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Mouthpiece for the Middle Class

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Influential political pundent Ed Schulz gains a prime-time position on MSNBC

In these tumultuous political times, where conservatives and liberals vie for airwaves 24 hours a day, it can be difficult for a discerning viewer (or listener) to find a voice that resonates with clarity and conviction. Without a doubt, such a voice belongs to progressive Ed Schulz. As host of the über-popular The Ed Show on MSNBC since 2009, Schultz recently stepped into the 10 p.m. time slot (9 p.m. here in New Orleans) on MSNBC, a coveted spot left void by the departure of Keith Olbermann in January. It’s a prime place for a political pundit such as Schultz to relay his message of concern and hope for the American middle class. A 30-year veteran of broadcasting, Schultz also hosts his syndicated talk-radio program, The Ed Schultz Show, every weekday from noon to 3 p.m. ET, offering straight talk to all who will listen. In his 2010 book, Killer Politics: How Big Money and Bad Politics Are Destroying the Great American Middle Class, Schulz continues to elevate the level of the nation’s debate in the direct and powerful manner to which his loyal fans have become so accustomed.

Recently, Schultz engaged New Orleans Living in a spirited conversation shortly after The Ed Show made its prime-time switch and shared his thoughts on his newfound opportunities. New Orleans Living also learned that Schultz brought his radio show down to Gulfport shortly after Hurricane Katrina and raised enough money to take 20 displaced Katrina survivors to his hometown of Fargo, North Dakota, where he got them jobs, apartments and other options they were without in the wake of the storm. In addition, Schultz brought attention to the need for basic, decent health care in the United States when MSNBC set up free clinics in New Orleans last August at the Morial Convention Center, paid for by the donations of MSNBC viewers. Schultz’s actions as a silent hero for the people of the Gulf Coast and New Orleans deserve big applause, along with his continued championing for the hardworking American middle class.

Hi, Ed! There have been a lot of changes at MSNBC recently. How do you like The Ed Show’s new time slot?

Obviously it’s an adjustment, but it’s a great opportunity to take my message and our show prime time across the country. We’re on at 9 p.m. in New Orleans now. It really matches up well with my radio markets. I had an idea that maybe someday I was going to get this opportunity and it happened. I’m just a product of “the harder you work, the luckier you get,” so I’m very fortunate.

Anyone in your position as a political pundit would relish this great opportunity, but why is now the time for you to get your message across to America?

Well, I’ve always been an advocate for the middle class, I’ve been an advocate for labor—for people that take a shower after work, the hard-working folk of America who have seen their jobs shift overseas, have seen their health care go through the roof, have seen education costs triple over the last decade. I mean it just goes on and on. The middle class just keeps on getting beat up. And we’re quickly headed toward a “have” and “have not” society. And I think what I have to say, people are going to gravitate to, and so my message is very strong and focused and the political wrangling in Washington is not going to escape the middle class. That’s really what my mission is.

You refer to yourself as a “reformed conservative.” Tell us why.

It was a shifting in a belief system and a changing of a priority list. You just don’t roll out of bed one day and say, “Hey! I think I’m a liberal!” Back in the late ’90s I went through a series of grassroots events in my life that made me realize that I had been wrong on some very key issues. And I wrote a book about it in 2004 called Straight Talk From the Heartland: Tough Talk, Common Sense, and Hope from a Former Conservative. I wrote a second book recently, Killer Politics, and they’re basically along the same line of where we were, where we are right now and where all this is headed. And it brought me to the conclusion that what I think the remedy is brought me to a very liberal position. When I was working in the Midwest, I went to farm auctions, I saw small towns lose their education budgets, I saw veterans not get the proper health they needed, I saw people losing their jobs because of the closing down of factories all across America. We’ve lost 50,000 factories in the last 10 years. I just slowly came to the position that I’m a very progressive person and nowhere near as conservative as I used to be.

In your latest book Killer Politics, you wrote about how the labels “Republican” and “Democrat” get America in trouble, and sometimes they’re used as a decoy instead of dealing with the real issues.

Well, I don’t shy away from the word “liberal” as a label because I am liberal; but it’s really about the issues and the people. Admittedly, I think the Democrats are closer to those issues for solutions than Republicans are. I think it’s absolutely immoral to go through 15 months of legislative exposure and then want to repeal the Health Care Bill that’s going to affect over 30 million people. You’re hurting Americans when you do that for selfish corporate greed, and I think that’s wrong.

And another big focus in your book is the combination of “big money” and “bad politics,” which is what you believe is at the heart of destroying the great American middle class.

No question about it. The little guy in America is slowly but surely losing his voice. And that’s why I’m here. I’m on a mission to make sure that the little guy still has a place to go and feel like someone’s fighting for him.

Tell us how you feel the election of President Obama has revealed just how entrenched and how powerful big money interests have become in this country.

Well, since President Obama has become president, the landscape has changed. The Citizens United Ruling by the Supreme Court has fundamentally changed the course of the country, because now when you have unlimited corporate funds that can be tossed at an issue or a candidate, that squeezes out the little guy. I think 2012 is going to be a revolutionary type of election from the standpoint of the question: How’s the little guy going to get represented? How in the world is Barack Obama going to match the fundraising of the corporate interests of America? I think the Republicans are making a big mistake embracing this form of government.

