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A Q&A Larry Arata, a teacher who ran for Congress to fight the opioid crisis | #PA5

"I felt that if I ran, at least I would force this issue to the forefront," he said.

Larry Arata is a Democrat running for Pennsylvania’s Fifth District, which is based in Delaware County but also includes parts of Philadelphia and Montgomery County.
Larry Arata is a Democrat running for Pennsylvania’s Fifth District, which is based in Delaware County but also includes parts of Philadelphia and Montgomery County.Read moreCAMPAIGN PHOTO

Larry Arata's son, Brendan, died in December. He was one of the many victims of America's opioid epidemic.

The tragedy, Arata said, pushed him to run for Congress.

"I felt like this was getting lip service, this issue," he said. "I felt that if I ran, at least I would force this issue to the forefront."

Arata is one of 10 Democrats running in Pennsylvania's Fifth District, which is largely based in Delaware County but also includes parts of Philadelphia and Montgomery County. He works as a teacher, and has raised much less money than other candidates: He only has about $7,400 on hand, according to a recent campaign finance report.

We asked Arata, 57, about everything from safe-injection sites to super PACs to trade. Our talk with Arata is the seventh 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 Arata’s Agenda:

  1. His plan to create jobs: Raise the minimum wage, invest $1 trillion in infrastructure, support trades education

  2. On a $15 minimum wage: Supports it

  3. Student loan debt: "We need to work toward free college education"

  4. Marijuana: Supports legalization of recreational pot

  5. National jobs guarantee: For it, but "it would be conditional"

  6. Super PACs: "They should be outlawed"

  7. The budget deficit: To reduce it, increase taxes on the wealthy

Why are you running for Congress? What inspired me to run was after the death of my son. On December 9, of course my wife and I were in mourning, but we wanted to mourn with a mission. So we formed a nonprofit group, the Opioid Crisis Action Network, and we interviewed doctors who treat the addicted and therapists who treat the addicted and many other folks who have expertise in this area, and they were unanimous in stating that the best practice is long-term care, meaning at least 30 days of inpatient treatment followed immediately by 30 days of outpatient treatment at the minimum. The problem is that insurance companies do not cover long-term care and Medicaid does not cover long-term care. So basically those suffering from addiction are being discriminated against, they're not being treated with medical best practices as medical surgical patients are. It would be like someone saying my mom when she had cancer, "Well … we're not going to give you that chemo that you need because you really don't need it until it spreads through your liver."

So we wouldn't do that to someone with cancer, but we put people suffering from addiction through seven-day reviews, so every seven days the treatment facility has to fight tooth and nail to justify additional treatment for the addicted. No one, and everybody know,  that no one reaches recovery in seven days. Yet insurance companies force discharges after seven days or 14 days or 21 days. Again, no one reaches recovery, even in 21 days. So that inspired me to run because I felt like when I reported this to Independence Blue Cross, executives there, and when I reported it to some politicians, I felt like this was getting lip service, this issue was getting lip service. I felt that if I ran, at least I would force this issue to the forefront of at least my campaign and therefore would force others to at least address the issue.

What are the biggest accomplishments of your career? I've had different careers. I guess the biggest accomplishments of my career is transitioning to my second career as a teacher and changing young people's lives the way that my teachers and my coach has changed my life. I can point to students. Many, many students who, like I was, going the wrong direction in eighth and ninth grade and the teachers and coaches reached out to me and they pointed me in the right direction, they gave me what I needed to get on the path to success. I've done that for my students and for my athletes, and that to me is by far the most successful thing I've ever done in my in my life.

What is your plan to create jobs and raise wages? I am in favor of a $15 minimum wage. I am in favor of a major investment in infrastructure, repair and reconstruction of our roads, our bridges, and tunnels, our ports, our airports, rail transit, to the tune of about $1 trillion over the next 10 years. And I think that will create millions of jobs. One challenge would be that we might not have enough staffing for those projects because we've divested in trades education. So one of my planks of my platform for job creation is to reinvest in trades education so that we have the staffing for these kinds of major government-funded jobs like reinvesting in our infrastructure.

