Pollack, Ronald 2018

Last modified: 2021-02-22 05:29
Storyteller: Pollack, Ronald
Interviewer: Houseman, Alan
Date of interview: 2018-03-02
Length: 2:27:01

Topics: Affordable Care Act, Food Stamps, Healthcare, LSC: Creation, Poverty law, Public benefits, and Support centers
Geo, US: National
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Medium: Video
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NEJL I.D.: NEJL-009.129
Georgetown status: Video upon request
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Link to NEJL page: http://aspace.ll.georgetown.edu/public/repositories/2/archival_objects/27114
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Video status: Large File
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Transcript link: Transcript
Transcript status: DeleteMeSoon
Transcript notes:

Consortium status: Gtn info copied
Consortium notes:

Excerpt:

As director of Families USA for 34 years, played key role laying the groundwork for the Affordable Care Act, defending it after passage, and getting people enrolled. Started the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) and focused much of his career on reducing hunger among the poor.



Bibliographic citation:

Abstract: The interview was conducted in Washington, D.C.

Description

Full text of transcript

Consortium for the National Equal Justice Library
Oral History Collection
Interview with
Ronald Pollack
Conducted by Alan Houseman
March 2, 2018

Alan Houseman:
This is an oral history of Ronald Pollack. This is being conducted in Washington DC on March 2, 2018. The interviewer is Alan Houseman from the National Equal Justice Library. Ron, let’s begin with a brief overview of your life, where you grew up, where you went to school, and just briefly about the various jobs you’ve held. Then we’re going to come back and talk about most of this in more depth.

Ron Pollack:
I grew up in Kew Gardens, Queens in New York. Lived in New York throughout my childhood. I went to Queens College, part of the City University of New York, went to NYU, New York University Law School. During my period at NYU Law School, I spent my summers in between the first and second year and the second and third year in Mississippi working in the civil rights movement.

Ron Pollack:
Upon graduation, I wound up working at the Center on Social Welfare Policy and Law, the so-called Welfare Law Backup Center. Started a group called FRAC, which still exists, Food Research and Action Center, anti-hunger advocacy group. Worked there for 10 years, served for almost three years as dean of the Antioch University School of Law. Then I became the founding Executive Director of a group called the Villers Foundation, which later became known as Families USA, which worked on healthcare. In March 2017, I left that post and now I’m doing a mix of things.

Alan Houseman:
Okay, so why did you go into civil rights work in the summers of law school and ultimately, legal aid work at the center and FRAC? What factors influenced you? What caused you to do that?

Ron Pollack:
Well, I think the honest answer is that I didn’t know why I went to law school. I went to law school immediately after college. The first year of law school, I felt frankly pretty lost. I didn’t understand a lot of the commercial issues, contracts, property, let alone understand the law of it. I wasn’t clear about what I wanted to do about getting a law degree.

Ron Pollack:
Prior to going to law school, I had been president of the student body at Queens College. As part of that, in 1964 I had invited some folks in the civil rights movement to do recruiting on our campus for the summer of ’64, which was a major summer of civil rights work in Mississippi. One of the persons recruited from campus was a classmate of mine who I actually didn’t know, named Andy Goodman. Andy was one of the three boys who was killed in Mississippi in what was a very well-known murder, with a movie made out of that, Mississippi Burning. After Andy, and Mickey Schwerner, and James Chaney were missing for a while, a number of us, myself included, went on a hunger strike for six days I believe it was to try to publicize the need for protection of civil rights workers and to raise money.

Ron Pollack:
In the process I felt some personal need that I should go to Mississippi myself. In 1965 before I graduated, I spent a very tiny period of time in Mississippi helping to rebuild a church that had been burned down by the Klan. We did that very near the site where Andy, Mickey, and James had been killed. I, by the way, was probably the most useless person in that mission, because I’m not very handy in anything.

Ron Pollack:
I had decided I was going to go to Mississippi. I had planned to go to Mississippi the summer before law school. I actually had worked out with SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, that they would accept me to work in Mississippi that summer. To make a very long story short, my dad who had heart attacks prior to that time, said that if I went to Mississippi, he would have another heart attack. I believed him. He and my mom were going to go to South America that summer. He said they were going to cancel the trip, and so for some reason that I never can explain, my dad decided that it would be okay if I went to Mississippi the following summer as a law student. I never understood why, as if a law student has Teflon on him. So we made this agreement.

Ron Pollack:
Now, you will enjoy this, I tell a story. The key person who had recruited Andy Goodman from campus was Al Lowenstein. By 1965, Al and a whole bunch of others, including Dr. King and others, found themselves very worried about the role that SNCC was playing in the civil rights movement. They wanted to shut out SNCC. Al invited me to come to his restaurant. He had a restaurant, Gransons on 49th St. and Lexington Avenue. He’d sit in the back of the restaurant like Humphrey Bogart. He invited me together with a fellow named John Zippert who was president of the student body at CCNY. We were going to have dinner. Al would usually have some luminaries sitting at the table. I get to the table with John and there is an old man and an old woman sitting at the table. I didn’t know who they were. Al says, “Ron, would you do me a favor?” He points to the old man sitting at the table, “Would you please tell Norman Thomas what it is about you college students, and the mystique that you have about SNCC?”

Ron Pollack:
I did something that is a life lesson for any young person. I looked at Norman Thomas. He was eating spaghetti. Some of the spaghetti was falling on his lap. I’m saying, “This man is obviously senile.” So I started to speak to Norman Thomas like I would speak to a seventh grader about what it was about SNCC that enamored me. Norman Thomas keeps on eating the spaghetti and some of it is falling on his lap. After about 15 minutes Norman Thomas looks at me and he said, “Have you finished?” I said, “Yes sir.” He proceeded to give me a one hour lecture about all the different progressive movements in the United States and how there would be an organization that had become too militant and messed up that movement.

Ron Pollack:
I’m listening to him and I frankly don’t understand what he was saying, not because it wasn’t thoughtful. It’s because I didn’t know my history. As I was listening to Norman Thomas, physically I could feel myself sitting deeper and deeper into my chair and I was totally destroyed. After about an hour, Al could see that I was really in miserable shape and he said, “Let’s end this.” He took me aside and he put his arm around my shoulder. He knew I was planning to go to Mississippi with SNCC and he said, “Ron, before you go to Mississippi, you could use some theory,” which was his way of saying, “You dumb schmuck.” He invited me, instead of going to Mississippi, to go to the so-called encampment for citizenship, which was something Eleanor Roosevelt had started that Al was running. It brought in lots of movement people, people who were involved in stopping the war, people in the civil rights movement. Anyhow, I was intending to go to Mississippi in my first summer in law school. That truly was the turning point in my life. It was an incredibly eye-opening experience.

Alan Houseman:
Just for the record, who was Norman Thomas and who was Al Lowenstein?

Ron Pollack:
Well, Norman Thomas was the leader of the Socialist Party in the United States. He ran for President I think something like six times, lost of course every time. He was a brilliant orator, and I have to say just to finish the story, I was so cowed by that experience that, that summer when I was working, when I was in the encampment for citizenship, whenever Norman Thomas would give lectures in different parts of New York, I became his driver. I drove him from one lecture to another. So that’s Norman Thomas. Al Lowenstein was the consummate gadfly in the progressive community. He was head of the National Student Association at one point. He became a member of Congress from Long Island, but he was very close with almost all the key progressive leaders. He was obviously close with Eleanor Roosevelt. He was close with Adlai Stevenson. He was close with Dr. King and he was an extraordinary person.

Alan Houseman:
Describe a little bit about your work in Mississippi during your two law school summers that you worked there.

Ron Pollack:
Well, I had two different experiences. The first summer I worked for Marian Wright Edelman. I was placed working for the Law Students Civil Rights Research Council. We were getting $25 weekly stipends and I was assigned to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which was based in Jackson. Marian and a fellow named Henry Aronson ran that operation. Marian assigned me to Bolivar County — “BOL i ver”, that’s how Mississippians pronounce Simon Bolivar’s name. I lived in Cleveland, Mississippi, which was the largest town in Bolivar County. I lived with a local family and I did a wide variety of things, school integration, welfare, voting. There a lot of different pieces to that, which I’m happy to talk about. I was based in the Mississippi Delta and was off on my own. The second summer, I ran the LSCRRC, the Law Students Civil Rights Research Council program in Mississippi. I was based in Jackson.

Ron Pollack:
Now, my experience in Mississippi had many different truly interesting features. I faced a lot of personal violence. We did some extraordinary things about school integration in Bolivar County. I learned a lot about the welfare system. There was this fellow, Ed Sparer, who would come down to teach us law students in Mississippi about welfare. I didn’t know anything about it. After learning that, I actually spent a lot of time in the welfare office of Mississippi when I wasn’t doing some of the school integration and other voting type things. Ultimately, Ed Sparer and George Wiley and I testified at a hearing of the Civil Rights Commission about welfare in Mississippi. There are a lot of stories to tell about the school integration and some of them are extraordinary. I’m happy to talk about them if they’re part of what you want to hear.

Alan Houseman:
Let’s just finish up the law school activities. Your third year of law school, you were a Hays Fellow. Explain a little bit about that program, and some of the things you did.

Ron Pollack:
Well, there were several distinguished people in my law school year who were Hays Fellows. You were one of them. Sylvia Law was another. The head of the Arthur Garfield Hays Civil Liberties Program was Norman Dorsen, who taught us constitutional law and some other classes. Norman was away for half of that year if I remember. I think he had a sabbatical. Norman actually had assigned me to help out at what was often known as the Columbia Center on Social Welfare Policy and Law that was handling the first welfare to case to go to the Supreme Court, King v. Smith. I was supposed to help with the preparation of the brief in King v. Smith. Actually, I didn’t actually write the brief itself. I wrote part of the appendix of the brief. I got to know the folks at the Center on Social Welfare Policy and Law pretty well, because I was pretty deeply involved with the King v. Smith case.

