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Q&A With Elizabeth Holtzman: Pioneering Former Rep. Wants To Help A Country ‘In Crisis’


NEW YORK ― At age 80, former Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman (D-N.Y.) boasts a profession stuffed with history-making accomplishments.

A graduate of Harvard Law School who’d worked within the civil rights movement, she unseated a 50-year incumbent in 1972 on the age of 30, making her the youngest woman ever elected to Congress on the time. She distinguished herself in Washington as an outspoken voice against government secrecy and overreach, voting to question President Richard Nixon while serving on the House Judiciary Committee in 1974.

Holtzman was elected district attorney in Brooklyn in 1981, becoming Recent York City’s first female prosecutor. And in 1989, she became town’s first woman ― and to this present day, the just one ― to function comptroller.

Holtzman has had her share of election losses as well, coming up short in a run for U.S. Senate in 1980 and in her bid for re-election as comptroller in 1993.

Thanks partly to her experience holding Nixon accountable, nevertheless, Holtzman re-emerged within the national highlight through the administration of former President Donald Trump. In 2018, she left the Department of Homeland Security’s advisory committee in protest of Trump’s policy of separating undocumented migrant parents from their children. Later that 12 months, she published a book that attracted significant media attention, “The Case for Impeaching Trump.”

But Holtzman, who enjoys kayaking with friends in her downtime, believes her work remains to be unfinished. The mixture of Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election and the Supreme Court’s revocation of a federal right to abortion have prompted the longtime resident of downtown Brooklyn to run in Recent York’s newly drawn tenth Congressional District.

Holtzman is certainly one of 15 candidates competing within the state’s Aug. 23 Democratic primary for a district that encompasses lower Manhattan and a cluster of neighborhoods in central and southern Brooklyn.

HuffPost is running an interview series with the tenth District candidates. Take a look at our previous interviews with Carlina Rivera, Bill de Blasio, Yuh-Line Niou, Mondaire Jones, Jo Anne Simon and Dan Goldman.

Over slices of zucchini bread at a downtown Brooklyn café, HuffPost asked Holtzman what a single member of Congress can actually do to defend democracy, which investigations she would prioritize, and the way her legislative experience shapes her view of foreign policy, health care and the economy.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman (D-N.Y.) speaks to reporters in 1973 about her lawsuit searching for to finish the U.S. government’s bombing of Cambodia, which she argued was illegal.

If you first won in 1972, you were the youngest woman ever to win a seat in Congress. Now you can be the oldest first-term member of Congress. Why come back now to run?

Since the country is in crisis. We’re facing perhaps the most important threat we’ve ever faced ― aside from World War II, and perhaps much more serious than that, because we have now internal forces which can be attempting to destroy our democratic institutions. We’ve got an extremist Supreme Court that wishes to take us back to perhaps even before the founding of our country. We’ve got a former president who’s attempting to destroy our electoral system across the country in order that he can win irrespective of what the votes are, although we’re purported to be a democracy. We’ve got a right-wing Congress that’s enabling each the previous president and the Supreme Court.

So this just isn’t a time for just trying your wings. It is a critical time for individuals who can bring the experience, the proven track record, the heart, the know-how and the leadership that’s required on this time. If we weren’t on this dangerous position, I wouldn’t even be fascinated with this.

I understand that you will have a wealth of experience, but there are obviously limits to what a single House member and freshman lawmaker can do against a president ―

Really? Really? After all there are, but I’ll let you know what I did just in my first term in Congress. Nixon had this concept that he was going to create a State Secrets Act, which he slipped through the court system. No one really understood what was happening. But there have been just a few individuals who understood: I understood, and [North Carolina Democrat] Sam Ervin within the Senate ― a fantastic constitutional scholar.

By March of 1973 ― and I used to be sworn in in January ― we had a bill passed into law that I introduced stopping that. I used to be one person on the House side getting the Senate to go along and stop the State Secrets Act. Perhaps, if Nixon’s bill had passed, Watergate may not have been illegal.

Don’t say to me, “What can one person do?”

I used to be one person. And in 1974 ― also my first term ― I learned that there have been Nazi war criminals in America. They got here here after World War II. They’d been here for 35, 40 years.

