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Charles Grassley (R-New Hartford) and Roxanne Conlin (D-Des Moines)

posted on September 10, 2010

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Seven weeks ... just over 50 days remaining until Election Day. It is a crucial time for two candidates seeking to represent Iowa in the United States Senate. We're questioning republican incumbent Senator Charles Grassley and democratic challenger Roxanne Conlin on this edition of Iowa Press.

Borg: This weekend's edition of Iowa Press is extra special for us here at Iowa Public Television. We're opening our 40th season as part of IPTV's programming and we're especially pleased that you've joined us and for your continuing support. And what better way to open another Iowa Press season than in the final day intensity of political campaigning among the high profiles offices on Iowa's November 2nd election ballot. Iowa is electing a U.S. Senator. Republican Charles Grassley is asking voters to tack six more years onto the 30 he has held that senate seat. Des Moines Attorney Roxanne Conlin is campaigning to move that senate seat to the democratic side of the aisle. She is a former Assistant Iowa Attorney General, a former U.S. Attorney, once ran for governor. Senator Grassley, Ms. Conlin, welcome back to Iowa Press.

Conlin: Thank you, Dean.

Grassley: Glad to be with you.

Borg: And across the Iowa Press table joining the conversation, Iowa political journalists Mike Glover of the Associated Press and Kay Henderson of Radio Iowa.

Glover: Ms. Conlin, let's start with you, you are the challenger in this race. Make the case for defeating a five-term United States Senator who has more money than you and arguably better name recognition. Make the case.

Conlin: I think almost everyone agrees that Washington is broken, that the bickering, the obstructionism, the hyper-partisanship is just not good for the people of the United States of America. I want to go to Washington and fight to fix it and I think I can do that. I've spent my entire life standing up to powerful special interests on behalf of regular people. I'm not taking any money from PACs, I'm not taking any money from federal lobbyists. Senator Grassley gets more than half of his money from those special interests. I want to go to Washington and represent only, only the interests of the people of Iowa.

Glover: Senator Grassley, polls suggest that voters are unhappy with members of Congress of both parties. Aren't you, in fact, the poster child for incumbents having been in public office since 1958?

Grassley: First of all, I want to thank you at TV and the people of Iowa for this opportunity to discuss these issues with them. I'm running for re-election and I'd appreciate the vote of Iowans. I try to keep in touch, I do keep in touch by visiting all 99 counties every year, use the Internet, answer all of my mail. Keeping in touch is very important to whether or not you represent the people and whether or not you ought to be thrown out of office. I thought that was your question, should I be ...

Glover: The anti-incumbency mood, how do you combat that?

Grassley: I combat it this way -- that Washington is an island surrounded by reality. I come home every weekend, hold town meetings in every county every year. I answer every piece of mail that I get. I keep in touch with Iowans because I know that Iowans are concerned about things that I try to represent in Washington, the economy, jobs and things of that nature. I use my -- I try to make government accountable through using my power of oversight to make sure -- for instance, I introduced legislation, got it passed a long time ago that brought $22 billion of fraud back into the Federal Treasury.

Glover: Ms. Conlin, how do you make the case for an anti-incumbent year against the poster child of incumbents?

Conlin: Well, I think that one thing that is clear is Senator Grassley has spent 30 years as a United States Senator and 52 years in public life. I have spent those years running a small business and representing people who have been harmed by big corporations and the like. And, in fact, what is he going to do in year 31 through 36 that he couldn't have done in year 1 through 30? And he says he comes home and visits. I live here and I have lived here for all of my life. One of the things he will not do is stand on a stage and debate me in front of an audience and permit that audience to ask us both questions, permit that audience to find out why he thought it was a good idea to prevent the federal government from negotiating prices with the drug companies.

Grassley: I hear two accusations if I could respond to them.

Glover: Please do.

Grassley: The first one is accepting money from PACs. I have two conditions for taking money. One, is it legal? And number two, are there any strings attached? I won't take money where there's any strings attached. I think I have made a record for investigating pharmaceutical companies, insurance companies, even taking on the FBI, as an example.

Grassley: The accusation about PAC money quite frankly is surprising to me considering the fact that my opponent sat on the board of directors of one of the biggest PACs in the country. She was national president of that organization for a long period of time.