Ron Pollack:
It turns out also that there was a new director of the Center on Social Welfare Policy and Law, a fellow named Lee Albert who had been at Yale. Purely by coincidence, in one or two of my classes at NYU Law School, I sat next to his wife who was a student, and so I got to know her pretty well. After I graduated law school, my intention was to move to Mississippi. I wanted to actually set up the first civil rights legal office in the Mississippi Delta. I presumed it would be in Greenville and that was my ambition. To do that, it needed some resources to open up in an office. I’d hoped the NAACP Legal Defense Fund would do that. It turns out, by coincidence, at the same time that we graduated, there was a fellow named Fred Banks who graduated number one in his class at Howard Law School who was a local Mississippian. He wanted to go back, and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund made the correct decision to hire Fred and spend their resources on Fred. My ambition to move to Mississippi did not work out. I quickly wound up having interviews at the Center on Social Welfare Policy and Law and I became a lawyer there.

Alan Houseman:
Let’s discuss a little bit of some of the things you did there.

Ron Pollack:
Well, one of the things that I learned when I was in Mississippi, I came in contact with a lot of people who really were desperately hungry. I wanted to correct that, and so when I got to the Center, I had this idea in mind — which my mother would’ve called “a halfcocked idea” — that we should bring lawsuits in every county in the country that had neither a food stamp program nor a commodity distribution program. I invented a theory, it wasn’t a good one, about why it was illegal not to have a food program. At that time, out of over 3000 counties in the country, there were over 1000 that had no food assistance whatsoever. I’d seen that in Mississippi and what the impact would be. I had the help of one of the faculty members at Columbia, Paul Dodyk, who helped to develop this theory, which still was crazy, as to why it was illegal not to have a food program in every county in the country.

Ron Pollack:
Within two months or three months of my becoming a staff member of the Center on Social Welfare and Law, we filed 26 lawsuits on the same day. We sued the 26 states where there were counties in those states that didn’t have a food program and we sued the Department of Agriculture. Part of it was we wanted to try to get publicity for all this hunger that existed across the country. This was a time when there was greater consciousness being developed about hunger. Bobby Kennedy had done some work on this and there was a study by the National Commission on Hunger in America. Anyhow, we filed 26 lawsuits in federal district courts throughout the country on the same day. We brought plaintiffs in from all over the country to do press.

Ron Pollack:
It’s a wonderful story about what happened, so the short of it is we quickly had a phone conversation with each of co-counsel in the 26 states to try to figure out where did we have the best judges? We were in 26 different federal district courts, and we decided the two best courts were one in the Northern District of California and the second, believe it or not, in the Northern District of Texas. In California at the time there were 16 counties that didn’t have a food program. In Texas, there were 109 counties that didn’t have a food program. We decided we would go to California first and litigate there. The co-counsel in that case was California Rural Legal Assistance, Marty Glick and Bob Gnaizda. They were the ones who argued the case. I argued all the rest of the cases from there on out. For reasons none of us understood, they went into court asking for a Temporary Restraining Order restraining the state of California and the Department of Agriculture from failing to implement a food program. It was a wacky theory. The judge issued a Temporary Restraining Order. Of the 16 counties, 15 came in right away.

Ron Pollack:
The 16th county, I can’t remember the name of it, was in the heart Valley and it was a very conservative county. I’m sorry if I’m going on, but it’s a fun story. The County Board of Supervisors voted five to nothing, no, we’re not going to do it. It’s a communist conspiracy, we’re not going to implement a food program. They kept on getting lousy publicity, and we actually tried to shower lousy publicity, because here’s a county in the heart of America’s breadbasket and it isn’t feeding its people. The lead plaintiff in that case was a lovely farm worker man whose daughter had died from malnutrition. They voted again and it was four to one. We would file then motions of contempt, because they weren’t complying with the court order. Then it was three to two. Finally they voted that they would implement a food program. They said, “We will provide food assistance for everyone, except welfare recipients, students and hippies.” They went on to define a hippie and I quote, “A hippie is a person who by long hair or other mode demonstrates hippieness.” We were able to get that turned around. Anyhow, so now we had California, we had 16 counties that came in. I argued the case in Texas about 109 counties that didn’t have a food program. On a preliminary injunction, the judge issued an order requiring all 109 counties to come into the program. I mean this was astounding, now the bottom line of this …

Alan Houseman:
Who was that judge anyway?

Ron Pollack:
I’ll recall, he was a lovely man. The key part of the story is actually documented in a book written by Nick Kotz, “Let Them Eat Promises: The Politics of Hunger in America”. What happened was shortly thereafter Richard Nixon had decided to organize the first conference on hunger in America. It was a presidential conference on hunger in America. As Nick Kotz would relay in the story, Nixon went to his top aides. One was Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and the other was Jean Mayer, who later became the President of Tufts. He was a nutritionist. Nixon said, “I want to go to the White House conference on hunger, and I want to do something that’s going to get a lot of attention, but I don’t want to spend a lot of money. What do you suggest I do?”

Ron Pollack:
Moynihan and Mayer suggested, “Well, come to the White House conference and tell them you’re going to have legislation introduced that every county in the country will have a Food Stamp program,” to which Nixon apparently responded, “Well that’s certainly going to get a lot of attention, but it’s going to cost a lot of money.” To which Mayer and Moynihan said, “No, it’s not. You see, there are these 26 lawsuits that have been filed against us, and we’ve lost the first two. We’re probably going to then lose the other 24. So take the credit for something that’s going to happen anyhow.” Nixon comes to the White House conference, and he says, “I’m going to ask that legislation be introduced that every county in the country have a Food Stamp program.”

Ron Pollack:
Democrats controlled both houses of Congress and they took the legislation. One house of Congress actually passed the legislation. Before the second house of Congress passed the legislation, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision in Texas. By that time the legislation had already been introduced. The legislation passed. Now every county in the country as a result of that legislation which flowed from the litigation actually has a Food Stamp program.

Alan Houseman:
At some point, while you’re at the Center, which began in 1968, you decided to create this new organization, FRAC. Why did you do that and what was that all about? Then let’s talk about some of the things that you then did with FRAC.

Ron Pollack:
I did not decide I wanted to start a new organization, FRAC or otherwise. What happened was I brought these 26 lawsuits and someone from OEO, Office of Economic Opportunity, which later became Community Services Administration, the war on poverty, said, “We’ve seen you’ve been doing a fair amount of litigation on hunger.” I’d brought lawsuits on trying to get school lunch programs in low-income schools and so on. I was asked whether I would be willing to accept money from the poverty agency to teach lawyers how to bring litigation relative to hunger. They asked me whether I would take that money. I said I’d get back to them quickly, and I thought about it.

Ron Pollack:
I called back maybe a week later and I said, “No, I don’t want to do that. If you have money, let’s not do a one-shot deal. Let’s have some permanent capacity that could actually do that legal work.” They thought about it and said, “Okay, instead of a conference you will get money to create an organization.” That was the founding of FRAC. It was not my idea, it was my reaction to their idea. I quickly had to find a place. I went to the University of Wisconsin to see whether they would be the fiscal agent. They said yes, they would. Then I learned how much money they would take out of the process. I got a group called the Children’s Foundation to be the fiscal agent in the first year until we could actually get started. FRAC has its genesis in the war on poverty and some good people in the agency who wanted to see this hunger work expanded.

Alan Houseman:
While at FRAC, you did a number of interesting things. One was related to the supplemental feeding program for Women, Infants, and Children, WIC as it’s called. Describe a little bit about that. Then I want to get to your Supreme Court cases and then we’ll talk about some other things.

Ron Pollack:
In 1972, Hubert Humphrey had learned about a program, I think it was in Memphis, Tennessee, that provided high nutrient foods for infants and for pregnant moms. He thought this was really a good thing to do. Humphrey, who served on the Senate Agriculture Committee …

Ron Pollack:
… introduced a bill to create a pilot program that would have $20 million in each of two fiscal years, fiscal year ’73, fiscal year ’74, to test whether such a program would make sense. In those years, the fiscal year ran from July 1 to June 30. In June of 1973, the fiscal year was coming to an end. We noticed that, literally, not a penny had been spent for this experimental program.

Ron Pollack:
So we brought a lawsuit challenging the Department of Agriculture’s failure to implement this experimental program. Earl Butz was the Secretary of Agriculture. He was a real right-winger. He really didn’t think government should be involved in this kind of stuff. So, we brought this lawsuit and we asked for the following things. Number one, we asked that regulations be issued as quickly as possible so that the programs would begin. But, since the fiscal year was coming to the end and they were going to return $20 million to the Treasury, we asked that that money be held in abeyance and carried over into fiscal ’74, and that the $20 million that was unspent in Fiscal ’73 be spent along with the other $20 million in fiscal ’74.

Ron Pollack:
We filed this lawsuit here in Washington in the Federal District Court, and the judge issued an order requiring that they move to get the regulations out and carry over the money into fiscal ’74. Comes around November — now we’re several months into the fiscal year. Still, Earl Butz hadn’t done a darn thing to start the program. It was getting close to Thanksgiving. We filed the motion to hold Secretary Butz in contempt of court. Instead of asking that Secretary Butz be thrown in jail or some kind of punitive thing, we asked that the $40 million be spent over the course of the remainder of the fiscal year. And there was only about a half a year left in the fiscal year.

Ron Pollack:
And the judge issued that order. That meant that, annualized, we now had a program of $80 million for the WIC Program. We got the court order. It comes February, and he still hasn’t done a darn thing. So we file another motion to hold Secretary Butz in contempt of court, and we asked the same thing: that the $40 million be spent in the remaining part of the fiscal year. And the judge issued that order as well.

