Red or Blue?
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When voters from the fourth congressional district go to the polls this November, they will choose between Republican Christopher Shays, who has represented the district for twenty-one years, and Democrat Jim Himes, a former businessman and current nonprofit executive who is making his first run for national public office. Two years ago, Shays narrowly defeated former Westport First Selectman Diane Farrell. This year the race has drawn national attention, since Connecticut is the only one of the six states in New England still represented by a Republican congressman. It has been targeted again by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee as a potential “red to blue” win and called a toss-up. In mid-July, both candidates were interviewed separately about their views on key issues and why they think voters should pick them instead of their opponent. Their responses have been edited to meet space requirements.
Christopher Shays is a graduate of Principia College, a Christian Science college in Elsah, Illinois, and has a master’s in public administration and a master’s in business administration from New York University. He spent two years in the Peace Corps in the Fiji Islands and served in the state House of Representatives for six terms. In 1987, Shays was elected to Congress, where he’s on the House Oversight and Government Reform, Financial Services, and Homeland Security committees. He has made twenty trips to Iraq since 2003 to check on our military and reconstruction efforts there. He and his wife, Betsi, director of the National Security Language Initiative of the U.S. Department of Education, live in Bridgeport and have a grown daughter Jeramy.
Q: What three issues do you find voters in the district are most concerned about?
A: The economy, the threat of terrorism and how it’s impacted their lives, and the future of our country in general. Are we going to be able to compete with the rest of the world? Will we have the resources necessary to do it? Will our kids be educated in a way that enables them to compete with the rest of the world? I think they are very much concerned about the economy as it is today and what the world is going to be like in the years to come. I think they are also concerned that they don’t see a government that is responsive to these challenges, whether it is the environment, whether it is energy, whether it is helping their kids compete.
Q: What do you think are the main differences between you and your opponent?
A: First off, I have a lot of respect for my opponent, as I have had for previous opponents. The differences clearly are that I’ve had experience, not just that I’ve been an elected official for twenty-one years in Congress but that I’ve been trained by my constituents. Every day I learn something new from my constituents, and that helps me be a better congressman. And I’m not a partisan politician. I don’t know what my opponent is, but I know what I am. I work with Republicans and Democrats. So whether John McCain [or] Barack Obama is elected president, I will be working with him, I think, effectively.
Q: What do you propose for our Iraq policy?
A: That we win, not lose. That as things continue to improve we don’t leave prematurely, but we don’t stay indefinitely. I see us continuing to reduce our troops by 5,000 a month until we get to 50,000 to 70,000 troops and that our troops are not then patrolling the streets, but they are providing logistics, emergency ambulatory care, training and doing special forces operations. Finally, that we are a presence, much like we are in Korea, so that Iraq’s neighbors don’t think that this is a country that they should violate. You have critics that say we shouldn’t have gone in, and that’s an argument that can be made. But once we disbanded their army, their police and their border patrol, we owned the place. And I was in good company: Chris Dodd, Joe Lieberman, Hillary Clinton, Chuck Schumer, we all voted to go in. That’s not really the issue. The issue is, once we are there, what are we doing?
Q: What kind of priority do you give to reducing our $9 trillion national debt and balancing the federal budget?
A: I led the charge in the late nineties – when I was on the Budget Committee – to get our financial house in order and balance the federal budget, and we did it. We did it by voting to slow the growth of what we call our discretionary spending, what runs government, and we did it by slowing the growth of entitlements. And we did it with tax cuts. When you cut taxes, you can sometimes generate more revenue than when you raise taxes. So we need to do all three.
Q: What’s your position on the 2002 Bush tax cuts and on the Alternative Minimum Tax?
A: I think that [the cuts] are essential and they need to be made permanent. Why should married couples pay more than two people living together? How can we justify raising the taxes on individual families? In other words, we gave a tax credit for having children. How can we say that it makes sense to bring the dividends tax and the capital gains tax up to thirty percent? They help generate economic activity. Anyone in this district who thinks that we should raise taxes, and then complains that the federal government doesn’t bring enough back into the district, doesn’t understand it. We rank number eight in dollars per capita coming to the state. There are thirty-two states that get less per capita than we do. (But we give so much in taxes to the federal government that we rank last in terms of the amount of money we get versus the amount of money we give.) So anyone who says that the dividends tax and the capital gains tax should be brought back up simply wants to take more from the 4th Congressional District and get less back. The Alternative Minimum Tax should have been indexed years ago so that it didn’t keep capturing more and more people. We need a permanent solution to this.
Q: How would you address the problem of 50 million people without health insurance and the rising cost of healthcare in the country?
A: What I’ve done is I’ve – with Representative Langevin, a Democrat from Rhode Island – introduced the universal healthcare bill that enables Americans to have the same healthcare choices at the same cost that federal employees have. So the individual would pay 28 percent and the employer would pay 72 percent.
Q: What impact do you think the presidential campaign will have on your race?
A: I think the race will be – I could be wrong because you are asking me these questions in July – my suspicion is that it will be a fairly close race. Whether it’s close or not, you are going to have a lot of voters come out who may not have in the past. We’ve got a poll in July [showing] seventy-four percent of my voters are McCain-Shays voters and 24 percent are Obama-Shays supporters. So I think it will be a large turnout, and I think that it’s important that I have the support of people who are supporting either candidate. I think I do.
Q: What do you say to someone who asks you: Why should I vote for you instead of your opponent?
A: The question is why would I ask – suggest – that people renew my contract? I would ask them to look at my twenty-one years of effectiveness. I’d ask them to look at the fact, unlike most elected officials, I work with both sides of the aisle. I would want them to appreciate the time and effort they’ve invested in me because I am their product in the sense that they trained me, and that I am on the cutting edge of most of the important issues. I am a leader in the whole issue of energy; I was arguing for better Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards, better mileage standards for minivans, SUVs and trucks, and voting that way before it was popular. I have been at the center of trying to make sure that what we do in Iraq is effective. I have experience and effectiveness that I think rival the best in Congress. And it’s interesting to me that my Democratic colleagues would be working so hard to defeat the only Republican left in New England. What Republican are they going to work with in New England if I’m defeated?
Q: Who are your political heroes?
A: George Washington, I loved his courage. Abraham Lincoln put his country first, even if it meant he was going to lose the next election. Teddy Roosevelt was a change agent and I think of myself as that, through and through. More recently? You could say he wasn’t a politician but in a way he was, and that was Martin Luther King. He didn’t just speak to African-Americans but to all Americans, and he was really trying to save our country. I respect in a politician straight talk and courage, and we don’t have enough of it. I think my greatest strength is that I’m willing to lose the next election; you have to be willing to lose it in order to deserve winning.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
A: We have a great country. We are not living up to our greatness right now, and I think it’s because we haven’t sorted out the new media and how it impacts our lives – the talk shows, cable, the twenty four-hour news service, the unbelievable number of talking heads who just tear apart the country and people who work in the government. I think we’ve got a lot of heavy lifting to do, and elected officials need to be very clear about what’s required. And I’d like to think that’s what I do. You have two very good presidential candidates running for office. I’m hopeful, speaking in July, that we will have found that these candidates talk issues and that they will have a clear mandate on what the public expects them to do when they are elected. I think we need to be Americans first and Republicans and Democrats second. The view is that you should bring up your favorables and your opponent’s negatives. It’s just something I’ve never done and I never will do.