Last week MOMocrats writer Jaelithe Judy had the chance to speak with Jim Meffert, a Democrat running for Congress in Minnesota's Third District against incumbent Republican Erik Paulsen, who was elected in 2008.
A former president of the Minnesota State PTA Board, a member of the P-20 Partnership for Education, and the the executive director of the Minnesota Optometric Association, Jim Meffert is also a father of three.
Listen to the interview below, or read the transcript.
Jim Meffert: I'm going to get get my wife hooked up with you guys.
Jaelithe Judy: That's great.
She's a professional musician — clarinetist — and has extremely strong opinions, on everything! Which is fantastic. And frankly, about a year ago when we were looking at getting into this, she and I would gauge where we were at with getting into the race. She was at 70% on day one; I was at about 50%. And she said, you've got to get out and do this. So she would be great to connect with.
We definitely like opinionated women at MOMocrats.
And I tell you, I don't know if you know any of my background, but, being on the board of the state PTA, and I was chair of a group called the Minnesota Children's Platform Coalition, and worked with Every Child Matters, and so I have spent my entire, my volunteer career, around strong women trying to do the same that you're doing — trying to get families involved, trying to talk about how we help families and kids, talking about parents' involvement in schools. So, anything that I can do to help you guys also, to broaden the audience and broaden the discussion, let me know, because we've got to use campaigns to do that too.
Well thanks, I appreciate that! Well, I have some questions for you if you're ready.
There's some other places too that are looking at the race that kind of scratch their heads
and say, wait a minute: this is a district that Obama won by eight points. Amy Klobuchar, Democrat, won by 15 points. We've got more Democrats in the legislature than Republicans.
And so, we're gonna prove his modeling wrong, first of all, because, the national folks have looked at this district as a fifty year Republican district, but what they miss is, it was represented by some of the most moderate Republicans in Congress.
Jim Ramstad was the most recent guy. He was — I think he was 60% with the Republican party? You know, pro-choice, very socially moderate, a true fiscal, fiscally responsible Republican, kind of the old school. Before him was a guy named Bill Frenzel, who was of that same mold.
So it's been a very temperate, moderate district. The guy who's in there now ran on that same platform, but he isn't. He's a very far to the right social conservative, economic conservative, votes with our good friend Michele Bachmann about 93% of the time right now. He's just lockstep with the Republican Party. That's not what this district has ever been or ever been about.
That's what a lot of folks on the national stage miss. And our challenge is to, you know, show the folks on the ground, in particular, that they have a different choice, that they've elected the current incumbent on the wrong pretense.
But that's what folks like Nate miss when they try to analyze the race. They look at it from New York, and they look at it from Washington, and say, "Here's the history." They miss the local dynamic of it.
You've mentioned your tenure on the Minnesota State PTA Board as President, and you also chaired the Minnesota Children's Platform Coalition. That's a network of child advocacy organizations, correct?
Eighty groups that are focused on child advocacy. It's the Children's Defense Fund. It's religious organizations. You name it. The PTA. Any group who is focused on how we support kids and families, how we keep kids out of the juvenile justice system, how we support, you know, after school, early childhood programs, whatever it is.
And it came together because of the frustration that we were pitting one kind of child support, one kind of mechanism against others for funding. We were looking at things in silos. We were looking at early childhood education, and early childhood would have to take money away from K-12. Well, they need to be working together.
And so we all came together and said, how do we do this better? How do we talk about programs and systems that support each other, both on the public and on the private level? So it's a big, lofty goal. Just getting everybody into the room, and getting everybody to look at, how do we change the dialogue? How do we get the state government, in particular, to talk about fiscal stability, which is going to keep us from having to take funds from one program and give them to another, and stop this whole discussion, to get us to better planning for kids.
So that's why the group came together. Complete herding cats.
I can imagine.
You've stated on your website that as a Congressman, one of the things you would do is support better funding for early childhood education and better funding for elementary education. You've also listed reducing the federal deficit as a priority.
I'm sure you're aware right now of the budget crises that many states are currently facing as a result of the recession. And I'm sure you've heard how many public school districts have been canceling programs and laying off teachers as result of reduced state funding.
The four day school weeks?
Right. So, how do you think we should balance helping the states continue to fund those public schools, and even start new education programs in these tough economic times, while also finding ways to reduce the federal deficit?
