Elizabeth Holtzman, a lawyer and former comptroller of New York City, served as a member of Congress from New York from 1973 to 1981.
This interview with Ms. Holtzman was conducted by the editorial board of The New York Times on July 26.
Read the board’s endorsement for the Democratic congressional primary for New York’s 10th District here.
Kathleen Kingsbury: We have a lot of questions for you, and not very much time. I understand this is the first question, and you may need to reject the premise of it. But if polls are any indication, we could be headed toward a Republican-controlled Congress after the midterms. Could you talk a little bit about what you think you’ll be able to get accomplished in such an environment? Appreciate it if you could be specific, but also if there’s one big idea that you would pursue on a bipartisan basis.
OK, first of all, I’d like to kind of step back for a second and just tell you why I’m running, if that’s all right. And I know you have a lot of questions. I’ll be very brief. I’m running because these are very dangerous times. Probably, if we weren’t at this moment, I wouldn’t be thinking about it. I’d be out kayaking somewhere.
But the fact of the matter is that this is not a time for on-the-job training. This is a time to be able to take advantage and understand the levers of power because the democracy is being threatened, the economy is also in kind of a little bit of a shaky situation. I was on the House Budget Committee for five years. I learned a little bit about that.
So I think that I have the unique background to deal with these problems. One, I’ve been there before, for eight years, and I have a great record of accomplishment. I was very privileged to be able to get a lot done. Two, I had the know-how to do it. Three, I had the guts to stand up, whether it’s to the dangerous right wing on the Supreme Court, whether it’s to the MAGA Republicans in the House or whether it’s to Trump, who wants to retake the presidency, in my opinion, by fraud or stealing it in some fashion.
So that’s why I’m running now. I think I have the qualifications. I know I have the energy and the stamina. And this is a time that I think calls on my credentials.
To respond to your question, yes, there are several ways of dealing with the problem you posed, which could be a serious one. I hope it’s a hypothetical one only. But let’s assume that it’s, in fact, true. First of all, there are ways of dealing with problems which elude the Congress and the congressional route. I know about that. And that’s a very important thing to think about, because even if the Ds retain control of Congress, we’ve been in kind of a gridlocked mode.
So how can you go around it? One, you put pressure on the administration to do things, or No. 2, you go to the courts. I did that. I brought a lawsuit against the Cambodian bombing.
And now one of you asked me for some ideas, but that’s not necessarily something that Republicans would ever agree with. But I think that, for example, states, localities and particularly the federal government can use their purchasing power with regard to munitions — they’re buying billions in weapons — to say to the gun manufacturers: OK, we’re buying all this stuff from you. What are you going to do for us?
And pressure was put on a recent settlement in the Connecticut case. In the recent settlement, the company that was being sued agreed in the settlement to monitor its gun sales. You need a settlement. So that’s one area.
Secondly, working with Republicans. I chaired the — and one of the things I did in Congress and one of the reasons I think I got a lot of stuff done was, one, I did the homework. An aide of mine once said, the first one with a piece of paper wins. So we used to have the first piece of paper. So if other people didn’t have to do the thinking and the homework, that helped.
But also, if you were honest with people, you didn’t try to fool them politically and say, oh, you’ll get away with this in your district. Nobody will care. You hit the real problems in the bill. If you were straightforward with people, it brought you a lot of credibility.
So when I was chair of the immigration subcommittee, sometimes I’d look around and there was a vote, and the Republicans would be gone because they didn’t want to vote against me. And I was able — probably the toughest bill I ever got Republican support for, and I got unanimous support in the subcommittee. And there were very conservative Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee, even then, very conservative.
I had a bill — you probably don’t remember this, but there was something called the Smith Act that made it — it was really against communists, and it was a way of arresting and prosecuting them. And this was part of a revision. We were doing a revision of the criminal code. And I looked at the law, and I knew it was really unconstitutional.
