Challenging tradition. Jim Mowrer challenging republicans' two decade hold on northwest Iowa's congressional seat. A conversation with fourth district democratic congressional candidate Jim Mowrer on this edition of Iowa Press.
Borg: Despite shifting population changing northwest Iowa's congressional district boundaries during the past couple of decades, its congressional seat has been staying on the republican side of the House of Representatives in Washington, D.C. So, it has been 26 years since democrat Berkley Bedell represented what was the former sixth district. Iowa is now down to four congressional seats and incumbent republican Steve King wants to go back for a sixth term, representing a region now including Sioux City, Mason City, Fort Dodge, Spencer, Ames and the area of Boone. Boone democrat Jim Mowrer is now challenging the region's republican dynasty and incumbent Congressman Steve King. After joining Iowa's National Guard as a 17-year-old, he spent a couple of years in Iraq, went back again as a civilian analyst, and later worked again as a civilian in the undersecretary of the Army offices at the Pentagon. Mr. Mowrer, welcome to Iowa Press.
Mowrer: Dean, thank you so much. I'm glad to be here.
Borg: Looking forward to a conversation with you and getting better acquainted. And across the Iowa Press table, Des Moines Register Political Columnist Kathie Obradovich and Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson.
Henderson: Mr. Mowrer, why would you leave a job at the Pentagon, which by all accounts is a semi-functioning organization, to join what everyone believes as a very dysfunctional Congress?
Mowrer: Sure. Well, and the people are right. I think we all have to take personal responsibility for the future of our communities and our state and our country. That is what my entire career has been about is about serving Iowa and serving my country. And at the Pentagon I had a front row seat to see how much damage that this broken Congress is doing. And knowing that my representative is part of the problem, not part of the solution, is what drove me to run for Congress. And we need to do better.
Henderson: You are not the only soldier on the ballot for this fall's election in Iowa. We have Joni Ernst, who is describing herself to audiences as a mom, a soldier and a conservative. Are you a dad, a soldier and a liberal?
Mowrer: Well, I'm definitely a dad and a soldier and a pragmatist. I believe in service, I believe in public service, that is what I've done. I believe in finding common sense solutions and working with people from all backgrounds and getting the job done. And I think that is what my record shows is at the Pentagon, for example, working with people with varied interests to get the job done, to save taxpayers billions of dollars.
Obradovich: What is pragmatic about running the most republican district in Iowa, though? Steve King, his last opponent was probably the best known and well liked democrat in the state, First Lady, former First Lady Christie Vilsack. What do you have that all of his past democratic opponents did not have?
Mowrer: Sure. Well, Christie is a friend of mine. I think the campaign that she ran is why we're so successful this time around. We have a great groundwork, we have hit the ground running from day one, we have had a lot of support from all around the fourth district and people, democrats, republicans, independents, the one thing that they agree on is that Washington is broken, that Congress is not getting the job done. And I think it's pretty clear, again, that my opponent is part of that problem. They want someone as their representative who is advocating for their interests every single day.
Obradovich: Well, you've been in the race for a year. What are some of those benchmarks of support that you say you've been seeing? You haven't had a lot of attention for this campaign, in part because you haven't had a primary to focus on. But, so what do you mean by hit the ground running?
Mowrer: Well, I've been all around the district talking with voters about the issues, talking about their lives and what they see and want out of Washington. And so, I think we have the resources to win in November, we're going to continue to have the resources, people agree with our message. We're right on the issues. And, again, people know what Washington needs to change. We can't keep sending back the same failed representatives and expect any different.
Borg: Alright. Twice I've heard you say, in these very words, you didn't mention Steve King, but you said part of the problem. You have repeated that twice. So, specifically, why is Steve King part of what you perceive to be the congressional problem?
Mowrer: Well, if you believe that Congress is not getting the basic things done and you see Congressman King, for example, leading the government shutdown, if you believe that our government should function, that we should fund our government, that we should be able to do things, then you should believe that based on his record that he's part of the problem, leading the government shutdown, not pursuing any bipartisan legislation whatsoever. He has never passed any major legislation. He has never brought anything back to Iowa.
