Grassley Challenger Roxanne Conlin Talks to BFIA About Family, Farms, Food and More

Grassley Challenger Roxanne Conlin Talks With BFIA About Family, Farms, Food and More

Blog for Iowa spoke with candidate for U.S. Senate Roxanne Conlin on Monday.  In today's BFIA exclusive interview, the candidate shares her values, her life experiences, and her views on the issues of the day that affect Iowans. 

BFIA:  What made you decide to run for U.S. Senate?

Conlin:  I have observed that Senator Grassley has lost touch with the people of Iowa, which was most dramatically illustrated by his performance at the town hall meetings last summer – especially when he started talking about pulling the plug on grandma.  In Washington, he is serving on a six-member select committee whose job it is to find a bipartisan solution to the health care crisis.  Then he sends out a fund raising letter to his supporters here in Iowa, promising to vote against the very bill he's supposed to be working on.  

I did not expect to run again for public office.  I have always had a desire to serve the people of Iowa, but I felt I was doing so in my private practice.  But the opportunity to go to Washington and really make a difference is very appealing  to me.  The bailout infuriated me, as it did most people, I think.  The idea of giving 700 billion dollars –  no strings attached –  to the people who brought us to the brink of economic disaster, and then watching helplessly as they paid themselves multi-million dollar bonuses, is incredible to most people and to me, and is also something that makes me want to change my life and go to Washington and fight, because it's such a mess.

People have asked me to run before, but I never seriously considered it.  But this time it appears to me as though there's a reasonable chance that I can succeed. and certainly I think, as Iowans and as Americans, we  need someone in Washington whose only focus is the needs of the people of Iowa.

BFIA:  As you know, BFIA is a progressive blog.   Do you consider yourself a progressive Democrat?

Conlin:  I do

BFIA:  What does it means to you to be a progressive Democrat as opposed to say, a blue dog or a yellow dog – we don't hear much about yellow dogs these days…

Conlin:  When I say progressive, what I mean in a general way, is that I will always put people over profit, and I believe that government has a role to play in keeping us safe, and making sure that we and our families are healthy.  I think there are many roles that the government can play, so those are the two things that I think most define me as progressive.  There are obviously individual positions on issues that I take that are progressive as well.  But in general, that's my philosophy.

BFIA:  As you know, Howard Dean brought the Democrats the 50 state strategy.  I notice on your Twitter feeds that you seem to be employing a 99-county strategy, you've been travelling all around the state.  Is that purposeful, and also, what will be your primary campaign message that you would like to get out to voters?

Conlin:  It is absolutely purposeful.  I know that I am not going to carry Lyons county, for example, but I want to be the Senator for all of Iowa, and I therefore think that I have a responsibility to go and listen to the concerns of all Iowans, wherever those particular folks may live, and that is why I'm out doing my 99-county real tour.  

So, yes, we have purposely planned it so we are not showing up on Tuesday at 10:00 in the morning when many working people couldn't come.  It is only on the weekends, Friday nights, Saturdays, Sundays after church, so that as many people as want to would have the opportunity to attend a meeting.  I'm very curious about listening to the concerns of Iowans and that is why I'm spending every weekend doing that.

BFIA:  What do you feel are the most pressing problems facing Iowa,  and what do you feel would be your role as Senator in addressing those problems?

Conlin:  Well, I can only say that from my trips and my conversations, there is no question that the economy and jobs are simply the most pressing problems.  Very high unemployment for Iowa – the number of people that are under-employed or are working part-time when they want to be working full-time.  Until we get people back to work, other problems like the debt and the deficits are intractable.

We want to get people back to work and it will take a number of things.  I like the small business tax credit.  I like the accelerated appreciation on manufacturing equipment.  Green jobs.  Rebuilding the infrastructure.  I think the smart grid is terribly important, not only to provide jobs and energy, but also as a matter of national security.  Our current system places us at huge risk to a terrorist attack on our means of  power.  So we've got to think about that and we've got to take care of it.

BFIA:  You have a long list of accomplishments – you own your own law firm and you famously won a class action suit against Microsoft; you've been a U.S. Attorney for Iowa's southern district and you were the first woman president of the National Trial Lawyers Association.  You ran for governor in 1982, and more.  What else would you like to tell Blog for Iowa readers about why you feel you would be the best person to represent Iowa in the U.S. Senate?

