Wilton Bulletin - Touring the District: Himes Tackles Range of Issues
Challenging incumbent Congressman Christopher Shays for the 4th District seat, and now challenged himself to a Democratic Party primary in August, Jim Himes came through Wilton on Monday, stopping for what he is calling a "Listening and Leading" tour through all 17 towns in the district.
At the Wilton Library, with approximately 40 people in attendance, Mr. Himes covered a range of issues, from energy to healthcare to education, and then turned the meeting over to constituents, taking questions and asking some of his own.
Before he can take on Mr. Shays, Mr. Himes must first overcome Lee Whitnum, who through petition has forced a Democratic Primary for Tuesday, Aug. 12. Ms. Whitnum, who was present at Monday's meeting, sat outside in the hall, handing out business cards urging constituents to vote for her in the primary."I am not running for Congress because I know all the answers," said Mr. Himes, encouraging those in attendance to let him know how they felt.
Mr. Himes said, however, that his three core areas of interest are all tied into the sense of the "American dream," something he says has been lost over the years, or squandered away by the Bush Administration and entrenched incumbent leaders.
The American dream "has been eroded. These values and ideals that we wrap up in the American dream have been eroded," he said. "We have drifted on all of these counts."
Civil liberties have been stripped away, the nation's debt has grown to $9.5 trillion, and the leadership in Washington has created a scenario where the ability for a young child, raised by a single mother - like Mr. Himes himself - no longer has the same opportunities to rise above the challenges, he said.
"We have seen a debate in this country on whether we torture or not. How did this country come to be a country that debates what is torture and what is not?" said Mr. Himes. "The leadership we have had in this district in the last decade, last 20 years, has been complicit."
On energy, Mr. Himes said Washington has allowed the situation to get where it is today.
"We knew decades ago that we were going to be right here, right here, and the leadership did nothing," he said. The government did not harness the power of ingenuity of the American people, let education in the maths and sciences decline "and so we're behind. The Prius I drive is not made in this country... how did this happen?"
Mr. Himes endorses universal health care, noting that there are 47 million uninsured in the U.S.
"It's a moral outrage," he said. "And even if you don't think that, it's economic stupidity."
But in the end, everything comes back to education, he said.
"We have a hell of a good military because we're economically superior. We're economically superior because we're innovative. We're innovative because we have good education," said Mr. Himes. "That's who we are. We take on the great and improbable challenges, and we succeed."
Like Mr. Himes, many in the audience focused their comments and questions on education. One woman asked what the candidates thoughts were on the No Child Left Behind program, which she said "dumbs down education... and teaches to the test."
"No Child Left Behind had a good underlying idea, that we must evaluate and hold accountable our education system," said Mr. Himes. "The testing and the way it's evaluated is pretty dumb and it's ham-handed."
Another major topic was energy, and not just gasoline prices, but also heating oil and other areas.
"Most people usually use over 1,000 gallons a year, and heating oil will be over $5 a gallon this year," said one man in the audience.
Mr. Himes called his opponent "out of touch" on this issue, citing comments by Mr. Shays that "a lot of good would come out of high energy prices."
He said the country needs to change its energy policy and individuals must change their own practices, but that change should have been taking place in phases years ago.
"We're now changing on the backs of people who can least afford it," he said.
He said President Bush failed to act after Sept. 11, when he could have set a new vision for America's energy policy.
"In that moment, absolutely I would have done anything, you would have done anything," he said. "And what did he ask us to do? Go shopping."
As for fixes, Mr. Himes said drilling should take place in existing oil field leases, and not be expanded. Homeowners can reinsulate their homes, he said.
On a federal level, idiotic energy prices, such as the subsidizing of corn for ethanol production, should be halted, he added.
"It's pretty easy for me to do and I am going to stand on the floor of Congress and say the Farm Bill is insane," he said, when asked why no one was speaking out on the issue. Mr. Himes added that that sort of common sense stance takes no political courage, as he's not a representative from Iowa or Nebraska.
But the energy crisis will be painful, he said.
Asked about his experience building green buildings for the non-profit Enterprise Community Partners, Mr. Himes said making homes and commercial green can add up to big energy savings.
"It turns out that 40 to 50% of the energy we use in this country is burned up in commercial and residential buildings," he said. "What we found was we could take an old Lower East Side tenement... and for not much money... we could add 60% energy efficiency."
He said the problem is that the savings by going green don't come until years later, over time, and homeowners looking to build or retrofit for energy efficiency can't get credit for the savings they will see down the road.
"One of the things that I will propose... that government can offer guarantees, not money, guarantees... to underwrite the incremental costs of going green," said Mr. Himes.
Asked if a wave of Democratic wins - Barack Obama for President, Mr. Himes for Congress, John Hartwell for state Senate - would change the outlook on transportation policy for the region, Mr. Himes said absolutely.
"One thing is for sure. In contrast to what Chris Shays says - and he says it's a local and municipal issue - it's a municipal, state and federal issue," said Mr. Himes.
"We move a lot less cargo in this region of the country by rail than in any other region," he said, adding there is a federal project to run a rail line from Port Elizabeth to the rail hub in Queens, but that has stalled in Congress. It is a project that is needed and he would advocate for, as it would get more freight trucks off the region's highways, he said.
Some in the audience said the Democratic Party needed new life, and that it should also work to hold accountable the Bush Administration if it gains greater majorities and the Presidency.
"The Democrats have to take some of the blame for these problems because we haven't challenged George Bush enough," said one man in the audience. "People are looking for bold leadership."
He asked Mr. Himes how he saw himself - "as a partisan, taking a stand on controversial issues."
"For me, we have transcended partisanship here," said Mr. Himes, adding that he agreed the Democrats "rolled over" on issues such as the SCHIP Bill and others.
"They didn't have the votes in the Senate, but why didn't they filibuster it? Why didn't they make every Republican stand up and say why they didn't think all children should have health care."
He said the recent votes on the FISA Bill and wiretapping was "another SCHIP" moment. If we were going to lose, why didn't we lose loud and lose big?"
One audience member, who said Gov. Rell supports executions, asked what Mr. Himes' stance was on capital punishment.
"My very frank answer to that question is I don't know," said Mr. Himes. "I've struggled with this question and I can't say..." [that he fully opposes it].
"For the most heinous crimes, there's a retributive element," he said. "If someone would say to me, What would I have done with someone who killed my daughter or my wife?' my answer is I would want to see them executed."
On the topic of crimes and punishment, one audience member from Wilton said President Bush, and many members of his administration, should be held responsible for their illegal actions, a sentiment shared by several in attendance.
"Bush, Cheney Administration, including Judith Miller of New York Times and Chris Shays, are war criminals," said the man. "Will you send them to world court as war criminals? It's the only way to restore our Constitution in international law."
Mr. Himes, however, said he does not believe Mr. Shays or Ms. Miller are war criminals, though Mr. Shays "voted wrong, but not with criminal intent."
As for the Bush Administration: "There's no doubt in my mind that laws were broken," he said. "Those people need to be subpoenaed, there needs to be discovery, and if laws were broken, they need to be prosecuted."
Answering another question along a similar vein, he said: "What does it mean to be saying that above all things, we are a nation of laws, when we are just going to close the door on a lot of lawbreaking? How did Congress abrogate its responsibility for oversight? And how did Chris Shays, as a leader on the oversight committee," sit idly by and let it happen?