the city politic

Liz Holtzman on Why Guts and Expertise Matter More Than Age

The former congresswoman says she feels called to get back in the fight.

Democratic congressional candidate Liz Holtzman. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Democratic congressional candidate Liz Holtzman. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

In 1972, at age 31, Elizabeth Holtzman became the youngest woman ever elected to Congress at the time. During her eight years in the House, the Democrat from Brooklyn recommended articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon on the Judiciary Committee and worked to bring Nazi war criminals to justice. In 1980, she won the Democratic nomination for the Senate, but ultimately lost to Republican Al D’Amato in the general election. In the following years, she went on to serve as Brooklyn’s district attorney and later as city comptroller, becoming the first woman in New York City history to hold both offices.

Now, a half-century after she made it to Washington, Holtzman is seeking to return, running in the crowded field for New York’s Tenth Congressional district alongside City Councilwoman Carlina Rivera, State Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou, former impeachment counsel Dan Goldman, and Representative Mondaire Jones. She’s been endorsed by the National Organization for Women, Gloria Steinem, and the New York Daily News editorial board.

Holtzman, who turned 81 last week, is campaigning at a time when many have been questioning whether Joe Biden, who is slightly younger than her, is too old to run for a second term as president. I asked her about that last week, the actions she would take to protect abortion rights following the decision on Roe v. Wade, and what lessons should be taken from the Watergate era.

Some have questioned whether President Biden should run again in 2024, specifically citing his age. What do you make of those arguments, especially when they come from members of the president’s own party?
Well, Biden and I came to Congress together, so I’ve known him a long time. He’s a very decent and very compassionate person. I strongly supported him when he ran for president. I thought he was the only one who could beat Trump. I want to say something: No matter what happens, the country owes him an enormous debt of gratitude that he defeated Trump and kept him out of power. As to what happens in the next election, that’s a decision he has to make for himself. It’s a very personal decision to run for office, and I’m sure he’ll make a decision that he feels comfortable with.

Do you think there’s been too much focus on his age rather than what he’s accomplished as president?
I think there are a lot of preconceptions about age. I haven’t seen him in a couple of years, but I did see him during the campaign. He was very fit, not only physically, but intellectually. I think he’s definitely up to the job. But whether he’ll run again, I don’t know. I think the focus on age — you really have to look beyond the age. I mean, Donald Trump is younger than Biden, but he’s a menace to the world. Just looking at age doesn’t necessarily get you a candidate or an officeholder who’s good.

You served as a congresswoman during the Nixon presidency and you were in favor of impeaching Nixon for Watergate. What lessons should Congress and Washington take from that era?
Every time is unique, but one of the important lessons — and I think the January 6 committee learned this lesson and the prior impeachment processes against Trump did not — was the January 6 committee put Republicans out in front, so that it didn’t look like a Democratic effort trying to take down Donald Trump. You had Liz Cheney talking. The main witnesses were Republicans. That sort of underscores what happened during the Nixon impeachment process. I was part of that. I voted for Nixon’s impeachment. I drafted one of the articles of impeachment on the Cambodia bombing. But the effort there was constantly to try to reassure Republicans that the process was going to be fair. The chair of the Judiciary Committee then, Peter Rodino, understood. The stakes were really high. We had to remove Nixon from office. It wasn’t going to happen with just Democrats taking him out. He knew that, so he bent over backwards. We had a Republican chair of our Judiciary impeachment process. We had two Republicans as counsel for the impeachment inquiry, and it worked. It sent a really important signal that this process was going to be as nonpartisan, as fair as possible.

Did we win all the Republicans over? Not at the outset. Not even at the end. It took the smoking gun to convince most of the Republicans to support it, but enough Republicans supported the impeachment result. The articles of impeachment were written by a group of southern Democrats, conservative Democrats, and moderate Republicans. So, there was every effort to deal with, not just the cosmetics of it, but the reality of it that this was going to be not a Democratic-controlled effort. That made a big difference and I think it’s making a difference with the January 6 committee. I think the country is paying attention to it.

Holding a president accountable needs to be something that is understood and accepted as a norm in America. The framers of the Constitution made it crystal clear that a president could be prosecuted. They knew there would be presidents who committed crimes in office. They hoped there wouldn’t be, of course, but they were students of history and they knew that there’d be bad people in power. The reluctance of Americans to see that their president who commits a crime or engages in abuses of power is held accountable is very, very troubling. These are not gods. These are human beings and they have to obey the rule of law and they have to be held accountable. I think that’s why what I call the unpardonable pardon of Richard Nixon was wrong. I was the only Democrat, I was the only person who had the guts to ask President Ford to his face about the Nixon pardon, whether there was a deal. I was willing to do that. Nobody else did. I think that we need to be much more up-front and not timid about holding a president accountable because Trump has done some very bad things in office. Terrible things, apparently criminal on their face, including instigating and orchestrating an insurrection and instigating and orchestrating an effort to steal an election from the people of the United States. It’s not from Joe Biden. It’s from the people of the United States and it’s from our system of government. We can’t be tiptoeing around that.

