In a contentious political climate, both U.S. Rep. Ron Kind and his challenger Steve Toft believe they are up to the task of representing Wisconsinites’ best interests, even when it means reaching across the aisle.
Kind, a La Crosse Democrat, is being challenged by retired U.S. Army Col. Steve Toft, a Republican from Osseo, Wis., who has never held office, for the 3rd Congressional District seat Kind has held since 1997.
“I represent a district that I think has enough trust and confidence in me that they are able to give me some independence in how I approach issues and how I vote and how I conduct myself,” Kind said.
Kind said it was important to have a representative of the 3rd District who is reasonable and open to listening to a variety of opinions, including those of his Republican colleagues.
“Our political process is obviously very sick right now. I think we’re in a dangerous time, and there are forces that are doing everything they can to pull us apart,” Kind said, describing the political environment as a “cold civil war.”
Kind has chosen to keep his head down, he said, doing what he can to remain available to people of all stripes and take their feedback to D.C.
His challenger also intends to maintain his independence. Toft has been endorsed by the bipartisan group With Honor, which supports veterans running for office, and has pledged to work on both sides of the aisle to get things done.
“I’m not a hardcore anything. I really only want to represent farmers. I want to represent veterans. I want to represent families, and I want a smaller federal government,” Toft said.
As a leader in the U.S. Army, Toft is confident that he will be able to bring people from a diverse group of backgrounds, with a variety of priorities, together to accomplish his mission.
Toft touted his experience running a large part of the military health care system prior to his retirement as a colonel in the U.S. Army a couple years ago.
“You learn how to be adapt, how to be creative and how to provide high-quality health care at a reasonable cost. You can’t do that at the federal government level for an entire nation,” Toft said.
Toft advocates a state-level system, which he said would be more efficient and could be funded by sending federal tax dollars back to the state.
“Obamacare has become unaffordable,” he said. “Right here in La Crosse we have thousands of people who didn’t get to keep their doctor, who didn’t get to keep their insurance plan and the insurance that they’re able to get, first it doubled, tripled and then became unaffordable.”
He believes pre-existing conditions should be covered and he was in favor of the Graham-Cassidy Healthcare Bill introduced last year, which would have overhauled or eliminated large sections of the Affordable Care Act, including the Medicaid expansion, and replaced it with a block grant program.
While many Democrats are speaking in favor of a single-payer health care system, Kind doesn’t believe that kind of Medicare-for-all system is in the cards for the next two years with Republicans in control of the Senate and the White House.
“We’re trying to mend, not end the Affordable Care Act now, and deal with the exchanges and the cost-sharing reduction payments that have been eliminated, and what we can do there,” Kind said.
While Wisconsin’s premiums are settling down, helping people sign up for plans in the health care exchange and navigate the system could have had a huge impact for 2019.
“Markets are stabilizing now. We are seeing more plans coming in to compete, which is a good thing, but if the administration continues to do everything it can to undermine it, it’s tough. It’s unnecessarily difficult and expensive,” Kind said.
Infrastructure provides a clear example where people on both sides of the aisle recognize a problem in need of a solution.
Should Democrats take control of the House, Kind said, they’re hoping to set up a subcommittee to look into infrastructure investment, teeing up hearings, getting feedbacks from experts and looking for a bipartisan consensus to address infrastructure, including roads, waterways and broadband internet. The big question is where to find funding, he said.
“That’s what’s been holding us back in Washington: a reluctance to find a sustainable revenue source so that we can start rebuilding America again,” Kind said.
Toft said a block grant system would also be the best way to address the country’s infrastructure needs by getting the federal Department of Transportation and its regulations out of the picture.
“We need to bring block grants back to the state for our use, so state and local governments can make decisions without the federal government having strings and requirements that they don’t need to have,” Toft said.
The country needs to take the volatility of the weather seriously, as well, and step up mitigation efforts to prevent what once were considered 100-year floods that have hit the Coulee Region and other areas hard in the past 10 years, Kind said.
