I take the job of being a Representative very seriously and the only way you can be a good one is by being out in the community…and doing more listening than talking
All photos by Anne C. Savage, special to Eclectablog
On May 1st, Congressman Gary Peters from Michigan’s 14th Congressional District announced his candidacy for the U.S. Senate to fill outgoing Senator Carl Levin’s seat. Announcing 18 months before the election is unusual but, as Peters himself acknowledges, with the historic influx of money from corporations and wealthy individuals into our political system, getting an early start on building a grassroots organization to get out the vote on Election Day requires getting started earlier now than ever before.
So far, the only Republican candidate to announce is former state Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land. Although she has good name recognition from her time as SoS, she has no national political experience other than a position on the Republican National Committee. It is increasingly clear that she is not the first (or, perhaps even second or third) choice of the Michigan Republican Party who seem to be holding out for a better candidate.
Meanwhile, Democrats have quickly and enthusiastically rallied behind Peters’ candidacy. His popularity is, in large part, thanks to his advocacy on behalf of Michigan to save our vehicle manufacturing base along with his efforts to ensure that struggling urban areas like Flint, Pontiac, and Detroit are taking full advantage of all of the federal programs that are available to them. For example, when Pontiac Emergency Manager Louis Schimmel made a decision to forgo millions of dollars in HUD funding for the city of Pontiac, Congressman Peters intervened to ensure the funding would remain in place. He had this to say at the time:
“Emergency managers come in and are focused on balancing budgets in the short term, and because of that they make decisions that aren’t necessarily in the best interest of the city,” he said.
“They’re interested in taking things off books to make their job a little easier. That may be be good for them but it’s not good for the city.
“It highlights why we have to have elected officials, accountable to the people.”
It’s advocacy on behalf of his constituents that has made Peters so popular and such a powerful candidate for U.S. Senate.
This past weekend, Congressman Peters was on the campus of the University of Michigan to visit with College Dems and to tour the university research facility where groundbreaking and life-saving stem cell research is being conducted. I asked his communications director Haley Morris why he was there.
Congressman Gary Peters with Dr. Gary Smith, University of Michigan stem cell research scientist
“There isn’t any press here so why tour the labs?” I asked.
“Congressman Peters sees universities as an important part of Michigan’s economic success and he has long supported stem cell research for its potential to save live,” Morris told me. “He’s here to find out what he can do as a Congressman to make sure they are successful.”
While Congressman Peters was in town, I sat down with him for a conversation about his candidacy, the gridlock in Congress, and other issues. Our interview is below. Enjoy.
So, you’re running for a statewide position now. How are you balancing your job in Washington and representing your 14th District constituents with running in a statewide race? I’m sure the shutdown kept you busy in Washington for most of the past month. How will you introduce yourself to the rest of the state over the next year?
Well, it just means you have three full time jobs! [laughs]
But certainly my first priority is doing the job that I was elected to do in representing the 14th Congressional District. So I’m there, voting on every vote in Washington, and then back in the district. But I’m also trying to balance that with traveling around the state of Michigan since it’s also critical for us to get out and meet people from the U.P. to Grand Rapids and Detroit and all the places in between.
It’s a big state!
Right. I tell folks in Washington that when you look at the hours of driving, from Detroit to Ironwood is a longer drive than from Detroit to Washington, D.C.
It is amazing.
You ran in a statewide race one other time, right? You ran for Michigan Attorney General?
Right. I ran for AG in ’02.
So you’ve at least been out and around and done a statewide campaign before.
That’s true but that was a very abbreviated one timewise because, at that time, you’d get nominated at the convention at the end of August, like the week before Labor Day, then it was a full, all-out sprint to the election.
This race is different because it’s a marathon. It’s more than a year long. I got into the race on May 1st so it’s actually a year and half.
In terms of statewide recognition, I assume that, like Mark [Schauer], part of what you’re having to do is get out and introduce yourself to people outside of your Congressional district.
