Originally published in the Sunday Edition of the Waco Tribune Herald.
Rick Kennedy, 57, an Austin-based software engineer who ran for Congress in 2018, again seeks to become the Democratic nominee in the November election to succeed Republican Congressman Bill Flores in representing Congressional District 17. Kennedy proposes a public option in terms of health care in recognition of high uninsurance rates statewide and a rural health crisis, including closure of two hospitals in Milam County and Robertson County’s having only one general practitioner and Falls County only two. In immigration, he proposes granting all asylum-seekers “basic human dignity and respect” and the processing of their claims in a timely manner; securing borders and ports of entry with a “portfolio of technology and human resource-based solutions”; and mandatory pre-hiring E-Verify checks and prosecution of employers who fail to comply. He suggests a path to citizenship for many of our 10.5 million undocumented residents who have lived among us for more than a decade. Kennedy might lack the easy charisma of Texas Democratic star Beto O’Rourke but not the intellect, energy and constitutional savvy. He squares as an old-fashioned Democratic centrist brimming with ideas, not ideology.
Q This sounds like a joke. Rick Kennedy goes in for jury duty, he’s running for Congress in a three-way primary, probably has opinions about criminal justice and winds up serving jury duty in the runup to Election Day. By the way, is this trial civil or criminal?
A And that’s why. It’s a civil case, it’s not a criminal case, so that’s why I got seated. I did inform the judge and the attorneys on the case because downtown Austin doesn’t even realize that the 17th Congressional District encompasses part of Austin. I mean, it’s phenomenal how to them that’s the Waco and Bryan/College Station district. They don’t even know. Anyway, during the jury selection process, I got the judge and the attorneys and I said, “I don’t know if this is relevant or impactful in any way, but I’m Rick Kennedy, I’m running for United States Congress in the 17th.” And the judge looks at me and says, “Is there any other reason you would not be able to serve impartially on this jury?” And I said, “No, there isn’t.”
I knew my position as a candidate would do one of two things: Get me kicked straight out of the room or get me plunked right into one of those jury seats.
Q I’ve been asking other candidates this: Do you have a favorite American hero?
A It’s an interesting question because I don’t really. You have to look at all of the heroes throughout history and sort of wrap them all together into one. I think the true American hero is the American citizen, to be honest with you — the people who grab control at some point and try to set things back on course when things are going awry. The citizen soldier of World War II is a perfect example, maybe that entire generation.
Q Many of them fought the Great Depression and World War II.
A That was my parents’ generation. So I hold that generation in enormously high esteem because of what they went through domestically, then rising up to fight the emerging evil in Europe and in the Pacific. It really set the direction of this nation for generations to follow.
Q What book, if any, are you reading?
A [Kennedy digs out of his backpack a pocket Constitution.] That’s what I’m reading. Again and again and again. I’m reading news and this, and the reason I’m reading this is because it seems to be under intense discussion, what this document means and doesn’t mean these days — not just in the impeachment process but in the role of the federal government and governance in general and what the Founding Fathers had in mind and what their original intent was. All this seems to be questioned right now.
Q Why do you think that is?
A Well, I think it’s a valid part of our ongoing discussion as a nation.
Q I’ve been questioning a lot of our candidates about Article I, Article II, Article III. I’m used to having candidates waive pocket Constitutions at me. Bill Flores used to do that. Do you find, when you talk to people just casually, is there a part of the Constitution they’re blocking from their minds?
A I was down at an event in Millican [just southeast of Bryan/College Station] a week ago. There were several Republican candidates and myself and William Foster. And one of the Republican candidates gets up and cites one of the clauses of the Preamble of the Constitution, “to provide for the common defense.” And I’m sitting there and, well, that’s it! And then the candidate says, “The federal government has gotten completely off the Constitution into all these other areas.” And I’m thinking, “There’s four other action clauses in the Preamble that you’re forgetting about: to establish justice; to ensure domestic tranquility; yes, to provide for the common defense; to promote the general welfare; and to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” [Kennedy does this from memory.] We’re doing one of those things really well right now. We traditionally do defense very well. We invest heavily in it. We all benefit from it. We’ll get into fine arguments about whether we’re spending too much on tanks or ICBMs rather than other things. You know, can we do a better job? Sure. But the other four action clauses are just lost in the ether, especially “to promote the general welfare.” The courts have found, throughout our history, that Congress has wide latitude under that clause to establish programs and to tax and fund those programs. And I believe a lot of folks have just simply lost sight of that. Now, we can argue all day long and we can vote as to whether a program like Medicare or Social Security is in the best interest of the people and whether we want to pay the taxes for that. We can have those arguments, but to just claim they’re unconstitutional or to even imply that they’re unconstitutional — to imply, for instance, that the Department of Education is somehow unconstitutional — is both inaccurate as well as stepping out of our lane. It’s not up to us as legislators to decide what’s unconstitutional. Yes, we want to craft legislation that will be constitutional, but whether or not they’re unconstitutional, that’s for Chief Justice John Roberts and the Supreme Court to decide.
