MyDD Interview with Tom Allen
by Jonathan Singer, Fri Jul 27, 2007 at 08:34:23 AM EDT
As a part of my interview series on this site, yesterday afternoon I had the opportunity to speak with Democratic Congressman Tom
Maine Allen about his Senate candidacy in the state of Maine, where he is challenging two term incumbent Susan Collins. This race is viewed by many to be one of the Democrats' best pick-up opportunities; for instance, The Rothenberg Political Report places ME-Sen in its "narrow advantage for incumbent party" category and The Cook Political Report (.pdf) similarly calls this race "leans Republican", it's closest category outside of tossups.
Over the course of the interview, which you can listen to or read below, Allen and I covered a whole range of issues relating to the election, including Iraq, the economy, healthcare and just what his campaign will look like.
Jonathan Singer: With Susan Collins being such a moderate and being right down the middle and being so popular, how do you have the audacity to go up against her?
Tom Allen: Well, because it isn't true. The story just isn't true. I explain to people up in Maine that Susan and Olympia have had very soft press coverage for the last decade. I just run through my differences with her, with Susan. Basically she's been for the President's policy in Iraq from the beginning. She voted for the war. I voted against it. I've been a steady critic trying to change the policy for four and a half years. She voted for every single one of the President's tax cuts for the rich, including the '03 tax cut, which Olympia did not vote for. She voted for the energy bill, which moved $14 billion to oil companies. [She voted] for the Medicare Part D, which moved tens of billions in excess profits to pharma. She voted for the military commissions bill, the torture bill and Sam Alito. Doesn't sound like someone who's independent or moderate or down the middle to me.
Singer: You've had some fundraising successes and you have nearly matched her, in terms of cash-on-hand, so we can say that you'd be able to run ads and whatnot throughout the state to get out that message. But otherwise, how are you going to get through that media that tends to excessively soft on her?
Allen: The media is already changing in Maine. The press is very good for us right now because simply the fact of me running against her has made them understand that this is a big race, it's a big race nationally, they know it's likely to be very close and it's one of the best Democratic pickup opportunities. So they're covering the race. I get more coverage for an ordinary press conference than I've ever had before.
But particularly in the contrast on Iraq, the press is picking up the fact, for example, that she voted the other day with the Democrats to shut off debate and bring to the floor the Levin-Reed bill that set a deadline for Iraq but she made it very clear that she was going to vote against the deadline. She has steadily always voted against the deadline for bringing our troops home. And now the people in Maine, if they follow the news at all, are beginning to understand whose side she's on.
Singer: Is it getting through, for instance, that she is in fact closer to Joe Lieberman than she is to Olympia Snowe?
Allen: It is. Of course. MoveOn.org did this huge push for me in June when they found out that Joe Lieberman was doing an event for her on June 21st. A couple of weeks before they pitched to their members, and in five days they raised $250,000 for us. That whole netroots community just gets very riled up by the fact that Susan's been a supporter of the President. She's tried to hide it. You can't find much about Iraq on her website. But that's the truth. She's been with Joe Lieberman on this from the beginning.
Singer: Even though she is a Republican in a state that tends to go Democratic in federal races, I guess outside of senatorial races, Susan Collins seems to have a fairly high approval rating. Are you seeing these numbers start to move with this press coverage or is the fight just going to have to ramp up even harder to get that message out?
Allen: We haven't done any polling, so I really don't know. Look, she has high approval ratings, but so did Lincoln Chafee. Lincoln Chafee's approval rating was 76 percent in Sheldon Whitehouse's first poll and it was 63 percent on the day he lost. The people of Rhode Island got it and I think that the people of Maine will get it that this election is about a lot more than Tom Allen and Susan Collins, it's about the future direction of the country.
If we have a working majority - 55, 56, 57 Democratic Senators; I'd like 60, but let's say we have the mid- to upper-50s - then we can deal in a substantial, productive way with the challenges we face as a country. We can reform our healthcare system, we can have a real energy policy that reduces our reliance on Mideast oil, we can deal with the threat of climate change, and most importantly we can get our troops out of Iraq. But that's what it takes. You can watch the Senate today and see how Harry Reid is struggling with what is actually a 50 to 49 majority. It's very hard to get things done over there. I want to help change that.
Singer: What will your campaign look like? Are we going to see a top-heavy campaign, stocking up all of the money towards the end to run big ads? Or are we going to see a lot of pounding the pavement, the normal grassroots retail kind of politics?
Allen: We're going to have a complete campaign. We certainly are raising money. We have $1.7 million on hand after June 30th. We're going to have a very well funded media campaign if we just keep the pressure up, keep doing the fundraising.
But we'll also have the best grassroots organizing campaign that Maine's ever seen. We're already putting together a field campaign. The state party and our voter file is in the best shape it's ever been in. We have more work to do but it's in good shape.
And we're just very confident that people in Maine have had it. Maine is the most Democratic state in the country with a Republican Senator. Therefore it is closest to the Rhode Island example in 2006. Al Gore carried Maine by 5 points, John Kerry carried Maine by 9 points. I think the next Democratic nominee, whoever he or she is, is probably going to carry Maine by 12 to 13 - maybe more.
So we've got the wind at our back and a great organization and we're starting early. And I feel the response is really good.
Singer: Realistically, you're pretty well known in your neck of the woods, but Maine is a very large state. A lot of people think it's a small state like some of the other New England states, but it's pretty big geographically and people are spread out. How are you going to get the message out to some of those more distant portions of the state where maybe you aren't as well known at this point?
