Jennifer Pilchick Perelman is challenging Debbie Wasserman-Schultz for a seat in Congress representing Florida’s 23rd District. Jen is a second-generation native Floridian, born and raised in North Miami Beach. She lives in Davie with her husband, Dr. Jason Perelman and their two teenage boys. She Co-Chairs the Juvenile Justice Committee for the Broward League of Women Voters, does legal work restoring voting rights for disenfranchised citizens, and serves pro bono, as Of Counsel, to Probation Station, an organization committed to helping people transition out of the criminal justice system. The election is currently scheduled for August 18.
Jennifer and I spoke on the telephone on April 27, 2020. DISCLAIMERS: Patrick Goggins is a financial supporter of Jen’s campaign. The interview has been lightly edited for readability.
Patrick Goggins: I want to thank you for joining us today. You’re in the middle of an active campaign against Debbie Wasserman-Shultz who I think everyone knows, basically owns Democratic Party establishment in Broward County, and today she’s raised over a $1,000,000. You realize what you’re up against here, don’t you?
Jen Perelman: I do, and she’s gunning for chair of the appropriations committee, and one of the last things we need is her getting that.
PG: That’s power.
JP: I know.
PG: And when you get to that level in the Washington hierarchy what’s your real constituency?
JP: Corporate donors. She is definitely a corporatist. This is common knowledge. Her money all comes from corporations and special interests, and so that appears to be who she is representing. And certainly in her votes and her policies, that seems to be who she’s representing now. We don’t know why, but it certainly appears that way.
PG: It’s all sort of endemic of money in politics. Would you agree?
JP: Oh yeah, that’s the biggest problem. That’s the main thing that is keeping everything from progressing forward in every, every facet. It’s all about the money. I support publicly financed elections. To me, there shouldn’t be any private money in the electoral process whatsoever. But I also don’t agree that two private clubs should be controlling our electoral process. The money is the biggest problem. The lobbyists and the people — and I actually don’t have a problem with the concept of lobbying, as long as there’s not a money exchange. Lobbying organizations are nothing more than representing who they’re representing, so that is part of the democracy. You can’t have 30,000 small business owners walk into the room. You need to have certain organizations to represent them, and I have no problem with that. But when it’s a financial interest, that’s the problem.
PG: And the finances come in of course in campaign donations as well as other side things like conferences, and travel situations where elected representatives are being treated to lavish meals etcetera.
JP: Yeah there’s that, and then there’s also just honestly the availability of inside information. And you look at what just happened with this COVID crisis. We had a handful of people in Congress that knew about it, and were able to sell their stocks. So it’s really more than just direct money from organizations, it’s really a membership in this exclusive club where you just get to be the people in charge, and you profit from everything. So it’s way deeper than even just campaign contributions.
PG: It’s a cultural thing. It’s almost as if the politicians and the corporate interests and billionaires are on the same team.
JP: Well they are. They are on the same team.
PG: You mentioned there’s two private clubs. The political parties in this country are private corporations, and still they get state support by conducting these “primary elections” which are arguably a sham in terms of democracy. The Democratic Party can pick whoever they want — the elections mean nothing. What are your views on where political parties stand in the constitutional framework in general?
JP: I am not a fan. And I feel sort of the same way about political parties that I do about any sort of special interest or lobbying group. It’s okay to combine together to form a coalition based on a certain set of values or a platform of ideas, and I don’t even have a problem with those groups particularly supporting or endorsing the candidate that they think that aligns with their ideas. That’s all fine. But none of those groups should be in control of the election process. So really my concern is the complete duopoly of the system. And I always found the concept of closed primaries to be somewhat unconstitutional. To me only a handful of states, obviously including Florida, still have completely closed primaries, and that is a result of the duopoly. So it’s all part of just keeping everybody kind of herded into these small corrals and maintaining control of the whole system, and obviously if there was any sort of opening where a third party could get in, that could mean the end of their control of the system. So yeah I have a huge problem with two private organizations controlling our elections in this country.
PG: I think the founding fathers would have agreed with you. George Washington and John Adams both referred to political parties as “factions”…
PG: … and were vocal in saying how corrosive they were of democratic values. I think we’re seeing the end of that process now. Where do you think in the larger picture this is going — is a third party going to be viable? Where is this going?
JP: I don’t know. There’s so many different things that are happening simultaneously, which is the best way to do it. You’ve got groups that are seeking to overturn Citizens United, you’ve got groups that are seeking to get constitutional amendments. There’s so many different things that are going on to try to help basically the rot that is in the system, and the process, and I do think that one of those things is the appearance of third parties. But it’s going to be like a chicken and an egg thing, because in order to have that, we need to have certain regulations and policies in place that that don’t allow for the complete domination of the two existing parties. It’s like term limits. The only way you’re going to get term limits, is to slowly elect enough people that would support them, because you’re not going to get the people who are there now to just do that. The best way to work third parties is grassroots, and by grassroots I mean local elections, municipal elections. Third parties actually are successful around the country in those contexts.
