Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Interview With Congressional Candidate Rob Russell

As promised, 1st District Congressional candidate Rob Russell, a Democrat, agreed to answer a few questions on issues and campaigning in East Tennessee. My first question was on the fact that the East Tennessee media really has done little other than to provide coverage to the incumbent Republican David Davis and his GOP challenger Phil Roe. And after reading his responses to all the questions I submitted, I think I see why he gets such little coverage -- his message could easily win many voters and end 130 years of Republican rule in East Tennessee.

My thanks to Mr. Russell for his time and for his work to respond and if you wish to visit his website, go here.

NOTE and UPDATE: If you are already prepared to ignore this post or are in any way bored with American politics, then you will instead want to go here first. If after reading what is written there does not actually hurl you back to this interview with honest-to-Pete Patriotic Fervor, A Renewed Sense of the Goodness of America, and a Savvy Political Mind -- then, my friends, you may not be Americans at all. Oh how I wish I had wrote what she did. So even if you feel fine with reading the interview below, you dang well better read the Wisdom of DeMarCaTionVille.

So, now that you attention is solid and firm --

1. Have any of the East TN media even contacted you for any stories or coverage of your campaign? Has this hampered your campaign efforts?

In comparison to the amount of coverage the Roe and Davis campaigns have received – almost daily coverage in the major local newspapers, such as the Kingsport Times-News (which is the local paper I subscribe to) -- the coverage has been slight. The absence of coverage from the Times-News has been particularly stinging, since when the paper covers political events, such as the NETAR Candidates' Breakfast on June 13, it fails to mention that I was even there (and I spoke directly after Dr. Roe).

My thanks go out to the Greeneville Sun, who has managed to cover me both times I've spoken in Greeneville. I've had singular mentions in Morristown's Citizen-Tribune, The Johnson City Press, and the Bristol Herald-Courier, so I'd like to thank them, as well. I was asked to appear on WBIR-TV's "Inside Tennessee" (based in Knoxville, WBIR reaches about 1/3, the western end, of the First District), and did so, but neither Roe nor Davis showed. No TV stations that are actually in the First District have contacted me at all.

It appears that most of the regional news media has treated the race as if the Democratic Party doesn't even exist. Maybe they have a point -- my race isn't strongly contested. However, is this balanced coverage? Certainly not.

Probably the biggest effect this non-coverage has had on my campaign has been in the fundraising department. I'm not an experienced fundraiser or campaigner: I love to speak with people about the issues, but I hate to ask anyone for money, especially in these hard economic times – the people who I hope will support me are the very same people who can't afford to give much, financially, to a candidate. In contrast, Davis and Roe have large war chests and campaign staffs, as well as some built-in advantages: Davis can send out promotional material at tax-payer expense and Roe has a built-in soapbox as Mayor of Johnson City. I'm a state university employee with two small children, a working wife and a moderate income who just happens to be the only viable Democratic candidate – so I can't really expect to compete on promotional front at the level of Davis and Roe. I don't have their resources, their staffs, or their fundraising machinery. I'm hoping this will change somewhat after the primary.

2. What issues do residents tell you are of the highest priority? What concerns do you hear from business owners?

When I was thinking about running, I considered what issues were most important to average East Tennesseans like me. As a regular guy who commutes to work each day, has a working wife, two kids and all the responsibilities that come with working hard to succeed in America -- a mortgage, car payments, student loans, etc. – the issues that most worry my mind every day are healthcare, education and the economy. These concerns are on our minds when we're filling up our cars, when we're budgeting what we can afford to spend on groceries, when we are deciding which prescriptions to refill this week or wait until next, and when we think of our children's' futures. Everywhere I go, what I say about these issues resonates with voters, and many of them share their stories with me.

One story relates to your question about what I hear from business owners. When I spoke in Morristown back in April, a small business owner explained how she and her husband were struggling with the cost of insurance premiums for themselves and their employees. The dramatic rise in their healthcare costs is creating a situation where she has to decide whether to give up the business entirely or risk bankruptcy by paying escalating costs.

The healthcare situation in America is bad for business, bad for Americans, and bad for America. Both Roe and Davis believe the free market can fix this (and hasn't it done a great job so far?), but many experts, such as Welmont CEO Dr. Richard Salluzzo, disagree, recommending that the government play a part in guaranteeing fairness and justice in healthcare, whether it is in the form of creating a "universal" single-payer program or acting as a fair broker helping to regulate a fairer system. Right now we are the world's biggest per-capita spender on healthcare but at the bottom of the heap when it comes to patient satisfaction, quality, and fairness; we are also the only wealthy nation that doesn't consider affordable, quality healthcare as a right of citizenship. We are also the only country among the wealthy nations that allows its citizens to go bankrupt due to medical costs. This, even more than our mid-level educational rankings in terms of math, science, and reading, is a disgrace. Rising healthcare costs also have substantial, hidden effects: it's estimated the $2,000 of the price of every American car goes to pay for autoworkers' health benefits. This is compared to $600 per car in Japan -- a country with universal healthcare. Americans deserve better.

