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In California’s June 5th primary, Alison Hartson, a former public school teacher and political organizer, is challenging incumbent Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein from the left

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AARON MATE: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Mate. Tuesday is primary day in California, and at the national level it has major implications. Come November, who California chooses could decide who controls Congress. That’s because of the 23 Republican-held districts that Hillary Clinton won in 2016, 7 of them are in California. And California is also at the center of the fight over what kinds of candidates Democrats will field in the midterms: corporate candidates, backed by party leaders? Or progressive insurgents, who have shown up in droves following the candidacy of Bernie Sanders in 2016?

One of those candidates is Alison Hartson. She is running to unseat the incumbent Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein.

ALISON HARTSON CAMPAIGN AD: I’m Alison Hartson, and I’ve never slept with a porn star. I’ve also never called anyone a China person, nor am I a Nazi. That’s why the media isn’t covering my campaign. I’ve been a public school teacher for 10 years, and led a national nonprofit to end political corruption. But that doesn’t raise anyone’s ratings. So media would rather give billions in free advertising to clowns and actual Nazis. I’m going to fight for Medicare for All, higher wages, and college education for your kids. I’m Alison Hartson, and I approve this message, because you deserve somebody who’s going to represent you, not corporate donors.

AARON MATE: Well, Alison Hartson joins me now. She is a former public high school teacher who went on to become the national director for the organization WolfPAC, which fights corruption in politics. Now she is running to unseat Democratic Senate incumbent Dianne Feinstein. Welcome, Alison. Tell us how you got involved in this race, and why you decided to challenge Dianne Feinstein.

ALISON HARTSON: Thank you for having me on, glad to be here. I decided to get involved and run for office because of my experience with that nonprofit, WolfPAC. I was working around the country in red states, blue states, purple states, to end corruption, get big money out of politics, to get an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that will overturn Citizens United and related cases. Because this is really the root cause of all of the issues that we are fighting for. Medicare for All, college for all, preschool for all, living wage tied to inflation, green economy.

And I, and in my experience I’ve found that, you know, we, we really have more in common than we don’t. And corruption doesn’t discriminate by party. But what is dividing us is the propaganda that comes largely from the establishment. The establishment legislatures, the establishment media. And so if we’re going to actually be able to have honest conversations about these policies and get them passed, which is obviously what we need, then we’re going to have to do it ourselves. We have to run for office, and we have to make sure that we are only backing and voting for and fighting for candidates who do not take corporate money who do not take PAC money. I don’t take any of that; 72 percent of my donations come from small-dollar donors, the highest percentage of anybody in this entire race.

And, and so that’s why I decided to run for office. And running against Dianne Feinstein is because she is the epitome of that corruption. She takes money, for example, from defense contractors, and she voted for the Iraq war. She’s never really met a war that she hasn’t liked. And, you know, she takes money from the telecom industry, and then she has voted for the Patriot Act every single time, except for when she found out that the NSA was spying on her. So you know, we have to be willing to hold our own party accountable, as well as any other party, the opposition party, the Republican Party, as well. And so that’s why I am here. These, these issues affect us so much at the federal level. They bleed into the state level. They bleed into the local level. And they’re urgent enough, what’s happening to our earth, what is happening in our communities, it is so urgent that we have to be willing to do every single thing in our power. That is the perspective I have had with WolfPAC, why I decided to step down from being a teacher to do that and that is now why I’m running for the same exact reason.

AARON MATE: In terms of Sen. Feinstein, if I recall right she also voted for the Bush-era tax cuts, which favored wealthy Americans. But now the sort of PR we’re getting around her is that she is moving to the left. She now opposes the state death penalty. She supports the marijuana industry. And in a recent campaign ad that I want to play, she talked about supporting universal health care.

DIANNE FEINSTEIN CAMPAIGN AD: I’m Dianne Feinstein, and I approve this message. I support the Affordable Care Act, and voted against all of Trump’s attempts to repeal it. But we need to do more.

I believe in universal health care, in a public health option to compete with private insurance companies, and expanding Medicare to everyone over 55. And I believe Medicare must be empowered to negotiate the price of drugs. California values Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

AARON MATE: So that’s a campaign ad from Sen. Dianne Feinstein. So, Alison, she says there that she supports universal health care, but when you then hear what she talks about, what that means, obviously she’s not talking about single payer. She’s talking about the usual Democratic boilerplate access to health care, and better competition with the private market.