Q Is this how the Affordable Care Act ran aground, through cherry-picking of the Constitution?
A Well, the provision of the Affordable Care Act that gets the unconstitutional label is the mandate. And I’m no constitutional scholar. I want to be a legislator. I don’t get to make these decisions [about a bill’s constitutionality]. I don’t have the authority. But if you ask me as a citizen and as a logical thinker looking at it, the federal government’s mandating that an individual buy a product from a private company on the face of it sounds pretty unconstitutional. Whether that takes down the rest of the law as well, I think that’s where the cherry-picking or maybe even generalizations come into play. Because one provision of the law is unconstitutional, is the rest of it unconstitutional, too? I don’t believe so.
Q Your being the last of the Congressional District 17 candidates we’re interviewing in this primary election round prompts me to ask you this special question. You’ve been to a number of the forums and debates around Congressional District 17. I know you’ve seen some of the Republicans [competing]. What is your estimation of the Republican field you’ve been witnessing?
A It’s big!
No, actually across the 11, they pretty much span the ideological spectrum, at least from center-right to far right. The one candidate I can — oh God, his name is escaping me right now.
Q Ahmad Adnan?
A Yeah. I was joking with him at the forum at KBTX the other night. I pointed out that if people took all of our names off our websites and just looked at the position statements, they’d have trouble figuring out which one’s the Republican and which one’s the Democrat. He represents obviously the center-most right of that field. And then, of course, it goes all the way to the far right. Pete Sessions, last time he was in Congress, on the ideological scale there was only one other member of Congress rated further to the right than Mr. Sessions.
Q Don’t you think this district represents that same ideology? Isn’t this a far-right district?
A No, I don’t think it’s a far-right district.
Q Then why do far-right candidates continue to win?
A Gerrymandering plays into it. Money plays into it. Mr. Sessions walked into this race with $300,000 in his war chest already. I think that this is definitely a center-right district. Perhaps when Mr. Flores came into office in the  tea party wave — back then, the entire country was leaning pretty far right at that point. I believe he probably crept further right because of that. This is the way it works in all of our districts. Eighty-plus percent of our districts are gerrymandered and considered non-competitive [for two-party contests]. The biggest fear an incumbent has is getting “primaried” from somebody further to the right or further to the left, depending on the district. And so if they want to stay in office, they’re forced to drift either right or left to hold on to their seats. The other thing that plays into it all is the parties on both sides; they pick the districts they’re going to focus on and abandon the rest.
Q If someone must face constant pressure to compromise his or her principles to go way to the right or left, is this job even worth it?
A The job is worth it because I think Congress as an institution is off track. We have to get people into office who are willing to have those conversations, to engage in principled compromise. I tell people this all the time. I’m an engineer. I am not really what you would consider an ideologue. I want facts. I want solutions to the problems at hand. If you bring me a solution to our health-care problem that gets everybody covered, that reduces uncompensated care to almost zero, that reduces the threat of bankruptcy due to health-care costs to zero and it’s a free-market solution, I’m with you because the problem is solved. I’m with you. OK? Do I believe that solution’s on the table right now? No, I don’t. As a matter of fact, since World War II, when our current system emerged, we have never developed a set of [policy results] that satisfies the needs of every American. We’ve always had a significant portion of Americans who are not covered by health insurance, which is why I think we need a mix, a composite of [solutions and principles], just like every issue we face whether immigration, infrastructure or health care. These are very complicated, multifaceted issues that require complicated multifaceted solutions. Again, back down in Millican, I was struck by things that the Republican candidates talked about that I agreed with. So on health care, do I agree with the Republican candidates that government should get entirely out of health care? No, I don’t. But do I agree that we could introduce more market forces in areas of health care that would help let the free market reign and bring prices down? Absolutely. Do I agree that we should deport 11 million people, two-thirds of whom or more have lived with us for 10 years and paid taxes and kept their noses clean, et cetera — do I believe we should deport them? No. Do I believe our immigration policies, going forward, should be more merit-based and less family-based? Yes, absolutely.
