Read this candidate profile of 1st District Democratic candidate Monica Vernon. She was interviewed as part of IPR's 2014 Primary Voter Guide series.
Give me an example of an experience you had as a public leader (City Councilwoman) that you believe prepared you to be a member of Congress?
Well I think the flood situation in Cedar Rapids is an enormous one. We had 5,000 houses hit and 1,100 small businesses and 300 public facilities. You know there’s a lot in those numbers. But, forgetting those numbers, think about when I looked in the eyes of the people who had lost everything and knew that we not only needed to minister to them and help them get back on their feet - you know the homeowners and the small businesses. But also, we would have to, as a council, set - you know - a plan in place and continue to work that plan while continuing to get public input and figure out the dollars that we would have or not have for recovery. It was a multi-faceted, multi- multi- dimensional kind of a thing. And you only do it by continuing to have compassion for people , keeping your heart and your ears open while at the same time continuing to move forward and make the tough decisions. I really believe in those first five years after the flood we had to make 50 years of decisions and we did it. We’re in a much better place today. We didn’t do everything perfectly but I believe we have recovered better than ever. And we’ve set the pace for a bright future in our community.
Along with the property losses, there were also a number of jobs that were lost. And there were jobs that were lost all across the state of Iowa. What is the one thing you think you can do in Congress to help create jobs in Iowa?
You know I think one of the things I would look at… As a market researcher, my background was listening to consumers and customers about their hopes and dreams and what’s good and bad about products and services, taking products to market. And I think we ought to do more with the technology transfer abilities that we have at our research institutions. And rather than the kind of dollars where we put in a hundred million into a large enterprise I would rather see us looking at those wonderful pieces of technology that come out of Iowa State and Iowa and perhaps UNI and other colleges and institutions and assist entrepreneurs from taking those from the laboratory to the production floor and out to sell around the globe. I think that would help a lot.
I also think that in order to compete, we’re gonna have to make sure we’re investing in people, meaning education from early childhood through post secondary training, as well as I’d like to invest in infrastructure. I think that puts people back to work, A, but also B when you invest in infrastructure, private investment follows, and we have seen that in Cedar Rapids and so I think those are some things we can do.
Continuing on an employment line of questioning, a recent Iowa Poll shows 65% of those polled support an increase in the minimum wage. How do you feel about an increase in the a minimum wage ?
I believe we’ve got to increase the minimum wage. I support Senator Harkin’s bill for $10.10. I think we have not kept up with wages. I think this is a much more dignified way to go… dollars to people that they have earned. Otherwise we have more people on food stamps and they need housing vouchers, etcetera. And I also believe very strongly that you not only talk the talk but you walk it. So ten years ago I raised my minimum wage in my company to ten dollars an hour. Most of our workers make quite a bit more than that. That would be for example, interns and maybe telephone interviewers. We did that because we could see ten years ago that that was a fair level for people.
Let’s switch gears a bit and talk about agriculture. The proposed changes to the renewable fuel standard seem to signal that the administration may move away from grain-based alternatives to conventional fuels. What would you do in Washington to work in a bipartisan manner on energy policy that would benefit not only Iowans, but still have national appeal?
Well, ya know, I support ethanol and I support finding renewables that are not fossil fuels. I think we’ve gotta continue with that. I’ll be looking strongly at that. I am in favor of the renewable fuel standard. I think that it’s been important. I’m concerned about our continuing to bolster big oil. I think there are all kinds of ways that we can work on climate together, but I do think you have to find some common ground. I do like Secretary Vilsack’s push forward into using bio fuels, but I know that some of the technology isn’t there. But we’ve got to invest in technologies to that. One of the things I’ve been talking about on the campaign trail is just as we led on space: we didn’t sit around, and Kennedy said in ten years we’ll put a man on the moon. What did it take to do that? Not just government. It was government, it was our institutions of higher learning, our businesses got involved, such as Rockwell Collins here in Cedar Rapids, and certainly labor built a lot of the pieces. I think instead of just talking about climate, we lead with a national climate policy. You put some deadlines out there, some requirements on things and some incentives and we get government arm and arm with our institutions of higher learning, you know - technology for more sun power, better sun power, wind power, advanced bio fuels and all kinds of renewables and then we let business know about this and offer those incentives and expect them to build it. And I think that’s how we do it.
And you made mention of Tom Vilsack, a former Iowa Governor Iowa governor heading up the Agriculture Department, but even so, farmers were kept in limbo for years over the new farm policies. How will you represent the interests of agriculture and rural communities in an environment and from a district that is heavily urban?
