Back in the spring, when John Yarmuth was still slogging through the primary, Anne Northup surely sat up nights salivating at the prospect of slinging scat at the pathetic little liberal slacker with the so-called goofy ideas. People who knew about such things would subtly furrow their brows and say that anyone toting 16 years worth of the baggage that accrues from writing commentary in a liberal rag like LEO would be more than an easy mark. Even people who wanted to believe couldn’t quite.
But in classic tortoise and hare fashion, Yarmuth absorbed the initial kneecapping and kept going and going, even though there were times when Northup seemed like the only one on the road.
The campaign took a strange early twist when the Northups’ son passed away just days after her bizarre press conference in front of LEO this summer. She put everything on hold for several weeks, which inarguably aided the cash-poor Yarmuth campaign. When the Northup Machine did fire up, the race quickly revealed itself as a dogfight, with the incumbent unable to open the sort of wide lead to which she’d become accustomed. When it was all mercifully over, nine weeks and scads of dollars later, there was a new Congressperson representing Kentucky’s largest city.
Whether the outcome was a fluke, a lucky stroke of timing as the body politic hurled a collective primal scream at President Bush; whether it derived from general dissatisfaction with an incumbent who’d overstayed her welcome; or whether it really signifies that Louisville truly endorses a progressive like John Yarmuth, only time will tell.
In the Ukraine, where the populace turned to massive civil disobedience to protest electoral fraud in that nation’s presidential election in 2004, the People’s uprising was labeled the Orange Revolution. In Kentucky 3, where Democrats had absorbed a decade of smitings, and where the progressive community had to wonder if G. W. Bush’s soul-crushing America was in fact the only America, it’s not yet clear whether revolution is the operative word. But last Tuesday night at the Seelbach, where an exultant mass of orange-clad Yarmuth supporters stuck with the campaign’s color scheme to the ecstatic end, it was obvious that orange never looked so good.
This week Yarmuth is in Washington getting a primer. He’s already met President Bush, taken a nighttime tour of Capitol Hill and visited the House chambers. Last Friday, as he prepared to leave, the man who founded LEO took an hour out of his busy schedule to talk about the race and what happens next.
LEO: When you considered entering the race, you had concerns that your views wouldn’t be heard, and that local media wouldn’t cover the race with the proper amount of depth. How did that play out?
John Yarmuth: I think for the most part, I was able to talk about the things that I wanted to discuss. We weren’t able to do it so much through 30-second ads, but we knew we wouldn’t be able to do that. We talked about some general themes in the ads. But I think that day after day, talking to constituents, in group appearances and during the debates, I was able to lay out my views of how I thought the country should go forward. So I was satisfied overall with that.
LEO: You were confident early — you told me early in the general campaign that you thought you would win. I don’t think a lot of people saw that and maybe still don’t get it. What were you sensing that they weren’t?
JY: A combination of things. I sensed early on that the priorities of the electorate were going to be different, the voters were going to be different this year. They were gonna be much more interested in, not just the war but economic security issues, health care, all the things that motivated me to get in the race. That combined with polling data I saw, which showed that Anne Northup had a relatively low reelect number — and that went back to the fall 2005. Her reelect number in 2005, according to a poll that the party did in October, was 43 percent.
LEO: There was some general dissatisfaction with her being manifested?
JY: I think to a certain extent, although her personal approval rating was in the low 50s and remained that way through the campaign. The percentage of people who wanted to see her reelected was well below 50, which indicated to me, again, that the voters were looking for a change, and looking at broader-picture national issues. That’s why I always thought I would win.
LEO: But the Northup team was openly salivating at the idea of running against someone like you. The paradox in politics now is that anyone who actually says what they think about issues is thought to be unelectable. What did she miss?
JY: I think what she missed was that people, regardless of whether they’re liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat, do respect people who stand up for something. I think that was George Bush’s number one asset politically, for so long. A lot of people who didn’t necessarily agree with him respected his stand for principle. And I thought that ultimately that would be to my advantage politically. The other thing I felt was that on every one of the issues I wrote about, I thought I was on the majority side. So while you might be able to pick off a few votes here and there because, say, people cast their vote because of a pro-life position or a pro-choice position, still I knew that a majority of people are pro-choice. I guess the bottom line is, there was a danger, as far as I could tell, in her singling out issues because she was on the minority side of most of them.
