Find all of our Election 2020 coverage and other candidate interviews here. More interviews will be added as the election draws closer. Click here to read our conversation with Peters’ opponent, Republican John James.
Senator speaks to racial justice as he seeks a second term.
Michigan’s junior U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, a Democrat, is running for reelection as his first six-year term is coming to a close.
He recently sat for a Zoom interview with JN staff. This account has been edited for brevity and clarity.
What is the message you want to communicate to the Jewish voters of Michigan?
It’s been really a privilege and an honor to work closely with the Jewish community over the years. I regularly attend events with the community, work closely with members of the community and have a record of getting things done for the community.
I’m ranked the third-most bipartisan Democrat in the U.S. Senate. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is clearly not any Democratic organization, just recently awarded me their Jefferson Hamilton award for bipartisanship, a willingness to reach across the aisle to get things done — and that leads to being effective.
If you look at this Congress, these the two years that we’re in right now, I have authored and passed more legislation through the United States Senate than any other senator, either Democratic or Republican. As a minority member in the Senate and as a freshman, no other senator, either Democratic or Republican, has written and passed more bills.
How do you see the U.S. relationship with Israel?
I’m a staunch defender of the U S-Israeli relationship. I think that’s absolutely critical.
I’m the ranking member on the Homeland Security Committee, and I’m on the Armed Services Committee. And in the Armed Services Committee, I’m the ranking member on a Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities, which looks at the dangerous spots around the world … and that brings me in contact with the Israeli government on a regular basis, and particularly cooperation when it comes to advanced research.
I’ve worked to build bridges with Israeli companies and the IDF, clearly leaders in advanced military technology … to create a permanent working group between the Israeli military and the U.S. military to deal with advanced technology.
Israelis excel in advanced cyber security. They excel in advanced research into artificial intelligence, all areas that we also sell them. But putting our collaborating together will mean both of our countries are more secure. I’ve worked other research programs, and I helped to get funding for a very valuable research program done by the IDF and that was an anti-tunneling technology to protect Israel from tunnels that were being dug particularly from Gaza into Israel that presented a national security threat to Israel.
But it’s directly related to my work in Homeland Security, because we also have tunnels on our southern border that are used by folks who smuggle contraband, and we need to have technology to be able to stop that.
It’s an example of how our interests are so closely aligned in so many ways. And we have to strengthen that alliance.
In 2017, you co-sponsored a bill that would make a BDS activity a federal crime. Why did you support the bill?
I’ve spoken out against BDS and will continue to speak out against it and support appropriate legislation to make folks know that it is not the policy of the United States government to support a BDS movement, which I think is counterproductive to what we ultimately all want, which is a two-state solution negotiated by the parties in the Middle East.
There was strong local Jewish support this summer for the Black Lives Matter movement and for more attention to be paid on a federal level to issues of racial justice and possible police reform. Where do you come down on this?
That’s a very broad question. Racial disparities are broader: It’s police activities; it’s access to healthcare, to economic activity, economic opportunity. There’s the income divide; there’s the wealth divide. So, all of those need to be addressed.
I believe that we need to right now enact things, many of those were enacted in the Democratic House. For example, we know we can ban choke holds. We don’t need further studies. We don’t need further talk. Choke holds have no place in those police practices.
The other thing we know we must do, we don’t need to study it anymore, is that we need to have independent investigations. Whenever a police officer is accused of wrongdoing, it should not be investigated within the department. It’s important for communities to trust the decisions that are made.
We know that COVID disproportionately impacted communities of color. Significantly, 14% of the population of Michigan is African American, yet [they make up] over 40% of the [COVID-related] deaths. Clearly, we needed to put more resources into those communities that were impacted.
What can the Senate do about the COVID-19 pandemic?
As the ranking member on Homeland Security Committee, I oversee FEMA, the federal emergency management folks who’ve been assigned the response to the COVID crisis. And I have been pushing them aggressively to have a more coordinated federal response.
And, yet, we have a president who said to the governors, “You’re all on your own.” Back in March and April, Michigan was one of the hotspots, and it was a struggle to get personal protection equipment to protect our healthcare providers. The national stockpile was clearly not sufficient to deal with the magnitude of the problem at that time.
That’s why you need a national policy to deal with it and understand that state lines don’t matter.
Last year, before the pandemic, I put out a report from the Homeland Security Committee because I saw our over-reliance on foreign supplies of critical medical supplies as a homeland security issue.
Basically, I said, when there is a pandemic in the United States, we are going to be in a precarious situation. Little did I know it’d be a few months later, and here we are. We need to bring back that production from China and other places and have it in the United States and treat it like we treat war materiel.
What can the Senate do to ensure Americans that their votes are going to be counted and that this is going to be a free and fair election?
Regarding possible cyber attacks, I’ll say, here in Michigan, our Secretary of State has been certainly on it and has been working with folks from the Department of Homeland Security to make sure that there are no vulnerabilities when it comes to that area.
Where I’m more concerned are the disinformation campaigns that we’re likely to see from foreign countries, the Russians in particular.
Regarding absentee ballots, I want to make sure the mail is delivered on time and in a timely fashion. I am overseeing the postal service and called out the new postmaster general when he put in policies in place that had the impact of slowing mail down.
We found starting in mid-July through the period when these new policies were put in place, on-time mail delivery dropped significantly in the Detroit area.
As a result of public pressure and as a result of the pressure that I put on with my colleagues, he has since suspended those policies. So hopefully that will mean on-time delivery will increase. It’s starting to increase now.