MFD Interview with Tom Wyka


Tom Wyka is running for Congress in New Jersey’s 11th Congressional District. His calling into politics has evolved over the past several years with the gradual realization that too many of us have placed our democracy on auto-pilot, expecting someone else to pay attention to the issues. He is an activist and a DFA group leader in Morris County, where he is challenging a 14 year incumbent for the second time.

Mitch Manzella: Tom, thanks for taking the time to talk to us today. What kinds of music do you like?

Tom Wyka: I pretty much run the gamut on a lot of stuff. I have my old favorites and I’ve been trying to rebuild my vinyl collection from my teenage years. The Who’s Quadrophenia and Tommy is a must have. There is a lot of Springsteen that I’ve be trying to get digitally, and I’ll go onto iTunes every once in a while and grab some random things -- Van Halen, Queen -- from my teenage years and even some new stuff. Throughout the years I’ve found different bands to latch onto: Live, Green Day, particularly some of the more political tunes that Green Day does, and even sometimes some bands that are a little more off the wall; Offspring can give you a great charge from the music - as well as having some offbeat humor and social commentary.

Manzella: Has any music inspired you to be involved in Public Service?

Wyka: I think Springsteen has a lot to do with that. I think he has a certain level of understanding of the human condition if you listen to his very early stuff. It always contrasts very ordinary and very oddball characters, and the theme that goes through all of that is that - everybody counts, everybody has a dream, and everybody has aspirations. It doesn’t matter who you are, and it can take you from a place of despair to a place of hope. One other thing he emphasizes in light of these aspirations is the real possibility of failure – but the importance of faith in your convictions and goals above all else. A line that really sustains me in tough times is one from Promised Land – “Gonna be a twister that blows everything down, that doesn’t have the faith to stand its ground,” that reminds me that it’s all about faith, hanging onto your dream and your vision in the face of adversity of any shape or size.

Manzella: You grew up at the end of the disco era and the beginning of the 80’s. Is there any music from your youth that sticks with you now as you are running for Congress?

Wyka: When I first discovered rock and roll it was really the mid to late 70s, so I didn’t really latch on to too much of the 60’s era rock, but people like Neil Young, David Crosby, Steven Stills, and Graham Nash – though I did come to appreciate them more after the fact. My brothers used to play their music a lot, but for me it was a little later in life in the 80s when I started listening to things like Springsteen’s The River and Born to Run that set the tone that everybody matters that I take into my politics. We are American, but we can be critical once in a while to get us all to a better place. Springsteen’s and Green Day’s political songs tell that story.

Manzella: You’ve never held public office before, what caused you to make that leap to run for Congress?

Wyka: I started to get very politically aware in the mid to late 90s to the point that by 2004 came around I wound up working for the Kerry campaign because I couldn’t stand on the sidelines anymore. I saw everything that was going on in this country and just decided that this is not a spectator sport. I had to lend my hand and any type of talent that I have to get out the vote for John Kerry. Of course I was just as disappointed as anyone could be with the results in 2004, but I shook myself off right after that, because you just have to keep fighting. I started to become more and more active, and it’s just been a snowball effect from there. I had so much energy driving toward political activism, and came to the realization that I wanted to run for office at some point in time. Then in a meeting with my activist group, we were talking about who would give Rodney Frelinghuysen a good run for his money in 2006. We wanted to all work for someone we could get behind and who would advocate for our issues. Then I went to a Wellstone Action weekend and came to the realization that for all the time we keep waiting for someone else to stand up, we miss the point that we are the leaders we’ve been waiting for. This was something that I could do, raise the level of debate, and challenge the sitting congressman. As “red” as my district is, you have to subscribe to Howard Dean’s 50 State Strategy; our message is universal. We can make a connection to any voter, and turn things around by showing them our perspective, but you have to be listening to people. You have to be able to apply your energy and ideas to people’s hopes and dreams. I follow that energy; I have a tremendous feeling of where I want to go and the vision of politics that I want to see, and the world that I want my kids to inherit.

Manzella: You ran in 2006, and lost and decided to run again this year. Was that a decision that you made right away or did you take some time after the 2006 election before making that decision?

Wyka: I actually came to that conclusion very early in 2006. I decided to run in January and as short as 2 or 3 months later realized that this is not a 9 month project, this is a much longer term commitment, especially from the perspective of having name recognition. So in the spring of 2008 I already thought that I should probably take a second shot at this, so on Election Night I was already ready to go. Results came in and I was 6% better than anyone had done before, and I wanted all my supporters to understand that this is bigger than any one election, bigger than any one opponent, and certainly bigger than Rodney Frelinghuysen.