Borg: Name it.

Grassley: The American Trial Lawyers Association, they've got a new name now. But here, here is the most important thing, if PACs are so bad why over the last ten years for every month has she written a check for $416 to that PAC?

Glover: What about the charge that you won't debate?

Grassley: That is a good question. What are we doing right here? I think we're having a debate aren't we?

Glover: No, this is not a debate, this is a joint appearance.

Grassley: Oh, a forum. She wants forums. Whatever you want to call them. A campaign is about issues, right? You're on a radio conference call with me 52 times a year. In the month of August after I'll already have been in 66 counties in Iowa, I visited 25 counties this month, 44 meetings with constituents all about issues and 25 new counties. I've had 41 political meetings this month. I've had 66 press opportunities with people like you. Besides, 12 times a year I have a TV call-in show. More than once a month I do a telephone town meeting where 30,000 people are robo-called, have an opportunity to listen ...

Borg: Senator Grassley ...

Grassley: Well, are we debating issues or not? In other words, the point is that I'm available any time that people like you three want to ask me questions. And I'm always asked about the issues. I'm always asked about the issues.

Henderson: Ms. Conlin ...

Conlin: It seems very strange to me that you won't stand on a stage and debate me. If you are so willing to defend your record in all of these other forms then why not defend it in front of the people of Iowa all over the state as we have proposed?

Grassley: That's what I'm doing right here.

Henderson: Ms. Conlin, is the 2010 election a referendum on President Obama? And if so, how does that affect your candidacy?

Conlin: I don't think it is. I think the 2010 election is a choice between the failed policies of the past that drove our economy off a cliff and that left us with a huge gap between the very rich and the very poor in part because of the policies of the finance committee that Senator Grassley chaired for six of those years and I don't think people want to go back to those policies. We've already tried everything that the republicans ever said they wanted to do, they did and the result is the greatest recession that we've had since the Great Depression, 15 million people unemployed and no effort on the part of the republicans, no cooperation to get those people back to work. That's what I would do were I there, spend every waking moment trying to figure out how to get the economy moving again.

Henderson: Mr. Grassley?

Grassley: Can you believe what you just heard? One of the big differences in this campaign is jobs, creating jobs. If you want more of Reed and Pelosi then vote for my opponent. If you don't like what Reed and Pelosi is doing in Washington you should re-elect Chuck Grassley because what my opponent stands for as I have read almost everything she has said during this campaign out in her county meetings wherever she's been just to destroy jobs. She is for cap and trade. If we pass cap and trade we'd export all of our jobs, manufacturing jobs to China. She was voting for the health care reform bill. It's going to ration and drive up premiums, drive up taxes by half a billion dollars. Do you want more of that?

Borg: The question was, though, is this a referendum on the Obama administration?

Grassley: On the Obama administration? Yes, it is. I said Reed and Pelosi, let's say Reed, Pelosi and Obama. It's very much -- people voted for change and if they elect my opponent they're going to get more of that type of change. I think people are revolting against the change that has taken place in Washington, a tripling of the national debt. We'll have bankruptcy of this country if we continue down that road.

Conlin: I'm not Reed, I'm not Pelosi, I'm not Obama. I am my own person. I will be a fiercely independent citizen legislator.

Borg: Let me ask you an issue question then. Would you extend the Bush tax cuts?

Conlin: I would extend the Bush tax cuts for 98% of the people in the United States of America. I would let them expire the top 2%. Senator Grassley's campaign has misrepresented my position on this issue repeatedly so let me be very clear. There are 18,000 people in Iowa whose taxes would be modestly raised under the proposal that I support but we would close the deficit, much of it created by Senator Grassley and the finance committee. We would close the deficit by $700 billion by taking that step. People who make over $250,000 a year would get an increase in their taxes of a quite modest 3%.

Borg: Senator Grassley, what is wrong with that?

Grassley: Well, you know what ...

Borg: Because I think you want to extend the tax cuts in entirety, is that it?