Conlin:  Well, I would like to tell them some about my background that is not so apparent.  I am the oldest of six children in a family that was middle class, but when my dad lost his job we went directly to the bottom of the barrel –  when there are six children and you don't have any savings….  So within a week we were struggling, and within a couple of weeks there wasn't enough food,  so I've been hungry –  and the utilities were turned off, and I've been cold.  I had an ear infection, and there was no money for a doctor and no insurance, of course.  And I have a permanent hearing loss as a result of that infection, that could have been cured with a couple of dollars worth of antibiotics.  I got off lucky.  That is a very minor thing, and it rarely bothers me at all, but it does make it possible for me to understand what Iowa families are going through today.  

My circumstances have changed, but when you've been hungry and when  you've been cold, you just never forget.  That is so much a part of who I am and what makes me tick and what I care about, and I think that I can empathize with what so many people are struggling with.

I didn't talk about this for years and years and years.  It doesn't come up in ordinary conversation.  When I ran the first time, my parents were still alive and I would never have done anything to hurt them or embarrass them.  I have discussed this with my five siblings and they're okay with my sharing this story because it is so much a part of all of us – and is far more common than we would like.  You probably also know that there was violence in my home and it had an enormous impact on us.

BFIA:  I really appreciate you sharing that.  I think it also gives other people permission to talk about it.

Conlin:  A lot of people do.  I have found it very freeing for people because after I've told them my story at a meeting, very often people come up and say that theirs was similar and that they don't talk about it.   I just have been amazed at the number of people who are willing to share with me after I share with them.   

BFIA:  There is a growing healthy food movement in Iowa and around the country and globally – people being more and more interested in locally grown, organic foods.  We've seen fights in the legislature about CAFOs, local control, large hog confinement operations, concerns about pollution, water contamination from agriculture run-off, use of antibiotics in livestock operations.   What should Iowa's senators do to help our state address some of these issues?

Conlin:  I support family farms, sustainable farming.  I know something, though not enough, about the local farming movement and I think it is great.  I think it needs encouragement and outlets for the produce and I think local school districts and other public entities should look at local food.  It has so much to recommend it, including reducing the carbon necessary to transport food  for long distances.  I don't think anyone would disagree that the fresher the food the more nutritious it is.  Those are some of the things that I think are important.  

In terms of policy directions to get from where we are to where we would like to be, that is a lot more complicated.  It requires some serious commitment to things like reducing or eliminating subsidies to corporate farming operations.  I'm not under any illusions that any of the things that we want to do will be easy.  They will require backbone, persuasion, and a willingness to stand up and speak out, all of which I have.

BFIA:  I'm sure you have seen a press release by one of your fellow Grassley challengers, Bob Krause, issued in December.  He has raised an issue about someone who is helping your campaign who he says is a Monsanto lobbyist…are you familiar with the press release?

Conlin:  Yes, I sure am, and I find it hysterical.  Maybe he doesn't know that I am currently suing Monsanto in a huge class action on the same basis, and frankly, I think that our lawsuit is what triggered  the Department of Justice investigation [Editor's note: Monsanto a Focus of US Antitrust Investigation] – so that's just a silly thing for him to say.  

The person he is speaking of is my friend Jerry Crawford.  I have known Jerry Crawford for more than fifty years.  We are close and personal friends.  He has never uttered the word Monsanto to me and I'm sure he never will.  Our relationship is one of friendship – long, long, long friendship.  

I'm sure that Bob is unaware of the lawsuit…. the name of the plaintiffs are Union Line Farms.  It is a very serious and significant lawsuit and as I said, I think that we triggered the Dept. of Justice's investigation.

BFIA:  The Republicans are trying to throw some stuff around too.  On BFIA, we try to never repeat GOP talking points.  We take our lessons from George Lakoff, so I won't repeat what they're saying but I'm sure you know what it is…

Conlin:  Maybe not, I have to tell you, I just don't pay very much attention to it.   Whatever I do, they're going to say what they're going to say, and I'm happy to answer whatever you have.

BFIA:  In stories from the Iowa Independent and the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier, some Republicans were trying to make an issue out of you having  financial interest in some businesses of which you have been publicly critical, and they were trying to say that that is hypocritical, but it seems that they have  it the opposite.  Isn't that integrity when you are publicly critical of an entity in which you have an interest?   And I seem to remember that they used this very same tactic against you in the 1982 gubernatorial race…

Conlin:  I called for eliminating the tax cuts on the very wealthy and frankly, that's going to be raising my taxes.  It is just such a ridiculous thing to say.  