Yeah, absolutely. We do meetings around the state. I do my Main Street tours which have been a big part of what I’ve always done because I think that the real engines of growth in our economy are small businesses. The auto industry is critical and I was intimately involved in making sure that we have a vibrant auto industry and manufacturing base but, ultimately, that industry won’t be as large as it was in the past so we’ve got to continue to diversify and it’s really small business that is the engine of growth. So, whenever I’m in towns, I usually do a Main Street tour where we’ll go to some of the local businesses on Main Street to talk about some of their issues, what they need to go forward.
And the other aspect of what I do is that I’m the co-chair for the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Caucus in the House. I’m co-chair of that and co-chair of the Auto Caucus.
So you’re seeing from both perspectives; large companies and small ones, as well.
Right, big companies and start ups. For example I was recently at a start up event in Grand Rapids at the Start Garden. We visited there and we’ve been to the city of Detroit, just talking about innovation. Like, today, I’m meeting with folks here at the University of Michigan stem cell research lab because that’s a great opportunity for us to be doing cutting edge research here in the state of Michigan. So, our universities and our small businesses are coming together with the medium-sized ones to create new opportunities.
How is the House Caucus group that you’re on working out? Are you seeing successes with that? What types of things come out of that process?
A big part of that is to highlight startups and the policies necessary to help companies first start up and grow. When I was at Start Garden in Grand Rapids it was Startup Day that we declared and we wanted members of Congress to go to startup areas around the country. We had 75 members of Congress participate in that around the country. Then local media could come out and talk about what is happening in the local community with startups.
Legislation that came out of that process included the [Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act] JOBS Act that I was involved with. The JOBS Act dealt with financing; getting resources to start a company and financing like crowdfunding, some of these new innovations where small companies can raise the money they need to get a start. And when they start, they start hiring and growing their business.
I wanted to talk a little bit about the campaign itself. You seem to have only one opponent at this point which is Terri Lynn Land who is a wealthy Republican who has only held one office of any kind of significance as far as I can tell. You’ve got some business guy running ads against you over a year ahead of the election which seems a little strange to me. Do you anticipate this being a sort of “preview of coming attractions” in terms of what this campaign is going to look like and the influx of money?
Well, I suspect you’ll see a lot of money coming in from out of state groups. A lot of the Super PACs may engage, for example. The way you counteract that is by being grassroots. It’s about being out in the community which is why we’re getting started early. If you have a lot of money you can dump a lot into TV ads at the very end but if you’re going to run a grassroots campaign and get people excited and get people engaged, you’ve got to start very early which is why I was in on May 1st and have been traveling around the state while I’ve got these other jobs to do!
But you’ve got to go around and build that organization so that you can withstand what will likely be a lot of out of state money that will come in. That money tends to be used on negative ads, they only put up negative stuff, so you want to make sure that you’ve got core supporters that are out there working, talking to their neighbors and friends.
I think the 2012 election proved that approach out. It wasn’t necessarily the campaigns that spent the most money that won. I mean, you need to raise enough money to get your message out, you’ve got to get to the critical threshold but, after that, there’s a diminishing rate of return. So you can beat that by mobilizing grassroots support and showing folks out there that my campaign represents their values and that I’m the best choice if they want to see their values represented in Washington, D.C.
What will be the top two or three issues that you’ll be talking about in your campaign over the next year?
I think the over-arching theme — and then the top issues fit in from there — are really the things that are coming out from my traveling around the state of Michigan and listening to conversations that people are having. It’s more of an informal conversation approach to getting a sense of what folks in this state really care about. So, to me, the most important conversations are those conversations that happen around the kitchen table every night. And what are those conversations about? First of all, people talk about jobs, about their ability to get a good paying job, have security in that job, and have their income grow to where they keep up with the cost of living.
So, the economy is going to be a big part of what I’ll talk about. I’ve talked about it in the past and will continue to do so. We’ve got to make sure that Michigan’s economy is strong and vibrant and diversified and that we’re in a position to continue to be a leader in the country.
Another issue is affordable health care. People want to make sure that kind of coverage so we need to be sure that we’re providing that and that the Affordable Care Act is working the way it should. Hopefully we can do that and continue to improve on it and make it even better.
