It's all in the family. The Vilsack name is back on Iowa's election ballot ... but the first name is Christie and she's running for Congress. A conversation with fourth district democratic candidate for the United States Congress, Christie Vilsack, on this edition of Iowa Press.
Borg: Labeling Christie Vilsack as a political newcomer is inaccurate. It's true that her name hasn't been on a general election ballot but she is no stranger to political campaigns -- supporting her husband Tom Vilsack's legislative and gubernatorial campaigns as well as presidential candidates seeking the prestige of her name. But now it is her name out front, campaigning to replace republican incumbent Steve King who is seeking a sixth term in Congress. But this is a newly redrawn district -- not so dominantly republican as the former western Iowa region King has been representing for the past ten years. The new fourth district includes Ames and Christie Vilsack moved her residence there hoping to move on to Washington, D.C. Mrs. Vilsack, you've been here once before. Welcome back to Iowa Press.
Vilsack: Thanks, it's great to be here. Thanks for having me.
Borg: And also at the Iowa Press table, Des Moines Register Political Writer Kathie Obradovich and Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson.
Henderson: Mrs. Vilsack, you're asking voters in the new fourth congressional district to hire you and fire Steve King. What is the number one reason that he should be fired?
Vilsack: Well, I don't think he's doing his job really. I think that he, right now there is a lot of gridlock in Washington, D.C., people are not getting into a room -- I think people should get into a room and look each other in the eye and start making decisions. And basically Steve King was responsible for starting two wars and not paying for them, for introducing Medicare Part D and not paying for it and also making sure that people who had earned a lot of money didn't have to pay taxes. And so he is responsible for the fact that we don't have a balanced budget right now. And, in fact, he has suggested that he should have a pay raise, five pay raises in fact. He has voted for five pay raises in the last ten years, about $20,000 a year and I think he should give it back basically. At the same time he has not voted for a bonus pay for our service members. $1500 is all they ask for and he basically said no. He was the deciding vote. So a service member in Iowa makes about $48,000 a year. I'm a public school teacher. If I were still teaching I'd be making about $50,000 a year. Steve King makes $178,000 a year. And for people struggling in the fourth district I think that is a considerable sum. And to decide that you should vote yourself a pay raise and then actually say that you deserve it is not right. So I think he should give it back.
Obradovich: I want to pick up on something you said, you said Steve King started two wars and didn't pay for them. He didn't start --
Vilsack: He did not start the wars. I apologize.
Obradovich: But he did authorize spending for troops without offsetting budget cuts. At the time, though, you could have been in a position of cutting potentially billions of dollars out of the budget at a time of crisis such as after September 11th or had the choice of potentially endangering troops that were already in the field because the President sent them there. Are you saying that you would not have made the same decision under those circumstances?
Vilsack: Well, I wasn't in those circumstances. But I think that people do have to be responsible for their records and the fact that he now is talking about a balanced budget amendment, which is a gimmick, when he is responsible for all of this, for the budget, which is not balanced and won't get into a room and talk about how we do it. I think that's the issue is that now that we were in this mess we need to figure out how we balance the budget.
Obradovich: But are you saying that you would never fund money for troops if the President sends them into the field without a declaration of war unless there were offsetting budget cuts? Is that a principle of yours?
Vilsack: Well, I think we have to talk about it. I think if we're going to go into a conflict now that one of the things we have to talk about before we do that is what is the cost, not only the financial cost, but the human cost?
Borg: I said that you are in a new district and it is not as heavily republican as what Steve King has been representing. But still, what is the strategy for winning in that still dominant republican district? Are you going to have to sell yourself as somewhat conservative?
Vilsack: Well, let me tell you why I'm running for Congress, first of all. I'm running because I really want in the future for people to be able to live in small towns. It's as simple as that. I'm very focused. My reasons for running are very, very local and that is that in 1975 my dad wrote Tom and me a letter on yellow legal paper and told us here is the job in small town Iowa, here is how much Tom can make, here is how much you could make and here are the other reasons you should come back. And I think everybody should be able to write that letter to their children and grandchildren and their neighbor's children and I'm going to do everything I can to create layers of economic opportunity in small town Iowa so people can continue to live in small towns and prosper.