What's your position on President Trump's strikes on Syria? I thought they were appropriate to prevent further bombing and prevent further use of illegal chemical weapons. So he bombed where our intelligence agencies thought that they were manufacturing these chemical weapons, where they were storing them, so he chose those sites and it resulted in minimal casualties of civilians. So I thought it was it was a limited strike and it was a targeted strike on the sites that have to do with the chemical weapons. So I feel it was appropriate. I think that this butcher, along with his Russian bodyguard, his Russian ally Mr. Putin, they have bombed civilians now for six years, and they've committed war crimes and the international community has to prevent them from continuing to bomb civilians and bomb cities, not just with chemical weapons but with … they have to prevent the wholesale bombing of civilians. It's against international law and it's not being enforced. So I think the allies need to enforce a total no-fly zone in Syria, not just retaliate against chemical weapons factories in storage sites, but also just have an allied supervised and enforced no-fly zone over Syria. So that civilians are longer bombed by the Russians or the Syrian dictator.

We asked our readers to submit questions to the Fifth District congressional candidates. One is about an issue very important to your campaign: How would you deal with the most pressing public health issue right now — opioids and overdose deaths? Do you support safe-injection sites? Safe-injection sites will save lives, so we should have them. Safe-injection sites hopefully will lead to the nurses or the supervisors talking the addicted into getting the treatment that they need. But this is not a solution to the problem. This is a Band-Aid on a gaping wound. If that's the best Philadelphia can do then, shame on all of us. So while I favor safe-injection sites because they will save lives and they will lead to the treatment of some of the addicted, it's really minuscule step that is being taken. Much, much more has to be done.

[As for dealing with the opioid crisis], well, there's three areas. So there's prevention. There's treatment and then there's interjection. And I should say interdiction and prevention programs. We need to prevent people from getting addicted in the first place. So the state law reduced the number of days that opioids could be prescribed to seven days and most states have adopted that standard. Some states have said minors can only be prescribed five days. Ohio says five days for minors. Seven days for adults. My platform cause for the reduction to three days and they would have to be renewed, prescriptions would have to be renewed after three days supply. So we need to reduce the supply of opioids. We need to prevent people from getting addicted to opioids, which is leading to the addiction to heroin. So I think that it's really negligent that minors are being prescribed at all. I have students. I beg their parents not to take and fill out prescriptions from oral surgeons for getting their wisdom teeth out, and they get prescribed seven days worth of opioids after having their wisdom teeth out. It's totally unnecessary and it shouldn't be allowed.

So that's the prevention side, but the most important part of my platform is the treatment side and that's been the centerpiece of my platform. The treatment side is that, as I said before, best practices is long-term care, our insurance companies are not paying for long-term care. Medicaid is not paying for long term care. That is against the Parity Act of 2008. It's against Act 106, Pennsylvania Act 106. The law needs to be tightened and the law needs to be enforced. Everyone should be entitled to best medical practice being covered by the insurance companies and by Medicaid.

So interdiction means that the police shut down well-known open air markets like Kensington. They've known for years  that's where hundreds of people buy drugs every day. That open air markets should be shut down. It's just ridiculous that it hasn't been shut down. And our prisons are filled with people with drug problems and yet most prisons don't provide drug treatment. Our prisons should be state-of-the-art drug treatment centers, so that then people when people are released, they're not craving drugs and they're not going to go back to the crime to support that addiction.

How do you look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and any potential solution? Well, I believe in a two-state solution. I think the two-state solution is being threatened by both sides. Neither side is really operating in good faith toward a two-state solution that was outlined by three different presidents, so it's really in shambles right now, but it can be repaired, but both sides have to honor their partner in the two-state solution. So Israel has to honor the territorial integrity of Palestine, and Palestine has to stop violent and terroristic attacks upon Israel.

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? Tough question. I admire Nancy Pelosi a lot. I have a lot of good memories of her accomplishments, especially the Affordable Care Act. When President Obama seemed willing to accept half a loaf and he was doubtful of party unity in Congress, Nancy Pelosi promised that or urged him to stand firm and get the whole act passed and the entire act passed in its entirety and then she would deliver the votes, and she did. So she said she's accomplished a lot in her many years of leadership. So I have a lot of admiration for her, but I would probably vote for Tim Ryan despite that. Because I think it's time for a new voice. I think it's time for a new face of leadership in the Democratic Party.

