BOB: Earlier this year, the 18 primary candidates to succeed Democrat Henry Waxman in California’s 33rd District included career politicians, some fringe candidates with absolutely no chance, and one public radio host. For years, Matt Miller has hosted Left, Right and Center, in which three commenters from across the political spectrum talk through the issues of the day. He played the part of the center. His run for office was not a stunt. Here he is in a debate sounding every bit the politician:
Miller: We're in a situation where even 4-5 years after the official recovery started we've still go nearly 20 million Americans who want full time work who can't find it. And even though we live in one of the wealthier districts in the country, it's really a tale of two districts. There are a lot of people doing well, but there are a lot of people who are still struggling.
BOB: Miller was a natural at fundraising; he got an endorsement from the LA Times and had a serious platform of ideas. What he did not have, however, was enough support to win the primary. But Miller was all in for the run.
MILLER: I guess I’m a naive romantic in part and I always thought, you know, having lived in Waxman’s district since 1995, when he stepped down I would look at this seriously. But no one thought it would be now. We thought it would be 5-6 years from now. So he stunned everybody in late January when he suddenly said, I'm not going to run again.
BOB: Now if you had an illusions, or might say delusions about nudging Washington into a better directions they must have been disabused about 5 minutes into your campaign when you found out what your almost sole job was.
MILLER: Nothing prepares you for what it's like to be in the candidates chair when you're really doing it. And it is all-consuming, it's very transactional. Only in American do we ask people who want to serve to spend most of their time raising money. And uh, and it's crazy.
BOB: Yeah, you thought you were retiring rom public radio to be an elected official, turns out you retired from public radio, at least temporarily...
MILLER: To take pledge drives into a different venue as someone said to me...so maybe public radio was good preparation, for this. I mean, We kind of targeted raising $1 million. I ended up raising over $800,000 in three months or so. Turns out I was quite good at it. But you basically make a list of everyone you've ever known in your life. Put them on a spreadsheet and rank them by who has the where with all to give generously and who might be inclined to. And then you begin supplementing that with your expanding concentric circles. Breakfast, coffee, lunch, drinks with anyone who might have an interest, who's in a position to help.
BOB: Matt, in a moment I'm going to ask you later how you come out of that process with your integrity. But first I'm going to ask you - -how do you come out on the other end of that process with your dignity.
MILLER: Being excellent at fundraising was in the critical path for victory. That’s very clear. So therefore I would excel at it. I think you decide that the goals you're trying to serve, if you're trying to inject that into the public conversation, you need to do this to be able to do that. And so I made peace with that. I tried to have fun with it, as much as one can. Because fi you're going to spend 4-5 hours or more a day doing an activity if you're not finding a way to have some laughs and be a happy warrior about even the fundraising --
BOB: How do you find prostrating yourself before friends, near friends, total strangers and their checkbooks.
MILLER: You get comfortable making the ask, and I was. And you know you try to have a little levity while you're doing it.
BOB: Alright, let's do a little role playing exercise here Matt. We went to high school together we've stayed in touch but, I haven't been in your house in 11 years. Ok, now you're running for Congress...and oh...the phone rings and it's Matt Miller. (Bob taking the identity of the high school friend) Matt Miller calling -- what does he want? Hello?
MILLER: Hey Bob, so I don't know if you saw the news I sent out in the email but I'm actually -- I've thrown my hat in the ring for Henry Waxman's seat in Congress, he's stepping down in LA after 4 decades. You know, I've thought about doing this for a long time, I'm gonna do it. Unfortunately oneo f the big duties of a candidate is to raise the money to be viable. And I would love to ask for your financial support.
BOB: What are we talking about here Matt. $50? $100?
MILLER: Well, um, I'll be grateful for anything you feel comfortable doing. The maximum is $2600 per person, $5200 per couple. And I'd be grateful for your considering...
BOB: (as if to a wife somewhere else in the room): Dolores?!?! You want believe...You can't believe what's happening. Remember Matt Miller. He wants $3000!.
BOB: You got almost all of your $800,000 from individuals, 2600 bucks or less at a pop. In a perfect world as a candidate you also have access to PAC money. You did not fare so well.
MILLER: I would have been happy to raise PAC money. As a newcomer you don't get the same offers. Senator Michael Bennett who was a supporter of mine had a leadership PAC. Gave me a contribution. One law firm gave me a contribution. And then, a friend of a friend was the CEO of Avis - the rental car company - so I got $2600 from Avis' PAC and I would tell audience routinely when they say, you know, 'where are you getting your money from?' - I would say - 'cards on the table, you send me to Washington, I'm under the thumb of the rental car industry.'
BOB: Except it's probably little truer than we would wish. Because, you would have gotten a call at some point, right? From Big Rental as you called it. They probably would have wanted some legislative relief and then whatta you do?
MILLER: I would take their call. I mean, it's human nature to be grateful to the folks who helped oyu get there. I would take calls from people donated. And that gives them more access than the average Joe on the street.
BOB: During the course of the campaign, you did not sit in your chair at KCRW -- but you ran on your public radio credential. That was your shorthand.
MILLER: You're given 3 words on the ballot to say what your job is or role. So we decided "public radio host" because it was at he source of my name I.D. in the district.
BOB: So it turns out you can run for office. However, if you put up a political sign in your front yard while still on the air I think they could have fired you, right? So what conflict of interest discussions came up between you and your management at KCRW.
MILLER: Basically I had to leave the show. So, instead of the little rant that we do at the end of the show I said, you know, 'home news, I'm taking leave to run for Henry Waxman's seat. Hope to see you out there.'
BOB: One thing great about Left, Right, and Center is that it's nuanced in a way that the most ham-fisted Congressional politics seldom are. Had you won the primary and been swept into office on the basis the Democrats landslide victory on Tuesday...(laughs) would you have been frustrated that you'd be more constrained in actual politics than you were by simply discussing them.
MILLER: I had a lot of friends and supports who would say at first -- why do you want this job? You can have impact doing what your doing. Congress is a mess, you'll be in the minority. Paradoxically watching Paul Ryan from the other side of the aisle move what I viewed as this really hollow regressive plan to the center of the national conversation in the last 5 years made me think that there's a real void of "ideas" in Washington . I feel like, you know, all the work I've done over the last two decades, the books, columns ect. -- I could help the Democratic caucus advance ideas that if I got in I could make a difference and that may be quixotic and naive and now I'm relegated to the dustbin of history.
BOB: (Laughs) Perhaps the recycling bin of history. We can't consign you to dust just yet. Matt thank you very much.
MILLER: Thanks for having me.
BOB: Matt Miller for 18 years has been the host of public radio's Left, Right, and Center. He plays the part of the center. He is also a totally failed politician.