Borg: So, but the question basically is, is that going to be appealing enough to bring you to Congress in that heavily --
Vilsack: I think so because first of all I don't pay much attention to the numbers because Iowans are pretty evenly divided. It's about a third, a third and a third in Iowa in terms of republicans, democrats and independents and I think Iowans are really independent minded. So they may be registered in one party but that doesn't necessarily mean they are going to vote. And I think this year it is all about the economy. And in Iowa not so much about specific jobs but it's about recreating opportunity in small towns. Our farm economy is doing really well. My dad always said, if farmers are doing well, everybody is doing well. And that's still true to a certain extent but we don't need as many farmers now. So that means Main Streets have suffered. But in Iowa we've done a really good job of creating a platform for the future in terms of economic opportunity and all we have to do is look out the window in the fourth district and we can see the future in the corn and beans growing there. This is the richest agricultural space in the world.
Borg: And you can see yourself in that future?
Vilsack: I can -- I can see myself -- I have a vision for how we create layers of economic opportunity and I compare it to that salad that we take to potlucks sometimes, the seven layer salad with the mayonnaise slathered on the top that sits and foments and I don't think we're going to have that company on the edge of town so much anymore. We're going to have to create layers and layers and layers of economic opportunity and if you go to my website you can see the eight policy rollouts that I've done in the last year that lay out that vision for how we create that.
Henderson: One of the things I've heard you say on the campaign trail is that Washington has forgotten small town values. Isn't it a danger for you to run against "Washington" since your husband is part of the Obama administration?
Vilsack: Well, I think I'm running against Steve King and I think we have two different visions of what the job entails. And I see it very locally. I see this as -- I see it through the lens of a teacher. My job in Congress as I see it is to get to know those 39 counties as quickly as possible, much like my students, to figure out how I can help them maximize their potential in a given period of time. And I think Steve King sees it through a Washington lens and he sees it as a way to promote his own personal profile. And I think he sees it as a way to become a national leader of an ideological movement. And I think right now in terms of this job that people want, as I listen to them, and this is about them, not about us -- as I listen to them as I travel around the district it is about how we convince our children that they should not leave and come back even but that they should stay here. Here is your high school education, here's the job, here's the education nearby that you can get, stay here, keep the best and the brightest right here.
Obradovich: The Supreme Court is going to rule soon on whether the Affordable Care Act is constitutionally acceptable. And as you know your opponent has campaigned for a long time on totally repealing what he calls Obama care. If the Supreme Court does happen to uphold the law, do you think that is the end of the story? Or are there things that you would seek to change in that health care law?
Vilsack: Well, I think it's always better to have a bill than no bill and we have a bill and we don't know what's going to happen in the next few weeks. We'll have to see what happens. But there are a lot of great things in that bill and there are things we need to change, obviously.
Obradovich: Like what?
Vilsack: But the good things -- I think we need to focus on what we would want to keep regardless of what happens. And I think certainly -- I was talking to -- my car broke down two nights ago on Highway 35 and I was sitting waiting for AAA and this 23 year old young man picked me up and took me, towed my car back to Ames. So I had fifteen minutes to talk to him. So I started asking about -- he just was married and I asked him what were the things that concerned him most, what they were spending their money on. And he said, well, I don't have to worry about health care for another year because I'm still on my parents' insurance which is something that the health care, the new Affordable Care Act does. It allows people to keep children on their health care. Now, he's figuring that out. But that's really important. Pre-existing conditions are really important. I think one of the most important things -- and fascinating things because I think it addresses the issue of cost in the future is what is happening in Fort Dodge right now. They have gotten money from the Medicare and Medicaid innovation center to actually become an ACO and to work on how they keep people out of the hospital. They are trying to figure out -- they are going to get paid based on making people well and keeping people out and concentrating on a person's needs and coming up with a team of people. So I think there are a lot of innovative things happening that we need to concentrate on and move on from there. But we have to contain costs, we have to make sure people have access and that it's quality.
Obradovich: I'll ask you one more time -- is there anything in particular that you would change? Anything you have in mind that you would want to change no matter what happens with the Supreme Court?
Vilsack: Well, I think there are probably a lot of small things.
Obradovich: But no one big --
Henderson: So you support the mandate?
Vilsack: No, I think there are a lot of -- I think there are a lot of different ways that we can go about this creatively. I think we need to make sure that everybody has access to care. Everybody does have access actually, it's just people can go to the emergency room. So everybody has access. But we need to make sure everybody has access that is affordable to all of us so the rest of us aren't having to pay for it.
