An Interview With U.S. Senate Democratic Primary Candidate Rob Hogg

May 26, 2016

When U.S. Sen Chuck Grassley decided not to schedule confirmation hearings for President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, the Democratic primary contest for Iowa's U.S. Senate seat became one to watch. Before the vote on June 7th, we’re airing interviews with all four candidates on that ballot. 

Rob Hogg is an attorney and state senator; he’s been serving at the Iowa statehouse since 2003.  On Monday, he spoke with IPR’s Ben Kieffer on River to River and began by distinguishing his fundraising from his opponents.

BK: Give us an idea of the priorities you would have as U.S. Senator.

RH: Well, I made the decision last September to get into this race because I believe Congress is not functioning and we badly need congress to work again for our people, our country, and our future. And let me just highlight three issues that are very important to this campaign. Number one: I am personally motivated to run for the need to address clean energy, clean water, and climate action. These issues are real and they’re serious and they’re urgent and we need our country to act on the environmental challenges that are facing our country. Number two: in general, we just need Congress to work again and I think that’s very clear on the economy. We need Congress to help us create a vibrant full employment economy that works for everyone. That’s something I believe in as a matter of social justice. But I also think it works better to have an economy that works for everyone. And finally I have been motivated to get into this race because I believe we need to change the way we do campaigns in this country. I believe it’s a matter of campaign finance reform as part of it. When I got in this race last September, Senator Grassley already had over four million dollars in his campaign bank account under our broken campaign finance system and that would have required me, just to catch up, to raise over ten thousand dollars a day every day, weekends and holidays included, all the way through November 8th just to catch up where he started from. So we have a broken campaign finance system but more important than that, we have a broken campaign system, and it is doing long-term damage to our democracy. We need to uplift our democracy. I am campaigning with a positive vision of making Congress work so that we can build a safe healthy peaceful prosperous inclusive and environmentally sustainable future because we need to inspire the next generation of young Americans to get involved in the political process.

BK: Since you had campaign finance there as one of your priorities, you are not working to be elected in some reformed campaign finance scenario, you’re working in the present day where money is very important and chief among your primary opponents is former Lieutenant Governor and Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Patty Judge. She was recruited into this race by national party leaders after the controversy erupted concerning the Supreme Court; she seems to have the backing of the Washington establishment, and, I suppose, the funds that go along with it. How do you compete against that?

RH: Well, I think the way you compete against it is by uplifting our democracy and running the right kind of campaign. And we have raised right now over 250,000 dollars. We’re just reporting that today. That we’ve raised over 250,000 dollars, over 1,900 individual contributors. And here’s the key thing, Ben: over 90% of those contributors are from Iowa. And, by the way, I’m accepting money from out of state--

BK: Does that distinguish you from the other candidates?

RH: Yes, it does, because Lieutenant Governor Judge the vast majority of her money is coming from out of state, and for the other two candidates, they’re not raising any money. And you’ve got to raise money, but I’m trying to do it the right way and I’m really excited about the over the 1,900 contributors we have to this race now, especially when over 90% of those are from Iowa.

BK: What’s wrong with getting contributions from outside the state?

RH: There’s nothing wrong with it, I’m accepting them. Here’s the difference: if raising money nationally won a U.S. Senate race, Bruce Braley would be our United States Senator today and what he did wrong in that campaign is he raised money nationally to the exclusion of building grassroots enthusiasm. I’ve just finished at six-day, 18-event tour. I was in Fort Dodge, Manson, Pocahontas, Osage, Hampton, Dubuque, Cedar Rapids, Muscatine, Mount Pleasant, Burlington, Amana, Des Moines, West Des Moines, Okoboji, Spencer, Algona, Sac City, and Webster City in six days and we’re building grass roots enthusiasm across this state and that’s how Democrats win in the fall. We’ve got to uplift our democracy inspire people to get involved, put forward a positive vision and I think I’m the best candidate to do that for the Democrats.