And I said to them on the subcommittee, what do you think about this? And I’m talking to real right-wingers. And I said, you know, we don’t really need it, because if they’re doing some violence, you can get them under other areas of the code, I think. And they said, you know, maybe you have a point. And they said, let’s ask the Justice Department.
We asked the Justice Department. They said it was redundant. So I had a unanimous vote to eliminate the Smith Act from that proposed bill. The bill never saw the light of day because, ultimately, nobody wanted to pass a whole revised criminal code. It had too many other problems. But this, again, is a good example of getting Republican votes on very theoretically controversial issues.
So I’ve been able to work with Republicans and win their support. I can’t say I have a silver bullet. And these Republicans are not the same as the ones I’ve worked with. I have no illusions about that. But at least I had some ways to start working.
Mara Gay: Thank you. So there’s been a lot of discussion, understandably, about inflation, which is hitting all Americans hard, but I actually want to ask you about what you may do to ease the burden of housing costs, which is a far greater issue for the constituents that you would serve.
Right. Well, housing is a really, really, really, really big problem. And one of the things I’ve been thinking about, because I have a little bit of experience in this. I wasn’t on a committee with housing. So, I mean, I can answer some constitutional questions with ease, but I’m not a housing expert. But I’ll tell you two things I did do, and they sort of suggest possibilities for the future.
One is insurance companies were redlining areas in New York City when I was in Congress to prevent borrowing. That, in essence, freezed borrowing in areas of mostly minority residency. And you can’t easily beat the insurance companies, but we did. We were one step ahead of them.
I had to organize a campaign around the country. And we got a bill, an amendment passed to some housing bill that was coming. It had housing in it. And we stopped the redlining.
[The practice of redlining has been illegal since the 1970s, but its effects contribute to inequality today.]
Now, as soon as Reagan got in, they undid it, and I wasn’t there anymore. But that’s one thing that we have to look at. The second thing is the kind of financing. When I was comptroller, we used the pension funds to build or rehabilitate — because that’s also very important in affordable housing. You have a declining base of affordable — of repair that’s being done on affordable housing.
We financed tens of thousands of units of affordable housing because we were able to do it in — use the pension funds, take basically no risk. We never lost one penny. And we made money, whatever the market rate was that we were supposed to make. And we were able to build this housing. For various reasons that I don’t fully understand, this mechanism has not been fully utilized again by New York City. And it’s something that could be adopted around the country. Maybe there is a way of making it a national program.
So I’ve just been in touch with some people who are in the not-for-profit realm in affordable housing to see whether there’s some way of expanding this program. I have some other friends who are — one used to be the assistant secretary of Housing and has built a lot of affordable housing around the country.
So, yes, it’s something that constituents have raised with me, and it’s something that I had done, had some familiarity with. We did do this. And I’d like to see it replicated if that’s really an efficient way for the country, as well as in New York City, too.
Jyoti Thottam: You mentioned already that it’s a dangerous time for democracy. What specifically do you think you could do in Congress to protect it?
Well, two things. I mean, I’d like to do them right now if anyone would pay attention to me, but they’d probably pay more attention if I were in Congress. One is — I think there’s been too much delay in doing this — holding the former president accountable under the criminal law. And I think there needs to be more pressure on Merrick Garland to commence and indicate there is an investigation ongoing with respect to what happened and the former president’s involvement in that.
I was just talking to somebody the other day. Sorry to be a little bit long on this. And we were talking about the difference between Nixon and Trump. And if you look at Nixon, some of the people would say, oh, well, he’s a different character, he understood he had to resign. He knew there was no other way out for him. He’d been held accountable. First of all, all of his top aides, every one of them, was under prosecution, had gone to jail or was going to jail.
Every one of them — Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Colson, Mitchell. I’m sure I’m leaving 10 or 11 out, but they all went to jail. [Nixon] himself was named as an unindicted co-conspirator by the grand jury, which wanted to indict him. The Senate Watergate — I know the Congress did not respond today the way it did in the past, but you had a criminal justice system putting the period, exclamation point on the misdeeds of Nixon. He knew he couldn’t recover. He knew he had to resign. We have no such accountability now. What will this do to our country and our democracy?
