When we sat down with Bill Haas last week, he said in no uncertain terms, “I’m going to win this one. It’s not going to be pretty.” It was delivered with a confidence that left us taken aback, but through our conversation we came to get a better understanding of why Haas is running, and it’s deeper than politics.
If you live in Missouri, and the name Bill Haas sounds familiar to you, it should. You’re bound to have seen him on your ballot a number of times, once for Lieutenant Governor, other times for mayor or congress or the state house and even once for alderperson, if you live in Lyda Krewson’s former ward. But don’t be mistaken: Haas has run a lot of campaigns (apparently at least 21), but he is not a perennial candidate, and he resents the moniker. Haas says perennial candidates don’t win and, to his credit, Haas has won a number of times. In 2008, he beat out a crowded field of Democrats to become the nominee for Missouri’s 2nd Congressional District, and he’s been re-elected a number of times to the St. Louis City school board. This year however, Haas is once again chasing the white whale that has evaded him so many times before: a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. The race is in some ways an attempt to get lightning to strike twice, since it’s in the Missouri 2nd, the same district where Haas won the nomination a decade before.
Whoever clinches the Democratic nomination is going to be a significant underdog in the general election. Incumbent Republican Ann Wagner has millions of dollars at her disposal in a district already drawn to give Republicans a partisan advantage of +8% (meaning the district is 8% more Republican leaning than the nation as a whole). But in a year of historic democratic turnout that some tenuously suggest is building to a blue wave, this may be the year the district finally flips.
Based on his social media and previous profiles in local periodicals, Haas seemed to be an eccentric character who relished fights with journalists and made off-color statements about current events. But the Haas we sat down with was more soft-spoken and thoughtful, and there was a refreshing quality about his sincerity in his ability and his beliefs.
Haas isn’t originally from St. Louis; he was born into a Jewish family in Shaker Heights, Ohio. After he graduated high school he went to Yale as a Phi Beta Kappa in the same freshman class as former. Sec. of State John Kerry. After Yale, he moved on to Harvard Law, but the transition was difficult.
Haas talked about the major depression he suffered during that period that caused him to drop out of law school. Later, he would return because he was advised that, “I could come back if I dropped out. It would be harder to come back if I flunked out.”
In the years that followed, Haas served in Detroit in VISTA, hitch-hiked across the country, ended up in New Orleans to interview for a position in Mayor Moon Landrieu’s administration. He didn’t become political until the early 70s, “I wasn’t married yet, I didn’t have that kind of fulfillment, law was boring but intellectually challenging,” he said. “So, I started working in campaigns, and one of the ones I worked in was Dennis Kucinich when he got elected mayor in ‘77. That’s when I really became politically ambitious.”
That part about not being married: there was once a woman in Haas’s life. To understand Haas is to also understand that his quest for political success is only eclipsed by his quest for companionship. I won’t be able to do it justice, so I’ll let Haas tell it in his own words:
“So, the woman I fell in love with in ’78. I met her at a dance club. I asked, do you dance?… She said, a little. She’d been going to New York dance clubs since she was 16 because that’s where the music was. So, she was the best dancer I’d ever seen. The first weekend after we met, we went campaigning. I was running for precinct committee person. I think. It was a lower income area. and she was walking up the stairs in her heels. I think, I don’t remember exactly. At some point I said when are we getting married? And she said when you give up politics and we go to the suburbs and have a good life. We fell in love, but we didn’t get married. The idea of falling in love with somebody who cares about you but not about politics…. Pam and I never got together. Though I waited 20 years for her come around and she’s married one or two people since.”
The rest is history. Haas moved to St. Louis as a corporate lawyer in 1988, met the residency requirement to run for mayor in 1995, and he’s been running ever since.