LEO: Everyone says negative ads are awful, and yet they still happen. The Harold Ford ad seemed to work. Would you support campaign finance reform, such as the public financing they use in Arizona, or something that would change the landscape so that so much money wasn’t spent on ads?
JY: Probably not, because I think there are free speech issues that are compelling. But I’ve come to believe that public financing of federal campaigns is something we should look at, because the $2 to $3 billion that we’re spending now, total, on each election cycle, would cost the taxpayers far less than the legalized bribery that we have under the current system. I think the figures for this year are that the campaigns together spent $2.3 billion on advertising. That’s what they can easily document, so I’m figuring it would be $3 billion. Generally speaking, 75 percent of campaign expenditures go to advertising.
LEO: And there’s nothing tangible left over.
JY: Of course not. And the really frustrating part of it is, most voters know how they’re gonna vote almost from the beginning of the campaign. In our polling from early June, there was only 7 percent undecided. So all of this money is basically being spent to influence a very small number of people. That’s why negative advertising works, because people who pay a lot of attention to the issues and the candidates have already made up their mind, so you’re dealing with people who are gonna be more vulnerable to the emotional approach.
LEO: Do you have any sense that you’ll win support from Northup insiders, or do you expect them to retool for a rematch?
JY: I have no way of judging that. I’m just gonna focus on doing the best job I can to make sure that people from all along the political spectrum know that I’m open to their ideas and their opinions.
LEO: Is it customary when the office-holder changes for prior staff to stay around?
JY: That’s highly unusual, particularly across parties. I’ve never heard of that done, actually.
LEO: I assume that during your meetings with Ben Chandler in D.C., a lot of this will take shape?
JY: He and his office have already been helpful in giving me ideas about what to look for, how you would allocate functions between the Washington office and the District office.
LEO: There was a big story in The Courier-Journal about KIPDA removing light rail and other mass transit options from their regional transportation plan. Lots of advocates are upset about this but express optimism about your ability to make some headway on this issue. How do your views on transportation match up with these developments?
JY: From what I understand from what they’ve done, I think that’s a pretty shortsighted approach. One of the major deficiencies of contemporary political thinking is that it is very short-term. I think we need to think in a much longer term. Certainly with all of the growth and attention paid to downtown housing and development in the last few years, we’re getting to the point where the critical mass that would be required to justify light rail and some of the other mass transit alternatives is much closer. And that’s why I think as a community, it neither makes sense nor is it wise to exclude any long-term options.
LEO: I’m told transit projects are more difficult to fund because they require earmarks and have to go through a lot of hoops, whereas highway funding is a renewable source. Is that your understanding?
JY: I think that’s true.
LEO: So you support light rail in some fashion?
JY: I think down the road it’s clearly something that will happen. The question is, having read a little about some of the new, more innovative ways of approaching it that seem to be affordable — things that are being done in Nashville, using existing trains — those are things that as a community we definitely need to be exploring.
LEO: What about expanded bus routes?
JY: Bus routes in this community have been problematic. I’ve heard discussions about transforming the bus system to small buses covering more routes, which seems to me to make a lot of sense, from an energy standpoint, from a coverage standpoint and from an efficiency standpoint, because, obviously a lot of the buses you see riding around are not very full.
LEO: You spoke a lot during the campaign about sugar-based ethanol. Do you think it’s more viable than corn-based ethanol, and how do they differ?
JY: The main difference as I understand it is the ratio efficiency of production. With corn-based ethanol, you basically use as much energy to produce it as you get. With sugar-based ethanol, it’s like an 8-1 return. You get eight times the energy that it takes to produce it.
LEO: What countries are using it?
JY: Brazil is the one that’s transformed its entire system to sugar-based ethanol, and fuel costs them the equivalent of 80 cents a gallon.
LEO: Is there anyone lobbying in the United States who has any kind of clout to move this?
JY: I don’t think so. People are talking about it; what’s ironic is that major U.S. car manufacturers are building the cars in Brazil to use this, so we know they can do it. And it’s just a question of getting the distribution system changed. We can grow sugar cane in a lot of places. It seems to me to make some sense, that we ought to be looking at that.