Allen: First of all I would say that I already represent half the state. The Portland media market covers 70 percent of the population, so I'm already well known in the second district. What I would say is I'm doing everything. I've already been up in Bangor for the memorial day parade, for the fourth of July parade, and been up for a parade in the very tip of Northern Maine. And we're holding events throughout the second district. It's all working. I would bet that my recognition rate in the second district is probably pretty close to 85 percent, something like that. And that's unusual for someone who isn't already representing that area.
Singer: Do you worry about that fact, and you can correct me if I'm wrong about the timing, that people from the first district have tended to have more difficulty winning a statewide election like this, that it tends to be someone from the second district who has in the past, at the least, won these elections?
Allen: I just think that's a historical accident, depends on the people who are running. When you think about Maine, it's important to recognize, first of all, that I represent half of the population already. But really it's more than half because when you're eight years after a census the first district is bigger than the second. As I said, the media reaches into the second much more readily than the media from the second...
Look, Susan Collins is well liked, but that's largely because people do not understand her positions, they don't understand how closely she's tied to Bush, both on Iraq and this economic policy, which holds if you give tax cuts to the richest people in this country somehow the middle class will benefit. That is not an agenda that works for Maine. What's happened in Maine is those tax cuts have drained federal revenues and it means less money in Maine for education, healthcare, environmental protection, head start, small business, community development. When people hear this in the second district, they understand that the bottom line is she's with the Republicans here and not with people back home.
Singer: Can you get into some more specifics on those policy differences? How would Senator Tom Allen differ from Senator Susan Collins come January 4th, 2009 (or whenever the new Congress is sworn in) on the issue of Iraq should unfortunately, as I think is going to be the case, we still have a significant number of American troops there?
Allen: My position on Iraq is we need to bring our troops home. We need to bring all of them home. We need to do that as soon as we can. Because that's the only way to force the Sunni and the Shia leadership to get serious about compromising their differences. It's the only way to get the Iranians and the Saudis and the Egyptians understand that the Iraq problem is their problem and the Islamic countries are going to need to figure out how they are going to stop this Sunni/Shia conflict. There's no way we can do it. Susan Collins still buys into the notion that somehow we will have enough troops there and they will provide enough stability so that eventually these Iraqi politicians will come to a government much like ours. And it's crazy. It just doesn't reflect their culture, their history, their experience. So on Iraq, the difference is absolutely profound.
But I would also say, in terms of what's happening to the middle class in Maine, people are getting squeezed, they are having trouble paying for their healthcare and their kids' education, and they're worried about losing their job. She's not voting with them. And I have and I will.
Singer: Just one more question on the differences on Iraq before we move on. Let's say come September Susan Collins does change her position. We've seen a number of Republican Senators start to change their positions, including your other Senator Olympia Snowe. What happens if as the election is heating up you start to see her see Iraq differently? How are you going to hold her feet to the fire?
Allen: An election year conversion after almost five years of war is going to help me more than her. Because it indicates once again that she is essentially admitting that she is wrong. I've already told many people in Maine, including the press, that she will change her position. I know I'm right on that. She's going to change her position. She's going to be for a deadline at some point in the fall after General Petraeus makes this report, whatever that report is. And we just portray it for what it is. It's a political calculation on her part that frankly doesn't change her record.
Singer: You brought up middle class squeeze and some of those other economic issues. What other domestic issues do you see as playing a large role in the election this cycle, whether it's healthcare or whether it's energy or whatever?
Allen: You've mentioned the two big ones. On healthcare. Healthcare is the biggest domestic issue in Maine, particularly for the small business community. I've introduced legislation that would give small businessmen and -women the same kind of options and benefits that I have as a member of Congress and that other federal employees have. It would be a federally subsidized system. There would be a choice of plans that would respect state law. And it would drop the prices of the cost of healthcare for small businesses. They would still have to pay something. But it would cover millions of people in the United States. It would be a dramatic change in our healthcare system.
On energy, people come up to me all the time and complain about gas prices, and if you're someone who drives tree length logs out of the Maine North woods to a paper mill for a living, you spend $1,600 a week per truck. Susan has done nothing for those people - certainly nothing in voting for Dick Cheney's energy bill. What we needed over these last five years, a long time ago, was requirements for more efficient vehicles, development of alternative fuels that would reduce the price of gasoline, that would provide alternatives to gasoline and make this economic hit a lot less severe.
Susan and I have been here in Washington the same 10 years. We've been subject to the same pressures, we've voted on the same issues and the contrast is dramatic. And it tells you that where I'm trying to take Maine and the country is progressive policies in the 21st century that fit the needs of the population today, not subject to what the oil companies want and the pharmaceutical companies want or what the Bush tax cutters want.
Singer: Well I know you're going to have to run for some votes so I'm just going to ask you a final question. If there's just one message that you'd like to send to the netroots today, what would that message be?
Allen: It's simple. You make the difference. You make the difference. You balance out the power of the pharmaceutical industry and the oil industry and the coal industry here in Washington. The best example is what the netroots did for me in this last quarter. MoveOn.org raised $250,000 for me. I think the average contribution for me was maybe $60 or $70. They provided us with 6,500 new contributors. It's an enormously powerful movement. And frankly, I'm going to be relying on the netroots, listening to the netroots, urging people to participate in this way because it alters the whole balance of power here in Washington and I don't have to depend on oil companies and pharmaceutical companies and insurance companies to raise money for a campaign. So it's very exciting to me. The blogging community was out there for me in this last quarter and I hope you'll all be there again.
Singer: Terrific. Well thanks so much for your time and good luck.
Allen: Thank you. Great to talk with you.
[THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.]