Access Press Interviews Senator Paul Wellstone

On October 5th, Senator Paul Wellstone met with Charlie Smith, editor of ACCESS PRESS for an informal interview.  We had some questions on the future of health care from his insider’s perspective, but beyond that just wanted to know what it’s like to be in his current position the junior senator from Minnesota.  We think the following frank answers by Senator Wellstone give us a real insight into the motives and objectives of this remarkable man.  (We felt it was alright to call him Paul in the transcript.)

Paul:

I’d like to thank you for giving me fair coverage during the campaign when many journalists wrote it off and wouldn’t cover it.

Charlie:      

We were happy to.  But today I’d like to get your views on some different issues, starting with the transition – how is it going in Washington.  Did you find a place to live?

Paul:

Starting with a place to live, we have an apartment that is a walk, just five minutes to get  to the office.  It’s right near capitol hill, it’s right near the Supreme Court and so it’s a good location.  The big problem with housing in the city is that rents are expensive.  You look for a house because the tax system allows you to deduct interest and taxes if you are paying on a mortgage.  It’s really unfair.  People say it’s a depressed market but we have seen little townhouses for two hundred and eighty thousand dollars. So we’re settled, but on the home buying it doesn’t look that great, it’s awfully expensive, and we don’t have that kind of money.  

Charlie:

And otherwise?

Paul:  

Otherwise it’s usually for me five-thirty in the morning to ten or eleven at night. I do take it very seriously, I think it’s an honor and I’m very determined to do well.  I have some great people working with me, but it’s not easy to figure out exactly the way the senate operates procedure-wise and process-wise and I’m still learning that.  The rest of it, the personal relationships with people have been easy, in fact it’s amazing how many people I like, even though many of whom I don’t agree with.  But the overall climate is still very discouraging, we should be doing much more.

Charlie:      

Did Sheila and the kids move to Washington?

Paul:

None of the children are at home now.  David is tending a farm down in southern Minnesota, Marsha teaches in White Bear Lake and Mark is going to school.

Charlie:

How do you divide your time between here & Washington?

Paul:

Until Sheila came out two weeks ago, I was back here every weekend.  But now that she’s with me I think I’ll have at least two long weekends here in Minnesota, and one in national travel working with others on things I think important.  Minnesota is a big state, though, and I like getting around and meeting people.  It’s by far the most important thing.

Charlie:

I remember when the pay raise went into effect and you said you were going to give yours away.  Can you make it without it?

Paul:

Well…ah, sure.  The Northfield newspaper had an editorial sharply disagreeing and saying after selling my home in Northfield I would need the money to buy a home in D.C.  Once I voted against it, I didn’t feel I could take it.  But voting against it was harder than giving it away.  I think this year it’s going to a shelter for battered women.  It’s not like I’m a big benefactor all of a sudden, you know, if you allow for taxes and everything else.  It’s twenty-five thousand a year.

Charlie:

It must be quite a challenge to depend on such a large office force to keep up on your demands.  Do you have enough staff?

Paul:

Yes. That’s really a good question.  I mean I can think of a million reasons why I can say we need more people but you know I’ve never managed a small business before and I think this is what this is like.

Charlie:

That’s what we were thinking…your life before this, you weren’t involved in that type of…

Paul:

Yes.  But you know I don’t think we can make excuses.  I mean as a United States Senator we have a budget over a million dollars, we have about forty people, and they should be able to do well.  I mean, you can always say more people but I think by the standard of what most people have to do in their lives, I have plenty of support.

Charlie:       

What is your staff like here and in Washington?

Paul:

About 15 people here and 25 in Washington.

Charlie:

I noticed in a recent newspaper article that you gave co-author credit to a staff member.  Is this something new?

Paul:

No, actually, from the time I came to the Senate everything that’s been written has been done that way.  I called an editorial page editor, and I told him that I had worked out a lot of the ideas but now I don’t have time to write about them.  I didn’t want to do it with my name alone so I have done it on everything.

Charlie:

I don’t think I’d ever seen that…it was like a new innovation.

Paul:

Yes.  I think it should be done because what happens is…public officials are not writing everything.  So I feel good about that, yes.  In fact I think editorial pages should maybe come up with a change of policy that essentially says to public officials, listen if you didn’t really write it at least give credit to the other person.

Charlie:

The fact that you address grass root problems in a real forthright manner probably means that a lot of people are asking for your support with tough problems and since you can’t be an effective worker on all causes, how are you dealing with that?

Paul:

That’s a good question.  Two levels, one is that here in the office at the individual level it’s a problem because we have a huge case load.  We’re trying do really well on constituent service but I feel like we have to do more.  Generally speaking, there are people who write or call their senator plus a whole lot of other people who didn’t do it before who are really falling through the cracks and really hurting and it’s a real problem, it’s just astronomical, a massive number of letters.  Our goal is to get back to everyone in seven to twelve days.  The faster you go the more work there is.  So the only thing I can say is that the constituent service is critically important and we’re trying to cover a huge number of people. 

Now at the other level that’s hard for me because I’ve had to say I’ll be on the floor and I will debate a variety of different issues but I have to really concentrate on two issues.  One is health care, I campaigned on that, and the other is education and young people.  So in a sense what you end up having to do is realize you can’t take on every issue.  And I’ll give you an example.  Take Central America where I would like to do much more.  I will vote what I think is the right way but I can’t focus in the same way as I can on health care.

Charlie:

I read with interest this morning in the Star Tribune about the privileges that Congress enjoys…the free health coverage, doctors on call, low cost haircuts, private gyms, does the Senate enjoy the same privileges? And do you think they should?