LEO: Does 8664 have any chance of being evaluated by people in a decision-making role?
JY: At this point, I don’t think anyone thinks it’s advisable to reopen the discussion about what we do. If, as Jody Richards and David Williams indicated a couple weeks ago to a group here, the Bridges Project as it now stands is not affordable, and if we have to reopen the discussion about what we do, then that certainly should be in the mix of things that are considered. But again, the community, at this point, has made a decision. The leadership of the community, and the leadership of Indiana, have made decisions that this is the way we ought to proceed, and I think my job is to pursue that as aggressively as possible until the community decides that we need to go in a different direction.
LEO: You said you expect the new Congress to pass a minimum wage bill very quickly. What do you think it will look like?
JY: The proposal that was considered in Congress last year was to raise the minimum wage to $7.25 over two years, in two steps, and that’s something I think would be reasonable. I would vote for it and I suspect something approximating that will pass in the first 48 hours the House is in session.
LEO: What do you expect in regard to the tax cuts that expire in 2010?
JY: I think there’s going to be, in the next Congress, a move to restore higher tax rates on the income of the very wealthiest Americans. Where that will be, I don’t know, whether it’s the top 1 percent or $500,000 a year. I think there will be a move to restore the 39.6-percent tax on the highest incomes. I would support that.
LEO: No one seems to argue that the healthcare system is broken, so where do you start?
JY: There needs to be a massive public dialogue on this whole problem, but I think that legislatively, the first steps have to be to do everything we can to control the costs of the system, because until we do that, then it’s going to be harder and harder to implement a universal healthcare plan. I think that’s one of the first things Congress will do, to remove this prohibition about negotiating with the pharmaceutical companies on the costs of drugs through the new prescription drug plan. I fully support that. And I think we really ought to look into this new program they’ve initiated where Medicare is outsourcing the administration of its own program to private insurers, like Humana, to see whether that offers some promise or to see whether that’s just an added cost that’s driving up the cost of the entire system. That analysis will go a long way to determining if a single-payer plan is the way to go or whether there’s some kind of mix of single-payer and private — whether a single-paid, privately administered plan is preferable.
It’s gonna be, I’m sure, a 10-year process ’til we get to some kind of universal care. I’d like to see Medicare — and this I think could happen sooner than that — I’d like to see Medicare expanded to cover everyone under 18, because I think that will be a good test as to how a single-payer plan will work. It would create immediate and enormous benefits, both socially and economically, because parents would not have to worry about healthcare coverage for their kids when they were making employment decisions or education decisions for themselves, weighing the opportunity to improve their own station in life without worrying whether their kids were insured or not. Down the road it would reduce costs because kids who have healthcare problems would have intervention earlier, preventive care, all those things that down the road would save costs, and we’d be bringing the least-expensive portion of the population to the system. So I think that’s something I would like to see done in the relative near term.
LEO: What about HR 676, the Conyers bill, which would establish a national health insurance program?
JY: I would support the Conyers bill, absolutely, because that’ll get us on the way to looking at all these possibilities.
LEO: Do you think it could survive a veto if it’s passed?
JY: I’m not gonna try to predict what President Bush would do.
LEO: On immigration, what’s realistic and how do you start moving toward it?
JY: I think on the enforcement side of the equation, the border security side, there seems to be not only bipartisan agreement, but also between the Senate and House. If we have laws, we need to enforce them strenuously, we need to protect our borders, we need to enforce the laws against employers. The real sticking point, of course, is the approach to the undocumented immigrants who are here, and I think there is probably a compromise position that is politically acceptable, meaning that a significant majority of Americans would agree with it, and that is to create some kind of a permanent guest-worker program. If you’re undocumented and you go in and get documentation, your own Social Security number, legitimate identification, you can stay and work. I don’t think the country is ready for the path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and I don’t think it’ll pass.
LEO: Do you support that because it’s important to the present economic structure and/or because it would be unfeasible to try to send them all back?
LEO: Is 11 million to 12 million still a good number in your view?
JY: As far as I can tell. One study I saw said 45 percent of undocumented immigrants actually came here legally, and they overstayed their visa. So the stereotype that these are people who jump the border in Mexico is not universally true. The other factor is, we have a lot of immigrants who are U.S. citizens because they were born here, and that poses a different problem, so I don’t think it’s either advisable nor feasible to try and round up all of these people and deport them. Many of them are obviously extremely important to the American economy.