Obradovich: Are you saying you don't support the mandate then?
Vilsack: I think that we're going to see a lot of different ways that we can make sure that everybody has access. So, it might be the mandate, it might not be the mandate. I think right now, for instance, the Governor of Oregon is looking at some cooperative methods. He's looking at ways to save $1 trillion by creating a cooperative. So I think right here in Iowa -- I've talked to Dr. Carlisle and David Lyons are working on a cooperative model for health insurance. I think there's a lot of innovation coming right now and it's moving -- a lot of things are happening regardless of what happens with the Supreme Court and happens with the bill. So I like to focus on the innovation and how can we figure this out. We've got a lot of great minds. We can figure out how to do this, mandate or not. We need to make sure that people have access.
Henderson: We're journalists, though, we like black and white. Are you for the mandate or are you against it?
Vilsack: I don't -- I'm not for it or against it. I think we need to figure out a way to get everybody access to health care, affordable health care. And so we won't know what happens with the Supreme Court. When they do decide what they're going to do then we'll move on with whatever they have decided.
Henderson: You were recently the head of something called the Iowa Initiative to Prevent Unintended Pregnancies. Your opponent has already begun to zero in on that as a criticism. And this past week in Congress they debated a bill that would prevent abortions that are for sex selection. What are your views on this sort of touchy topic?
Vilsack: Why anybody is talking about that particular issue is beyond me when we have to figure out how we get our children to be able to get a college education and how they can afford that, paying off student debt. When we have to figure out health care issues, when we have to figure out education issues, it doesn't make sense to be focusing on that particular bill which has nothing to do with anybody's regular lives in Iowa or in this country at this particular time. But I'm really proud of the work I did with the Iowa Initiative because it was about prevention. And to go back to your former question, I think what we need to focus on is preventing, preventing disease and illness and making people well. And I have been doing, for the last two days I have been doing Christie's Kitchen Table Conversations. I'm sitting down with regular people at the kitchen table and talking about their issues. And believe me, these issues don't come up. People are talking about how we can invite our children back to Iowa and how we can engage them in really interesting jobs. And they're not talking about, they're not talking about those kinds of issues. So I think we need to keep the conversation -- it's distracting basically. It is ridiculous to talk about some of those things. But I am proud of the work that I did with Iowa Initiative because it was about how do we save money and how do we help people plan families which is a really important thing especially for women who need to get an education and need to get that first job.
Obradovich: Just to be clear though, do you really think that the lives of the unborn have nothing to do with people's everyday lives?
Vilsack: I'm talking about deciding whether you want a girl or a boy child which is what this bill was about. And I think it's ridiculous to focus on issues, that particular issue which has nothing to do with our everyday lives in the state of Iowa. We're worried about, certainly about planning families, about getting an education and trying to figure out when having a family fits in with getting a job and having a job and being able to support your children. So those issues I think are very, very important but I thought you were talking about that specific bill which there are so many other things facing us right now with a balanced budget and we don't have a transportation bill, we don't have -- we don't know what is going to happen in terms of student debt and it just seems there are a lot of other things that Congressman King could be focused on
Obradovich: In that context, do you agree with President Obama that same sex couples should be allowed to marry? Or is that also a distraction?
Vilsack: Well, I think that we have dealt with that issue in Iowa. Our Supreme Court has dealt with it. Our Constitution basically says that we see everyone -- everyone should be equally protected under the law.
Obradovich: And you think that that's the way it should be? If it came up for a vote of Iowans would you vote to keep it that way?
Vilsack: Well, our Supreme Court has already decided so I think we need to move on. People are not talking about those issues with me out there. People are talking about the economy and they are talking about --
Obradovich: President Obama is talking about it. People are talking about same sex marriage here in Iowa and around the country.
Vilsack: I know but I think -- I know he has been talking about it recently and certainly if it came to a vote -- tell me what vote you're asking.
Obradovich: Well, no --
Henderson: If you were in Congress, would you vote to support a constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage nationwide?
Vilsack: Well, if I were in Congress I would vote to do away with DOMA because I think the state should make that decision.
Borg: The Defense of Marriage Act.
Obradovich: It should be a state issue -- and as a resident of Iowa if the Iowa legislature asked for a constitutional amendment to require marriage to be between a man and a woman only would you vote for that?
Vilsack: Well, that is a state issue. I'm running for Congress and so I've told you how I would vote in Congress. I would vote to make sure that people had the opportunity at the state level to make that decision.
