WASHINGTON — The Minnesota DFL likes to poke GOP U.S. Senate candidate Mike McFadden for launching his campaign against Sen. Al Franken the same day one of the biggest political stories of the year broke: May 29, when Rep. Michele Bachmann announced her retirement, burying most everything else that happened that week.
McFadden, a 48-year-old businessman, has been doing behind-the-scenes stuff since then, primarily raising money ($700,000 in June) and building his campaign team. The political rookie is taking his time building a formal campaign platform, as well: He wants education to be at its core, and he said he’s working with a team of experts on health care policy.
In his first formal interview since launching his campaign, McFadden told MinnPost where he stands on a handful of matters the Senate’s considered this year, what type of campaign he wants to run, and which senators he’d try to model himself after if he’s elected to the Senate next November.
Here’s our conversation (questions have been edited for clarity; answers, for brevity):
MinnPost: What do you plan on being your central message or platform during this campaign?
Mike McFadden: As a Republican, I believe in effective, but limited, government. And I think, as the Republican Party, we’ve done a very good job of focusing on the limited piece of it, but there is room for improvement with respect to effective. I want to see government work much better.
MP: Assuming you’d be able to pick, what committee assignments would you want, and how would that drive what you want to do in Washington?
MM: One assignment I clearly want is a seat on the Education Committee. I’ve been very involved with inner-city education. I sit on the board of [Cristo Rey Jesuit High School] just south of downtown Minneapolis, and the mission of our school is to educate financially disadvantaged students. … Last year, 78 percent of our graduating seniors went on to college. This year, 100 percent have been accepted into college. What that’s allowed me to see is, we can do better. We can achieve better results with a little bit more focus. I compare our results to similar results in the inner-city high schools, then I look at how much money we’ve spent on those schools. … So, I want to focus on allocating our dollars to areas that work. I want to measure and do better in eduation. We have to do it, the status quo is not an option.
MP: No Child Left Behind reform has been languishing in Congress for a while. Federal higher education policy comes up next year for renewal. Have you looked at any specific policy proposals in either of these areas?
MM: We jumped into the race a month ago, and we’ve been out raising money and building the team. Education is something I care deeply about and we’re going to build a detailed platform. I don’t believe the federal government should be dictating what second graders in Eden Prairie should be reading. …
I’d like to see some changes in simple things, such as, there is a program in Minnesota called “Minnesota Reading Corps.” It’s a federal program. … Their philosophy is, first you learn to read, then you read to learn. It’s really simple: By third grade, you need to learn to read at a third-grade level, or that student is significantly disadvantaged for the rest of their academic career. What happens is, in Minnesota, in 2011, 20 percent of our third graders didn’t read at a third-grade level. That’s not acceptable.
So I’m not advocating that we spend more dollars on education. We already spend a tremendous amount. We spend more than any other country in the world, on a per capita basis we spend more than anybody but Switzerland. The results are nowhere near the top, so we have to do better. I think there’s some simple solutions, and this is one of them. Why in Minnesota can’t we put a stake in the ground and say, five years from now, every third grader will read at a third grade level, unless there’s a learning disability?
MP: Every few years, Congress fights over the federal debt limit. Would you have any preconditions on whether or not you’d support raising the debt limit? What type of deficit reduction package would you support?
MM: I think it’s a very important issue, we’re looking at close to $17 trillion in debt now, it’s doubled since Senator Franken took office. It represents almost 80 percent of our GDP, and that’s problematic. As it comes to debt ceiling negotiations, I would be front and center in any part of those negotiations, and I think what needs to be measured is, on one hand, we need to provide some fiscal constraint in terms of government spending. We’ve been spending like a drunken sailor and we have to stop that. That’s got to be measured against what that does to our credit in the world market for borrowing money if we violate our debt covenants.
MP: Would you have supported the Senate immigration bill?
MM: First of all, the status quo is not acceptable, having 11 million illegal immigrants in this country is de facto amnesty, and that doesn’t work, so we need to find a solution. I applaud members of the Senate for trying to find that solution.
The solution needs to begin with securing the borders, it needs to stop further illegal immigration, so that’s my first principle. My second principle is: We need something that addresses the 21st century and our economic needs in this country. The fact that we’re educating PhDs in math and hard sciences and not allowing them to stay in this country when they’re needed, does not make economic sense. We need to address that.
I’m still reviewing the Senate bill. I look forward to seeing what comes out of the House.
MP: Would you have supported either the Senate or House farm bills?
MM: I’m still looking at both, but I think this is an example of the dysfunction that exists in Congress, and a lot of people are frustrated with this, including myself.