LEO: How important is it for these folks to assimilate, and how would you go about that?
JY: From what I know of immigrant evolution, and what I’ve read about it, historically this happens automatically. The second generation of immigrants assimilate very well, and we do know from statistics that the children of immigrants actually perform slightly better in school than native-borns, so I’m not sure that’s really something that government has to worry about, to try to force some kind of assimilation. I think it happens naturally.
LEO: Do you think the fact that it’s a contiguous country with dark-skinned people, rather than white Europeans, makes this a different discussion? Pat Buchanan is convinced that Mexicans will take over our country.
JY: I really don’t buy that, because from what I know about history, every immigrant group has faced the same kind of demonization.
LEO: Wasn’t there a quirk in the most recent immigration bill, where workers used to be able to come and go but now they have to stay, that may have incentivized overstaying?
JY: Yes, and the visas became much more difficult to get over the last few years with national security issues. So people who come legally tend to stay.
LEO: Let’s talk about the war. Do you want to cut and run?
JY: I want to stop losing American men and women, and I also want to eliminate the United States as a provocative influence in the region. I think that’s all we are doing now, we’re making things worse.
LEO: Is that because of our attitude?
JY: Nobody likes to be occupied. We’re not fighting terrorists anymore, we’re fighting Iraqis, so when we’re in the streets with guns, and we’re actually shooting Shiites, and probably Sunnis too, depending on where we are, then we’re not helping the situation. Virtually everybody who’s looked at that situation who’s still not working for this administration, has said we’re making things worse, not better, that this situation can’t be resolved militarily. So I say, let’s get our troops out of the field, let’s remove our military footprint. We’re gonna have to have people over there performing defensive activities, and training, but we shouldn’t be out in the streets with guns, serving as a police force.
LEO: Do you think people in the new Congress are in something of a Catch-22? I heard Bush saying he wants to hear the Democrats’ ideas on the war. What you said during the campaign was, he’s the Commander in Chief, he needs to lead, it’s not up to Congress to figure out the plan. But a lot of people play the rhetorical game of, “You said you were gonna do this and that, so what are you gonna do?”
JY: I think the Congress’ job now is to force the administration to answer questions about what their plan is, what their long-term projections of our involvement are, what their benchmarks for success are, and for the Congress to express itself on that. The Congress doesn’t set foreign policy. It’s not gonna set the tactics. But we need to ask the right questions of the administration, and then be willing, hopefully, to engage with the president and the administration on some kind of dialogue about what’s best for the future. And that hasn’t been done.
LEO: Do you think there will be much impulse to look backwards? A lot of people are angry about what’s happened and want something done.
JY: I don’t think that’s gonna happen. I think the new Baker plan will serve as some kind of catalyst and direction as to how we go about discussing it. I think that will focus us on what needs to be done now. So I’m not too concerned about it being a blame game.
LEO: Do you think the Hamilton-Baker group — the Iraq Study Group — will come up with anything that’s not been thought of?
JY: Probably not.
LEO: But it will provide an opening for trying something new?
JY: That’s what I think it’ll do. I think it’ll redirect the debate and that’ll be helpful.
LEO: Do you think Mr. Gates was a good choice for the nomination to succeed Defense Secretary Rumsfeld?
JY: I think virtually anybody would’ve been an improvement.
LEO: There is real peril in not creating some stability before we leave Iraq, right? But what can we do — how will you know it’s OK to pull out? What kinds of things will you look for, and what kind of timeframe do you think that will take?
JY: If we did that tomorrow, I think you’re looking at probably a couple months to see if the level of violence changed one way or another. I suspect that the people in Iraq, the attitudes of some people will soften once we’re gone, because, again, this point of irritation will be gone, and I actually am fairly optimistic that things will get better rather than worse. But I’m not advocating that we pull all 145,000 troops out of the region and bring them home. Unfortunately, we’re gonna have to have some presence there and some presence in the region. We have to engage the other countries over there, too. We’ve never tried to do that.
LEO: Who do you think holds the key? Is it one country or a collection?
