The U.S. Congressional 5th District Race pits Democrat Dan Kildee against Republican Jim Slezak and encompasses all of Genesee, Bay, Iosco & Arenac Counties, as well as part of Saginaw County - including the City of Saginaw; and it can safely be said that this upcoming 2012 November general election will be a generational-defining moment, setting both the direction & tone of our country for many years to come.
Two years ago when radical elements of the TEA Party infiltrated the ranks of the Republican Party, fueled by hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign contributions navigated by Karl Rove and industrialist polluters such as The Koch Brothers (owners of Georgia/Pacific that during the Bush II Presidency had over 100 criminal violations filed by the EPA reduced to 1 violation by the Justice Department) the following 2-years resulted in a Congress that was fueled by ideology at the expense of common sense, causing the U.S. credit rating to drop & stock markets to plunge further two summer's ago when they refused to renew the debt ceiling.
For Dan Kildee the 2012 election is about two competing visions of America: one that invests in the middle-class to grow our economy; and the other where the rich are protected and the rest of us are on our own. One that includes tax breaks for millionaires & ending Medicare as we know it; the other that works to protect the inherent value of our natural resources through building a sustainable and productive economy for future generations.
Recently I sat down with Kildee for an in-depth interview on his top priorities and thoughts on key issues facing the 5th District. Republican contender Jim Slezak was scheduled to meet with me last week, but apparently his office scheduler penciled in the wrong date so he missed the appointment. Questions were forwarded to Slezak who promised to return responses prior to our deadline; however nothing further was forthcoming.
Review: Describe your diplomas and degrees, including major and minor, and any professional licenses and public offices you have held. What qualifies you to seek this office? Name your top three donors, and your top three legislative agendas.
Kildee: The first public office that I was elected to when I was 18 years-old was the Flint Board of Education. I was right out of high school and it was a pretty important period for me because my uncle was involved in politics and I felt this was one of the few opportunities a really young person had to serve in public office, plus I understood a lot about what was gong on and felt that I had a lot to offer.
That experience stayed with me and I went on to serve 12 years as a County Commissioner and learned about criminal justice and the nature of public infrastructure. You get a really broad look at the needs of a community serving as a commissioner; and that was also a formative period for me. I served as Chairman of the Board for 5 years and County Treasurer for 13 years.
In terms of policy the most significant aspect of work that I developed during this period is what we now know as the modern Land Bank concept. The Genesee Land Bank is something I started and it was the first of its type. After that I helped start five other land banks in Michigan, including the one in Saginaw; and in total have helped over 90 around the country, which is probably my principle achievement - or new idea that I helped to develop with regards to vacant, abandoned and distressed property.
This is a significant area of public policy that needs a lot of attention, because during this period I looked at different development patterns and land use in terms of economic development and crystallized some strong views on the disconnect between stated values and how our systems are actually designed. In fact, a lot of my local government the last 3 years has strived to reconcile the failure of our systems to align with our stated values as a society in terms of land management.
90% of the population supports urban centers and the preservation of farm land and open natural lands, but unfortunately all our development support that deals with infrastructure and economic development works against those values. Historically we've had a pro-sprawl anti-sustainability approach to development and its been baked in the cake that all cities are in a constant state of growth and that all land appreciates - bigger is supposedly better and consumption is the same as growth and growth is prosperity. But we know now that's not the case.
Successful sustainable cities continue to reinvest in their core, even when they go through population loss; and they re-invent their core. The willingness to reinvent and rethink starts with the belief that cities themselves are vital. But a lot of the way our systems work operate on the presumption that American cities have a period of birth, growth, realize their potential, and then decline. I believe they have a longer history and if you look at Europe, where the history of their cities is much longer, they've been willing to invest in transportation and their core communities and make long term investments that might not look so smart on a short-term balance sheet. We haven't been oriented that way.
As I thought of running for Congress a range of issues surfaced that I'm interested in, but mainly its how to stay competitive as a nation and embrace the elements that made us this productive society - one of those is investing in vibrant cities.
As for my top 3 campaign contributors, in my case its thousands of donors that probably average $40.00 per donation. I don't accept a lot of PAC money. I will accept support from organizations that represent employers in my district, but I'm not accepting money from Wall Street, which is where a lot of it comes from. This is intentional on my part.