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? While I agree with his interpretation of the Second Amendment and that the Heller case reinterpreted it to make gun ownership a personal citizens' right as opposed to a states right. I've always interpreted … that a well-regulated militia, states have the right to arm their militias. So it was a states' rights issue. It was not an individual right. … So while I agree with John Paul Stevens' interpretation of the Second Amendment, I'm not sure the best solution this point would be to repeal the Second Amendment. Politically, I don't think that would would fly and think there's much better use our solutions to our problems, and in other words we should concentrate on comprehensive gun control legislation, which is allowed by the Heller decision. …

The Heller decision, while it said that the right to bear arms is an individual right, an individual citizens' right, it also said that the government has the right to regulate which arms are legal and which the arms are illegal and it pointed to bans on machine guns and automatic weapons as within the government's regulatory authority and responsibility. So Maryland has I believe the most restrictive gun laws in the nation, they ban over 45 different technologies. They ban automatic and semi-automatic weapons, all military-style weapons they ban large-capacity magazines. They ban bump stocks. And that law, that Maryland law recently withstood an appeal to the appellate court. So I would take that Maryland law and make it national law. We should outlaw all military-style weapons, both automatic and semi automatic.

We asked our readers to submit questions to the Fifth District congressional candidates. Here is one: Is your campaign staff unionized? I don't have a paid campaign staff. I have volunteers.

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 rightsI support abortion rights, but I respect … Bob Casey is a great Democrat and his father before him as a great Democrat, and they are pro-life. So I would not judge them not to be Democrats. They're good Democrats, but we disagree on that one issue. So one issue should not define, should not be a litmus test for someone's membership in a party. No.

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'm more of a fair trader than a free trader. I think that the agreements that have been negotiated during the last 30 years have been detrimental to the U..S economy and the manufacturing sector and to the working class of America. I think the agreements have been unfair because it's an unbalanced playing field with America, with its progressive environmental protection, its progressive labor protections, its safety in the workplace requirements, and then we're in a quote-unquote free trade agreement with countries that do not have environmental protections, labor protections, workplace safety protection. So they don't have to spend money on those issues like we do. And they don't have minimum wage laws that we have. So it's it's an unfair playing field and the United States manufacturing sector and other sectors have suffered as a result. So I don't know if tariffs and going into a trade war with tariffs is the best answer. It just seems to be negotiating through implementing tariffs. I think that there's other ways to negotiate, and to set off a trade war with China and with other trading partners, so if you ask me where am I on the scale, I wouldn't describe myself as a free trader, I would describe myself as someone who is for fair trade.

I would not describe myself as a Trump protectionist, but I definitely would protect U.S. industries. So I guess I'm more of a protectionist than a free trader, but I don't agree with the way Donald Trump is going about it. I don't think ihe's doing much for the stability of U.S. markets. I don't think he's doing much to bring back manufacturing, the way he's going about just imposing terrorists on foreign steel and foreign aluminium. I think you should sit down at the negotiating table and come up with a fair trade agreement.

I know you mentioned you are for a $15 minimum wage. What's your position on free college and single-payer health care? … We need to work toward free college education. If the state Georgia can have a program where if the student can have a "B" average and is proficient in the standardized tests, that they can have a free state college education, if the state of Georgia can do that, why can't every state in the union? Why can't we do that nationally? Why can't the federal government coordinate those 50 state programs. … So, yeah, I definitely agree with Bernie [Sanders] that we have to work toward free college education for all, and not just college education but trade education. Not everyone is made out for college. My son tried to go to college. He really was frustrated with it. He really had reading issues, disabilities that he fought through through high school, but they were very difficult for him to go to college. So I think he would have benefited greatly from a trade school and to have trade school education in high school. So yes, I favor Bernie's thrust toward free college. My family right now is $100,000 in college loan debt because we put our daughter through a private college. We're basically crushed by that debt. My wife is crushed, and my daughters and I are crushed, and it's not fair to crush the middle class with college debt.