Ron Pollack:
Finally, around March or April, the first program started, but the authorization to run this experimental program was coming to an end at the end of June of that year. So Hubert Humphrey called and said, “I’m really glad that these programs are off the ground. But to have them operate for three months and then they’re closed, I don’t like that. I want to try to authorize the program to continue.” So he said, “Could you please calculate how much money it would cost just to continue the programs that have started?”

Ron Pollack:
We did this, and we did it really seriously. Remember, $40 million now had to be spent in about a quarter of the year. We told Humphrey, “Well, our calculation is it’s going to require about $250 million.” Humphrey filed legislation and got it passed, so that the next year the WIC Program would be $250 million. And so the program just exploded since then. I must say, there was litigation afterwards, because there were different problems with its implementation. Some places didn’t get resources they should have. Anyhow, the program exploded as a result of the litigation. It was the lawsuit that started the program, though it was Hubert Humphrey’s idea to make it happen.

Alan Houseman:
In 1973, you argued on the same day two cases in the United States Supreme Court. You won both cases. Could you describe those cases? If I’ve got the wrong dates, help me out.

Ron Pollack:
Well, first I’ll tell you a personal story about a mutual friend of ours. I remember I was exceedingly nervous. I’d never argued anything in the Supreme Court, and now I was going to argue two cases. They were both constitutional law cases. We were trying to declare unconstitutional two different statutes passed by Congress that were going to deprive people of Food Stamps. One case we brought as an Equal Protection lawsuit. The other we brought as a Due Process lawsuit. So this was a big deal for me, personally. My wife was there, my mother was there, my mother-in-law was there, lots of friends. I’ll never forget. I’m going to the court. I’m sweating in different parts of my body. I’m rehearsing in my mind the different arguments I would make. I get to the top of the steps, and I’m met there by Ralph Abascal. And Ralph puts his arm around my shoulder, and he says, “Ron, don’t worry. These cases can’t be lost except by the quality of counsel.”

Ron Pollack:
So, the first case was colloquially known as the “Hippie Household Case.”

Alan Houseman:
Just a sec. Who was Ralph Abascal?

Ron Pollack:
Ralph Abascal was one of the finest persons and lawyers in legal services. He worked for California Rural Legal Assistance. I think at some point he may have worked for San Francisco Neighborhood Legal Assistance. He was a brilliant lawyer, who did some of the finest litigation work in California and nationally. What else to say? He’s just one of the finest human beings we’ve met.

Ron Pollack:
The first case was known colloquially as “The Hippie Household Case,” Moreno v. USDA. This was a statute that came up in a very odd way. Neither the United States Senate nor the House of Representatives had passed this statute. They had differing versions of the bill. When they went to conference committee the senator from Kansas at the time, said, “What are we going to do about all these hippies in the Food Stamps program?” And they said, “Oh, yeah, hippies. We don’t want hippies in the Food Stamp program.” Of course, they didn’t know what the definition of a “hippie” would be. So they wrote legislation that said, nobody can get food stamps if they lived with people who were unrelated to them. Now, when you think about that, the people who really would get hurt by it are not hippies. They’re people, you know, someone who might be moving up the migrant stream who’s living with someone else, somebody who just became homeless and somebody took them in. It would hurt the poorest of the poor. So we found plaintiffs, none of whom were hippies, who really were extraordinarily harmfully affected. We challenged the constitutionality of that statute. The other case was a student that-

Alan Houseman:
And you won that case. What was the vote of the justices?

Ron Pollack:
Seven to two. What I won’t forget about this, that was the first case to be argued. I thought the oral argument went very poorly. As I told my wife, so she could figure out what was going to happen in the courtroom, I was only going to be speaking to two justices. You know, strategically. I wanted to speak to Potter Stewart and to Whizzer White. They were the two swing votes. When the oral argument began, Justice Marshall dominated the questioning. Both of these cases were argued in the afternoon. In the morning was the largest school desegregation case of the term. In those years school desegregation cases were a really big deal in the Supreme Court. Justice Marshall clearly was incredibly well-prepared for that morning argument. The only thing I could figure out is, I have to believe he was not very well-prepared for the two cases that I was going to argue. He kept on asking me questions about the facts in the case, and he just wouldn’t let go. Of course, you only have half an hour for argument and that includes whatever questions get asked and your answers to them. He took up a very substantial portion of the time. I was as frustrated as could be, because I couldn’t get to the oral argument. I couldn’t be talking to Potter Stewart and Whizzer White. When the red light went on and I had to sit down, I was as disheartened as I could be. This was a screwy argument. It wasn’t that bad, but I didn’t feel very good about it. Now the harder case was going to come up. Becky, my wife, said to me afterwards — because we left the court and I was a little disheartened — “You know, I really give you a lot of credit. You got up for the second case.”

Ron Pollack:
The second case was a tougher case. We won that one five to four. It was the only case in that term, where all four Nixon appointees voted together and lost. We did get Whizzer White and Potter Stewart. It was a case that tried to prevent students from getting Food Stamps. It said something along the line that, if you were claimed by someone as a tax dependent, who is in another household, then you’re not allowed to get Food Stamps. There were lots of stories of people who had been claimed improperly as tax dependents, or who were clearly very poor. In any event, this would have disqualified a huge number of people from Food Stamps. That case we argued on Due Process grounds, whereas the first one was on Equal Protection grounds. Thankfully, we won five to four. It was a brilliant argument. Don’t get me wrong.

Alan Houseman:
There was one other case, I think it came later, where you sued Secretary Butz for reducing Food Stamps for a number of people. Explain that.

Ron Pollack:
Well, the number of lawsuits we filed against Secretary Butz were enormous. But the one you’re referring to, the Secretary convinced — I think Gerald Ford was president at the time — to do a wholesale cut of people on the Food Stamp program. The number that sticks in my mind was that 10.8 million people were going to lose Food Stamps. They had omnibus regulations as to how they were going to do it. They were going to cut people through a bunch of different ways. My colleagues and I at FRAC were saying, “We’ve got to stop this thing.” We didn’t have a clue how we were going to stop it, but we devoted the next few months trying to figure out what our legal theories would be for the different ways that people were going to be cut off food stamps.

Ron Pollack:
In the process, we then went to the various states, to the governors, and we got over half the governors in the United States who were Democrats. They authorized FRAC, me, to litigate on their behalf. And so, when we sued Secretary Butz, I had attorneys general sitting in the jury box, sitting there. They authorized me to bring the litigation on their states’ behalf. I argued the case asking for a preliminary injunction that would stop the entirety of the cuts. I’m trying to remember his name. We had a pretty conservative judge-

Alan Houseman:
Where were you?

Ron Pollack:
Federal District Court in D.C. The name will come to me. We had a fairly conservative judge, and he was really hostile to this lawsuit. Mind you, the complaint was hundreds of pages long, because I had to describe all the plaintiffs. We not only brought in all the states, we had a whole bunch of cities, we had a whole bunch of organizations, plus individuals who were going to get hurt. Throughout the oral argument, this judge was haranguing me, and after the argument he issued a preliminary injunction. It was unbelievable. I was so emotionally distraught. I remember when he issued the preliminary injunction, I just wanted to walk away because I was crying. And so I found a place near his chambers, and I was just bawling. The judge came by and that was the last thing I wanted him to see what … He had just really taken the emotions out.

Alan Houseman:
Anyhow, we got this preliminary injunction. It was in the last period of Gerald Ford’s presidency and they appealed. But the appeal was not going to get heard before Jimmy Carter became President. And one of — it may have been the very first — but one of Jimmy Carter’s first actions after his inauguration was he rescinded the regulations, and the case became moot.

Alan Houseman:
You did some work while at the center at FRAC with the welfare rights movement with George Wiley and Ed Sparer. Talk a little bit about the welfare rights movement and just an example or two of the kind of things you did.

Ron Pollack:
Well, Ed Sparer and George Wiley were two of the most inspirational people of my life. Ed was brilliant. He was the father of welfare law. In some ways he was the father of healthcare law. He was kind of a pied piper of trying to teach people across the country about welfare law. I was one of the kids who he taught. I met him for the first time in Mississippi when he taught those of us who were working in Mississippi. I don’t know how to say it. I loved the man and we became good friends. He compiled, I think it was a 70-page document about different aspects of welfare law, and I devoured it. I used that in Bolivar County. I was filing fair hearings left and right, and I learned a lot about the welfare system firsthand. But it was Ed who really took us by the hand. Then I had the good fortune of testifying with Ed and George at a Civil Rights Commission hearing in Jackson about what’s happened in the welfare system.

Ron Pollack:
George was this very tall — I think he was something like six foot six, six foot seven — African American chemistry professor. He looked like he was really militant, but was one of the sweetest, gentlest persons on the planet. He was the leader of the welfare rights movement. Now there were key women in the welfare rights movement. Beulah Sanders and Johnnie Tillmon were real militant welfare rights leaders. George was the staff leader, and George and I got along very well. I handled a bunch of cases for the welfare rights movement.

Ron Pollack:
The case that I most remember, that had the biggest impression on me, I think it was ’71, the governor of Nevada had terminated over half the welfare recipients from the AFDC program. He reduced the benefits for the other less than half. When he did so, the governor sent a letter to every other governor in the country, talking about welfare cheats and that other governors should emulate and do what he had done in Nevada.

Ron Pollack:
So there was a meeting in Washington that I attended. I think Ed was there. George decided, “We’re going to take our stand in Nevada. We’re not going to allow this to happen.” It was decided that I would bring the litigation in Nevada, to try, not just to stop it, but actually to get retroactive benefits. So I wound up living in Las Vegas for three months. Oh, and as part of this, George and other leaders of the welfare rights movement would come, along with other people such as Gloria Steinhem, Flo Kennedy, Ralph David Abernathy. There would be demonstrations on the Strip of Las Vegas. People were scared about it because at that time, people thought that the Mafia controlled the Strip and didn’t know what kind of trouble would occur.

