rick kennedy

Rick Kennedy: “What people want to talk about is what affects them: the economy, health care, education. That’s what I hear repeatedly when I knock on doors to talk with people.”

Rick Kennedy, 56, a software engineer who lives in Austin, seeks election to Congress representing the 17th Congressional District, which includes Waco. A Democrat, he has lived in Central Texas for a decade. In his campaign, he is distributing what he calls a Constituents Bill of Rights for TX-17 that includes such provisions as “You have the right to in-person public town halls so you can express your views” and “You have the right to hold an opposing opinion to mine and the right to express that opinion to me without fear of reprisal. No blocking on social media, no being escorted out of a meeting or a building by security.”

Q    In our Tribune-Herald Q&A during your primary run to win the Democratic nomination, you stated among your reasons for seeking a seat in Congress two things: first, the kind of world that your children were going to inherit; second, restoring a functioning legislative branch, one imbued with the Article 1 powers provided by the U.S. Constitution. Regarding the latter, I find people left, center and right agree Congress is broken, which is why we probably have an emboldened chief executive and why there’s so much emphasis on the Supreme Court, more than the Founders ever intended. Why is Congress broken?

A    There’s a couple of reasons. One is gerrymandering. Gerrymandering is a fundamental threat to our democracy. It undermines Congress as a functioning, co-equal branch of government. The representatives who represent gerrymandered districts tend to only have to appeal to their [political] base to get re-elected. If they don’t continue to appeal to their base and take brinkmanship positions in Congress, they’re then threatened with a primary challenger who may be further to the right or further to the left. All this backs them into corners. It doesn’t allow them the room they need to compromise to make progress on issues. The second problem is, of course, campaign finance. The fact is so many people in Congress get so much of their money from political action committees — PACs and corporations that really aren’t the people of the district. And the House of Representatives was meant to be the people’s house representing the people of the district. The fact so many members of Congress — including my opponent, who gets 99 percent of his money from PACs, corporations and large individual donors — these lawmakers feel compelled, and naturally so, to satisfy the needs and wants of those donors rather than the people of the district.

Q    Have you taken any vows yourself regarding PACs?

A    I don’t take any corporate PAC money. No corporations are showering me with money, so I haven’t faced that challenge yet. People may think I’m naïve or I’m tilting at windmills, and maybe I am. But my philosophy on all of this is we need to return to a Congress truly representative of the people — not representative of the corporations and the PACs. If you look at the composition of Congress now, more than half of the members of Congress are millionaires. That is in no way reflective of the population of the United States.

Q    You seem like a smart guy. How did Democrats manage to get themselves booted from power in 2010? What must they do to avoid this happening again if they take control of the House, as is widely predicted?

A    I’ll tell you. A couple of months ago I was in Lott, which is a little town in Falls County, population 750. And it’s 725 Republicans, 25 Democrats. I went to a church barbecue there and sat down with some folks for about 45 minutes to an hour and had great conversations with these guys. None of them will ever vote for Rick Kennedy and I get that. But one of the telling utterances I heard that day was: “We remember when we voted for Democrats and then the party lost touch with the people.” As I was rolling out of town that day, I went through downtown Lott: classic Texas downtown, every storefront but one boarded up. I got it. I really understood it at that point. I understood their sense of loss, their sense of abandonment and why they would at that point flip parties, maybe never to return.

Q    Interesting anecdote.

A    What we have to do — and this comes back to my core reasons for running — we have to get back to representing the people of the district. They feel the Democratic Party walked away from them for coastal elites and high-dollar donors. We saw it with Hillary Clinton’s campaign, right? Right after her convention, she had a huge bump in the polls and then she disappeared from the campaign trail for about five weeks because she was off with the big donors. People feel that. That’s why I’m still going to places where your conventional political wisdom would say, “Rick, don’t waste your time in Lott because you’re not going to swing any votes there.” But when I win — and this is in my Constituents Bill of Rights — I represent everybody in the district. I don’t represent the people who voted for me, I represent the 750,000 citizens of the 17th District. You have to listen to people and know what their perspectives are, where they’re coming from. I was in Buckholts and I had a great conversation with a guy named Cecil, another guy who as long as the sun rises in the east is never going to vote for Rick Kennedy. But at the end of that conversation, we shook hands, patted each other on the shoulders. We don’t agree, but we had a civilized conversation and we at least understand where we’re coming from.

Q    Many Republican voters fear if the House falls into Democratic hands, the first thing Democrats will do is try to impeach the president. Republicans are stoking the idea the only thing Democrats really want to do when they get into power is find a way to get this president out of there. I’m sure a lot of your supporters agree.