Over the length of your career, you’ve served in a number of roles from comptroller to district attorney, and, of course, as a congresswoman. So why run for Congress now?
Because this is a time that demands somebody with experience, expertise, guts, determination, know-how. We’re facing one of the most dangerous times in American history. This is not a time for on-the-job training. This is a time for someone with a proven record who can take on the extremist Supreme Court; Donald Trump, who has tried to come back with fraud, if not violence; and the MAGA Republicans supporting both efforts. The Supreme Court is taking away women’s rights, the rights of more than half the population. And if they can do that to women, who’s safe? Not only are they attacking women’s rights, but they’re also attacking the ability of government to solve problems and they want to paralyze the EPA. We’re really in dangerous times. I wasn’t planning to run for Congress. I read Alito’s decision and it made my blood boil. I became outraged. When they created a new district, I’m pretty much at the epicenter of it, I said, “I’m not going to sit on the sidelines.” I didn’t sit on the sidelines of the civil-rights movement and I don’t want to sit on the sidelines now while the country moves toward fascism.

You were endorsed by the Daily News for this race. How did it feel to receive that support?
It felt great, and it was a beautifully written editorial. I think it touched on many of the points why I’m running and why I’m qualified, the most qualified. They called me the class of the field and I felt very honored, very humbled by it. I think it surprised many people. I’ve been underestimated in the past, so I’m not surprised about that part. But it was wonderful to get it.

What do you see as the biggest issues facing the district right now?
I think the biggest issues facing the district are the issues facing the country. How are we going to deal with an out-of-control Supreme Court that’s threatening our basic rights and the basic structure of our economy? How are we going to deal with a former president who wants to retake the presidency by fraud, if not by force? I mean, look at what just happened. One of his supporters goes and tries to kill the FBI agents and shoot at them. And where is Trump, condemning this? Of course not. I don’t know if he’s sitting at his TV, enjoying every second of it — that people would try to kill others for him. So, we’re in a dangerous time and I think people in this district understand that. Of course, there are other problems. We have inflation. Luckily, the inflation seems to be abating somewhat. We have problems with climate change. We have it specifically with regard to the fact that this district is low-lying. We have toxic chemicals in the Gowanus Canal and that has to be cleaned up properly. Those are other issues.

There’s been an increase in urgency for Congress to act on climate change. What actions do you think that Congress should be taking to address climate change in a serious way?
Well, I think the Inflation Reduction Act is an important step forward. Obviously, it’s not everything. Far from it. I mean, I guess it’s a good thing to make electric cars more affordable. But really, electric cars are out of the reach, even if they’re more affordable, of most Americans. So, we need to be talking about major investments in mass transit, major investments. We’re way behind the rest of the world, whether you want to look at bullet trains or the cleanliness and effectiveness of our subway system. It’s not sufficient, and we need to be really investing in that big time. We want to get people out of cars. Electric cars, I don’t know that they’re really an answer in an urban area anyway. Where are you going to charge your car? That’s my concern about it. Solar panels, reducing the price by $6,000. Is that going to be a sufficient incentive? I’m glad it’s there, but maybe we could do a little better. Just in terms of the incentives that are already in the bill, they need to be expanded in my judgment.

We haven’t really, as a country, addressed the issue of mass transit in a serious enough way. There are other things that can be done, and I don’t know that it requires congressional action in the sense of a bill. Not everything requires a bill. People don’t understand that. Even if you introduce a bill that never becomes law, it’s like a shot in the wilderness. But one of the things that hasn’t been done is oil companies and other companies that extract minerals on federal lands are not properly audited. It’s pretty much a self-regulatory system. How good is self-regulation if there isn’t serious auditing capacity? So, that’s something I would do and, obviously, also reduce the subsidies to the oil companies and energy industry.

As a former district attorney, how would you approach public safety?
Well, first of all, I have in the past. I urged the adoption of laws that improve victim safety, witness protection, and we put in programs to improve the handling of victims of crime. When I was DA, we changed and improved the laws on sexual violence, violence against children. One of the major factors in street violence is guns, the epidemic of guns. That’s been an ongoing problem. I’m for a ban on assault weapons and we need to have large magazines banned and we need many more regulations on gun ownership and on gun usage and on guns themselves, but it’s very hard to get significant legislation through Congress. When I was there before, I voted for substantial regulation of guns. While we need to try for that, I think we have to figure out some practical measures that will work outside of the legislative framework.

