Newly elected U.S. Rep. Chip Cravaack defeated 18-term DFL incumbent James Oberstar in the unexpectedly tight race for the 8th Congressional District seat. The district, which stretches from Chisago County to the Canadian border, was last represented by a Republican in 1947.
Cravaack has kept a relatively low profile since winning the race. He spoke with MPR's Tom Crann on Monday after speaking at a Republican Party event earlier in the day.
FULL INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT
Tom Crann: Today, a judge in Virginia has struck down the provision that requires all Americans buy health insurance.
U.S. Rep-elect Chip Cravaack: From the federal government, correct.
Crann: And it is bound to be appealed. This is not the end of this, but still, what's your reaction there about the judge who said this exceeds the constitutional boundaries of congressional power?
Cravaack: I think it's the 10th Amendment. Actually, from the beginning I said: Where does it state that we as Americans must purchase a product from the federal government? Because that leads to a very slippery slope when you're talking about the enumerated powers of the federal government. So yes, I totally agree with what the judge had to say, and I think it's a far overreach of the federal government to make sure that we have to purchase a product from them.
Crann: If that law is eventually ruled unconstitutional, where do you start all over again with health care reform?
Cravaack: Well, you talk about affordability and accessibility and quality of care. Accessibility, making sure when I take my seven-year-old son in to the hospital or to the doctor for an earache, that he's seen in a timely fashion, and also that everybody has the capability of taking their children in when something's wrong with them.
The affordability aspect, I've always been a believer of competition. Competition is the key to bring down any type of (anything) in a competitive market. For example, I use the example of Lasik surgery. Lasik surgery has never been covered under health care insurance. When it came out it was extremely expensive. Only a few doctors did it, and what has happened through the years is that price has come down dramatically. A lot of doctors have gone into the industry, and the quality has actually increased as well. So by using that as a basic model, that's how we all can bring down health care, provide good accessibility and good cost control.
Crann: Now how realistic is it, despite today's ruling, that the health care reform law is going to be repealed?
Cravaack: I think even with the 112th Congress, it's going to be very difficult to repeal. I mean let's be honest about that.
Crann: Be realistic about it.
Cravaack: Yes, you have to be realistic about it. But what the power of the Congress can do is it has the power of the purse. You can break it down, break down the health care bill. It created 159 new agencies, and I read an article where (it says that) actually the amount of agencies that this health care bill creates is unknown and unknowable because within the agencies themselves they create and they continue to grow. So what Congress can do is defund portions of the health care bill.
Crann: And you're saying the bill as written would create 159 new agencies?
Cravaack: 159 new agencies.
Crann: And so Congress can defund them or just not fund them?
Cravaack: Right, not fund them.
Crann: These are not existing (agencies). These are additional agencies.
Crann: And so you do it piece by piece, in other words.
Crann: So what do you leave in?
Cravaack: Well, one of the things that I like to make sure that would be there is when someone makes a claim against an insurance company and they drop them, that's not right, things like that. And more than that, I myself have to read the bill. I have to get into it, see what's in there, and start peeling it back, and seeing what's good, what's bad, what we can keep, what we need to get rid of, but ... an outright repeal would be very difficult at this point. So I think repealing portions of the bill is where we're going to have to go.
Crann: What about the tax cut compromise? It looks like it has enough votes in the Senate this afternoon, and it looks like it's getting more support in the House from Republicans than from Democrats. The president's losing some of his own, especially members of the Progressive Caucus. So tell us where you stand on the tax cut compromise, if you had to vote on it.
Cravaack: Well, I haven't read the bill. That's one thing I'd want to do first, but if it increases the debt at all, that to me is a non-player. We cannot kick this can continually down the road. How I got involved in this is because of my children. We are heaping huge amounts of debt on their generation. Our generation is kicking that can down the road, saying, 'You guys are going to have to deal with it because we don't have the courage to deal with it now.'
Crann: And some economists, deficit hawks, are saying, 'Well, that's what it does,' and yet it has tax cuts in there. Are you for continuing the Bush-era tax cuts?
Cravaack: I am.
Crann: How do you do that without contributing to the deficit?
Cravaack: Well remember, it's our money, you know, and we've been able to keep our money for quite a long time. It's not the government's money. It's our money ... If you take a look at the 8th, it's small towns. It's small businesses. It's mom and pop stores. They're S (corporations). You tax (those earning more than) $250,000... you're taxing them. You're taxing their income.
So that means that they're not going to be able to hire that extra employee. They're not going to invest in their own companies. The majority of these people pour everything they've got right back into the company to stay solvent. So that is one of the main things that I'm looking at in making sure that we can protect our business owners. You go up into the small towns, you see boarded-up shops because people are not making it.