Ron Pollack:
But my role was to be the lawyer for them. So when I got to Las Vegas I had an office with a legal services program in Clark County. There was this wonderful coincidence that made a huge difference. Maybe a year or half a year prior, a woman named Johnnie Mae Woods had been terminated from AFDC. The legal services lawyers brought a lawsuit challenging her loss of benefits. They brought this lawsuit as a class action, based on people had a right to a prior hearing before they would be terminated. Judge Foley issued a class order preliminary injunction saying that Woods should continue to get AFDC, and that nobody else should be terminated in the future. At that time, there was no hint that there was going to be this massive cutback. I saw that this litigation had been brought, so I asked the lawyers in the legal services program, “Would you mind if I take over that lawsuit?” My theory was that, instead of bringing a new lawsuit, I would actually file a motion for contempt based on the class order requiring nobody could be terminated without getting a prior hearing. The purpose of that was that, if I brought a new lawsuit, and we won the lawsuit, I might be able to get prospective relief for people, but I couldn’t get retroactive relief. If, on the other hand, I could win a motion for contempt, I could possibly get retroactive benefits. So, they said I could take over the lawsuit.

Ron Pollack:
So we were supposed to argue the case –and, mind you, the courtroom is packed with people who had been cut off AFDC. As I was walking into the courtroom, the Attorney General did something he should not have done. He handed papers to me that he was going to file. He was going to base his argument on these papers. What the papers in effect said was that the judge had failed to issue a so-called Rule 23B Order. Rule 23 is the rule that determines whether class action should be brought. This case had not been properly certified as a class action, so the case couldn’t proceed as if it was a class action. And therefore, my motion for contempt was moot, because there was no proper Class Order. I didn’t have time to research this. Judge Foley would up saying, well, he had erred when he issued the preliminary injunction as a Class Order. My motion for contempt was dismissed. I felt there was something wrong here, legally. So I spent the next three to four days in the county library. After doing the research, I was convinced that the judge now had made a mistake and so I refiled the motion.

Ron Pollack:
Of course you don’t, in papers, say something that’s insulting about the judge. I think I used the term that his decision eliminating the class order was “improvidently” granted, and what he should have done then is issue his class order and make it applicable retroactively. The Latin term for that was “nunc pro tunc.” So, I said in my papers that what the judge should do is reissue the class order and it should now be applicable nunc pro tunc. A few days after I filed my papers, the judge corrected his decision and certified it as a class action. He said, “The contempt motion will be heard, and this is applicable nunc pro tunc.” That night, on the Strip in Las Vegas, the welfare moms were demonstrating as they were every night. Throughout their march down the Strip they’re all saying, “Nunc pro tunc. Nunc pro tunc.” None of them understood what the fuck they were talking about, but it meant, “We’re going to get our AFDC benefits.”

Ron Pollack:
Anyhow, so then I argued a couple of weeks later, and Judge Foley was just a remarkable guy. I loved the man. I wanted to show that, literally, every single person who had been terminated had been terminated illegally. To do that, I wanted to have the files of every person who had been terminated. The judge said, “Well, you can’t just take this out of the court. I’ll give you an office in my courtroom, where you can look at all the files.” For the next weeks, I looked at every single file in his courtroom. This wasn’t just three or five people. I was prepared to show that literally every single person had been terminated improperly. Anyhow, the bottom line was, he ultimately issued a contempt order requiring not only that people be reinstated, but they get retroactive benefits.

Ron Pollack:
The nice story about this was, George Wiley was in Reno on the day the court order came down. He was with Flo Kennedy and Gloria Steinem. They had had a demonstration at Joe Conforte’s Mustang. It’s the biggest whorehouse in Nevada. And now they were going to fly back to Las Vegas for the demonstrations that night. They’re on the plane, and the plane is taxiing, and the sheriff of Washoe County in his car with the light and siren, stops the plane, and the sheriff comes onto the plane and said…

Ron Pollack:
…”Dr. Wiley, I’d like you to get off the plane. There’s a phone call for you.” George said, “I’m not going to get off the plane. I’ve got to be in Las Vegas.” The Sheriff said, “No, no, you’re going to want to take this phone call, and we’ll keep the plane here. The plane will not take off without you.” So the sheriff of Washoe County and George get off the plane and George is handed this phone and it’s the Sheriff of Clark County. The Sheriff of Clark County says, “Dr. Wiley, I want you to know Federal District Judge Foley has just issued an order requiring that everyone be restored to the AFDC rolls and they’re going to get retroactive benefits. Now, are you going to cancel the march tonight?” Anyhow, that was probably my most intense experience working with the welfare rights movement.

Alan Houseman:
I think we could probably tell many welfare rights stories. But do you have any other ones that might seem of interest that you might want to report before we move on.
Ron Pollack:
Well, one legal thing that I remember, which is totally out of my background, was I got a phone call from a fellow named Faith Evans. Faith by the way worked at FRAC for awhile after all of this had happened. Faith was in Schenectady, New York. I think something like 23 people had been arrested in Schenectady and were going to be criminally prosecuted for trespass. The story roughly was that New York had unusual special needs programs where you could only get a recurring monthly grant, but there were certain things that were clear necessities. If you didn’t have them you could get a one-time-only benefit. The welfare director had just unilaterally ended the special needs program that existed in New York.

Ron Pollack:
A number of the welfare rights folks decided they wanted to talk to the welfare director to get him to change his mind. This guy was really a nasty person, and they came. They had an appointment to meet with him. When they came, he was in another part of the welfare building holding a press conference extolling the virtues of what he had done. Then he decided he didn’t want to meet with them. He said that they had to leave. If they wouldn’t leave, they’d get arrested, and that’s what happened. They got arrested for trespass. Faith called me. He said, “I don’t know of any lawyer up here. Could you come, and represent us in this criminal trial?” I never handled criminal cases. I didn’t know for nothing about it. I told him that. He said, “Look. We don’t trust anyone else. We don’t know anyone else. Would you handle it?” So I said, “Sure.”

Ron Pollack:
Alright. I even remember the judge’s name, Strobol, a nasty guy. I was living in New York City. I had first asked whether we could have the trials of all 23 at the same time. The judge said, “No. You can’t.” I said, “Well, can we do one right after the other,” because I didn’t want to keep on ping ponging back and forth between New York and Schenectady. He said, “No. You can’t. We’ll do one, and then we’ll schedule another.” He clearly was just trying to inconvenience me. I came into judge’s chambers. I’m talking about some of these procedural matters. Literally there were two prosecutors sitting with him. They wouldn’t stop talking about what they had been talking about before I walked in the room, about what sentence the judge is going to impose on these folks. It was outrageous. We haven’t even gone through trial. So it was clear this was a kangaroo court.

Ron Pollack:
I was trying to figure what is it that I can do. Of course, I’m not a criminal lawyer. One of the things I learned is that the judges at his level, I forget what it’s called, but they’re allowed to have their own practice at the same time that they’re sitting as judges. Clearly the money he was making was not as a sitting judge. It was from his practice. So pardon my French, I said, “Fuck ’em. I am going to take up so much of his time he’s not going to be able to go into his private practice.” So I said, “Alright. You’re going to do one at a time. Fine.” So the first defendant, we were going to start the trial, and the judge said, “How many witnesses do you have?” I gave him a list out of the wazoo. I don’t remember how many, but it was a huge number. He said, “You need all that?” “Yeah, I need all those witnesses.”

Ron Pollack:
And so we started. The prosecution put on, the prosecution went very quickly. I put the first witness on the stand, and I had that first witness on the stand for hours, and hours, and hours. I can’t remember all the questions I conjured up I was going to ask this witness. The judge was just beside himself. The judge said, “Are you almost done?” I said, “No, your Honor.” “And how many other witnesses you have?” I gave him the list. He said, “This is too long.” I said, “Well Judge, you can cut me off. But that’s going to be a reversible error because I’ve got important witnesses to show that these folks are innocent.” Anyhow, he ended the day and said, “We’ll continue this trial some other day.” It wasn’t on the next day.

Ron Pollack:
On the next day I was supposed to fly up to Schenectady, it turned out there was a horrible snow storm. My flight got canceled. I called the judge’s chambers to say I’m trying to get up there. Instead of his saying, “Well, we’ll postpone it to the next day.” He said, “You come up here.” I flew up there. I got there late but it was the first flight. It was a horrible flight too. I won’t even talk about it. As soon as I got to his chambers, he said, “Well, we’ve postponed the day.” He clearly just had me come up for no reason. So, at some point, we continued the trial, and I just went on, and on, and on, and on. The judge ended for the day, and he wanted to sit down with the prosecutors to figure out what he should do. He ultimately decided he’d drop the charges for 19 of the 23, and he wanted to know whether we would do a guilty plea. He would have them in jail sentenced for no more than two or three days. We decided to take that. He clearly was going to throw them in the slammer for as long as he could, and most of them ended up being Scott free. Becky was with me in one of the days. I remember I got really angry at Becky because I asked one of the witnesses a question, and it wasn’t easy to hear her, and Becky said, “Can you speak up? We can’t hear you.”

Alan Houseman:
Let’s move on a little bit. In the summer of…

Ron Pollack:
No. Let me just actually say because this is not likely to come up with your question, one of the things I did at the Welfare Law Center, and partially when I was at FRAC, was I also brought a lawsuit that had nothing to do with welfare and nothing to do with hunger. It arose because of my interest, when I was in Mississippi, about the enormous disparity between the black community and the white community in municipal services. I brought a lawsuit against the City of Prattville, Alabama to try to equalize municipal services, sidewalks, parks, paving of streets, street lamps, fire hydrants. We actually won part of that lawsuit. It was the first municipal equalization suit. We didn’t win every part of it, but it was the first municipal equalization suit that, at least, partially won.

