In conversation with Senator Gary Peters on COVID-19, student loans and police reform

Tuesday, August 11, 2020 - 7:07pm

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The Daily spoke with Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., on July 24 about his re-election campaign to the U.S. Senate, the federal government’s COVID-19 response and racial inequality. John James is the Republican nominee running against Peters for the Senate seat in this November’s election. The James campaign declined multiple requests for an interview.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

TMD: Why should young people, and college students in particular, be excited about your campaign?

GP: Well, a big focus for my campaign is to make sure higher education is affordable for all students. No matter who they are, no matter where they live, they should have the opportunity to achieve their version of the American Dream and get the education they need in order to do that. That means we need to make college education more affordable. One way I'm working to do that is for those students who are taking out student loans, we need to lower the interest rate for student loans. At a time with record low interest rates, the rates that students pay should also be tied to those lower rates. That's why I worked on legislation with Elizabeth Warren to lower those rates and we’ll continue to work to get that passed, but getting that passed will require a Democratic majority in the Senate. We’re going to keep working on that. Additionally to that, for those students, it’s not just about taking loans. We should expand Pell (Grant) eligibility, so that students can get the grants they need to pursue their education and not be saddled with high loans.

The other issue that is critically important to me and one we have to be focused on as a society — and one that's going to particularly impact students in the years ahead — that's the existential threat of climate change. I am passionate about protecting our environment and understand that climate change is a critical issue. We have to set ambitious goals to reduce carbon emissions and do common sense things like put the United States back into the Paris Accord after Donald Trump pulled us out of the Paris Accord. The United States needs to be a leader in dealing with climate change and we need folks who are passionate about it in elected office, and that’s me.

TMD: Where would you place yourself in today’s Democratic Party, ideologically?

GP: Well, I think folks would consider that I would be a moderate Democrat, somebody who is willing to work in a bipartisan way in order to get things done, but is also a proud Democrat, a very proud Democrat. I think part of that — the fact that I'm willing to work in a bipartisan way— is that I do believe that we have to get things done. 

Government has to actually come together in order to solve the very tough problems that we face as a society. There is an organization called the Center for Effective Lawmaking. It is a nonpartisan center that was put together by the folks at Vanderbilt University and the University of Virginia. And they actually ranked all senators and congresspeople based on their effectiveness, which means their ability to get legislation passed... The last ranking they put out was the last Congress, and out of the 48 Democratic Senators in the U.S. Senate, I was ranked the fourth most effective. And that’s in my first term (as a senator) in Washington (D.C.),and in the U.S. Senate, seniority matters. The longer you're there, the more ability you have to get things done. And yet just in just my first term, I was ranked the fourth most effective.

TMD: As a member of the federal government, how would you evaluate the federal government’s response so far to the COVID-19 pandemic?

GP: The federal response has been inadequate. Part of the inadequacy is a result of the fact that Donald Trump waited too long to engage in the response. It was clear as this pandemic was building around the world that it would have a significant impact on the United States, and yet what we heard from President Trump was that this was going to disappear magically, it was all under control, don’t worry. Clearly that was wrong. Most of the experts who were looking at this also believed it was wrong. President Trump failed to react as quickly as he should have, and we are now all paying the price for that.

TMD: And how are you in the Senate working to improve the federal response?

GP: Well, I work daily on it. I’m the ranking member — which means the top Democrat — on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. I oversee the Department of Homeland Security, which means FEMA — the Federal Emergency Management Agency — folks are in the Homeland Security Department. So they’re the ones charged to oversee the response for the federal government. 

We’re constantly pushing to increase domestic production of personal protective equipment, which is essential to keep people safe, and we also have to increase the domestic production of testing supplies. We still are not producing enough tests, and we’re not processing those tests quick enough. In fact, you’re seeing (that) the delays in test results are creating longer and longer waits for people to get the results. 

If you’re a hospital and you have a patient, in order to know how to treat them and the protocols of all the people around them, you have to know whether they’re sick or not. You can’t wait six days and just assume that they have (the virus). If you’re a worker, you have to go home and you’re not getting paid. Waiting six days and then to find out it’s negative, that’s lost income, which could put a real, real crimp on your household income and stress to your family.

TMD: The George Floyd protests and the COVID-19 pandemic have both brought the country’s racial disparities into the spotlight in recent months. How are you working in the Senate to reduce racial inequality in the country and in Michigan?

GP: Well, we have to take action, and we have to take concrete, solid action in Congress to deal and reform police practices. There are a number of things that we should do immediately.... So I've been working to push those types of reforms, things like banning choke holds... to also press that there are independent investigations held when a police officer is accused of wrongdoing. 

Right now, a police officer often is the subject of an internal investigation within the police department… The whole idea is to build trust in a community, and a community oftentimes will not trust an internal investigation. They will see that as a good old boy network protecting their own as opposed to dispensing impartial justice. That’s why we need to have independent investigations. I’m sponsoring legislation to do just that. 

I’m also the lead sponsor on legislation to enhance community policing, which we know can be very effective in building trust in a community. Community policing involves police who get to know community members in a personal way, and community members get to know police officers... So that’s why I’ve introduced legislation to enhance community policing efforts, and I do it in a way that also addresses another problem, which is the difficulty police departments have in recruiting people to be police officers. Being a police officer is a difficult job, and so the legislation I have introduced would create a program where... if (police departments) recruit people from the community, those individuals will basically get a grant to pay for a police academy, to pay for any education that they may pursue in terms of criminal justice. The only stipulation is they must continue to work in that department for four years. 

I think it's incredibly important to have police officers from the community actually working in the community. That's why the legislation has strong support of civil rights groups, like the NAACP, the Urban League, National Action Network and others. I may add (that) police organizations have also endorsed it, which is the way I like to work. I like bringing people together. I think that's the only way we get lasting policy in this country, to bring people together, and that's why I also work in a bipartisan way as much as I can.

Summer News Editor Calder Lewis can be reached at calderll@umich.edu.