Did anybody do anything? No. I exposed their presence and called for changes in our laws. And guess what? Greater than 100 Nazi war criminals were dropped at justice and expelled from america.

By the way in which, [President] Gerald Ford showed as much as talk concerning the Nixon pardon to the Congress. That was also in my first term. Not one Democrat asked him a single tough query about it. The American people need to know whether there was a deal. Guess who asked him whether there was a deal, to his face? I did. He never answered the query. But I’m not afraid to do this.

“I don’t buy your argument that one person can’t make a difference.”

– Former Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman (D-N.Y.), now a candidate for Recent York’s tenth Congressional District

I brought a lawsuit against the bombing of Cambodia. We won a landmark ruling in district court. The president of america was illegally bombing Cambodia on his own, although Congress passed a law saying, “You possibly can’t do it.”

Are you able to win each time by yourself? No. Are you able to start something by yourself? Yes. Are you able to win sometimes by yourself? Yes.

And on racial discrimination in jury selection, I used to be the one DA in America ― not only Brooklyn, not only Recent York City, not only the Northeast ― the one DA in America to call on the Supreme Court to finish the racial discrimination practice of using racially based peremptory challenges to remove Blacks from the jury. So the Supreme Court listened to me. They bought the argument that my office made.

So I don’t buy your argument that one person can’t make a difference.

Let’s say you get to Congress again. On day one, what does it seem like to initiate something against Trump? What would you immediately do?

Trump? He’s not the just one. Why are you pondering only “Trump”? And why would I wait until I actually took office?

Democrats may lose the bulk in January. I hope not. I haven’t given up hope. But there’s that possibility. So Congress must do things now.

Considered one of the things that must be done is to take a look at the Supreme Court. Individuals are talking about laws to do X and Y and alter the composition and so forth. Those are things definitely price . We may not have the votes for it; we may not have the votes even on this Congress to do this.

But we actually control the investigative process. And Congress must be at the least two things in our Supreme Court. Mr. Brett Kavanaugh ― [the] investigation [into alleged sexual misconduct] was never finished, ever, and it must be. Perhaps there’s nothing there. Perhaps he entirely told the reality ― or perhaps he didn’t. The American individuals are entitled to know that, since the Supreme Court is now making decisions taking constitutional rights away from people and we’d like to know whether or not they’re acting in a legitimate fashion.

[Justice] Clarence Thomas is the second person. I’m not giving it priority, by way of who must be investigated first. But Congress needs to take a look at the role that Clarence Thomas played with regard to his failure to recuse himself from votes, with regard to disclosing certain matters, or with regard to conspiring along with his wife within the forcible overthrow of presidency.

The American individuals are entitled to know if, when any person wants to remove constitutional rights, whether that person is correctly in that position to do this.

Given the way you envision your role ― using investigative powers to their fullest ― is there anybody whose work in the present Congress you respect?

I can’t say I followed any person of their entire work product. But there are those who have impressed me with the seriousness of their purpose, and with the work they’ve done. There are people whom I respect lots.

Holtzman, center left, and Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), center right, speak at an event in support of President Jimmy Carter's reelection in October 1980.Holtzman, center left, and Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), center right, speak at an event in support of President Jimmy Carter’s reelection in October 1980.

How do you think that President Joe Biden is doing?

I strongly supported him because I assumed he was the just one who could defeat Donald Trump. I didn’t at all times agree along with his policies. But the primary order of business was to defeat Donald Trump. And he did that. He deserves a whole lot of credit for that. He must have the country’s undying gratitude for that.

Are there things I’d have done in a different way? Perhaps. Probably.

What would you will have done in a different way?

Perhaps it’s a matter of just tone or style, but I’d have liked to see them act more quickly with a to-do list in response to the [Supreme Court’s] abortion decision. We knew for a very long time it was coming. That doesn’t mean he’s not going to get there and do exactly what must be done. In order I said, it’s only a matter of favor and approach and so forth. He’s a deliberative sort of person, which is a superb thing.

Do you support his reelection?

Let me see what happens. I’m running for my very own election now ― or reelection ― so it’s really premature to comment.

We got here to Congress together. So I’ve known Joe Biden for a really very long time. He’s a really nice person. We’ve got an exquisite photo of the 2 of us where we’re meeting after we hadn’t seen one another in three or 4 years. There’s such an enormous grin on each of our faces. It wasn’t just posing for the camera. He’s a really caring, decent person. And it’s nice to have that within the presidency.

