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10 questions for incumbent Congressman Lacy Clay – and his answers

U.S. Rep. Lacy Clay is seeking to serve a 10th term in the House of Representatives.
Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio
U.S. Rep. Lacy Clay is seeking to serve a tenth term in the House of Representatives.

On Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air, U.S. Rep. Lacy Clay (D-University City) joined host Don Marsh to discuss his campaign to serve another term in Congress. St. Louis Public Radio political reporter Jason Rosenbaum also participated in the conversation.

Clay, who was first elected to national office in 2000, currently faces a primary challenge from Cori Bush to represent Missouri’s 1st Congressional District. Both Bush and Clay’s names will appear on next week’s Democratic primary ballot.

Clay fielded a wide variety of questions from Marsh, Rosenbaum and listeners during the show. Here are 10 of those exchanges.

Marsh: A lot of people are calling this race a clash between the old guard and new, energetic, young progressives. How do you argue against that?

Clay: I started my congressional career in a contested primary with five opponents and came out of that successfully. And I was able to do that because I ran on a record. And unlike anyone else in this race – there are three opponents, by the way – and unlike them, I do have a record to run on. And that’s what I ask the voters each time that I’m contested in a primary or a general – to look at my record and determine if I’ve done enough to warrant their vote. And this time I’m asking them to take a look: Have I been effective as a member of Congress to bring back a needed resource to designate the federal Promise Zone or to bring back a $2 billion project for north St. Louis like the [National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency]?

Marsh: Let me follow up with something you’re probably familiar with. This is the first line of an editorial in the St. Louis American, which says, “U.S. Representative William Lacy Clay has been criticized at least since Ferguson as a largely absentee congressman who is strong on official letters and fearless, biting quotes, but weak on personal presence in the district when needed.” You’ve heard that before.

Clay: I find that to be a false narrative. Let me share with you and your listening audience the job description for a U.S. representative, just to give you insight on what my week looks like. I leave here, from St. Louis, on a Monday morning to get there for votes by Monday evening. Throughout the week we conduct hearings, we meet with the administration, I meet with constituents, and take votes – to be that voice there. And then I get on a plane and fly back here. So being a member of Congress is a full-time job. If you look at my travel records, I have traveled roundtrip from St. Louis to Washington, since January, 31 times. That’s on average once a week. You have to be in the nation’s capital in order to adequately represent this district. Now I also have three district offices. We have full coverage – and that’s unparalleled to any other elective officeholder. I have a south-city congressional office, a midtown congressional office in the Eagleton building as well as a north-county congressional office all with ably trained staff that are responsive to the 770,000 people who live in this district. There are hundreds of neighborhoods, and when I [am] home on the weekends, if I get an invitation to visit with these different groups in these different neighborhoods, I take that opportunity. And so for that narrative to play out that I’m an absentee congressman – it’s just not true, Don.

Rosenbaum: I’ve talked with both you and your opponent on a multitude of issues, and to be candid, you both are pretty similar on things – you both support “Medicare for All,” you’re both opposed to Donald Trump’s immigration policies, you both want to raise the minimum wage. So when I ask her supporters, and by her I mean Cori Bush, what is the main difference, they point to the fact that you’ve taken political action committee contributions. I want you to address that, because that seems to be the cause du jour among the “progressive” movement.

Clay: You are referring to PAC donations … just for edification, political action committees are made up of employee groups. Most of my donations come from labor unions, and these are all voluntary donations that employee groups make. Some come from senior-citizen groups, some come from retiree groups, others come from local corporations here like Boeing, whom I support. And I would never turn down that support. Apparently this is a new litmus test for people on the left. I am not willing to play that game, because I believe in federal election law. And I believe in adequate reporting and transparency with the Federal Election Commission. And I’ve always adhered to that – to those rules that are passed down by the FEC and federal election law. And so for that distinction to be made between my opponent and I, then that begs the question. I have fully disclosed what my expenditures go to, how I derive my money, but yet some of my opponents are involved with dark-money groups like Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress who are not fully accounting for those expenditures. (See producer’s note at end of article.)

Rosenbaum: Explain to me why you feel you are progressive, and why this rap that you’re kind of a DINO [Democrat in name only] establishment person is wrong, because that is the narrative that’s going around, and I think you deserve a chance to respond to that.

Clay: And I appreciate that. You know, when you look at the rhetoric that you have just voiced that’s going around, I have to go back to my first term in Congress, when I was one of a few members of Congress who believed in universal health-care reform, who believed in a public option, who believed in a single-payer model for health care. Now it’s changed to “Medicare for All.” But it’s still relevant as far as where I started – became an original co-sponsor of the bill and have always supported it and was proud, in 2010, to vote for and to help right the Affordable Care Act that gave 30 million more Americans access to health care. I think that’s significant. And I’m still fighting to prevent the Trump administration from undoing the benefits of this law, like requiring that pre-existing condition cannot be a determinant of whether you get health insurance. Or, also, looking at a new concept, a new form of public option, like Medicaid for All – allow the states to expand Medicaid. Right now we have over 30 states who have expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. Allow that to be a public option so that consumers can buy in to “Medicaid for All” – not Medicare – “Medicaid for All.” Bring it to a state level and give those states rights people the opportunity to provide for their citizens. And so when you talk about my progressive credentials – annually, in every Congress, I’ve been in the top four by several journals that have said, “You’re one of the top four most progressive members of Congress.” And I’m proud of that record, and I believe the majority of voters know of my record and appreciate it.

