In Conversation with Senator Gary Peters on COVID-19, Student Loans and Police Reform

The Daily spoke with Senator Gary Peters, D-Mich., On July 24, about his campaign for re-election to the United States Senate, the federal government‘s COVID-19 response and racial inequalities. John James is the Republican candidate running against Peters for the Senate seat in the November election. The James campaign has turned down several interview requests.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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

GP: Well, one of the main goals of my campaign is to make higher education affordable for all students. No matter who they are, no matter where they live, they should have the opportunity to fulfill their version of the American Dream and get the education they need to make it happen. It means we need to make college education more affordable. One of the ways I’m working to do this is that for students who take out student loans, we need to lower the student loan interest rate. In an age of record high interest rates, the rates students pay should also be tied to those lower rates. This is why I worked on legislation with Elizabeth Warren to reduce these rates and we will continue to work to get this passed, but for it to pass it will take a Democratic majority in the Senate. We will continue to work on this. Moreover, for these students, it is not just a question of taking out loans. We should expand eligibility for Pell (Grant), so that students can get the grants they need to continue their education and not be struggling with high loans.

The other issue that is of critical importance to me and that we need to focus on as a society – and which will have a particular impact on students in the years to come – is the existential threat of climate change. I am passionate about protecting our environment and understand that climate change is a critical issue. We need to set ourselves ambitious targets to reduce carbon emissions and do sane things like re-integrating the United States into the Paris Agreement after Donald Trump took us out of the Paris Agreement. The United States needs to be a leader in the fight against climate change and we need people who are passionate about this topic in elected office, and that’s me.

TDG: Where would you place yourself in the Democratic Party today, ideologically?

GP: Well, I think people would consider me to be a moderate Democrat, someone who is willing to work in a bipartisan way to get things done, but who is also a proud Democrat, a very proud Democrat. I think part of that – the fact that I’m prepared to work in a bipartisan way – is that I believe we need to get things done.

The government really needs to come together to solve the very difficult problems we face as a society. There is an organization called the Center for Effective Lawmaking. It’s a non-partisan center that was set up by the folks at Vanderbilt University and the University of Virginia. And they actually ranked all senators and congressmen based on their efficiency, which means their ability to pass legislation … The last ranking they released was the last Congress, and out of the 48 Democratic senators in the US Senate, I was class the fourth most effective. And this is in my first term (as a senator) in Washington, DC, and in the US Senate, seniority matters. The more you are there, the more capacity you have to get things done. And yet, just in my first term, I was ranked fourth most effective.

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

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

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

GP: Well, I work on it daily. I am the most senior member – which means the best democrat – of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs. I oversee the Department of Homeland Security, which means FEMA – the Federal Emergency Management Agency – people are part of the Department of Homeland Security. They are therefore responsible for overseeing the response for the federal government.

We are constantly striving to increase the domestic production of personal protective equipment, which is essential to ensure the safety of people, and we must also increase the domestic production of testing supplies. We are still not producing enough tests, and we are not processing those tests quickly enough. In fact, you see (that) delays in test results create longer and longer waits for people to get the results.

If you are a hospital and you have a patient, to know how to treat him and the protocols of everyone around him, you have to know if he is sick or not. You can’t wait six days and assume they have (the virus). If you are a worker, you have to go home and you don’t get paid. Waiting six days and then finding out it’s negative is a loss of income, which could put a real, real crimp on your household income and stress on your family.

TDG: The George Floyd protests and the COVID-19 pandemic have both highlighted the racial disparities in the country in recent months. How are you working in the Senate to reduce racial inequalities across the country and in Michigan?

GP: Well, we need to take action, and we need to take concrete, solid action in Congress to address and reform policing practices. There are a number of things we should do immediately…. So I worked to push forward this type of reform, things like the ban on choke holds …

Right now, a police officer is often the subject of an internal investigation within the police department… The idea is to build trust in a community, and a community often will not trust an internal investigation. They will see it as a good ol ‘network protecting their own rather than delivering fair justice. That is why we need independent investigations. I am sponsoring a bill to do just that.

I am also the main sponsor of legislation to improve community policing, which we know can be very effective in building trust in a community. Community policing involves the police who get to know community members in a personal way, and community members get to know police officers… This is why I introduced a law to improve police efforts. community policing, and I’m doing it in a way that also resolves another problem, which is the difficulty police services have in recruiting people to become police officers. Being a police officer is hard work, and so the legislation I introduced would create a program where … if (the police departments) recruit people from the community, those people will basically get a grant to pay for a police academy, to pay for any training they may take in criminal justice matters. The only condition is that they must continue to work in this department for four years.

I think it’s extremely important to have community police officers who actually work in the community. This is why the legislation enjoys strong support from civil rights groups, such as the NAACP, the Urban League, the National Action Network and others. I can add (that) police organizations have endorsed it as well, which is the way I like to work. I like to bring people together. I think that’s the only way to have a sustainable politics in this country, to bring people together, and that’s why I also work in a bipartisan way as much as possible.

Summer News Editor-in-Chief Calder Lewis can be reached at [email protected]

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