** UPDATE: See Freilich's new spoof ad below.**
For our tenth and final week of "Fringe Friday," we feature independent candidate for U.S. Senate Daniel Freilich, a Navy doctor who pledges to "fight to dismantle establishment's hold on power."
Despite his wacky "On a Cow" ad, Freilich isn't your typical fringe candidate: He received 11 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary running against Patrick Leahy; he's raised around $80,000; and he has paid campaign staff and dozens of volunteers.
We mean no offense by "fringe." Vermont has a strong tradition of putting independent and third-party candidates — and their radical ideas — on the ballot. The reality is, these candidates seldom win more than 4 to 5 percent of the vote and remain on the fringes of the state's political system.
For more Seven Days fringe profiles, click here.
[Note: One fringe candidate, Cris Ericson of the U.S. Marijuana Party, who is running for governor and U.S. Senate, declined to participate in this series because Seven Days would not agree to provide interview questions in advance.]
Candidate: Daniel Freilich
Office Sought: U.S. Senator
Education: Cornell University (BA in Government, 1984) State University of New York Health Sciences Center (MD, 1989).
Occupation: U.S. Navy Select Reserves Medical Officer. Freilich completed 13 years of active duty Naval service in September 2009. His research has covered infectious diseases, tropical medicine, bioterrorism and internal medicine. He's also taught internal medicine at Fletcher Allen Health Care/UVM and at Northwestern Medical Center in St. Albans.
Family: The son of a doctor (his father) and an attorney (his mother), Freilich grew up in New York City, Israel and Long Island. He has five children: Sarah, 30; Ariel, 21; Tamara, 19; Leah, 16; and Joshua, 10. He lives with his significant other, Donna Wilder, who is a civilian blood researcher for the U.S. Army and has two children: Delphine and Sophia.
Platform: 1. Economic Equity: Medicare-for-all-style national health care; middle class tax cuts; green jobs revolution 2. Sustainable Long-Term Thinking: Sustainability in politics, energy and enviornment 3. Honorable and Honest Service: Term limits for Senators (two terms); no special interest money; not being an "automatic party caucuser"
We caught up with Freilich yesterday at 3 Squares Cafe in Vergennes, where he was in town for a campaign event.
Seven Days: You grew up in Israel?
Daniel Freilich: We moved there in the 1960s, 1969 I think. I was 5. Moved back when I was in seventh grade. I arrived day one and don't think I knew one word of Hebrew. I think I was fluent within five months. I'm still fluent — at a fifth grade level. I can curse in it. That means you know the true langugage.
SD: You were there for the Arab-Israeli War in '73?
DF: Yes, and it impacted me enormously in terms of my life. We spent the whole time in our shelter. Every home in Israel, by law, has a shelter with thick concrete. My dad was the only male at home because every one else was sent to the front. He was a doctor and by serendipity, the major military hospital was a mile or two away, so he was the only male in our community I was aware of who was allowed to come home every night. I remember I had a journal about the casualties and the deaths. I always felt a duty and when we moved back to the States, I felt guilty that I wasn't there still to do my part.
SD: How old were you at the time of the war?
DF: Fifth grade.
SD: Why are you running for Senate?
DF: Taking care of casualties at National Naval Medical Center and Walter Reed [Army Medical Center]... I saw the casualties and I saw their spouses and their girlfriends or boyfriends. Their lives were irreparably damaged and they weren't angry, they weren't resentful. All they wanted to do was get back to their unit. It was loyalty to duty. By contrast, in my research and administrative capacities, I met all these elected officials and had to travel with them. I could not believe what we allow these people who claim to be public servants to get away with. Maybe that's naive, but to some extent I was shocked.
SD: Like what?
DF: The idea of putting your hand out, and swearing when you go down there to represent whatever your constiuency is, and not committing yourself ethically and professionally to minimizing conflict of interest so that you truly represent the people, is abhorent to me. The predominance of people in non-elective office I met — whether they were military, foreign service, civil service — it was just part of your persona not to have conflicts, and to do your best as a professional not to have that. But we've codified it into law and made it legal for these [politicians] and I found it incredible that they can live like with that kind of hypocrisy.
SD: Are you talking about Congress is general or someone specific?
DF: Congress in general. I'll give you an example of what I mean. The idea of, in your left hand saying you're for campaign finance reform and lamenting the Supreme Court [Citizens United] decision, but in the right hand you keep taking all this PAC money. The hypocrisy and the lack of responsibility of that kind of behavior, in my mind, is part of the basis of why our system is failing.
SD: So should candidates not take the money and then lose, and...?
DF: I don't think that winning is the ultimate outcome measurement. The ultimate outcome measurement is, Have you improved the lives of Americans?
SD: But you can't improve the lives of Americans if you can't win the office.
DF: The top senior leaders in the Vermont Democratic Party — when I critique doing that, taking special interest money — their answer is, That's what you've got to do to win. And my answer is, that's not true in the slightest. I'll admit if there was a unilateral withdrawal — which is what I've advocated — by the Democratic Party from playing in this game, you might lose an election or two. But I think you're going to gain enormously in the long term. I think it will take one or two election cycles for the people of Vermont to understand
SD: Do you think special interest money affects the way Patrick Leahy votes?
DF: Without question, and whether I think it or not, I shouldn't have to take his word for it. He should assure it by not getting invovled in it. Every other profession in America requires that. Physicians are required to minimize their conflict of interest, lawyers are, etc. etc...
SD: Don't medical researchers take money from pharma all the time?
