Friday Interview: Challenging Grassley

Roxanne Conlin has known the type of extreme deprivation generally reserved for a Steinbeck novel, though you wouldn't know it by her current career: extremely successful lawyer (and prosecutor) and philanthropist and political facilitator to some of the most powerful Democrats in the country.

Though she does not talk about her hard-knock background often, she has been cold because the utility company turned off the heat in her house, back when utility companies used to be able to do those types of things. She was forced to work from age 14 on, managed to get into college at 16, and graduated from law school by age 21. She had five siblings and was, in many ways, their caregiver. Her home was violent. So she is the right type to empathize with Iowans in the midst of a devastating economic crisis, when the state has seen not just economic collapse and joblessness but floods that drove businesses out of its eastern regions two years ago.

Conlin is challenging Chuck Grassley, Iowa's Republican senator, this year, and while she is by no means favored to win, she's giving Grassley the most aggressive opponent he's had in a long, long time. I spoke to Conlin this week about her race, the economy, President Obama, and -- yes -- whether she would cut farm subsidies.

MA: Why are you running? You're running to win, not to raise your profile.

RC: You bet I am. People in Iowa are hurting. They have lost jobs, they are losing their homes, and I don't think just anybody in Iowa who isn't someone or doesn't know someone who's affected by unemployment or foreclosure or something related to the economic turmoil. And Grassley has been in public office. He was first elected in 1975 -- before Alaska and Hawaii were states. And he has been here in Washington for [a long time]. I did a 99 county tour right at the very beginning of our effort, in January in Iowa.

MA: Iowans like to see their candidates.

RC: They absolutely do. And I think if you want to be the senator for Iowa, you ought to be the senator for all of Iowa, and that means you have to go and talk to the people and listen to them and learn from them. People said to me every place I went, every single county, someone would say, "I have voted for Chuck Grassley in the past but I'm not going to vote for him again. He has lost touch with Iowa." People said that to me over and over and over again. And I think that is true. That is on the ground true.

MA: What does it mean, "lost touch"?

RC: It means they watched him vote in favor of the bailout for Wall Street. There might be an issue that makes people angrier in Iowa, but if there is, I don't know what it is. And so, they got their senator voting to bail out Wall Street.

MA: But just to be fair, I mean, the senators were in a sense ambushed by an administration who told them the world is going to end if you don't do this. And if you make the counterargument to Iowans and say, 'All right, it might have been a really bad vote, but you have to at least prop up the system that allows you to make a transaction at a store.' What is the source of the anger at the bailout?

RC: It's the Wall Street bailout and I don't agree with this. At the time this was happening, I was on the telephone to Harkin making suggestions about other ways to go about this that would not be handing over taxpayer money to the people who drove the economy off the cliff. They paid themselves these outrageous bonuses -- people in Iowa don't understand that, that's not responsible, that's not what they were supposed to do. They were supposed to loosen credit -- and they didn't. And so how could you possibly do this with no strings attached and think they were going to do the right thing?

MA: And they're not blaming Democrats and Obama, necessarily, because they were in power -- they're blaming anyone who voted for it.

RC: And they're blaming everybody who voted for it. And I was incensed about it at the time. This is not a new position for me. I called both Harkin and Braley and asked that they take a look at a from-the-bottom-up solution or buying the toxic assets directly. Those were both perfectly acceptable and much more efficient solutions to the problem. And I think that Paulson, coming from Wall Street, didn't see the potential for other solutions. The toxic assets were toxic because they were made up of mortgages people couldn't pay. How about if we let them stay in their homes and provide them with a loan or some way to stay in their homes rather than throwing them out?

MA: Do you think President Obama needs a new economic team?

RC: Yes ... I do think that is true. But I am very concerned that we are losing ... well, I do not want to see us make the mistakes made during the Great Depression in 1937. And it looks so much to me like we are just beginning to climb up the hill. And instead of saying OK, how about these kind of targeted things, keep teachers? So now we're going to lay off teachers. Really? I don't think we can...

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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