The 4th District Interviews: Kurt Meyer

May 20th, 2008 · 2 Comments

Fourth district congressional candidate Kurt Meyer sits down for an interview at the Ames Progressive Office on March 25. (photo: Gavin Aronsen/The Progressive)

Kurt Meyer has made a career working for nonprofit organizations ranging from nursing homes and hospitals to museums and libraries. In 1988 he started a company to assist nonprofits that has since merged into the St. Paul, Minnesota-based Kairos and Associates. In 2004 he helped found – and currently serves as president for – the Iowa nonprofit Advocates for a Cleaner Environment. He also has a long history of activism in the Democratic Party, including his work on the campaigns of former Representative Mike Blouin and former Senator John Culver. Meyer presently resides in rural Otranto Township in Mitchell County.

Meyer, alongside Becky Greenwald, William J. Meyers, and Kevin Miskell, will seek the Democratic nomination for Congress at the June 3 primary election. The winner will vie to unseat Republican Representative Tom Latham in the general election this fall.

On March 25, Meyer spoke with the Ames Progressive at our office about his decision to run for Congress.

On his background in politics…

I have always been interested in politics and in governmental matters. I was a political science and history major in college – I went to Luther College – and I guess I envisioned at some point having government or politics be more of a career for me. When I was your age that was kind of what was in my mind’s eye, but then, you know, funny things happen and I worked a number of different political campaigns including when I was a college student.

And then after college – I graduated in June of ’76, the year that Jimmy Carter was elected president – I went to work then for then-Congressman Mike Blouin, who was representing Iowa’s old 2nd district. Mike was a wonderful candidate. He was a wonderful congressman; he was great to work for.

It was Mike’s last successful campaign … but it’s consumptive, and it takes a great deal of energy. So you can do it when you are young and when you have very few other things going on in your life. At the time I had no mortgage, I had no wife, I had no children, and then eventually I got married in 1978, and then in 1980 my wife and I both went to work for then-Iowa Senator John Culver….

And Senator Culver, who was a terrific senator and a terrific person, was targeted by all the new right groups and it was a powerful learning lesson for me. It was one of those things where we worked for 11 months, both my wife and I, to try to reelect him. We were unsuccessful, yet the lessons were powerful ones.

John Culver said, in essence, “I have been accused of being a liberal. Here’s what being a liberal means to me. It means that you stand with these people, it means you stand for these things. It means that these are my priorities, it means these are the people who I feel I have a commitment to try to make their lives better, and if you don’t think that way then go and and vote” – in essence – “for the other person.”

If you lose, that is your message, and you stand with and for a candidate who has the integrity and the values that John Culver had. There’s something obviously disappointing about losing, but there is sort of a, “Well that’s the way the process is supposed to work.”

If more people prefer the vision or the sense of direction that the opponent offers, then he or she should win. So it was a powerful lesson.

If there is nobility in losing, that campaign sort of affirmed in my mind that it is possible to discuss issues in meaningful fashion, to articulate viewpoints, to interpret the issues as you see them, and then let the decision rest with the voters.

So that I think enhanced in my view – even though it was disheartening to lose – sort of the calling of elected office. But I also knew that – I mean, I had been married for two years – I wanted to in essence establish a career for myself, because up to that point I hadn’t really decided what I wanted to do with my life, and it was a wonderful transition for me into what then became my career.

On his career working for non-profits…

I had spent 1980 trying to raise money for John Culver. I then got a job working for a firm that helped hospitals with their planning and their fundraising and with community relations, so I went from doing it for a candidate to doing many of the same things I had done for Senator Culver, doing it for hospitals who were also trying to grow and expand and enhance their programs and the like.

So that had been my career for the last 27 years, working for non-profit organizations. That’s been a wonderful career for me. I have served as a consultant and a campaign director and a program enhancer and an adviser to all these different non-profit organizations, and I include among them hospitals, nursing homes, libraries, colleges, human service providers – for example, domestic abuse agencies – museums, organizations of that nature. I’ve helped many of them throughout the upper Midwest.

I made an estimate recently that I’ve been involved with maybe 200 different organizations … so that has been a form of community service, which is somewhat different from public service, because in many cases I was not directly responsible for determining the policies of those organizations. I did recommend different courses of action [including responses to planning, programming, and personnel challenges].