Where I do have a lot of support is within labor unions because another concern I have is pursuing policy that is intended to insure some relationship between the contribution people made to the productive capacity of our society; and the compensation they receive for that work. We're way out of whack with that and wealth is going to fewer and fewer people, which is a common theme of this election.
One of the things that has been lost in the last decade is the understanding of the importance and legitimate role of labor unions in seeking some fair share of the productive capacity and wealth that is created in our society. It's a complicated set of arguments now, because of the way people view unions now. But you can't avoid that ore wealth is being generated than ever before, yet real wages are declining, which again is something that is not right. There's another disconnect and this is a big 2nd priority.
Finally is my goal to push really hard to support a K-16 educational system that commits our society to lifelong learning, but focuses on investing in human capital - increasing access to trade schools; all those things that represent an investment in our human capital. When you invest and grow and allow access to capital for the next generation of job creators, you find they are people with ideas and not necessarily Wall Street investors.
Review: I'd like to ask you about the lack of civility in national politics - especially the hard-ideological line toted by the TEA Party that has led to an unwillingness to compromise and stalemate in Congress. If elected will you seek bi-partisan compromise to the exclusion of core principles, or vice versa?
Kildee: I don't think core principles and compromise are mutually exclusive. The only way to pursue core principles is to be willing to compromise, which is a huge failure in our system now. Too many people are willing to go to bed at night telling a sweet story about who they are because they stood firm on core principles; but they actually never execute them. If I truly believe in principles, you have to be willing to compromise on them in order to achieve them.
The framers of our constitution were brilliant. This isn't a parliamentary system but by its structure a lot of views from different places are allowed to evolve into a common outcome. Bi-partisanship is not unrelated to this money issue. Bipartisanship and compromise are essential - it's what our system was designed to result in. If every member of congress only voted 100% of the time for their own view, no bill would pass Congress. You have 435 members of the House and it would be a mathematical impossibility for them to all agree on one subject.
We need to get back to the time of Bill Milliken, which wasn't that long ago, where accomplishments were made through bi-partisanship. It's sad - Republican leaders like Rockefeller and even Nixon, who went to China, invoked wage & price controls and started the EPA would not be considered radical. They'd drum them out of the Republican party. I support bi-partisanship and will find Republicans that I can work with. Otherwise it's the sound of one hand clapping.
Review: In the relationship between governments and the private sector economy, which is parasite and which is host? Do you think it is a little unfair to expect a candidate for public office to promise to create new private sector jobs? Do you condone government intervention in financial markets and industries, and would you condone further economic stimulus? If so, should the federal government bailout state and local governments to save public sector jobs? Do you think corn should be used for fuel?
Kildee: Clearly there is a symbiosis. On the one hand you have fairly good evidence that a totalitarian system will result in the collapse of a society; and there's also no such thing as a pure free market. Most recently its been clear that government has an important and legitimate role in the financial markets, especially given the collapse of the markets that was driven by the mortgage foreclosure explosion, which was a result of the regulatory structure that banks were working under being eliminated, along with the creation of all variety of exotic financial products that took risk away from the lender, who passed it onto somebody else.
This happened not because of Wall Street wizards but because government took the cop off the street, so we have to be serious about this. I said earlier that we have to find common ground, but with this topic I see fundamental philosophical differences. With some issues there's a fundamental distinction between right & wrong.
My view is that the creativity and entrepreneurship of the American private sector has to be manifested in areas other than the financial markets. The markets should be a vehicle, but not the product; and that's what we've gotten into. The financial sector has become more the driver of the economy and not reflective of the real way the real economy accesses & distributes capital.
I believe a big mistake was made believing that pushing capital through banks was the way to get that capital deployed to Main Street. Did we as a society need to rescue the financial industry? History will deliver a whole range of books on that topic; but the consensus is that something had to be done. I see it as a quantitative easing - from a federal standpoint stimulus funding is about the only tool they have left. But I believe there are far more efficient ways to move capital into the economy than through the financial industry.
People don't completely understand the role of the central bank. Some like Ron Paul would have us go back to the gold standard. But its true that unless pushing more currency has the effect of heating the economy to the point of inflation; there is some value in getting more money into circulation. The problem is that mistakes are often made thinking about economics as a morality play. It's not.
