An Exclusive Madville Times Interview
Somewhere in my piles of stuff is a photo of Senator Larry Pressler with me and a nice girl from Vermillion, Angeline Wilson, at the U.S. Capitol on a muggy June day 25 years ago.
Larry Pressler, Independent candidate for U.S. Senate, proudly displays a photo of his grandkids.
On this muggy Saturday in Sioux Falls, as candidate Pressler and I discussed policy and politics at his Sioux Falls office, I mentioned that brief meeting, one of thousands the Senator politely hosted during his time in Washington. Pressler said recollections like that are one of the small joys of his campaign. As he tours the state, people come up to shake his hand and say they're glad he's running again (though Pressler himself muses that maybe those folks are just being kind to an old man). And often they'll show him a picture from back in the day of Mom, Dad, and the kids (now with grandkids) with Pressler in D.C. or the State Fair or some such remarkable moment in their families' lives.
Ah, nostalgia. It's like Styx coming back and riffing out "Mr. Roboto" on the casino circuit. But will we elect Dennis DeYoung to the Senate?
You wouldn't think so, when Pressler has maybe a hundredth of the money of his main-party opponents. Pressler admits that, as a rule, "Money is determinative" of electoral success. "We"—and he looks around the office at his wife Harriet, his one paid staffer, and a friend-volunteer—"will be the exception."
Pressler's run at age 72, 16 years after losing his seat to the now retiring Tim Johnson, is not a return from retirement. Pressler has been teaching and serving on boards ever since leaving the Senate. He says he will always work. But he'd like to give South Dakota six more years of his work.
Pressler's Legacy: The Telecommunications Act
Pressler runs on the record of what he achieved for South Dakota. He refers to the Telecommunications Act of 1996 as his "magnum opus," a project that consumed his efforts for ten years. That law created the Universal Service Fund, a tax that he had to rename a fee to get past the Gingrich Congress (sound familiar?). Pressler notes that Tim Johnson was one of only 16 votes against that fee and the final form of the bill in the House. Johnson may have had his reasons, but Pressler says the Universal Service Fund subsidized installation of fiber-optic cable across the country.
Maybe Al Gore invented the Internet, but Larry Pressler brought it to Pukwana. Candidate Pressler discusses the importance of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.
Basically, says Pressler, the USF allowed us to have Internet and cell phone service almost everywhere in South Dakota, not just Sioux Falls and Rapid City. The Telecommunications Act made long-distance calls an ancient artifact, made phone calls cheaper than they were in the 1950s, and stimulated the economy by bringing almost everyone, including rural folks, access to the newest communications technologies.
Pressler says he wanted the Telecommunications Act to include cable TV regulations that would have given customers à la carte channel selection, pricing controls, and a 15% cap on ad time. But Pressler says that after attending a cable industry convention in Las Vegas, President Bill Clinton sent VP Al Gore to the Senate to kill those regulations.
Pressler would like the chance to revisit those regulations and restore the public service requirements for broadcasters. However, Pressler would place more priority on enforcing existing anti-trust laws to keep media companies from consolidating and monopolizing. Calling himself a "Teddy Roosevelt trust-busting conservative," Pressler says Time-Warner and Comcast are too big and that we need more competition in the media. He says the big media companies got a break by getting Congress to move anti-trust enforcement on their industry from the Department of Justice, which knows anti-trust law, to the Federal Communications Commission, which finds anti-trust law somewhat out of its ken.
Deficit and Taxes
Larry Pressler will raise your taxes. He said at Dakotafest that he would cut corporate, personal, and charitable tax deductions. In our interview, he said he would vote to increase the gasoline tax to replenish the Highway Trust Fund. He says Congress's temporary fix is irresponsible, since it adds to the deficit. Pressler sees great danger in the deficit and says we must get serious about fixing it.
Military and Foreign Policy
Pressler is the only candidate for South Dakota's open Senate seat who served in the military (U.S. Army, Vietnam, two tours, 1966–1968). The veteran is not eager to give today's young men and women the same experience. When it comes to foreign military intervention, Pressler labels himself a "Ron Paul Libertarian": he would send troops overseas only to secure "substantial American foreign policy interests."
I asked if that standard justifies intervention in the Islamic State's slaughter of the polytheist Yazidis in Iraq. Pressler said it may, depending on information that the President may have, but where there is doubt, he would err on the side of non-intervention.
Pressler worries that President Obama has erred in the other direction with his use of force in Iraq this month. He notes that he voted for Obama in 2008 for conservative reasons, expecting Obama to entangle us in fewer wars than John McCain. Pressler says McCain would have maintained permanent U.S. military presences in Iraq and Afghanistan and sent troops to Syria.
Pressler regularly cites the example of a U.S. fort that he and his wife visiting in northern Italy. Far from repelling the Slovenian menace, that base serves mostly to stimulate the local economy. If the military must be a jobs program, Pressler would prefer to bring those jobs home and boost the economy here. But "the whole economy has been taken over by the military-industrial state," says Pressler, and he would like to restore our military focus to military objectives, not big money.
Pressler holds out his own Senate candidacy as a jobs program for young pols across South Dakota. He vows to serve just one more term, meaning that a whole crop of aspiring candidates will be able to rev their campaign engines in 2020. I ask if there's any chance he could be re-seduced by the power and celebrity of D.C. life. Pressler says absolutely not: he's been there, done that, and won't get stuck. One term—Pressler means it.
Hanging on Pressler's office wall is this panoramic photo of Mount Rushmore, a unique view showing the most-photographed faces in the world small in the breaking dawn, in the context of the entire geological formation. The photographer? Rapid City artist Joe Lowe, a Democrat who ran for governor last spring.
That one-term promise is crucial to his expectation of what he regularly refers to as "the glorious freedom of independence." He says Senators and Congresspeople of both parties have to spend more than half of their time in Washington raising money. They aren't just filling their coffers for their own reëlections; the party leaders set quotas on contributions to colleagues' campaigns as conditions for plum committee appointments.
Pressler says nuts to that. While John Thune runs across the street each day to beg for money, Pressler says he will be working full-time for South Dakota. Even if he did reach for cash, Pressler knows he'd come up short, since the special interest groups don't stand to gain from candidates who free themselves of partisan and reëlection pressures. Ah, independence!
Say, remember that Internet that Pressler's Telecommunications Act helped bring to everybody? (Harriet jokes that she thought Larry, not Al Gore, invented the Internet.) Candidate Pressler shows a marked curiosity about the Web he hath wrought. He spent a few minutes at the beginning of our interview grilling me about the South Dakota blogosphere and the journalistic quality of its various nodes, including my own. I wouldn't say Pressler is taking his cues from the blogs, but he is paying attention to them.
Pressler's curiosity about our homegrown use of the Internet stands in marked contrast to his opponent Mike Rounds, the former governor who leaves all that Web stuff to his lackeys. Rounds's techno-aloofness makes him a little less qualified to legislate amidst the ongoing technological revolution than the ever-curious Pressler, who gave that revolution an early boost.