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Candidate Profile: Dave O'Brien

O'Brien for Iowa

Read this candidate profile of 1st District Democratic candidate Dave O'Brien. He was interviewed as part of IPR's 2014 Primary Voter Guide series.

Could you give me an example of an experience you have had that you believe prepared you to be a U.S. Representative?

Well, I’ll tell you the toughest thing I did when I worked at the Department of Labor is when we had to shut the office down because the Republicans were throwing a temper tantrum and shutting the government down.  I had to go around the staff and decide who was essential and who was not essential.  Everybody was essential of course in reality, but it is an exercise we had to go through because the government was shut down for a few days.  I’ve learned what not to do and to do in order to make government work and that was one of the things that emphasized what not to do.

 What do you think is the one thing you can do in Congress to help create jobs in Iowa?

The first big step that we can accomplish in Congress is raising the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour.  That will take 300,000 Iowans out of the poverty level.  It will save us $4.6 billion in food stamps/SNAP benefits alone, because people will no longer have to have government assistance in order to survive.  That’s the first big step in the right direction, but it’s just a first step.  We really need a living wage, not just a minimum wage.

A March Iowa Poll shows 65% of those polled support an increase in the minimum wage.  Do you think Congress can actually pass this legislation?

I do because of the number you just cited.  Sixty-five percent is broad support across the political spectrum.  People recognize that the economy has recovered since President Obama came into office, and the wealthiest among us are making a lot of money — and that’s fine.  Nobody begrudges the wealthy making a lot of money — work hard, play by the rules, make a lot of money.

Here’s where we draw the line:  If you work hard, play by the rules, and make a lot of money, your employees ought to be paid at least a decent wage, not a minimum wage that requires that they be on public assistance.  Wal-Mart is a perfect example.  They made $17 billion in profits in 2012, yet they underpaid a significant portion of their workforce, such as those folks who had to be on Section 8 Housing benefits and SNAP benefits in order to survive. 

It costs taxpayers up to $6 billion per year to subsidize Wal-Mart’s workforce.  That’s insane.  We have to stop that.

The proposed changes to the renewable fuel standard seem to signal that the administration may move away from grain-based alternatives to conventional fuels.  What would you to in Washington to work in a bipartisan manner on energy policy that would benefit Iowans and still have national appeal?

I’ve had a discussion with Vice President Biden on this issue and asked him to weigh-in with the EPA  to reverse that position reducing the renewable fuel standard. 

But in terms of doing bi-partisan efforts, we have to reach across party lines as members of the Iowa delegation and other states that rely on agricultural products for much of their economic wherewithal.  I’d be happy to do it and we all have to understand that agriculture is such an important part of the Iowa economy and the Midwest economy.   I’d be happy to work with Senator Grassley and other Republicans to be sure that the renewable fuel standard was kept at a higher level and that we are encouraging use of ethanol and other grain-based fuels.

The U.S. House has held dozens of votes to either repeal, defund or otherwise dismantle the Affordable Care Act.   President Obama will not sign legislation repealing, defunding or dismantling this legislation.  But the law remains unpopular, with most polls showing more people opposed to, rather than in support of the law.  What are your ideas for revising the law, if you are interested in doing this?

I’m not interested in talking about revising it at all.  We’ve got to implement the thing right now.  It’s working in the states that are fully implementing ObamaCare, and that’s what we need to do.  Look, after we get past this initial round—anytime you start on a big new program like this, there are going to be potholes that you have to overcome. 

But as long as we keep talking about revising the ACA, the Republicans are going to think of that as a euphemism for destroying it.  That is not acceptable to me. 

Every Iowan and every American deserves the right to health care.  And as Democrats, we’re going to make sure that happens.  I don’t want to talk about revising ObamaCare.  I want to talk about implementing it and when we get a few years down the line, we’ll make some necessary tweaks in order to broaden the program and make it more effective.

You’re campaigning to join Congress at a time when its approval ratings are some of the lowest in history—hovering in the low to mid-teens in most cases. How did we get to this point?

Well, I’m telling you right now the Republicans have created a monster that’s consumed them:  The Tea Party people.  The ultra-right wingers take an absolutely no compromise view of government and we’ve got to stop that.  We’ve got to start electing Democrats and to the extent that we elect Republicans, it’s got to be reasonable… Republicans that understand that compromise isn’t a dirty word.  That’s how this country was formed.

