"If I Was A Rich Man Tour": Interview with Minnesotan participant, Sonya Kuznetsov

For the past year, we’vve been hearing a lot about percentages in the United States.

We’ve heard the top 1%, the bottom 99% and here and there about the top 2%; all these numbers have directed us to further examine the economic breakdown of our country and what we think of as just and fair distribution of income and taxation.

Fairness – specifically tax fairness – was the focus of Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice’s recent campaign, the “If I Was a Rich Man Tour.”

Progressive young American Jews from around the country came together to travel around the United States to the constituencies of the eleven richest Congresspeople. These targeted Congresspeople voted to extend the Bush Era Tax Cuts voted on this past July.

A fellow Minnesotan Jew, Sonya Kuznetsov, was one of the eight participants in the tour and I had the opportunity to speak with her about her experience on the Tour.

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Sarah Brammer-Shlay (SBS): How did you hear about this trip and what can you tell me about the organization Bend the Arc?

Sonya Kuznetsov (SK): I do organizing work in the Jewish community in Minneapolis and heard about it through [those] contacts. Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice, works on social and economic justice. They are recently “PAC”ed (meaning they can now campaign on political issues) and so they created a tour called “If I Was a Rich Man Tour” to show that young progressive Jews care about tax fairness.

SBS: And how would you describe tax fairness?

SK: Making sure that everyone pays their fair share in taxes. We’re not experts, so we don’t know the exact format for that. What that means for current tax policy is that when the Bush Tax era tax cuts are voted on again in December, that we think the top 2% of folks (American citizens) should stop receiving tax cuts. The top 2% are people who make $250,000 or more.

We think ALL Americans should be paying their fair share and those 98% receiving tax cuts should still receive tax cuts. They (the tax cuts) should only end for the top 2%.

SBS: What was the plan and purpose of the trip?

SK: The primary purpose of the trip was to make sure that America knows that this issue is important to young Progressive Jews and to inform the people that live in the areas of the top eleven richest Congresspeople that their Congressmen keep lining their pockets with money from the Bush Tax Cuts.

The trip started at Jim Costa’s office, a Democrat Representative in California, second richest Democrat to vote for H.R.8 [See below description]. We went in front of the Congresspeople’s local offices. We leafleted with information about tax fairness, about how much their Congressmen make and how much they would be giving away [financially].

We had posters [for citizens to fill out which said,] “If I Was a Rich Man I’d be giving my fair share because….” People wrote a lot of great things, there was a wide range of reasons for support of tax fairness.

SBS: What was your route?

SK: I joined them in Austin, Texas in Michael McCall’s office. We actually went up to his office after our action to ask if we could talk to him. He wasn’t there but one of his staffers was very friendly [when it came down for him] to listen. He stated that he [Rep. McCall] supported it [extending the Bush era tax cuts] because he was afraid it would affect small business; but we (Bend the Arc) believe that small business owners should still receive tax cuts.

SBS: As you toured the country doing this, were certain areas more receptive than others?

SK: Yes, Canton, Ohio was amazing. We were overwhelmingly supported there. It was Jim Burnesi’s office. I think it’s because we were in the middle of working class America. They understood that tax cuts should be for working class families and not for the top 2%.

We also were there Friday and we found a Temple to go to for services, Temple Israel. We were welcomed with big open hands and went out to dinner with folks after the service. It was really great to get grounded into why we were doing this work and how our Judaism really inspires us to do work on tax fairness.

SBS: Can you say more about that experience?

SK: There were so many times during the service where we would read a commentary on the prayer and it would say that we have a responsibility to each other. That’s what taxes are. We have a collective responsibility to help those who have less than us. Those who have more should help out those who are less fortunate and this would build our success as a whole.

SBS: Who were the participants? Where were they from? What were their backgrounds?

SK: Most of the people on the tour had graduated from college and were in their mid to late 20s. They all had organizing backgrounds, ranged from labor work to food equality and education reform; also, a lot of musicians. It was really Jews from all sorts of backgrounds that came together and believe in these progressive values that Bend the Arc holds.

SBS: Day 1: What were your thoughts going in and how did it turn out in reality?

SK: So… when I was going into it, the thing I was most nervous about was not being a tax expert, not knowing tax codes and not knowing the hard lines of taxes.

I had a really great orientation, had four people that had already done work in California (on the tour). Bend the Arc did a great job prepping me with where we were going, about the representatives that we were seeing and informing us how they voted and the specific things we were looking at, the Senate Bill H.R.8 and the Middle Class Tax Bill of 2012. [See below for description of bills]

SBS: And after Day 1? What happened from there?

SK: After Day 1, we went to Dallas, Texas where George W. Bush lives. It was a little rough… we got the police called on us. A lot of the constituents there were very supportive; they believed that the rich should be paying the highest amount of taxes. Their Representative, Kenny Marchant [is] a very solid Conservative Republican [and] believes that the top 2% should receive tax cuts.

At his office, we talked to a lot of people walking in and out, and the folks that we talked to often agreed with us. The couple people that didn’t agree with us happened to be his staffers. They didn’t like that we were out there and felt threatened enough that they called the police. We [then] stood across the street, and stood with signs that said, “Honk for Tax Fairness.” We had a lot of support with our honks. A total of $950 billion would be added in a ten-year deficit reduction if the top 2% stop receive tax cuts.

SBS: What did you see as the results of your actions?

SK: The biggest thing we saw was that a lot of folks didn’t know their representatives were making that much money and that they were voting this way on this issue. Some of these Congressmen are up for reelection this November and so when we told them (the constituents) that they (the congressmen) are probably going to vote to keep the tax cuts… a lot of people wanted to know more about them. That was our goal… to inform people of what was going on in their community.

SBS: How do you think the Tour reflects the thoughts of the Jewish community as a whole and why is it important that Jews are talking about this issue?

SK: I don’t think I can say that this is important to all Jews as a whole but I definitely think that to progressive Jews this is important. I do think we represent the majority of Progressive Jews. [And] I do think we have a responsibility to ensure that everyone in our community has the same opportunities and is prospering.

SBS: What’s your plan from here? How do you see yourself working on issues of tax fairness from here on out?

SK: If anything comes my way I am definitely interested in working on it. I don’t know if I would go out and find opportunities myself but there are big umbrella organizations working on tax fairness. The local group is called Minnesotans For a Fair Economy. We met with some of these folks while we were there and in the progressive community across America. Tax fairness is a big issue, along with voter suppression and education. It’s a big issue across the U.S., not sure how I would work on it in Minnesota.

SBS: Can you wrap up what you thought of the trip and tax fairness overall?

SK: One of the biggest things I got out of the trip was being able to meet like-minded Jews from across the country and being able to put our energy towards one goal: to inform communities about tax fairness and to inform them about what their Congressmen were doing. It was great to work with people who are great organizers and getting to work with people who know how to get a message across. It was great for us to work with other Jews; sometimes we are a little sheltered and it’s hard for us to come out as Progressive Jews.

s. 3412, The Middle Class Tax Act of 2012: A Democratic sponsored bill that would have kept tax cuts only for families making less than $250,000 a year. July 25, 2012 Passed 51-48

H.R.8, the Pathway to Job Creation through a Simpler, Fairer Tax Code of 2012: Supported a final passage for a different plan, this extended the tax cuts. It was a Republican sponsored plan that would support tax cuts for ALL Americans. Passed in the House 256-171 on August 1, 2012. This was a response to s. 3412, The Middle Class Tax Act of 2012.

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