[Dozens of Nixon administration officials and campaign workers pleaded guilty or were found guilty of crimes related to the Watergate break-in or the subsequent cover-up. Nineteen were sentenced to prison, including some of Mr. Nixon’s aides.]
By the way, if you look at the Constitution, the framers explicitly say that there’s no reason to not prosecute someone after they leave office. It’s right in there. They understood there’d be bad presidents. They didn’t know what their names were. They didn’t know it would be Nixon, they didn’t know whether it would be Trump, but they knew there’d be somebody like that. And they allowed for prosecution.
What is the hesitation? This is not bad for the country. It was contemplated exactly in the Constitution, in my judgment.
Patrick Healy: Congresswoman, do you think that the Democratic elected officials are out of step with Democratic voters on immigration, on L.G.B.T.Q. rights, on any issue right now, as you hear the conversation among elected officials and —
Well, first of all —
Patrick Healy: The voters?
I’ve only been back in this maelstrom for a relatively short time. So I can’t tell you that I have the temperature personally, definitely not for the country, and even for my whole constituency. And I think, talking to the people in my district, it’s a very tolerant and very — I think, from what I’m getting — nonbigoted district. I’m not hearing any racism, anti —
Patrick Healy: Is there any issue where the party feels out of step with —
Any homophobia. Well, I’m getting some — yeah, generally, I mean, I’m getting a couple of attacks on the Democratic Party. We don’t have time, generally, to go into that in depth. I think it’s because maybe they think the Democratic Party is too left or too right. I’m getting it from both sides.
I think that’s part of being in Congress, is to be a leader on some of these issues. On immigration, both my parents are immigrants. My mom’s family were refugees. I helped to write the refugee law with — I was the co-author of it with Senator Ted Kennedy. I’m very proud of that. I worked on bringing in the boat people from Vietnam. We accepted almost a million of them.
[The Refugee Act of 1980 is credited for resettling more than 1.1 million people affected by the Vietnam War.]
I’ve written articles about immigration and refugees. I’m very strongly in favor of it. I haven’t heard attacks on that issue from my constituents. That’s something I care a lot about and have always supported and continue to support. I was chair of the immigration subcommittee, so I remember racial profiling, ethnic profiling. We tried to put a stop to it when I was there. But I can’t speak for what’s going on now.
Eleanor Randolph: So we have a series of yes-or-no questions. We’d appreciate it if you’d just limit your answer to one word, yes or no. First one, do you support expanding the Supreme Court?
I’d have to say yes, but with a caveat.
Eleanor Randolph: No [laughs]. No, we don’t allow that.
Did I just say “caveat”? No, just joking. All right.
Eleanor Randolph: Do you support ending the filibuster?
Eleanor Randolph: Should there be term limits for members of Congress?
Not sure. That’s two words.
Eleanor Randolph: How about an age limit?
Eleanor Randolph: Was that no?
Kathleen Kingsbury: She said no.
Eleanor Randolph: All right. Should President Biden run for a second term?
It’s up to him.
Eleanor Randolph: OK.
Alex Kingsbury: Hi. I’m wondering if we can speak about Ukraine for a little bit. I’m curious to know if you think there should be an upper limit on the amount of taxpayer dollars we should be spending on the war in Ukraine. And how do you explain to constituents why we’re spending all this money on a war we’re not officially a part of rather than spending money, say, on your district?
Well, many years ago, I did pioneer something when I was on the Budget Committee called the Transfer Amendment, which did take monies in the budget from military spending to social programs. So I’m very much in favor of that and support of it. And certainly at that time, when we had so much money in the military budget that they couldn’t spend it. I mean, the pipeline of unspent monies was so huge that they’d come back and say, well, we can’t spend this. We were supposed to buy a whatever kind of tugboat, and that’s out of date, so we’ve got to buy something else. I mean, this is happening all the time. So we can’t have that kind of thing going on.