Alan Houseman:
That’s interesting. Okay. The summer and fall of 1973 into 1974, you helped out an effort in Washington, D.C. where you were involved in trying to get the Legal Services Corporation Act enacted. I don’t if you remember any of this, you were involved in helping draft, and get speeches in the record, and various things that helped us set the framework to preserve the legal services program. I think I’m doing all the testimony here. I don’t know if you recall this.

Ron Pollack:
I was your assistant. I worked under you. I worked under Mickey Bennett. You were the leader of that effort together with Mickey. I did whatever you told me to do.

Alan Houseman:
One of the things I remember in particular was your getting speeches in the Congressional Record that were very helpful to us. I don’t know …

Ron Pollack:
It makes me laugh because in those days, not just with respect to legal services, one of the things we always did, and I mean always at that time, was we would draft speeches for members of Congress often that they didn’t give, but they just inserted into the Congressional Record. We did that so that we could cite it as legislative history. It was obviously bogus stuff, but at that time you could do that. On lots of hunger matters, a lot of welfare related matters, we were like a speech factory. We would create what we thought would be the legislative history needed when we would bring the litigation subsequently. We would then cite our speeches in our briefs. It was a very unusual experience. You can’t do that today.

Alan Houseman:
Right.

Ron Pollack:
And you probably shouldn’t be able to.

Alan Houseman:
Okay. So, you were at FRAC for ten years or so, and then you left. Where did you go?

Ron Pollack:
Well, I became the Dean of the Antioch University School of Law and served there for close to three years.

Alan Houseman:
How did it happen that you became the Dean, and describe the Antioch School of Law for us.

Ron Pollack:
Well, I’m not sure if I could say how it came into being. I didn’t have any academic background. I certainly wasn’t a real administrator of anything. I credit frankly folks like Norman Dorsen, and the Chair of the Board of the Antioch Law School, a fellow from Texas. His name may come up. I may remember. He was the Chair also of the search committee. He was a major contributor to the ACLU, and he was a good pal of Norman Dorsen. Norman vouched for me, and I think that probably had as much to do with my being selected because this fella had total trust in Norman. I don’t think Norman ever thought I was a great student. I certainly didn’t have the academic credentials of folks like Sylvia Law, but Norman liked what I had done. We kept in touch with one another, and for reasons I’m not sure I can explain, he recommended me for the post, and I think that had as much to do with it as anything else.

Alan Houseman:
Describe Antioch and some of the, what it was trying to do, and some of the challenges you were facing?

Ron Pollack:
Antioch was an extraordinarily creative, thoughtful law school. Jean and Edgar Cahn founded the school, conceptualized the school in a way that fit within the ideals and academic purpose of Antioch University. Arthur Morgan was President of Antioch. He by the way is my wife’s grandfather, purely by coincidence. Arthur Morgan started the kind of internship program where college students as part of their program had to participate in various internships and it was an integral part of the curriculum. Antioch Law School had a similar ethos. Jean and Edgar felt that the law school should do much of its teaching through a clinical program. As a result of what Jean and Edgar had created, Antioch had by far the largest clinical law program at that time of any law school in the country. It also, at that time, had the highest percentage of people of color in a law school other than a traditionally all black school. The overwhelming majority of students who came to Antioch Law School wanted when they graduated to do public interest law, whether it was legal services, or civil liberties, or civil rights, or whatever.

Ron Pollack:
It was a wonderful law school. It attracted my interest because it was there were 150 students in each of the three classes. It had like 450 students. It was like a law firm of 450 plus the faculty. We would be doing good stuff. It seemed like a very interesting place to go to. At first blush it seemed really like an interesting thing. Now, the law school had been under extraordinary turmoil at the end of Jean and Edgar’s tenure as co-deans. Without going into all the details, near the end of their tenure they had decided that the law school would do better financially independent of the university. They refused to submit the tuition of the students to Yellow Springs, the mother campus. When the university demanded that the tuition be sent. Jean and Edgar went to court, and sought a temporary restraining order restraining the university from collecting the tuition. They lost and they were fired within 24 hours.

Ron Pollack:
Jean and Edgar fashioned themselves with some justification as the mother and father of the legal services movement. They went to the Legal Services Corporation and said that the funding that the law school was receiving from the Corporation should come to an end because they had been fired. The Corporation stopped paying the law school the funds from the grant. So one of my first jobs was to get this restored, which ultimately happened. I have to say there were some interesting experiences. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I hadn’t been in academic life, let alone deaning. In my first few weeks as Dean, one of the first tasks each year of law school deans is to fill out a questionnaire from the American Bar Association that was part of its file with respect to accreditation. The accreditation committee was always on the case of the law school, and wanted to pull the accreditation. Jean and Edgar had, through their connections, done something that had never happened in any law school in the country before. The rule is, you don’t get accredited until you graduated one class. Jean and Edgar were not satisfied with that. So they went to Justice Powell, who was not a justice at the time but President of the ABA, and asked that this rule be rescinded for Antioch. On the floor of the ABA, what do you call it?

Alan Houseman:
The House of Delegates.

Ron Pollack:
The House of Delegates passed a resolution exempting Antioch from having to graduate a single class before it got its accreditation, and it got the accreditation. The ABA Accreditation Committee was really pissed about this. In reality, if you looked at the accreditation standards, we fell short on a whole host of different matters. Now, I interpreted a lot of these as accreditation standards that depended on resources, you know, how many books in the library, what you’re paying the faculty, and so on. A lot of it had to do with resources. Every year the Accreditation Committee was on Antioch’s case as to whether they would withdraw the accreditation. So I get this questionnaire and I didn’t know how to fill it out. So I asked some of the folks at the law school to help fill out this lengthy questionnaire, and they filled it out and gave me the responses. I looked at the responses. On the vast majority of them, our responses in terms of what the situation was then and now, were worse by far than the responses to the questionnaire the prior year. Obviously the responses the prior year were not accurately stated.

Ron Pollack:
I sent my first letter to the head of the Accreditation Committee that included the enclosure of the response, and I said, “I want to introduce myself. I’m Ron Pollack. I’m the new Dean of Antioch Law School. You will note in a host of different ways that the law school is far worse off than was ascribed in the previous year. I just want to assure you that in the short tenure I’ve been there, I have not been the cause of that.” Actually, as a result of that, I developed a very close relationship with the head of the ABA Accreditation Committee, not because he thought Antioch deserved its accreditation. But for the first time they felt they were getting real answers about the law school. I remember, in fact, I was hauled in front of the full Accreditation Committee at one point, and there were all these folks. I knew all the different standards that we were not in compliance with. I would respond to these questions, and people would look at me, and they’d smile. I’d think, “Why are you smiling? I’m telling you we’re out of compliance.” In other words, they’re getting honest answers. They allowed Antioch to continue its accreditation.

Ron Pollack:
Edgar and the university, they were really at each other’s throats. Jean and Edgar must have been experiencing some financial difficulties. Edgar wanted me to convince the university to restore their faculty status at the law school. Frankly, I wasn’t crazy about having them serve on the faculty because they were very divisive people. But I felt bad for Jean and Edgar because it seemed like they were having financial problems. Edgar said, “Would you please talk to the President of the university, so that I can get my faculty status restored?” I said to Edgar, “I will talk to Bill Berenbaum and I’ll make sure he comes to the table. But I’m stepping out of the room when that happens. I don’t want to be in that room.” It turns out that the meeting with Edgar was good, but Jean didn’t like the terms, and she blew it up. They never became members of the faculty. But at least I had done my thing on their behalf. I remain on relatively good terms with Jean and Edgar, which was difficult.

Alan Houseman:
After Antioch, you moved into an entirely different kind of adventure in a way at the Villers Foundation. So describe what happened and describe what that was. That then ultimately led to Families USA. So you can just talk about that, and then we will get in the Families USA work.

Ron Pollack:
Well, I had learned that there was this fairly wealthy couple, Phil and Kate Villers, who had decided that they wanted to create some new fund. I learned about it again from Norman Dorsen. Norman knew the Villers because he spent a number of times going to Phil and Kate raising money for the ACLU. After whatever pitch Norman made about the ACLU, and Phil had made some financial commitment to Norman, Phil told Norman, “We’re going to create this organization. It’s focused on the elderly. I’m going to put $40 million into it. We need someone who is going to direct it. Can you suggest anybody?” The story as Norman told me, was he recommended me. Phil said apparently, “What can you tell me about this Pollack guy?” Norman started saying, “Well, he’s a lawyer,” and he could see immediately Phil was not totally pleased about having a lawyer. Norman read his mind, and he said, “Don’t worry, Phil. He’s not a good one.” Anyhow, Phil asked someone to come down and interview me. This fellow and I hit it off. He then recommended, “Go ahead. Interview Pollack for this.” Now Phil already had two other people in mind. One was a woman named Pat Derian. Do you remember Pat? Pat was married to Hodding Carter.

Alan Houseman:
Tell them who Hodding Carter is.

Ron Pollack:
Hodding Carter was chief spokesman for the State Department at one point. His daddy was the publisher of the Greenville Mississippi newspaper. There were three or four newspapers in that state. Greenville was one of them that really resisted the racism of the time. Anyhow, I flew up to meet with Phil, and along with Phil was his wife Kate, and several people who were going to be members of his board. Including the pleasantries of how was your flight, and so on, within five, seven, and certainly no more than ten minutes, Phil and I got into an argument. I remember the argument pretty well. Phil had this focus. He wanted this entity to focus on the elderly, the aging in America. His first question to me was, “Ron, what’s your reaction to a CEO of General Motors who at age 65 is forced into retirement. He doesn’t want to retire. He’s forced into retirement. What do you think about that?”

Ron Pollack:
My response was roughly as follows. Well, I have sympathy for that CEO because he has much still to contribute to society, he probably feels that it is artificially being limited, et cetera, et cetera. I said, but why did you ask me that question? Why didn’t you ask me the question about a 65-year-old who’s been poor all his or her life and now is facing the same kinds of problems? Why wasn’t that your question? And the sparks flew.

