[by Guy Gerhard]
Guy Gerhard, progressive activist from Council Bluffs, conducted an in-depth interview for Blog for Iowa with Mike Denklau, candidate for U.S. Representative for Iowa’s 5th District. This is the first of three parts.
BFIA: We’re here today with Mike Denklau, who is running for the 5th District Congressional seat in Iowa currently held by Steve King. Let’s get started: I suppose you get asked this question a lot: What made you decide to run for Congress at this time?
Denklau: It was a combination of things. I had worked in the financial industry for a few years and had been at Lehman Brothers which, as you probably saw on the news, collapsed last year. So, going through that bankruptcy process really makes you take stock of your life and what you’re trying to accomplish. And it hit me, I had been very fortunate in my life, growing up in Iowa, having a great opportunity to go to the University of Iowa and getting an outstanding education for a great value and then to be able to get a banking job. So I thought [that] this was a prime opportunity for me to help make a difference and do something for my home state.
That’s what led me to think about moving back home and getting involved in this. And in that process, I came across our Congressman Steve King in some editorials, and it struck me as really odd, some of the actions he was taking. As I researched further, I noticed that there is a lot that needs to be done out here. There’s a lot in this district that has been ignored, and people that are suffering from a lack of health care coverage, or quality jobs―a whole list of things that need to be addressed.
So, I decided to try to change that, to return a voice to the people out here and to address some other problems that haven’t been addressed as well, such as the regulatory system around the financial markets and the fact that we still have the same problems we had before all this mess started except, perhaps, worse because we have bigger banks and fewer of them. I think these are things that Congress has ignored and it’s time for us to take action and not just have these partisan fights.
BFIA: As you know, Blog for Iowa is a progressive blog. Where do you see yourself on that political spectrum?
Denklau: I’m a fiscally conservative, progressive Democrat. Having been a banker….
BFIA: Sounds like an oxymoron.
Denklau: [Laughs] Well, but I think it’s not, actually. If you look back to the ’90s, we had a government that was paying down the debt, improving the credit markets, helping our businesses – but, at the same time, was trying to do some of the more progressive actions. We tried to change health care in ’93 and, unfortunately, it’s taken us well over a decade to get back there. But I think those things can fit very nicely together and could do a lot of good for this district.
BFIA: Steve King has refused to debate every opponent he has ever faced. His campaign strategy has always been, about two weeks before the election, he will place a bunch of ads that are full of distortions and out-and-out lies. Because there have not been any debates and there is very little time to counter it, our side always comes up short. How are you going to fight that?
Denklau: I think the distortions are something we see continuously from his side. We see all these false numbers around the health care debate and immigration issues, so this is not a total surprise. I think our job, throughout the next year, is to show what we stand for and what we’re going to do and make sure that people are aware of what’s actually being done for them in Congress which, unfortunately, to this point has been very little, if you look at Congressman King’s voting record, there is not much of substance. You can look specifically at things such as completing Highway 20 and the fact that there has been a mile or two paved based on his efforts in six years.
BFIA: That was his big issue [in 2008]. In fact, he claimed that he secured the funding for that. The bill that he put forth as the source for the funding―I did some research on it and it wasn’t in there. Even if the funding had been in the bill, he voted against it.
Denklau: Right. Actually, a large portion of what has been done up there were state funds, which he does not influence.
BFIA: One of the things on your web site that really jumped out at me was where you talk about “Bipartisan Solutions in Congress.” Republicans have shown, time and time again, that they are not interested in bipartisan solutions. To them, bipartisanship means doing things their way. Why is this an ideal that we need to pursue? We won big last year. Isn’t it time to do things our way?
Denklau: I think there are good ideas on both sides. The unfortunate matter is that, perhaps, some on the other side of the aisle don’t understand the concept of compromise and getting things done. It seems there are a great number of Republican amendments that have made it into the various health care bills. I don’t think the minority party should ever expect to get everything they want and it’s probably not good for the majority to get everything they want. But that middle ground often leads to some good compromises and good policy. That’s one of the things I’m hoping to change. By getting rid of one of the most partisan Congressmen we have, we can start working toward serious compromise and serious progress on these issues.
BFIA: One of the issues you brought up right away was health care reform. On your web site, you mention refusing health care until we get meaningful health care reform. What do you see as “meaningful health care reform?”
Denklau: First, on my statement, I’m very committed to making sure that I’m connected to the people of this district. I think that’s one of the issues we see, is that there is a very large disconnect from our office-holders and the people they’re supposed to represent. I feel that, if you align those interests, you’ll have much better results on the policy side. As far as health care specifically, I think it’s an imperative economically that we have comprehensive reform that starts to bring down costs and covers those who are not covered. Clearly, the system is broken when you look at western Iowa and you see that we have 83,000 people uninsured. That’s 15 per cent of the population out here….