[On single-payer], yes, the ultimate goal should be single-payer, but a lot of my well-meaning competitors in this race, that's all they say: Single-payer, single-payer, single-payer. Like they can wave a magic wand and single-payer will happen on January 24 right after the blue wave, and right after we're sworn in, and it's not going to happen like that. It's going to be a long transition to single-payer. There are about a million workers that work for private insurance companies. There are billions of dollars tied up and pension funds and other investments associated with private insurance company investments. There are a lot of people who have private plans that like their private plans and I don't think it's democratic to order them off of their product plans that they like and order them to sign up for the government plan. So that's undemocratic and I think that would be very unpopular with people who like their current plans. So I think we need to transition people to single-payer by addressing their biggest problems in their private health care system right now. And the biggest problem is cost. It's not affordable.

The Affordable Care Act did a lot in bringing millions of people onto the health insurance rolls, but it's still unaffordable for millions of people. So we have to make it affordable by doing what Sen. Specter called providing a government option. So we need to expand Medicaid and Medicare so that there is a government option that competes with these local monopolies and semi-monopolies in different regions of the country, which are ripping off the citizens of this country with very high premiums, very high co-pays, very high prescription costs. So the government option should be based on the ability to pay based on a sliding scale, and the highest any America should have to pay for healthcare is 10 percent of their income. If someone is poor, they shouldn't have to pay anything. So if the government option is capped at 10 percent, that's going to provide serious competitive pressure on the private insurance companies to lower their premiums or keep them as low as possible. More and more people will transition to the government option and eventually we'll have a system dominated by a government payer. Will be a single payer ever? It probably will be, but it will probably be a 10-year transition to single-payer.

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 support for? Yes, it would be conditional. You know, people need to be qualified and pursue being qualified for jobs, but I think it's the government's obligation to match people up according to their qualifications with jobs, and I think the government should be proactive and helping people fulfill their potential and enable them to support themselves and their families, to be productive members of society. Government should be much more proactive and progressive in making sure we have full employment in this nation. So, yes, I support Sen. Sanders and Sen. Cory Booker and their efforts to make sure we have full employment.

What is your position on super PACs? Should they be involved in this congressional race? No, they should be outlawed and I resent progressive candidates, otherwise progressive candidates, who say with one side of their mouth that they want to end Citizens United and the Citizens United-enabled super PACs and then they accept money from super PACs. I think it's totally hypocritical that Rich Lazer is accepting super PAC money to the tune of $500,000 from one political boss. [Editor's note: A pro-Lazer super PAC has spent nearly $1 million on TV ads; according to the most recent campaign filings, it has received $200,000 from the city's electricians union, led by John "Johnny Doc" Dougherty.] One man should not have that much power to influence elections. That's undemocratic. That's an oligarchy. It's more like Russian politics than American democracy. And it's also hypocritical for Ashley Lunkenheimer to say, "Trust me, I will end Citizens United while she's taking over so far over $100,000 from her mother's super PAC to fund her mailings and her TV commercials. [Editor's note: Lunkenheimer's mother has helped fund a pro-Lunkenheimer super PAC.] This is an unfair advantage to the super wealthy. The logical extension of this is that only candidates who are connected to wealth or or political bosses will become able to compete in elections. That's not fair. That's not that's not democracy. That's totally elitist and a middle-class person like me who's a teacher should be able to run a grassroots campaign on a shoestring budget and be able to compete. That's democracy.

Do you feel like you can compete? I'm competing. You walk around South Philadelphia … I've knocked on 20,000 doors, so you walk around South Philadelphia, you'll see my signs in people's windows. You walk around Drexel Hill and Havertown, you'll see my signs in people's lawns. I'm going to get a lot of votes. I'm competing. But these two super PAC-funded candidates have an unfair advantage, and it's undemocratic. And I would call on progressives, if you truly are a progressive voter, do not vote for candidates funded by super PACs.