Ron Pollack:
It was obvious I was staking a ground. This organization should focus on the people who really are in need. In the process, I said things to Phil that probably no one would want to say if they were planning to become the head of this organization. I said if I were to be head of this organization, I would want us to have more in common with the Children’s Defense Fund than the AARP. I focused on people who had basic needs throughout their lives. Phil and I would just argue through the time that I was up there. But one thing about Phil is that he likes someone who’s honest. Phil had a meeting to go to in New York that night and he asked me to join him on the plane.

Ron Pollack:
We flew from Boston to New York and we’re arguing throughout the whole time about the nature of this organization. At the end of it, Phil said, “I’d like you to write up a memo that explains your view about this.”

Ron Pollack:
I took it seriously. I wrote a 25-page single-spaced memo as to why this organization should focus on low-income elderly and not the middle class. Phil wanted me to write this because he had been contributing funds to civil liberties, to human rights. He wanted others to read it and to give him reactions to it. He did that and then we met again. We argued through the day, through the evening. There were several iterations of different memos that were written. Apparently the feedback he got, I never saw the exact feedback, was that this guy is saying something that you should listen to.

Ron Pollack:
I said to Phil, my motivation, in terms of what I do in my professional life, is I care about distributive justice. And if this organization focuses on distributive justice, I’m really interested. And if not, I’m not interested. My interest flowing from my experience in Mississippi and thereafter was I cared about distributive justice. I didn’t have a particular caring about the elderly, even though I aspired to join the group. I ultimately told Phil, if we can focus more significantly on distributive justice, and we’ll disproportionately do this with respect to the lens of the elderly, then I’m interested. But, if it’s general aging stuff, I’m not interested. Phil and I actually reached an agreement where the overwhelming proportion of resources could be used for distributive justice. He wanted some to be used on other quality of life issues.

Ron Pollack:
In terms of the evolution of the Villers Foundation to Families USA, Phil made a decision which I should have also raised questions about. He was going to donate $40 million. It was in stock in companies he’d started. He wanted the organization to go out of business in 20 years approximately. And he had some aggressive formula for figuring out how much money could be spent a year that wasn’t just divide $40 million by 20. But all of his wealth was in high tech companies that he started, Computervision and Automatix. Shortly after we started the new organizations, the high tech companies he had started were going downhill. So, not only were we spending principal but the value of the stock had diminished considerably. I had been hired on the assumption that I would not have to do any fundraising.

Ron Pollack:
The board said, “Look, we’re doing some good things. Ron, I want you to come up with a plan so that the organization functions in perpetuity.” I tried to figure out what do we do. You may know actually one of the women who was a consultant we used, Carol Pershurski. Carol had been a development strategist for Planned Parenthood, for the ACLU, for a number of progressive organizations. And Carol was really tough-assed with me. She said, look, Ron, you’re going to have to have a much clearer focus of what the organization’s going to do. And you need to change the name of the organization. The name of the organization was the Villers Foundation, after Phil and Kate. That was going to be a daunting thing, going to the donors and telling them we’re going to have to take their name off the organization.

Ron Pollack:
We had started to do disproportionate work on healthcare. We decided we’re going to make this organization a healthcare organization. The major focus would be expand coverage for the uninsured. I talked to Phil and Kate about that, and they felt comfortable with that. Then I had to talk to them about changing the name of the organization. The interesting thing was, it was not a tough task to get them willing to get their name off the organization. It’s not that they wanted it, but they had a higher purpose in mind than perpetuating their name.

Ron Pollack:
But Phil had a big hang-up. He wanted the organization’s name to have some indication that we cared about the elderly. Well, with Carol Pershurski and the folks who were doing our direct mail, we tried to figure out a name. We decided we liked the name Families USA. So, I had to go to Phil and say, we want to make the name Families USA. And Phil said, well, I got one big problem with that. Where does the indication of our focus on aging? I did not tell the truth to him. I said, well Families USA stands for Families United for Senior Action. And Phil bought that. And he required that at the bottom of our letterhead we’d have to write Families United for Senior Action. I was going to put it in minus seven type. Ultimately, he let go of that and he was very happy with Families USA.

Ron Pollack:
That was the key change that had Families USA move from ostensibly an organization determined to help seniors in a variety of ways. In the early days, we did healthcare, we did SSI related stuff, we did housing related stuff. But healthcare was the area that we focused on the most. And it became a natural move for Phil. And Phil never regretted that.

Alan Houseman:
What were the three or four major accomplishments of your work at Families USA over the years that you were there? When did Families roughly start?

Ron Pollack:
I started in January ’83 and I left end of March 2017. I was there for 34 years. Obviously, the biggest accomplishment — and we were not the sole cause of that, but I think we played a very significant role — was the passage of the Affordable Care Act. We had done an enormous number of things that led up to the Affordable Care Act. Obviously as the Affordable Care Act was being debated we played a very significant role. But we played an even larger role in the lead-up to that. And there were a variety of elements to that. We had organized a wide number and diverse set of efforts designed to elevate in the media the need for expanding health coverage for the uninsured. We did it in a variety of ways. In the ’88 and ’92 elections, we made healthcare a very significant priority in New Hampshire and Iowa and Florida. That’s how I got to meet Bill and Hillary Clinton, because we had really pushed for that. I was probably the earliest healthcare-related person they related to at the very earliest stages of their campaign. Obviously, Bill and Hillary have such an enormous network. But it didn’t exist in the earliest part of the campaign.

Ron Pollack:
But it’s because we had done so many things. I had gone to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and laid out for them a campaign that went by the title Cover the Uninsured Week that we would do every year. One week of activities that would be highly publicized that RWJ would fund in a big way. Your brother-in-law’s firm GMMB, played a significant role in that because, while we were the fiscal agents and we designed the campaign, RWJ wanted to have a communications firm play a key role. And GMMB was the lead communications firm. So I worked with a lot of key folks at GMMB on those efforts.

Ron Pollack:
I organized also, with significant funding from Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, “strange bedfellows” efforts. After the failure of the Clinton health plan in ’94, there were some interim things that we did that helped promote what ultimately became the Children’s Health Insurance Program. But, we wanted to still get a shot at having major health reform. One of the things I had suggested to Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is that we do something that was highly unusual. What we would create is a strange bedfellows process that would bring together each of the major stakeholders in America’s healthcare system. The theory was, if you looked at the failed history of health reform, there were different key interest groups. It was the AMA, when Franklin Roosevelt was president and when Harry Truman was president. The insurance industry certainly during the Clinton presidency. The pharmaceutical industry, etcetera, that wound up really being opposed to healthcare reform and spent a fortune. Really, the political odds were terrible.

Ron Pollack:
The idea was, let’s bring all of these folks to the table and see whether we could find some common ground that would enable health reform to move forward. Robert Wood Johnson Foundation liked the idea. My initial partner in this was Chip Kahn. I don’t know if that name means anything to you. Chip was the number two person at the Health Insurance Association of America during the Clinton Administration. They were the ones who did the Harry and Louise ads that many credited as being a key component of beating the Clinton’s back. Chip was a Republican. He was the campaign manager for Newt Gingrich’s first two campaigns for Congress. Though he was a Republican and somewhat conservative, Chip and I hit it off really well, personally.

Ron Pollack:
Chip and I then organized the strange bedfellows effort. And we got Karen Ignagni, who was then the head of AHIP, America’s Health Insurance Plans. We went to the pharmaceutical industry, we went to Pharma. We went to each of the hospital groups, the American Hospital Association. For two and a half years, we organized these forums that occurred every six to eight weeks where the principals would get together. There were a little over two dozen of us and it was facilitated. We got professional facilitation to see whether we could find common ground. At the end of the two and a half years, we actually did find some common ground. It really became the ultimate architecture, as flawed as it is, of the Affordable Care Act. My deepest interest was to expand Medicaid because I wanted low-income folks to get the benefit. Industry folks wanted to have as much private insurance rather than public insurance. And certainly, single-payer was never seriously going to be on the table for them.

Ron Pollack:
So, we reached an agreement about expanding through Medicaid for people below a certain level of income — 133%, although it became 138%, of poverty. We would have a private insurance program with subsidies for people who needed subsidies to afford premiums. We did a lot of PR stuff. We issued reports every month. We did a lot of stuff in the media that showed the need for health reform. We created the first real story banks on healthcare, where we had people who were uninsured who were willing to have their stories told that they would tell their stories. And we used those stories in a lot of different ways. We did stuff in the political context. In primaries and caucus states, we did a strange bedfellows effort. So it was really a full-blown campaign effort for health reform. Families USA was at the heart of that. One of the things I’m proudest of is at home I have a copy of the Affordable Care Act. On the top left-hand corner, Barack Obama wrote, “Thanks to you, Ron and Families USA. You made this happen.” We received comparable written comments from Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid and all the committee chairmen. By far, that was the most satisfactory thing. Because it was a decades-long effort and it’s a tiny anecdote.

Alan Houseman:
So, we should call it Pollack Care not Obama Care?

Ron Pollack:
Right [self-deprecating chuckle]. But there was an interesting thing. The first time Barack Obama had a public meeting about his intent to push health reform, it was a meeting at the White House and there were at least 100, maybe even 200, people invited. I forget whether we were in the East Wing. We had all the leaders of the different interest groups on healthcare. And Karen Ignagni was representing the insurance industry. Barack called on Karen. Karen and I frankly had become good buddies. We disagreed on a host of things. I could go down a whole list of enormous things. But, Karen and I, we’d have lunch together, we’d have dinner together. And we trusted each other even though we had very different perspectives. And I’ll never forget it. Karen got up and said, “Mr. President, we’re going to work with you. We are going to support healthcare reform.” That was the product of the strange bedfellows effort.