JP: So in city commissions you’ll find socialists, and I think slowly but surely, that’s how you’ll find a viable third party. And again it’s just one other avenue that people are taking to try to break up the duopoly.
PG: And these local races aren’t covered by the press and success in those races is much more a small-d democratic, where you win based on personal connections with people, on your ideas, and on your activism, as opposed to machines…
PG: … and so your point is build a base, and then the mountain top, the presidency, will follow. Is it something like that?
JP: Well yeah, at some point. And certain groups, especially like the Democratic Socialists of America, they do now have people that are representing different municipalities. Obviously it’s not as common in Florida as let’s say in Seattle or Portland or San Francisco, but it is happening. And you do see Greens and you do see Independents at those levels. So it really is I think a matter of — you take over enough of those, then your legislatures are going to be next. But I feel like we should be doing what we’re doing, which is attacking it from every angle simultaneously.
PG: Bernie Sanders — one of the drumbeats that he kept pounding was about how the establishment is controlling us by dividing us. We’re divided and therefore we can be controlled, and he would always say If we come together on a particular issue or on issues, that we’re much stronger. What we’ve seen with Bernie’s campaign is that the machine, be it the political establishment or the media establishment, has attacked him, his message, and it’s almost been laid bare that division is the way that they maintain power. Would you agree with that notion? What are your thoughts about the state of the establishment?
JP: I think it’s all about the farce that is this two-party system. We know if you’re all working for the same person, you’re just two wings on the same filthy bird. It’s this odd sort of color war that they absolutely use to keep people divided. It also has to do with controlling the media narrative, and the information and how it’s put out there, so that you keep people who actually do agree on an issue, they don’t even know that they agree on the issue, because they’re brainwashed with different talking points. But the concept of othering has been around forever. Whether we were going to blame the Chinese or the Muslims or the immigrants — that is absolutely a distraction technique that authoritarians use in maintaining power. That’s been around forever.
PG: And so do you think that Trump and the authoritarian direction we’re taking is basically a result of what we’ve been doing for the last 40 years?
JP: Yeah. The existence of Trump as president to me is the end result of 40 plus years of neoliberal and neocon policy, that essentially served the same corporate overlords, which led us to the exact situation that we’re in right now. Trump is really a symptom of a very sick society. And the reality is, from where I’m standing, I can’t think of somebody who better represents what we have become as a nation than Donald Trump. To me, he is the epitome of the typical American, or how we’re perceived in the world, and I think it’s shameful. And I think that people don’t like looking in that mirror because it makes them very uncomfortable. They think “if only we could just get rid of Trump then everything will be fine.” I try to assure people that is not the case.
PG: Some say it’s almost an intentional deception when Democrats set themselves as opposed to Trump, and the rise of the right. Some would say that the Democrats have actually been behind it, letting Trump take the flack for being outrageous, and while the Democrats can feather their nests and their donors’ nests, with at least a media veil of respectability for being “liberal” or “progressive,” but they really aren’t interested in that at all. They’re only interested in maintaining their position and letting Trump take the flack for that. Would you agree?
JP: I call it McResistance. The Democrats are McResistance, and it’s disingenuous at best. They proved in 2016 that they prefer Trump to Bernie, and they just did it again. If they would spend as much energy fighting against Trump as they do fighting against Bernie, then maybe we would actually get somewhere. So I believe the establishment Democrats that are in power 100% love Trump in office. They love it. He makes their life easy. They don’t have to do anything. They can just sit there and say, “Well you know in we tried to pass it, he won’t sign it.” And in the meantime, they’re still the benefactors from the same corporations that would have a Republican in office. To me it’s Kabuki Theater. I feel like it’s just a show.
PG: It’s stunning how many people watch the show and think it’s reality.
JP: I know, and that’s what happens when you have six companies owning 90% of our media. That’s what happens. Most people, with good intentions, think they’re watching news, when in fact they’re not watching news, they’re watching corporate propaganda. They don’t know. They believe they’re watching news. It happened gradually. And so the same people that were watching Rachel Maddow in the nineties, and they’re still watching her now, they haven’t noticed the change. They just they just go along with it, and they think it’s the news, and they think they’re informed. And they’re just basically doing the bidding of corporate America.
PG: So where do you get your news and information?
JP: Over the years I’ve compiled a four-page list of sources that I use personally to look things up and find things out. So for example I will go on CNN to see what everyone else thinks is the news of the day, right? Just to be aware of what people are talking about. But then I have to research the story further, and there’s certain journalists that I trust, and really it has to do with who’s payroll are they on, or are they just out speaking the truth and seeking the story. Jordan Chariton is a friend. He is an actual journalist. He actually is investigating stories. If I need to know something about Syria then I’ll go look up what Eva Bartlett has to say or I’ll go look up Abby Martin, Max Blumenfeld, Glenn Greenwald. There are certain people who I know have no other agenda than just reporting the truth, and generally that’s where I get my info.
