An Interview With Jack Conway
by Nathan Empsall, Thu Apr 22, 2010 at 03:09:42 AM EDT
By now you’ve no doubt heard of Jack Conway. He’s the young, articulate, and progressive Attorney General for the state of Kentucky, and he’s running for Senate in the Democratic primary against Dan Mongiardo, the state’s conservative, allegedly corrupt Lieutenant Governor. The Conway campaign has taken off in recent weeks, going from 18 points down to 3 points down externally and ahead internally.
Conway, part of the MyDD “Going on Offense” Act Blue page, was able to give us an interview last Friday afternoon. He promised 15 minutes and graciously talked to me for 30. Our interview was pretty wide ranging. He began with a Howard Dean-esque quote, stating that it's time Democrats act like Democrats. We talked about electoral strategy, Wall Street reform, filibuster reform, health insurance reform, energy and climate legislation, coal mining, his successful record as Attorney General, and more. Here are some key quotes:
On LGBT rights: “Admiral Mullen had it right when he said to Congress that it’s wrong to ask someone to lie about who they are to defend their country… I look forward to casting a vote to end Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
On health care and the tea parties: “I try to be responsible here. The folks in the tea party crowd wanted Attorneys General to file a lawsuit without merit. I thought traditionally Republicans loved to rail against meritless lawsuits… I sort of say to them, look, don’t take my word for it; take the word of Ronald Reagan’s former Solicitor General, who said his copy of the Constitution doesn’t contain the right not to be insured.”
On mining reform: “It seems like we’ve gotten into a system where the ability of the mining companies to [delay and appeal] and fail to take remedial action outweighs the safety of the miner… My concern is that some of these mines put profits before the safety of the miners, and when that happens, inspectors need to have the ability to shut the mine down.”
On Netroots support: “You are keeping some of the wind at our backs right now, and a Senate seat is a Senate seat is a Senate seat, whether it’s in New Hampshire or Missouri or Kentucky… It’s the work of volunteers and the Netroots that sustains us, and we’re going to win this thing.”
The full interview is below the fold. I consider Jack Conway one of the brightest and most articulate politicians I’ve ever spoken with, right up there with Barack Obama and Cory Booker, so I hope you’ll read the full interview and consider supporting his campaign.
With apologies, this may in places read more like an interview summary than an actual interview. I don’t have very good recording equipment and my speakerphone stopped working, so the result is a mix of direct quotes and descriptions. Believe me, if Conway’s grasp of the issues comes across as anything less than impressive, it’s my fault as an editor and a technophobe.
Nathan Empsall: Do you have different general election strategies in mind for facing Grayson or the “populist” Paul?
Jack Conway: “No, I think you have to stay true to who you are… In terms of what the other side would do, [Trey] Grayson would try to move to the center. I don’t know what [Rand] Paul would do…
“Paul is sort of the prince of the tea party movement in Kentucky. In fact, as we speak, he’s campaigning with Sarah Palin elsewhere in Kentucky… I think that the opportunity to run against Paul gives us the opportunity to say to the Tea Party movement, you know, you’ve got a lot of passion and a lot of fire… The question is, how are you going to use that fire? Are you going to use it [to warm things up or] to burn down the building? … That’s the kind of contrast I would try to draw if I ran against Paul.”
Conway added that no matter who he runs against in the general election, his own agenda will stay the same. Citing Kentucky’s 11% unemployment rate, he said that job creation will remain his “number one” priority. To that end, he supports policies that will “get small banks lending again” wants to review certain trade deals. “I don’t think that changes whether I’m running against Grayson or Paul.”
Me: You mentioned the Tea Party, and you’ve stood pretty firm against the Tea Party’s demands to sue over the health bill, but you also mentioned their passion. What role are they going to play in the general? Do you think you could tap into their populism?
“There’s a lot of populism on the Democratic side, too. I try to be responsible here. The folks in the tea party crowd wanted Attorneys General to file a lawsuit without merit. I thought traditionally Republicans loved to rail against meritless lawsuits… I sort of say to them, look, don’t take my word for it; take the word of Ronald Reagan’s former Solicitor General, who said his copy of the Constitution doesn’t contain the right not to be insured…” [I don’t support meritless lawsuits, and that’s what this is.]
“So I’m going to try and stand up and do what’s right. That’s what I’ve always tried to do as Attorney General… and I think we’re going to win over some Independents and fair-minded Republicans with that approach.”
Me: Speaking of the new health insurance bill, what will it do for Kentucky?
“It’s going to help Kentucky on balance. There are several reports - the smallest number that I’ve seen is that 654,000 Kentuckians are without health insurance right now, and the majority of those people are going to get some sort of coverage. There are provisions in this bill for covering workers at 45,000 Kentucky businesses! … And obviously, it’s going to do the same thing for Kentuckians that it’s going to do for everyone else.”
At this point Conway listed the new law’s ban on refusal to cover pre-existing conditions, students’ ability to stay on their parents’ coverage longer, expanded COBRA provisions, and the closure of the Medicare Part D donut hole. This last item, he said, would particularly help Kentucky’s older-than-average population.