Borg: And did I understand you just a bit ago saying Christie Vilsack has made it easier, you see a pathway now to being able to end the republican, what I call dynasty? What is that pathway? And why did she make it easier?
Mowrer: Well, because we started this conversation and Christie would have made a great representative for the fourth district but now that the conversation is active, people have had a few years to really think about, you know, what they want out of their representative, we're hearing, I'm hearing from folks who say, well I wasn't convinced last time. I've talked to republicans who say, I wasn't convinced last time that I wanted to change my representative.
Borg: But what are you doing differently that Christie Vilsack did not do in being defeated?
Mowrer: Sure, well I'm a very different candidate. I grew up on a farm in Boone County, my war record, my record at the Pentagon of results of saving taxpayers billions of dollars, that's something that people see and know that I'll bring to the table in Congress.
Henderson: Let us shift to some of the issues that are at the fore of the campaign debate right now. Immigration reform, a comprehensive immigration reform bill passed the Senate. Congressman King is adamantly opposed to it. And now you have this, what some people are describing as a crisis at the southern border. What, in your view, is the resolution to these difficulties?
Mowrer: Absolutely. Well, this is an illustration of why we need immigration reform. Clearly our system is broken. And so you have Representative King, who is advocating against solutions, who doesn't have any solutions of his own. And there's a lot of blame to go around. But in many ways he is responsible for this because he is against immigration reform, he spent the past few years going around and claiming that this administration is going to grant amnesty. And now he is surprised that people listen to him and they're trying to come to the United States. And so I think that there's a good amount of blame there and we need to move forward, we need to address this issue and that's why I'm in favor of a comprehensive immigration reform.
Henderson: So, your argument is that Steve King is partly to blame for all the people coming from Central America to the southern border and trying to cross into the United States?
Mowrer: Absolutely. The fact that we don’t' have comprehensive immigration reform and he is one of the people who is the most vocal against that and trying not to get anything done.
Henderson: One of his arguments in immigration reform, against immigration reform is the border needs to be secured first. He has been an advocate of the fence along the entire border. Do you support construction of some sort of physical barrier along the entire southern border?
Mowrer: Well, I support the immigration reform bill that passed the Senate that would double border security. And I'll defer to the experts, the border experts, on what the best way to secure the border is.
Obradovich: Was it, speaking of the border, President Obama, of course, went to Texas -- was it a mistake for him not to go to the border and see firsthand the situation going on, especially with young people coming across the border?
Mowrer: You know, I don't know what could be gained by that. I don't think it would be a problem for him to go to the border. But I think, again, a photo op with the President visiting the border doesn't actually change anything. What we need to do is actually take action and fix our immigration system.
Obradovich: Does it make sense to have a policy for immigration that treats minors differently than it treats adults?
Mowrer: Well, I think we have to recognize that we've got kids, children coming across from Central America. The violence in Central America is very much to blame for a lot of that as well. And so I think we have always treated kids and children differently, that is something that Congressman King even voted for himself.
Obradovich: What about a policy that treats kids from Central America different from kids closer to the United States from Mexico?
Mowrer: Well, I think that is, we do need to look at that policy. And I think, for example, it's a large geographic area. You’ve got a more diverse problem set throughout Central America than just in Mexico. So I think that it is okay to treat them a little differently when you have different circumstances behind those.
Borg: I'm wondering, what about Israel and the conflict that is going on there right now? It seems never-ending but it is hotter than ever, even as we speak. What is the U.S. role?
Mowrer: Well, having spent many years in the Middle East, several years in the Middle East, I understand the situation very well. And we have a strong ally in Israel and the Middle East is as violent and in turmoil as ever. Obviously with Syria, with Iran, with Iraq and then Israel and Palestine as well. But we need to, we need to support our ally Israel who is, we hope that we week a peaceful solution and a two state solution.
Borg: Support Israel, come what may. That is even if we have military intervention to defend Israel?
Mowrer: Well, I don't think that we're looking at that in any way right now. I think Israel right now is defending its self-interests in many ways and we need to be supportive of our ally in a region that we don't have a lot of allies.
