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Candidate Profile: Mark Jacobs

Iowa GOP

Read this candidate profile of Republican U.S. Senate candidate Mark Jacobs. He was interviewed as part of IPR's 2014 Primary Voter Guide series.

Give an example of an experience you had as an energy company executive, the CEO of Reliant Energy, that you believe prepared you to be a U.S. senator.

I might back up a little bit before I became the CEO of Reliant Energy and just talk about Reliant Energy when I joined the company as chief financial officer back in 2002. It was on the verge of bankruptcy. It was one of those companies that was $9 billion in debt. It was under federal investigation. In short, it was in one of those situations where anything that could go wrong had gone wrong. The day I walked in, I was sitting across the table from 23 of the world’s largest banks that had lost confidence in the leadership of the company and they were ready to step in and take over control. They thought they were going to dictate to me what was going to happen next. I had a couple principles that I was not going to negotiate on. I wasn’t going to settle on a short-term solution, and I wasn’t going to hand over control of the company to the banks. But I listened to them.   I worked with them.  I did a lot of pushing and cajoling.  Ultimately, we got this group of banks to agree to a long-term extension that gave the company some breathing room. And to make a long story short, during my eight years at Reliant as chief financial officer and chief executive officer, we were able to take that $9 billion in debt and turn it into less than $2 billion in debt by repaying $7 billion, and we protected thousands of jobs. I know what it’s like to inherit a fiscal mess, but more importantly I’ve learned how to work with people to get things done. I think that’s what’s missing in Washington today.

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

My view is that the government doesn’t create jobs. That’s the role of the businesses here in the state of Iowa – our farms, our manufacturers. But the government does create an environment that makes growth in the private sector either easy or difficult. I’m the only candidate in this race that has a job creation plan that’s oriented around how we create that environment. Just to touch very briefly on the five key elements of that plan: number one, closing the skills gap by focusing on community colleges and vocational colleges; number two, increase energy production in America including renewable here in Iowa; number three, we have to deal with that costly regulatory regime that we have; number four, we need a tax policy that encourages growth right here in America and brings jobs back to our shores; and number five is “Obamacare,” which we need to repeal and we need a fundamentally different approach with health care.

In March an Iowa poll showed 65% of those polled in Iowa supported increase in the minimum wage. Would you support a minimum wage increase?

Well, I agree with Senator Grassley on this one.  That’s something we could look at. But, as I think about it, it’s another example of the career politicians in our government that attack the symptom of the problem rather than the root cause. In my view, the root cause of the problem we have in America today is a lack of good jobs. That’s why I’m very focused on creating an environment where we can see better growth of opportunities in the private sector.

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 do in Washington to work in a bipartisan manner on the energy policy that would benefit Iowans and still have national appeal?

I’m a strong supporter of the renewable fuel standard. And in my mind the policies we’ve had in this country are a prime example of good government policy. They provided a subsidy for ethanol that helped it get off the ground. It reached commercial scale and then those subsidies expired. Today, ethanol is able to compete with petroleum-based products in the transportation fuel market on a heads up basis. That’s an example of good government policy. Now, we do need the renewable fuel standard because one of the challenges that ethanol has is that the oil companies have a significant amount of influence and control over the distribution channels. We need that renewable fuel standard because that creates a level playing field for ethanol to make sure that consumers have the option of buying that product at the top. I think they do have national appeal. The fact of the matter is ethanol today provides 10 percent of the supply in the market. If we did not have ethanol, and if we only had petroleum-based products, the price that you and I pay at the gas pump would be higher. I think that all consumers across America have a desire to have more product choices and more affordable choices. That’s what ethanol brings to the market. One of the things I think we can do a better job marketing is that ethanol helps bring down the price of transportation fuels for all consumers.

Even with a former Iowa governor heading up the Agricultural Department, farmers were kept in limbo for years over new farm policies. How will you represent the interests of agriculture and rural communities in an environment the is primarily urban?

