An abridged version of this interview appeared on ToM on January 2, 2014. The full, unedited text of the discussion between Alex Sayf Cummings and Branko Radulovacki, candidate for the 2014 Democratic nomination for US Senator, appears below.
Tell me about your life and background. Where did you grow up?
Sure. I was born in Belgrade in the former Yugoslavia, so now Serbia. And I lived there til the age of 4. I’ve got an older brother, and we moved to Khartoum, Sudan, and that was because my father, who was a medical researcher, MD/PhD, found an opportunity to do research and teach at the University of Khartoum Medical Center. I can’t remember if that’s what it was called, but it was the medical center at the university. We lived in Khartoum for three years, and that’s when I learned to speak English. That was a whole interesting chapter in my life. We were literally the last house in the block, and beyond our [inaudible]… and it was just a wonderful time. We used to take our beds up to the top of our home and just sleep outside because sometimes it was cooler there than it was in the house. So it was just sort of a unique experience. I still remember we traveled through Kenya, Uganda, Egypt, and Israel. We just got an opportunity to travel in that part of the world.
And then we moved back to Belgrade when I was seven, and my father took a fellowship at UCLA, so he was in the United States in Los Angeles and we were in Belgrade for that one year. Then he accepted a position at the University of Illinois in Chicago, at their Chicago medical center campus, and so we moved in October of 1970 when I was seven to a suburb of Chicago, Evanston, IL, and that was where I started attending public school. And I’ll tell you, one of my favorite memories from that time, when we were first moved, we bought a 2-bedroom apartment, and I remember there was very little furniture in it. My dad had been there living by himself, and the one piece of furniture he did buy was a television, a Zenith color television, and that was the first time I’d seen color television. I remember watching things like The Partridge Family, The Brady Bunch, Love American Style. The show that really blew me away was a show called Lost in Space, about this family the Robinsons. And so here I am in this new country, you’re watching color television, this show about outer space, and I remember thinking, “Wow, this is amazing.”
And so that was sort of my introduction to the States, and I will say, just as a little bit of background, growing up in Belgrade, people in Yugoslavia, and throughout Europe at that time lived with their extended families. We lived with my maternal grandparents in one small apartment. My grandparents slept in one room, which was the living room; my mother and and I and my brother shared a sort of bedroom, but it was so small that my mother had one bed and my brother had another bed and they put together two of these sofa chairs and I remember sleeping in that for quite a while. So culturally, it was a very different experience which was great because you lived with family and you really had a sense of being nurtured and cared for. You knew you didn’t have much, but that wasn’t important.
Was that hard to adjust to when you come to the states? The lack of an extended family?
Well, it was because when we came to the United States we had no family, it was my parents and my older brother and me. It wasn’t that I was sad or crying—I certainly missed that, I missed that part of my life and my circle of friends I’d gotten to know over a number of years, so it was an adjustment, just making a whole group of new friends, and it kind of brought us closer together, our nuclear family. We also went back over the Summer, we would go back every other Summer to Belgrade and see our families there, things like that, and that would sort of ease the transition. It was one of these things where you sort of miss certain things, but then there’s so much that’s new and exciting about being in the States that I really enjoyed.
So did you spend a lot of time in Chicago when you were young?
Not so much in the city. I grew up in Evanston, a suburb north of the city, but we obviously went down for things—we’d take the L, which is short for “elevated train,” down to Wrigley Field. I was a big Chicago Cubs fan, even though they’re the perennial losers, but they’re the Cubs. But I remember taking the L down and as I got older and worked in Chicago I remember one of the things about Wrigley field is that they had this flagpole, and they used to only used to have games there during the afternoon, during the day there before they put in lights a few years ago, and they would always run up the flagpole, it would be a white flag I think with a W if they won and a black flag with a white L if they lost. You could tell whether the Cubs won or lost that day just by riding the train. So I just remember small things like that make you feel like you’re part of this community. I always enjoyed going to those games and sitting out in the bleachers. It was just a great, great ballpark.
