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San Diego Congressman Joins a Populist Caucus

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Aired 4/20/09

There's a new group mixing things up in Congress. One San Diego Congressman is dusting off his activist roots and hoping to find a new role for an old brand of politics: Populism. Elizabeth Wynne Johnson reports from Washington.

The dramatic score goes with a recently-added Daily Show segment that Jon Stewart calls "IndigNation."

"Yes! America is in a populist lather! But we're having a tough time deciding who to demonize - so many choicea," Stewart announces on his show.

The joke plays right into a pet peeve of Congressman Bruce Braley. The Iowa Democrat just launched a new Populist Caucus last month. And he hates it when pundits and commentators evoke the image of an angry mob with pitchforks and torches.

"That is not at all what populism is. Populism is a way of connecting with people in your district and your state and reflecting their values in the policies you pass here in Washington," Braley says.

Populists call them 'middle class economic values: Job security; access to quality education and health care; and trade policy with the merest whiff of protectionism - depending on who you ask.

You don't have to be a Democrat to be a populist; the label has been applied to everyone from Barack Obama to former V-P candidate Sarah Palin. But for now, at least, you do have to be a Democrat to be a member of the congressional caucus.

Its impetus was a certain… lack of confidence… in the leadership's party line on Wall Street and the economic stimulus. Congressman Bob Filner was among the first of a few dozen Democrats to join.

"We have put a tremendous amount of money into all the banks and big guys and the auto companies. Has the little guy at the bottom gotten anything out of it? We don't think so," Filner says.

Filner doesn't buy the argument that saving banks really is in the best interests of the little guy.

"No. The populists (chuckling) do not agree with that. And the proof is in the pudding. Because what they have done with their bailout money is bail out other big people. AIG gave $20 billion to Goldman Sachs, which had already gotten bailout money. The trickle-down theory…has never worked. And I'm tired of being trickled on myself," Filner says.

For being a majority, Congressional Democrats can be a divided lot. Fiscally-conservative Blue Dogs don't exactly go in lockstep with Progressives, for example. Populists don't think the addition of another caucus undermines the Party; if anything, they say, the agenda is a potential unifier.

Despite being new, the caucus has made its mark. Populists point to the "Buy American" provision in the stimulus, which would limit foreign iron and steel from infrastructure projects. Caucus founder Bruce Braley says the Populist agenda is consistent with believing in and preserving the basic structure of capitalism.

"What populists want to see happen is a restoration of balance. Not excessive regulation, not regulation that bogs ppl down in red tape, but oversight with impact that helps govern how that equitable distribution plays out to every American," Braley says.

Bob Filner sees an opening in the system, now. Into that crack he wants to wedge a tool that Martin Luther King, Jr. called "creative tension." That is, create problems. Shake things up. He just might get started on some familiar turf… perhaps a suburban neighborhood in San Diego.

"Look. What if a thousand people - and I'm trying to organize this in my district right now - surrounded a house and said, you're not evicting this man or this woman? That's populism," Filner says.

If this is its moment, it may be due to more than a momentary flash of outrage over bailout-funded bonuses. Twenty-thousand pink slips were handed out in California in March alone, says Filner.

"That should be unacceptable to the people of California. But it's gonna happen unless they make noise. So whether it's around schools or health care or keeping people in their house, people have got to make noise," he says.

We'll be hearing more from them. These congressional populists are all about raising voices… not pitchforks.

From Capitol News Connection in Washington, I'm Elizabeth Wynne Johnson for KPBS News.

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