Henderson: At the beginning of the program, in respect to your service in the Pentagon, you said Congress was hurting the Pentagon. In what way?
Mowrer: Well, you have the generals, you have civilian leadership who are trying to make changes to the force of the future. In many ways we're still aligned to fight the Cold War, to fight the decades of conflict that we have had now. And we have to reset as we come out of Iraq and Afghanistan and we have to rebuild, reconstitute the force and invest in the future as well. And instead you have Congress mandating, in many cases, that we spend hundreds of millions of dollars, for example, on armored vehicles that the generals no longer need or want and are telling Congress that, but because of the special interests and parochial interests that are at hand in many cases, they're not able to make that cut. So you literally have Congress forcing the military to buy hundreds of millions or billions of dollars of weapon systems that in the professional military judgment of our leaders are not necessary.
Obradovich: How should our military, how should our President, the State Department, respond to the growth of the Islamic state, a group called ISIS in Iraq and Syria? How big of a threat are they? And how should the United States respond, especially given the deterioration of the situation in Iraq?
Mowrer: Well, it's a very difficult situation. We do need to engage and respond in diplomatic ways. We need to support a peaceful resolution. But in many cases, as I had said prior, with Syria, for example, you, in many cases, have no interest for the United States on either side. Obviously you seek a peaceful resolution, there's too many civilian casualties. But you've got bad guys fighting bad guys in many cases.
Borg: I'm curious, I'm going to take you back now to the VA health system. You know the problem there, that vets can't get the medical care in a timely fashion. Is a solution, from your experience in Iraq, your experience now as a civilian, that the government pay for vets to go into the civilian system much like the military's Tricare system allows them to do?
Mowrer: Well, the military -- not to get to into the weeds on that -- but in many cases even with Tricare you're seeing military doctors. But it does have flexibility to see civilian doctors as well. I think in this particular case all options have to be on the table. If we have veterans who are not getting the care that they need and deserve then all options are on the table, especially if it's things that civilian doctors are well qualified to treat. You know, you have a knee issue or something of that nature, you can go see a civilian doctor. But the VA system is in place to address the specific needs that veterans have --
Borg: What should Congress do -- if you were elected what would you immediately do to help fix and alleviate the situation?
Mowrer: There has to be realignment of the VA system and a lot of that is the same work that I did at the Pentagon with establishing the Army Office of Business Transformation. One thing, the adjudication process, electronic medical records, streamlining all of those things. I'm glad that we've got new leadership coming in with a business background. I think that the process and the bureaucracy has to be reformed and fixed to make sure that we have got the right resources in the right place at the right time to treat veterans.
Henderson: Republicans, like Steve King, say look at what is happening with the Veterans Administration, that is exactly why Obamacare can't and won't work. As a member of Congress, would you vote to get rid of the employer mandate? Would you make significant changes to Obamacare?
Mowrer: Well, I think there's a lot of problems with the Affordable Care Act. I've got some issues with the Affordable Care Act.
Henderson: Such as?
Mowrer: We need, well I think if you look at some of the funding mechanisms through taxes on health insurance plans that are deemed to be too generous, I think that's the wrong approach. And I think we're seeing things, as we continue implementation, that may not be working the way that they were intended --
Borg: Scrap it and start over?
Mowrer: No, no. We cannot go back to a time where insurance companies were allowed to drop people when they got sick, to discriminate against the 128 million Americans who have pre-existing conditions. This is very important to me and my family. I would not have health insurance for my family or for my son, who has a serious pre-existing condition, without the new health care laws. So, we need to do better. We need people who honestly believe in making policy work and making sure that people get health care that they need and deserve. But you have to have people who believe in actually making that happen and making it work.
Obradovich: Tell us a little bit more about your family's experience with the health care system, and especially this major change that you had. You mentioned your son, Jack's, diagnosis, was it in November with a serious genetic degenerative disease, correct? So, how has that affected your family and how you feel about health care in the country?
