Within 63 days, Travis Childers went from being a former Prentiss County chancery clerk to one of the biggest butt-pains the Republicans have experienced in 15 years. Childers, a conservative Democrat who is "pro-life and pro-guns," as he puts it, has been a chancery clerk for 16 years, and is a mortgage agent who has run two small real-estate businesses.
During his 2008 campaign for Mississippi's Congressional District 1 race, Childers danced about as far to the right as his Republican opponent Desoto County resident Greg Davis. It's a technique that failed miserably for Democrat Ronnie Shows against Republican opponent Chip Pickering in 2002.
"I guess people were asking why vote Republican-lite when you can have a Republican," reasoned Marty Wiseman, executive director of MSU's John C. Stennis Institute of Government after Shows' defeat.
This year, however, Childers was up against a Republican candidate with President George Bush's 28-percent popularity rating looming. Being a Republican is no longer an enviable position after Bush started a warcosting $300 million a day, by some measurementson false pretenses.
The president also leads a struggling economy suffering $4-a-gallon gas prices and a rapidly falling dollar, which gives the general populace a "throw the bums out" mentality.
North Mississippi has been a strongly conservative district for decades, but when the chance came along to go with a conservative Democrat who was willing to move away from the tainted Republican brand name, the voters went for itmore than once, including the run-offs and special elections.
Welcome to Washington, Congressman Childers. How's the congressional workday treating you?
I've learned that if you've got 15 minutes to grab a sandwich at any time between 11 o'clock and 3 o'clock you'd better grab it, or you'll end up eating Nabs out of a vending machine and drinking three-month-old Coke. Other than that, though, it's going well. I just wish everybody could be up here with me. It's an amazing world up here.
You have your own apartment already?
I lucked out, really. The nicest thing happened. You know, you can never completely leave Mississippi. I had just gotten elected when I get a phone call from a guy. He says: "I want to introduce myself. I live four or five blocks from the Capitol. I have a basement that I've converted into a basement apartment. My children are now grown, and I want to offer it to you."
It was a reasonable offer, and I came up, I looked at it, and it's just perfect. The first week, I stayed in a hotel with my family. In the second week, I was still in the hotel because I didn't have everything worked out. I've now spent two nights in my new-found home. It's really going well.
I thought for sure you'd be swinging in a hammock under (2nd Congressional District Rep.) Bennie Thompson, with real estate like it is up in Washington. I'm glad it worked out for you.
I will tell you this: Bennie's been mighty nice to me. He's really been nice.
I'm sure you've always heard that Washington is a heavily partisan place. Is that the feeling you get?
In all fairness, it is, but let me follow that up by saying people have been extremely nice to me. The Democrats, of course, have been especially so excited for us to win our seat back. They keep saying that this has been a Republican seat for 13 years and blah, blah, blah. Well, no one gets a political seat by divine right. Nobody. And they never seem to recall that it was a Democratic seat for almost 100 years before that.
Yeah, but that was prior to the state's two-party system and the Southern Strategy and so on. You've got to keep that in context.
Absolutely, but it's not meant to be either a Republican seat or a Democrat seat. The seat belongs to the people, and I think our campaign message resonated with the people of Mississippi. I think they, once again, felt like they could have somebody who's one of them representing them. I'm about the lowest common denominator you can get to. I come from working folks and working families. I'm middle class, haven't even been able to be an elitist in all my life, and I'm happy and proud of that, and I say that with no apology to anybody.
All right, so the Democrats are nice to you. Have you managed to get in good with any Republicans?
Relatively well. Chip Pickering has been very nice to me. (U.S. Reps. Gene) Taylor and Thompson just took me in and stood with me the day of the swearing-in ceremony, and I really appreciate that. Even Chip came down and was nice to me. Of course, he's getting ready to leave. He's not seeking re-election. I tell you who has really taken me in, so to speak. That would be the Blue Dog Coalition. The Blue Dog Democrats. I caucus with them. I sit sort of with them. Somebody asked me the other day, "Do you have assigned seating?" and I said, "No," but being a good Baptist, I can say this: In a Baptist church you may not sit in the same seat every Sunday, but you do tend to sit in the same area. They've been so accepting of me. The House speaker (Nancy Pelosi) has been very gracious to me. She gave me two really good committee assignments. She put me on (the) Agriculture and Financial Services (Committees).
Did you ask for them? How does that work?
I asked for Agriculture, because when Bennie Thompson was moved up to take over the Homeland Security Committee, it left a vacancy as far as Mississippi went on the Agricultural Committee. ... And that wouldn't do, because agriculture is still such an important industry in the state.
So you filled a hole there?
Yeah. I felt like I owed it to the people of Mississippi. They need a voice on Agriculture. I'm the new kid on the block, so I figured I'd step up. (Pelosi) placed me on the Financial Services Committee because I'm a businessman. I have a business background. I've been a businessman for 31 years, since I was in junior college, so she felt my being a realtor for all that time made the committee a good place for me, and I concur. I'm very pleased with my two assignments.
People on the outside might not recognize them plumb assignments.
I have to admit I'm kind of new myself, and I don't know right off when some things are really going well or what translates as a "good thing" to happen in the House, but some of my colleagues seem to think these are excellent assignments. They're saying things like: "What's the deal here? You come in here late. You get here in May, and they hand you great assignments like this. What's that all about?"