Manzella: So in 2008, what’s different for you this year?

Wyka: Well we are 2 more years down the road; we’re 2 years deeper into the public dissatisfaction in what’s going on. We turned over congress in 2006, and the momentum just kept going. People are frustrated with the way we are right now, and that has a lot to do with the veto pen. We are poised again to look for change, to change the leadership at the White House, but also to strengthen the progressive movement within Congress, and that’s something that we have to do regardless of the outcome this year. The same attitude I had in 2004, that I had in 2006, I will have that again regardless of the outcome of my race, regardless of the Presidential race; you have to keep fighting, you have to keep your voice in the game and you have to stick to your vision, and never give up.

Manzella: How do you see music advancing political awareness?

Wyka: I think artists have a great communication gift in relaying their vision, often of the political landscape, and when you can back that up with a good tune that can make people feel good, and stir the soul, it’s all the reinforcement in the world. If you think about a great song or a great speaker, there’s a cadence, a theme, and a manner of delivery that touches people’s hearts. That’s the added impact that music naturally brings to the table to support a good message.

Manzella: What role do you think music plays in bringing the youth of America to the Democratic party?

Wyka: A lot of popular artists tend to be very progressively minded. That touches the hearts of the young and shows people that we are a the community that’s built around music. We’ve had this idea for the past 30 years about rugged individualism and libertarianism drummed into our heads by conservatives that own their own bullhorns (like talk radio), and I think that people are starting to understand that we are an interdependent society, and we need to treat each other as equals. That’s the way the founding fathers envisioned it. I think that theme latches on well with the Democratic progressive principals; we are a community that is stronger together and greater than the sum of our parts.

Manzella: The internet has altered the way both politicians and musicians can directly interact with their constituents and fans. Now that there is a more direct connection, do you think the resources are available that would increase young voters’ direct participation and awareness of the issues that we are facing as a nation?

Wyka: The rise of these networking sites like Facebook and Myspace is very interesting. I have not personally had the time to get caught up in these things over the past 3 or 4 years as these sites become more and more popular. I have volunteers on my campaign that help me out and handle a lot of that for me, but either way it is obvious to me that with all of the networking and communication sites that I’ve used for political activism, we are at an unprecedented moment in our history where the flow of information and the ability to communicate and share ideas is tremendous. We need to make sure that it remains open and free in the same state that it is today. Sharing ideas is the foundation of growth in our society.

Manzella: Where do you get you news, and what advice would you give to help recognize the difference between “news” and “spin”?

Wyka: Well that’s really interesting; I’ve really evolved with that, especially now being a candidate and always being short on time. I started out very diligently watching the nightly news, and some cable programs that I thought were good, objective and informative. I almost made it a religion to make sure I watched some mainstream nightly news, NJN (New Jersey Network), and one or two of the cable news programs. Quickly, that went by the wayside. It is not efficient, even with TiVo to fast forward through some stories, it just took up way too much time. Finally, show by show, everything just dropped off of my schedule, so now I get most of my news on the internet. I find national news from the Yahoo homepage, I subscribe to newsletters that focus on issues that I am interested in with regards to public policy. I’m a huge fan of the Center for American Progress, I read their Progress Report every day and I also subscribe to some conservative newsletters. I always like to see what people are saying on both sides of the spectrum, especially ones that are well researched and backed up by primary sources. Many of the progressive newsletters that I gravitate towards do a good job of giving a sounding board of both sides of the story. If you’re going to be a good debater, or a good leader, then you have to be a good communicator, and you always have to know the other side of the story. I hope to take that lesson with me as a legislator as well. If someone were to come to me with idea, and a plan was presented to me, the first question I would ask is, “Tell me what your critics are saying”; I need to know that they have looked at both sides, and can understand multiple points of view.

Manzella: What’s the first thing that Congressman Wyka is going to do in Washington?

Wyka: Present the Tom Wyka brand of the progressive agenda. The very first thing for me in all political pursuits is accountable government. I want to team up with anyone in any party who is willing to take a look at government spending. I want to assure the public that there is complete awareness of all spending. Earmark abuse needs to be addressed on both sides of the aisle, and coalitions to reform that legislation are needed. Clean elections is another bill that needs to be pushed forward, and that’s always going to be my branding. A theme for me is always about removing private money from the public political process. I know that’s really tilting at windmills there, but that’s not an excuse not to fight it as tough as we can. We need to get to a point where the American people can trust their government again. I know I’m going to be bucking the tide with a lot of people, but I’ll be happy to be a positive irritant to move us in a more progressive direction for accountable government. Congressmen need to be working in Washington to do more than trade favors and line their campaign war chests. We’re there for a much nobler purpose. I want all my voters back home to know that as hard and uphill as it is, I’m going to fight for them. If you want to change how Washington works, you have to start by changing the people that you send there.