Mowrer: Well, every family essentially has someone who has a serious health condition or concern. Over time, obviously cancer, there’s a lot of diseases that affect families. And so that is not how we need to talk about it. We need to talk about how this actually affects people. This is where public policy intersects people's lives. You know, I'm, right now I don’t have an employer-based health plan, so having a son who has a serious condition that requires significant medical care, that could save his life at any given time, is very important. People need to be able to get health insurance. And in the old system, prior to the new health care law, that wasn't the case. I don't know if I could get health insurance. I don't know if I could get affordable health insurance because there would be the discrimination there against the pre-existing condition.
Obradovich: And if you did not have health insurance, if you didn't have that option, what would you have to do? What would you be doing?
Mowrer: I would probably be bankrupt frankly. Even with health insurance, I sat down at the end of the year to look over my financial situation, with health insurance had spent nearly $10,000 out of pocket for health care on top of insurance premiums. And that was a time when I had what I believed to be good health insurance.
Obradovich: And this is an expensive program, it's not only expensive for people who need serious health care, but it is also expensive for the taxpayers. You said the taxes on Cadillac plans is not the way to go. How should we be looking to pay for this going forward?
Mowrer: Well, I think we've got some good approaches. We need, you know, everyone to be -- health care is important to everyone. And so there needs to be investment by folks across the board. So, I think there's a lot of options on the table but we need people to come together. Right now --
Obradovich: So you don't have a specific idea --
Mowrer: Well, there's several ideas out there but I don't want to get into specifics because right now we don't have anyone sitting down and figuring out a way to compromise and actually make that happen. We have people, like my opponent, who are saying we need to repeal everything and go back to the old days where all of these things are not covered.
Henderson: Many races for the federal level are centering on the issue of the minimum wage. Would you support raising the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour?
Mowrer: Because right now you have people who work full-time, they work 40 hours a week and they live in poverty. Work should pay in this country. We have people who work full-time who qualify then for Food Stamps and other government assistance programs costing taxpayers significant amounts of money. If you work full-time in this country you should be able to provide for yourself and your family.
Borg: Many people -- go ahead, Kay.
Henderson: There are those who argue that it would lead to job losses if the wage goes up and that a federal minimum wage maybe shouldn't be the way to go, that you should allow states to set an individual state level minimum wage because states have different costs of living.
Mowrer: Well, you've seen this argument play out many times, every time and if the minimum wage had been adjusted for inflation it would be much higher today than it is and perhaps even higher than $10.10. And so these are the same arguments that have been made against raising the minimum wage in the past. And time and time again it is proven that it's the right thing to do and it's good public policy.
Borg: A number of people in your district where you're campaigning to become their representative are vested in the ethanol industry, both growing corn and producing ethanol in the plants there. So, how would you defend, if you believe in the Renewable Fuel Standard, which is under attack and scrutiny, how would you defend that or maybe even increase the amount of ethanol or at least keep it where it is right now, that is required to be blended into gasoline?
Mowrer: Well, I'm a strong supporter and defender of the Renewable Fuel Standard. And I believe that, you know, clean American energy is an economic security and a national security issue. And so it's a top priority. It requires investment. And I think that's maybe, you know, a large difference between my opponent and I. He's someone who regularly advocates for no government involvement whatsoever. And this is an area where we're leading the charge because of these programs whether it's with ethanol or with wind power in the fourth district, we're leading the charge because of these programs that are in place.
Borg: Are you saying that Steve King is soft on the Renewable Fuel Standard?
Mowrer: I'm not saying on this specific program. I'm saying that it's very hypocritical when he says, I'm against every other thing but I'm in favor of this one thing. And so that is the area where if you look at his record he has no political capital, no one takes him seriously because he's not willing to work with anyone to get the rest of it done. But he'll come back and say, but I am in favor of this.
Obradovich: The Keystone Pipeline has been a big flash point in the national news, but now they're talking about building an oil pipeline through Iowa. How do you feel about the Keystone Pipeline? And should we have one here in Iowa?
Mowrer: Sure. Well, I think this is a very new issue that I definitely want to know more about before I take a clear stance on it because I need all the facts first. I am not against the Keystone Pipeline. I think that we need to have a more focused mid and long-term energy strategy in this country. And I don't think this addresses that by any means. But I'm not against it either. But there's pipelines, thousands of pipelines that exist, thousands of miles all over Iowa, for example, already. And so I'd have to look at this specific proposal.