There are a lot of Eastern European communities in Chicago, and I wondered if you ever connected to a larger community from your family’s part of the world.
Mainly through my parents, and, yeah, you’re right, I never actually asked this, but he had several different offers from different universities and he chose the University of Illinois in Chicago. It used to be, and I’m not sure if it still is, but it used to be that Chicago had one of the largest congregations of Serbs outside of Serbia anywhere in the world. I don’t know if it’s still the case, but there’s a large, large number there. I don’t know if my father chose to accept that position because there was this large community, but it was something that my mother certainly tapped into, and we did socialize some with that community, less so than my parents did because we just got plugged into our new schools and made friends very quickly. My brother and I were very outgoing and we both liked sports so we were able to make those connections fairly easily.
So when did you first take an interest in politics?
I had an interest in it for a while but I hadn’t played an active role, I’d say, up until President Obama’s initial run for the Presidency at that time. My wife and I had hosted an event to get the vote out at our home and it was interesting, at that time, we lived in a suburb called Vinings, which is somewhat conservative. We ended up having to call a number of friends from other parts of Atlanta, because we didn’t have that many friends we knew we could count on to come out for an event like that in our neighborhood.
And so we did that and got involved that way, but really we were just excited about his candidacy and the opportunity we thought it would bring our country and the world with his leadership. We really had had limited involvement in politics and really most of my work that I had been doing for the past several years in my private practice had been in the mental health advocacy area. I’d been working to support the state psychiatric hospital system starting in 2008 when the AJC did an investigative series called “A Hidden Shame,” and it documented that over a hundred individuals had died under the state’s care in those hospitals. Initially, the mental health advocacy community here in Atlanta responded to that crisis, and then-Governor Perdue appointed this blue ribbon, kind of mental health services commission. After a few months of studying the problem and doing hearings and various things like that, they released their preliminary report in the Spring of 2008, only to have the AJC find out that that initial report was partially plagiarized from a State of Michigan report, and that was when things for me really kind of, that’s when my train jumped the tracks so to speak, following this story as a mental health professional and as a concerned citizen. And then when I realized, it doesn’t look like this commission is going to do something meaningful, meaningfully positive for this group, for these vulnerable citizens and then I thought I needed to get involved. And so I started by writing an op-ed that the AJC published calling for a moral and spiritual response to this mental health crisis, and then I took that op-ed and started meeting with the heads of mental health advocacy groups, like Mental Health America and NAMI, the National Alliance for Mental Illness, and it was interesting, I think these were folks that were involved in that initial push and yet when I met with them they were very despondent, they were certainly concerned and upset that this report had been discredited because it was partially plagiarized, but they didn’t know what they could do or what anyone could do at that point. And so one of them actually, this was a Mental Health America lobbyist by the name of Ellen Yager, she was in my office when we spoke about the crisis, and she said to me, “Branko, what you’re trying to do is really admirable, but you’re not going to be able to change anything. Maybe if you went down to the Governor’s mansion and you tied yourself to the gates of the mansion naked then maybe people would start paying attention to what you’re saying. You might have more of an impact.”
And I just thought, wow, really that’s the level of despair and hopelessness that even these experts have around this issue at this time. And then I laughed a little bit, and then said I can’t give up on this idea, this issue is too important to let go. And so I end up calling the leaders of the Carter Center mental health program and got a meeting with them, and again we had a very similar initial kind of conversation. They were very concerned with what had happened with this plagiarized report and yet they had also kind of moved down to other important projects in the community and in the world, actually. So we agreed to talk again, and this time we spoke by phone. We had a second meeting, and again that conversation seemed to go in circles a bit, and then I just said to them, if you all know people who might be interested in meeting on this issue, please give me their name and then I’ll call them. I know you’re busy and I’m busy, but we’ll just have the meeting in my office. And then there was a pause in the conversation, and they came on and they said, yes, we’re busy, you’re busy, but we know who these people are, we’ll hold this meeting in our offices. I just said, great, because I didn’t know what I was going to talk to these other people about. I didn’t know anything about mental health advocacy, I didn’t know how to move the levers of governmental power.
