Rick Kennedy: “I do honestly believe there is a persuadable middle who is tired of this polarization and divisiveness and lack of good governance.”

Rick Kennedy, 55, of Austin, a software engineer who has lived in Central Texas a decade and grew up in Massachusetts, is a Democratic candidate running for Congress in Congressional District 17. The seat is currently occupied by Republican Congressman Bill Flores. Early voting in the Democratic primary election begins on Feb. 20 with Election Day on March 6. Monday is the final day to register.

Q    What prompts you to run in this race?

A     Primarily, I’m deeply concerned about the polarization and divisiveness both in our politics and in our society. My kids are 17, 13 and 11 years old. In 10 short years, my youngest is going to be emerging from college and what kind of a world is she going to be emerging into? So I hope to be part of a wave of good governance that returns to Congress and restores a functioning legislative branch to the federal government, because I certainly believe we don’t have that at the moment.

Q     Why do you think we have had polarization?

A    Confidence in government has been eroding ever since the Nixon administration for the most part. It has eroded to the point now where approval ratings for Congress, approval ratings for the president are at all-time lows and they’ve been hovering there for a very long time. There’s no one single root cause. But especially over the last 10 years or so, I’ve noticed that parties and candidates, rather than try to unite people and govern and solve issues, we’re actually leveraging the natural fault lines in our society and using those for our electoral advantage to win elections rather than govern properly.

Q    Are there any issues where you’ve seen this play out?

A    Immigration is probably the textbook issue where this plays out. One side will demonize undocumented immigrants in the country, another side has a different perspective. That demonization galvanizes the base, especially on the Republican side. A couple of other factors play into this — the heavy gerrymandering of congressional districts especially. Most Republican incumbents believe their primary is essentially the general [election] and if they get past the primary. . . They’re all afraid of primary challenges from the right, further from what their position might be. This does hold true on both sides. The primary process on both sides, over the last four or five decades, has really started to present candidates in the general elections who are more and more extreme. On both sides. But it’s more pronounced on the right, especially over the last 10 or 15 years with the advent of the tea party.

Q    We saw President George W. Bush try to tackle immigration in 2007 or 2008 and his own party ran from him. Democrats ran from him too. But he tried to tackle the issue. You’re running against a candidate in the primary who has emphasized that our congressman has not done enough to impact issues here at home. Is that a concern of yours or are your concerns perhaps more broad-based?

A    I actually align with him on concerns over this. I think Congressman Flores is more aligned with the Republican Party on the national level, as well as making sure his donor base is satisfied, than he is with the impact of particular legislation on the people in our district. The tax bill is a perfect example — especially the House version, which he voted yea on. He described it as “awesome” after the fact. The House version of the bill had provisions that would be seriously damaging to institutions of higher learning — so much so the president of Texas A&M came out with an open letter pointing this out. [Note: The final tax bill included a 1.4 percent excise tax on investment income at private colleges with enrollments of at least 500 and assets valued at $500,000 per full-time student.]

Q    Didn’t [Flores] work to address some of these provisions?

A    Taxes on endowments stayed in the final version of the bill. Yes, he did work to get some provisions out of the bill [including a proposal to scrap tax relief for graduate students receiving waived and discounted tuition], but he did vote for a version that had those provisions in. He did vote yes. Those institutions of higher learning are not only going to train the workforce of the future, the technologically capable workforce of the future that needs to be competitive in the 21st century, these institutions are also the largest employers in Bryan-College Station and here in Waco. I don’t think any representative who had the interests of the people in his district in mind should vote yes on any bill that contained those sorts of provisions.

Q    Why do you think he did?

A    I think he’s more aligned with the Republican National Party and their desire to craft a bill shifting the tax burden from corporations and the wealthy onto the middle and working classes. And I think they were trying to find ways, as much as possible, to offset increases in the deficit that are inevitably going to happen with this bill.

Q    How would you describe the Democratic Party?