But yes, I think there’s a serious question about the spending for the war, about how long it should go on or are alternatives to the war possible. I’m not somebody who, as a first resort, believes in warfare as a solution to problems, but I don’t know that there was much of a choice here. And I think it would be very dangerous for the rest of Europe, maybe even more significantly than that and a broader range than that, if Russia were able to take over Ukraine.
I mean, I was in Ukraine several times. My mom’s family comes from Ukraine. I was there as a member of Congress. I was there representing clients. So I’m a little familiar with the country. But I think it would be too dangerous —
Should Congress monitor? That’s a very important function that I found, when I was in Congress, was not hugely or sufficiently exercised, and that was oversight. They used to interpret that as meaning, don’t look. Oversight means you look over it and you see what people are doing. I think there needs to be a lot of scrutiny about this, and the spending, where it’s going, and are there alternatives that are available. How does the administration examine them and review them.
Alex Kingsbury: I’m just wondering what alternatives those might be.
Well, there are always — I mean, one alternative certainly is a theoretical one, but I don’t know how practical it is: Is there some way that you can have a cease-fire and an end to the war? I don’t have the answer to that.
Listen, I was involved in negotiating with foreign governments. I did during the Vietnam boat people crisis. I negotiated with the government of Vietnam to have an orderly departure program, and with other governments. But I know how tricky it is and how little you know if you’re not involved in the process. I’m someone on the outside. I’d like to see a peaceful resolution to this problem. I don’t have enough information at this point to suggest what alternatives exist. But Congress should look at that and determine whether any exist. They may not. I’m not saying they do.
Nick Fox: How can the United States meet its commitments on climate change?
Well, I think it’s going to be very tough with the opposition from special interests, MAGA Republicans, and Joe Manchin and the like. I think we need many more Democrats in Congress, but Democrats who are in favor of dealing with climate problems.
I think states and localities can be pressed to do more. And Biden can act through regulatory measures. I don’t know how much legislation he will allow. And that’s one of the reasons I’m so concerned about the Supreme Court, because what the court did was to kind of set out a very, very dangerous framework. What the court said was that — having been in Congress, I know how dangerous it is — Congress, if there’s a crisis or serious problem, Congress has to spell out in detail what the agency has to do.
So I mean, Congress can’t always think ahead two days, much less two months or two years. Congress can’t be expected to legislate on a dime. That’s why we have an administrative structure. That’s what happened during the New Deal, was to create an administrative structure where Congress created the broad outlines. They could always fine-tune it, as it does, to restrict what agencies can do here and there and whatever. It does that. But the broad outlines are there.
And if you’re going to tell Congress that it’s got to legislate every time there’s a crisis, we’re not going to be able to deal with the crises that we have. And it’s not just in the area of climate, it’s going to be in all other areas. And so in my opinion, they’re on their way to dismantling the New Deal.
Mara Gay: Thank you. Could you name one further action that Congress could take on gun violence and then on abortion rights?
OK. On gun violence, as I mentioned, I think that the pressure that Congress can — I know Congress, Congress, of course, can pass all these bills. I’m just a little skeptical that it’s going to do that. Of course, I support that. I mean, I voted against gun violence. I voted against the N.R.A. I don’t even want to mention how many years ago.
So I’m very, very much in favor of very, very strict regulation of all guns, handguns, assault weapons ban and all of that stuff. But I’m not sure that’s going to happen. So we have to work around it. If we can’t get the legislation — and I will fight for it and struggle very hard for it — but we have to find other ways, such as what I mentioned, using the leverage of the purchasing power of governments. But working with — and I have worked with the Brady organization and other organizations to try to develop some very innovative methods.