You mentioned your work attempting to stop the U.S. bombing of Cambodia. What did you think that of america’ withdrawal from Afghanistan?

I don’t know that many Americans would have objected to the choice, but it surely looked very disorderly. We’ve got a picture at all times by some means that we win all wars and so they’re all sort of contained. It’s like a video game. War isn’t a video game.

Could it have been handled in a different way? Possibly, probably.

But retreats will be very problematic. I used to be there in Vietnam. That wasn’t a pleasing scene either. And as much as they prepared, they hadn’t prepared [enough].

“No system can tolerate abuses of power, whether it’s within the corrections system, or the police force, or within the prosecutorial system.”

– Elizabeth Holtzman

You’re a former prosecutor, and there have been tremendous debates on this country over policing and criminal justice reform. Do you think that certain elements on the left have ever gone too far of their push for certain reforms? And if that’s the case, what balance would you strike?

I actually prefer to discuss me on this race, and what I bring to it. So here’s a superb example. After I was DA, I did several really necessary things that hadn’t been done. I brought women and minorities to top positions. After I discovered the difficulty of racial discrimination in jury selection, we litigated that each one the way in which as much as the Supreme Court. My office is noted in a footnote in that call. Justice [John Paul] Stevens complimented the work of my office.

On women’s rights, we challenged the state’s exemption for marital rape. It wasn’t a criminal offense for a husband to rape his wife. We were the one DA in Recent York state to challenge that. The court agreed with us.

I created the primary bureau in Recent York City ― perhaps within the state ― that was designed to take care of problems of misuse of force by cops. I had 5,000 cops protesting me. Guess what? They left. They’re not going to spend greater than a few hours protesting. And the unit stayed.

No system can tolerate abuses of power, whether it’s within the corrections system, or the police force, or within the prosecutorial system. It will possibly’t.

However ― and sometimes people don’t wish to acknowledge this ― there are people who find themselves dangerous. We handled it. Day-after-day, I got the reports of murders in Brooklyn and the abuse of kids in Brooklyn.

Could we do a greater job? Could we work out the best way to do the job in a more humane, efficient way? I’m sure that’s possible. But there’s not a whole lot of pressure to rethink it, even now.

The entire issue of policing must be rethought from the standpoint of: How will we recruit the most effective people into the police force? How will we screen out those that are going to be abusive? What are our present practices? Who’s that? I don’t have any problem with examining training systems, recruitment systems, disciplinary systems.

People should be held accountable, but you furthermore mght should pick the most effective people, you will have to choose the suitable people. You’ve gotten to coach them properly. You’ve gotten to supervise them properly. That happens in every business, not only government.

Those are things that I feel should be done, and there’s no “left” or “right” about that, in my view.

Holtzman, as Brooklyn district attorney, addresses the press after the conviction of Carmine Persico, boss of the Colombo crime family, in November 1986.Holtzman, as Brooklyn district attorney, addresses the press after the conviction of Carmine Persico, boss of the Colombo crime family, in November 1986.

Yvonne Hemsey/Getty Images

What type of federal policing reform laws would you support? The House passed a version of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act last Congress that will have banned chokeholds nationally. Would you will have voted for that? What type of federal provisions would you envision supporting?

I don’t want to present a glib answer here. You possibly can say “no chokeholds,” “no this hold,” “no that hold” ― whatever. I feel all of which may be necessary.

However the more necessary thing is: How will we train people? How will we recruit them? How will we supervise them? How will we discipline them? How will we do it in a way that produces the outcomes that we wish?

What sort of job do you think that Bill de Blasio did as mayor?

I’m not going to comment on my opponents on this race in any respect.

Do you think that it’s appropriate for any person to maneuver to the district from outside of the district?

The voters can have to make that call.

“You are trying doing every thing you may incrementally.”

– Elizabeth Holtzman

You began your profession as a lawmaker within the Seventies. We’re seeing a return of what some people feel are the maladies of the Seventies. Specifically, I’m fascinated with inflation. What should Congress or the president do about it?

If we could predict the longer term, probably none of us can be doing what we’re doing now. We will’t. There’s some things we all know make a difference. And we’re at all times the past, however the past had various factors at work. So I feel just slightly humility is a component of the method, but obviously there are things that will be done.

