This was the third in a HANRadio.com series, Connecticut Candidates 2014, where state and local candidates sit down with Hersam Acorn editors. You can listen to an archive of the entire interview — which also touches on areas such as gun control legislation, the minimum wage, immigration reform and the new Congressional investigation into the embassy attack in Benghazi — at HANRadio.com or by clicking the play button on the graphic below.
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With three successful runs for Congress under his belt, U.S. Rep. Jim Himes (D-4) has done what many might have once considered impossible in a previously Republican stronghold.
After decades of representation from the likes of Republicans Stewart McKinney and Christopher Shays, in 2008 Himes of Greenwich broke through as a Democrat, defeating the longtime incumbent Shays. Since then Himes has increased the margin of victory in elections in 2010 and 2012, even winning Republican-strongholds such as Greenwich and Ridgefield in 2012.
But, as he faces another re-election battle this November, he’s not ready to declare Connecticut’s 4th District a “blue” territory quite yet.
Instead, in an interview with Hersam Acorn Newspapers’ HANRadio.com on Monday, Himes agreed with the assessment that he was representing a “purple” territory with several strong Republican areas as well as growing Democratic numbers in the district.
“This district was Republican for generations and remember New England used to be Republican for generations,” Himes said. “Obviously as the Republican Party has become a more kind of Southern, more religious and slightly more regional party, New England has responded accordingly. Purple is really a correct characterization for this district. There’s roughly as many Democrats as there are Republicans and of course a whole lot of independents who are making a decision not to affiliate with a party… This is by and large an affluent area — though we have pockets of real poverty — and it’s an educated, very thoughtful group of people. They’re not interested in hearing bullet points from either party. They’re interested in knowing their representative is thinking for themselves. I think people thought that about my predecessor and I believe they think that about me.”
Currently there are no New England Republicans in the House of Representatives, something Himes is certainly looking to perpetuate as he faces off this fall with former State Sen. Dan Debicella. The two are familiar with each other as Himes defeated Debicella in 2010, a historically bad year for Democrats everywhere — except in the Nutmeg State.
When asked what his take was on the political climate in this election year, Himes said, “Nobody is happy or thrilled about where we are as a country today, but they understand we are in much better shape than we used to be. When I was sworn in in 2009, the country was losing 800,000 jobs a month. Since then, the economy has turned around with something like 7.5 million private sector jobs added. The economy is growing, the housing market is getting better and business confidence is up. But it’s not where we need it to be and I think people understand that. We’re doing better than we were five years ago, but we’ve got a ways to go.”
Himes said that, from talking to voters from all over the district, he believes the economy is still front and center on their minds. To respond to that, Himes said he will continue to call for a “meaningful” investment in infrastructure.
“We are going to do this,” Himes said. “We’re not going to tolerate Norwalk rail bridges getting stuck in the open position or the Cos Cob bridge that fell down. We’re going to make that investment, so why not do it now when doing it now will put thousands of people to work and improve our infrastructure. I’m not just talking about highways and railways here. I’m talking LaGuardia Airport and Kennedy Airport. Let’s build ourselves a 21st Century infrastructure that puts people to work and helps our businesses be competitive against Europe and Asia.”
Calling it a problem “40 years in the making,” investment in infrastructure, Himes said, can boost Connecticut’s economy beyond hiring workers. He said it can help convince businesses to start or relocate to the state because he believes they are scared off by the traffic problems on Interstate 95 and how difficult it is to get places.
Saying that he is concerned about those who were “left behind” in the 2008 economic meltdown, Himes says Congress has “egregiously failed” to renew unemployment insurance for those who lost jobs and are having trouble finding new ones. He said that this is not just morally the right thing to do, but also helps economically because unemployment insurance money helps out stretched families and allows for purchases like food or furniture and then gets cycled back into the economy.
Additionally, Himes calls for a longer term investment in providing education and job training.
“I can’t tell you how often I meet owners of small businesses that want to hire a bunch of high-end machine operators and can’t find them and we’re a block away from a bunch of young guys not doing anything,” Himes said. “We need to find a way to train through community colleges or through more affordable college educations for the jobs of tomorrow.”
How to pay for this, especially when Himes has pledged support for deficit reduction efforts, is the question. Himes said the federal budget deficit is already declining at a rate faster at any time since World War II and that the money for this kind of investment can be found already in the budget in areas like defense spending. While stressing his commitment to defense, a critical issue in a state like Connecticut where building submarines and helicopters are drivers of the economy, Himes noted his recent vote against the National Defense Authorization Act because he felt it was “bloated.”