A    Let me start off in a slightly different way and we’ll see if we can get to a proper answer. I’m a Democrat because we have 30-35 million people in this country who still don’t have health insurance. This recent tax bill is going to add an estimated 10-15 million to that, so we’re actually going backward. I’m a Democrat because I think that’s a problem to be solved. I’m not necessarily ideologically wed to the solution — this is where my engineering comes into play more than party alignment. I want a coherent, effective, cost-effective solution that gets every American citizen access to quality, affordable health care. I don’t really care how it’s structured. Yes, my position is that a government-sponsored, universal health-care, single-payer system is the way we should go. That’s the solution that I see will work right now. But if somebody comes to the table with something different that’s more effective, more cost-effective, I’m open to alternative solutions. But I’m a Democrat because I see that as a root problem. Nobody can tell me that the United States of America — the wealthiest, most technologically advanced society in the history of the world — cannot find a way to provide health care for its citizens.

Q    This is a conservative district. How does the Democratic Party make inroads?

A     The Democratic Party has been running too much in the last eight years or so on the message that “Those guys are so awful that you have to vote for us.” We have to do a better job of articulating what our vision of the future is. Secondly, it’s not so long ago that Waco and the district supported a moderate Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives. One thing that resonates consistently when I knock on doors is restoring a functioning legislative branch to the federal government. People really want Congress to work and I think we’re so polarized at the moment that people are open to the message of restoring the middle. We need people in Congress who can actually start from common ground and then maybe work outward to where the fringes are, versus starting from far left and far right and finding some way to meet in the middle.

Q    Sen. John Cornyn has insisted to us Obamacare cannot survive because it received no Republican votes to make it enduring policy. Which makes a lot of sense. Of course, now Republicans are trying to pass legislation with only Republican votes. What’s to guarantee Democrats won’t do the same thing?

A    It’s going to take political willpower to restore what we consider to be a normal, functioning congressional process. If [Democrats] sweep back into the majority in 2018, and say we take the White House in 2020, our agenda cannot be to simply and blatantly undo everything the previous administration and previous Congress did. That’s not governance. Governance is seeing what we need now, where we need to be 10 years from now and where we need to be when our children are running the show. We are so short-sighted at the moment that we don’t know where we’re going to be 10 years from now. We don’t know where we need to be in 50 years. And our kids are going to pay the price for this.

Q    Let’s take DACA, for instance. Some compromise will have to happen for success.

A    I think it’s immoral that the president is holding DACA kids as political hostages. If we’re concerned about the continual influx of undocumented people into the country, and I am, we have to control our borders. We should be putting our resources where the problem really is. The southern border is already pretty militarized. And I’m not saying nobody’s getting across the border, but visa overstays actually account for almost twice as many undocumented immigrants arriving in our country today as border crossings. So why are we investing huge sums of money on a problem that is not . . . Again, my engineering [background says], you go for the biggest bang for the buck. And the biggest problem is what nobody is talking about. A reasonable compromise might be to throw a couple of billion dollars more at the southern border for increased electronic surveillance. But if we really want to bring these numbers down, we should be addressing the visa overstay issue versus the border issue.

Q    Our congressman is failing to hold in-person town halls. Yet there are benefits to online town-hall meetings. How would you do town halls?

A    Clearly, you do both. With an online town hall, you can reach more people. It’s more convenient for people to be able to dial in at their home or to watch on the Internet. However, with a dial-in or tele-town hall, there’s always the suspicion you’re filtering questions. There’s no room for follow-up questions. You can pretty much control the agenda and conversation. Which is why you should also do personal town halls. There’s nothing better than a face-to-face exchange of information and ideas, even if it’s not comfortable. If I’m your congressman and you’re angry at me, if you’re going to make a big sign and take time from your day to drive to an auditorium or wherever I am, if you’re going to expend your emotional energy to yell at me for whatever I’ve done that’s aggravated you — you deserve that opportunity. Because you’re my boss. If I win this election, I have a new job with 757,000 new bosses. And every one of them has the right to express their opinion to me.

Interview condensed and edited for space and clarity.