Grassley: That's absolutely right and all 41 republicans agree with me on that and so far five or six democrats have come out in favor of that. And what is wrong with the approach is, you know the old saying, you tax something, you get less of it. Why do you want to tax employment? Do you realize that half of the income of over $200,000 a year comes from small business? 750,000 employers employing 25% of the people in America and the President says and I say create 70% of the new jobs. Why would you want to take money away from small businesses that operate on cash flow and send it to Washington for us to waste? You know, it doesn't reduce the deficit. For every dollar you send to Washington, it's a license to spend a dollar and fifteen cents.

Glover: Ms. Conlin, let's go to you.

Conlin: Let me, first of all, correct what Senator Grassley has said because it is manifestly false. Three percent of the forms reporting taxable income of greater than 250%, 3% have any kind of business income at all so that is just a ridiculous allegation. And what I support, the bill that Senator Grassley filibustered and that is a bill for small business, directed at small business, increase the availability of credit for small business, give small business tax credits directly tied to the creation of jobs. These are real proposals that would advance small business and create new jobs.

Borg: Senator Grassley.

Grassley: Half of the bills that she said she'd just support I wrote. That half is very, very good obviously because it would help small business. But here's what is wrong with her three percent figure. She's right on the three percent.

Conlin: Yes, I am.

Grassley: But 750,000 employers employing 25% of the people and operating on cash flow you can't take money away from that group of people that provides 70% of the new jobs and say that you're doing anything but killing employment. You add this big tax increase that she wants to put in place plus the cap and trade plus the health bill plus the regulatory regulations that this administration put in place and you're killing jobs.

Conlin: No, you're not.

Glover: Ms. Conlin, the President has suggested a second stimulus package. Could you support that?

Conlin: I don't think so. I don't think that's what we need. We need targeted job creating ideas and I have several of them, the first of which would be to stop the perverse public policy of rewarding companies who send our jobs overseas. Senator Grassley has voted five times to give tax breaks to companies that send our jobs overseas. This whole idea of tax cuts for the wealthy being the key to economic vibrancy is just plain wrong, we tried that, that's what got us where we are. We've got to solve the deficit problem that Senator Grassley, Senator Grassley as chair of the finance committee created a lot of the problem with the deficit, two tax cuts for the very wealthy.

Grassley: Let me tell you what I've done is ...

Conlin: Now wait a minute, Senator, I don't interrupt you.

Borg: Let her finish, Senator and I'll give you a chance.

Grassley: Sure.

Conlin: Two tax cuts mostly benefiting the very wealthy passed by Senator Grassley, chair of the committee, not a dime paid for. Two wars fought on the credit card. Medicare Part D which includes that crazy provision that we can't negotiate prices with the drug companies. Those were under Senator Grassley's finance committee and resulted in $1.3 trillion dollars a year of deficit.

Borg: Let's give him a chance now to respond. Senator Grassley.

Grassley: Do you know that she doesn't even know that the Senate Finance Committee doesn't appropriate money? We don't appropriate money for the war, we handle tax policy. So, she's half wrong right there. But the other issues is this ...

Conlin: Aren't you a senator, didn't you vote?

Grassley: The other issue is this. This business about sending jobs overseas. I am the author of the 2004 jobs bill that created a 9% tax credit for manufacturing in the United States so we didn't send jobs overseas.

Henderson: Senator Grassley, would you vote to repeal the healthcare reform plan?

Grassley: I voted against it so if a chance came up to repeal it I'd be intellectually dishonest if I didn't vote for that but I think the most realistic approach is that there's a lot of things that ought to be in it that aren't in it like medical malpractice reform, like selling insurance across state lines, like association health plans. There's a lot of things that ought to be taken out of it. I'll just name one because I think it's unconstitutional, the requirement that you have to buy health insurance and if you don't buy health insurance a family has to pay $2800 additional tax and there's some things in it that quite frankly I helped get in there because there are things we had been working on years before there was ever a reform bill and there were things that we would pass probably unanimously or at least in a broad, bipartisan basis.

Henderson: Ms. Conlin, would you go farther? Would you have universal healthcare in this country?

Conlin: Well, one of the things that I think is remarkable is the idea that we would take away some of the huge benefits that the health insurance bill or that the health reform bill gave us and that is children can stay on their parent's health insurance until they are 26, no more excluding people with pre-existing conditions, no more permitting insurance companies to cut people off the minute they get sick, no more lifetime caps. Those are incredible advances. Senator Grassley now says mandatory health insurance is unconstitutional. He introduced a bill providing for mandatory coverage, mandatory coverage in 1993 and as recently as 2008 he supported it. So, I can't understand why it has suddenly gotten unconstitutional and I think the benefits far outweigh ...