Ron Pollack:
Of all the interest groups that are the hardest to work with, it’s the pharmaceutical industry. I had developed a close relationship with Billy Tauzin. I don’t know if that means anything to you. Billy Tauzin was the Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee that had jurisdiction over Medicaid. He was from Louisiana. He was a Democrat who converted to Republican. He was darn conservative. In his tenure as chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee, he never did a damn thing for poor people, never did a damn thing to help on the Medicaid program. Whenever there were cutbacks, Billy was a reliable vote. When Billy retired from Congress, he had cancer. He wound up getting cured. And he became head of Pharma. I developed a close relationship with Bill Tauzin.

Ron Pollack:
One of the less well-known stories is I had negotiated with Billy when the Affordable Care Act was going to be debated. I wanted to get as strong advertising as possible in support of health reform. Of course, Families USA didn’t have money for advertising. And Pharma is richer than whoever. Pharma and Families USA did over $70 million of advertising in support of the Affordable Care Act. Of course, Families USA didn’t put in a penny. But we actually had agreement on any ad that would placed, I had as much approval of it as Pharma did. When I went to our board to say I’m trying to develop a partnership with Pharma in support of the healthcare reform legislation, people looked at me as if I was smoking something. They said, “It’s okay, but it’s got to be public. You’ve got to be totally transparent.” So I said, fine, I don’t mind being transparent.

Ron Pollack:
I went to Billy, and I said, “Billy, if we’re going to achieve a partnership, I need for you to agree on a few substantive things so that we’re not just talking about some political process.” I asked him for three things and I can’t remember what two of them were, but I remember the first one because that’s the one I really cared about. I said, “I want Pharma to come out and support increasing Medicaid eligibility for everybody to 133% of poverty.” This was at a time when Texas was at like 25% of poverty. Billy looked at me like I was nuts. Here’s the former Chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, and I said I need us to have some substantive agreement. He said, “Alright. I’ll go to the companies and see whether they’re willing to support it.” Believe it or not, Billy actually went through with it and the companies agreed to support increasing Medicaid to 133% of poverty.

Ron Pollack:
Billy and I were going to announce this as part of the big campaign. We’re going to be spending a fortune in support of the Affordable Care Act. And the cute little anecdote was our staffs were trying to figure out how this press conference was going to go. We didn’t know who should speak first. Should Billy speak first, or should I speak first? So, I sent an email to Billy, I said, “Billy, why don’t you speak first, you’re better looking than I am.” To which Billy wrote a note saying, “That’s not a compliment. Everyone’s better looking than you are.” And we actually had this partnership. We spent over $70 million advertising for the Affordable Care Act.

Ron Pollack:
The bottom line, I guess what I’m trying to express, is there were a myriad of different ways that we were in the middle of pushing for health reform that would expand coverage leading up to any legislative effort and then the legislative effort itself. So, my proudest moment is passing the Affordable Care Act. As imperfect as it is, and it’s terribly imperfect, it added coverage for about 20 million people.

Alan Houseman:
One of the other things, and you briefly referenced it a few minutes ago was the Children’s Health Insurance Program. So, what role did you play in that?

Ron Pollack:
The real story about CHIP is a story about Ted Kennedy and Orrin Hatch. They were the strange bedfellows that pushed the Children’s Health Insurance Program. Without that odd couple, it would not have happened. However, when we organized, there were at least three iterations of the strange bedfellows effort. One of them was where we were having difficulty reaching an agreement that we thought would have some current policy-making implications. Around ’96 we did reach agreement that at least let’s have a start with kids getting covered. All the groups got behind it. From that, I started to think of the campaign for children’s healthcare, where each of the organizations, whether it was the insurers, whether it was the hospitals, whether it was the AMA, all of them supported expanding coverage for kids. Was that the key factor? No, I don’t think so. I think the key factor was Ted and Orrin Hatch. But it was really helpful. And I have to say, of course, the Children’s Defense Fund played a very critical role in that. Marian was very helpful. We got all the interest groups behind that.

Alan Houseman:
Among other things you did at Families throughout this period was trying to protect the Medicaid program-

Ron Pollack:
And protecting the Affordable Care Act from the various attacks.

Alan Houseman:
Right, that. So, talk about each of those, or any way you want to talk about it.

Ron Pollack:
Well, there were two big lawsuits that were filed challenging the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act. The first was NFIB versus Sebelius and then King v. Burwell. Of course, we were not the attorneys in the case. It was the government. It was the Solicitor General, Verrilli, who argued the case. We organized the politics around it. We were in constant touch with Don Verrilli who was the Solicitor General. Any time there was an oral argument, including at the federal district court level and certainly the Supreme Court level, we organized all the politics around that. I was the chief spokesperson for that. If you look at my Twitter thing, you see a picture of me doing a shtick outside the Supreme Court.

Ron Pollack:
The funniest story I can tell you about that was in NFIB versus Sebelius. The primary challenge was that there was no constitutional authority to pass the Affordable Care Act. I was in the courtroom for the three days of oral argument. Literally, front and center. I was there when the decision was announced. The weird thing was, on my left was Liz Fowler. Liz was the chief staff person on the Senate Finance Committee. She had as much responsibility for writing the Affordable Care Act as anybody. Seated on my right was Greg Abbott, sitting in his wheelchair. Greg Abbott is currently the governor of Texas. At the time, he was Attorney General of Texas. The Attorneys General of Florida and Texas were the ones who really…

Ron Pollack:
…instigated the litigation. I’ll never forget when Chief Justice Roberts was giving the synopsis of his opinion. The first part of his opinion was he described how the Commerce Clause was not a constitutional basis for making the Affordable Care Act constitutional. I remember Liz and I, as Roberts is talking about the Commerce Clause, we’re sitting further and further down in our chair and Abbott is really sitting up in his wheelchair. Then Roberts talks about the tax power and that was the basis that he found the law constitutional. Liz and I are sitting up like this and Abbott is kind of creeping down. Then Roberts got to the constitutionality of the Medicaid expansion mandate. And Roberts ruled that the mandate was unconstitutional. It wasn’t unconstitutional to offer money to the states, so that they choose to do it, but it was unconstitutional for it to be a mandate. Since that’s what I cared the most about in this legislation, I’m down like this.

Ron Pollack:
So the decision is rendered and there’s this bank of TV cameras and I’m supposed to go out and address what happened as the chief spokesperson for our side. I’m walking out of the court. Kathleen Stoll, who was the deputy executive director at Families USA, looked at me and said I looked like I’ve just been killed. Because the last thing that happened was the Medicaid mandate could no longer be a mandate. Kathleen looked at me and she literally slapped me in the face and she said, “Would you put a fucking smile on your face? We just won, it’s constitutional.” So I went up there with the shit eating grin, talking about how we want won. And I felt like shit the whole time.

Alan Houseman:
Well.

Ron Pollack:
We played a significant role in King v. Burwell. Again, we played the same role. We played a significant role state by state trying to get states now to voluntarily adopt the Medicaid expansion. And 31 states have done so. We still have 19 states that haven’t done so. But the Medicaid expansion was the most significant cause of people gaining coverage even without the mandate.

Alan Houseman:
After the Affordable Care Act was passed, you also became involved with a thing called Enroll America. Why don’t you describe a little bit about what that was all about?

Ron Pollack:
My lesson for Enroll America was the welfare rights movement. If you remember, there were fights for substantial expansion of welfare and the Family Assistance Plan. My recollection was that, as we were pushing for the Family Assistance Plan, which we almost got in the Nixon Administration, George Wiley was thinking ahead. He was thinking, when we get this passed — of course it never did pass — we’ve got to get people enrolled. George didn’t have a detailed plan. But he felt we’re going to have to really organize like crazy to make sure that people learn about this new benefit that they can receive and we help them. So, as the Affordable Care Act was near completion, though before its completion, I remember George ringing in my mind saying, “When you win such a big benefit you got to make sure that people actually get it.”

Ron Pollack:
So, before the Affordable Care Act was enacted into law, but in its final stages, I created a group called Enroll America. I became the chairman of the board. I was the chair throughout the organization’s existence. The purpose was that we were going to make sure that all the people who would be newly eligible for Medicaid, those people who’d be newly eligible for subsidies in these private marketplaces, would know about it and we would help them get enrolled. Actually the organization did something rather significant.

Ron Pollack:
When we started the organization, I had an ambition that we would raise millions upon millions of dollars and that we would have a huge staff. I asked a woman who is on the Families USA staff, Rachel Klein, to become the executive director. Rachel’s a good policy person. She’s not really an organizer. Rachel had a staff of seven people, all really good folks. But I despaired about it because seven people are not going to make much of a dent. I was convinced that the only way we were going to have a real capacity to do this is if I got the Obama Administration totally behind this, really behind it, not just saying good things about it, but actually reaching out to folks to get it funded. So I was trying to think through how do we make that happen.

Ron Pollack:
I talked to this fellow, Jon Carson, who is the head of the Office of Public Engagement in the White House. Jon said, “You know, your best way of doing that is take someone from the White House and have that person run Enroll America.” I said, “Do you have any suggestions?” He said, “Yeah, my deputy, Anne Filipic.” I didn’t know Anne very well. I had met with her a couple of times, hardly knew her. So I met with Anne. Anne said, “Yeah, I’m really excited about doing it but I have to be president and I have to be number one.” It was a bit of a dilemma because I had already hired Rachel to be the executive director and I felt I really had no choice if I wanted Enroll America to take off. So I told her, yes, you’ll be president and you’ll be the number one person. But you have got a promise you’re going to treat Rachel with full respect, which Anne promised she would do. It was hard because there’s no way Rachel could read this other than this was not what she wanted.