A    Sure.

Q    What is the priority of Congress when it comes to that?

A    My position is that the parties, that some people, are becoming far too comfortable with the impeachment process. I will work very hard to not impeach a duly elected president of the United States. If the Mueller investigation concludes and there’s incontrovertible evidence on the table that high crimes and misdemeanors have been committed or in some way President Trump was not a duly elected president of the United States, that’s a very different scenario. But until such time, my focus needs to be on governance and representing the people of the district and trying to stay ... I don’t know if you’d characterize it as above the hysteria or under the hysteria but away from the hysteria. Let the investigation play out and then act appropriately on the results.

Q    House Republicans rushed to pass Tax Reform 2.0, which would make permanent the individual tax cuts everyday folks like you and I get — the doubling of the standard deduction, that kind of thing — as opposed to the permanent tax cuts approved for corporations and the wealthy in last year’s tax-cut legislation. There are also provisions for various savings accounts of different types. It probably has no chance of passing the Senate. What’s your view on this whole tax-cut mess?

A    The whole tax-cut mess is exactly that. It’s a mess. If we were going to try to be governing responsibly, we would have flipped the priorities of that original tax bill around and made the individual tax cuts permanent and corporate tax cuts perhaps transitional or temporary. The whole bill at this point suggests to me the Republicans have only one tool in their toolbox and that’s tax cuts. My opponent sat maybe in this very chair in this room two years ago and you asked him, “What’s been accomplished?” The first thing that he said was, “We’ve reduced the deficit by 70 percent.” Less than two years later, they’ve blown the deficit through the roof with an irresponsible tax cut. Now they want to follow it with another irresponsible tax cut. This is not responsible governance. You don’t want to be running trillion-plus deficits when the economy arguably is at the end of an expansion. Every expansion ends, and ends in recession or, God forbid, ends in a depression. If we were going to be responsible, we should be in a position right now to deal with it when it comes, because it will come.

Q    Some folks would say that’s pretty funny, Democrats suddenly being concerned about the national debt or the annual deficits. The feeling is the Democrats would be just as unconcerned about deficits were they in power. I get the hypocrisy part about the Republicans. But some say, well, the Democrats are going to do the same thing. What do you say to that?

A    Not this Democrat, OK? I am a Democrat and I’m a Democrat for lots of reasons. I’ve been concerned with federal deficits since I came of voting age back in 1980. I voted for Ronald Reagan because he talked about balancing the budget and that the government is too big. That is still an important issue. We, you and I, our share of the federal deficit is over $65,000 apiece. The average family of four owes almost a quarter-million dollars based on their share of the federal deficit. When you add the state deficit and average household debt at this point, the average family of four owes over $350,000. That’s a mortgage. Eventually that is going to come back to us. I don’t know if it’s two days from now, two months from now, two years from now, but eventually it’s all going to haunt us and we are back in a position of a debt-fueled economy. Federal debt is at record level. State debt is at record level. Corporate debt is at record level. Household debt is back at record level. The problem is when we go into a recession, when we go into a depression, there’s really only two knobs to turn: fiscal and monetary policy. If it happened today, we’re in a horrible place because interest rates are still dialed down almost to zero, so there’s not a lot of play on that knob and we’re running a trillion-dollar deficit where there’s not a lot of play on that knob, either. God forbid it happens tomorrow.

Q    And you have stagnant wages.

A    Well, we’ve had stagnant wages for two decades now. We’ve seen some wage growth in the last three years, but the other half of the equation is inflation has grown right along with it. In real wage terms, we are still back in Y2K. We’re still at year 2000.

Q    Polls suggest many Texans continue to see immigration as a key issue. Yet even a proposal such as this year’s by the president of making 1.8 million Dreamers eligible for citizenship and bolstering border security failed. And it fell to defeat not just because of liberal Democrats but because of far-right Republicans, who helped kill it. What did you think of the president’s offer of citizenship to the Dreamers in exchange for different levels of border security — not necessarily all wall but some fencing, boots on the ground?

A    If it’s the bill I’m thinking of, even though it provided a path to citizenship for the DACA kids, there was an estimate, and I can’t remember who did the estimate, I’d have to look it up, that only about 13 percent to 15 percent would actually achieve citizenship.

Q    13 to 15 percent?