Affordable education for our children is another important issue we’ll be talking about along with safe schools and the ability to send your kids to a great university like the University of Michigan or wherever they want to go, to be able to afford that. We need to make sure that higher education is not priced out of reach for middle class kids. That’s a big part of the American Dream, after all, that, if you work hard and aspire to get a higher education, you’ll be able to get the resources necessary to do that and that’s becoming increasingly difficult for people.
The other thing that I’m concerned about if we’re looking at the theme of what people care about around the dinner table is that, when all is said and done and you’ve worked your whole life and worked hard to send your kids off to school or get them started, whatever that may be, you want to be able to retire with dignity and to have things like Social Security be there. It’s a critical source of income for seniors that’s got to continue to be there. It’s a sacred promise for our current seniors as well as all of us who aspire to be senior citizens! And that includes Medicare and Medicaid as well.
So, that’s really it: it’s about jobs, it’s about education, and it’s about being able to retire with dignity.
You talked about the Affordable Care Act and I asked Mark Schauer this question, too. It’s been three years now since that vote. Are you still feeling good about that vote, do you look back on that vote and feel glad that you made it the way you made it?
Absolutely. We have to make sure that everybody in this country, no matter who you are and no matter where you live, you have access to affordable health care. The system that we had prior to passing the Affordable Care Act we know wasn’t working and costs were going up at a rate considerably higher than inflation and there were huge gaps in coverage. Many people, increasing numbers of people, simply were not able to afford health insurance. As a result of that, folks died and people, if they didn’t die, found themselves in bankruptcy because they couldn’t pay those bills. So we needed to make changes.
Now, having said that, I voted for the bill, the law now, I read through it and the more I read, the more I felt is was heading us in the right direction. But, I also say it’s not perfect. But I will also say I’ve never seen a perfect regulation pass through Congress or the state House when I was there! And I will also say that I will never see one in the future, as well. So, what you have to do is you have to go back and make it better. But you have to stay focused on the core principle which is that everybody in this country should have access to affordable healthcare no matter who you are and where you live. Then we try to constantly work to make sure that we’re getting there. That’s something that I’m committed to do in the U.S. Senate. We’ll go back to make changes where we need to make changes but never deviate from that core goal.
Social Security was not perfect when it started. It didn’t include most women, for example. There were a lot of flaws in that that were changed over time.
It seems to me to be an economic issue, too. You talked about small businesses and entrepreneurs and startups. When you don’t have access to health insurance and you’re paying your own health care bills, that’s a huge impediment to start your own business. It traps people in jobs. For people would like to make a career change and would like to start their own business, that’s a really huge hurdle. It’s a level of income that you have to add to what you’d need to make just to start out at the same place.
That’s exactly right. That’s right. So, if you have the ability to get that, it creates more dynamism in our economy. Then you have people who are willing to go out and be entrepreneurs. It’s like you say, people are going to think about their families first. You’re already taking a big risk being an entrepreneur and now, if you’re going to risk the health of your family, people are not going to do that. They may do it later in life or not at all.
It’s surprised me that our large corporations in this country haven’t been more supportive of a single-payer approach to healthcare or, at least, more of a universal healthcare because they are competing against countries internationally that don’t have this overhead that they have. It’s always puzzled me why they weren’t more involved.
Yeah, and it’s an issue with small businesses, as well, maybe even more so. If you’re doing what you think is right which is providing healthcare coverage for your employees but the company that you compete against literally just across the street from you — not in India but right across the street from you! — does not provide health insurance, then you put yourself at a real competitive disadvantage which why you get this race to the bottom where more and more people are losing healthcare coverage.
That’s a great point.
This gridlock in Washington just seem so unprecedented to me and not something that’s sustainable in the long term. I’m curious what your sense is. Is this something that will burn itself out in terms of the tea party recalcitrance against compromise or is this the “new normal” that we have to deal with? And, if that’s the case, what do we have to do to get around that? What do we have to do to get to a place where we’re actually talking and compromising again?
Yeah, well that’s obviously the big question that we’re dealing with right now. But, I think if you boil it right down, to a lot of the folks that have been stopping this, it’s a significant number but it’s not that large of a number of tea party folks and we saw that in the recent shutdown. The talk was that there were about 40 individuals, give or take some, who were really driving the House and preventing Speaker Boehner from doing what he should have done which was to just put the bill on the floor for a vote. Had he done that, certainly it would have passed and it did.