JY: I think it’s a collection. Obviously Iran is a big player, and we don’t have any dialogue with them. I think we need to have a dialogue with them. Saudi Arabia’s always gonna be a player. Syria’s gonna be a player. Again, we haven’t been talking with them. We need to do that.
LEO: Do you expect bipartisanship to come to the fore now? Do you think people who’ve been pretty bitter toward one another can put that behind them and work together?
JY: I think it will be a much better environment, because George Bush knows that he’s gonna get nothing he wants if he doesn’t deal with Democratic leadership, and I think if he understands that and demonstrates that, it’ll be reciprocated and I think the mood will change.
LEO: Do you agree with the assessments that Congress is broken? For example, you hear they only work about half the time they’re in session — they start Tuesday and leave town Thursday, and they’re on the phone all the time raising money, they talk about flag-burning and Terri Schiavo for days. They spent more than 100 hours investigating Clinton’s Christmas card list and 12 hours investigating Abu Ghraib. I know that you, as a fairly idealistic person, will not necessarily fit into that. How will you find a balance among idealism and pragmatism and realpolitik?
JY: First of all, I do think the system has been broken. I think the new leadership has committed to doing something about that. I think you’re gonna see a very pronounced effort to clean up the House. I think there will be some substantial ethics reform. Campaign finance is a different issue. I don’t know whether there’ll be much drive to work on that. I sure would like to see that. I think this Congress will work harder than the last Congress did. Harder and longer.
LEO: What about the pressure to raise money? You’re now running for reelection. How will a person like you — this is not your favorite thing to do — how will you deal with that?
JY: I’m hoping that the same spirit that got me elected will prevail in the future, and that is, people who are really civic-minded, who care deeply about the country and don’t want anything for themselves, will step forward. They did that this year, and if the reaction to this election says anything, it’s that there are many, many people who really do want the system to be more honorable and cleaner. I’m hoping they’ll say, “We’ll give you money to make sure you keep your seat.”
LEO: Do you find it interesting that many Democrats who were elected are of the Blue Dog variety? For example, Heath Shuler is pro-gun, anti-gay marriage …
JY: I have a different take on that than the national media. I think Heath Shuler was a wave race. I think the people who are real conservative who unseated incumbents were more of an example of the wave than I was. I think this race was about a real alternative to the incumbent in virtually every area, and people had a real choice. I think in the districts where they didn’t have a choice, the wave was either strong enough or not strong enough. It wasn’t strong enough in the 4th (the Geoff Davis-Ken Lucas congressional race) or the 2nd (Ron Lewis-Mike Weaver) because there was not much difference on a lot of issues between the candidates in those two races. In those very conservative districts, the wave wasn’t strong enough. In Heath Shuler’s district, I think it was. Here, if you look at precinct by precinct, what happened was, the areas of the community that tend to vote more progressive gave me much bigger margins. So I think that was an example of, given a candidate they could really be energized by, people voted that way. And I think in some of the other ones where conservatives were elected over incumbent Republicans, given relatively similar philosophical candidates, the wave made a difference, because there was nothing else to drive them between the candidates. They either wanted a change or didn’t want a change, even though the candidates themselves didn’t represent much of a change. Heath Shuler didn’t represent much of a change. But the wave got him elected.
LEO: How daunting do you think the learning curve is, the nuts and bolts stuff of Congress?
JY: I’m not worried about the learning curve or analyzing legislation and how laws are made. I know all that stuff. I think the internal political dynamics and the bargaining, the horse-trading, that’s something that’ll take a while.
LEO: One of my biggest pet peeves, and I think this accounts for why a lot of people feel disenfranchised, is all of the false dichotomies that are advanced rhetorically. If you question the war, you’re “content to lose.” You either wanted to go into Iraq and take Saddam out or you thought he was the greatest thing in the world. That insults all of us. Do you think you have a role to play in raising the level of rhetoric and talking about things in a different way?
JY: That’s what I’ve always tried to do, and that’s what I tried to do in all the columns I wrote. A lot of times I wrote a column because the arguments that were being used in a particular issue, I thought, were dishonest, so I would write about that. Sometimes I was painted as being on the other side of the issue because I did that. That wasn’t necessarily how I felt about the issue, it’s just that I thought the arguments were dishonest. So I intend to spend a lot of time communicating with the district about the issues that we’re dealing with, and try to do it in a non-combative way.