But anyway, we started meeting. They did call together a group and I was part of that initial series of meetings. With each meeting it seemed like there was more enthusiasm and recommittment to do something meaningful in spite of this, or actually because of this plagiarized report, and because the need was just so great. So from there that group contacted the Bazelon mental health legal center in DC and they took an interest in the case. Then some of those folks at the Bazelon center had contacts with the US Justice Department, which had just turned over from the Bush administration to the Obama administration, and they took an interest in the case.
The long story short is that in 2010, the state of Georgia agreed to a settlement with the United States Justice Department because of these conditions. In 2010 the state of Georgia agreed to settle for I think it was over $50 million to put into the statewide psychiatric hospital system, and to provide for community mental health support over a five year period, and it was just like a miracle. It was a phenomenal outcome that no one could conceive of when I jumped into that crisis, and I just said, you know, I’m just gonna do what I can do. And I wasn’t involved in the lawsuit, and in those workings because I have no background in that, and yet it was clear to me that my efforts were significant and that I had played a key role in resurrecting that advocacy effort to really do something meaningful to help these individuals who are under the state’s care and really had no one to speak on their behalf. There was no voice for them at that moment when I came into addressing the crisis. It really gave me this clear sense and knowledge that one person can make a difference in a seemingly intractable, unchangeable system.
So from that point on I got involved in other nonprofit activities. I started a nonprofit myself—an interfaith effort to galvanize the faith community, faith leaders to address mental health issues within their congregations and in the community, and I started organizing annual conferences to educate these leaders and to equip them with resources and tools. We brought together secular resources such as NAMI and their programs and their leadership and a number of other groups just to build this interfaith community. We had rabbis and pastors and priests and imams, and the idea was to really get the community to do what only the community could do, what the government would not and could not do, really. Government has a role to care some of our most vulnerable individuals, but I think there’s a lot that the community can do too, and so I saw that the mechanism of government was starting to move in that direction, and what we needed also was a community response, and especially a response from the faith community to help these families and to help these individuals, and so I’m just giving you this long-winded answer about how I got involved in community work and public service. My entry into politics was really through this kind of mental health advocacy, public service, working in the community and really trying to galvanize them to make a difference for those with mental illness and their families.
Earlier this year, when Senator Chambliss announced that he would retire at the end of his term next year I felt a similar stirring, as I had when I first got involved in 2008 when I got involved in the state mental health crisis. That was because there was another kind of crisis, but this was one at the federal level, and it was a crisis of leadership, that our federally elected leaders simply weren’t getting the job done. They weren’t working together, passing legislation to solve some of our most intractable problems that our nation is facing.
Or even the tractable ones.
[laughs] Right, right.
And that raises a question I wanted to ask, about the dysfunction in Washington. How do you think President Obama has done—are you encouraged by his accomplishments, or are you disappointed that they haven’t gone far enough, or they weren’t able to go far enough?
I think it’s remarkable that he’s been able to pass his signature legislation, the Affordable Care Act, under these circumstances. I just think that’s remarkable. That is a big accomplishment. As a physician, as a healthcare provider, I certainly recognize the fact that our current healthcare system is broken. It is a failure. You have costs that are increasing every year, but our healthcare outcomes don’t get any better. So I think that’s been just a remarkable accomplishment, and I’ve been someone who’s been campaigning, during the campaign and have made it a priority to get information to Georgians about the Affordable Care Act and what kind of benefits they might be able to have. I’ve organized a couple of Affordable Care Act town hall meetings in order to give Georgians that information and to help them make the best decision possible about their healthcare.
So yeah, I do think that the President has had a number of successes, and given this partisanship that’s been up there in DC I think that’s just been a remarkable outcome.
Are there areas where you think the President has not gone far enough in his agenda?