Crann: We have had this level of tax cut since 2003, some of them since 2001. And right now, the conditions we're in don't seem to be stimulating job growth. Is this extension going to do it? How is that going to work if we've had the same conditions?
Cravaack: One of the main things that I'm hearing from business owners is the uncertainty that this administration is ... creating upon the business market. Business owners are afraid to make long-term capital investments. And one of the things I have a problem with this in this tax bill is it's only 2 years. So that means business owners are not going to make long-term capital investments, investing into upgrading their ... manufacturing, or ... how many people are we going to hire.
The health care bill is another thing. Do you know how many business owners I've talked to said, 'I'm not going to hire any employees over 50' because it puts them in a whole different realm? I mean this is not a conducive environment for a long-term growth of business.
And in the 8th District, we need jobs. And by increasing taxes on our small businesses, it's not creating jobs. In addition to that, who really pays the taxes on business? We do. Because what is that business going to do? ... It's going to flow right down to us. I mean it's coming out of our pocket in the end of the day.
Crann: The president says this compromise will create ... 2.2 million jobs. Do you buy that?
Cravaack: No. Look what happened in the first stimulus. Unemployment's going to be below 8 percent.
Crann: So, what in the package do you object to? If you're for the continuation of the tax cuts, what's holding you back?
Cravaack: Again, I've got to read the bill, but again, if it increases the debt, it's a non-starter. What I don't like - it's not a non-starter - but what I don't like is not having it longer than 2 years because, again, talking to business owners, they're telling me, 'Now, it still puts us on uncertain grounds.' We have to give business stability so we can proceed forward, and that means jobs.
Crann: I want to get back to the campaign trail and talk about the fact that when you started, and even through much of the campaign season, you had an uphill battle. A long-term incumbent there was seen as very popular. When did you see, and what did you hear from people, that you saw things tipping in your favor?
Cravaack: You know, we did 42 parades in the 8th District, and in talking to people, going to the fairs, what I heard a lot from people on the side of parade routes and also in fairs, 'We voted for Jim all of our lives. We're not voting for him again.' I'm hearing that.
Crann: And what was the issue, or was there an issue?
Cravaack: I think the catalyst, in the Range, it was definitely the cap and trade bill, but along with that was the health care bill, where even Congressman Oberstar's office has come out and said it was eight to one against, and Congressman Oberstar voted for the health care bill. The other portion of that was the pro-life movement. If you take a look at the demographics in the 8th District, the majority of the 8th District is pro-life. And when people came up and told me, they said, 'You know what? We told Congressman Oberstar not to vote for this because we're very pro-life, and he did it anyway.' So this was another catalyst. I think it was part of the whole package.
Crann: And you're talking about the health care package. What was in there that a candidate or a member of Congress who is anti-abortion, what's in there that they would object to, that you would object to?
Cravaack: If you take a look, the Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life and also the National Right to Life, they have teams of attorneys that looked through this bill. And they said this is not a pro-life bill, and how the appropriations process went around to funding community health centers and Planned Parenthood through the community health centers. That's what they're saying. So that argument has been made.
Crann: So as you see it, the voters of the 8th District sent you to Washington. What's the main reason that they chose you?
Cravaack: I'm listening. I'm listening to them.
Crann: And what are they saying? What do they want you to do?
Cravaack: Listen to them. That truly is the reason.
Crann: But when you get there, you have to do more than just listen, right?
Cravaack: Well, I listen to them. I don't represent the Republican Party. I represent the people of the 8th District. I'm a Republican, but I'm listening to the people of the 8th District and provided, obviously, if it's constitutional, I'm listening to what they're telling me and what they want me to do in Washington, D.C.
Crann: And if it differs from what your party leadership in Washington wants you to do, what do you do then?
Cravaack: I vote for the people of the 8th. That's my job, and if I ever lose sight of that, then they should vote me out of office.
Crann: So in two years, how do you want them to judge whether the first term of Chip Cravaack is a success or not?
Cravaack: Did I reach out to the people of the 8th? Did I listen to them? And did I do what they told me to do? Now obviously I'm not going to be able to please everyone, but the people that I'm going to be involved with, the people that are going to be speaking to me in a manner of which this is an issue, whatever the issue is, to them, that's who I'm going to listen to. And that's where I'll vote, for the people of the 8th.
Crann: And what have you been hearing from constituents since Election Day?
Cravaack: A lot of congratulations so far, 'Stick to your principles.'
Crann: Any demands from you?
Cravaack: Not really, besides for business owners saying, you know, 'Just create a stable environment. That's all we want you to do.'
Crann: You spent a week or so in Washington for orientation. And I imagine most of us think that's sort of like going off to a new college, or going off to a new job training. What was it like? What are your impressions?