“This isn’t working. We can’t just keep rebuilding after these events … It’s going to cost some money, because a lot of people don’t have the resources themselves to do it on their own, which means we’re going to have to borrow money,” Kind said.
Kind expects a major disaster relief bill to come up after the election to deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Florence, Hurricane Michael and the wildfires out West, and said he would work to make sure the Midwest flooding was included. He is also an advocate of including a strong conservation stewardship program in the next Farm Bill.
Toft acknowledged that the country needs to do something different to deal with the flooding issues.
“That kind of infrastructure that people don’t think about is just as important,” Toft said.
He also said that the Federal Emergency Management Administration needs to be restructured with some sort of strategic plan, to streamline its services and better respond in a timely manner.
A longtime farmer in Trempealeau County, Toft is aware of the importance of immigration to the economy, particularly in the dairy industry.
“We absolutely need to control our border,” Toft said, referencing illegal drugs and diseases such as tuberculosis that are coming from Central America.
However, he said he was not in favor of deporting people and it was important for everyone who comes in to the U.S. get documented. Instead, Toft said, it’s time to revamp the workforce visa system, especially the H2A temporary farm worker program.
“Currently, it’s a 10-month visa program, where they’re supposed to leave at the end of that 10 months, then reapply and come back. That’s unworkable, especially with long-term employees who have worked on a farm for 10 years,” Toft said.
He suggested a three-year visa with a path to citizenship at the end, which would benefit the worker and the farmers who depend on them.
Kind also supports comprehensive immigration reform that doesn’t leave farmers without their workforce and has spoken in favor of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy.
He said the 2018 election is about restoring checks and balances to the government, bringing more oversight and accountability to the executive branch, including the U.S. Immigration Customs and Enforcement.
Kind criticized ICE’s lack of response to his request for more information after a raid in Arcadia in September, which resulted in the arrest of 15 people.
“For whatever reason, they feel like they don’t need to respond to legitimate congressional requests about what’s happening in our own congressional district,” Kind said. “That will change in January if we’re in the majority. We will have subpoena power and we can pull them in front of our committees and we can ask the questions that way if they’re not going to cooperate through normal channels.”
Trade policy has been an issue that has frustrated Kind as President Donald Trump moves forward with his agenda, especially with the president announcing a new trade agreement with Canada and Mexico earlier this fall.
“The economy has changed and we ought to be improving the standards now and the enforceability, but what he’s taking credit for is exactly what Canada gave us under the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, nothing more,” Kind said.
It does not include 18,000 tariffs or market access in the Pacific Rim area that would have been included in TPP, and Kind criticized Trump’s dismissal of the trade agreement.
“I still believe that’s going to go down as one of the greatest strategic mistakes we’re making as a nation in the 21st century. It takes us off the field in the Pacific rim area where we need to be showing leadership, economically, diplomatically and even now militarily with China’s development in the South China Sea,” Kind said.
While the economy is strong and employers have passed on tax savings from the president’s tax bill, Toft said, the rising deficit makes curbing government spending a priority. He does not support any changes to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, but instead said the government should look to eliminating inefficiencies.
Being a veteran of the Department of Defense, he knows there are savings to be had in that department, Toft said, saying it is Congress’s responsibility to hold acquisition officers accountable. He gave an example from the U.S. Air Force, which has spent thousands of dollars — $1,200 per cup – on coffee cups that can reheat coffee and tea on air refueling tankers.
The country also needs another Base Realignment and Closure, or BRAC, which would ask the Department of Defense to evaluate its operations and close some military installations to create efficiencies, Toft said, and experts estimate that it could save $50 billion.
“The military has wanted that for years, and it’s our politicians who don’t let that happen,” Toft said.
While he doesn’t believe those closures would affect Fort McCoy, Toft said he would follow the recommendation of the DOD.