Marsh: If the Democrats take over the House in November, what would that enable you specifically to do that you’ve been unable to do with a Republican majority?

Clay: First, on my committee assignment on the House Financial Services Committee, it would enable me to be a subcommittee chair over financial institutions and consumer protections. So that would allow us to reinstate the consumer protections that this administration has unwound at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. I was proud to vote for Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform in 2010, because it brought into the equation, for American consumers, the first agency, federal agency, to stand behind American consumers. And it was an effective agency that won up to $12 billion in awards for American consumers that stopped these predatory industries where they could. And now we have an administration that doesn’t believe in it, wants to undo it and wants to remove regulations. And so that’s one area that I will work in. And when it comes to the area of redlining, like we suffer from in this community, with banks, insurance companies, realtors and real estate appraisers, to try and break down some of those barriers to our community being able to build family wealth. And then the other area that I think is important, Don, is for my assignment on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, we will have jurisdiction over the 2020 Census. Ten years ago, I was the subcommittee chair that had the oversight over the 2010 Census. It was the most accurate census recorded in American history. I intend to play a role again in the 2020 Census and to fight this administration from putting the citizenship question on the form, because we know that will tamp down participation. And so those are the kinds of things we would benefit from if the Democrats reclaim the majority.

Marsh: While we’re on the subject of that, are you prepared for Nancy Pelosi to retain a leadership role?

Clay: Very good question. I certainly am willing to support the first female speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and to vote for her reelection as the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, and here’s why: I think she would be the perfect counterbalance to President Trump and his administration. She doesn’t suffer fools lightly. And so she’s tough, she has guided us this far – she guided us from ’06 to 2010, and we were able to get Wall Street reform. We were able to pass this Affordable Care Act. We made quite a bit of progress in that four-year span. So I don’t have a problem supporting her at all.

Rosenbaum: I believe that you voted against the Iraq War, and I want to get your sense of what you feel, what’s your feeling about Trump’s foreign policy and what your general philosophy is when voting either for or against military interventionism.

Clay: In the past I have voted against declarations to go to war because I think that it’s so easy to make war but so much more difficult to find peace. And we don’t have the luxury of sparing American treasure over some folly in a far-off land. We wasted a trillion dollars in Iraq and Afghanistan – for what? Over a lie that Saddam [Hussein] had weapons of mass destruction. We destroyed an entire country that was one of the most advanced in the Middle East. And we destroyed a culture and institutions, bombed them out, and then spent billions trying to rebuild them, and that was a fiasco. And so that is why I tend to gravitate towards peace.

Marsh: We seem to be in another kind of war now, a cyberwar, with the Russians, and you’re a member of the Government Reform and Oversight Committee that’s been investigating what’s been going on. Where are we in that now as far as you’re concerned? I’m sure you’re supportive of what’s going on in Washington right now to deal with it. 

Clay: I think we should as a Congress wait for Mr. [Robert] Mueller to finish his investigation, and I think that that will bear out the direction and give us some direction in Congress if we need to take any further step. Let me say this: We have been attacked. Our democracy was attacked by Russians. And the intelligence community has indicated that, all of the leaders of the intelligence agencies have indicated that. And yet I see President Trump using foreign policy as a diversion or a distraction from dealing with the issue of how we’re going to protect our elections in 2018 and beyond, how we are going to actually take measures against Russia.

Rosenbaum: One of the things that’s gotten some notoriety is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stumping for your opponent. What impact is that going to have? Let’s say you win, and she [Ocasio-Cortez] joins your caucus. Is there going to be any hard feelings after that?

Clay: I welcomed her to St. Louis when she came here. I don’t have any animosity with her, and I don’t think she should have any with us. I think that she has made some rookie mistakes … like going around the country campaigning against people that she’s going to probably wind up serving with. I would think that even her advisers would tell her [that] you don’t start off making enemies. You may make enemies eventually, but in Congress it requires that you have relationships within your own party and across the aisle if you’re going to be effective – unless you’re not going to be effective, unless you want to stand in one side of the corner while the other extreme stands in the other side of the corner and just yell at each other.

Marsh: Your father helped establish the black caucus in Congress. What is the effectiveness now of that caucus now in the current environment under the current administration?

Clay: We are a 48-member caucus, and we are the conscience of the Congress. We continue to raise the issues, whether we’re in the majority or the minority. When we take back the House, the first 100 days the Congressional Black Caucus has proposed numerous initiatives that will restore some of the regulations that we have lost under this administration in the workplace, for safety in the environment, to restore some of the Wall Street reforms that we sorely need to protect consumers from redlining, from predatory lenders, from payday loans, and those who are heavily burdened with college debt.

Producer’s note: Cori Bush was a guest on St. Louis on the Air on Wednesday. Also, following the Clay interview, several listeners wrote to dispute Clay's statement that Brand New Congress and Justice Democrats are dark-money organizations. We contacted the Clay campaign offering him a chance to document his assertion and received this response: “Congressman Clay stands by his statement, and he invites your reporters to investigate the out-of-state, dark money pipeline that is funding one of his opponents.”

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex HeuerEvie Hemphill and Caitlin Lally give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

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Evie was a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.