Cravaack: Well, you know (what) they say about the learning curve? This was a vertical ascent ... It was excellent to be there. I learned quite a bit, from simple things, just how to navigate the tunnels under the Capitol, getting (from) one office to the next.
Cravaack: Also, I just was there last week as well. We're talking about the major issues. We talked about the tax bill. The freshman Congress is one-third of the voting bloc. So they wanted to make sure that we were up to speed on the issues.
Crann: What are you looking forward to doing right away?
Cravaack: Moving into my office.
Crann: Something that basic, really.
Cravaack: You know, we're talking the basic needs here, moving into an office, creating a great staff. We're going to be very constituent centered, reaching out ... Our main office will be in North Branch. And at present, anyway, what we're going to do is have field reps go out to the different towns within the 8th District and hold office hours. So, a person that lives up in International Falls doesn't have to drive an hour and a half down to an office. We will come to them.
Crann: How often are you going to get out there? It's a pretty big district, geographically.
Cravaack: My goal is to have someone on the road at least once or twice a week. That's the type of office we want to have, an outreach office to constituent services.
Crann: There were reports last week about the transition that Congressman Oberstar's office was planning to shred documents, files, constituent cases or complaints, things they were working on. Any progress there? Can they turn some of those over to you, if the people in the files say, 'Sure, that's fine. I want the new congressman to work on that for me?'
Cravaack: Unfortunately, I think that ship has sailed. It would've just taken a simple release of records statement where they'd been able to release the records from Congressman Oberstar to our office. It's unfortunate.
Crann: Isn't it fairly common, though, in the way that business is done?
Cravaack: Actually, no. It's not. A matter of fact, some of the freshmen have been working very closely with some of the people that they beat out. The people that get hurt here are the constituents because unless they kept a very good filing system, they're going to have to start over.
Crann: Did anyone from Oberstar's office talk to you about this? Or did you have any direct conversations with the congressman himself?
Cravaack: Unfortunately I've not spoken to Congressman Oberstar, but our staffs have been cordial, working together. But just recently I found out about the case records that are going to be shredded ... It's going to hurt the constituents of the 8th District, and that's what concerns me the most, because people are going to have to start all over.
Crann: Your predecessor was also known for bringing back projects, some of them big, big projects - transportation projects, that sort of thing - back home, bringing home the bacon, as they say in Washington. And that's not what you were elected to do, or that's not what you said during the campaign that that will also be a focus of yours. How do you think they will react, if they're used to getting these projects, some of which were good for the economy, put people to work?
Cravaack: The question is earmarks, and I posed this question earlier on. And when I went to Congress, I posed the question, there for orientation. There's no definition of what an earmark is. And what I see is allowing MnDOT to decide what projects are best, instead of having basically some muscle saying, 'I think we need to put,' pardon the pun, but, 'this bike trail up in Virginia.' Or, 'We're going to do this road project in Ely,' instead of allowing MnDOT to make the decisions, say, 'You know what? This is where I think we should put our funds.' I think a congressman should step out of that situation.
Crann: What if you're hearing from constituents or donors who say, 'You know, it might be good to have a ... new road here in our town.' Or, 'It might be good to have a new road into our mine or our factory.' What do you do there?
Cravaack: You open up a dialogue, but you don't put in the muscle. You allow the state to decide where the projects are most needed, because maybe, yeah, we do want this up here, but you know what? Maybe I-35 north of Sandstone is so bumpy that it's almost impassable. So we have to allow the professionals within Minnesota to decide where best to place the funds from the federal government to ensure that the right projects are done for the right reasons ... And I'll pick on Republicans here. We don't need a bridge to nowhere. That's a misuse of government funds. It's a misuse of our tax dollars. That's what we need to prevent.
Crann: What's at the top of your agenda when you get to Washington to get done?
Cravaack: The main thing that I want to set in place first is constituent services and making sure that we reach out to our constituents. That's my primary focus. Everything else, I'm going to go by a set of rules: Is it constitutional? Does it increase the debt? Along those lines. And if not, why are we doing it? Because we have to control our debt. Right now, the amount of debt that we have is 100 percent of GDP. All we need to do is look at what's going on in Europe right now, and that's our future unless we take control of our spending.
Crann: What do you say to a DFL die-hard, a loyal voter of Jim Oberstar over the years who did not vote for you? What do you say to reach out to that part of the district? Because you won by still a fairly small margin. There are people who didn't vote for you.
Cravaack: Give me a shot. Give me a chance. Judge me by my actions, not my words, that I will work hard for the people of Minnesota. That's my pledge that I will represent the 8th as best I can. And I hope they give me a shot, and I hope we all, whether you're a Republican or a Democrat. You get rid of those "R's." You get rid of those "D's," and vote for the person. That's the way this should be.
(Interview edited and transcribed by MPR reporter Madeleine Baran)