BK: As you mentioned Bruce Braley the sitting U.S. Congressmen was defeated for the senate race in our last election. If you look at Bruce Braley as a way not to engage in a U.S. Senate--at least in the sense that you named it--would you look to Joni Ernst as a model for your campaign?

RH: Obviously, I’m going to run a different kind of campaign than Joni Ernst but that was another reason why I got in this race, the moment that Joni Ernst won that race there is a slice of Iowans that want balance and with Joni Ernst and Chuck Grassley in the senate together we’re out of balance. I served with Joni Ernst for four years in the state senate. I can serve with her in the United States Senate for at least four years. And I will tell you I think Iowans are looking for new leaders and for Democrats we want new leaders who can win. And I’ve won five elections in a row, replaced Republicans twice, running positive campaigns and Iowans generally are looking for new leaders who can do that job and that’s why it’s so important that I’ve been endorsed by over 90 of my current and former legislative colleagues because those of the people who know me doing the job in the Iowa legislature. I have been an effective legislature and I want to get congress to work again and if Iowans want congress to work again you have to elect people who want to make the process work and now let me say one thing about Senator Grassley on this. He has been in Washington DC for 42 years. If he was in a position to fix the problems we have in Washington DC, he would have already gotten it done. I’m running because I want to fix those problems. I want to make congress work, I want us to make progress on a full range of issues to move this country forward.

BK: To your point you were just discussing there we have an email from Steve whose listening, let me just read it to you Senator Hogg: “I have voted Democrat in every presidential election in my entire adult life. Despite that background,d I find it hard to label the dysfunction we see in Congress as Republican obstructionism, doing so implies legislation from Democrats is always deserving of being passed and Republican opposition is always wrong. That just isn’t the case.”  With that in mind, he continues in his email, “I would like to know why Senator Hogg thinks he could help make the federal legislature work better, since he has been the leader of the same type of obstructionism in the Iowa Senate as co-chair of the Judiciary Committee. He has time and again refused to let bills get to the senate floor that had strong bipartisan support in both the house and senate along with many Iowans.” That ends the email quote from Steve, please respond.

RH: Well, I will respond to that, first of all, it’s somewhat difficult to respond when Steve hasn’t identified the issue. If he is an advocate of unfettered gun rights, well, he’s correct. I did not bring up legislation as chair of the Judiciary Committee but that was because I had announced before the legislative session, that after the Sandy Hook shooting, we were not going to do any gun legislation because I did not believe we could get to a consensus on that, and I wanted to give people the time to see if we could get to a consensus. But here, look, I have worked on numerous issues and we’ve achieved bipartisan results. For example three significant pieces of legislation. One: our state’s first solar energy tax credit, which I passed in 2012 and has now supported over 18 hundred solar energy projects in the state. 85 million dollars in investment and we now have approximately 900 people working in the solar industry today. Number two: we passed the flood mitigation infrastructure program in divided government. And that has helped communities across the state from Council Bluffs to Storm Lake to Waverly to Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, Dubuque. Number three: we updated a badly outdated Draconian HIV criminal transmission law and I did that in 2014. Each one of those bills I just described we passed off the senate floor with at least forty seven votes; Senator Ernst voted for all three of those and it’s because I took the leadership to try to get bipartisan support on each of those. It is a big deal to update, to achieve a criminal justice reform piece of legislation like the HIV criminal transmission bill with a 50 to nothing vote. That is a big deal. I have done it in Iowa legislature; I want to work for Iowans to do that in the United States Senate.

BK: Do you happen to know off-hand, how often-- when Joni Ernst was in the state legislature, how often you were in agreement with her?

RH: Well I actually had a volunteer do this research for me, Ben, and of the 78 bills that I floor-managed between 2011 and 2014, Senator Ernst voted for 64 of those bills, she voted against 5 of them, and she was absent or not voting on 9 of them. And I feel very comfortable on my ability to work with her on flood mitigation bills, on renewable energy issues, and on issues like criminal justice reform.