I was pleased to see 87 Republicans vote to open up government and to make sure that we could pay our debts. So, that’s headway that we had 87. That’s the good news. The bad news is that it’s still only about 40% of the Republican caucus so there are a lot of other folks who have a ways to go! [laughs] But, it’s a starting point and we should celebrate the starting point to go forward.
But I think you could end the gridlock very rapidly if you would just put the bills on the floor and let the will of the House work its way. If you do that, you’re certainly going to lose some Democrats who won’t vote for whatever that bill will be. And you’re going to have Republicans who won’t vote for it. But you’ll also have Republicans who will and Democrats who will and it’s more of the center which is really where most of the American people are. They are center-right and center-left; they’re not far-right and far-left.
So, that’s where you find that middle ground to do it. Now, I know Speaker Boehner was concerned that he’d lose his Speakership over that and the fact that they have that Hastert Rule where you have to get the majority of your caucus to vote for a bill before you’ll let the whole House vote on it.
That’s unique to the Republicans, right? Democrats don’t have that sort of thing.
So we don’t have that on the Democratic side. And that seems to me to be the biggest impediment to bipartisanship.
Even on immigration reform right now, if they put that immigration bill out it would probably pass, right?
It would pass, yeah. I believe it would.
But they won’t put it out there because it won’t pass with the majority of Republicans.
That’s right. Right. So it’s about his Speakership. You know, if you boil that down to what happened during the shutdown, Standard and Poors estimates that the cost to the economy was $24 billion. I would venture to say that just about every American in this country does not believe that John Boehner’s Speakership is worth $24 billion to the American people!
Fair to say!
So, at some point you have to be representing the country and the best interests of the country and not your particular political position.
When you think about it in those terms, it really does say that our Congress is actually more bipartisan in terms of being willing to agree with each other on certain things than the result would sort of convince you is true. And it’s because of the Hastert Rule, primarily.
This is what is stopping it, you’re absolutely right. So, if you can get rid of that rule, what you suggest could happen.
Then, longer term, we need to have reforms on how we do redistricting. Unfortunately that’s going to be the next decade with the next census. But, I would like to see more reforms in how we draw lines, similar to what’s happened in California and Iowa and other places where the redistricting commissions, they take the politics as much out of it as they can, they have open primaries and those sorts of things so that you don’t get these districts that are SO lopsided; so heavily Democratic, so heavily Republican that only the fringes of each party dominate the election and it’s not the general election that determines the candidate.
It happens on both sides but it just so happens that, right now, it’s predominantly all on the Republican side where you have that imbalance. But that’s not something that we can do right away and we can’t wait so we have to do some things NOW which is why we need to put bills on the floor and let the will of the House work its way. Certainly that’s what the Founding Fathers and the framers of the Constitution expected it do. That’s why James Madison was so concerned about factions that he thought that was going to be the biggest threat to this emerging republic.
He saw the future, I guess.
He did see the future. He thought that factions would not allow things to get to the floor and move the way they should. And we’re definitely seeing it. It’s not, of course, the first time in history. We fought a civil war over some big divisions, too. So, we’ve seen these sort of things happen. That’s part of the problem with the system where you get this polarization that makes us incapable of moving forward. But I think we have a fix here if we just bring these bills forward for a vote.
There are groups like Common Cause and Move to Amend that are legislative and Constitutional fixes or improvements that will take money out of politics so that money is not equated with speech and corporations aren’t people, things like that. Do you agree that this is something that we need to be working on in order to overturn things like the Citizens United Supreme Court decision and other court cases that are coming up? And, if so, would you support a constitutional amendment to limit that type of thing?
Yeah, well, there’s no question that we have to take the incredible amount of money we’re seeing out of our political system. It’s just too much money. We’re going to see this in our Senate race as we talked about earlier. There’s going to be a lot of outside money that will pour into these races and you’ll see that around the country in some of those targeted Senate races. There’s just too much cash and we’ve got to reform the system.