On 2006 4th district Democratic candidate Selden Spencer…

I thought Selden was a terrific candidate. I thought he did an admirable job of engaging citizens throughout the district. He got a late start, and had he maybe started earlier he might have received more votes, but I thought Selden’s campaign was a wonderful exercise and I was excited about supporting Selden this time until he decided that was not in the cards.

I was excited about the opportunity afforded by Selden’s last effort as a wonderful launching pad to be victorious this time.

I think that Selden felt that he was going to struggle with what amounts to some episodes in his history that was going to make it very difficult for him, ultimately, to be a successful candidate. And I … respect Selden’s decision not to run.

On his decision to run for Congress…

I waited because I was convinced, in part by the positive showing Selden had last time, that this 4th Congressional District could and would go blue this time. So I was very hopeful that there would sort of be a coalescing around a particular candidate, and I was surprised that that had not yet happened.

I know there was a concerted effort to recruit an energetic candidate to take on the incumbent congressman, and when no candidate emerged that was a strong consensus candidate, people said, well, why don’t you consider running? … There’s something in my background that says sitting around wishing for something to happen is not very satisfying or fulfilling.

I was fearful when no one candidate emerged. Then I began to think, well, if I could help bring voice to some of the issues I believe in, my candidacy would be worthwhile. That’s kind of when I decided that I would go from considering a run to actually jumping in full-force.

On the role of government in the era of Bush and beyond…

In recent years, I think particularly since Bush took office, the government seems to work very well for those who in essence have it made. They are comfortable financially, they’ve got good health care coverage, when their children want to go to school they’re able to write the tuition checks. They are from the upper economic rungs of the ladder. They receive the tax break that Bush proposed and that, yes, the Congress went along with.

That’s not the role I see for government. I see the role of government [as] standing with those that need someone to stand alongside them. I think of working families, I think of family farmers, I think of the elderly on fixed income, I think of children who, through no fault of their own, have found themselves in low economic households.

Those are people that need the government to stand with them and give them a break and give them a boost and to reach out a hand of help.

I think if students want to go to college who don’t have the money, the government needs to reach out a hand of help. I think of students who want to go to college but don’t have the money. Well, the government needs to offer programs that would say any student that really is committed to getting a higher education, we’ve got to make funding available for that student.

I feel strongly about that. That, to me, is the positive role of government. I know that a lot of people, over the course of time, have come to say, well, the government is the problem. I think that government can be a problem, but to say government is the problem overlooks the fact that in many cases government is who we turn to to protect our resources….

We are borrowing staggering amounts of money to pay for [the Iraq war]. That money, in part, will be paid for by me, but more directly it’s going to be paid for by my children, and maybe even – unless we can find a way to extract ourselves without of course putting troops in harm’s way – maybe will be payed for by my children’s children. Boy, that scares the heck out of me.

It’s not responsible stewardship on my part to say, I’m going to take care of myself and I am going to give to future generations a world with fewer opportunities and fewer positive aspects to it than the world I received.

On the Iraq war…

The success of the surge assumes, for a moment, that the reason we’re there is sound. I’m reminded sometimes of when you drive past the exit on the Interstate and you say, boy, I drove past the exit, maybe I need to now drive faster to get there sooner.

If you say you’re going in the wrong direction, I don’t know that going in the wrong direction is going to get you there faster. I believe that the Bush administration has not devised the best course for us to be in Iraq or the right course for us to fully understand what our objectives are, and so I think that the surge, is it a success? It’s very hard to know. What the heck are we trying to do? …

I think that we should get ourselves out probably within the [first] 18 months of a new administration taking office.

Might it take two years? Might it be done in one year? I don’t know that the time frame is so important as we take the steps necessary to withdraw our troops, mindful of the fact that if we don’t place at a premium their safety then we would be endangering lives that have been endangered enough.

I would dare say that virtually everyone who is now serving, admirably, in Iraq would be out within 18 to 24 months. It may be more quickly – maybe we could say 12 to 18 months – but I think rather than getting locked in on a timetable it needs to be something where we the American people say, this course of action that we’ve practiced up till now has not been the right one, let’s withdraw.

I think a specific timetable boxes us into a corner, and to what end?

On universal health care…

We have to come up with a plan to offer health care coverage to every man, woman, and child in this country. It’s absolutely essential. That may be a process whereby the first thing we get in terms of universal care may not be the plan that’s ultimately in place 10 years hence or 20 years hence.