BK: Campaign finance reform, going back to one of your priorities, how is your approach different than the other contenders for the Democratic nomination? We had Tom Feigen on this program who is also a candidate, he’s not taking any PAC money. Why should a voter who’s passionate about money in politics choose you over a candidate who has vowed not to take any PAC money?

RH: Well, because if you’re a voter and you care about campaign finance reform, you’ve got to remember that you’ve got to win elections first. And the reality is that former Senator Fiegen, former Senator Fiegen, has lost his last three elections and he’s not raised any money--he’s trying to self-finance his campaign--any meaningful money. And you’ve got to win and I’m running this campaign the right way. I have just taken my first political action committee contribution. It’s from AFSCME and I’m very pleased to have the support of AFSCME Iowa Council 61 and the Iowa Federation of Labor. I have a 99% lifetime Iowa Federation Labor voting record, and I didn’t set out to have that, it’s just how they scored me. I set out to have a voting record that said I want a full employment economy that works for all Iowans. And that’s what motivates me, is to have progressive policies that help working people, and I believe in that. And one other point on this, Ben, we have got to have the grassroots enthusiasm for this campaign that Democrats did not have in 2014 and did not have in 2010, last time Lieutenant Governor Judge was on the ballot and lost by over 100,000 votes. And I’m a person who can unite labor, I can unite environmentalists, I can unite the Democratic coalition, I can work across party lines. I’ve won five elections in a row, I’ve replaced Republicans twice, I think I’m our best nominee to win in November, and I absolutely am convinced I am the best person to actually do the job in the United States Senate.

BK: You’ve said before that you aren’t running to ‘retire’ Chuck Grassley. You will see this slogan out there, for other candidates. Why isn’t that the right phrase for your campaign?

RH: For my campaign, because I think that’s part of--, I think that reflects some of the negative culture of campaigning that we’ve developed. I’ve told people, I respect Senator Grassley for his long time service to our state and our country. He’s been [in] elected office since 1958. That’s nine years before I was born. That was before Nikita Kruschev’s historic visit to the Grass Farm near Coon Rapids. So he has been in office for a long time. He has been in Washington, D.C. for 42 years. I was 7 years old when he was first elected to the United States Congress. I believe it is time for a change, but people do not have to dislike or hate Chuck Grassley to say it’s time for a change. This gets down to who’s going to do the best job over the next 6 years for our state, our country and our future, and, you know what, people can like the job that Senator Grassley has done, they can say, ‘You know what, he did a good job in the eighties and in the nineties.’ Maybe they think he’s still even doing an okay job today; I don’t. But even if they think that, it’s okay to make a change. I happen to be a Hawkeye football fan, and, in 1998, Iowa needed to make a change they needed to replace Hayden Fry as the football coach because he wasn’t getting the job done any more. Well, that has worked out pretty well for the University of Iowa Hawkeyes and I believe I can do a good job in the United States Senate representing Iowans, move our country forward on a whole range of issues and that will serve our state well. So that’s why I’m applying for the job of being Iowans’ next United States Senator.

Joshua in Waterloo: I was wondering how do you feel about, or what’s your position on legalizing, decriminalizing, or at least removing marijuana as a Schedule I drug to allow companies to at least further testing on people with seizures, PTSD, glaucoma, and a whole range of other issues?

RH: That is a really important issue, and in the Iowa Senate I voted for Senate File 484 in 2015 which is the Comprehensive Medical Cannabis program. Just a week ago Friday, I had a press conference in Urbandale calling on Senator Grassley to take up the Carers Act which sits in his Senate Judiciary Committee. He’s not just blocking the Supreme Court nominee, he’s blocking the Carers Act which would legalize the medical cannabis programs that exist in our country. It is wrong to rely on President Obama’s non-enforcement of a law to allow those programs to happen. This is an issue I’ve changed my mind on because I’ve listened to people, I listened to the parents, I listened to physicians, I heard the people who have the chronic health conditions who would like the opportunity to talk to their physicians about using medical cannabis. And I support that. On the more broader question, let me say this, I do believe we need to treat marijuana less as criminal issue and more as a public health problem. So, for example, in the Iowa Senate, I voted to reduce the first offense small possession from serious misdemeanor to a simple misdemeanor. I think we really need to treat drugs generally as a public health problem rather than as a criminal problem.