PG: Sort of afflicting the comfortable, and comforting the afflicted right?
JP: Yeah. There are just certain people who are in this for the right reasons, and that’s where you get the accurate information. When you’re getting information from a talking head who makes $30,000 an episode, that’s not journalism.
PG: Shifting back to your race, what would you say is the one single thing that separates you and Debbie Wasserman-Schultz?
JP: Corporate money. I would say that’s the root of all evil. When you take it, you’re not representing your constituents. Policy for policy, she and I are fairly opposite on everything, but the key issue is that I’m not bought.
PG: You don’t take PAC money?
JP: No. I don’t take corporate money, I don’t take corporate PAC money. I would take environmental PAC money or labor PAC money, although none of that has been offered to me. But I don’t take anything with corporate ties.
PG: Let’s talk briefly about criminal justice reform. That’s on lots of people’s minds, and you mentioned previously that you’ve done pro bono work for post-conviction people. Tell me a little bit about that, and what you think are the important issues in criminal justice reform.
JP: When I graduated from law school, I started out doing criminal defense in San Antonio and for the most part was working strictly with indigent people. That was eye opening. I always found criminal law interesting, but I was really doing it as a matter of convenience. They don’t have a public defender’s office, you just go and get an appointment from the bench, it was easy. So I did it and I started noticing the discrepancies in how unequally our system is applied — how disenfranchised people just get sort of sucked into the system in a way that you just don’t see in privileged communities. So it’s always been something that’s important to me. Later, I got involved in helping people register to vote and get their voting rights back, post-Amendment Four, and that’s really where I ended up falling into this. It’s how we look at the disenfranchised, how we keep them disenfranchised, how our criminal justice system is basically an extension of slavery. Our incarceration system is slavery, and the fact that more people are not pointing this out, and then you look at Debbie, and she takes money from for-profit prison contractors. So it’s crazy that she and I would even be in the same party anyway, but the for-profit motive has to be removed. That’s the first thing that has to happen in criminal justice reform — removing the profit motive.
PG: One thing that you have some similarities actually with Wasserman-Schultz is on Israel. In your web page when you talk about the rise of Netanyahu, you say that it’s the views of a lot of the Palestinian leaders that has pushed Israel to the right. Do you think there might be some other things behind that rise?
JP: Of course. I think there’s a lot of things behind that rise, and I think writing that policy statement on Israel was like walking on a third rails down a subway station, because I’ve got the progressives on the left of me and I’ve got the centrist Jews on the right, and I am a Jewish person, I do have family in Israel, and Israel is just a very complicated scenario. I think a lot of things have led to the rise of the right. But the bigger thing is that we’re seeing it on a global scale. Netanyahu for sure, but we have it here. You look at Bolsonaro in Brazil, we’re seeing this rise of the right in a lot of places, with Boris Johnson even. We’re seeing it everywhere across the board. Israel is obviously a tough one, because I really see both sides of the argument. The problem is it’s based out of emotion more than facts, and it’s hard to reason with people when they’re basing things out of emotion.
PG: This is true. And basically the left is coming from a perspective of human rights for Palestinians…
PG: …and it should be a threshold that every human has certain human rights, and the U.N. Convention is built around that concept. International policy should start with basic human rights, and then from there, work with solutions to political problems. Would you say that makes sense?
JP: I agree and, as a Jewish person, and certainly the Jews do not like when I say this, but I don’t think we should be supporting countries that are in violation of our general sense of what’s acceptable human rights. That includes Saudi Arabia, that includes Israel, that includes a lot of countries. It certainly isn’t just Israel where we support countries for our economic interest that is anti-human rights. So I absolutely recognize the human rights violations of Palestinians. I do not support the occupation of the West Bank, I do not support the militarization of Gaza. I don’t support anything where people are being treated less than other people, and they we definitely tend to give Israel a pass. I also grew up with and understand that mentality. It’s a very fear-based post-Holocaust mentality. And we were raised — my grandparents had that kind of fear-based need to have Israel. Like, “Oh my G-d if they take Israel, we’ll get locked up again.” Very primal. And that’s why I think it’s not rational at this point, it’s just like an inbred thing. But globally, yeah, we shouldn’t be supporting any regime that is violating human rights.
PG: Finally, a question that is certain to elicit controversy in Florida: ‘Canes, ‘Gators, Knights, or ‘Noles?
JP: I left right at 17. I went to University Colorado, so I’m a Buffalo! I have I have no horse in the race. I am however a lifelong, sad pathetic Dolfan.
PG: Okay, thank you so much.
JP: Thank you.
You can get to know more about Jen Perelman by visiting her website at: https://jen2020.com/