I think it’s always easy to look back in 20/20 hindsight. I will say one thing that I think that the Democrats up until maybe just very recently have, maybe the past month, we have not been as effective or maybe as committed to the argument about the budget deficit. This focus on the budget deficit has led to these sequestration cuts, and I think that this dialogue has really been in large measure about looking to cut some of the key programs that are part of our society’s social fabric, our social safety net. Programs like Social Security and Medicare. As a result I think we’ve sacrificed the opportunity to stimulate our economy, and I think it really does threaten those individuals who are most vulnerable in our society.
We being the Democrats need to recommit ourselves to protecting the security that we have for our older citizens and our more vulnerable citizens and providing those supports. I do think that there are still more opportunities for a more balanced approach in terms of the individuals who are benefiting the most from our economy. You know, we talk about the 1%, the super wealthy. I think there’s an opportunity there for them to continue to pay their fair share in support of our system.
I really admire your work on mental health. I think for many people it’s an invisible issue to many people if they are not directly affected by it, themselves or someone they love. Do you feel like the Affordable Care Act has had an effect on mental health issues?
I think that it hopefully will really empower people; it will provide the kind of coverage that those individuals with mental health issues can now take advantage of, that they will be able to obtain the kind of care that they need, because now mental health and addictive services are part of those 10 essential health benefits that need to be provided under the new law. I think that is terrific, and we have to make sure that insurers are, in fact, offering those kinds of programs because, as we know, the law can say one thing but we have to make sure that that’s being implemented across the board, in all of the states by the different health insurers.
But I am hopeful about that. I think that is a wonderful benefit that many haven’t had in the past. And I’m hopeful that that’s going to make a significant difference in our ability to treat various forms of mental illness effectively and also affordably.
Now I have to ask you—you’re in a race against an establishment candidate, Michelle Nunn, who has a lot of money and name recognition. What do you hope to accomplish in your campaign?
Well, I think it’s going to be very important for me to make sure that I get my message out, and to let people know where I stand on the issues. I believe that I’m taking a stand on issues that are going to be meaningful to folks, with respect to not having this obsessive focus on budget deficits and really trying to stimulate the economy, focusing on creating jobs and protecting our safety net for our most vulnerable individuals. I think that those are issues, as well as advocating for getting information to people about the Affordable Care Act and how people can benefit from it, because I think that this is going to help many and ultimately this is going to be really successful legislation.
There aren’t too many establishment [politicians], either elected officials or candidates who are willing to take a stand on those issues, and really support these issues that would really benefit the majority of Georgians. I think my challenge is to articulate those stands effectively as much as I can, and I think that’s gonna make a difference. I think people are really hungry for change, and that’s what I’m hearing as I’m campaigning around the state—people want things to be different. They want to have greater prospects, whether it’s employment or healthcare or education. I think that the establishment candidates offer more of the same instead of the change we need.
Another way of putting the question would be: do you feel like there’s room in Georgia politics for a candidate who strongly supports the Affordable Care Act, women’s reproductive freedom, the rights of gays and lesbians? These are challenging positions to take in a statewide race in Georgia.
Absolutely. I think one thing we have to consider is that if you take the temperature of Georgians at this particular moment, then you’re right—some of those positions are going to be difficult for someone to be considered electable in this state.
However, I think a year from now, when we’re talking about these same issues, especially around the healthcare issue, I think people are gonna have a different perspective on it. I think they are gonna realize, “Hey, you know what? This is pretty good. This is helping me and my family. It is lowering our healthcare costs. My preexisting condition is now covered and can’t be denied. We don’t have any more annual or lifetime caps on our medical expenses.” The #1 reason for personal bankruptcies, according to the CDC, is medical expenses.