What do you feel the middle class needs to do now to save itself from extinction? And why does America need to act now and what can they do?

Well, it starts in the heart. You can’t lose your fire in the belly. You can’t give up hope. You have to stay connected and well-versed on the issues. And then you have to vote your conscience and not pay attention to what politicians say. Look at the issues, see what’s important to you and your family and don’t give up. Stay engaged in the process. I think the Democrats, or the liberals, should spend as much time saying that as advocating for any policy. One of the reasons President Obama was elected—and I personally told him this when we had lunch a little over a month ago, I said, “President Obama, these people didn’t vote for you for a policy; they voted for you because you made them believe; you touched their heart, you gave their soul some passion and made them believe what you were saying.” And I told him through the deregulation of the Wall Street reform, through the health-care debate, he’s lost a little bit of that touch with the American people, because the issues with the economy have been so heavy to recover from. I think the first two years of his administration were about legislation; the next two years are going to be about communication and reconnecting with people and their hopes and dreams, and trying to get this economy to turn around, and it is slowly turning around.

Although you feel it’s a scary time in America, you’re hopeful that things can be done.

Absolutely. The landscape is just a little bit tougher to navigate through right now.

On your radio show, The Ed Schultz Show, you allow for plenty open-mic time. You don’t screen calls.

Exactly. I don’t know what their topic is going to be. I don’t topic select. What I have found out over the years is that if you come prepared and well-versed, you don’t have to worry about callers getting off-topic. Talk radio is really about emotion. You do win people over with a fair conversation. I don’t lie. I separate opinion from fact.

You and your wife, Wendy, dedicated a lot of time to the victims of Hurricane Katrina: You took your radio show to the Gulf Coast, and you led a personal effort from your radio show by raising money for the Adopt a Family of Hurricane Katrina Trust Fund.

Obviously, it was a huge story, and I’ve been known to take my show on location, so I took my show down to Gulfport and saw the devastation. We went over to New Orleans and couldn’t believe what we were seeing. We hooked up with some people just north of New Orleans who had a small church, and they were giving shelter to people who had lost everything, and they really didn’t know what to do. So I connected with that church, and we shuttled people up to Fargo, where my radio show was and where I’ve worked for several decades. I went down and brought back a jet of a dozen people, and they of course knew people who were down there, and they were communicating, so we had a pipeline of people coming to Fargo and we were raising money on the radio show that would give direct response assistance to these people that would help them quickly get some civility in their lives, with no obligation. We put families up in apartments in Fargo, we got them vehicles, we got a few people jobs in Fargo, we got a girl relocated to go to school in North Dakota state. It became a real social engineering project. When you take on something like that, you’ve got to see it through. You can’t just through money at it, so it became a real learning experience in human suffering. I know we were affecting lives on the scale that we were working at. I was really proud of that. All of them had issues with all of the personal property that they lost and insurance matters. It was really hard, but really a heartwarming experience for our team to go through that.

Another way you’ve been a silent hero for the residents of the Gulf Coast is by spotlighting the need for free clinics on MSNBC. You had a free clinic here in New Orleans last August at the Morial Convention Center and you broadcasted The Ed Show from there. How did it turn out?

Well, there’s 50 million people in this country that don’t have health insurance. But with all those people, that’s not just a number; there’s a story with each and every person. You can go to every city and find the same stories where they are not provided the opportunity for basic health care, which in many instances we saw was a life saver. You run into people who haven’t been to the doctor in years. They have terrible hypertension or diabetes and they didn’t even know it, or heart conditions and failing organs. You see people that haven’t seen a dentist in 10 years or been to an eye doctor in 15 years. I just think, not to use the people as a pawn, but to tell the story about where we are as a country, I think we have an obligation to do that in an effort that maybe these stories will motivate people who can make a difference to do something about it. It’s really gut-wrenching to go into one of those free clinics and to see people who are taking their lunch hour off in the middle of two low-paying jobs with a schedule that’s very tight to work kids into, or a single mom or dad trying to make it from paycheck to paycheck, or they just lost their job or they’ve been out of work for a year. They have nowhere to turn, and they have health issues—I mean, this is America! We can do better than this. I think the free clinics have really put a spotlight on our vulnerabilities as a country and undoubtedly a shift in what our priorities should be. It’s really sad. One thing I noticed is that not one senator or one congressional member went to any of the free clinics that I was at after being asked, which I think is a travesty. It’s like they didn’t want to see the real truth.

Why do you think New Orleans is important to this country?

Well, culturally I think it’s very important to the country. And all cities in America have tentacles and connections all over America. Katrina was a hurricane that hit America, not just New Orleans. So many people were affected by it. From a commerce standpoint, New Orleans was one of the biggest ports in the world for the United States. The Mississippi River is huge when it comes to commerce. Clearly it was an obligation that the country had to make to be sure that region gets back on its feet.

Did you get to enjoy any aspect of the city when you were here?

Yes! I’m a big seafood fan. And of course the Cajun cuisine and the oysters are very appealing to me. And you have to throw in a cold beer too.

-CHRISTINE FONTANA