Hillary Killer? Q&A with Dr. Mark McMahon: He's Forcing the Queen into a Democratic Primary

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:57

    Interview by Andrey Slivka & Russ Smith

    Of the two types of insurgent candidate?the rock-thrower and the idealist?Dr. Mark McMahon, 39, an Upper East Side surgeon who's challenging Hillary Clinton in the Sept. 12 Democratic primary, is the latter. The softspoken McMahon evinces none of the bluster and oppressive self-confidence that typically characterize candidates. In fact, he's the first political personality we've met who, in an interview, will admit to inconsistencies in his own philosophy.

    McMahon says he's challenging Clinton not to be a gadfly (or because his own politics differ significantly from hers), but because, as both a democrat and a Democrat, he's offended by what he calls the "coronation scenario"?that his party's leaders have contrived to offer Clinton the candidacy without seeking their membership's approval.

    McMahon is married?his wife is a physician as well?and has three young children, two of whom attend Manhattan public schools and one of whom he claims will, when old enough. He was born in Manhattan and raised in Brooklyn and then in Jericho, L.I. He went to college at Georgetown, earned his medical degree from Harvard and holds a master's degree in political sociology from the London School of Economics. Though he's never before run for office, he's been active in local Democratic politics as a volunteer and as a member of political clubs. When we spoke with him at our offices last Wednesday, July 19, he was waiting to see if the Clinton campaign would challenge the petitions he'd submitted toward getting himself onto the ballot. Two days later, it was official?there would be no challenge.

    Russ Smith: There haven't been many articles about you?there seems to be sort of a blackout?but I've read that you agree with Hillary Clinton's positions. Is that correct?

    In the sense that we're both Democrats.

    RS: There're Democrats and then there're Democrats.

    I think...one of the expectations is that an insurgent candidate will come in with all kinds of radical ideas. Like let's have a flat tax, let's go back to the gold standard, etc. I think people are a little bit surprised, then, that most of my positions are more or less mainstream Democrat positions... I think one area where there is a difference is on the subject of Israel and the subject of land for peace. I believe in a concept that I call peace through strength, rather than land for peace. That is, they should not give up territory. That's one area.

    It always comes down to a level of intensity... So Hillary and Carolyn McCarthy both favor gun control, but I would say Carolyn McCarthy [has a higher] level of intensity and dedication to that cause. Similarly, with healthcare, if I were to be elected to the Senate, as a doctor I would take all those healthcare issues?the uninsured, Medicare, gun control, patients' rights?they would be at the top of the agenda. I, as a doctor, would immediately become a national leader in many of these areas, which currently are among some of the most hotly debated topics in the House of Representatives.

    Andrey Slivka: What is your position on healthcare?

    I would take a more aggressive approach, more of the Bill Bradley approach, as opposed to the Gore approach or the Clinton approach?which would be the incremental kind of approach. I think it's fair to make the statement that we would guarantee healthcare coverage for all children. My plan would have, say, tax credits for individuals to buy health insurance through the federal employee health association; tax credits for companies to provide health insurance to their employees. In addition to that, I very much back the Child Health Plus-type programs. We would need to cover low-income individuals, the children of low-income families...

    My attitude is, if at this point in our history, we can't cover the uninsured, then when are we going to cover them? Do you just throw up your hands and say it can't happen? Something can actually be done on the subject.

    AS: What are some other "differences of intensity"?

    I include a lot of things under the healthcare umbrella. I am someone who literally has had to remove bullets from the victims of gun violence... Also, crime as a general problem. I've treated the victims of domestic abuse, drunk driving. Breast cancer?I've treated these patients. AIDS. Also, let's say environmental pollution. It plays a role in asthma. I think Harlem has the highest asthma rate in the country.

    RS: What's your stand on abortion?