I mean, California just enacted a very interesting bill. Not the vigilante bill, but they said, some gun companies are trying to do the right thing, monitor their gun sales, and we don’t want to put them at a disadvantage. So we’re going to just pass the bill. They passed a bill in California saying — I forget the name. It’s something like Fair Treatment of Gun Manufacturers or something like that, which is a code of conduct for gun manufacturers, requiring them to do the right thing, not penalizing those who try to do the right thing.
So we may have to look at states and localities. And that’s where maybe some congresspeople can be effective, by raising the point and publicizing what’s happening elsewhere that seems to be making a difference, and not necessarily in Congress, because I’m worried that — and there was a question you posed at the outset. How are we going to get anything done if the Republicans don’t?
Mara Gay: And just one thing on abortion, please. We’re just so short on time.
One thing on abortion? Change the composition of this court.
Mara Gay: Thank you.
Kathleen Kingsbury: What should Congress —
Which is why I propose having hearings right now. Congress shouldn’t take a recess. Have hearings right now, finish up the investigation that was never finished on Brett Kavanaugh, and investigate Clarence Thomas’s failure to recuse himself [inaudible] —
Mara Gay: We have a few lightning round questions for you, just to quickly answer. How does Plan B work?
What Plan B?
Kathleen Kingsbury: The emergency contraceptive.
What do you mean, how does it work?
Mara Gay: How does it work as a medication?
You know, I’m not sure how it works.
Mara Gay: It works by preventing or delaying ovulation. Do you own a gun?
Mara Gay: Have you ever fired a gun?
Mara Gay: What is the average age of a member of Congress?
I don’t know.
Mara Gay: Fifty-eight. What about a senator?
Maybe higher, but I don’t know.
Mara Gay: Sixty-four. Please name a member of Congress, dead or living, whom you most admire and may emulate yourself after if elected to serve.
There are lots of people who have qualities that I respect. I liked Al Gore very much when he was in the House. I respected Peter Rodino for his fairness and gravity in the impeachment hearings. I like Adam Schiff. He’s smart and thoughtful [inaudible]. And I also like Shirley Chisholm. She had a lot of guts.
Mara Gay: Thank you. And what is your favorite restaurant in the district?
Well … Rucola, let me just say that.
Mara Gay: Yeah. And actually, I wanted to ask you as well: Did you leave the city for longer than a few weeks during the pandemic?
Mara Gay: Where’d you go?
I stayed with a friend for about three months.
Nick Fox: On Election Day, you’ll be three years younger than Emanuel Celler was when you were the wunderkind who defeated him in the House. Your election was an inspiration to the younger generation back then. Now the kind of young leadership that you once represented is being held back by the Democratic Party gerontocracy. You’re obviously qualified and capable of running, but with a field of young candidates in the tent, why wouldn’t it be better for you to let one of them move forward?
I’m going to let them?
At least let the constituents to decide.
Nick Fox: Well, yeah.
Let me just say one other thing. It’s not just an issue of qualified. I don’t think this is a level playing field. I think I bring unique qualifications. Anyone can issue a press release. Probably most of the people on the panel, if you ask them at the right moment, would agree on — the panel of people running for Congress — would agree on the same points. But who’s going to get something done? That’s the issue. Who knows how to go and bring a lawsuit such as we did on the Cambodia bombing? Who knows how to organize the Congress and the grassroots as I did to get the E.R.A. extension against Phyllis Schlafly and the right wing?
I’m not saying they’re not good people, but this is a time when we need somebody who has that expertise and the energy and the guts to do the right thing. I’ve got nothing to lose anymore.
Mara Gay: Can you talk to us about your path to victory in this exceptionally crowded race? How many doors are you knocking on? Have you been out — tell us about it. How are you going to win this race?
You know, what is it? Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noonday sun, but also this candidate for Congress. I’m out there on these blazing hot days, at farmer’s markets, on crowded streets, shaking hands, talking to people.