BFIA: I was going to ask if you knew that figure. Steve King did not.
Denklau: Right. So you look at that and then you look at the number of bankruptcies out here, and it’s something over 700 now, just in this district. If you think about that, there’s serious potential down the road for financial threats to the stability of our own federal government, given all the entitlement programs and the liabilities we have down the road. We need to start focusing on these costs. That’s where I think, hopefully, this current bill, when it is finalized, will address that.
But I think it’s very important that we have more competition. If you look at states now, oftentimes, there is one, two, maybe a handful at best, of insurance companies that control those markets. That’s not quality competition. That’s not giving people an opportunity to really get the best that they can out of their health care dollars. So, we need to increase that competition. We need to give people access to pooling so that they can take advantage of economies of scale.
We also need to change the focus here to more of a wellness and prevention system. It’s too often that we are just focused on the critical care aspect, but not preventing those illnesses from happening in the first place. There’s massive amounts of savings that we could attain there.
Then, of course, the other things like promoting the technologies and management improvements that will cut costs in the system going into the future. So I think the final solution could come in a variety of forms. I think that whatever passes, hopefully in the next few weeks or the next few months in Congress, it’s going to evolve. Unfortunately, I doubt that we’ll get this perfect on the first try, but we shouldn’t let the perfect get in the way of the good. It is time to do something and we’ve been waiting since 1993 to take a step here.
To me, it’s very important that we increase competition, hopefully through a national exchange. I would also be very interested to see movement, or at least a discussion towards a regulated private insurance system that would keep the liabilities off the federal government books, would make sure that we wouldn’t have to cut spending for Medicare and senior health care coverage, but at the same time, reduce costs and provide quality care for our people.
BFIA: What about the Public Option or Medicare for All? Does that play a part in this?
Denklau: I definitely think it could be a vital part of providing alternatives. My preferred method is a regulated private system. If you look at government debt…. it concerns me greatly to be putting more liabilities on the books. But if you look at a system like the Netherlands or Switzerland has, with a regulated private insurance system, they set a very affordable rate that all the companies can charge. They can’t go above that. There are protections, so you can’t deny people based on age or pre-existing conditions, so everyone is covered. Since those insurance companies are not allowed to compete on price, they now have to compete on quality of care and services that they provide. Since there’s a cap on how much they can charge, they’re incentivized to reduce costs.
Therefore, everyone now has a responsibility, instead of just passing those costs along to the person who’s paying for the insurance, now the insurance company actually has an incentive to work with the health care providers to make sure the best practices are implemented, that generic drugs are being used whenever possible….. So those sorts of things work very well. If you look at those systems, people are very happy with them. They get equal or better results and they cost half as much as our system does.
BFIA: United Health Care’s CEO received over one billion dollars in compensation last year. Do we need to cap that? Not just for him, but for other executives?
Denklau: There’s a very broad debate about executive compensation. I was a banker for a few years, so I saw some of those mega-salaries. Unfortunately, not coming to me personally. But I did see some of them going out. This is a very difficult issue because, I think, if you look at historically the way pay has gone, there is clearly a large distortion going towards the top compared to where it was two or three decades ago.
However, I don’t believe that the government should be in the business of micro-managing companies. That should be the responsibility of the shareholders and the boards of directors of those companies. I would leave that to them to decide what’s best for those businesses. In particular, the businesses that you and I are now investors in: the AIGs, the General Motors, the Chryslers of the world, we do need to be very careful that we retain the talent that makes those companies valuable, particularly the financial institutions. Because without that talent, there’s very little value in those companies. And I would personally like to see us get our money back, so I think that’s a good investment.
BFIA: I think we’d all like to get our money back.
Check back next Thursday for Part II
Guy E. Gerhard is a life-long liberal who has been involved in many progressive causes and campaigns including civil rights, voting rights, reproductive rights and a woman’s right to choose, nuclear disarmament (he was arrested with 200 of his closest friends at the Nevada Nuclear Test Site in Mercury back in the ’80s), workers’ rights and union organization and civil rights for gays, lesbians and same-sex couples. He currently is focused on getting Steve King, the embarrassment of Iowa, out of office. He occasionally blogs under the pen-name Iowa Guy at swiowaguy.blogspot.com and can be contacted through Facebook. He lives in Council Bluffs with his spouse of 16-plus years, two cats and three rather unpleasant little dogs.