I think the way we try reform it in the short-run, certainly a constitutional amendment is a possibility, but that takes a long time, it’s sort of like the longer-term structural changes in history. I don’t think we should wait that long. So, we need to and we CAN do some of this stuff at the Congressional level, although the parties will do it based on their advantage and right now the Republicans have to their advantage that all of this money is involved.
But one of the short term fixes that I think would be important would be to bring in more transparency into the process so that you don’t have these Super PAC committees where you don’t know who is giving the money and who is behind it. You have groups right now that have really nice sounding names. When you read ‘em, you know, it’s like “Americans for…”
For adorable fluffy puppies… !
Right! Exactly. Wonderful names that you read and think, “That’s a committee that I could really support!” But then when you look and see who contributes the money and you realize that they have values completely different than what you do, then maybe you’ll say, “I’ll take that with a grain of salt when I see that ad come up.”
Those kinds of bills we can do now and hopefully we can get the American people engaged to, again, allowed those bills to be voted on on the House floor. Put it on the floor and let…”
Do you think you could get bipartisan support for that sort of legislation?
It might not get widespread bipartisan support but I think it would get bipartisan support, yes. You could pass that kind of legislation because those members who are in more competitive districts, they’d have to go back to their folks and defend it. Keep in mind, this is just for transparency, we’re not even talking about limiting money, just tell everyone about the money, where it’s coming from, who’s giving it. It’s hard to argue the other side like, “No, we should keep this secret!
I know, right? It’s indefensible!
How do you defend that? Now I’d love to have someone defend keeping that a secret!
I would think that the tea party, as purist as they claim to be in terms of the Constitution, would be more supportive of that kind of a thing than maybe a mainstream Republican would be.
So, that’s interesting.
When you’re switching from state politics to national politics, is your focus still on what your state wants or is there a shift in the way you see things? Are you thinking more from a national perspective or way of thinking?
Obviously there’s a national framework that you have to be thinking about but I’m still focused on what is best for Michigan. Because it’s really got to be what’s based for the state. That’s my job, to go to Washington to represent our state and, in the House, more specifically, my district.
What I find as I travel around is that, although folks say, “Well, the state’s so diverse, so different…” what I find is that there’s actually great commonality. So, when people are talking around the kitchen table, those conversations in Traverse City and Detroit and Ironwood, those conversations are all the same. Now, those are national issues. For example, Social Security is a national issue but I approach it from a framework of what’s best for the folks in Michigan and when it comes to certain priorities and specific pieces of legislation, I’ll be thinking a lot about how it’s going to have the biggest impact on our state.
It’s also driven, some of those national issues are driven by what happens here locally. I was very involved in the pet coke issue that I think you followed. In fact, I know you did. So the pet coke issue was a local issue that needed to be addressed but it also has national and international implications because the pet coke comes from Canadian tar sands oil. If the Keystone pipeline is built, there’s going to be a LOT of Canadian tar sands oil. Here’s the thing: a third of every barrel of tar sands oil is pet coke. A third. That’s a lot of pet coke all over the country. So, it is a Detroit issue and a Michigan issue and a Great Lakes issue but it’s also a national issue.
When you’re passing legislation, when you’re trying to get legislation passed, you have to get others to support you so it’s important to make sure you’re thinking about things from a national perspective so that you can get broad support for what you’re trying to do.
I’m going to finish up here by saying that I’ve really enjoyed watching you and Mark Schauer sort of having these parallel careers. You both came out of the state legislature and went into Congress at the same time. Then Mark got “Walberged”, if you want to call it that…
We both had tough races.
You did. And now you’re both running in statewide races. Will we see you two working together over the next year? Will we see you on the campaign trail together?
Oh, yeah. I’m sure that we’ll definitely work together. I think that Mark is also looking at building a grassroots organization and he’s got the same sort of dynamics in his race that I’ve got in my race so our paths will cross as we campaign. And it’s going to be inevitable when you out doing the kind of campaign that I run, which is out trying to go to as many communities as possible.
I take the job of being a Representative very seriously and the only way you can be a good Representative is by being out in the community, being actually out there talking to folks and, actually more importantly, LISTENING to people and doing more listening than talking and being out there. I’m looking forward to it. It’s a long road but it’s been a very interesting road and one that allows me to fully appreciated what a wonderful state we have.