A    Yes, only 13 percent to 15 percent of the DACA kids would actually achieve citizenship because of the hurdles involved, the costs involved in actually getting citizenship. One of the other bills had no path to citizenship for the DACA kids at all. Somewhere along the line, both parties decided that these kids were very useful pawns in the political chess match that’s going on. Both sides. I’m very upset with both sides. Let’s keep my language clean here. These guys are pissing me off on this. You have 850,000 kids who know no other country. If I was king, they would all be citizens tomorrow. That is the compassionate standpoint. There’s also an economic standpoint. We’ve invested in all of these kids. We’ve educated all of these kids. The DREAM Act was first introduced in 2001. That’s 17 years ago. If someone was a kid at the time, we have by now fully educated that kid to where he’s about to graduate from college and maybe go into the workforce or go on to college, one way or another. He or she is on the cusp of starting to pay back for what we as a society have invested in that kid. What are we going to do? We’re going to throw them all out? This goes to the broader question of immigration. Again, in an inoperative Congress, they haven’t passed an immigration bill in 30 years. The face of immigration has changed. The mechanisms that are driving immigration have changed. At this point in time, we’ve got 11 million undocumented folks in this country by most estimates.

Q    Right.

A    And 60 percent of them have been here for more than 10 years, 80 percent of them have been here for more than five years. We have record low unemployment. We have more jobs open than we have people to fill them. Are we actually going to deport 11 million people at this point in time? This is what really worries me about Congress. Congress looks forward to the next election cycle, not 20, 30, 50 years from now. But where is America going to be at the end of this century? I’m 56 years old. I’m at the end of the baby boom. In 20 years, I will certainly be retired one way or another.

Q    Right.

A    I hope. All the baby boomers are ahead of me, so they’re all out of the workforce. We have historically rock-bottom low birthrates right now. So who is the workforce 20 to 30 years from now? Who is it? If we’re going to maintain our position as the world economic superpower, who’s going to work the factories? Who’s working the jobs? The undocumented folks, the DACA kids especially. Nobody’s putting a plan in place to deal with all this. This is the classic issue where it’s divide and conquer on both sides. Both sides are afraid to move to give the other side any claim to victory. We came pretty close in 2013 to doing some comprehensive immigration reform and arguably the Democrats torpedoed that because they didn’t want to give Marco Rubio something he could run for president on.

Q    Congressman Flores is obviously a resolutely conservative lawmaker, yet he’s one who resists the radicalism of the House Freedom Caucus. Given your own politics are possibly a little left of center at least in this stretch of Texas, how would you articulate your abilities to represent the typical Central Texan?

A    First and foremost, again, you talk with people. You understand where they’re coming from. Yeah, left of center is probably a good description for me. Not too far left of center. I saw one article calling me a radical left-wing carpetbagger. I think that was probably a little hyperbolic there.

Q    Where did you see that?

A    Oh, I can’t remember. It turned out to be a [former student] at Baylor writing the article. [The article was a posting by the radical right-wing lobbying group, Empower Texans.] I can’t remember where it was, but I was a radical left-wing carpetbagger. I thought that was good. I wear that one with pride! I would try to reassure people that I am a pragmatist. And I like to use health care as my example. If you read my website, my position is for universal single-payer health care because the problem on the table is a health-care system so complex and so expensive we pay twice as much as anybody else in the developed world for our health care with no better results. And we still have 30-plus million Americans who are uninsured and that number is going in the wrong direction. It’s going up. So that’s the problem I think needs to be solved. And I know a universal single-payer health-care system will solve that problem. But that doesn’t mean I’m ideologically wed to universal single-payer health care. If somebody can come to the table with a market-based solution that solves the problem, bring it on. I’m good. Because I’m a Democrat or because I advocate for universal health care, I’ve also been dubbed a socialist, which couldn’t be further from the truth, but you’re going to get labeled, right?

Q    My experience is a lot of people don’t know the definition of “socialist.”

A    Leave the academic definitions out of it, right? Even Ted Cruz brought it up in his debate [with Beto O’Rourke], right? He uttered the word “socialism” like five or six times just because he had to get it out there, right?

Q    True to form.

A    True to form. Exactly. And my opponent just did an audio on his campaign Facebook site and he brings up ISIS and Benghazi. Nobody in my year and a half and the thousands of people I’ve talked to has brought those issues up as being a concern. It’s economy, health care and education. But back to my philosophy, my politics. I’m a capitalist. I’ve lived and made my living in a capitalist environment, right? And I firmly believe that it’s the best economic system we have. But we have to provide health care, quality affordable health care, for every American, both from a moral imperative but from an economic imperative as well. We give back to the workforce and contribute to the productivity of the workforce. You can even lump education in here as well. We have to have the most productive, best educated workforce on the planet because we are also the most expensive workforce. Healthier kids make healthier students. Healthier adults make more productive employees. There’s no argument about this, right? And the more people that we can keep healthy, the more people that we can keep out of the emergency room, the most expensive [form of medical care available]. In a way, we already have universal health care. You walk into an emergency room, you’re going to get treated, right? It’s the most expensive form of universal health care there is. The Affordable Care Act has convinced me that government either has to be all in on health care or all out. And I don’t think all out solves the problem. I really don’t.

