U.S. Senator Gary Peters is in a special place of his own in the world’s most influential legislative chamber that is sure to make him a darling of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Because he was the only Democrat in the nation to win a seat in the United States Senate during the 2014 midterm congressional elections. He was also the highest vote getter in Michigan winning, 100,000 more votes over incumbent Michigan Republican Governor Rick Snyder during that election cycle.
In total, Peters received 1,704,936 votes. He is clearly settling in his new role with a mandate from Michigan voters who chose him over former Michigan Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land. He is already sitting on four powerful committees in the Senate. His seat on the Commerce, Science & Transportation Committee, the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Committee and the Joint Economic Committee all have a direct impact on how Michigan does business with the federal government. In this interview with Bankole Thompson, editor of the Michigan Chronicle, Senator Peters explains why he is disappointed with President Obama’s budget, the Detroit River bridge project, the GOP and bipartisanship, child care and preschool, veteran affairs, entrepreneurship, ISIS and many more. Excerpts follow.
MICHIGAN CHRONICLE: You expressed disappointment in President Obama’s budget for missing funding for the Detroit River bridge project. What is the economic impact in Detroit if federal help doesn’t come through on this project?
GARY PETERS: I support many of the policies in the President’s budget that would help Michigan’s working families, like extending the child tax credit, and I applaud his efforts to end the misguided policy of sequestration, which are blanket, indiscriminate spending cuts that would have a negative impact on the middle class. However, I am disappointed that the President’s budget did not allocate funding for the New International Trade Crossing in Detroit. This is a project that will create thousands of Michigan jobs, enhance trade with Canada, our closest trading partner, and transform Michigan into a transportation and logistics hub for trade, manufacturing and innovation. As a member of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, I will continue working with Congress, the Obama administration, the Snyder administration and the Canadian government to pursue all options to ensure funding for construction and staffing of the customs plaza. These stakeholders are having ongoing negotiations and I believe they will be able to reach a deal to fund and staff the customs plaza.
MC: You are the only Democrat to make it to the U.S. Senate in the 2014 midterm election. What kind of reception have you received so far in the Senate?
GP: While I am the only Democrat in the freshman class, I have enjoyed getting to know my Senate colleagues over these past weeks through freshman orientation and bipartisan lunches and have already begun building the good working relationships that will allow me to be an effective voice for Michigan in Washington. I also have a few friends from my time in the House of Representatives, Shelley Capito of West Virginia and Cory Gardner of Colorado, who are joining me as new senators this year. I believe the relationships we have built working together in the House will help us continue to work across the aisle on important issues. Our country faces big challenges and people want Congress to work together in a bipartisan way to solve those problems. I’m looking forward to continuing to build relationships with my Senate colleagues and find bipartisan, common sense solutions for our country’s toughest problems.
MC: Should the public expect the word “bipartisanship” in this new Senate?
GP: I am encouraged to hear many Republicans in Congress talking about bipartisanship and compromise, but compromise is a two-way street. I think it is critical for the Senate to come together and work with the President to solve the big challenges facing our country, rather than opposing an idea simply because it came from a Democrat or a Republican. The American people sent a clear message that they want their representatives in Congress to work with each other and with the President to find good solutions to our problems. As I travel around the state, I hear many of the same concerns from Michiganders who want to know what we are going to do to help our economy grow and help working families get ahead, not just get by. That’s what Congress should be focused on.
MC: What are your expectations of this new Senate?
GP: My goal is to make sure that I’m always putting Michigan first. I’m honored to follow in the footsteps of Carl Levin, who has been both a friend and mentor to me. Carl is leaving a tremendous legacy of public service to the people of Michigan, as well as the legacy of his exceptional leadership in the Senate. I’m also excited to join Senator Debbie Stabenow in representing Michigan in the Senate. She has been an unyielding champion for Michigan, and I’m ready to roll up my sleeves and work with her to make sure that we are addressing Michigan’s top priorities. As we head into the second month of this new Congress, I’m focused on our economy, creating good jobs in our state and making sure that Michigan middle class families and small businesses have the opportunity to succeed.
MC: What kind of leadership should we expect from your counterparts in the Republican Senate?
GP: Senators from both parties must be willing to work across the aisle to solve the challenges facing working families instead of pushing purely partisan legislation to appease extremists, and that is what I came to the Senate to do. As I’ve gotten to know some of my Senate colleagues, I’ve found that we have a lot of common ground to build good working relationships and find ways to come together on a number of issues. But we have to be willing to address the tough issues, like ensuring our economic recovery is benefitting all Americans and not just those at the top, making college more affordable, improving our public education system and working to make home ownership attainable.
MC: Do you have any worries about the prospect of Democrats and Republicans not working together?
GP: My goal is to put Michigan’s priorities first, and that means working with members of both parties to find common sense solutions for our state. Just recently, the Senate passed the bipartisan Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act on a 99-0 vote, a great example of how members of both parties can put politics aside and come together. I was proud to cosponsor this legislation, which takes a good first step toward reducing the number of suicides among returning service members in Michigan and across the country.