We asked Haas about his platform for this campaign, and it was actually quite extensive. Haas wants to be known as the “education congressperson,” and the central tenet of his campaign is early childhood education. Haas believes that we need a federally funded, trillion-dollar early-childhood-education program. “We’re going to find a way to get money for early childhood education,” he said. “Nothing is more important. That’s where crime comes from, and that’s where our educated workforce will come from.” Haas sees a clear link between the societal ills that plague this country and a broken education system. “In the longer run, my solution for poverty and racism is good, quality education.”
There’s also a unique idea that Haas has put at the forefront of his campaign, a combination of public service announcements and a hotline that would exist for the purpose of violence prevention. Haas says, “That’s the mental health piece that should cut across political boundaries. It’s not about gun control.” We asked why include public service announcements. Haas said, “The missing piece is telling people we care about them and that we love them, and that if they call, we’re going to do more than just give them some meds and lock them in a room and tell them therapy.”
On every other issue, Haas was fairly progressive. He supports the efforts by Moms Demand Action and the Parkland Students to achieve common sense gun control. He believes in protecting entitlements and is vehemently opposed to work requirements for Medicaid. He’d support raising the contribution cap, not the age of retirement to make Social Security solvent. He’s passionate about ending the abuses of factory farming (Haas is an animal lover who has had 24 animal companions over the years). When it comes to dealing with corporations, he believes that we should end “corporate welfare” and pass laws to fight automation. “if you’re going to lay off because of automation, you have to give the people you’re laying off a fair severance, and if you can’t afford to do that then we have a problem,” he said.
Haas’s position on the Israel-Palestine conflict is rather bold for a Democrat, and he went on at length about his thoughts. Here are the most important bits:
“As a Jewish person, I’m glad that my people have a homeland but…Palestinians living in camps with open sores for generations can’t possibly be God’s plan. That’s not the reason for all the terrorism, but it certainly doesn’t help any. We need a Marshall plan for the Palestinians. We can’t define the peace process, but we can try to drive it. Settlements are part of it. My bill that I’m going to propose, I’ll lose the Jewish vote for a while, but you either want to do good or you don’t. if Israel won’t agree with a plan over 10 years to dismantle the settlements, or give Palestinians equivalent land, then I’m going to put a bill in to cut the aid to Israel in half and use it to fund Palestinian development in Gaza and the West Bank. People living in Gaza, horrendous conditions as we know. That’s not good for anybody. Israel is finally beginning to help people in Gaza. This was in the last month. Some sort of economic thing. That should resonate. I don’t want to be a demagogue, but I really believe in this stuff.”
So, you may ask yourself, why is Haas running and why does he run even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds again and again?
When we asked Haas about what keeps him going, he got misty eyed. He paused for quite a bit, because it was clearly very emotional for him. As a tear rolled down his cheek. Haas said, “You don’t always gets your dreams. and the reason I want to be in public service is, my dream is to be in public service to help other people’s more simple dreams come true.” There’s also a spiritual element to Haas’s thinking, “I long thought I had some gifts for public service and I don’t think god would’ve given me them if she didn’t expect me to find a place to use them. So, it would be disrespectful to her and to myself to give up.”
It seemed to all of us that Haas had sacrificed more than most to run for office, potentially fulfilling careers, personal relationships, quite a bit of money and perhaps a life that would have borne more fruit than the one he’s lived so far. So, for Haas, to finally be elected to such a significant office would be more than electoral victory, it would be the event that brought meaning to the life he’s built around chasing this goal.
Haas believes that he can win this primary because of his name recognition, his heavy use of radio ads, and most importantly, his ideas. There has not been any polling of this race, but I’ve yet to meet a person other than Haas that shares his optimism. The odds seem somewhat long due to the quality of candidates that this cycle has produced, who are younger and better funded than Haas. Some people are willing to write Haas off, but I actually believe that there is possibly a path to victory for him. That being said, I don’t know who the nominee will be and I would genuinely be surprised if it were Haas.
All things considered, Haas is a serious candidate and he deserves a serious look. You can learn more about his positions at http://voteHaashaas.com, and his book Pink Collar Blue is available on Amazon.