Q    It seems as if the public in the past few years has suddenly become more aware of how important health care is, especially when elements of it suddenly seemed threatened in 2017. It was demonized back in 2010 when the Affordable Care Act was new. I suspect what’s happened is a lot of people from those days have gotten sick at some point and have begun to realize the importance of protections for people with pre-existing conditions.

A    The polls support that. Some 60 percent of folks say government should be involved in delivering health care in some way, shape or form. And it’s polling in that direction.

Q    Much concern has been expressed about Russian interference in our elections. And then there’s what even conservative courts have said is clearly voter suppression right here at home. The courts have whacked Texas’ version of voter ID such that we’ve had to revise several times since 2011. And then there’s concern about gerrymandering, which you’ve also brought up in your campaign. Is there one electoral reform you would prioritize? I acknowledge the U.S. Constitution leaves a lot of these matters to the state.

A    I would amend the Constitution to take redistricting out of the hands of legislatures and put it in the hands of non-partisan citizen commissions. The legislatures, both Democrat and Republican, have shown no hesitation in disenfranchising voters. They’re not even trying to hide it anymore. I mean, [then-Republican Congressman] Tom DeLay proudly announced how districts were cut [by the Republican-dominated Texas Legislature] to elect Republicans. I have one precinct of Bastrop County in my district. One small precinct, maybe 500, 600 voters in that precinct. The only reason that precinct is in my district is because it forms a land bridge between Pflugerville, North Austin and the rest of the district. If that isn’t contempt for a voter, I don’t know what is.

Q     It’s becoming increasingly apparent that lawmakers, both state and federal, are expected to dispense with critical thinking and simply embrace party ideology and platforms rather than striving for consensus and real solutions with the other side. It seems to be party over country in America these days. Can you cite an example where you’ve bucked the will of the Democratic Party for the broader benefit of your potential constituency?

A    Well, this Abolish ICE movement. I don’t know if that’s an official party line, though. The ICE agency plays a role in security and securing our borders. It plays a role in protecting American citizens. It plays a role in handling the folks who do arrive at the border. Are there instances of abuse? Of course. Any large organization is going to have good and bad players in it. Does it need to be reformed in some way? Maybe. But this call for abolition is unwise in my opinion and as much a knee-jerk reaction as instantaneous calls for [presidential] impeachment.

It’s hard to tell what the official party line is coming out of the Democrats these days because we’re splitting — the old-line Democrats and the new Democratic socialists. And I go right down the middle of the two of them.

Q    What happened to the Republican Party maybe 10 years ago with the rise of the far right and the tea party at the cost of many traditional, mainstream Republicans seems to be happening with the Democratic Party now.

A    I hope we don’t morph into a hard-left-at-all-costs party. Read my Constituents Bill of Rights for Congressional District 17: “You have the right to expect me to serve as more than a mouthpiece for any political party.” And “You have the right to expect me to reach across the aisle to an opposing party to make progress on issues.”

Q    My impression of the Democrats is that, yes, they have some great figures in the Democratic Party, yet they sometimes get into power and it’s suddenly silly season. I guess we’ve seen that lately in the Republican Party too.

A    Well, as you say, the silly season is on both sides, right? When they were selling the tax bill a little over a year ago, they were telling people that everybody’s going to get a $4,000 raise. That just does not pass the sniff test. That’s not how companies work. It was never going to happen. And now they’re actually touting the fact 4 million

workers got raises or bonuses because of the Tax Act. What they don’t tell you is that’s less than 3 percent of the workforce. So there is silly season all over the place.

Q    You mentioned to me the president’s support is like 50-50 in our district. What do people like about him? You’ve talked to some of them.

A    I have. For a lot of folks, my conclusion is they elected him to be a disrupter. They were looking for somebody to shove his thumb in the eye of politics. And that’s exactly what they got. That’s exactly why he still has popular support. There are people who love the fact he tweets crazy stuff. There’s a lot of people out there who love the fact that he’s just rattling cages. Now, his policies have not come home to roost yet. We’ll see where this trade war falls out. I see this trade war [with China and other parts of the world] as potential disaster for the people of Central Texas, for the people of Texas, for the people of this country. But then he ran on blowing up trade deals.

This interview was conducted, condensed and edited by Bill Whitaker.