Some time ago when I put funds into a managed account, they bought some things for me, like tobacco stock.  I didn't direct what they would be purchasing in the account, and when I got my first report, I saw that they had purchased Altria, as an example.  I sold it immediately – I ordered it sold.  We have in place a program – this is probably far more information than you need to know –  but there's a program that is used by funds managers that assesses the social responsibility of corporations.  And we have it set at the very highest level, so I don't understand their criticism. I own Wells Fargo stock in that account that is managed for me by others, and I also have a class action pending against Wells Fargo.  I agree,  I don't think that is hypocritical.  I think it shows that I am willing to take public spirited actions even though they may result in some political disadvantage.

BFIA:  Exactly.  To me, it just shows that the GOP do not know the difference between being hypocritical and having integrity….

Media reform is a big issue that we post a lot about on BFIA – net neutrality, ownership rules, media monopolies, the fairness doctrine, are all things that are out there.  One of our big concerns is that 90% of talk radio is conservative, and we think it is a huge problem in Iowa, because it puts misinformation out there in a very serious way.   What are your views about that and what do you think is the role of government in assuring that media serves the public interest?

Conlin:  The government has just told us that they think they don't have a any such role.  The Supreme Court's decision on corporate first amendment rights is a  pretty serious blow to all of us who think that unless you have a mouth, you can't have freedom of speech.   I'm in favor of net neutrality as I understand it.  These are not issues that I'm as familiar with as I will be at some point along the way, but I agree with you that the presence of the conservative –  well, I don't call it conservative –  the presence of the right-wing, radical blow-hards on the radio spewing hate, misinformation, and flat-out lies, seriously corrupts the civic dialogue.

BFIA:  Even  the Des Moines Register…  They did a huge spread on the tea partyers last Sunday.

Conlin:  Yes, whoever they may be…

BFIA:  And it just seems to me that they were really feeding into that movement, I'm not even sure it is a movement – the media has defined it as a movement…

Conlin:  …And it was created by Freedomworks and Dick Armey and his corporate bosses.  It has certainly tapped into the fear that lots of people have about what is going on in our country.  One of the interesting things to me is many people who are a part of that group or groups, feel as you and I do on a large number of issues – such as, they hate the bail-out, as an example, so I'm just a little unclear about that.   But I would welcome the tea party people to any of my meetings.  We've had just one person who identified himself in that way, and it was an interesting exchange between him and other members of the audience.

BFIA:  We noticed you have been posting on DailyKos and just wanted to ask, what are your favorite news sources, newspapers, blogs, etc.

Conlin:  I read the Des Moines Register that I get in my hand every day.  I read the Washington Post and the New York Times on my kindle.  I like McClatchey.  I like Huffingtonpost.  I do look at DailyKos.  That's about all I have time for because I am also studying briefing books on every issue in the entire world that you could possibly imagine.  And I read a lot of books.  I have read Too Big To Fail, by Sorkin; The Dark Side by Jane Mayer – and The Family.  I read a lot of books.  I actually read them.  [laughter] And then I remember their names.  And what was in them…..

BFIA:  Final thoughts?  Is there anything we haven't covered that you would like to get on the record.

Conlin:  I would like to mention my family.  I have a husband who I have been married to for 46 years.  I have four adult children and I have five incredibly wonderful grandchildren.  And I am plugged in therefore, to people of all ages, truly – my grandchildren are 9 on up to 22.  Of course, my older grandchildren have been very helpful to me in learning how to use the new social media.  My grandson in particular, my oldest grandson, who I'm extremely close to and is a student at the University of Iowa, has been very helpful in trying to get grandma  up to speed here…

I want to reach out to and make use of all of the new media.  We are struggling sometimes, but we are trying to remember to Tweet and keep in touch with people on a regular basis. I think it's very valuable to have access to that, and in fact, I think it may be the only realistically available antidote to the U.S. Supreme Court opinion that permits corporations to throw whatever money out of their treasury that they want to in political races.  

BFIA:  …and really kind of ups the stakes as far as net neutrality is concerned….

Conlin:  It certainly does.  And I think that the net is the most important democratic-with-a-small-d device that we have available to reach one another….and we just have to keep it free.

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