Peter Deutsch ’79 (D), representative of Florida’s 20th district in the House of Representatives, kicked off the Heard on the Hill lecture series last night in SCI 101. He spent the bulk of the discussion answering audience questions about his political past, his recent failed run for US Senate, and the state of the Democratic Party.
“I’m a Swarthmore success story,” explained Deutsch to kick off his speech before telling the story of how he arrived at the College not knowing what he was interested in, taking classes in a variety of fields, and eventually majoring in psychology. But it was a class on American foreign policy with Professor James Kurth (who was in the audience) that really got Deutsch interested in what governments can do. He spent his senior year in the basement of McCabe, looking at government records and finding that many people in government agreed with him that OPEC needed to be broken up. Current President Jimmy Carter did not have that view, but Senator Ted Kennedy did, so Deutsch went to work on the ill-fated Kennedy presidential campaign. After completing this story, Deutsch announced that his speech was over and that he would now answer audience questions. Naturally, there were quite a few.
Several students were interested in how Deutsch managed to get elected to a Florida state House seat at the age of 25 and enter the US House only 10 years later. Deutsch noted that quite a few Congressmen are elected at that young of an age but also explained that he ran for US Congress in a newly created district so he didn’t have to run up against the incumbent advantage. But he did face several noted local politicians, and to make himself known, he made it his goal to meet every voter in his district. “The most important thing in politics is to be seen as a nice person,” he said.
Deutsch explained the results of the recent election by saying that many voters simply had no idea who John Kerry really was. They may have agreed with his policies and may not have been huge fans of George W. Bush, but they couldn’t vote for somebody they couldn’t connect with. Deutsch criticized Kerry’s choice to go windsurfing off of Cape Cod with the press in tow, as such a thing did not endear him to the rural and middle-class swing voters who ended up deciding the election. The Congressman referenced Bill Clinton as an example of a Democrat who knew how to build coalitions and bemoaned the lack of a Clintonesque figure in the current crop of Democratic candidates.
Deutsch then discussed his failure to gain the Democratic nomination in his bid for a Senate seat this year. “I ran an okay campaign, not a great campaign,” he admitted, and explained that he began with low name recognition compared to his competitor and also ended up with far less money to spend. He noted that he gave up his Congressional seat to concentrate on the Senate run and will no longer be serving in the House. In closing, he cautioned Swatties that as much as we may believe in the wonders of the Enlightenment and find born-again Christianity to be a strange idea, most of the country identifies with the latter concept.
The “Heard on the Hill” series will continue on November 29th with Senator Carl Levin ’56 (D-Michigan).