All photos by Anne C. Savage, special to Eclectablog
In August of last year, I sat down with Pam Byrnes, the sole Democratic candidate for Michigan’s hotly contested 7th Congressional District. In 2008, Democrat Mark Schauer defeated incumbent Republican Tim Walberg but, in 2010, Walberg won the seat back. Walberg, a former pastor and bible salesman is one of the more conservative members of Congress. He’s also one of the most hypocritical. While he complains bitterly about government spending and sneers at entitlement programs, he himself benefits handsomely from taxpayer-funded healthcare, a healthy federal salary, and he receives a monthly paycheck from the state of Michigan from his pension he earned as a state legislator.
Pam Byrnes is the former House Speaker Pro Tempore of the Michigan House of Representatives and a solid candidate to represent the 7th District. I thought it would be a good idea to touch base with her to see how her campaign is going as election season heats up.
My first question was, of course, “How is the campaign going?”
“The campaign is going very well!” a visibly self-confident Byrnes told me. “We just finished the second quarter for 2014 and, though we don’t yet have the total figures, we’re feeling pretty good about it. There’s always that last minute crush to raise as much money as we can every quarter. And, while I know all of those end-of-the-month emails asking for donations are annoying, some people only respond to deadlines.
“As far as our voter contact effort, since July 1st we now have five organizers across the 7th District, all of whom work under our Field Director. We have one in Monroe County, one in Washtenaw County, one in Jackson, one in Eaton, and one in the Lenawee/Hillsdale area. They’ve already knocked over 1,000 doors and we’re just getting started.”
When you look at 2010 versus 2014, we’re not four years apart, we’re light years apart in terms of the level of organizing that’s happening this early in the year in our state. Whether it’s the individual campaigns or the Coordinated Campaign through the Michigan Democratic Party, there is a great deal happening this year that never happened or happened too late in past elections.
“So you have your own organizers and I suppose you’re working with the Coordinated Campaign, as well?” I asked. “How is that going?”
“Good,” Byrnes responded. “My administrative team is working with their administrative team so there is coordination. The biggest change this year is that there seems to be a real effort to communicate and to foster better communication than has ever happened before.”
“How is fundraising going?,” I asked. “I understand that you out-raised Tim Walberg last quarter.”
“Yes, that’s right,” she said, “And we’re hoping that we did again this quarter. I think that it shows that he’s not taking this race very seriously, in some respects. The interesting thing is that once the fundraising figures were released last quarter that revealed that I had out-raised him, the National Republican Congressional Committee put him into their “Patriot Program” which is their incumbent protection program. That was like the next day and it shows that they believe he is vulnerable, too.”
So far during this election cycle, Walberg hasn’t had much of a real campaign presence. The weekly emails he sends out are still just a litany of Benghazi and IRS and Obamacare but no real substance or ideas. It’s really just a platform of “I hate Benghazi”, “I hate the IRS”, “I hate Obamacare”, and “I hate Obama”. I asked Byrnes about this.
“Yeah, it’s all very negative, isn’t it?” she said. “He’s really out of touch with what’s going on in the district and pretty inaccessible. I think one of the big things that people in the district are upset about was that, after he voted to shut down the government last year, he also opted to continue taking his own salary and not donating it to charity like so many other members of Congress did.
“On top of that, he gets a pension from the state of Michigan from his time in the state legislature.”
The hypocrisy of Walberg is pretty remarkable. In June, I posted a piece about how Walberg had given this speech to a group of conservative pastors saying we’re slaves to all sorts of things including “selfishness”. Meanwhile, he is basically double-dipping with his pension and healthcare benefits and salary.
“It’s quite hypocritical,” Byrnes continued. “When you total it up it’s $174,000 from his salary plus $60,000 from his pension. That’s $234,000 a year. That’s a lot of money!”
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) got involved in Byrnes’ campaign early on and encouraged her to run for the seat. Since then she’s been she’s been added to their “Red to Blue” program.
“The DCCC seems very engaged in your campaign and promoting your candidacy,” I said. “They’ve reserved something like $1 million for later in the campaign which seems very smart.”
“Yes,” she replied, “That’s right. And the House Majority PAC will be getting involved in this race, as well. But the DCCC has been very involved and giving us a lot of support in terms of resources and promoting the campaign.”
I commented on Byrnes clear self confidence. “You really seem confident this is a race that you can win,” I said.
“I AM confident,” Byrnes stated emphatically. “There’s a clear path to victory here. I just have to get my message out and we’re doing that full time right now. We’re getting a lot of support from women’s groups, environmental groups, and labor unions. My campaign has been endorsed by NOW, Planned Parenthood, Emily’s List, the League of Conservation Voters, Sierra Club, and a long list of unions like the MEA, AFT, AFSCME, AFL-CIO, and the UAW. That support is important in helping me to get out my message and letting voters know who I am and what I stand for.”