LEO: How will you do that?
JY: I’ll do it through things I write. I think to the extent that I can communicate publicly through broadcast and print media, I intend to spend a lot of time doing that, and certainly to an extent, direct mail and newsletters, the Web site and all the ways we communicate these days. … I think that’s something Anne didn’t do. That’s not a criticism — she was focused on her vision of the job, and her vision of the job was not necessarily dealing with big issues, it was more bringing back funding projects and doing constituent service, both of which are important parts of the job, but she never focused on the public communication and education role, and I think that’s a critical thing. Obviously it’s something I’ve been doing, and now I have a little bit different form to do it.
LEO: A lot of Democrats were gratified that you didn’t try to distance yourself from your origins. But, frankly, you were on your own. Rahm Emanuel discouraged you from running. Jerry Abramson was not prominent — he may have been active in the back channels, but he didn’t say much publicly. The Kentucky Democratic Party wasn’t even gonna have you introduce Clinton until there was an outcry. Did that trouble you, or did you think that was part of the bargain?
JY: The initial reaction of the national party to my candidacy did bother me, not personally so much as I thought it represented a cynical attitude toward the process, where the best candidate was somebody who didn’t do anything and had never said anything — the lack of negatives rather than any positives. I didn’t appreciate that. As far as the liberal thing, I’ve always felt this community was more progressive than it was conservative, not just in numbers but in general community personality, and that given the choice between two very different philosophies that they would choose the more progressive philosophy. The other thing that I think happened was, it wasn’t so much that people’s attitudes changed, it’s that their priorities changed. So instead of worrying about gay marriage and abortion and flag-burning and prayer in school and those things that the Congress really has almost nothing to do with, they were worried about important economic security issues, health care, the war, things where progressive policies represent by far the majority thinking. For instance, every time you poll whether the minimum wage should be raised, somewhere around 70 to 75 percent of the people say it should be. In the states where they had referenda this year on raising the minimum wage, I think the total support level was about 65 percent. To me, that’s a significant issue on the conservative-liberal spectrum. And the vast majority of people are on the liberal side of that issue. So it’s a question of which issues are more important, not necessarily whose more liberal or conservative overall.
LEO: Back to the fact that it took a while for the national party to get involved — Clinton had to call Emanuel to get some DCCC money — do you think that will change now that you’ve won?
JY: I think the Democratic Party is thrilled to have this seat back — it’s a seat we should always have — and I think they’re gonna do what they can to keep it. In their defense, they had district fatigue. They’d sunk a lot of money and resources into trying to beat Anne the last four times. They got frustrated, and of course, the last time was the worst defeat of all, percentage-wise, so I understand why they had a defeatist attitude about the district. The other side of it was, I don’t think they had a really good understanding of what the district is, so I don’t blame them, but now that I’ve been able to show them the possibilities here, I think they’ll be very supportive. Bill Clinton called me last night.
LEO: Did you think someone was putting you on?
JY: Yes, I did, until I heard his voice. It was on my cell phone and it showed up private on the caller ID, so I just answered it and a woman said, “Mr. Yarmuth, I have President Clinton on the line,” and I thought, “Sure you do.” I thought it was Jason (Burke, the Yarmuth campaign manager). He told me how happy he was that I had won, how much he had enjoyed being here in Kentucky, how impressed he was with the enthusiasm that was there for my campaign, that he could sense and hear. And he asked about why I thought Ken Lucas lost, because Lucas served while he was president. We talked about that for a bit, and I invited him to come play golf at Valhalla, which he said he very much wants to do.
LEO: You’ve said you’re not going to accept corporate PAC money. But even if voters love you, you’ll need some to get reelected. What will you do?
JY: It just means I have to raise money from two and a half times more donors. Donors can give $2,100 per election, PACs can give $5,000.
LEO: So if PACs call you, you’re going to say unequivocally no?
JY: That’s right, absolutely not. I’ll say, “Thank you, I’m not accepting money from corporate PACs.”
LEO: When I’d read stories in the mainstream press that mentioned you and your connection to an “alternative newspaper,” that term carried a certain disdain. The paradox, which we spoke about earlier, is that free thinkers like those who work at an alt-weekly can’t get elected because they can use all your wild ideas against you. Do you feel you are striking a blow for free thinkers?