    I'm pro-choice. In the case of partial-birth abortion, if the mother's life is in danger?I would say it should not be undertaken except when the mother's life is in danger. I also think minors should be required to seek parental notification in obtaining abortions. That's another area where I differ from Hillary...

    RS: Well, she's sort of been changing her position on late-term abortions. What issues do you think Hillary Clinton is intense about? What do you think she's passionate about, as you are?

    She does change her opinion on different issues. And sometimes you wonder, exactly what is her opinion?

    RS: It gets to the whole question of, why is she running?

    I think New Yorkers have a sense like, "Is this whole thing about Hillary?" Or is it being used by Hillary? What she's passionate about is getting the seat, which she can just parlay into something else, or whatever. My feeling about Lazio is that he will be like this [crosses fingers] with Trent Lott. I think New Yorkers have to decide?do they want someone with Trent Lott, as he was with Newt Gingrich? As opposed to someone like myself, who would be more with Chuck Schumer. Particularly on gun control, he's very passionate.

    On your question about Hillary, it's hard to say. I'd say public education. Here's the great champion of public education sending her own child to private school.

    RS: One of the things about Hillary Clinton that I find disingenuous is that she's never been elected for anything. What has she done?

    She's an advocate as first lady... The healthcare effort she made, I think in some sense she [deserves] credit. She did attempt it. The problem is, her plan was overreaching?

    AS: With the exception of maybe abortion, it would seem that you're more of a traditional kind of Democrat than Hillary. Your position on healthcare is the original Clinton position, before they went New Democrat.

    I always think of myself as a moderate. Although everyone is a moderate now, I guess.

    AS: What is your stance on capital punishment?

    I am for capital punishment. But here's an example. Hillary is now, I guess, for capital punishment. It's tough because you often wonder what is her position. I know on the Jonathan Pollard issue?which I get asked about a lot?Hillary won't take a stand. She's not gonna handle that question.

    AS: What do you think about Jonathan Pollard?

    I am for freeing him. I think he's been in jail for 15 years... A lot of people have a kneejerk reaction: He's a spy, like Aldrich Ames or those Soviet spies. Life in prison. He's guilty of treason. Except in his case, he was not trying to harm the U.S. He was trying to help Israel in its battle with Iraq.

    RS: One of the big things I've seen in the media coverage is that you resent Hillary being a carpetbagger. That's an issue that seems to have gone away somewhat.

    If you look at the polls, that's the number-one reason people give. I think I was more incensed about the idea that the Democratic Party brokered this deal, where Hillary came and presented her prerequisites to save the party from Rudy, and one of those was that there be no primary. And then the Democratic leaders, Judith Hope, etc., were happy to oblige her. The power should not be in the hands of Judith Hope and Charles Rangel. It should be in the hands of the 4.9 million Democrats in this state. They should be the ones on primary day to pick the candidate. If they want Hillary, then they're going to do it on Sept. 12.

    AS: That brings up the question, how long have you been working on this?

    I actually have been working at it a long time. I registered with the Federal Election Commission on Sept. 23... The AP ran a story about this, and that produced news reports...

    Lately, when we submitted these 44,000 signatures, we've been getting more coverage. Gabe Pressman did a story. CNN did an interview and sent a camera crew over. New York 1 had interviewed me back in January, February?around that time?but then they never aired the story. But then they interviewed me a few days ago and they did run parts of that. CNN did run the story.

    I don't really feel harmed. I'm not angry at the media. You have to prove yourself with the media. Some of that is just being around long enough.

    Next week I'm going upstate. You know, go to Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse. Last week I was up in Albany. I have a campaign manager, a treasurer, a few media consultants. Of course I don't have the party in any way, shape or form?a lot of those things that you look at for credibility, and so I could do some events, like a party can do for you.

    RS: Where are you going to get your money?

    I have gotten some money with the coverage. I would say I don't need $30 million.

    RS: You don't need $30 million, but you need $10 million, to let people know that there is a primary. Hillary Clinton is not a popular candidate, but people don't know that there's going to be a primary.