One of the things I’ve been proposing in this campaign is getting states and localities and the federal government most of all to use their purchasing power to influence how gun manufacturers are behaving. The federal government and states and localities buy billions of dollars of weapons from gun manufacturers in America. For police, FBI, U.S. Marshals, the military, Secret Service, Treasury enforcers. What do we ask in return? And why aren’t we? Let’s be a little bit tough on this. I mean, as part of the Sandy Hook settlement, I understand that the gun manufacturer who was held liable there agreed to be supervised in terms of the number of guns that it was selling, so that those guns wouldn’t go into illegal channels. Well, if the plaintiffs in Sandy Hook could ask that of a gun manufacturer and get it, what about the federal government? This is a practical solution.

You don’t need legislation. Just do it. If I’m elected, you can be sure that this is something that I’m going to support and fight for. I mean, that’s one of the reasons I’m running — because I want to get practical solutions to problems, solutions that will work. It’s easy to draft the bill, put it in, have a press conference — that’s easy. But I’m not going to Congress to do that. I’m going to Congress to get things done, as I did in the past. I’ve got a record of accomplishment and achievement and this is the time when you need somebody who’s going to get things done. Gun violence is a really important issue for me and I want to address it. That’s one of the solutions and, if this isn’t going to work, I’m going to look for other ones. The same with anything. I’m prepared to really study an issue in depth, work with the various groups that are involved, listen to constituents, and try to work out solutions that work.

You’ve alluded to how difficult it can be to get things done in Congress. How would your past congressional experience help to break through the gridlock?
First of all, I know how the legislative process works. I know how you have to get support. I know how to win support. I have won support for my bills in the past, so I know how to do it. I think that’s really important. People who work with me, Republicans and Democrats, they’ve respected me and I think that’s the important thing. It’s a critical factor. I’m not saying that it’s going to overcome this new MAGA Republican effect that’s taken over the Republican Party. I can’t say that. But I have been able in the past to win Republican support for legislation and I know how to get bills through. I’ve done it. I don’t know that anybody else who’s running for office has a bill that they’ve written that’s passed through Congress and been signed into law.

After the Supreme Court decision on Roe v. Wade, there’s been a push to protect abortion rights however possible, especially as states begin to consider legislation that could ban the procedure statewide. What do you think of the actions that have been taken so far and what more needs to be done?
Well, I released a ten-point plan. I compliment the administration for taking the steps it has, but more needs to be done. We need to have a czar over the issue of women’s reproductive freedom. I think the reason that you need someone in control is because it’s not just organizing the federal agencies, but coordinating with the private sector and the states and localities. Another thing that has to be done is we need a nationwide hotline, like a 911 line or some other kind of hotline for women who are in trouble, and they’re gonna be in trouble in various places. Another thing is to be monitoring the Justice Department and bird-dogging them to make sure that they are taking on these state laws that, in many cases, may violate women’s constitutional rights and also federal law. The Justice Department just sued, and I was very pleased to see that, the state of Idaho on its law. The denial of emergency medical treatment to women may be a violation of federal medical laws, may also be a violation of women’s constitutional rights too. So, the federal government has to be proactive, and there has to be someone who’s working on that. There may be volunteer lawyers, pro bono lawyers, who are able to help out on this national effort.

The other thing I’m proposing to do about it is to take a look at the Supreme Court itself. Nobody is discussing what practical steps can be taken with regard to changing the composition of the Court. Now, there have been proposals for term limits. Whether you support it or you don’t support it, the likelihood that that’s going to pass over a filibuster is zero to minus. The same with expanding the Court. Not likely to happen. It’d be filibustered for sure. Term limits have a constitutional dimension that many people think, including me, that it’s unconstitutional.

So, what are we going to do on a practical basis? One of the things I’m proposing is that we complete the investigation that was never completed on Brett Kavanaugh. We don’t need a law. We don’t need a bill. We don’t need to overturn the filibuster. Congress just shouldn’t take its recess and do this work. I mean, the Senate just held a hearing in which the FBI acknowledged that they never questioned Brett Kavanaugh. They never questioned his accuser. What kind of investigation was that? It’s a joke. So number one, complete that investigation. I’m not saying they’re going to find any wrongdoing by Brett Kavanaugh. But what happens if they do? That certainly is a possibility. Same with Mr. Clarence Thomas. He’s the only justice to vote against the release of information to the January 6 committee, which apparently would have or might have disclosed actions by his wife. Clarence Thomas did not recuse himself. That issue needs to be examined. Congress has the power to look into that. Why aren’t they? What’s the timidity here? It’s not only holding presidents accountable. Congress has a responsibility to make sure that the government is held accountable, and that includes the Supreme Court. So, those are two things that Congress could do right now. I’m not in Congress. I don’t have a voice there. But if I were in Congress, you bet I’d be talking about this right now.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Liz Holtzman on Why Guts and Expertise Matter More Than Age