Well, it really does come down to priorities. I mean, our first priority needs to be supporting kids in our basic economic function, which is to have strong public schools. And supporting families and kids. And that needs to be job number one at every level. And that's a long term — long-term, economically, that's good. So we need to find ways to support early childhood programs. Good programs like Head Start, that have a fifteen times — fifteen dollars to one dollar benefit. Every dollar we put in has a fifteen dollar payback later on.
We need to look at investments like that, which early childhood education and Head Start programs have. Making sure that our kids are read to. Making sure that we have good, planned early education, not just daycare. That's an investment that pays off in a huge way down the road. So we have to look at our investments like that.
But we've got to do it in a fiscally responsible way. We've got redundancy in places like the Defense Department, where we could be shifting some dollars, and putting it into early childhood education, putting it into Head Start, putting it into the special education funds, which are going to offset some dollars on the local level and free up some capacity to help our schools.
So those are just off the top of my head a few things that we need to do. But, yeah, we need to be cognizant of the deficit and the debt. We've got two components to the federal deficit. One's the long term structural problem, and the other is the short-term problem with the deficit.
The short-term deficit is through the stimulus program, through TARP, which was designed to keep our economy from completely collapsing, and look at ways to keep us from digging the whole even further. Stabilize the economy and then figure out how to rebuild.
The long-term problem started when we cut taxes to give back a surplus in 2001 rather than look at how we deal with the economic realities of the future, with Social Security and Medicare going backwards and having structural problems.
Those are two different things that we need to look at in two different ways. You know, we paid for two wars with five tax cuts. That got us into a huge hole.
I was thinking — I'm sure reducing taxes in wartime probably didn't help the deficit situation, either.
The way I look at it is, we've gotta quit borrowing from our kids. You know, in 2001, we took out a loan from our kids and grandkids. And we need to look at it like that, and think about it like that, and ask ourselves if we're willing to continue to do that.
You know, when folks are saying that we should just continue the 2001 tax cuts indefinitely, the question is, are we going to continue borrowing from our kids and grandkids, and from their future? Are we going to continue to have economic instability because of the deficits, long term? I mean, there's fear of deflation right now because the federal government is borrowing so much money.
Now, when you're in an economic hole, it's a difficult time to talk about that, so you've got to find that balance. That's why what I think the President is talking about now, with some very targeted tax cuts, very targeted extensions, that do help small businesses stabilize, that do help extend credit to businesses to continue, along with putting the top tax rate — for every dollar over $250,000 made, have a three percent increase — to start to get to that stability, to start to pay down some of that long term deficit. That seems to make sense right now. That's what we need to keep talking about.
Okay, I have another question for you. You've worked for the American Medical Association, and you're currently the director of Minnesota's Optimetric Association, correct?
How has your career in public health policy influenced your views on America's health care system, and do you think the health care reform bill that Congress passed went far enough?
Last question first: no, it didn't go far enough.
My biggest frustration is, we keep talking about insurance cards — we equate insurance cards with health care. And in my mind, what I've learned is, access happens at the local level. We need to be talking about how care is delivered, not just how it's paid for.
We need to make sure that — the folks with the greatest health challenges, and who are uninsured, don't have physical access to care — we need to make sure that they have access to primary care clinics, and we have to make sure we're strengthening our community clinic structure. Why don't we have more clinics in schools, where kids' have the greatest health challenges?
We've got a high school up here in Minnesota that has, like many other schools, put a health clinic in their school, because they saw the kids who had the most absences — that were absent the most from school — had health problems. They were sick, and they didn't have health coverage. So they put a clinic in the school, and said, we're gonna take care of that problem, we're going to keep them in the classroom. It's helped solve that problem. They've made that clinic accessible to teachers, which has reduced the overall health care costs for the school district.
Those are the kinds of things that we need to look at, and support, and strengthen. And that goes beyond just making sure that everybody has an insurance card. That says, we want to make sure that you can get to the right place at the right time and figure out ways to keep you healthy. That needs to be the context as we figure out how to change the health care system.
And then we've also got to ask the tough question — all of the profit in the health care system right now, whether it's drug companies, or wherever it is, comes from our premiums and our copays and our deductibles. And we have to ask the question: do we want that to continue at the level that it is?
I mean think about how much more we pay for medications than Canada, or Switzerland or Germany. These are countries where the drugs are made. These are the places where the drug companies have their headquarters, and are from.