And one of the things that I find that’s really energizing and exciting for me is, one, that there are a lot of people who remember me, and the enthusiasm. The real enthusiasm. And I don’t really recall that when I was campaigning. I’ve been in a few campaigns in my life. I don’t really recall that — maybe my memory is fading on that issue.
But it’s exciting because I think what they see is what I — when I answered your question about why don’t I pull out of this race and leave it to some young people, they will have their time and their chance if they want it, but I think what they see is somebody who’s going to stand up for them and fight and get things done. That was my record when I was D.A.
And you probably remember this, Mr. Staples. I was the only one in the country — I mean, it’s a sad commentary. I was the only D.A. in America who stood up and said, we can’t have peremptory challenges used to remove Blacks from the jury. Why wasn’t any other D.A. involved in that? Nobody.
So, I mean, that’s what I bring to this. And that’s what the people in the district that I talk to remember. And that’s what they prize. That’s what they want to see. And I got results. Yes, I stood up against racial discrimination. It wasn’t a press release, it wasn’t a press conference. I litigated that up and down to the Supreme Court, and we got the court to change it — not to change, but to adopt the position we ran on.
Kathleen Kingsbury: I wanted to actually ask you — and I know we’re just about out of time — but I actually wanted to ask you about your experience as D.A. We’re in a period right now, as the pandemic is waning, where there’s a very strong perception that the city is unsafe right now. I’m curious what advice you’d have for Mayor Adams or the current D.A.s in terms of what could be done to address that, and maybe if there’s things that Congress could do as well.
Well, I think gun violence is clearly guns in the street, clearly part of the problem. And Congress’s failure to act on this for so long has really been — has really increased the danger and flow of guns into the country and into the city. That has to be stopped. It’s not going to be so easy. I suggested one method. Will it work? Who knows, but we can’t give up on that.
So I just know that somebody is [inaudible], somebody without a gun, a coward, we put a gun into that person’s hands and they could be a mass murderer. So guns are a critical part of that. What more needs to be done in terms of policing, work with the federal authorities, agencies, federal prosecutors. I mean, I don’t know how much coordination is going on, but it could be better.
I would say that that’s probably a major key. Other things — how do you stop crime? We don’t 100 percent know the answer to that. I think it’s a very complicated problem. Some of it has to do with economic conditions. A lot of it has to do with people who are just dangerous. What do you do about them? We still have a revolving door system in our criminal justice system. There’s something wrong about that.
Why isn’t there some other kind of intervention? Someone gets arrested time after time after time. They maybe spend 15 days in prison, and then they’re out on the street again, and then they commit a similar crime. I’m not saying that jail is necessarily the right answer, but what are we doing to kind of correct these problems? I’m not going to give you the answer, because part of it has to do with improving the whole policing effort. And for me, I don’t think anybody’s looked at it from top to bottom. I mean, I’m the only one in this race, maybe one of the few in the country, that’s ever stood up publicly about police brutality, misuse of force.
When I was D.A., we created a special unit in my office. And by the way, Zachary Carter, who was — I’m very proud that he came to work for me, he then became the first African American U.S. attorney in the City of New York — suggested to me, and we worked on this together, we created a special unit to deal with the misuse of force by police officers. And we did it not just because we wanted to quote-unquote “get” police officers. That wasn’t the objective. The objective was to be fair. In the D.A.’s office, A.D.A.s work with police to solve crimes. You can’t turn around, after you’ve been working with a police officer to solve a rape or a robbery, and then prosecute that police officer. Nobody will even think you’re doing a fair job. We didn’t want that.
[Zachary Carter was the Eastern District’s first Black U.S. attorney.]
So we created this special unit. I had 5,000 police officers picketing me. They had to leave. I was there. And that office stayed as long as I was D.A. And then it was dismantled by my successor, who promised the police that he would get rid of it.
But that’s what I’m prepared to do. I think we need to professionalize, make sure that our police are professionalized, that we’re recruiting the best, and that we have proper training, we have proper supervision, proper discipline. Who’s looking at the whole picture of policing in New York City?
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