Saying that money used to maintain relics of the Cold War, such as missile silos, and fund weapon programs the Pentagon has said it doesn’t even want could be better used elsewhere, Himes suggested that money instead be used for the kind of infrastructure investment he is calling for.
Himes pledged that if re-elected he would “stand by my values” and continue to be open to the ideas of others, specifically noting the district’s business community.
“Sometimes people stereotypically think that the Democrats are hard on business, but that’s baloney,” Himes said. “If you care about people having jobs, which you’d better care about in my role, you’d better care about those people that are producing and providing those jobs. Those are businesses large and small.”
A recent controversy that has dominated national conversation has been the ability of the federal Veterans Administration to properly provide coverage. Complaints about long wait times and confusing bureaucracy, which some have accused as leading to the death of veterans waiting for care, recently resulted in the resignation of VA Secretary Gen. Eric Shinseki.
Himes was one of the Democrats who joined with Republican calls for Gen. Shinseki’s resignation but he acknowledged that this is an issue that goes beyond who was in that position.
“The problems that were revealed at the Phoenix VA were so horrendous, with 1,700 veterans shunted onto lists that no one knew about while senior executives were getting bonuses and promotions they didn’t deserve,” Himes. “In the report there are allegations of veterans dying and sexual harassment at the VA and inappropriate hiring. Then the Inspector General’s report said this is probably a systemic failure not just at the VA… What we need at the top of the VA right now is a change agent who comes in with a mission to make the changes that need to be made.”
In the past six years, President Barack Obama has been in office the budget for the VA has gone up by close to 80% and yet problems persist. Himes said he feels the VA still does not have the resources it needs and called for more money to hire additional doctors. He also called for more urgency to fix failures in the system, comparing it to the rush to fix the HealthCare.gov website last year. Himes credited Gen. Shinseki’s efforts to treat Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange and soldiers suffering from PTSD from their time in Iraq and Afghanistan, and said with so many more people being treated by the VA it’s critical to fix problems in the bureaucracy without further delay.
The election this year could end up hinging a lot less on the Affordable Care Act (a k a Obamacare) than originally thought. After dozens of repeal votes in the House of Representatives, Republicans seemed poised to pounce on Obamacare, of which Himes is a strong supporter, for the 2014 mid-terms, particularly after website troubles impacted the launch of HealthCare.gov last fall. But since then, millions have signed up for Obamacare, with Connecticut’s health care exchange regarded as one of the finest in the country.
So what was once considered a potential liability for Democrats could end up providing a political boost to candidates like Himes, who noted that he defeated Debicella in 2010 at a time when many other Democrats lost their seats because of support for health care reform.
“Today there’s some 20 million Americans and well more than 208,000 in Connecticut who signed up for health insurance under the Connecticut exchange,” Himes said. “People under the age of 26 are signing up under their parents’ plans. Women aren’t being denied coverage because they’re women. People with pre-existing conditions can get insurance for the first time. I’ve never said the ACA is perfect. I supported it because the old system was such a catastrophe. There have been bumps in the road and I’ve acknowledged that, and sadly people who had individual plans lost them even though the president was clear that wasn’t going to happen. But I know half of my constituents are feeling pretty good about this law and half are still concerned about it.”
Because of that, Himes said work has to be done to try and make the ACA better and in order for that to happen, “The politics need to take a back seat.” While Republicans have so far shown little willingness to work on the ACA, even shutting down the government to try and defund it, Himes said he is hopeful that as more people benefit from the law Republicans will come to the table to work on issues like bringing down cost growth in the health care system.
“We still spend, on a per person basis, almost twice what other industrialized countries spend on health care and there are huge opportunities here because the system is so wasteful that it is putting pressure on the Medicare system, pressure on employers who provide coverage and on states and municipalities,” Himes said. “That’s where the core is. We’ve made some big steps. Over the last four years we’ve seen low, single-digit health care inflation. We hadn’t seen that in generations. We need how to figure out how to accelerate that and what other measures we can take to control costs in the system.”
Himes also offered hope that the ACA could provide a boost to the economy by allowing people who previously had been afraid of losing health coverage to leave their jobs to pursue the dream of starting their own businesses.
Ken Borsuk is editor of the Greenwich Post, a Hersam Acorn newspaper.