I was very happy and pleased to receive the endorsement of Bill Northey, our great Secretary of Agriculture. And it’s a question I got from people: “Mark you’re a business guy,” and some people were a little surprised by that. The reason that Bill did do that is that, number one, agriculture is a business. And I understand business and some of the complexities that government policy can get in the way of creating growth and opportunities in that private sector. I’ve worked very hard to understand that agricultural business. I’m the only candidate in the field that would have supported the Farm Bill that got passed. To be clear, it was not a perfect piece of legislation, no piece of legislation is. But farming is a business that’s wrought with risk and uncertainty, and I think it’s appropriate that we provide a safety net for our family farms.

You’re campaigning to join Congress at a time when its approval ratings are some of the lowest in history, depending on what poll you look at, where ratings are in the low to mid teens in most cases. Can you explain how we got to that point with such low approval for congress?

The last poll I saw, I think it had Congress at a nine percent approval rating. I have to tell you, I’ve traveled across the state and I’m still looking for somebody in that 9% because I haven’t found them. Pretty much everybody I’ve spoken with is not happy with Congress. But my view is we’ve paraded this toxic environment in Washington, bitter partisanship and name calling. The bottom line is nothing’s getting done to solve problems that we have. I think that’s a great source of frustration for people across this state. It’s a source of frustration that I have. My view is that we’re not going to change Washington by sending the same old, same old kind of politician there. For us to send another career politician and somehow hope for results, to me, doesn’t make a lot of sense. What I’ve learned over the course my business career is how to work with people who have different points of views and still get done what needs to get done in a way that’s consistent with my values and principles.

In what areas can you imagine compromising with the Democrats to get something accomplished for Iowa?

One example here is to eliminate fraudulent and wasteful spending in our federal government. I think that’s an area that we are likely to find common ground on. One of the statistics that’s jumped out to me is the fact that up to 15% of Medicare reimbursements are fraudulent. That comes at an annual cost to taxpayers of up to $90 million per year. And I’ve had my credit card information stolen several times in the last two years, but each time my financial institution caught the very first fraudulent charge for no net loss. My point is, the know-how exists in the private sector to root out fraud and waste. I would hope that’s an area where we could find bi-partisan support to tackle that fraudulent, wasteful spending.

When do you think it’s appropriate for a senator to block a presidential nominee? In what cases would you do so?

I think you have to look at the whole picture, but our form of government was set up with a series of checks and balances. I take those very seriously. And one of the roles that the United States Senate plays is to confirm judicial nominees. The criteria that I would use in examining a judge’s record is to make sure that they have a record and a belief of upholding the Constitution of the United States of America and not legislating for the bench.

Nearly every candidate, especially in this GOP primary, says they want to cut down government waste and bring down the deficit. Can you name a program or a department that you would cut and why?

Within each department there are inefficiencies. I think that it is more appropriate for us to look at how we can root those out. I’ll give you another example:  Our federal government owns 77,000 buildings that are either unoccupied or partially occupied. That makes absolutely no sense at all and that comes at an annual cost to taxpayers of billions of dollars per year plus the investment that our government has in these buildings, for which we’re getting no value. That’s an example of something that I would look to root out and to go after. I also support the idea of an across the board 10% cut to the administrative department of every single federal agency. I’m not talking about the program cost. I’m talking about the cost of the government basically running itself. That’s one of the tools that’s used in business quite frequently and forces managers to prioritize and to look for ways to be more efficient – something I see rarely goes on in the government today.

Are we spending enough on national defense?

I think we need to learn that we have a strong defense. I come from the school that the cheapest and safest war is one that we don’t fight. I think we get there through a position of strength, leadership, and world affairs. One thing that’s clear to me is that the nature of the threat we face is changing. Twenty years ago we could have pulled out a map and determined by geographic boundary where the bad guys were. Today that’s much more difficult because it’s governed by ideology. Interpretations for what our national defense needs to look like:  Number one, we need to make sure that we have more special operations capabilities, we need to be prepared to combat cyber terrorism, which is an increasing threat; and we need to be able to defend against the use of unmanned vehicles – so-called drones, whether they be sub-sea, terrestrial, or airborne. I’ve heard a lot of conversation about our use of drones, but not much conversation about how we can defend against their use against us.