BK: A little over a week ago you participated in a forum with three others on foreign policy. Give us in a nutshell how do you differentiate yourself from the others in terms of foreign policy, and specifically evaluate President Obama. Would you be more or less in favor of what he’s been doing the last almost eight years?

RH: I think, in general, President Obama has done a good job; there are some areas where I disagree with him a little bit. I put a higher premium, I think, on stability than President Obama has done. For example, he really embraced the Arab Spring and that was something at the time that I felt some resistance to. But here’s the deal on foreign policy: our job is to give advice and consent to the President of the United States. By the way, that’s why Senator Grassley should have never signed that letter to the Supreme Leader of Iran, that was wrong. But I do believe strongly that the United States has to be strong and smart and engaged in the world to promote peace. We have the capacity to be the world’s greatest peacemaker and for listeners who don’t really recognize that, think about Camp David, think about the Dayton Accords that ended the conflict in Bosnia, think about the Good Friday agreements that helped reduce the religious violence in Ireland. We have that capacity to be a great peacemaker, so I want us to be engaged and active in the world to do that.

Laura in Des Moines: My question’s kind of-- I’m wondering… it’s good that you want to work with Republicans and you’ve shown a good record of doing that here in the state level, how would you work with Democrats? I mean, we’ve got Blue Dog Democrats in the south, we’ve got different interests in the West, so how would you go about getting your fellow Democrats to go along with you to make consensus and get policy done?

RH: I’m somebody who has my strong priorities but I’m a very practical legislator. To label myself, I call myself a practical progressive because I want to solve problems and I want to help make progress on issues. I also have worked really hard to unite Democrats on issues. So, for example, I think it’s significant that I’ve been endorsed by over 90 of my current and former Democratic colleagues. We just picked up two more in the last two weeks: Representative Ako Abdul-Samad from Des Moines and Representative Todd Prichard from Charles City. So I’m now-- 65 of the current democratic legislators in the state have endorsed me and I think that reflects my ability to work with people across the spectrum in the Democratic Party and I do have a true desire to try to work with Republicans to move us forward on these issues. I think America can accomplish a lot of great things this century, but we’ve got to fix our political process, we’ve got to get congress to work again.

BK: Many are seeing this election as wate shed, what we’re seeing here in the Presidential election. Senator Hogg, in both parties, realignment is being spoken of. Each party having a surprisingly strong non-establishment candidate: that person looks to be the nominee in the Republican Party, we’ll see what happens in the Democratic Party. What do you think is going on in American politics right now, with these huge surprises in 2016?

RH: Well, first of all, I’m hard pressed to think what I say is happening with that man who is going to be the Republican nominee. He has said so many mean and hateful things, it’s hard to believe he could actually be taken seriously as a presidential candidate, so I am concerned about that. I’m very concerned about that.

BK: How would you work with him should be become president?

RH: Well, let me put it this way, I’ve done it for six years with Governor Branstad. We’ve made progress on things, I would much prefer to have Governor Branstad as the Republican nominee for president than that current person who appears to be the nominee. But let me say this, I think what Americans and Iowans are really looking for is a new kind of politics, something that can uplift our democracy, something that says we’re going to put our country first, something that will inspire young Americans to get involved in the process. And I know something about young Americans because I’m the parent of three of them.

BK: We’re running short on time--uplift democracy is a wonderful phrase but how do you get there, how do you get people inspired in the political process past just participating in elections, which we also don’t do very well?

RH: I think you do it by modeling how you conduct yourself and I want Iowans to watch my campaign. Everything I’m doing in my campaign I’m trying to run the right way,  knowing that there’s an eight-, nine-, ten-, or eleven-year-old kid watching my campaign.  I want young Americans to be inspired to get involved to help make our country better, to serve our communities, and I think we can do it.