Candidate Chat: Seamus Whelan
David S. Bernstein: Why are you running for an at-large city council seat?
Seamus Whelan: I feel there’s a vacuum out there at the moment, particularly since Occupy. Occupy in some respects raised consciousness in a lot of American society that there is a one percent that exists, and the whole unequal distribution of wealth, and that their interests are separate from the rest of the 99 percent. And that’s reflected in polls—more people have a favorable view of socialism. Socialist Alternative actually ran a candidate last year in Washington state [Kshama Sawant], she was an Occupy activist candidate, and she ran against the state’s most powerful Democrat, the leader of the state senate, and she won 30 percent of the vote, 20,000 votes. So, there’s a vacuum, and people are looking for real change. I’m not a politician, I’m running as an activist.
Tell me about Socialist Alternative as an entity, for people who might think it’s some sort of Soviet holdover or something.
Socialist Alternative is a national organization, made up of people in areas where we are recruiting members: Alabama, Washington, California, Minnesota, Chicago, here in Boston. We’re a small group. We take up issues in support of labor unions, immigrant struggles, gay rights, and others.
Some people will say Boston is a pretty progressive city at this point, and the at-large candidates tend to be pretty progressive. What are they lacking?
When you listen to the candidates, they come across as being very reasonable, very supportive, but if you actually examine their voting record, it’s often quite different. I would describe it as an abusive relationship. In Boston, or any urban area where the Democratic Party tends to dominate, they say how much they care about labor. But we saw in Wisconsin, when the Tea Party was attacking collective bargaining rights, what wasn’t publicized as much is that Democrats took away collective bargaining rights for employees to negotiate in healthcare. I know in my union [the Massachusetts Nurses Association], the type of legislation we’ve been pushing for—to improve our ability to provide safe staffing—fails every year. They throw their arms around us, particularly when they’re running for election, but you look in the coffers of some of these campaigners the money is often coming from corporate interests, and they are looking after those corporate interests. They’ve pretty much corrupted it. My campaign will refuse to take any corporate money—not that I expect much to come into my campaign.
Some would suggest that the Massachusetts Nurses Association is a special interest, and it certainly spends resources and time supporting candidates. Do you not feel that it’s an equivalent?
The unions do put money into elections campaigns. And we also put a lot of resources—union members do phone banks and stuff like that. What unions are looking for in return is the interests of their members. What are the interests of the members? I don’t think it’s equivalent to corporations. Corporations fund political campaigns to maintain their profits, to maintain the disproportionate wealth of the one percent. Unions, their interests are their members, members’ wages. The weakening of unions and the driving down of wages affects everybody. The unions play a role in American society of maintaining jobs with benefits, to maintain decent standards. Unions play a completely different role than corporations. I would argue, though, that unions don’t get value for our money. No single piece of pro-union legislation passed despite the fact that we put hundreds of millions of dollars into the Democratic Party. I think unions should consider funding independent candidates.
You tend to adopt a lot of Occupy language. What was your involvement with that movement, and how did it affect you?
The Occupy movement was in some respects inspired by events that were happening in Egypt, with Mubarak, and those movements of people against the old liberal agenda worldwide that said working people have to pay for the economic crisis caused by the one percent. Socialist Alternative played a role in the Occupy movement; we had a number of members in the Boston camp. I work as a full-time registered nurse, so I wasn’t able to camp down there, but I did attend a number of rallies—I helped organize one against a proposed tax on social security. My campaign is reflecting that kind of idea of the Occupy movement.
You live in West Roxbury, but your accent suggests to me that might not be where you’re from originally.
No, I’m an Irish immigrant. I’ve been in the Boston area for 25 years, in West Roxbury—I lose track, I think seven years I’ve been in West Roxbury. I’ve been a registered nurse 14, 15 years.
Where are you from in Ireland?
I come from County Kildare, a town just outside of Dublin called Naas. That’s about a 20-minute drive south of Dublin. It’s spelled N-A-A-S but pronounced Nace.
I always find that people who run city-wide for the first time learn a lot about parts of the city they hadn’t had much exposure to before. I know it’s early, but is there anything interesting you’ve learned about some part of the city, or a part of the city you’re hoping to learn more about?
Well you’re definitely right, an election campaign is a learning process. When I started the race, I began to kind of research the history of Boston development, from the post-war period. And that’s quite an interesting history, particularly in relation to how it affected communities in Boston. The West End, but nearly every community in Boston. It’s one of the few cities where you have a basically unaccountable government, giving the mayor of Boston unbelievable powers, working with developers. And also the history of how when places like the West End were destroyed, working people have organized against these powerful interests. So I’m definitely learning a lot about the city’s history.
Read more Boston City Council Candidate Chats. This interview has been edited for length.