Although entitlement programs are now facing a flurry of potential cuts, they were already considered to be under siege last spring at the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare when the lobbying group’s longtime president and CEO, former Rep. Barbara Kennelly, announced
Into the breach stepped Max Richtman, who had been with the committee for more than two decades after a 16-year career on Capitol Hill. “When Barb announced her retirement, there was a feeling of shock and awe here,” said Pamela Tainter Causey, communications director for NCPSSM. “But with Max, and his leadership, there wasn’t even a hiccup.”
Kennelly, a Democrat who represented Connecticut’s 1st District from 1982 to 1999, moved in April to Social Security Works, a smaller group representing unions and liberal activists. She told the CTMirror.org she wanted to spend more time lobbying and less on the kind of administrative tasks she had as head of NCPSSM for nine years.
Richtman, who started at the committee in 1989 as director of government relations, seems to relish the challenge of marshaling the group’s 44 staffers and 3.5 million members—a force second only to AARP on issues important to seniors.
“We have such a great staff here,” he said, “so I think I’ll be able to handle all the responsibilities.”
The committee’s lobbying efforts will intensify as never before next week, when about two dozen NCPSSM field people are trained for four days in Washington before the launch of a media-and-grassroots campaign to raise awareness about the value of Social Security, Medicare, and—for the first time in the committee’s 29-year history—Medicaid.
“We will take a role in defending the Medicaid program, too,” Richtman said. “I think it will help broaden our focus.”
The field workers will be trained Sunday through Wednesday, “then we’ll send them out to organize and make a lot of noise,” he said. And just as they hit the streets, NCPSSM will begin “a large-scale” advertising campaign in Washington and other targeted media markets, he said.
Since its founding in 1982 by former Rep. James Roosevelt, D-Calif., the committee has zealously defended the two biggest and most popular entitlement programs, the first of which was signed into law in 1935 by his father, President Roosevelt.
“He felt some of the Reagan rhetoric would undermine his father’s greatest legacy,” Richtman said. “Social Security and Medicare were all caught up in the talk about welfare queens, etc.”
Today’s threats to the programs are much greater, he said. Instead of just talking about ending entitlements as foes did before, politicians now talk in code about “reforming” Social Security or “improving” Medicare, Richtman said.
But in Richtman’s view, proposals to privatize Social Security or replace Medicare payments with vouchers are nothing more than efforts to dismantle the programs. “It becomes very confusing for people,” he said. “Pete Peterson [the head of a foundation focused on cutting entitlements] and his cronies have done a very effective job of laying the groundwork for a lot of the myths and misunderstandings. It’s also fertile ground for Rick Perry,” the Texas governor now running for president.
“Our challenge is to try to educate the American public about these programs and separate myths from facts,” Richtman said.
Richtman comes well equipped for the task. Born in a small German town near Munich to two Holocaust survivors—a father who got out of a concentration camp alive and a mother who survived in a dug-out barn with a dozen others—Richtman was sent to Omaha, Neb., by a Jewish relief agency when he was 4 years old.
He graduated from high school in Omaha and went on to earn degrees at Harvard University and Georgetown University Law Center. After circulating his résumé to every office on Capitol Hill, he landed a job with the late Rep. Sidney Yates, D-Ill., later went to work for then-Sen. James Abourezk, D-S.D., and finally ended up with then-Sen. John Melcher, D-Mont., who asked Richtman to staff the Senate Aging Committee.
After 16 years on the Hill, Richtman moved to NCPSSM in 1989 at the invitation of then-President and CEO Martha McSteen, a former administrator of the Social Security Administration.
This article appears in the September 14, 2011, edition of NJ Daily.