Well I think that when you look at Iowa… You know that one out of every 12 jobs across the nation is ag. You look at Iowa and it’s many more than that. We are an agricultural-based state and you can never forget that. I think that going forward there are three things that I think about. One is no matter what the farm policy is, number one you have got to have a safety net, a strong safety net. And I think this is what this new farm bill does - it takes it from you know you don’t grow something and you pay to. Farming is a volatile, extremely risky business, so the farm bill has to have a safety net in it. Number two, I would say we have to support some type of sustainable productivity to continue research on production and protection. So that’s where we support our institutions like Iowa State University that are helping agriculture. And then I think the third thing is vibrant markets. We’ve gotta have vibrant markets for agricultural products. And that’s where I think if we look at production agriculture in Iowa - you know it’s food based but it can also be renewable energy, and I’d like to see more done with the healthy food aspect of things. I think there’s a lot that can be done and some of my market research is on ag issues, so I think I can bring a lot to the table.
You’re campaigning to join Congress at a time when its approval ratings are some of the lowest in history… hovering in the low to mid-teens in most cases. And this has also been called a “do nothing “Congress. In what areas can you imagine compromising with the other party to get something accomplished for Iowa?
Oh, I think there are so many places. I’m hearing from people all over about the importance of bringing back the middle class. You know our country is based on consistent consumption by the middle class and I think that equal pay for equal work is so key. If we don’t get to equal pay for equal work for women, we not only hurt women, we hurt families throughout our nation and we hurt the middle class. So I think the paycheck fairness act is just a beginning, but it’s a great beginning and we need to get that passed. I think, as we talked about, the minimum wage is important. I think the flexibility for families is something we can certainly talk about. I mean, I’m the kind of person who is used to getting people to the table to solve problems and get things done. That’s my style.
I think also the immigration reform is something we’ve heard Republicans wanting to do. They understand we need immigration reform. They may have different ideas. I certainly believe in a pathway to citizenship and in not separating families, but I also think we’ve got to have rules about these things looking at our borders. But it has been way too long since we’ve looked at it and it does need to be reviewed. There are signals that Republicans are ready to do this.
Nearly every candidate running for office says they want to cut government waste and bring down the deficit. Name a program or department you would cut, and why?
Well you know I think we get into deficits probably in three different ways: through conflicts and wars we get into, we get into deficits when the economy tanks, and we get into deficits when we don’t have enough taxes coming in, right? We already talked about the middle one. So I would say the wars and conflicts are something. I feel strongly that we not get in wars and conflicts unless there’s a full discussion by Congress and we work a lot harder on diplomacy and tough sanctions. And the other thing goes right back to the middle class, if we can bring back the middle class by investing in people, investing in infrastructure, consistent consumption, which drives our country.
We know trickledown economics has not worked. I think you can look back to the models in the ‘30s when they realized that this huge middle class making purchases helps drive our economy. So I think that’s really important to look at. I think we also know that across the world, we need to bring some business back to the US. Who of us has not had a friend or a child who has waited in line for the newest phone or some sort of innovation? The U.S. has always been known for that, so we’ve got to get people trained so they invent these things and we’ve got to invest in them and we’ve got to bring back business to the US.
You mentioned wars and conflicts and I want to kind of dovetail off that, are we spending enough on domestic, national defense?
Um, ya know, I think we have to have a strong military and be ready to defend ourselves. But I think going forward, the American people are fatigued by war. I’m fatigued by war. I think we have to be much more thoughtful and we need to be talking about why we’re going to get into a conflict. I understand there will be times when we have to do that very quickly but I think we need to understand as a nation why we’re going into harm’s way. The other thing we must do is keep our promise to veterans when they return home. I have been meeting with veterans all around the district and it has renewed my interest in making sure we keep our promises. We have people coming home from two, three and four tours of duty and they need assistance both physically and mentally and we need to make sure that we are there for them. The other part of that budget that people don’t think about much is just the art and science of diplomacy. I think as a nation we need to continue to get better at that and we need to get better about tough sanctions and working with the rest of the world on these things.
Final question: The U.S. House has held dozens of votes to either repeal, defund or otherwise dismantle the Affordable Care Act. President Obama will not sign legislation repealing, defunding or dismantling this legislation. But, the law remains unpopular… with most polls showing more people opposed to, rather than in support of the law. What are your ideas for revising it?
Well, certainly I support the Affordable Care Act. I think it was a monumental move. We have needed health care reform in this country for a very long time. I was a cub newspaper reporter in the early 1980s and part of an award winning series on healthcare reform and I think that was in 1981 or ‘82 so it has been on the minds of the American people for a very long time. I think we’ve made a good first step here. I do think there are fixes.
I think one of the things I’d like to see if insurance companies being able to compete across state lines, I think that’s important. I’m interested in the cooperative efforts that have sprung up in over 20 states providing insurance. I think for a small business standpoint there’s a cap for benefits or taxes at 25 employees. I think that could be raised to 50. I think there’s also a time limit on some of the tax breaks and I think we could lengthen that. And overall I would just say ease of user friendliness, ease of getting into the program and ease of documentation for both individuals as well as small business. All of that would go a long way. I mean we’ve made a giant step in health care. In the past, you could be dropped or denied for a pre-existing condition. Women were charged more just for being women. We have something in place now that’s helping millions and millions of Americans, but we do need to make some fixes. But like anything that’s been a monumental change, I think there are just little things that need to be done to perfect it.