You asked me what could the Administration have done differently, and I think one of the things that wasn’t as effectively articulated was “What are the benefits?” People have not really understood that. They’ve been confused by that. I think that over time that confusion is gonna lift. People will understand it because they will have lived through it, they will have seen how it has affected their friends or neighbors and see the benefits. I think there is going to be a shift in attitudes and perspectives on healthcare here in the state of Georgia, and that’s going to support a candidate who has the kind of position I’m taking on healthcare.
And I also see a larger trend nationwide, and it’s also growing in the state of Georgia: marriage equality. That may never—well, I shouldn’t say “never”—it will change ultimately, even here in Georgia, I think there will come a time when a majority of Georgians will come to see the value and the importance of that right, but I think again that that’s also changing over time. I think a year from now there will be more people who are willing to support a candidate on that issue.
Ultimately, what I hear people in my practice saying—and I treat all comers, I treat Tea Partiers, and liberals, and progressives, and conservatives, and Republicans, and Democrats—and what I hear people talking about is that they’re just tired of it. They are tired of the dysfunction up in Washington, and they are looking to support the best candidate, someone who they believe is going to go up there and really serve their interests and listen to them and bring their concerns up to Washington, because they don’t feel heard now.
And I think from that perspective, my background as a psychiatrist, as a professional, paid listener, I do have those tools and I do have those skills. I think we’re at a point in Georgia, and by next year even more so, when people are really looking for a different kind of leadership. While we are going to have some folks who just disagree on the issues, I think the larger need is going to be for someone who is competent, and reasonable, and willing to listen and able to communicate where he stands. We don’t have to agree on all the issues, but let’s at least be able to talk about these things—where are our differences, and where can we agree, to work together. I believe we can.
There are some key issues that are going to change over time, that will make my candidacy more viable in a year than it might appear at this time. We’re not talking about a general election. We’re talking about a primary. The focus is really on the primary, and I think in order to engage as many people as possible I think it’s important, and I think people are seeing a contrast between the candidates who are running in the primary here.
What is the contrast between you and Michelle Nunn?
Well, for instance, we talked about international relations. Earlier this year she announced that she was in favor of a military strike in Syria, and I announced that I did not support that, that ought to pursue diplomacy, and I think that’s been borne out. Diplomacy, talking, negotiating has been successful, and we’ve been able to avoid bloodshed and further military intervention and potentially destabilization of that area.
So that’s been one big difference. I think another difference is on the healthcare issue. I’ve been very clear in my desire to get information into the hands of Georgians, to educate them and equip them about these healthcare changes. I’ve hosted Affordable Care Act town halls. I’ve also created a website that asks to call on Governor Deal and Insurance Commissioner Hudgens to expand Medicaid—you can get to that video on my website, DrRadforSenate.com. I also created another website that provides some basic information about the Affordable Care Act, and some easy answers to some common questions about the Affordable Care Act. So we worked on again developing information to diminish the confusion that people have about this healthcare change.
Michelle Nunn has come out with a statement that she wanted to delay the individual mandate, which would undermine this whole legislation. [laughs] That’s another big difference.
And then, at the onset of her campaign, she was very clear that she wanted to pick up where Saxby Chambliss left off with respect to this budget deficit conversation, and talking about the budget deficit. I think we have to, as Democrats, move away from that obsessive focus on the deficit, which is really a narrative about cutting Social Security and Medicare, and we have to move away from that. We have to start focusing on jobs and stimulating the economy, and make it clear that we are not gonna solve our debt problems or deficit issues by taking advantage of our most vulnerable individuals, who are being supported by these programs.
Just to talk about Social Security for a minute—currently, 9% of Social Security recipients live under the poverty line. Without Social Security reports indicate that 40% of these individuals would be living in poverty. I don’t think that we as a nation, that isn’t the kind of social contract that we established with our citizens. We as Democrats need to move away from that narrative and we need to move to a narrative focusing on jobs, and when we’re talking reducing the deficit or long-term debt, that we’re not going to do that on the backs of our most vulnerable individuals.