“Let’s talk about your opponent Tim Walberg a bit more,” I said to Byrnes. “He really is running on what is basically a tea party platform. You’ve been traveling around the district for awhile now and listening to people. Does the tea party have that big of a presence in the 7th Congressional District? It strikes me that, while the tea party certainly has a presence here, they don’t represent the views of the majority of our voters.”
Byrnes responded by saying, “The people who I’m talking to seem very upset by his ineffectiveness and for being what I describe as ‘the poster child for what is wrong in Washington, D.C.’, as well as his double-dipping as we’ve already talked about. There’s also another thing. This year the House Ethics Committee removed some reporting requirement for trips taken by members of Congress that are paid for by lobbyists and private groups. We’ve called on Walberg to address that and to come out against it but, of course, he hasn’t done so.”
She’s right. I looked at Walberg’s travel records since he was reelected in 2010 and he’s taken a LOT of trips paid for by private groups. He’s taken trips paid for by The Heritage Foundation, a very conservative, corporatist group. He’s also had trips paid for by the American Israel Education Foundation, the Fu Jen Catholic University, the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities, and the Congressional Institute which is primarily a lobbying group.
“Here’s what’s important to know about that,” Byrnes pointed out. “You’ve been able to find that information. Now that the rules have changed, you won’t be able to. He took a trip on a yacht a few years back paid for by the Club for Growth to the tune of several thousand dollars. You’ve got access to that information now but, from now on, you won’t have access to it.
“The Republicans talk a lot about transparency and accountability,” she continued. “But now they’re allowing for more perks and more benefits that we never find out about and I think that’s unacceptable. That’s why people are upset with what’s going on in Washington. They see this kind of behavior and see it as going in the wrong direction. That’s just going to add more to the distrust that people have of their elected officials in Washington. We’re sent their to be representatives, to do the people’s work, not to take money from private groups, go on trips and then vote against things like food stamps or Headstart.”
As a writer about politics, I tend to categorize most Republicans these days as “corporatists” who are mainly interested in representing the interests of corporations. But Walberg combines that with very far right religious beliefs and actions that separate him from some other Republicans.
“If voters understood how tied to the evangelical right he is,” I told Byrnes, “I think they’d be shocked. When you talk to people, how are they feeling about Walberg in that regard?”
“They’re irritated,” she said. “They’re upset, they’re angry. There are people out there who are on fixed incomes who are now having their pensions taxed which is, of course, a state issue. But now they now have less income coming in. The gap is widening. In the 7th District something like 20% of the residents are at or below the poverty line and are on food stamps. A lot of these people are in places like Hillsdale and Jackson which are bastions of the tea party. I’m trying to show people how their voting affects their economic situation.
“The fact is he is one of the most vulnerable Republicans in Congress and it’s because he is the poster child for the gridlock people see in Washington. People see him as out-of-touch and taking all of the perks. This is a guy that even used the House gym during the shutdown, a taxpayer-supported benefit. It’s amazingly hypocritical.
“But, we also have a very strong campaign. We’re getting our message out and I think that’s why people are seeing this as a seat we can take back.”
To finish up, I asked Byrnes about the impact women voters will have in this year’s election. “Women seem to be an important element in this year’s campaign,” I said. “Between what’s happening at the federal level and what’s happening in Michigan, women are very upset and seem very engaged this year. How does that shape your campaign?”
“It’s going to be women that put me over the top this year,” she replied. “They’ve been extremely supportive of my candidacy. I spoke to a group in Jackson, for example, called Women for Equity which is not just Democratic women but also Republican women who are fed up with Tim Walberg. And, of course, the Hobby Lobby decision by the Supreme Court, that’s ginning up support for me. Women are being treated as second class citizens and it’s got them very unhappy.
“My message is about education, economic opportunity, and fairness. Because of this, equal pay for women is a huge issue that not only affects women but also their families. So, it resonates with the whole family. Since so many women are the head of household, they understand the importance of a good education system and economic opportunity for everyone. If they’re getting 77 cents on the dollar, that affects their whole household. It’s not just their pay but it affects their ability to go out and by their kids a pair of tennis shoes or other things for their kids. So, we’re seeing more women getting involved both in the campaign but in the political process itself.
Byrnes concluded with this: “When it comes down to it, Tim Walberg and I are two really different people. We really are. My voting record is about reform and accountability. I voted down pay raises in the state legislature and am advocating a 10% decrease in Congressional salary with no pay raise until we balance the budget (although not a balanced budget amendment.)
“Tim Walberg’s is voting record is about perks and and helping corporations. He is what’s wrong in Washington.”
As we were leaving Pam Byrnes campaign office, I noticed a couple of blue spatulas hanging over the sink and asked her about them.
“A while back I was given a spatula by the Jackson County Democrats encouraging me to ‘Flip the Seat’,” she said.
“Was that before or after Walberg was added to Bill Maher’s ‘Flip-a-District’ list?,” I asked.
She laughed. “Before, actually. After that I bought myself one to use when I’m giving speeches. We ARE going to flip this district. You can count on it.”