They pay significantly less, because those countries negotiate drug prices with those companies. That's just another area where we can take some of the money that's there and shift it into a better way of delivering care.
So no, it didn't go far enough.
But honestly, you know, after working in health policy for 20 years, I know that we have to take a step to start changing it. We haven't had an overall framework to change it. We've been at this for a century.
So, thank heavens, we have a Congress and a President who said, let's do something. Let's get something started. We know full well that we're going to have to change it. It's a process. It's the beginning of the process. It's not the end of the process. But let's just get it moving and get it going.
Let's figure out how to fix it.
So what would you propose, legislatively, to be added in the future to health care reform?
Gotta negotiate drug prices. That's one thing. We've got to build up a stronger community-based primary care delivery system. We have got to build a stronger link between keeping people healthy and access at the right time and the right place. We've gotta keep people out of emergency rooms rather than pushing them into emergency rooms
And that means we have to have good community based primary care. We should have pediatricians by elementary schools. We should have family doctors that are in community centers and churches. That's how we start to look at keeping the population healthy — having care delivered at the right time and the right place, early on.
And then start looking at the health of the population — the obesity rate, the diabetes rate. This has a — you know, our food supply, the way we eat, the exercise that we get, the zoning laws — all these things have a huge impact on the health of our population, and we need to look at it that way. We need to think: how do we have systems and communities that keep people healthy instead of continuing down this path of them being sicker.
So those are things that we need to continue to work on that aren't strong enough in this legislation.
On the environment, you state that you will support legislation that reduces our dependence on fossil fuels and promotes renewable energy sources. And specifically you also oppose you opponent's call to lift the moratorium on new nuclear plants in Minnesota.
Can you talk with me a bit about why you oppose nuclear power, and share your vision for America's energy future?
My frustration with it is — and I asked the nuclear power folks, and even some of the labor unions that support this, I said, I mean, if we lift the moratorium right now, what's the soonest a nuclear power plant could be online? They said ten years. That's not soon enough.
We can build up — we have incredible solar capacity in a state like Minnesota. We have wind capacity. We could redo the transmission grid right now to have better access and use wind and solar and geothermal and hydroelectric much better than we do now. We could do that today, and start to decrease our demand on fossil fuels.
We can decrease the need for large nuclear plants if we do better with renewable energy sources. If we look at using biomass fuels. We can do that today.
If we look down the road and say, you know, let's lift the moratorium and let's build a nuclear power plant which will be online in ten years, I'm afraid it will give us a pass. We'll take a deep breath and sit back and say, Oh, the problem's taken care of. Instead of pushing us to look at different community-based ways to solve the problem.
That's why we put the proposal to put solar on our schools, which you should look at on our website too. Solves multiple purposes. First of all, we've got a solar manufacturing capacity that's building in Minnesota. But the price is a little bit to high for it to be mainstream to go into homes. Our schools and our public institutions don't benefit from tax credits to have solar and wind and other sources of energy, you know, to be able to use those in the best way.
So we can put solar on our schools — those schools that have the greatest energy challenges. We can decrease our demand on fossil fuels. we can teach our kids about how energy is produced and about how we can conserve better. And we can, like we did with computers 30 years ago, start to drive the manufacturing costs down, leverage public dollars to do that, which starts to create local jobd, and increases the ability for us to use solar power, a renewable source of energy.
So that's the kind of stuff that we need to be looking at stronger, and investing, and looking for ways to leverage dollars right now. That's the way I look at things — I mean, how can you leverage to build private jobs, jobs in the private sector that are going to do better for our schools. If we use solar, we can decrease the energy cost by about $100,000 for a school district, which frees up money to put into books and personnel. That's what we need to be looking at right now.
And I'm afraid we go down the path of saying, you know, nuclear is the soluition, we take a pass on that. And I'm still concerned about, you know, I haven't heard of a whole lot of people who want to have trains with uranium going through their backyard. And that's still a huge concern. We haven't figured out how to dispose of the waste, and that's a significant concern also.
According to polls, Congress's approval ratings are extremely low right now, as I'm sure you've seen.
Well, I'm not running because I like what's going on — if I did, I wouldn't be running!
Good point. It seems like Americans are really frustrated right now — I know I am personally, too — with the slow pace of action on important issues, like the economy, in Congress. And the lack of partisan cooperation.