Manzella: Mike Gordon from Phish wanted us to ask a politician, “Do you ever sit down with someone who completely disagrees with your ideas, and discuss ideas?”

Wyka: I started saying before, a good debater, a curious seeker of the truth will want to understand all sides of the argument. I love to sit down with folks who want to discuss our opposing ideology. I’ve had long discussions with friends over email about our opposing views and how a society is supposed to work. Doing that with people who are intellectually honest, who adhere to the factual end of the argument, and throw facts back and forth until ultimately we come down to what our clear differences of opinion are. Everybody is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts – as Patrick Moynihan said. Once we get down to the truth of the way things work, we find out that it’s really just differences of opinion and perspective on how things are supposed to work. My opponent is one of those people who think that whole process is too hard. Congressman Frelinghuysen just doesn’t like being challenged. It’s unfortunate. A Congressman should have the respect and enough intellectual rigor, to have the fair discussion and get down to the facts. Too many people get lazy and don’t take the time to be challenged, look at someone else’s perspective, and even be influenced or changed by their way of thinking. Sometimes people are afraid to change their mind and let themselves be influenced just because they have invested in the idea they hold dear that’s being challenged. Start by listening, and don’t be afraid to be influenced by what you’re hearing, as Stephen Covey preaches.

Manzella: John Medeski wants to know, “What value do you see in education programs in music and art, and what will you do to bring about programs in arts and music?”

Wyka: Well I definitely have a bias there. I was a musician in high school. I played the saxophone. Jazz, contemporary, all kinds of music, it was a tremendous opportunity to be expressive and exercise my creativity. I stayed with it through college and at one point was seriously considering becoming a professional. I had a music teacher, Frank Elmo, who was a backup artist with Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, and he asked me if I was thinking of staying with music after college. It sparked some ideas that faded after a while for better or for worse, but it was a wonderful experience. Education in general is a big policy issue that I want to strengthen. Education is going to be a competitive issue for us over the long haul and we need to take seriously the threats that will face us over the next 20 or 30 years. As much as we talk about terrorism, I think one of the biggest threats that could be facing this country is an uneducated populous. The level of variety that we get with regard to music and arts program towards a well rounded, well educated person cannot be more important to making sure we stay competitive.

Manzella: You’re obviously supporting Obama for President, what are your reasons why?

Wyka: Definitely I’m supporting Obama; I think he has the leadership skills to take us in a new direction. Back in the primary, when things were still up in the air, I was talking to a friend who told me that the way people were reacting to Obama was the way Kennedy felt. When he was a young man it was during the rise of Kennedy and people were truly inspired. That says a lot. People wake up, they shake off their cynicism, and they get involved. We need to do a lot of that because over the past 30 years, since the time of Reagan we’ve been telling people that government can’t do anything right and should just get out of your way, elect the Republicans and they will get government out of your way. We’ve seen the fruits of that over the past 8 years, especially the past few months, or even the past few days. Government does have a role, people should shake off that cynicism and Obama has the kind of leadership to get people to do that.

Manzella: What’s one question you’d like Music for Democracy to ask a musician on your behalf?

Wyka: Howard Dean preached to people “You have the power,” and Obama very similarly has on the top banner of his website, “I’m not asking you to believe in my ability to change things, I’m asking you to believe in yours.” I hope this keeps growing and growing where politicians turn around to people and teach them that democracy is not a spectator sport. So my question is, what are you going to do tomorrow, or next week, or next month, or over the coming year to get people to understand that they can be in control of their destiny through this wonderful gift of democracy that we’ve been given. What will you do to help people realize that they do have the power and they are in control?

Manzella: Tom Wyka, thank you very much. Good luck on November 4th.

Wyka: Thanks. Just keep encouraging that idea, democracy works. This theme that the GOP have been running through society for the past 30 years that government doesn’t work, and it should be as small as possible and all the businesses and entrepreneurs should just run amok without regulation is incorrect and frightening. Government is our mechanism to shape the society that we want to live in; it’s the people’s instrument to determine the direction we want to move in.