Henderson: In Mount Pleasant you were not only a teacher but at times I’ve heard you describe yourself as a journalist. You wrote columns for the local newspaper. The Steve King campaign has gone through those columns and found one in which you supported making English the official language. Do you still support efforts to declare English as the official language?
Vilsack: I think that people in this country learn to speak English -- I think that we should really focus our efforts on early childhood. We have a lot of families in this country who don't speak English as their first language but we have the opportunity to make sure that young people learn it early in life. And if we focus on those early years and we work on literacy, which I have really supported for a long time, then I think that we can take care of that issue right there. But I don't think we need to declare English as the official language of the United States. I think people come here -- they have always come here, they have learned the language, they need to learn the language, we need to make sure that they have the opportunity to do so.
Obradovich: And as people come here that raises the issue of illegal immigration. What is your position on that? And what would be the priority as far as dealing with illegal immigration?
Vilsack: Well, one of the things that I've heard from people as I've traveled around the district, I've been doing that for a year is that people want whatever -- first of all, they think we need some sort of policy. They want the rules defined and they want the rules to be fair because Iowans believe that fairness is a value that we all share. And I spent some time talking one day to the county supervisors in Plymouth County about almost a year ago now and asked them what that might look like and it sounded a lot like what I think is a good idea too and that is that we need secure borders -- we need to secure the borders and we have done a pretty good job of that. We need to make sure that people how have broken the law are deported, people who are felons. We need to make sure that people --
Obradovich: You mean broken the law besides coming here illegally?
Vilsack: Yes, I mean people who are felons, that they be deported. It is impractical to deport twelve or thirteen million people. So I think people need to go to the back of the line. They need to pay a fine if they have done something wrong, which they have if they have come here illegally. They need to learn the language. They need to show that they want to be a part of this country but they need to go to the back of the line and move forward. But I think there needs to be a pathway to becoming an American citizen.
Obradovich: And when you say go to the back of the line, you mean they can stay here in this country and work. Would you suggest some sort of extended worker visa or something like that while they're waiting? Some way to get them to a legal resident status while they were waiting?
Vilsack: I haven't really thought about that part of it but I do think they should have the opportunity. But most important is that we're a nation of laws and people have to obey the laws. But we also need -- with our universities are suggesting that we need to make sure that we have immigrants who can stay here and become entrepreneurs. We have young people who we want to get a college education who can become tax paying citizens.
Obradovich: Do you support the Dream Act?
Borg: I want to take you back to the fourth district. You said you’ve been traveling around there. Surely you've been out along the Missouri River and seen the devastation that still is evident there from last year's flooding. Is there still a role for the federal government that you see as being unmet there in rehabilitating that area?
Vilsack: Well, they have received some disaster relief and help with --
Borg: Yes, but is there more?
Vilsack: I know that farmers right now are, that they are trying to remove sand from their farms and that is a tedious process and it was hard to sit there and watch farmers sitting and looking out at their fields covered with water a year ago and not to be able to do anything about it and know that they wouldn't be able to do anything again this year. So there has been disaster relief -- I think there are other, certainly other ways that we can help farmers. But if people -- if people want government to help then they have to invest in government. So there's only so much money and so we have to figure out what we're going to do with the money. And so they have gotten disaster relief.
Borg: As long as we're talking about money and about farmers, let's go to the farm legislation. That may not be enacted by the time you would take office if you're elected. What would you like to see in that farm bill that would represent that fourth district and heavily agricultural?
Vilsack: Absolutely. The great thing about the fourth district, the reason I feel so comfortable there is that on the west side is Sioux City which is an agricultural processing city. On the east side is Ames which is the research arm of agriculture. And in between are all of those wonderful county seat towns and smaller towns. And so the farm bill should include -- it needs to have a strong safety net for farmers. Farmers have agreed that they don't need to have direct payments the way they have in the past. They have given up ethanol subsidies. But they need crop insurance. They need a safety net. When disaster strikes certainly people raising cattle need that safety net as well to make sure that if disaster strikes that they are taken care of. We need strong trade agreements because trade is really, really important to the people of the fourth district. We need to make sure that we have conservation in there. We also need to make sure that we make ways for young farmers to have access to the land so that we have another generation of farmers.