Which is, at the moment it seems, really, historically unprecedented. lack of partisan cooperation, which is, at the moment, it seems really historically unprecedented. For example, the Republicans in the Senate delay almost every piece of legislation. No one in Congress has ever used the filibuster more often than it's currently being used, in the history of Congress.
And that makes it very difficult for the folks in the House to get their bills passed in the Senate, even if there's a big majority in favor of a bill.
So I'm wondering, how do you think this sort of partisan deadlock would affect your ability to get work done in the House of Representatives, and what do you think can be done to solve this problem?
Well, first of all you've got to get people in Congress who are patient. One of my biggest frustrations with the guy I'm running against is he throws up his hands and says, it's tough, and doesn't do anything about it. And so, that's one thing is to change the people who are there
I'm a frustrated Democrat. I completely agree that we don't have small problems and small challenges and facing our country right now. And it takes very serious and very deliberate work on both sides to say, instead of arguing about how we do things, we need to agree about what needs to get done, put all options on the table, and figure out how to get there fast.
But what we have to understand -- and this is, I had the chance to hear President Clinton on Tuesday and talk with him briefly, and he reminded us how difficult the task of the last 21 months has been. How, you know, over the last eight years before that, we dug ourselves into an eight trillion dollar hole in the economy. And he said, the first thing you do when you're digging a hole is stop digging.
And that was the first job that President Obama and Congress had, was to keep us from going off a cliff economically. And most of the original stimulus package, two-thirds of it was to keep us from going off a cliff. To keep local units of government stable. To keep us from firing and laying off police, fire and teachers en masse.
That was the first part of it. And that we did. When you look at unemployment rates, they stabilized, right when the stimulus bill went in. When you look at the economic downturn, it flatlined right when we put the stimulus bill in. And so that was job number one, and we have to remind ourselves of that. That that was tough, and not easy, and everyone held their nose and did it.
Now the next job is: how do we leverage public dollars to build private jobs? This is the way the solar proposal, frankly -- it may be a small thing, but it's a concept, it's an idea, saying: how do we leverage public dollars to start building private jobs
We need to do a better job with roads, bridges, and, you know, the infrastructure improvements that we've been delaying for decades. That's gonna help jumpstart things. So we haven't gotten to the point fast enough of growing the economy, because stabilizing it was so tough.
That's what we have to remember. And it's only been 21 months. It hasn't been very long since we've had the keys to the government. So that's what we have to remind ourselves. And absolutely, I mean, there's a lot of frustration. We'd like to see it happen immediately.
Laying off a thousand people is a whole lot easier than hiring a thousand people back, for any company. It takes a lot more time, and it takes a lot more hard work. That's why the small business package that the President is proposing right now, frankly, is far too late, and is delayed way too much right now. That's going to help stabilize and free up credit for small businesses across the country.
You know, President Clinton reminded us too, we have three trillion dollars in capital, money, in bank accounts right now, just sitting there, doing nothing. We have to figure out how to loosen that up to begin to get the economy flowing again, so that companies do have the freedom, whether it's mental or freedom on their balance sheet, to hire people, to take a little more risk right now. That's something we've gotta figure out too. So we're not there yet -- they're starting to move. I wish they would have moved faster.
We didn't do a good enough job, frankly, of talking about the health reform proposal. The biggest reason that we needed to fix the health care system and try to stabilize health costs is because it's been killing jobs in this country for decades.
Running a small business, I know how much of our balance sheet is taken up by health care costs. And so that's why we have to stabilize the health care system and stabilize costs long term. That's been killing jobs and killing our competitiveness in the world for decades. And we've got to remind people of that, and get a little edgy about it, and not be willing to take it from the other side.
But say, this is what we're trying to do: we understand the challenges facing businesses and facing the economy, and we've gotta get banks to loosen up some of the cash that they have, to help companies that are strong and have been here stabilize and then grow. That's the job at hand.
And you don't do that by saying no. You don't do that by playing gotcha with the President. You don't do that by feeding anger and just using the easy soundbites of "We'll cut spending."
No, it takes serious people who understand it, who are working hard to get it done. And that's what we need in Congress, and that's who I'm going to be. That's the voice that I'm going to be.
Thank you so much for answering my questions! I really appreciate you giving MOMocrats your time today.
Photo credit: Kate Monson, Wikimedia Commons. Used under Creative Commons license. For more information on Jim Meffert's campaign for Congress, check out his campaign website, JimMeffert.com.