The economy and education are also very important issues for me, but because of its overall impact on our family security and our pride as a nation, healthcare reform is my first priority.

3. If you earn the party's nomination, would you be willing to hold a debate or two with the candidate from the GOP side prior to the fall election?

In 2006, I was very frustrated seeing how Davis, the Republican nominee, simply ignored the existence of Rick Trent who'd won the Democratic nod. There was no debate, no acknowledgement of any opinion other than the radical, right-wing point-of-view that Davis represented – which didn't even represent the majority of Republicans voting in the primary that year. I soon learned, from speaking to others, that this disdainful treatment of Democratic candidates was par for the course in the 1st District -- Jenkins refused calls to debate, or even to appear on "unfriendly" radio or television programs. I understand why Republican nominees and incumbents in this area act this way: if your party has been in power for 130 years straight, why should allow yourself to be put on an equal footing with other "upstart" parties? I don't think that Davis is afraid of a debate, I simply think that he doesn't see it as a necessity, and may even see it as damaging to his credibility.

That being said, refusing to participate in open debate is un-democratic: debate is part of the American political tradition, and getting your message across to all of the voters -- not just your narrow constituency -- should be the duty of any candidate. I would love to participate in a debate with Congressman Davis, possibly sponsored by and airing on a local television station. Some local media outlet should jump at the chance to do that -- not only would it serve the public interest, but also actually getting to see their congressman "in action" would probably draw a lot of voters to their TV sets.

4. On your web site you write: "East Tennessee deserves a real voice, someone who will fight for the best interests of all hard-working East Tennesseans, not the big-business special interests who have controlled our region's destiny for far too long." Could you elaborate on that topic?

The fact that no voice other than a Republican one has represented our region for 130 years is, for some, reason enough to make a change, but recent events have proven that the economic agenda of the Republican party – pro-corporate welfare / anti- fair wages for working people; against saving Social Security and reforming healthcare / for tax cuts for the wealthy and reckless de-regulation of mortgage trading and commodities markets – is against the best interests of the vast majority of East Tennesseans.

In my opinion, recent representation has shown no desire to help the region recover from the de-industrialization that decimated our industrial base in the 80s and 90s, and if Davis is allowed to have an additional term, we are in for an even worse time as our economy heads further south and prices soar. Forget that he's a millionaire; forget that he's a healthcare insider; forget that he's not actually from East Tennessee. Voters should simply ask themselves, should East Tennessee be represented by someone whose major campaign contributors are fossil-fuel energy PACs, pharmaceutical company PACs, and military contractors, when three of the biggest issues the next Congress will vote on are energy policy, healthcare, and military involvement in Iraq? Should we elect a representative who has received nearly half a million in campaign contributions from these special interests? Would such a representative really consider the best interests of East Tennesseans first?

5. Historically, the 1st District has not been successful in getting Democrat voters to get more involved. Do you work with party leaders on this issue and what plans do you have to change this typically low turnout?

In the last election, Rick Trent, a virtual unknown outside of Morristown, was able to mobilize a considerable amount of voters in a mid-term election, receiving 37% of the vote, quite a showing for a first-time Democratic challenger in this area. In the past few months I've met most of the county party leaders and spoken to many Democratic groups in the district: all are eager to see Davis un-seated. There are some Democrats and independent-minded voters who, instead of supporting a Democrat, are throwing support behind Phil Roe, Davis' major Republican challenger: this is understandable, of course (it has been 130 years since the last Democrat was elected to Congress from this district), but I think that many of these folks will support me once the dust clears. Also, with the presidential election-taking place, I expect more active participation among 20, 30 and 40-somethings who are not currently active in politics, but who are very much concerned about the future. I've heard some folks refer to this as "the blue tide," and I hope there's some truth to that.

For my part, I plan to work with the county organizations, of course, but also hope to reach out to those, like myself, who aren't involved in party organizations but realize that a change, a real change (not just a different Republican) is necessary for this region to have an authentic voice in Washington.

6. What prompted you to enter the race for Congress? Also, what influences inspired you to seek office?

It sounds cheesy, I know, but my primary motivation is the thought that my children may very well have less opportunity than I had in terms of jobs and education -- that they will be the first generation in American history that is guaranteed not to do as well as their parents as a result of the disastrous economic and foreign policy decisions made by the previous two generations. I don't want my son fighting in Iraq if he chooses to serve in the military; I don't want my daughter saddled with tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt just to have a chance at having as much earning power as a man with the same education. I want to help make things better for their generation, like the way things improved between my grandparents and parents' generations, not stay the same or go backwards.