“Once [voters] realize the sky isn’t falling... and that the economy is beginning to turn around and move in the right direction, I think that Democrats will be fine in Kentucky.”
Me: And yet Mongiardo opposes the bill.
“He does. As recently as, gosh, right before the final passage, he said he opposed it… He has said that to the TV station in Bowling Green, Kentucky, [among others].
“I think when he realized the damage it was doing to him… He said he would step back and vote for it only if he had personal assurances from the President of the United States that they would keep working on health reform… [and yet] Mongiardo’s on record as saying he doesn’t want the President in Kentucky and won’t let him campaign for him.… You always welcome the President to your respective state, and he’s not going to get assurances from the President if he’s up there badmouthing him like that.”
Moving to the other big items on the President’s agenda, you’ve called for some pretty tough oversight of Wall Street. Does the recently introduced Dodd bill measure up to your expectations?
“Yes and no. I want robust financial reform. We have to learn our lesson and not let these banks get too big to fail and not let them engage in activities that can imperil our entire financial system, so some provisions are okay, others are not… I’m looking for common sense reform of the banks… I want to make sure that trading of derivatives is transparent.”
It makes no sense that banks can hide what they do, Conway said, and as such, we have to “break up” those institutions that are too big to fail.
“It used to be the anti-trust division of the Justice Department or the Federal Trade Commission would take a look at [banks that grew too bi], and we’ve gotten away from that.”
As an Attorney General, he supports the creation of a Consumer Protection Agency, but that “I’m a little concerned about some of the proposals that are out there.”
Conway held up the Attorney General of the state of Iowa, Tom Miller, as doing an excellent job leading the way on consumer protection, and added that he himself has used Kentucky’s own consumer protection act very aggressively. His worry is that the federal law would pre-empt state actions when these examples show that you “shouldn’t get in the states’ way.”
Because I caught so few of his actual words to this answer, I’m going to add in a quote from a recent Conway campaign press release on the subject of Wall Street reform:
Like all Americans I am offended by the selfish and reckless behavior described in the action brought by the SEC against Goldman Sachs. These allegations represent all that is wrong with Wall Street and demonstrate why we need tough new financial regulations to eliminate conflicts of interest between big banks and hedge funds. And anyone who broke the law should be held accountable.
Furthermore, I think that Kentucky's senior Senator Mitch McConnell should stop defending big banks like Goldman Sachs and join his fellow Republicans in a bipartisan effort to reform Wall Street, because that's what will help Kentucky working families. We need to protect consumers and taxpayers and prevent any institution from ever again becoming 'too big to fail'."
If I am honored to be elected to the United States Senate, I'll fight for Kentucky working families by leading a bipartisan effort to hold the big banks accountable and stop the double-dealing on Wall Street.
Jerome Armstrong, MyDD’s founder, wanted me to ask you about the [Ron] Paul/[Alan] Grayson amendment, which would audit the Fed.
Conway said that Rand Paul, his likely general election opponent and the son of bill sponsor Ron Paul, has backed away from some of his father’s positions, but that he “certainly has some strange ideas. Some might sound good at first” but don’t hold up upon further review.
“On the Fed question, we need to straighten out the relationship between the Fed and the regulatory banks… I think that greater transparency could reduce some of the greater risks. But Ron Paul’s been on record as wanting to eliminate the Fed, and auditing it to me sounds like the first step towards eliminating the Fed… I don’t think going after the Fed should be the first thing we ought to be doing. [The first thing is regulating the Wall Street firms that caused this mess.]”
Next on the national agenda, where do you stand on the Kerry-Graham-Lieberman climate and energy negotiations?
“It’s going to have to make sense for the entire country. Here’s how I’m going to judge any energy bill:
“One, is there a place in it for Kentucky coal? Are we investing in cleaner coal technologies? Are we investing in carbon capture? Are we investing in making sure that Kentucky coal is an important energy use for the future?” Building a new nuclear plant, Conway said, costs three times as much as a new coal plant. …
“Two, Kentucky has historically low electricity rates, and I don’t want a system that’s going to drive rates up and businesses out of the state.” …
“Three, we need to be sure that brokers and traders don’t make money off whatever system is designed.” …
“Four, we need to make sure that developing nations like China and India, etc. have to play by the same rules.” …
“I’ve seen some interviews with Graham, and I’ve seen some interviews with Kerry. It appears to be becoming very much an alluding target what they come up with, but that’s basically how I’m going to look at climate and energy legislation.”
Speaking of coal, what about mountaintop removal mining? It’s been said that you oppose it.
“I think coal needs to be mined responsibly, and what we need out of our surface mining is to make certain that we’re not burying streams that are the headwaters of the Kentucky rivers. The other thing is, when you permit land, you need to make certain that land use is at the forefront of the permit.
“Right now, in Appalachia, I think it’s only a tiny fraction of the land, post-reclamation, that’s being used for what was said in the permitting process… We don’t need to affect the water quality in places like Appalachia.”