Obradovich: If it doesn't really help, though, is it worth the environmental risk?
Mowrer: Well, I think we have to acknowledge that in the short-term we do have immediate energy needs economically and for security purposes. But we also, at the same time, need to realize that's not the long-term solution. So, we need to take the opportunity to re-look our mid and long-term strategy to make sure that we have clean American energy in place going into the future.
Henderson: Real quickly on the Farm Bill, Congressman King voted for the Farm Bill but he has been a longtime critic of the portion of the bill that finances the SNAP program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Food Stamps. Do you support the Obama and Vilsack, as Secretary of Agriculture, program which has significantly increased Food Stamp expenditures?
Mowrer: Well, this has, had broad bipartisan support coming out of the Senate as well. Senator Grassley voted for the original Senate passed Farm Bill that included all of these things and ultimately he was against it. But, look, this is basics, this is feeding people, it's the right thing to do and it's the right thing to do economically.
Henderson: Congressman King in the past has not debated some of his democratic opponents. This past election season he did debate Christie Vilsack on a number of occasions. Should you have the chance to debate Congressman King, what is the number one issue on which you would attack?
Mowrer: Well, this isn't about him or I. This is about people deserving to hear from the folks who want to be their representative. And if you have a sitting representative running for re-election who is not willing to engage in a debate on the issues, that's pretty telling to the people about where he stands and the respect that he has for the people's opinion. I think this is something that is very important. People deserve to hear about the issues from the people who want to be their representative.
Obradovich: Vice President Joe Biden held a fundraiser for you out in D.C. You're a friend of his son, Bo Biden, I believe you met in Iraq. Is that right? And so, do you expect the Vice President to come out and campaign for you in the fourth district?
Mowrer: Well, as I've said on a lot of these questions, I am glad to have the support of anyone who is willing to help me. I think in many cases I suspect Congressman King has a secret agenda to help me out every single day just by his actions and words. So, I'm more than happy to have the help of anyone who is willing to come to Iowa and help me out.
Obradovich: And is the Vice President an asset in such a republican district?
Mowrer: Well, I think, you know, we'll have to look at that but he's the Vice President of the United States. And, again, I'm glad to have support from people who, from anyone. I've had support from lifelong republicans. I'm glad to have their support as well.
Borg: You have said that Christie Vilsack helped prepare the way for you in this campaign. Will she be campaigning with you? Or are you inviting her to?
Mowrer: Well, Christie is in a position right now where she, in the government with USAID, where she is not allowed to take part in political activities.
Borg: So, that's a no.
Mowrer: Yeah, that's the answer to that.
Henderson: Iowa has one of the most high profile U.S. Senate races in the country. It has two open congressional seats. How in the world can you get people to actually pay attention to your candidacy?
Mowrer: Well, again, people understand that things aren't getting done in Washington. So, people of the fourth district have only one representative to send to Washington. And so they're going to be paying attention, they are paying attention and, again, because of my opponent's activities and his words, it draws a lot of national attention and it is negative attention. Let's be clear about what it is.
Henderson: But he has been consistent over his record in drawing that kind of attention to himself. This isn't a new thing. Why are you going to succeed where Christie Vilsack didn't?
Mowrer: Well, again, I'm a very different candidate. I have a very positive vision of the future about where we need to invest to ensure this country remains the greatest nation on Earth. And I think my record shows that.
Obradovich: If you've ever castrated hogs I've heard that's a good way to get some national attention.
Mowrer: Yeah, you know, I will say I have but I don't plan on running any ads in that regard.
Borg: Alright. We're going to hold you to that. Thank you very much for being our guest today. It's nice to get acquainted with you. Thanks for being here.
Mowrer: Thank you, Dean. I'm appreciate it.
Borg: And we'll be back next week with another edition of Iowa Press. You'll see us at the usual times, 7:30 Friday night and noon on Sunday. I'm Dean Borg and on behalf of Kay and Kathie, thanks for joining us today.