentially my staff consists of a campaign consultant and a treasurer and a full-time paid staffer, and they all are white men. I would quickly add, though, that I have scores of volunteers of both genders and supporters of multiple races.

You have much less money than other candidates in the race. What would you say to voters who look at your campaign and think, "He's my first choice but I don't know if he's going to win, so I'll go with my second choice." I have won 13 straight elections, and I have won all of those elections being grossly outspent by my opponents. I think sending a candidate to Washington without the aid of super PACs and a legion of wealthy donors and a large law firm backing them would send a great message that big money doesn't win all the time.

One last question from a reader: How would you deal with the most pressing public health issue right now — opioids and overdose deaths? Do you support safe-injection sites? I do support safe injection sites. And I was supportive of state legislation and will continue to support legislation which expands treatment facilities, which implements computer-based reporting requirements for opioids, prescriptions which will allow medical provider to quickly detect abuses. I'm also supportive of legislation which limits the length of opioid prescriptions to minors and those receiving attention in emergency rooms. So, yeah, I have already voted for and will continue to support measures which address this terrible problem.