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

The first thing we need to do is secure the border. To me it’s inexcusable that we can’t control who enters this country and inexcusable that people that come on temporary visas, that we can’t monitor those people, and if they’ve overstayed their visas, be able to identify where they are. The second thing we need to do is hold our employers accountable for making sure that the people they employ in their businesses have the legal right to work in this country. And we need to make sure that our federal government provides tools to business and industry so that they can verify that employment status. Once that’s done then we need to deal with modernizing our immigration process. We need to deal with the people who are here in this country illegally. But, again, I would start with securing the border and holding our employers accountable.

If you were satisfied with those first two items you mentioned, would you then be able to support some sort of path to citizenship for the 10 to 12 million undocumented workers?

I don’t support amnesty. My view is that the people who have come to this country illegally have broken our laws and I think there should be a fine and penalty for having done so. I support the idea that, once reparations have been made, people who came here illegally could stay under a guest-worker type of program. My view is that anyone who came to this country illegally should never be allowed to progress to citizenship or voting rights.

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 statements endorsing this position. Do you believe the science that climate change is happening and it is very likely due to human activities?

I certainly believe that the climate has changed. Our planet has gone through periods of warming and cooling throughout its history. As a former CEO of an energy company, I have seen a lot of climate studies, and what I will share with you is that climate science is incredibly complicated. There is a lot more about it that we don’t know than what we do know. I have seen some of those studies you are referencing that indicate that man-made causes have contributed to it. I’ve also seen studies that indicate that man-made causes are not contributing to it. I think it’s an area that we need to continue to study and understand, but if we’re going to move forward on any type of climate action, it needs to be done on a world basis. We cannot address the issue here in America. The idea that we are taking our coal resources and putting them on a boat and sending them to China, who is building 70 new coal-fired power plants every year and they’re burning our coal, that makes absolutely no sense at all.

Can you name a climate scientist or organization that is in the 3% that can’t agree?

Richard Lindzen from MIT is one of the more notable ones, but there are several others as well that have gone through some of the analytical data that provide a contrary point of view. Again, I think it’s important that we continue to have a robust debate on the facts of that.

Our government should not act unless we do it in unison with the rest of the world?

Again, if we’re going to move forward on this, it is a global problem. It is not a United States problem. The only thing we do by moving forward on this unilaterally is devastate our economy. We’re not going to solve any problems.

The U.S. House has had dozens of votes to repeal, defund, or otherwise dismantle the Affordable Care Act. President Obama will not sign legislation repealing, dismantling, or defunding this legislation, but the law remains unpopular with most polls showing more people opposed rather than in support of the law. What are your ideas for revising the law, realistic ideas considering President Obama will be in office until 2016?

The likelihood that the Affordable Care Act is going to be repealed while President Obama is in office is highly unlikely, but that doesn’t mean that this is not a fight worth having. I think the Affordable Care Act is an incredibly poor piece of legislation that takes our country in exactly the wrong direction. You may have noted that a couple months ago the Congressional Budget Office came out with an analysis of Obamacare on employment. It has concluded that because of Obamacare, two and a half million fewer people would be working. President Obama has tried to spin that as a good thing; that people will have more leisure time. I have to tell you, I don’t buy that one bit. I think the core problem we have in America today is not enough people working and paying taxes and too many people who are forced, because of a lack of opportunities, to turn to the government for support. A major piece of legislation that takes us in the wrong direction, to me, is absolutely the wrong way to go.

You say it’s a fight worth having even though you concede that there’s nothing going to happen in terms of repealing, defunding, or dismantling this legislation. Why have the fight if nothing can come of it to change the law?

I think just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it’s not something worth having. As I go all across the state, it’s translating into people losing insurance coverage, reduced work hours. What’s interesting is that the Des Moines Register wrote an article on the Affordable Care Act just last week and they concluded that 70,000 people now have been able to get health insurance because of the Affordable Care Act. And that’s from 305,000, now we have 235,000 that are uninsured. But we have upset the apple cart and disrupted the insurance coverage for 2.5 million Iowans to achieve that. I support the idea that people should have access to affordable health care including those with pre-existing conditions, but we can handle these problems in a way that is not a government takeover of our health care system, which is where this is headed. Look at the problems we’re having today with the VA hospitals. My concern is that we’re getting a glimpse at what an increased role of the government will look like in health care, and it’s not a pretty picture.

Mark Jacobs' website