You had a bill passed by the Senate, it’s not perfect, but it was comprehensive. I’m concerned at the House bill that just got passed and stripped out the nutrition piece. … That does allow it to go to committee. So I’ll look forward to see what comes out of committee.
What I’m adamant about, though, is farmers deserve and need certainty so they can make decisions about what crops to grow and what livestock to raise. And when we see this continual exercise in Congress and their inability to get things done, whether it’s the farm bill, whether it’s the debt ceiling, whether it’s the budget, whether it’s student loans, and they kick the can down the road, and they argue about it a year from now. We need to show leadership on these issues and we need to make some decisions on these issues.
MP: Have you looked at all at the cuts to food stamps in the bills?
MM: I’m still reviewing that.
MP: How would you like to reform the student loan interest rate system?
MM: The House and President Obama and a group of bipartisan senators in the Senate all support a market-based plan that is tied to the 10-year Treasury bill. Yet what came out of the education committee in the Senate two days before the interest rate was due to rise was a one-year extension. … You need to have a long-term solution here. Student loans need to be tied to market rates.
MP: How would you address the Affordable Care Act?
MM: I have great concerns about the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. Even Democratic senators like Max Baucus have said it’s going to be a train wreck. I think some of those concerns have come to fruition, that’s why you’ve seen this one-year delay [for the employer mandate] that was just announced last week. I am as frustrated with my party, the Republican Party, as I am with the Democrats, in that we as Republicans have not come forward with a solution, an alternative solution to health care. …
What’s happened in the last week by delaying the employer mandate, I think it’s opened the debate again, that everything is back on the table and deserves a discussion, and I want to help lead in that discussion. I’m working with a team of experts to come forward with detailed [plans] on health care. It’s not enough just to say no to Obamacare. We need to provide an alternative. And we will, and we’re working on that.
MP: The Senate has taken votes to just repeal it straight up without a replacement on the other end. How would you have voted on that?
MM: I would have had to look at all the options on the table, but I would have been adamant that we need a solution. Repeal Obamacare, but here’s a solution. … The fact that there’s people with pre-existing conditions that can’t get access to health care, that have participated in the system, that have been good citizens, that’s wrong. We have to address more than just repeal.
MP: In April, the Senate voted down expanding background checks on gun purchases. Would you support that?
MM: I’m a strong believer in the Second Amendment, and the right to bear arms. It does concern me that someone that’s not allowed to buy a gun at Wal-Mart because they didn’t pass a background check is allowed to go and purchase one at a gun show. I would be open to looking at expanding background checks.
MP: Are you seeking the GOP endorsement and would you abide by that?
MM: We are absolutely seeking the endorsement, I would love to have the endorsement. I’m new to politics and I have not run for office before and I think it would be premature to take any options off the table at this point in time.
MP: You raised $700,000 in the first month of your campaign, but Senator Franken has $3 million on hand for this race. How do you plan to keep pace with him fundraising-wise, and are you willing to self-fund?
MM: We’re going to have to raise a lot of money to be competitive and we will. I think we’ve shown that: In 30 days we raised $700,000. We did that through a lot of hard work by a lot of people, and we’ll continue to raise money and we raised a lot of money, so we will be competitive and run a competitive race. I’m not in a position to self-fund. We need other people’s support and we’ll get that.
MP: How do you plan to gain the public recognition you’ll need to run a Senate race against Al Franken, especially since the Minnesota GOP’s financial situation might make it hard for the party to support campaigns in 2014?
MM: There are 5.3 million citizens in this state and I’m going to work hard to get out and meet a lot of them. I’m here for the next 18 months while he’s in Washington, I’m going to spend a lot of the time on the road around this great state of ours. So that’s one.
Two is, we will raise money. We’ve proven that we can do that. We’re not dependent on the party apparatus to get our message out. We will do it independent of that. … We’ll be in a position to be competitive with Al Franken. He has been in the Senate for four and a half years. He has a record, and we will talk about that.
MP: Are there any specific senators you would try to model yourself after or any certain components of the GOP that you would try to align yourself with (e.g. Tea Party-aligned, etc.)?
MM: I’ll let you put a label on me in terms of what I am. … First of all, I believe in, as I mentioned before, an effective but limited government. That is my focus, that’s what I believe it means to be a Republican. I want to get things done. To me, politics is the art of the possible and not the art of the pure.
I liked that you asked about senators. Ron Johnson, from Wisconsin, Bob Corker from Tennessee, both businessmen who jumped into politics and I think have been good at working to get things done. I like Tom Coburn out of Oklahoma. He’s got a focus on reducing government waste. There is tremendous waste in government, and I’ve worked in business to be very efficient, and I think we can be much more efficient with government and be better stewards of the money that our citizens are sending to Washington. I know we can.
Devin Henry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry