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...

MA: You support federal government aid to the states for specific purposes.

RC: Yes. And other kinds of specific things: investment in infrastructure, investment in green energy, no subsidies to big oil. I just think there are plenty of things we can do that are quite directed and will put people back to work.

MA: Are people more worried about spending in the deficit than they are angry at TARP and the state of the economy?

RC: It's kind of hard to sort that all out. And I don't know the answer to that in Iowa. People are sort of generally downhearted which is not very like our state. We are generally pretty upbeat and optimistic and can-do people, and neighbors helping neighbors. We were just talking about this in terms of the flood. People get in their cars and drive from wherever they are to wherever they need to be to help with the sandbagging. And that's just Iowa. But right now, people are discouraged. And I just think they look at Wall Street and they look at the oil and the birds and they think, what the hell is going on? To me, both of those things are the failure of government.

MA: The government now is led by Democrats and President Obama. Assess his response to the oil spill.

RC: It's so hard to assess that because the Bush administration dismantled the government in several ways. Not just deregulation but also putting people in charge of agencies who couldn't do that job or who wouldn't do that job. There are people now; I know he's been in office for a while, but it's going to take some time to undo that ... And then of course we've got Shelby and others holding up appointments -- important presidential appointments that are necessary to put people in place to do that job. It's very frustrating to me because I believe that government has a role to play in keeping people safe, and I think the government has failed at that. But I don't think it's Obama. I think it's leftover, for the most part. I'm not among those who suggest that the president should emote. To me, that's plainly ridiculous. I wanted more last night, but apparently today while we've been in meetings, he has succeeded in getting ... do you know? Is it $20 billion?

MA: $20 billion. They're going to stop their dividend payments.

RC: That's huge to me. My big concern yesterday was they were negotiating to make that limit their liability and that would have been a disaster, because I must tell you, with 60,000 barrels of oil still spewing, I don't know ultimately what the damage could be. And one wonders how far the repercussions will reach and, you know, people in Iowa are going to be affected by this. Farmers are going to be affected by raises in gas prices and things like that. I wanted to be sure that they did not cap the liability at $20 billion because it might not be enough. In fact, if I had to guess just sitting here, I'd guess  it won't be enough.

MA: It probably would be quite a bit more. Assuming you win and get to the Senate, what's the first big piece of legislation you think the Senate needs to work on in the next sessions, assuming Democrats keep control (which I think is a fair assumption at this point)?

RC: Yes, I think that would be a fair assumption, or I certainly hope it will be.

MA: So what if the Senate majority leader, whoever it might be, goes to you and says, "What's your priority"?

RC: It depends on what's happening at the time. Right now, if I were in the Senate today, my priority would be jobs and the economy. Jobs and the economy just have to be first in my opinion. There are other things that I would like to do assuming that Congress gets some of these targeted things through and there are quite a number of things that I would like to get done. I guess then I would like to see some overhaul of the tax system, some injection of fairness. I would like to see hedge fund managers taxed on their income just like the people that work for me. I would like to see stopping subsidies to big oil to the tune of $36.5 billion, redirect that to green energy and green jobs.

MA: Would you be willing to put all subsidies on the table?

RC: Sure, absolutely. And in fact, I have already publicly stated that I think that agriculture subsidies should be limited to a total of $250,000 and I would like to direct them explicitly and specifically at independent problems. And farmers who are using conservation methodologies and farmers who are growing local food for local schools, and things like that. I think that somehow that's in the 2008 farm bill. The limitation is there. But dead people are getting the subsidies.

MA: Do you anticipate getting the resources that high profile Senate candidates tend to get from their party? Or are you aware that you need to cross a certain threshold in the poll in order for ...

RC: Well, I should have crossed it by now.

MA: Well, I mean, you definitely have ...

RC: We're the closest challenger in the nation.

MA: And there's no question that people are taking notice.

RC: I am a realist. And I recognize that there are lots of endangered incumbents, and there's Barbara Boxer -- her race costs 3, 4, 5 times what mine does. And now, Patty Murray ... I'm very much a realist about that. And I don't know the answer. What I do know is that the race has attracted sufficient attention, that 527's have already been in. They're on the air -- two of them are on the air right now. And I am a truly progressive candidate. And I'm expecting that kind of assistance because I might be one of the few true progressives in this cycle who's not afraid. Fearless.

MA: Has Grassley agreed to debate yet?

RC: No, but I'm certainly hoping that he will. And we are going to accept every invitation that we get to debate.