Borg: And food assistance is part of that farm bill, not many people realize that. But there are moves right now -- in fact, the House this past week cut back on what would be given to food assistance. Would you support that?
Vilsack: You know what, for every dollar that comes from -- food dollar and every SNAP dollar, 14 cents goes into a farmer's pocket. So the money that we spend on food, 14 cents of every dollar comes back to a farmer. So if you cut SNAP payments you are not only hurting the people who need that food assistance but you're also hurting the farmers in my district. So we have to take that into consideration because we want to make sure that we have a strong farm economy. And so that's really, really important. It's not just about the people receiving that assistance but they spend that money and it goes out and it circulates and so I think that's really, really important.
Henderson: Would you support a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution?
Vilsack: Well, that is what Steve King talks about and I think it's a gimmick. I think we need to balance our budget, first of all, the most important thing, one of the most important things we need to do right now is to balance our budget. But we need to do it in a responsible way and it needs to include, again, in these kitchen conversations I've had the last few nights that is what people are talking about. People talk about the word balance and balance for me means that you have to make sure that people who are making more actually pay a little bit more, that they take some responsibility for paying a little bit more. We need to obviously cut our spending. If you don't have it, you can't spend it. In my family it was waste not, want not. You need to find savings within. Debt is a four letter word when I was growing up. So you have to cut spending but you also have to target spending for growth. And so the fact that we're not passing a transportation bill, that we don't have an infrastructure bill, that we're not paying attention to those things right now means that it's hard for people in these small towns to grow, for people to invest, for people to feel safe in making an investment.
Obradovich: Would you allow the Bush tax cuts to expire?
Vilsack: Well, yes. I think we should -- for people who are making over a million dollars, I think people who are making over a million dollars should pay a little bit more.
Obradovich: Just over a million? You wouldn't make it lower than that, like $200,000 or $250,000?
Vilsack: No, I think millionaires and billionaires should pay a little bit more. It has always been -- when we've been in hard times before people who had more, it's just asking them to do a little bit more, they have always done that.
Obradovich: And is there anybody else that you would want to raise taxes on? Or raise taxes for? Corporate taxes, anything else you would like to see --
Vilsack: I think right now that if we ask millionaires to pay a little bit more that's not too much to ask.
Henderson: Iowa has never elected a woman to Congress. Do you find a glass ceiling as you campaign?
Vilsack: No, no I really don't. I think it's kind of an anamole. I think we need to get beyond it. I know that I have this opportunity and I'm a teacher so I always look to the future and I want to make sure not only that my new granddaughter, who is six months old, doesn't have to think about this but that 23 year olds don't have to think about it. And I have the opportunity to do this and I realize when I had all the pieces together that there were a lot of young people, men and women who wish they had my name recognition or all of the other skills that I have gathered over the years. And so I feel that this is a real opportunity to break that glass ceiling but it's not so much about that, again, for me as it is about seeing these 39 counties and seeing the incredible opportunity that is out there and wanting to help people in the communities and the communities in the geographic regions actually maximize that potential.
Henderson: Speaking of help, we haven't much time left, but Hillary Clinton had a helpful husband named Bill Clinton. What is the role of Tom Vilsack in your campaign?
Vilsack: He is obviously a great supporter. He calls me every day and says I know you can do this, you're doing a great job. So there is that element. But he also is a great mentor and he gave me the opportunity to be in the room lots of times to see how government worked. I traveled the world so on economic development trips, led a trip to Japan, he had to come home and I continued a trip in New Zealand for economic development so I've talked about those great trade opportunities that we have.
Obradovich: What is the best advice he has given you?
Vilsack: That's a good question -- that's a good question. There's been a lot of it. But I think it's basically you know you can do it -- you have all the pieces together, you can do it. It's more --
Borg: Maybe that advice is when you're on Iowa Press and Dean Borg says we're out of time, just to be quiet.
Vilsack: He did tell me I should make sure I told you I was running and I should do that first.
Borg: Thanks for being with us today.
Vilsack: Sure, thank you so much.
Borg: We'll be back with another edition next week, usual times, 7:30 Friday night, a second chance to see the show Sunday at noon. Iowa Public Television lost a longtime friend this week when Market to Market host Mark Pearson passed away. We invite you now to stay tuned for a very special edition of that program, Market to Market, dedicated to the life and legacy of our colleague, agricultural broadcaster Mark Pearson. I'm Dean Borg. Thanks for joining us today.