As for influences, there's a moment during the credits of "An Inconvenient Truth" where the writing on the screen suggests that audience members write to their congressman, and if he or she doesn't listen, run for congress. Al Gore was primarily referring to the global environmental crisis, but this is a crucial time in America for so many other reasons – healthcare, the economy, education – and decision-makers who aren't afraid to make hard choices are required. When I am in Congress, I will be accountable to one group of people, and that's the people of East Tennessee – not big business or other special interests – and I can guarantee that when tough choices have to be made, it's the people I've grown up with, lived and worked with who will be in my thoughts.

7. What weaknesses do you see in the issues promoted by incumbent Congressman David Davis?

One problem Davis is having is the same one many other Republican incumbents seeking re-election now face: what do I run on, having accomplished nothing other than supporting an unpopular, lame-duck president's bad decisions and contributing to partisan bickering? An embarrassingly out-of-touch, "no we can't" voting record – votes against increasing the minimum wage, against anti-dog fighting laws, against health insurance for children living in poverty, against investing in alternative energy sources: all things the vast majority of Americans and East Tennesseans support – is paralleled by questionable ethics: a paid House staffer caught revising Davis' Wikipedia entry, votes and legislation that appear to be very closely tied to campaign contributions, etc.

But maybe his weakest area of all, from what I've seen and read, is that Davis is clearly out of touch with the concerns of working East Tennesseans. When he spoke at a breakfast I attended recently, giving a shortened version of the speech I've read excerpted in numerous articles about him in the Kingsport Times-News, he mentioned several "hot button" issues -- healthcare, energy prices, the mortgage crisis -- but offered little in the way of solutions, other than allowing more competition between insurance providers, building more refineries, and blaming the media, respectively. When your best alternative to high energy costs and dependence on foreign oil is some bill cooked up by a representative from Texas who is in the pocket of big oil, well, that's clearly no alternative at all, just more of the same thinking that got us in this fix to begin with. Instead of calling the bill "No Excuses," it should probably be renamed "No New Ideas" – and that title would typify Davis' entire platform.

8. What are your strongest assets as a candidate for Congress and what would you say to voters to encourage their support for your campaign?

As a husband and father, I bring to Congress a dedication to making life better for all of the people of East Tennessee, present and future. I bring the desire to see hard-working East Tennesseans have more money in their wallet and more pride in their government – a government that works for their best interests, not against them.

I have been a teacher for 16 years, and an administrator for 11. As an experienced teacher, I will bring to Congress an understanding of the concerns of hard-working people who are struggling to make lives better for their families through earning a college degree, as well as the strengths and weaknesses of those entering college straight from high schools – often rural, under-funded schools that could use a hand-up. As an administrator, I bring the experience of having to work within a budget to accomplish the tasks set out for me. I've learned how to deal with budget cuts and changes, how to meet a payroll, how to stretch the dollars when you have to meet client's needs but apparently don't have the resources to meet them, and how to fight for the people and projects that are the most important.

All that being said, I believe my strongest assets are what I am not: I'm not a career politician or a wealthy business owner (the people who are usually vying for this job); I'm not an "insider" of any sort. Instead, I'm a candidate who is one of them, a middle-class East Tennessean, and as unique and independent-minded as the people I will represent. I'm a husband and father, a teacher and a college administrator, a musician and a bit of a nerd. Most of all, I'm passionate about wanting what's best for East Tennessee -- not what's best for the wealthy or big business -- and when I get to Washington I'll work my tail off to make sure that our region has a voice in the extremely important decisions that are going to be made by the next Congress.


  1. Anonymous11:11 AM

    Thanks, Joe. I'm sending a contribution today. And I'm not even in his district.

  2. This is a man who is running because he must. as an America and for his children. He is deep and sincere and not a politican.
    I am very impressed with his.

  3. Rob is an excellent guy. You're right, he's not a politician. He's a husband, father, teacher and someone who is concerned about the future of this country. I'm proud to support him in his bid for Congress.

  4. The issue as to why a debate between the candidates hasn't occurred needs to be addressed. Because Rob Russell is a middle class educator and not a candidate receiving support from wealthy contributors, his message will not be heard. An uninformed voter population will ensure that voters will be ignorant to the issues and alternatives that Russell brings to the table. Something needs to be done in the name of a fair forum.

  5. a debate was held last week in Greeneville with all Congressional candidates for the 1st District --
    though it got zero publicity from the media prior to the event.

    please read my post dated Wed. Oct. 8 for a link to the entire debate, along with my notes on what was said.

    but yes, the ET media really works hard at keeping voters uninformed.