DF: Medical researchers take very minimal amounts if they're getting it from National Institutes of Health.... I understand there's conflicts there, but there's some effort to minimize that in the other professions. The final point is, the medical researcher didn't hold up his arm and swear to represent the people of Vermont. He's doing his best to do research and sometimes he needs the money to figure out something about that mitochondria. Life is gray. I understand you can find holes in my argument.
SD: Leahy's been taking money from special interest sources for years, and Vermonters keep re-electing him overwhelmingly. Why?
DF: First, I don't think what you said is entirely true, and I didn't know that. That's why I always voted for him. In the past, he didn't take much of this money. In 1998, he took, to the best of my knowledge, none. Six years later, to best of my knowledge, he took about $50,000, which would have beeen 2004. And now in just in '09-'10, when I last looked, it was $1.5 million. So he has changed with time and, in my mind, given up on any effort to be professional and ethical. He sort of changed the game. I don't know why Vermonters keep voting him in. I think the number one reason is they simply don't know [about the alternatives]. Seven Days didn't do one full profile of me. The Burlington Free Press, the Times Argus, the Rutland Herald, the Brattleboro Reformer — there was almost no true profile [of my campaign.]
SD: Why did you run in the primary as a Democrat?
DF: Because I very much believe in the true values, or at least the old values, of the Democratic Party. I don't see anything other than the party espousing and claming to be fighting for the middle class and working people and the environment and more enlightened foreign policy. That's what they say over and over.
SD: So why are you now running as an independent?
DF: Two reasons. The first is to fight for these issues — much more important to me than whether I'm a D or an R or an I. Technically, I'm an independent Democrat anyway. I believe in the Democratic Party's ideals but I don't believe in the behavior of the Democratic Party, certainly not in this state.
SD: Back up a second. Why not run as an independent from the get-go? Were you seeking the attention you knew a primary would bring?
DF: I think that was a secondary gain. I think it would be disingenuous of me not to state that I noted that. From that point of view, you could think of it as a practice session for the real thing. But, look — almost every time I voted in my life it was for a Democrat.
SD: Let's switch gears. What should the U.S. do about Afghanistan?
DF: I support what Obama is doing as a big picture assessment. Obama was dealt a very bad hand. He was stuck with two decisions: pull out, or to try to replicate the surge in Iraq. There is a lesson here: Iraq was a mistake. It was precipitous. It was based on faulty intelligence. Having said that, I'm not as critical as some because I note when you're a leader, you make mistakes. And I have a little compassion for this man who made a big mistake because he, and every other leader and every other intelligence agency in the West, truly believed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and he'd shown he's willing to use them in the past and he's a threat. I think George Bush was right when he surged the troops.
SD: Do you support the president's timeline for withdrawing forces from Afghanistan, in July of 2011?
DF: I don't think it was right to publicize that. But a commitment to the people of Afghanistan that is clear and states, 'We will be leaving Afghanistan as soon as we can and it really is up to you to take up the slack.' Make it clear we're not staying. I'm very critical of Leahy. I think questioning the strategy is the absolute responsibility of a good Senator. But constant questioning tactically within a mission pre-determines failure. The troops are there. President Obama is the commander-in-chief. When in the middle of the surge, you are publicly stating you don't think it's going to work, and he started that and it was in all the newspapers about a month ago, all you've done is strengthen the enemy.
SD: How? Are they reading the Burlington Free Press?
DF: Absolutely they're reading the Burlington Free Press. You don't need to be a cynic to know, all they know is that liberal Democrats of today no longer are willing to stick and fight something out. Every G.I. that they kill, through an IED or through small arms fire, they know gets closer and closer to someone like Senator Leahy pulling out. Could you imagine if in every battle of World War II — every time we had trouble, Iwo Jima, or in any other island of Pacific — every Democratic senator saying, "Hmm. I don't think this is working. We better pull out." There's nothing better that the Japanese would have liked to hear during World War 2.
SD: Where do you come down on social issues?
DF: I believe in gay rights. I believe in repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell. I think it's very counterproductive to the military. I put no credence to the argument that it will hurt readiness. Everybody knows everything about everyone. It wouldn't be any different than it is now except people could live, and take a deep breath and concentrate on the work they have to do rather than this kind of nonsense. On same sex marriage, I support that. I'm pro-choice. I believe in the compromise in Roe v. Wade.
SD: What about doctor-assisted suicide?
DF: As a physician, I will tell you that doctor-assisted suicide happens all the time. When a dying patient is having needless pain and asks you to help them relieve the pain, most doctors feel that it is their duty to help and we do. Absolutely it should be legal, it should be codified into law and should be taught professionally. But it should be done right.
SD: Are you religious?
DF: Not at all. Totally secular.
SD: The cow ad. Were you suprised it went viral so fast?
DF: No, I wasn't. It was so out of my comfort zone. As you can see from our conversation, I find these issues pretty serious. The funny thing is, I don't think we spent more than $60. We rented a cow costume, got a tank of gas to get to Bellows Falls and bought the staff a pizza. I couldn't stop laughing when we were doing it.
SD: What are your hobbies?
DF: Skiing. I'm not allowed to say this as a Vermonter, but I will admit that the sun and high vertical out west is very pleasant, so I do a lot of skiing out west. But I love skiing in Killington. I really love Stowe more than any other place. I've skied in some pretty weird places too, like the Golan Heights. As a child we would go skiing there. This was at the height of the stress with Syria. It was these barded-wire gates in the middle of the slope and on one side were Syrian troops with AK-47s. It was an incentive to ski fast and get by them.