In our constitution, we have the great compromise, and the three-fifths compromise, which was a horrible thing, but a compromise nonetheless.  And so we have to sit down together and work across party lines.  But right now we have one party that is just adamant on electing people who won’t negotiate, won’t compromise and they think that’s a good thing.  But it’s bad for the country and it’s bad for the party—the Republican Party that is.

This has been called a do-nothing Congress.  In what areas can you imagine compromising with the other party to get something accomplished for Iowa?

Well, we have a perfect example with the farm bill, which was just recently renewed.  I mean we were two years late on our farm bill and in order to get it done, the Democrats had to accept some cuts in the SNAP benefits -- which I think were horrible.  But I would have voted for that bill because it’s so important to our rural economy to have a farm bill in place so our farmers can plan for next month and next year and future years.  And that’s a compromise that I would have accepted.  I wouldn’t have liked it, but I would have accepted it.

Nearly every candidate running for office says they want to cut government waste and bring down the deficit.  Name a program or department you would cut, and why?

I don’t know if I would be willing to cut any of the government departments.  I would certainly look for waste, fraud and abuse any place in the government.   I can tell you this: we have looked at the domestic side of the budget for the last six or eight years for cuts and the Republicans have made sure that happens, so I’d be hard pressed to find a program that hasn’t been cut by the Republican’s efforts to reduce the safety-net in this country and to try to balance the budget on the backs of the middle class.

But if any Republican wants to sit down and look for fraud, waste and abuse in the government, I’m happy to do that.  I only ask for one thing in return:  We apply that same standard to the defense side of the budget, because I can tell you right now, there is plenty of waste, fraud and abuse on the defense side of the budget, and that’s where we should be focusing our attention if we’re talking about budget-cutting.

You imply that we’re spending too much on national defense?

We’re spending unwisely on national defense in many ways.  We’re buying weapons systems that we don’t need and the military doesn’t want.  We’re not spending money on some things we need, like personal protective equipment for individual service men and women and making sure they have proper training.

We have to understand that we have new threats in this world and those threats are not going to be addressed by rolling in an army with a bunch of tanks and artillery.  We need smart people, multi-lingual people.  We need people in the military who can go into a situation and defuse it with their intellect, not just their muscles and their weapons.

Immigration reform is an issue important to Iowa but has stalled in Congress.  What immigration reforms would you support?

I absolutely support the Dream Act—it’s a big step in the right direction.  Of course, it only covers minor children who came to this country illegally as minors, but it gives them an opportunity to earn permanent residence status.  But I have to say that’s the first step—we need comprehensive immigration reform.

I’m all for protecting our borders, but we need to recognize why people are coming into this country.  We are a hope to people around the world.  We have to understand why that hope is so attractive to them.  People who are here illegally should have an opportunity to earn and I put an emphasis on earn and I’m not talking about amnesty here.  I’m talking about earn, paying back--making right the wrong that they did and earning the right to be permanent residents — earning the right to citizenship.

According to figures from NASA, 97% of climate scientists agree that climate-warming  trends over the past century are very likely due to human activities, and most of the leading scientific organizations worldwide have issued public statement endorsing this position.  Do you believe the science?

Absolutely.  I was going to say, you’d give that question to Republicans and the fact that some of them would not accept it is just ridiculous and part of the problem that we have today.  The science is 99.9% there.  Anybody who doesn’t believe it is just denying reality.

And should government act on this issue?

Absolutely.  Our environment is going to be unstable within 35 short years. That means to your listeners out there—if we don’t do something today, our children and grandchildren will live in an environment that is unsustainable and it will be way too late to do anything about it 35 years from now.

When all the Fox News listeners out there who have been misinformed about global climate change wake-up and realize that it’s too hot and we have to do something about it, it will be too late.  So we have to just roll right past the climate-change deniers.  We have to put in pace a carbon tax that will raise the cost of burning fossil fuels to the point where there will be a sufficient incentive to avoid burning those fossil fuels.  And then we emphasize solar, wind, biomass and other things and we can lessen the cost of that carbon tax on the American public by rebating 100% of it back to the people so that hard-working families who are right now undertaking difficult economic times will not be burdened by the tax.

Dave O'Brien's website