The [Federal Reserve] is tightening rates of interest, so is that going to work? If it doesn’t work, then what else must be done? I’m not going to say yet, because we don’t know yet whether these actions by the Fed can have the specified effect.

Perhaps we should always be a number of the bottlenecks in our system and price gouging that’s happening, and take some motion against it. Oil firms are sitting on leases on government land and never drilling. What’s happening there?

There’s been a whole lot of discussion in recent times about Medicare for All or a single-payer health care system. After which there are a number of other options which can be more moderate in nature. What sort of reforms would you should see us make to the U.S. health care system?

Health care must be a basic human right. But I’m also any person who says, “I’m going to take half a loaf if I get it.” It’s higher than nothing. Although we didn’t have those Medicare for All bills after I was in Congress. But I do support as broad a protection as possible for the American people, whether it’s Medicare for All or another system or public option.

Is that a nasty thing in the event you didn’t solve the entire problem? Definitely not. You are trying. You are trying doing every thing you may incrementally.

With regard to the Reasonably priced Care Act, one other evil that the Supreme Court did is [to] say that the federal government couldn’t require states to expand Medicaid. Where’d that come from? Wonderful gifts they’ve given us.

Holtzman discusses her book Holtzman discusses her book “The Case for Impeaching Trump” in Recent York City in December 2018. She reemerged within the national media highlight through the Trump administration.

Daniel Zuchnik/Getty Images

What do you concentrate on the shift toward a narrower interpretation of antitrust laws that took a more lax approach to corporate consolidation than the one which dominated through the Recent Deal era?

I’m not an authority enough to present you a solution on that.

Do you envision yourself becoming a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus?

I’m not going to pigeonhole myself, period. I’m not going to do this. I support many progressive efforts.

I used to be a really progressive member of Congress. I’ll leave it at that. I’m not going to let anyone else define it for me. I stood up for girls’s rights, human rights of all types. I used to be within the South within the early days of the civil rights movement after I was a law student. I helped to found a national civil rights organization that brought law students to the South.

If [Democratic] Congressman Jerry Nadler loses, there’ll now not be a Jewish member of Congress for Recent York City. You may potentially fill that gap. Is it necessary for Recent York City to have a Jewish member of Congress?

I could see the way it was necessary in my prior service in Congress. Nevertheless it depends who the person is. Just being a member of a certain group doesn’t mean you’re going to get up in the suitable way or do anything effective.

After all, it’s wonderful to have various groups present in Congress. It makes the work of the body far more representative of the country. But just having a one who is of the suitable ethnic group or religion doesn’t mean that you just’re going to get someone who’s a fighter and leader.

Do you think that that the U.S. shows the suitable amount of support for Israel? Should it take a tougher approach? A more generous approach?

I even have a twin brother. After I was a toddler, my grandmother sat us down in front of the radio the day the state of Israel was created. She said, “I never want you to forget this present day, ever in your life.”

So I haven’t. I may not remember the date. But I’ll always remember my grandmother saying that to me and my brother. There’s a sort of bottom line: Israel was the sanctuary for Jews when nobody else would give them sanctuary, including america.

And alternatively, it’s not enough to be a sanctuary. It also must be, from my standpoint, ethical in its behavior as a rustic. So there are areas by which there are concerns about Israel, but the underside line is its survival. We still live in a world, not only with antisemitism, but where antisemitism is growing ― even in america.

I strongly support the survival of the state of Israel. I even have been there persistently. But I do consider in a two-state solution. I did support Obama’s Iran treaty. I worked to attempt to get people to support it.

Do you see yourself more as an AIPAC person or a J Street person?

I’m not a one who likes to be pigeonholed.

Do you think that that america could show more of a “tough love” approach on the subject of a number of the disagreements on ethical issues that you just cite ― including, for instance, putting on the table conditions on how Israel spends the help it receives from america?

I haven’t been deeply involved in Israel’s foreign-affairs issues in a granular way in a really very long time. Negotiating with foreign countries just isn’t easy. Sometimes it’s easier than you think that, and sometimes it’s harder than you think that. It’s very easy to discuss it from the surface whenever you don’t know what’s happening.

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