ALISON HARTSON: She’s talking about Medicare for some, not Medicare for all. And she is strategically using the term universal health care in order to deceive people into thinking that she supports what we do, what we the people support, which is single-payer, Medicare for All system. And it is an absolute marketing ploy that the establishment is, quite frankly, brilliant at. They know just looking at research that most people only pay attention to the first few seconds of an ad. Everything else is kind of a wash. What you say in the beginning and what you say in the end is what matters. And so they, she says universal health care in the beginning, she makes a strong statement at the end, and in the middle is where you find that what she’s really talking about is lowering the Medicare age to 55 years old. She supports a public option, which we have, and that’s it.

So, so yes, she’s, she seems to be moving on these issues, but she is not. The death penalty, for her that’s an easy one. Where is she going to lose her donor base? She’s not actually putting her neck on the line for anything that really, really matters, and is going to, the death penalty does matter. But, but nothing that’s going to matter to her bottom line, ultimately, for the support that she’s created amongst the establishment party. Take a look at marijuana legalization. So she makes it sound like she’s supporting legalization of marijuana. But what she’s saying is she supports the state’s right, because we passed it, so she is going to respect that. But where does that, why does the respect only start now, during a difficult campaign, probably the most difficult campaign she’s ever encountered. But meanwhile we had support here in California for legalizing marijuana. The vast majority of people, going back 2014, 2012, 2010. And as recently as 2010 she led a campaign against the legalization of marijuana, which is leading a campaign for imprisoning people for this minor offense. She also came out strong against it as recently as 2014, as well.

So now that we had to fight that uphill battle in large part because our U.S. senator was fighting against us, now during a difficult campaign she is saying that she supports our right, because we already got it done. So I don’t really see her shifting left. I just see her rhetoric kind of manipulating itself left.

AARON MATE: OK. But then other challengers in the race who you’re also up against are considered to be from the authentic left. There’s Pat Harris, also Kevin de Leon of the state Senate. He’s also claimed a progressive mantra. And California is interesting, because under this general primary system, the top two candidates are the ones who advance to the general. Which means that although Feinstein right now in the polls has a pretty strong lead, the rest the candidates, including you, are fighting for, basically, who will challenge her in November. So explain how you compare to the other progressive candidates. You mentioned Feinstein’s donor base. And I’ve seen reports that actually Kevin de Leon, one of her challengers, shares similar donors.

ALISON HARTSON: He does. He’s taken money from defense contractors, from Big Pharma. He’s taken money from the telecom industry, AT&T. He shares a lot of the same donors as Dianne Feinstein, and that greatly concerns me, because my experience across the country is that no matter how good of intentions somebody has going into office, who you are beholden to is who you are going to do favors for. It’s, it’s human nature. It is the way that this system has been built. And if we are serious about ending this corruption we have to stop making exceptions for our party, or for people that we like for one reason or another. It is a very clear line in the sand that I feel strongly we have to hold.

And, and in relation to all of the other people who are running in this race as well, and there are some other people who I share a lot of agreements with on policies, I am the only one who has the vast majority of my donations coming from small-dollar donors. Every other person in this race, and this includes the other progressives, are either self funded, or they take money from PACs, or they take money from from corporations. And this is, it is very problematic, even if you self fund your campaign, because what it does is it makes it so that still only people who are wealthy, or know wealthy people, and usually only wealthy people know wealthy people, can run for office.

And what’s, what’s happening right now in our government. It’s not just a matter of the funding of the campaigns in terms of the donations coming in from these dark money groups. It’s also a matter of having it be, really, an elite class of people who are by and large, because there are some exceptions, incapable of empathising with the needs of us, of we the working class, and what it’s like, what our daily struggles are like, what our daily joys are like, and the legislation that’s going to govern our lives. And so we have to get people in the working class who are running campaigns that are funded the way that we need to start funding our campaigns, which is with publicly funded elections to replace privately funded elections. And on that note, I’m the only one in this race that has the experience for the last five years fighting for this campaign finance reform around the country, and being successful in doing so.

AARON MATE: Alison Hartson, running to unseat Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein in Tuesday’s Senate primary in California. Thanks for joining us.

ALISON HARTSON: Thank you for having me, Aaron.

AARON MATE: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.

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Aaron Maté is a former host/producer for The Real News and a contributor to the Nation. He has previously reported and produced for Democracy Now!, Vice, and Al Jazeera, and written for the Toronto Star, the Intercept, and Le Monde Diplomatique.