Paul:

Well, I don’t use the Senate gym, I actually bought a home gym, and  I haven’t bounced any checks.  The health care is the one to really focus on.  I think that what we have is what people should have in this country.  We have universal health care coverage.  You know, you call and you see a doctor and you get drugs and there’s no charge.  So I’m not going to argue that…I mean I don’t think we should have it if the people don’t have it but I think the real point is that the people should have it across the board.  I’ve said that a million times. 

On the other things, let me take gyms,  because I’m really big on physical therapy and, you know, physical workouts.  I mean I think the problem there is I don’t think the folks should be against it, but the support staff, they don’t have any gym.  I think now in places of work they are increasingly setting up workout places, swimming pools, whatever. 

But we have…Charlie, it’s the reason that I voted against the salary increase and I’m not just saying this to you now, I said it on the floor, that there is getting to be a greater and greater disparity between the life style of the people here in Washington and the people they represent.  That’s the problem. 

Charlie:

Another thing…I feel really disappointed in the Democratic leadership in general, Mitchell and Foley et cetera.  It appears they’re really accommodating the administration an awful lot.  They just don’t take very strong stands most of the time.   And given our domestic problems why is this happening, why aren’t they out there saying the President is wrong on this?

Paul:

I have some sympathy for Mitchell because I see this caucus so splintered it’s hard to…and quite often you can’t get the votes.  Don’t misunderstand me.  I think that what has happened is that your point is well taken. The Democratic party has not been the opposition party to President Bush, just like it wasn’t for Reagan.  Therefore there’s little or very little difference and therefore the anger in politics in Washington is not an anger of about we’re hurting economically and we’re not doing well in our own country. We…the Democrats … it’s like cohabitation, you know, in Washington and therefore I think it’s mistake, as you say, and I don’t think there has been enough clarity where lines been drawn, I agree.  For whatever it’s worth, I’ve been on the losing side of a lot of votes where I’ve tried to do just what you recommend.  (laughs) With Tom Harkin on a lot of it by the way.

Charlie:

I think the majority of people are in agreement that our health care system needs reform and yet Washington appears to be moving slowly.  Do you think it’s because of the real powerful lobbies against it like the insurance companies and the Amercan Medical Association (AMA).

Paul:

Well one of the reasons things are moving slowly is that you have…and I speak more on the senate side because that’s what I see every day, part of it is you have a divided government.  So you automatically have kind of grid lock in anything to be passed, and you may have to over-ride a veto, which makes it more difficult.  You have, even among Democrats, some pretty basic divisions about what Democrats stand for or in a particular policy area like health care, what we need to do.  Part of the slowness in the Senate is that it’s very easy to obstruct.  You can stop almost anything if you want to, the way you do it is a filibuster and I’m going to do it on energy policy.  I decided, you know, it works both ways.  But you force a vote and the only way to cut off debate is get sixty votes, and close your vote.  But lets say we have a bill for voter registration, the Republicans move to table and they lose, 53 to 47.  Then they refuse to agree to time limits, they just start talking.  To cut them off, now it’s a different vote and you got to get sixty.  So that’s another thing that makes it difficult. 

On the final thing, I’m not going to end this on a negative note, the bottom thing, Charlie, is the logic of campaign financing, who pours the money into the elections and their power and health care.  Leadership came in, this is the Kennedy Mitchell Reigle bill, and they decided from the word go they can’t get it passed if you’ve got insurance companies opposed to it.  So they have a bill that doesn’t talk about single payor, its employer mandate, but there’s no cost control.  Plus there’s like one health insurance for people in the employment sector, another for those that are out, and I think a means test which becomes a mean test.  And what works well within Washington I can say is exactly opposite around the country. I know the insurance companies will come out fighting against it. If the heat gets turned up, we’ll see a lot of changes in health care. If that’s what’s necessary, so be it.  The question isn’t whether there will be change, there’s going to be change, the question is whether it’s going to be tinkering on the edges or whether it’s going to be overall change and I’m really pushing that.

Charlie:

Yes…that’s what we’re looking at.  Minnesota really looks like we’ll get a change, it’s a priority.  People want a change now, not sometime later.  From all the reports around the country people are saying the same thing.

Paul:         

Yes, they are.

Charlie:

It just seems to us that your amendment to the Kennedy bill is a good one to help implement a single payor program in the states and it improves it but it seems like  the whole Kennedy bill is delaying the real change…

Paul:

That’s the pragmatic.  It’s two tier.  The pragmatic tier is that amendment could be a separate bill.  But I’m also going to introduce national single payor as the complete alternative.  But I don’t think that’s going to pass right away so I’m trying to figure out what we can get through to…and you know that Kennedy bill could be…there are some things that could be done with it, and I think they know it.  There are too many problems with it.  If we really mark up, it could be changed significantly.

Charlie:

You have this personal optimism that carried you through the campaign.  It was great.  And are you still optimistic for more candidates bucking the system and getting elected?

Paul:

Yes.  It’s been like a…I guess you could say I’ve become a different person than I was.

But I am real optimistic.  And I think that the focus should be on the economic issues and on human rights issues and issues like health care and education and just the power of the people.  If people want to become more self-sufficient…if people have the right to be able to be self sufficient, to live with dignity, to support themselves, to be gainfully employed, to contribute to the community, that’s what we  stand for. 

I don’t think that’s a minority view. I think that’s a winning position.

Charlie:

Thanks for the interview.

Paul:         

Thanks for the coverage earlier too.