Dale Mantey

Dale Mantey: “Our campaign is about people over party. That’s the most important thing.”

Dale Mantey, 28, of Rockdale, a doctoral student in epidemiology at the University of Texas School of Public Health, 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    Why have you decided to run in this race?

A     I’ll start with the most important reason. I’m from Rockdale, Texas, a really small town. About 10 years ago, [GOP state legislators] gerrymandered [Democratic Congressman] Chet Edwards out of a seat. In 2008, we lost our largest employer, an aluminum smeltering plant owned by Alcoa. My father worked there, two uncles worked there. My grandfather, who had already retired, put in over 35 years there. We lost it [with some 900 layoffs]. It pretty much brought our town to a screeching halt. We had enough elsewhere to kind of keep afloat, but at the end of the day nothing else has come back to replace it. No major employers, no large employers, definitely no high-income jobs for blue-collar labor have come in to replace it. Then we got the word, kind of known without being public, that Luminant was going to be closing next. Luminant was facing financial issues. We knew the writing was on the wall. And then a few months ago it comes out Luminant was going to be closing in a few days. Rockdale, Fairfield and Elgin, all three [communities impacted] are in the district.

Q    These were coal-fired power plants.

A    Two power plants and a coal mine that provided fuel. [Note: Closures involved Sandow Power Plant outside Rockdale in Milam County; Big Brown Power Plant in Freestone County; and Three Oaks Mine near Elgin in Bastrop County which supplied coal to Sandow]. So those are all closed. And it signifies the end of an era of where you could live in a small town without a four-year degree and raise a family, have a home and have a good job. I don’t think those days are extinct, I just think we have to fight for them. To do that, you have to have someone who’s willing to fight for them. And that’s the first, second and third reason I got in this race. I’m going to fight for the parts of Central Texas that no one’s really talking about.

Q    But President Trump is talking about those kinds of things. The newly signed tax reform law does seem structured to help businesses such as these.

A    I strongly disagree. We’re going to replay trickle-down economics, which is a failed economic policy. It’s an idea we tried in the 1980s which was basically running up a credit-card bill. President Ronald Reagan cut taxes and then had to raise them three times. The economic strategy does not work. I think we’re going to replay that. I think we’ll see an immediate stimulus, then we’ll see a crash, the same way we did in the ’80s, early ’90s.

Q    So what’s your cure for all this?

A     Anyone who tries to sell you a silver bullet is basically selling you a bumper sticker.

There are a few things we have to understand. To find the solution, you must know three things. You have to know where you were, where you are and where you want to be. We know where we were in Rockdale. We know where we are. I know that as well as anyone. The next phase: Where do you want to be? With Central Texas especially, the future here is trade schools, two-year degrees that bring in manufacturing and distribution sorts of jobs. I think that’s the future of Central Texas. The focus should be on some of the more booming industries in this nation, which are modern energy — wind turbines and solar panels. The reason is, in Central Texas, we’re already sort of leading the nation there. Like [Congressional] District 21, [Congressman] Lamar Smith’s old district and as red as our district. It’s one of the leaders — it actually has the most renewable-energy jobs, at least in Texas if not the nation. They’re seeing an economic stimulus from these jobs. We could do that to a much better degree [in Congressional District 17] than they could ever dream of because of what we have. When we talk about creating a kind of economic revolution in Central Texas, which is what I’m running on, we have more than any district in the entire nation has to offer [in terms of] those kinds of jobs.

Q    Don’t we generate more wind than any other state?

A    When we talk about modern energy, we’re talking about a lot more than just generating it. You’ve got to build it, distribute it, design it. And when you do that, you need a lot of things. First, you need space, which in Central Texas we have plenty of. You need a workforce that’s capable of doing it. When I say “workforce capable of doing it,” I mean from high school-educated all the way up to the four-year-degree engineers designing it. We have that in abundance here in Central Texas because we have the blue-collar workforce, we have the trade school workforce and we have three of the best universities in the world right here in the middle of my district, between Baylor University, Texas A&M University and the University of Texas. The third thing you need is great infrastructure for transportation, especially for the distribution component of it, whether we’re building wind turbines or solar panels for Panhandle Texas, West Texas or the coastal line in Texas.