Ron Pollack:
Anne became president in January. At the time we had seven staff people and six months later Anne had 260 people on the staff. We raised $29 million the first year. It would not have happened without Barack Obama. What happened was, I had been reaching out to the insurance industry, the hospital industry, the pharmaceutical industry and foundations. And Barack hosted a meeting in the White House with Kathleen Sebelius where we brought key foundations in. I don’t know exactly what the law is about this, but he couldn’t say, “You have to fund this.” But he talked about why doing something like Enroll America is the right thing to do. At that meeting were these various foundation heads such as Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, CEO of RWJ, and Bob Ross of the California Health Care Foundation. Right after the White House meeting we then had a meeting over at Pew Memorial Trust where all the foundation heads came. RWJ committed over $13 million for the first year. They committed $10 million the second year. And it grew.

Ron Pollack:
Anne was an organizer. The way she became close with Barack was that she actually was the field director during the Iowa caucuses. She designated 11 states that would be the states where we would focus on. That’s where we put all the organizing staff, in those states. Interestingly, they were not blue states. They were red states. So it was Florida, it was Texas, it was Georgia. Florida did the best of all the states in that first year in terms of enrollment, because of the work of Enroll America. So I chaired the board. I was not the director. Anne was the brilliance behind it, but it was my creation and I helped Anne in as many ways as I could.

Alan Houseman:
Is it still going on?

Ron Pollack:
No. When we created the organization, we said it’s only going to operate for four to five years. Then we would phase it out, which we did last year.

Alan Houseman:
So finally, after you left Families, what have you been doing?

Ron Pollack:
Bothering Becky. I’ve been involved in a number of smaller things. Number one, I’ve been working with this new group, Indivisible, that I really like a great deal. Indivisible, you know about Indivisible?

Alan Houseman:
Explain.

Ron Pollack:
So Indivisible, was born as a result of the Trump election. And a few former legislative staff people on the Democratic side, who are terribly concerned about what would happen with Trump being President, wrote a 26-page document called Indivisible Guide. It was a grassroots guide about how you organize to thwart the policy agenda of the Trump Administration. It was written almost as an antidote to, or had learned its lessons from, the Tea Party. This 26-page document called Indivisible Guide, became super viral almost overnight. Even though there was no national organization, spontaneously 6,000 — I’m not exaggerating — 6,000 groups got organized at the local level and they called themselves some form of Indivisible. Columbus Indivisible, something else Indivisible. Once you had 6,000 such groups, literally at least two in every congressional district in the country, the folks who wrote the Indivisible Guide said, “Well, we should be supporting these folks. Many of these folks have never been involved in politics or advocacy, so let’s provide support to them.”

Ron Pollack:
The first effort that Indivisible undertook was to try to stop the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. So I did the blogging for them about that and they would send it out to the entire network. I developed good relationships with the leadership. The folks who run Indivisible, they’re a married couple. One of them, Leah Greenberg, is the daughter of your friend, Mark Greenberg. I became friendly with them. After the Affordable Care Act repeal was defeated, I’ve helped them in a variety of ways. They’ve been relatively small ways. I’m helping them with fundraising. So, I’ve been doing some of that.

Ron Pollack:
The second thing I’ve done is there were five national groups involved in housing that wanted to build a campaign. This was the National Low Income Housing Coalition started by Cushing Dolbeare. Barry Zigas was one of the successors. The National Alliance to End Homelessness, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which is not just a obviously a housing organization. So five national partner organizations and they want to build the campaign on low income housing. So they asked me to develop the campaign plan for this and I’ve done that.

Ron Pollack:
Third thing is, we’ve created a new manifestation of strange bedfellows. This one started in January of 2017. I called Gail Wilensky, I don’t know if you know her. Gail ran-

Alan Houseman:
I know who she is, yeah.

Ron Pollack:
She ran Medicaid and Medicaid in the first Bush Administration. I said, “Gail, it looks like the Affordable Care Act will be at least partially repealed. Shouldn’t we bring together thought leaders and the right wing and the left wing to see what would replace it?” Gail said sure. So we brought together a number of folks. It was a small group. It was unlike the big strange bedfellows effort. We sat together to see whether we could come up with ideas for how we would replace certain aspects of the Affordable Care Act. We actually reached an agreement that became the forerunner of what Lamar Alexander and Patty Murray were trying to do to strengthen the Affordable Care Act.

Ron Pollack:
Now the Affordable Care Act does not look like it’s going to be repealed. At least legislatively. We’ve decided we’re going to build this much larger and think about what the future of the healthcare system should look like. So we’re bringing back together all the strange bedfellows. Yesterday for example, I brought in a phone conversation with the American Hospital Association. We’re doing the same thing with Pharma. AMA has agreed to do it. We’re getting the insurance industry to do it. So, this is a prospective thing. But there’s a tiny group of us who are part of this little thing when it looked like the Affordable Care Act was going to be repealed. Now we’ve decided to grow it enormously. It’s done under the auspices of a group called Convergence. The president of Convergence is Rob Fersh, who was one of my successors at FRAC.

Ron Pollack:
I’ve done a couple of pieces for Vox. I have an idea of something I want to do next and it’s not ready for prime time. I don’t know whether we’ll ever get off the ground. But it’s something I’m devoting my thought energy to. In a nutshell, my assumption is we’re all going to be playing defense for at least three years, as long as Donald Trump is President. We have to defeat Donald Trump or Mike Pence. My theory is that they are most vulnerable, not just because of the absurdities of Trump’s personality — and it’ll help — or even things like the environment or immigration, as important as those issues are. I think that the most vulnerable part of the Trump Administration and Republicans, is economic inequity as manifested by the tax bill and what that now means for social programs that they’re going to have to cut back because of the huge deficit.

Ron Pollack:
Another theory is that, if we elevate economic injustice, economic inequity in advance of the 2020 election, it’ll help motivate a number of people to vote to be more active and those that are not hardcore Trump supporters. And I want to try to make sure that we catapult the issue of economic unfairness into the 2020 election starting with what we did in New Hampshire and Iowa years ago on healthcare. I can go into details about that. But I’m trying to build something like that. There would be a new organization and it’s not ready for prime time, and I don’t know if we’ll raise money for it. We’re going to try. I’m partnering with two former partners of GMMB in doing this. I don’t know if you know them, Alison Betty and David Smith. They started a firm called Betty and Smith. It’s a tiny little firm. I went to them and I said, “Look, might you be interested in partnering in this effort to build this organization?” The three of us have been planning this thing. Whether it happens or not, I don’t know.

Alan Houseman:
So, we’re almost done here. You’ve received a number of awards. Which you reflect in your resume. What of these awards is when you’re most proud of?

Ron Pollack:
I don’t know. I don’t know.

Alan Houseman:
Talk about a couple of them.

Ron Pollack:
I liked getting the Andy Hyman Award from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. But that was mainly because I loved Andy. We’re good friends.

Alan Houseman:
Finally, I want to end with a little more of philosophical question, which is what is your prognosis of the future of healthcare reform?

Ron Pollack:
Well, I think as in all social movements, there are cycles and we’re obviously at this moment in a downward cycle. Our side is going to be playing defense. We have to play defense. So, we played defense successfully in thwarting the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. Now Donald Trump is trying to do much of it through administrative action, with particular focus on Medicaid. Medicaid is now exploding. If you add CHIP, I mean people lump Medicaid and CHIP together, there are now 75 million people in the program. That’s almost a third of the country. So I think, in the very short term we’re going to be finding these internecine battles to protect Medicaid from administrative cutbacks. For example, there’s going to be cockamamie work requirements, which are really not work requirements. They’re intended to just knock people off the rolls. There might be limitations on how long you can be on the program. There are all sorts of administrative mechanisms that the Trump Administration is trying to implement. So, in the short term, we’re going to be playing defense.

Ron Pollack:
In the long term, as I think about the strange bedfellows effort, even if even on the off chance we all reach an agreement on something, nothing’s going to happen. I mean, nothing’s going to happen in a Trump Administration and a Republican Congress. But we have got to continue to focus on coverage because there are close to 30 million people still who are uninsured, and we’ve got to focus on costs of coverage and care. That is going to be a much harder thing to do, particularly with the strange bedfellows, because of the costs for consumers, patients, government, and employers are the income of the insurance industry, the pharmaceutical industry, physicians. So that’s going to be a much tougher effort. I don’t know where that’s going to come out. But I don’t think you can do this without trying to get their cooperation, which is going to be very hard.

Ron Pollack:
Pharma for example, is probably the worst of the worst, notwithstanding our $70 million when Billy Tauzin was there. Pharma is as truculent and rigid and loaded with money as any of these interest groups. Whether it’s minor things like enabling generic drugs to come to market earlier — not that that’s a be-all and end-all — they’re not crazy about that stuff and they’ll try to stop it. Certainly they’ll stop any bargaining for cheaper prices, getting Medicare no longer prohibited from bargaining for drug prices. They’ll stop re-importing drugs from other countries. And there are legitimate issues there about making sure about safety and so on. But Pharma just doesn’t want to see re-importation because it’s going to undercut their market.

Ron Pollack:
So, I think that it’s going to be important for the progressive community and patient groups to really follow a dual track agenda. At the same time that we fight rear guard actions to stop Medicaid cutbacks and cutbacks in subsidies for lower income people who are in the private marketplace, we have got to come up with a thoughtful cost initiative that keeps in mind quality of care. How that gets done, I am not sure yet. I don’t have a blueprint for it. But I do know that this has got to be the subject of what we focus on.

Ron Pollack:
As part of the strange bedfellows effort, I’m hoping to include — as we did in the bigger strange bedfellows effort that ultimately led to the Affordable Care Act — experts to help us think through and do research for us. There’s a lot of experimentation going on about ideas of promoting value rather than volume. Some of those experiments are showing they’re not working, some of them are. What can we learn from that? I think it’s going to require some very, very hard work. But I think that’s the agenda on healthcare. It’s cost/quality and coverage.

Alan Houseman:
Thank you. This has been a terrific interview.