Mongiardo, on the other hand, has said that he supports blowing up mountains. What are some other differences between the two of you, in terms of both issues and ethics?
“Well, he’s - let me count the ways! He’s pro-life. I think abortion ought to be as rare as we can make it, but safe and legal.
“We’re trying to make this primary about character and results. Dan Mongiardo and I were both elected to state-wide office three years ago. We’ve had about a 25% budget cut in the office of Attorney General.” Despite this cut, Conway said, in that time, his office has:
- taken 50,000 child porn images off the Internet
- increased Medicaid fraud collections by 600%
- increased elderly abuse prosecutions by 300%
- helped pass bipartisan cybercrime legislation that bring state laws up to speed with technology
- formed a prescription pill task force “that has worked with other state agencies to help shut down the pipeline of prescription pills” from places like Florida
- staged the largest drug bust in state history
“We’ve treated our public office as if it’s a public trust, and I think it’s legitimate to compare our record to Dan Mongiardo’s… He hasn’t stood up and been a Democrat at a moment when Democrats need to stand up and support one another.”
Conway went on to list many of the scandals that have plagued Mongiardo lately: taxpayers footing the bill for an expensive trip to a Las Vegas conference on plastic surgery; his use of a $30,000 housing allowance to purchase land zoned for development while living with his in-laws; and missing 70% of the meetings of an e-health task force he helped to create as a state senator.
“That’s abusing the public trust. That’s abusing taxpayer money.”
Even before these scandals broke, Conway said, his campaign was surging. Mongiardo started with much higher name ID and yet has gone from 18 points ahead in public polls to just three, with internal Conway polling showing Conway having taken the lead once the corruption stories hit the press. New volunteers keep pouring in, and he’s earned an endorsement from Democracy for America.
“Our internal polling now has us up… We really feel like we’re surging.”
Last night, the President announced new regulations for same-sex partner hospital visits. Do you support this move? Where in general do you stand on LGBT rights?
“Let me just kind of go through a whole host of issues on this. Admiral Mullen had it right when he said to Congress that it’s wrong to ask someone to lie about who they are to defend their country… I look forward to casting a vote to end Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
Conway described the fairness ordinance in Louisville, KY, which he described as a state-version of the Employee Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA). The ordinance bans discrimination in public accommodation, housing, and employment. “It’s worked well in northern Kentucky and I would vote for ENDA if elected to the US Senate.”
As for the President’s move on hospital visits, announced just hours before: “I’ve been on the campaign trail for the last 36 hours, so I would have a difficult time commenting on it specifically… but in general if you can prove a relationship of a significant duration you should be able to visit one another. Again, I abhor discrimination in all its forms.”
Returning to the issue of coal, a report out yesterday said that last month’s mine explosion may have been preventable. What needs to change in terms of regulation, and should Don Blankenship go to jail?
Sorry, not the biggest softball there.
“Let me say this. That mine in the Montcoal area of West Virginia had been cited a number of times, and there’s a process in place when inspectors find inefficiencies, they can levy a fine, but the appeals process takes so long that what they [the inspectors] have found is held up. It seems like we’ve gotten into a system where the ability of the mining companies to [delay and appeal] and fail to take remedial action outweighs the safety of the miner, and I think that the safety of the miner always, always needs to be paramount… [My concern is that some of these mines put profits before the safety of the miners, and when that happens,] inspectors need to have the ability to shut the mine down.”
Conway declined to comment on possible criminal charges because candidate or not, he’s still a state Attorney General and can’t comment on pending investigations.
When you get to the Senate in January 2011 and it’s time to set the rules for the new session, will you support filibuster reform?
“Yes. There’s nothing sacrosanct about the filibuster; it used to be that any one Senator could talk as long as they wanted… [but] after 1975 and the civil rights legislation, they changed it to a 3/5 or 60 vote cutoff… In Washington, I’m not going to be the type of senator, like Richard Shelby, who for one pork barrel project, tries to hold up an entire arm of the government. I think this whole business of shutting down the government is a relic of the past, so I would support filibuster reform if elected to the Senate.”
One last question and I’ll let you go: what’s next? You’ve gone from 15 points down against Mongiardo to just 3 points down, and I was going to say but you’re still down but you said internals show you up. How are you going to sustain that lead and that momentum? What does the home stretch look like?
“We’re going to say, look at Kentucky! Kentucky is about to nominate someone who has common sense ideas that represent the best ideals of our party. He’s going to be running against, it seems like Rand Paul, who is not the favorite candidate of Mitch McConnell. [And Paul doesn’t appear to be a friend of Israel or of the financial reforms that need to take place, and that will make for an interesting general election debate.]” …
“I would say this to the Netroots community: You are keeping some of the wind at our backs right now, and a Senate seat is a Senate seat is a Senate seat, whether it’s in New Hampshire or Missouri or Kentucky… This is one of our top pick-up opportunities…
“I’m busy being Attorney General for the state of Kentucky, a candidate for the US Senate, and a dad to my 8 year old daughter all that same time. It’s the work of volunteers and the Netroots that sustains us, and we’re going to win this thing.”