Do you have any government experience? I've never run for office if that's what you mean. I've never held government office. I've been involved in campaigns my whole adult life, I've volunteered campaigns. I've been a basically grassroots lobbyist my whole adult life. I was on the board of Clean Water Action and we lobbied government to implement and enforce environmental regulations. I was on the board of that the Upper Darby Creek Valley Association and we certainly influenced and lobbied government organizations to implement common-sense protection of our watershed, Darby Creek watershed. So I was a ward leader, the Eighth Ward Leader, in the democratic committee in Haverford Township for quite a while. So have I ever held a government job? Not unless you consider teacher a government job. But I've been an educational activist. When the school board, [School Reform Commission] shut down schools and had handed them over to charter schools, I protested. When they consolidated schools, two small schools into a larger school, I protested and I spoke at the SRC meetings against it.

So I've been involved in grassroots political action and lobbying for 30 years, whether it's environmental issues, good government issues, educational issues. I've spoken at government meetings. … I've testified during zoning board meetings. I've spoken at commissioners meetings and county council meetings for 30 years. That is my that is my government experiences, is being a grassroots activists for 30 years.

What would you say to voters who say Larry is my first choice, but I don't think he has a chance of winning, so I'm going to cast a ballot for my second-favorite candidate? I heard that, and that's a self fulfilling prophecy. … First of all, it's not true that I don't have a chance to win. This is why I have a chance to win. There are 10 candidates in this race. This is a unprecedented. So if I was going one-on-one with Richie Lazer with $500,000 and my $15,000 that I've raised, yeah, maybe you could use that argument. But it's not just me against Richie Lazer. There are 10 candidates in this race and all 10 are going to get some votes, because all 10 bring something to the table. All 10 have a following and all 10 have been working hard and and have grown the Democratic Party out there. They have energized the electorate in different areas, and they've all knocked on a lot of doors and they've all come to the candidates forums.

So they've all got a message. So all 10 are going to get some votes. So I could win with 7,000 votes. I'm going to get 7000 votes. I am. I'm going to get 7000 votes at least. And if everyone else gets random percent of the votes who show up, I win. So I can win with 10 candidates. I've knocked on 20,000 doors. And we have enough money to do a targeted mailing, and we're going to be doing that. And we've already done major lit-dropping in South Philadelphia and Haverford and Drexel Hill and some other areas, Yeadon. So we've run a good campaign, and we know where we need to be to win and we're going to get 30 percent of the vote in some zip codes. So if I get 30 percent of the vote in six or seven zip codes, and hold my own and get percent in the rest of the zip codes, I win. So there is a path to victory here because it's a very strange unprecedented election.

What is your position on legalizing recreational or medical marijuana? I'm in favor of it. The War on Drugs is a dismal failure. We have 2 million people in prison in this country. The use has not decreased. It separates families, it drives the trade underground where it's unregulated. Prohibition of alcohol did not work, and prohibition of marijuana has not worked. Marijuana is not addictive. Marijuana is not a gateway drug as much as alcohol or as much as opioids. So I'm in favor of legalization of marijuana for adults.

I asked all the other candidates what percentage of their staff and advisers is women and people of color. Since you have no paid staff, what is the makeup for your volunteers? I have volunteers who are people of color. I have volunteers who are women. I have a very diverse group of volunteers.

Republicans passed a sweeping tax bill last year. What would your ideal tax legislation look like? First of all, it would eliminate all the loopholes for the wealthy. There are a lot of loopholes for the wealthy and we need to eliminate all of them. We would raise the maximum payment for the top 1 percent for people out there making over half a million dollars, we would raise that back to the 39 percent that it was where it was under the Obama administration. For those who make over a quarter million dollars a year, we would go back to what it was over the Obama administration, which I believe was over 33 percent. So we need to tax the wealthy and we need to lower taxes on the middle class and the working class, and we need to have a progressive tax system in this country that favors the poor and the middle class.

This another question proposed by 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? Yes, I think we have to be concerned about deficits. I'm in favor of deficit … we should be able to have deficit spending to stimulate the economy, but we have to be prudent in the level of deficit spending that we have. So I'm in favor of implementing deficit spending to stimulate the economy and to repair and reinvest in our nation's infrastructure, for example. We need to cut, we need to increase taxes on the wealthy to pay for that. And we also need to eliminate tax loopholes for the wealthy. We also need to eliminate wasteful spending for example in the military. So I think there's a lot of fat in the military budget, that things are being spent that we longer need. So a lot of antiquated programs that need to be reexamined, so there's there's money to be saved in the military budget.