Additionally, in the House, I worked with Shelly Moore Capito to help student loan borrowers who have faced financial hardship get back on track by allowing them to rehabilitate loans that have defaulted by making a series of on-time payments. She is another former House member who is joining me in the Senate, and I look forward to continuing to work with her on important issues like college affordability.
MC: Now that you are in the Senate is there a misconception that you think people have about this legislative body?
GP: With all the money involved in politics, I am concerned that many people think that politicians are out of touch with middle class families or only looking out for corporate interests. I have found that in the Senate, there are other people like me who want to fight for middle class priorities like creating good paying jobs, raising the minimum wage and promoting economic opportunity by ensuring all kids have access to a good education. Moving forward, Congress and the President must work together to focus on creating jobs, growing the economy and strengthening the middle class so that America is truly a country where if you work hard and play by the rules, you can build a better life for yourself and your family.
MC: In the long run, how would you measure your success in the Senate?
GP: I will measure my success in the Senate by how I stand up for Michigan’s needs and priorities. Whether I’m working on growing our economy and strengthening our middle class, protecting Michigan’s natural resources or supporting our veterans, my priority will be to put Michigan first. In January, I offered two amendments to the Keystone XL pipeline bill to protect Michigan’s environment from harmful petroleum coke and provide better oversight of aging pipelines around the Great Lakes. I was disappointed that a majority of Republicans opposed these important, common sense amendments, but I was proud to stand up for what was right for Michigan.
MC: The progressive wing of the Democratic Party led by Senator Elizabeth Warren is taking a harder line on issues relating to Wall Street. Does that make it easier or difficult for Democrats in the Senate to strike compromise?
GP: Bipartisanship is a two-way street, and that means that Republicans and Democrats have to be willing to come together and find common ground. We should be able to work across the aisle and find ways to strengthen our middle class. Right now, many middle class families feel squeezed, and are finding it harder to feel like they are getting ahead. We can help boost the middle class by improving the child care tax credit, expanding paid family leave, strengthening our communities, making sure children have access to quality education and making home ownership more affordable.
MC: Is President Obama doing what he should be doing in terms of his engagement in the Middle East and addressing the threat of ISIS?
GP: ISIS is a brutal terrorist group that poses a significant national security threat to the United States and has shown its capability for brutality through its executions and torture of men, women and children, including Americans. As a member of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, I am extremely concerned about ISIS, and we must have an aggressive and comprehensive strategy for fighting this brutal terrorist group. I support the President’s plan to use targeted airstrikes to degrade ISIS, and I support efforts to equip and train Syrians and moderate Arab forces to help in this fight. As we continue these efforts to stop ISIS, Congress and the American people must have a say in our actions. Our response is strongest when the President is working with and has the support of Congress. The President should continue to seek support from Congress and all airstrikes and counterterrorism efforts against ISIS should receive proper debate and oversight from Congress and in conjunction with a coalition of European and Arab nations.
MC: What do you hope the Senate can achieve in the last two years of the Obama presidency?
GP: The President recently laid out his priorities in his State of the Union, and now it’s time for Congress to work with the President to get things done in Washington. Right now, Michiganders are concerned about jobs and the economy, and the President laid the groundwork for the important conversations we need to have about our ongoing economic recovery. Despite the great strides we have made in our economic recovery after our nation faced the toughest economic crisis in decades, we need to make sure that the middle class is benefitting from our economic recovery.
The very first bill I introduced when I was first elected to the House was the Helping Families Afford to Work Act, which would have increased the tax credit that families could use to offset the cost of child care and preschool. I was glad to see the President raise this important issue because child care can be so expensive that it prevents a parent from taking a job. I look forward to working with the President so we can ensure working parents not only have good-paying jobs, but that they can also afford child care so they can afford to work.
MC: You sit on the Homeland Security and Commerce Committees. What does that mean for Michigan?
GP: I serve on four committees in the Senate, the Commerce, Science & Transportation Committee, the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Committee and the Joint Economic Committee. On the Commerce Committee, I will continue supporting policies that reinvest in Michigan manufacturing and support the auto industry. I was proud to fight for the auto rescue that saved millions of jobs across the country, and thanks to the rescue, Michigan’s autos have come roaring back.
On the Homeland Security Committee, I will continue to be an outspoken voice for the New International Trade Crossing in Detroit and ensure secure and efficient trade with Canada. I also want to work with both parties to find ways to cut wasteful spending, reduce the deficit and make government work more efficiently for taxpayers. All of my committee assignments give me the opportunity to focus on what matter most for Michigan families and businesses, including growing our economy, creating good-paying middle class jobs and ensuring that our country is a place where everyone has the opportunity to succeed.
MC: Is there anything you would like to get done that is not on the radar right now?
GP: My top priority in the Senate is creating good jobs in our state, growing our economy and strengthening our middle class. Growing our economy means investing in the engines of economic growth — our small businesses — and promoting entrepreneurship and innovation. While I think the economy is always on the radar of Congress and the American people, it is important for us to make it a top priority. I will continue fighting to make sure that we bring good-paying jobs to Michigan and that our small business have the resources they need to grow, compete and succeed. I was proud to champion two key small business-lending initiatives, the State Small Business Credit Initiative and the Small Business Lending Fund, and look forward to building on that success in the Senate.