By Sam Stockard
Democratic congressional candidate Eric Stewart is wearing out his campaign shoes, crisscrossing the newly drawn 4th District and finding himself at home in Rutherford County as it moves out of the 6th District in 2013.
Stewart continues to hammer his theme of working across the aisle with Republicans and independents to solve the nation's complex economic problems. Stewart contends that a Democrat who talks only to people who agree with him isn't leading, he's taking a walk, as he campaigns for the Nov. 6 election.
He stopped by The DNJ Friday for an interview on the second day of his second 16-county tour in which he's talking to high school students, senior citizens center, local elected officials while lining up manufacturing plant tours as part of an effort to listen to people. One of the biggest things they say, according to Stewart, is "We just want folks to get along. We want them to stop fighting and start fixing."
Q: You had made an effort to get Scott DesJarlais to debate you. Is that a sign that you're an underdog and need to get your name out there and your message?
Stewart: I'm sure that's the way they want to spin it. I think it's a sign that we believe in the process of going and talking to voters and let's go side-to-side and talk about where we're different on the issues and we're different on the issues a lot. Let's face the voters and answer their questions. The conventional wisdom is that once you're elected to an office, you don't need to debate because politically you have nowhere to go but down. I'll make a commitment right now if I'm elected and honored to serve the people of the 4th District, when we're back here running for re-election in two years, I'll debate anybody any time anywhere. ... Because I think it's an important part of the process. ... Really it's a time-honored tradition. Lincoln and Douglass did it, Kennedy and Nixon did. Obama and Romney are going to do it.
Q: Why do you think Scott won't debate?
Stewart:I don't know that he can defend his record on a lot of the votes that affect and hurt working families. We talk a lot of times that he's betrayed working families. Another vote that he's cast that he's going to have to defend is in the Ryan budget he voted to give folks making over $1 million a year a $250,000 tax cut. He also cast a vote to get rid of
the payroll tax holiday. It raised working families about $800 a year, raised their taxes.
Q: DesJarlais has about three times more money in his campaign war chest than you do. Do you feel that's insurmountable and how important is that?
Stewart: Money's a big part of the campaign because you've got to do the newspaper ads, you've got to do the TV ads, the radio ads, the mail. But, no, it's not insurmountable. That was at the end of last quarter. We're still raising money. ... During the last quarter, he raised $220,000. We raised $160,000. ... Of his $220,000, about $80,000 ... was what I call institutional money, D.C. money or PAC money or individuals related to PACs or corporations that gave him money. Individual contributions, he had about 150 that averaged about $1,400 apiece. On the flip side, we raised about $160,000. About $40,000 of that was institutional money. We had 555 individual contributors with the average contribution of $240. So, yes, while the money's important, just as important is the grassroots support, the support on the ground that we're getting all across this district. We've got volunteers working every day, making phone calls, knocking on doors, and most of that's happening right here in Rutherford County.
Q: Say in 10 people in Rutherford County that you go talk to, how many do you feel are going to vote for you?
Stewart: A significant number. I can't give you a percentage of it. But a significant number of folks are saying No. 1, they don't know who either one of us are because Rutherford County's new to the 4th District. ... We're seeing an awful lot of support. We're getting a very good response. Folks more and more are recognizing the name when they hear it. And I feel like we're breaking through to a lot of people.
Q: Right after the Supreme Court's decision on the Affordable Care Act, you said you wouldn't vote to kill it.
Stewart: I won't vote to repeal it, but I will certainly vote to fix it.
Q: Do you feel like those statements would hurt you in Tennessee because it's become increasingly red?
Stewart:The voters will have to decide that. But I also feel the voter has a right to know who I am and what I'm going to try to do. I'm not 100 percent agreed with everything that's in the Affordable Care Act, but I will tell you there are a lot of good parts to it, like 26-year-olds under their parents' policy, closing the (Medicare) donut hole, and not allowing companies to turn you down because of a pre-existing condition. ...
Q: Do you think the Affordable Care Act, as it is right now, is sustainable for a long period? Is it too much like TennCare before it was changed?
Stewart: It's not like TennCare, but it certainly has problems that make me question its long-term sustainability. I'm not going to say that it's not sustainable, but I'm not going to say that it is sustainable. I think with a few tweaks, you get to where we can start bringing down the costs of health care, which make up 20 cents of every dollar that's spent in this country. That's why working families don't have any money. That's why small businesses can't afford to hire people.
Q: I had read or heard that you hadn't decided who you were going to vote for, Barack Obama or Mitt Romney. Is that true?
Q: Who are you going to vote for?
Stewart: (Knoxville News Sentinel reporter) Tom Humphrey asked me up on the (Public) Square right here in Murfreesboro at my press conference ... who I was going to vote for for U.S. Senate. And that's when I told him, "I don't know." He kind of interjected the president into his news story. ... Listen, Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan and Scott DesJarlais, all believe the same thing. They all believe that Medicare should be a voucher program, the Social Security age should be 70, that we don't need to crack down on shipping our jobs overseas, that we need to slash financial aid to students. They all agree with it, and at least two of three have voted for it. I can't vote for candidates that believe that way. At the end of the day, though, the real question is whoever's there: Can you work with them to solve problems. That's what I'm committed to, whether it's Barack Obama or Mitt Romney. I'll commit to this district, whoever it is, my No. 1 goal is not going to be to go up there and beat them. It's going to be to go up and work with them, so we can make things better and we can get the country back on track.
Q: Is that a roundabout way of saying I'm not going to vote for Mitt Romney?
Stewart: I'm not. I'm going to vote for the president ... for those reasons.
Q: If elected, what is going to be your top priority?
Stewart: Jobs and the economy. It's trying to find a way to bring jobs back home. ... No. 1 we've got to find a way to strengthen our Buy American law. There's no reason the Bay Bridge in San Francisco used Chinese steel to build that bridge. We've got a lot of steel mills here. We've got a lot of people we can put back to work and use those American products. When the government spends taxpayer money, it ought to be spent with American companies and our American people. And we have too many different waivers that allow that not to happen. ... When I was in the state Senate, I presented a bill that got shot down ... that said any contracts we sent out couldn't turn around and sub-contract those out to companies from another country. We had a DHS call center that was contracted out to JP Morgan Chase that was then sub-let out to an Indian company. Folks in India were answering the phone when we'd make a call to DHS. ...
Q: You've said your opponent has voted to end Medicare as we know it. Do you have a solution for Medicare?
Stewart: I think there's a lot of different things that have to come into play. We're going to have to find a way to get control of the increasing cost of health care. But with the Medicare voucher program, they don't get control of the health care costs in Medicare. They shift those costs onto seniors by saying, OK, this is all we're going to pay, You have to pay everything else. You have to pay everything in addition to it. The Congressional Budget Office has already said that could mean passing much as $6,000 a year off to our seniors. ...
Q:What steps do you support to save Social Security?
Stewart: To me, Social Security is really an easy fix. Nobody wants to admit it, but it's pretty easy. ... It's easier. It just takes a little guts. When Social Security was started, it was set up with the idea in mind that taxes were collected on 90 percent of income earned. Over time, that 90 percent (has gone down) ... right now the cap is $110,000 roughly that you pay Social Security taxes on. That's about 82 percent of income earned. Raise that back up to 90 and you extend the life of Social Security for years to come.
Q: Is that a tax increase on the wealthy?
Stewart: I don't know if it's a tax increase on the wealthy. It gets us back up to the original intent of Social Security. ...