Why do you think the issue of the deficit and the debt is so compelling? Both sides of the aisle talk about this; talking heads, pundits, commentators, everybody’s concerned about the debt. And I think you said that stands in for an attack on Social Security and Medicare. But why do you think people are so obsessed with it?
That’s what I mean—when I say that, I think we the Democrats have not been as aggressive in changing that narrative, that discourse. We have this desire to work across the aisle and start talking about this “Grand Bargain,” and I think we have allowed that narrative to dominate the discourse. And so I think we need to start creating a different focus.
When you ask me, “Why the deficit?” I think it’s political. I don’t think there’s anything magic about the deficit. When President Clinton left office, we had a budget surplus. So it isn’t that the deficit has been some sort of bogeyman that’s been around forever, we just happen to have this problem, this sort of intractable problem, no—the deficits really started accumulating under the Bush administration.
It’s more of a political discourse and unfortunately I think we have as a nation and as the Democratic Party we’ve sort of allowed ourselves to get sucked into that. We need to make a conscious effort to step back and really start focusing on the issues that really matter to Americans. It’s not that the budget deficit is not important, but it’s not more important right now, because the budget deficit has been going down significantly with each of the past three years and I think it’s been reduced by something like 50% over the past three years. And so I think we need to start focusing on what’s really going to help individuals help their families and by focusing on jobs and the economy. We need to reassure people that we still are the party of opportunity, and we talk about that by focusing on the opportunity to get healthcare, the opportunity to get an affordable, accessible education, and stressing those issues, and creating policies that will back those goals up.
So if it’s not the deficit, then what do you think is the defining issue of our time? If we were going to change the narrative from deficit, debt, cutting taxes, deregulation to a different narrative, what would that be?
I just think we have to work to find ways to stimulate job growth and to keep our economy thriving, because when we do, when the economy is humming that is when the tax revenues go up, that’s when the deficits go down. It’s not so much the sequestration cuts that people are talking about—it has contributed somewhat to deficit reduction, but the greater contributor has been the growth in the economy. I think we need to focus on that. We need to focus on ways to get the higher-paying jobs, manufacturing jobs, jobs that have been exported to other countries, to find ways to create incentives for large corporations to move those jobs back to the United States.
The way you asked the question presumes that there is one issue that predominates, but I don’t necessarily see that there’s one issue. I will say that I think the sense of optimism that people have generally associated with our country has diminished, and I think the idea of injecting that sense of hopefulness and opportunity, that’s where we need to focus.
Actually, as I’m talking out loud I’m sort of thinking—I would say this, as we’re looking ahead, the issue that encompasses what I just said about trying to stimulate optimism and opportunity really has to do with solving income inequality. If I could put my finger on it, I think that’s it. There is a very small group of our citizenry that is deriving the greatest amount of benefit from our system, and then a large, large majority that really is not experiencing that same sense of growth and a sense of hopefulness. If we could identify some of those causes and create policies to change it, then I think we’re gonna revitalize and galvanize our workforce, our productivity, and our citizenry, and I think that’s where we ought to be focusing a lot of our attention.
So I think I heard economic opportunity and economic inequality as being two themes there.
I think they’re related.
It has to do with really trying to make sure we are expanding those kinds of opportunities that more people will be able to take advantage of our market-oriented economic system.
This has been a really fascinating conversation. It has been great getting to talk to you about these issues. Is there anything else you’d like to say?
I really am excited to be a candidate and to really be talking about issues that are important to me and important to my fellow citizens, and really trying to live out my values through the campaign. As you saw me at the Medicaid expansion rally [at Grady Hospital], I try to look for those kinds of opportunities to demonstrate my leadership. We have enough people talking about what’s wrong, we need more people doing something about it, and taking the initiative—not just talking about a campaign, but really being agents of change. I believe we are doing that with the campaign, and I want to continue to do that.
It was great to see you out there at that demonstration, and I think that we really want to see potential holders of elected office actually on the ground, showing what they believe and what they’re committed to. I think that a lot of people appreciated that. Thanks so much, Dr. Rad.