Maybe we have to get a baseline program in place [where] we eventually learn about it, we say, boy, this program might work more effectively for this demographic group, children, let’s say, if we tweaked it here, okay, great. We can always improve it….

I believe very strongly that we have to have some form of universal health care, and I think that I would rather say, let’s get a program in place and then make efforts over the course of the next – we’ll probably never say it’s finished, we’ll always be making adjustments – but it should be adjustments driven by how we can better meet the health care needs of the American public rather than how can we meet the needs of big insurance or big pharmacy.

On making investments in Internet access and renewable energy…

One of the things I feel strongly about is the infrastructure reflected in high speed Internet access. Twenty-eight counties in the 4th Congressional District mean, almost by definition, you’ve got a rural district. There is a digital divide in this country that basically says that people in urban and suburban areas have access to high speed Internet access and a lot of people in rural communities don’t….

Government has a role here, setting policies, setting direction, putting a structure in place that says every citizen in this country … should have access to high speed Internet, because that’s part of the global village…. I realize it’s an expenditure, but it’s also an investment….

There are investments we can make as a country that will make this a better, stronger country. One of the things we have to invest in: weaning ourselves from this awesome and paralyzing dependence on fossil fuels….

I think of the leadership that we have in terms of Governor Culver and some of his emphasis on renewable energy, I think of the wind that we have, and I think of the grade A soil that we have for biofuels and the like. I think that we have a chance in Iowa to become the new Middle East.

They talk about the Middle East of energy. The middle west can become the new energy leader. But we have to act on these things.

On the primary election…

Broadly, I think it speaks to a certain sense of good health and vibrancy that we have within the 4th district Democratic Party. I think that there is a fair amount of interest in this race. If you look at the fact that the incumbent congressman has won comfortably the last several races, you’d say, well, why would this race be one of interest to the DCCC?

The reason that this district is targeted by the DCCC is because they think that this is a winnable race. I thought it was a winnable race. I am not into this Don Quixote jousting-at-windmills effort. I would not be running today if I didn’t think it was a winnable race.

On reaching out to the 4th district…

I do think that being from the northern part of the district means that I have an opportunity. It won’t necessarily be easy, but I have an opportunity to connect with people in Mitchell and Howard and Floyd and Worth and Winneshiek and Allamakee and Winnebago, those rural counties up along the state line, two counties deep – Chickasaw. I think that it’s going to be a higher priority for me to reach out to those people because those are people who I think we need to carry. Those are people who are every bit as eager and ready for change as the people in Story County, but we don’t have the obvious core of activists, of progressive organizations and what have you, so I think we’ll have to work a little harder there.

I have been very well received in those counties. We have a 28-county strategy for the primary certainly, but also for the general election. We are not going to concede any area; we are going to run aggressively in all 28 counties, first for the primary and then for the general election.

On his outlook for the general election and the impact of a successful campaign…

We do have a chance this year. This is not an empty exercise in a vanity campaign or a feel-good that says, you know, let’s put somebody’s name on the ballot. We have a chance to defeat a congressman who has been voting on our behalf – which is a little different than representing us – since he took office in 1995….

We have a real chance to be victorious. Change the course, that’s the opportunity. Electing Kurt Meyer to Congress is only important if you say, because Kurt Meyer represents a different viewpoint that would help change the direction that our country is headed, and a larger majority in the House, a larger majority in the Senate, and a Democratic president, would that be a different formula in Washington? You’re darn right it would be.

I would think that we would, in that environment, be able to extract ourselves from our misbegotten venture in Iraq. I think we’d have a real chance to get meaningful health care coverage for every man, woman, and child in this, the richest country in the history of mankind. I think we’d have a real chance to look at some long-term energy and environmental policies….

George Bush will not have his name on the ballot this fall, thanks be to God, but his dependable vote in the United States House of Representatives will have his name on the ballot, and that’s Tom Latham. And so there needs to be some explaining, Tom, how is it that you could vote so consistently with big oil, with big pharmacy, with big insurance, with big agribusiness, and one other big needs to be added, with big deficits, and think that that was voting in our interest?

Tags: Gavin Aronsen · Interviews · Online Exclusives

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Tom Russell // Jun 2, 2008 at 1:56 pm

    The office seems barren without all the art and pianos. I like all the democratic choices. Anything but more Latham.

  • 2 garonsen // Jun 2, 2008 at 2:47 pm

    Say what about the office? I’m in Poland, gotta start catching up on things

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