JY: I hope so. I think maybe I have. I think my victory will encourage others who may be afraid to run, to do it. If they ask me, I’ll say it’s a very liberating experience. When you make it, you’re in a great position, when you’re a free agent and a free spirit.
LEO: What did Nancy Pelosi say when she called you right after the election?
JY: We had talked a couple days before. She just said she was thrilled that I won, she looks forward to working with me and that she was very excited about it and that I ran a great race.
LEO: Finish this sentence: With all due respect, Mr. President …
JY: You are wrong on just about everything.
LEO: But …
JY: (Laughs) But I look forward to working with you. Or how about, with all due respect, I can’t wait until 2008 … or 2009.
LEO: How do you think you’ve changed in 10 months?
JY: I think the major thing is that I’ve changed from having the mindset of an advocate to the mindset of a representative, and understanding the different obligations to a wide range of thinking and ideas. That doesn’t mean that my principles have changed, but certainly I’m much more cognizant of the need to be open-minded to other views. As I wrote in LEO (in a column printed the day after the election, before the results were known), my perception of religion has been changed. It’s a much deeper appreciation of and respect for the significance of religion in people’s lives. This hasn’t changed me because I did know it already, but the understanding of just how nice and civil the people of this community are. It’s amazing. I can count on one hand the number of hostile encounters I’ve had in the campaign. And I expected to have several a day. I had four or five the entire time.
LEO: Such as?
JY: People saying you’re an idiot or I don’t agree with anything you say, or you’re stupid. One guy, when I was walking in the Fairdale parade, approached me and said, “You’re stupid. I don’t want you voting up there, I’m concerned about the safety of my children.” It was just words. One woman said, “You’re just a rich pipsqueak, why do you wanna beat that nice woman?”
LEO: When people see a guy like you, they think you’re a dilettante or a man of leisure. Does that irk you when people say that about you, or that this was a fluke?
JY: No … people are always gonna have their thoughts and attitudes about somebody they don’t know. I understand that. I would get very concerned if people who know me well would say that, but I don’t get too concerned if people who don’t know me say that.
LEO: But it’s a charge that can play against you.
JY: Well, it’s just like that woman who called me a pipsqueak. Anne Northup has more money than I do. Anne Northup always had more money than I did. People say, “Well you inherited a lot of money.” I didn’t. My dad died when he was 50 years old. He didn’t plan to die. He didn’t leave me any money. He left money to my mom, and she’s still alive. So, while I was never worried about where my next meal was gonna come from, I didn’t inherit a lot of money. Anne Northup, I’m sure, had more money from her father’s S&T Hardware than I did. But that’s an argument that’s kinda beside the point, and there’s no point in making an issue out of it. So I just live with it and shut up and talk about the things that are important.
LEO: Can you speculate about your committee assignments?
JY: I’ll know a lot more after next week.
LEO: How many items will be on your agenda, and what are they?
JY: As a practical matter, the legislative impact I can have is gonna depend on what committees I’m on, so I have no way of assessing that at this point. I’d love to work on health care. I could end up on Ways and Means, I could end up on Energy, and Commerce, I could end up on Transportation. That would tend to dictate what I want to spend time on. If I’m on Transportation, then I wanna try and get these projects funded here. If I’m on Energy and Commerce, it’s a different thing. I might focus on the sugar-based ethanol. If I’m on Ways and Means, I’ll be more involved in health care. The House is different than the Senate in that you don’t have much opportunity to get involved in the legislative process outside your committees. In the Senate you can freelance.
LEO: How sorry do you feel for Mitch McConnell, who was poised to be Senate Majority Leader?
JY: (Laughs) He called me yesterday.
LEO: What’d he have to say?
JY: He said do whatever you can to get on Appropriations. He explained a little about Appropriations and said that is the one area in which the state delegation works very well together regardless of partisanship, and he said I really need to get in touch with Hal Rogers and try to establish a relationship with him because he’s the second or third Republican on the Appropriations Committee. He said there’s very little partisanship where the appropriations for the state are concerned, which was nice knowledge to have.
LEO: I remember that on the Friday before the deadline to file for the primary, you were 98 percent in, and on Monday you were 95 percent out. Surely you’re happy you got in now. Any surprises from this whole thing?