It's not accurate to say that if the Fed puts more money into circulation that we have to borrow money in order to do that. The Fed can create money out of thin air and it's not like they have to borrow fro the Chinese to do it. Right now they are buying bad assets from banks this way and saying here's the money, take it. The ability to print money & set low interest rates is really designed to get money into the economy. But with the stimulus package, I don't think it was done right. I think the President was accommodating, which is where principle does override the politics. In fact, he was so accommodating that what we ended up with was too much and too little at the same time.
Where do we go from a market oriented system to a system where the government doesn't facilitate but over-reaches and dictates the performance of the economy? We have to make sure that we move smart. $757 billion seems like a lot of money, but when you slice it out and see a big chunk went to backfill local losses in government spending, it just stopped reductions and layoffs and didn't have a stimulus effect. Offering tax breaks doesn't necessarily result in spending and the big chunk of the stimulus package dedicated for stimulus was put into projects that weren't really shovel ready.
When you look at several hundred billion dollars going into an economy with a $13 trillion GDP, it's not really that much money in the big picture of things. I think the benefits of the package were oversold but the value is often underestimated. We don't really know how bad things would have gotten had we not taken action. If we hadn't rescued banks & the auto industry, I'm mot sure what the picture would look like today; but for our region, it would be ugly.
Review: The practice known as Induced hydraulic fracturing (fracking) uses pressurized fluid to force unconventional natural case and petroleum formations into natural underground reservoirs, from which it is more efficiently extracted. France has banned the practice and New York has issued a moratorium. Do you think the practice should be banned in the US, given that most of the energy produced in Michigan through fracking will be sold in international markets and not necessarily affect domestic energy pricing? If not, what do you propose to do about groundwater contamination that has occurred in every state that has adopted fracking - especially given that much of the fracking taking place in Michigan is in Northern recreation areas and near the largest bodies of fresh water in the world.
Kildee: I'm very concerned about fracking and believe the practice should have some enforceable uniform standards across the country. There's a big debate going on in Michigan about this and I wish as much research and funding would go into renewable energy sources as goes into figuring out new uses for resources inherent in the planet.
Much of where you sit on this issue depends on whether you think we are the last generation on earth. If we think we would like to leave something behind for future generations, we've got to be careful not just about the way we use energy resources, but the effects those techniques have on the rest of society.
I believe in carbon credits as a way to bring a sense of the external costs of the old ways of doing business into the market place. We need to figure how to internalize the external costs of what we do so that we know the real cost, which is measured across the spectrum of society; not just on the balance sheet of some energy company.
I've done experiments on internalizing external costs and its really important for the energy sector across the board to look at the cost versus the value of cleaning up and moving to green technologies.
For example, with abandoned houses the Michigan Land Policy Institute did research and looked at 400 houses and found that if the process of tearing them down could be gotten to a production scale, the cost came down dramatically. You demolish 1000 of them but don't tear one down a thousand times. Henry Ford figured out how to do it, and we can also bring the unit cost down.
When you internalize the value of that intervention the unit cost looks better. If you take $3.5 million to eliminate 400 abandoned housing sites, the amount spent restored value not to those sites, who's value went upside down to zero; but the surrounding properties had their values restored to market value before the abandoned house got to become an eyesore.
There was more than $100 million in value realized to the surrounding properties by cleaning these sites up, so there is a definitive spin-off benefit apart from the measurable economic benefit. What was life like for the 800 families that lived on either side of those 400 abandoned homes? Apart from taking their previous property values from $3.5 million to $100 million, they no longer had to look at blight whenever they walked on their porches. So you can't put an immediate number on internalizing and externalizing these costs, but it does have a value.
We've got to get out of this Wall Street mentality where everything is measured in transactional terms. Our lives are not transactional. What I'm worried about in the debate over hydro-fracking that is taking place is that it's being waged within the confines of a transactional argument. A lot of bad decisions are made that way. We have to get beyond this transactional thinking.
People are engaged more than you believe in this election and I believe it is going to be one of those generational turning point elections, which in my lifetime I would compare to the 1980 election. It's going to be a directional election and not a small one.