    What I'm hoping [is that] in the next eight weeks, just by continuing the momentum of this thing, I'll be getting more and more coverage, just media coverage. I'm also hoping that the population?the Democratic primary population?is more sophisticated... One thing is that a standard insurgent candidate needs money to get their name out. But this is an atypical race, in that there's so much interest in it. I will get my name out?you know, challenging Hillary to debates, etc.?which I believe she owes out of respect to the 4.9 million Democrats.

    RS: How are you going to aggravate the Clinton campaign enough that they acknowledge you?

    On Monday a reporter went up to Hillary and said, "It looks like you're going to have a primary," and she said, "Well, we're looking into it. I don't know much about him."

    AS: What's been your view of the last eight years? The Clinton years?

    RS: Would you be doing this if, for example, Hillary Clinton wasn't in it? If Nita Lowey was the anointed one?

    I don't know. Because many of my issues are national health issues. I've worked with candidates' campaigns. I thought, this could be a great opportunity. It's kind of disturbing that they "guaranteed" her no primary. You talk about Tammany Hall?this is worse. In some ways I feel like the guy in Tienanmen Square, against the machine that coronated Hillary. I've always thought of myself as sort of akin to Bill Clinton?to the extent that he's a moderate Democrat.

    AS: You voted for Clinton in '92 and '96?

    Yes, I did. You figure Hillary's to the left of Bill.

    AS: What do you think of the impeachment affair?

    I was more upset by the behavior. Trying to cover it up, you can kind of understand. But the idea that he was conducting this behavior in the Oval Office...

    AS: Are you a practicing Catholic?


    AS: So you're not an anti-Clinton Democrat, really. You'll both vote for Gore and run against Hillary.

    I'll go with Gore.

    AS: It's interesting, because you don't seem the kind of person who would become incensed, the sort of person who would be an insurgent.

    Part of that is being a doctor, dealing with life-and-death situations... You don't seem incensed... Does Bill Bradley seem incensed about anything?

    AS: How much time does this campaign take you?

    ...Because I'm not wealthy, I am continuing whenever possible to work, and also because I sort of have certain obligations. I would present that as one of the best things about me as a candidate. I'm not living in a cocoon. This morning, I'm talking to Medicare patients being denied services or complaining about how expensive their drugs are. As opposed to, you know, Hillary in the cocoon of Air Force One, flying around the state or coming through town in a motorcade.

    AS: So it's a process of seeing a patient, getting on the phone for an interview, seeing another patient, then squeezing in another interview?

    Like the Bob Grant show yesterday. They called around 1 and said can you come on at 3:30?... I'm scheduling trips. I'm also doing surgery on Friday morning. I'm married with three children, too. As a doctor, having gone through what I went through there?internship and all the other forms of torture?that gives me a little background. It's sort of a training ground for what I'm going through, and I will be going through from now until, hopefully, November and beyond. I am continuing to work.

    RS: If you're unsuccessful in the primary, will you vote for Hillary Clinton?

    I'm inclined to say yes. But I'm waiting to see what happens in the next eight weeks. As a Democrat, I feel like I probably will. Like any other voter, I do want to see how things play out, in the unlikely event that I lose the primary. The thing with The New York Times covering me?they're going to have to. Probably the first time they cover me is going to be on the day after the election, when I defeat Hillary...

    RS: Has the Times been in contact with you at all?

    Adam Nagourney called the campaign headquarters about six weeks ago and talked to my campaign manager. That was one person that had a direct contact. Other than that, no.

    AS: How much of this is out of your own pocket?

    A lot of it, but also I am getting contributions. The reality is, if you're not running television advertisements, it's not outrageously expensive... [There's] this notion that one's ability to raise or not raise 25 million dollars should be the sole criterion by which we select a senator... You know, Lazio or Hillary, if they get in, they've got to pay back those people. I, on the other hand, am indebted only to the voters who elected me. I think that has a certain appeal to people. And the other thing I like to say is, for issues like campaign finance reform, there's no better way to strike a blow in favor of that than to vote for my type of candidacy.