JY: The only surprise is — and it’s so stupid, because it’s almost like an oxymoron — the biggest surprise is that everything I thought about this race came true. Everything I thought about, everything I projected, everything that was gonna happen, turned out pretty much that way.
LEO: Do you think Anne made tactical errors in the campaign, or was the outcome inevitable?
JY: I think she made some tactical errors, but it may have been inevitable. I think she gave up being positive too soon. She was positive for five days when she finally went up on the air. Part of it was beyond her control. If her son hadn’t died, she could’ve started her advertising and her campaign a lot earlier, and that would’ve been very difficult for us because her monetary advantage would’ve been overwhelming. She could’ve knocked us out of the box. If she had been able to start in July, we wouldn’t have had the money to compete for three months. As it turned out, she waited till Labor Day to start. When she compressed the race that much, we could compete. We were on the air about 70 percent of what she was until the last week, when she went off the charts. If she’d been up before, we’d have been dead.
LEO: Which of the ads bothered you — did you think any were beyond the pale?
JY: The South End ad, just because what I was trying to do in that speech was so diametrically opposed to the way it was portrayed. Saying that I was for legalizing marijuana, which wasn’t true, probably got me more votes than it lost me, to be honest. I think the other thing she made a mistake on was the second negative ad, when she threw seven or eight things in. It was so over the top, I think people thought, “Nobody’s this crazy.” It was kinda overreaching.
The God out of the Pledge of Allegiance thing hurt some. I wrote a column back when the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in California held the pledge unconstitutional, and I said basically that I agreed with the legal reasoning of the decision but that I was unhappy with the decision. It was basically saying there was no reason to take God out of the Pledge of Allegiance because it was put in for political reasons. I said it’s a divisive issue that doesn’t need to happen. It’s too much a part of the landscape in contemporary culture and it makes no sense to take it out. So basically the column was about not taking it out, but she took that one phrase that I agree with the legal reasoning.
The other one was that I wanted to cancel Social Security for people under 50. I wrote a column in 1992 when Clinton was proposing a national healthcare system and it was kind of a hypothetical that said — it talked about life expectancy being over 90 and having a universal health care plan, and if you have those two things, what would you, what could you do to change that? That’s when I came up with private accounts for people under 50, and keeping Social Security for everybody else. It was based on those two premises. At that time Social Security was 14 years from going bankrupt.
LEO: Did you find it peculiar that she would storm the LEO office for a press conference?
JY: Yes, I did, particularly that she herself would show up. I think the other tactical mistake she may have made was the Rumsfeld thing at the end. I don’t know where that came from.
LEO: She must’ve been seeing poll numbers.
JY: She did. She was frustrated because nothing she did worked. And I think the reason it didn’t work was, again, there were basically 45 percent of the people who were gonna be for me no matter what, and there were 45 percent of the people who were gonna be for her no matter what. I don’t think she ever believed that that many people were progressive thinkers. So when she couldn’t knock that number down and she couldn’t get her own number up, it frustrated her and frustrated her, so she went harder and harder, and I think at a certain point, that last 7-10 percent said, “She’s been the Congresswoman for 10 years, why does she have to do this?” I think that’s just kinda the gut feeling.
LEO: What else?
JY: It’s exciting. I’m particularly both excited by and humbled by the emotion that has accompanied this win. It’s much more than a partisan thing. And it’s not just me, but the national thing and the fact that we were part of it has restored so many people’s hope, given them hope, because they had given up hope and said this country has gone haywire. One of the news camera guys (who was at the Seelbach Tuesday night) was here for a press conference the next day. He said, “I’ve covered politics for 20 years and I’ve never felt emotion in a room like that.” Then, as I walked into the LEO Readers’ Choice party, people were cheering. I was walking into a restaurant the other night and people were cheering. That’s a little freaky.
LEO: If you get people’s hopes up and then don’t come through, that’s a crime.
JY: That’s right.
LEO: You’re not really an introvert, but you’re not an extrovert. Do you think that’s changed?
JY: I’m still pretty much a reserved person, but I think you have to get outside that when you campaign. That maybe something I learned about myself that I didn’t know — not that I couldn’t do it, but that I enjoyed doing it.
Contact the writer at [email protected]