Borg: Senator Grassley ...

Grassley: Can I answer the question?

Borg: Just quickly because we need to go to another issue.

Conlin: But I am interrupted by him.

Grassley: She is for single payer because she said that many times on the campaign trail and I can show you the videotape where she said it.

Henderson: Were you for, as she just said, mandating healthcare?

Grassley: No, I just said no, it ought to be taken out, it's unconstitutional.

Henderson: But did you support the bill, as she said?

Grassley: My name was on a bill in 1993 but there's a lot about the constitution you learn over the period of the next 15 years and I'm not a lawyer but I do read the constitution and I do read some of the laws and I came to the conclusion it's unconstitutional just like the attorney generals of about 22 states have come to that conclusion.

Glover: Ms. Conlin, the immigration debate has been dominated by the action in Arizona passing a tough new immigration law there. What is your view on that law? Should that be national policy? Should Iowa adopt a similar law? What should we do about immigration?

Conlin: Well, that's a very thorny problem and I think everyone agrees that we need to secure the border. There is drug trafficking, human trafficking, gun trafficking going on there and that is very dangerous for everybody in the United States of America. But the thing that we need to do most is to crack down on employers who employ undocumented workers. That is what will stop the flow. If there aren't jobs people won't try to come here. Senator Grassley has voted repeatedly against cracking down on employers who employ illegal immigrants. I think that there is an unholy alliance between the coyotes that bring the people and big corporations who employ them.

Glover: Senator Grassley, respond to that. She says you don't crack down on employers who employ illegal aliens. And should the law of Arizona be the law of the nation?

Grassley: She is entitled to her opinion but she's not entitled to her own facts and, you know, as a farmer I know good fences make good neighbors. We need to finish the fence, we need to have border security. If we have border security the President ought to be working with the governor of Arizona instead of suing the governor of Arizona. My opponent is for amnesty, I'm opposed to amnesty. I voted for amnesty once in the last immigration bill, it was supposed to take care of all of the three million people that were here illegally. I found out that you reward illegal ...

Glover: Should employers be sanctioned if they hire illegal aliens?

Grassley: Why, of course, they should be.

Glover: Is she wrong?

Grassley: Well, yes, she's wrong because for the first time in the history of the country the bill that I voted for in 1986 made it illegal to knowingly hire illegal aliens and that had penalties put in it for the first time.

Conlin: See, I think CEOs who commit fraud on the government and who hire illegal, knowingly hire illegal immigrants to this country ought to go to jail. I think that would be a huge deterrent.

Borg: What about the amnesty issue?

Conlin: There's only one person in this room who has voted for amnesty and that is Senator Grassley, not just once but twice. In 1982 he introduced a bill for amnesty.

Grassley: She's for amnesty.

Conlin: Senator, you voted twice for amnesty. I am not for amnesty. I am, Senator, let me clarify my position if you would please.

Grassley: I'd be glad to have you clarify it.

Conlin: You have misrepresented it several times. I am for a way to let people get right with the law, people who have been here for a long time who haven't committed crimes, who work for a living. I am for a way -- it's ridiculous to think that we can round up ...

Grassley: That is amnesty and let me ...

Conlin: It is not if they pay a fine. Criminal laws can be enforced either by a fine or by jail or by deportation. It is a magic word that you're using, Senator, it is a code word.

Borg: What, amnesty?

Conlin: Yes, absolutely. Paying a fine is, in fact, a criminal fine ...

Grassley: Do you know that if you came here illegally you broke our law and ...

Conlin: No one argues with that.

Grassley: This would legalize it. I don't think you should reward illegality because you've got more of it and people would say, Grassley, don't you ever learn by your mistakes? I learn by the mistake not to give amnesty to people because you reward illegality instead of having a 3 million problem you have a 12 million problem today and if we do it again 20 years from now we're going to have a 25 million person issue.

Henderson: Let's switch issues -- let's shift to social security. What do you think should be done to ensure that the system is solvent?