Q     How do you plan on doing that from Congress? That’s not a message I hear from the Democratic Party very often.

A    This is the kind of message the Republicans use. It’s one of their slogans — “Get the government out of the way.” Yet right now we’re represented by a congressman who makes no secret of the fact he’s fighting for off-shore drilling. He was so excited when the executive order was signed in January or February that expanded off-shore drilling, he promoted it like he had just saved the day. Here’s the problem: What does that do for Central Texas? What we need is a congressman who’s willing to fight for industries that work here in Central Texas. That’s what I plan to be. Whatever needs to be done, we’ll get it done.

Q    What qualifications do you bring to the job? You’re running against another Democrat now.

A    Any representative must have two things. You need to have knowledge of your district and you need to have a vision. I have both. Knowledge of the district — I was born and raised here. And the vision: What can we do in the future? It kind of goes back to what I was saying earlier. You can’t have a vision for the future unless you know where you’ve been and where you are. That’s what makes me the primary person for this job. But beyond that I assume you’re also asking who I am. By trade, I’m an epidemiologist, which means when we talk health care, there’s going to be another person in Congress who knows the subject. I don’t say that to beat my chest. I say it because I’m paid for a living to know health care and to know health. Beyond that, I have experience working on public policy. I’ve never worked in politics. I’ve not done campaigns before, I’ve not done any of that, but I have worked on public policy quite a bit. Professionally, I’ve worked on city, county and state-level ordinances and laws and statutes. I’ve helped craft them, discuss them, go through them, both in the state of Texas and the state of Colorado. Beyond that, I’ve worked with the Texas state Legislature as a health policy analyst for a Democrat from San Antonio.

Q    Should Nancy Pelosi continue as leader of House Democrats?

A    I don’t know. The very simple answer is, “Who else is running?” I do believe the Democrats are going to take the House back in the mid-terms. I haven’t put one moment of thought into who’s going to be speaker of the House. I do believe we need new blood.

Q    What does the Democratic Party mean anymore?

A    We’ve had a problem with our messaging because we’ve allowed other people, particularly the opposing party, to kind of frame who and what we are. That’s something I want to fight and change. That’s something I don’t want to allow in my campaign. I make it very clear who and what I stand for. In terms of what it means for me to be a Democrat, it means that every single person is equal before the law. It means that every single person deserves a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. I grew up in a blue-collar house, a union house, that strongly believed that if you put your day of work in, you deserve a fair day’s pay. To me, that’s what the Democratic Party is about. Those are the two biggest pillars. One is the working class and the other is equality. That’s the Democratic Party. If you believe in the working class and you believe in equality, you’re a Democrat.

Q    Immigration remains a hot-button issue.

A    Our policy is built on four areas in terms of immigration [including modernizing the immigration process]. First, we do need to pass the Dream Act. I would have preferred the Dream Act to begin with instead of an executive order for DACA. I think we need to pass the Dream Act, plain and simple.

Q    What do Democrats need to do to get DACA recipients the protections that a lot of Americans, including Republicans, seem to endorse? What’s a worthwhile deal?

A    I don’t think the opposing party has any interest in a good-faith discussion on a deal that makes sense to anybody. They’re great at winning elections. They’re terrible at governing. I don’t think they’re going to do a very good job trying to create any kind of equitable deal that works for this country. They’ve shown that very clearly with their failure on health care. When you have the House, the Senate and the presidency and you can’t get the health bill passed when you’ve been campaigning on it for how many terms in a row? They’re going to do the same thing with immigration. I have an idea of what I see as a fair deal. I think they would scoff at it in a moment. But any deal that requires them to steal millions of square acres of private land to build a wall that isn’t going to work is off the table. And I think that would be their requirement: “Let’s waste over a decade trillions of dollars for a wall that isn’t going to work.”

Q    What’s the best advice you’ve gotten while running?

A    The best advice came from Chet Edwards. He told me, one, go talk to senior citizens. They always vote and they have great ideas. The other was to take time for yourself. He told me always take care of yourself, always take care of family and the ones you love. It’s kept me going. I announced in June. It’s a grueling campaign trail.

Interview condensed and edited for space and clarity.