    RS: I don't understand how you can be for Al Gore rather than Ralph Nader. I mean, Gore is up to his eyeballs in campaign finance irregularities, to put it mildly. Yours is a populist effort. How can you vote for Al Gore, after speaking just the way you did?

    A lot of it's my own lack of focus. I'm thinking of it in terms of, it's either Gore or Bush... Which is what I'm sure a lot of people are thinking about the Senate race.

    RS: That's a flaw in your campaign. I mean, I admire your candor.

    That's a thing that people fall victim to. The reality of it is people think of this race as Hillary versus Rick.

    AS: What do your friends and relatives think of this? Do they think you're wasting your time?

    In general, people are very enthusiastic... They felt left out of this, with this whole coronation scenario. They love the idea that they're going to be picking the nominee. Doctors, for the most part, are anti-Hillary. Well, they tend to be Republicans. As far as my wife goes, she is not a typical doctor. She's not particularly into politics. She's living her own life, kind of. She's supportive of me. She's not going to be by my side on the campaign trail... She might be more like?I hate to draw the analogy?like Rudy and Donna Hanover. More that type of political spouse, where she has her own identity.

    AS: I wonder if they'll start leaning on you in the next month and a half.

    The Democratic Party? Well, first of all, I'm not the kind of candidate who's out...spewing hatred. I'd like to have a high-minded debate and discussion of the issues. If there is a primary and Hillary wins the primary, I think it would further legitimize her as a candidate?help her shake that carpetbagger image. It's a double problem for her. Number one, she's not from the state. Number two, she was kind of foisted on the people. But if she's not from the state, runs a primary and defeats the other person, I think that legitimizes her.

    On the other hand, if I win, I think the Democratic Party will be very happy to find out that she's a flawed candidate, rather than waiting for November. If we do have a primary it's sort of a win-win for the democratic process, or the Democratic Party, because it's taking the high road. "Look we had an open system. The Republicans have a closed system."

    RS: It's such a long shot.

    Let me say something about the long shot. A Siena College poll that came out a couple of months ago said that 50 percent of the Democrats in New York state think that Hillary should not be running... When I was up in Albany last week, I ran into a guy who's running for state Assembly. He said, "Hillary's really popular downstate, but upstate, Democrats hate Hillary." I find that wherever I go, I get that same kind of statement...

    RS: Well, a dogcatcher would have been equal with her.

    I honestly think that Republicans would be very concerned about running against a candidate like me. I don't have the negative baggage. I'm from New York...

    RS: If you won, you would literally be on the cover of Time magazine, and you would beat Lazio because this is a Democratic state.

    I think any other candidate would have been 20 points ahead of Lazio, by now.

    RS: Is there any politician or public official who's given you an endorsement or encouragement?

    I think all the Democratic Party officials are afraid. They owe their livelihood to the Democratic Party. They're intimidated. They don't want to take on Hillary, since it appears she's going to win the primary...

    One thing that did happen: This guy Carlos Manzano?he's a state committee man who's from the Hell's Kitchen area, the Clinton area. He decided to make a statement. They wanted to demonstrate that 100 percent of the state committeemen are for Hillary. So we thought he'd vote for me, just to make a point. It was a Madison Square Garden-type auditorium. They said, "Are there any other names that anyone wishes to enter into consideration?" They said, "If there's no one else, all right, let's go to the next order of business." But he was raising his arms!...

    And they said?this was in the Associated Press?that they were expecting 100 percent support within the state Democratic Party for Hillary Clinton. When was the last time we were in any Democratic situation where you saw 100 percent support for anything? I mean, in the Soviet Union they had 100 percent support for whatever they did.