Q And the wall?
A Do I believe we need to secure our borders and our ports of entry? Absolutely. Do I believe that a 2,000-mile-long static defense, that 5,000-year-old technology that has routinely been defeated in our entire history of the world, is the right solution to that? No. In urban areas, high-population areas? Of course, barriers are necessary to channel traffic. You can’t control that. But is a 30-foot wall necessary on top of the 1,500-foot cliff in Santa Elena Canyon [in Big Bend National Park in far West Texas]? Absolutely not!
Q If you’ve ever been to Santa Elena Canyon, I can tell you nobody is getting out of there easily.
A Right. And you know what? If somebody does, you don’t deport that person. You give them citizenship and put them in the Rangers or the SEALs because that is one bad-ass son of a bitch who just scaled a 1,500-foot canyon wall. That’s merit-based immigration right there!
Q Government statistics show illegal immigration usually arises through visa overstays. One problem in solving immigration is that too many of us just want to imagine that these asylum waves are typical. Most immigrants actually come to the United States legally through our airports and ports of entry, as do illicit drugs hidden in trade wares. You obviously have hiked around Big Bend. If you have been out in West Texas, where I lived, well, anybody coming across that place with a jug of water, they’re screwed if they think they’re going to get across easily.
A Obviously we need to secure our borders, our ports of entry, so that we know who’s coming into the country, we know why they’re coming into the country, and to interdict illicit activities like human trafficking and drug smuggling. Ultimately, we have to also address the root-cause reasons why people are trying to sneak across the border: three big categories — economic, asylum and illicit activities, drugs. Economic: We really need to crack down and have mandatory E-Verify or some other capability to validate that folks are eligible to work in the United States. I know there’s a lot of arguments about E-Verify and all that stuff, but I’m a technology guy. You can’t convince me that the country that put men on the moon with less technology than is sitting on this table right now can’t come up with a system to validate whether somebody can work or not in this country. If they cannot work here, they will not come here for jobs, period, so you’ll ease that part. Drugs? We need a war on addiction, not a war on drugs. If we reduce the demand, the supply will naturally be reduced. Free-market mechanism, right? If you reduce the demand, the supply won’t be coming over the border and the cartels will be weakened. And hopefully it’ll help our friends south of the border maintain rule of law.
Q I noticed on your website you had categories on health care, border security, that kind of thing, and then you had a section called “Divisiveness.” I haven’t seen that cited by any other candidate.
A It’s a huge issue. The polarization that’s poisoning our society and therefore our political process, it feeds into everything we’ve talked about, including how Congress is ceding its powers and how the people are more happy with an executive that tries to get things done. We’re actually implementing policy these days through executive action and policing that policy through court oversight. Because Obama does DACA, the Republicans sue him. Mr. Trump does just about anything, the Democrats or the ACLU or somebody sues him and blocks it, right? When I’ve talked to people in this district for two and a half years now, one thing that comes across so clearly is that people don’t feel represented. It’s not just Democrats. It’s not just Independents. It’s not just Travis County, it’s not just McLennan County. It cuts across just about every demographic you can think of. People don’t feel represented. They form their opinions almost in a vacuum. If you’ve read my plan to address divisiveness, all I can do is address myself and this district. [Note: Ideas include strong ethics reform for all three branches of government and ending politically overt gerrymandering.]
Q In campaigning throughout CD-17, have you sensed a change in the electorate from 2018?
A Not really. If I could characterize anything, I would say there is a fatigue to just the blare of both the far right and far left, the chaos of our conversation and the lack of progress. Two years ago was obviously a reaction. This one, I believe, is more of a fatigue election: Let’s put all that behind us and get back to work.