Grassley: What you have to do is have a bipartisan plan, a bipartisan plan, it's the only way it's going to get done. And this talk that my opponent has given about privatizing social security, I have been involved in a lot of conversations and negotiations on social security over a long period of time and I don't know of one member of Congress that has ever proposed privatizing because privatizing means you're going to get the government out of it, that is what privatizing means. Every plan has had the government in the middle as it has been since 1936 and you can't have a social security system unless you do. And the bottom line of it is I believe that everybody ought to be entitled to a defined benefit and that is what social security it. My opponent, though, wants to lower the retirement age and that will make it worse.

Borg: Let's let her say what she wants.

Conlin: Well, certainly I never said what he just said I said. And Senator Grassley has been in favor of privatization. He was George Bush's water carrier when George Bush tried to make this happen.

Borg: But what is it that you favor?

Conlin: What I favor, well, what I first want to say is privatizing does not, it's not a plan to save social security, it's a plan to dismantle social security. It creates private accounts, it rewards Wall Street where Senator Grassley has gotten $800,000 in campaign contributions with another $279 billion in fees but it destroys social security, increases the risk, decreases benefits, hugely decreases benefits and balloons the debt.

Glover: Ms. Conlin, was George Bush wrong on Iraq? And is President Obama wrong on Afghanistan?

Conlin: George Bush was clearly led us into a war that was not justified. That has cost an enormous amount in blood and treasury.

Glover: Is Obama wrong on Afghanistan?

Conlin: I believe that we've done what we set out to do in Afghanistan and it is time to bring the troops home.  No more nation building except here in America.

Glover: Senator Grassley, was Bush wrong on Iraq? And is Obama wrong on Afghanistan?

Grassley: I think the fact that the President declared victory two weeks ago and brought the troops home is evidence that it was not wrong. Secondly, with her position just stated on Afghanistan it is tantamount to giving a safe haven for terrorists to train against the United States again and kill more Americans and we shouldn't do that. The number one responsibility of the federal government is to protect the American citizens. That is national security. We ought to be making sure that terrorists, wherever they are planning attacks against Americans, don’t have a safe haven.

Conlin: I agree with that. I think that we should seek out terrorists wherever they are. But there's only about 50 left in Afghanistan. They are now in Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, that's where we ought to put our resources.

Glover: We've only got about a minute to go. Ms. Conlin, have you been in contact with the White House? Do you want President Obama to campaign for you? And would he be helpful?

Conlin: I am running my own campaign, this is my campaign. I want to be the United States Senator and I ask all of you watching for your votes because I think I can make a difference. I think that it is possible to make the United States Senate work for the people of Iowa and for the people of America. I don't think you can do that when you have lost touch with your electorate and I think that is what has happened.

Glover: Senator Grassley, 30 seconds to go. That was her closing statement, make your own.

Grassley: What she said that I said about social security that she wanted to reduce the retirement age was said in a news conference, not in a news conference but a meeting with the Des Moines Register so follow me up on that. She wants to find a way to reduce, get more people to retire early. I finish up here by simply saying thank you very much for this forum. I think you have seen great differences between the two of us and I ask for the votes of Iowans because I work for ...

Borg: And we have to end on that sentence, Senator. Thank you so much to both of you for being with us today. Well, continuing our conversations with the candidates in the major campaigns next week we are focusing on Iowa's fourth congressional district. We'll be questioning republican incumbent Tom Latham of Ames and democratic contender Bill Maske of Truro. That is our regular Iowa Press times next week, 7:30 Friday night and 11:30 Sunday morning. And a program reminder too, on Tuesday of this coming week, September 14th that is, the two major party candidates for governor are debating in Sioux City. Democrat Chet Culver and republican Terry Branstad in a forum sponsored by the Sioux City Journal and KCAU-TV. It's live at 7:00. You can see the debate rebroadcast on Iowa Public Television at 8:00 that same night. It is the first of three debates between the two major party gubernatorial candidates. Well, that is this weekend's edition of Iowa Press. I'm Dean Borg. Thanks for joining us today.

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Tags: campaign 2010 Charles Grassley Congress Democrats elections health care reform immigration Iowa jobs political action committees politics Republicans Roxanne Conlin Social Security taxes U.S. Senate U.S. Senators