I imagine there's a sense of optimism with the House leadership, and plenty of it's probably spilling over onto you. Mississippi Democrats, we know, see your election victory as an incredible blowout. Shouldn't we assume the national Democrats are treating you just as much as a party hero?
Yes. I tell you, the race got a lot of national attention.
What do you mean the "race?" You mean "races." How many were there? I can't usually count past the number three.
Four. Four races in 63 days. Supposedly that has never happened in the recent history of Congress that someone had to go through four races in 63 days. I've been told that it's never happened at all in history: in 63 days anyhow. Here's the bottom line: It's not about me being here as much as it is North Mississippi and the state of Mississippi as a whole genuinely having a representative to look out for their best interests.
So the Democrats in the House probably see you as a symbol of change to come, do they?
I think so, and let me say this. I think that the Democratic Party is on the upswing. I said that at the state Democratic Party convention on Saturday (June 7). I told them we've been pushed back and kicked down, knocked down long enough. It's time for us to stand up.
I can only assume then that the Republicans also see you as a symbol of change to come, and they can't at all be happy with itor you, for that matter.
I think that, too. You know, it's probably just as well that I did not hear this person's name todayyou have to understand that I haven't learned everybody's name, yetbut the folks in my little circle were sitting there while we were holding a vote today, and one of them said, "My friend so-and-so is thinking about not seeking re-election." I picked up that the friend was a Republican and that he felt like the winds had changed and were blowing against Republicans this year.
Are you sure you didn't get his name?
No, I just can't remember it. But it's probably not my place to put his business out there like that, even if I knew his name. But I think his attitude is representative of the general attitude among many Republicans this year. We're talking about a real guy, who hasn't made any official announcement yet, who is thinking about not seeking re-election, frankly because of the general mood of his whole party. He seems to see the writing on the wall, so to speak.
You know, a lot of grumpy local Republican types seem to think you owe your victory in MS-01 to a rivalry between the Tupelo dirt-haulers and the uppity refugees fleeing Memphis for the Mississippi suburbs in Desoto County.
I know that. I've heard all those things they said, but I think it was more a matter of having two clearly distinct personalities in the race. There wasn't much crossover from people saying, "Well, I kind of like 'em both." There wasn't much of that, I don't think. We stood for two totally different segments and two different groups of people. Travis Childers stood for working families. The other guy did not, and it showed. The good thing about that, of course, is there are a lot more working people than anybody else. The working people felt passionate enough about their future and nervous enough about their financial situation to turn out to vote, and you can bet I'm the most appreciative and grateful congressman in this 435-member House.
Four-hundred and thirty-five. Wow, that number kind of puts you on the bottom of a very long ladder, doesn't it?
You know, the others like to pick at me. "You know, you're No. 435 in terms of seniority, right?" Yeah, well, that (those) other 434 are no more appreciative and grateful than I am.
Getting back to Desoto County, you did find some love there, too, didn't you?
I sure did. I'm glad somebody noticed that. Let me tell you: My home county (Prentiss) gave me 85 percent of the vote, and I say that with all the humility in my body, but I also got 25 or so percent in Desoto Countythat's the other guy's home. I got about 5,000 or 6,000 votes there.
Did you have a feeling things were going well when you saw those numbers coming out of Desoto?
Yeah, though I was fairly optimistic before even then. About the time the AP called the election, it was 9:11 p.m. We were just about to go upstairs and meet my supportersand I want to tell you, we had two speeches ready. I wasn't overconfident by any shot, but we always felt like we could win. We ran four races in 63 days, and I led the ticket every single time.
That says a lot about change and how the desire for it has caught on with working families, if nothing else.
If I don't convince you of anything else in this interview, it should be that working families won a representative in Congress when they elected me. Gene Taylor and Bennie Thompson are great guys. I love them both, and they also are working for the working families. But now, working families in North Mississippi can say once again, that they have a representative in Washington.
All right, family man, what have you managed to accomplish in the few weeks you've been there?
Several good things. The very first vote I got to make was a vote that could potentially, ultimately do something about these high gas prices. It sort of holds these OPEC nations accountable against price-gouging and price-fixing.
Do you think the country can enforce it?
We'll see, sure enough. The farm bill was another good bill for the state of Mississippi. Every farmer that contacted me said it was a good bill. It isn't perfect, but they could all live with it.
The farm bill? How long have you been a congressman, again? I think that one's a little before your time.
Well, the president vetoed it, and when it came back, I got to help override the veto, and the farm bill passed.
And so your little freshman fist flew up into the air for the first time.
Oh, yeah, I was pleased to cast that vote, make no mistake. I also got to vote on the Department of Defense authorization for the troops. That was a $930 billion bill, one of the largest appropriation bills regarding the Department of Defense, ever. And this is the bottom line on my position on that: Regardless of what one may think about being in the war in Iraq, we must never forget those young men and women over there. We must never leave them without resources. Travis Childers never will.
Can I assume this bill includes the GI bill that would've helped out with soldiers' college education?
Yeah, one and the same.
Is that bill in the home stretch, though? I thought it was still getting batted around in Congress.
Oh, this one's gonna go. It's going to make it, and I was glad to be a part of it because the Republicans always love to say, "You Democrats are weak on defense." That really bothers me. We're not weak on defense, and we're not weak on patriotism. We're standing up for the troops, always will. Republicans sometimes think they have a monopoly on that. They don't. I don't appreciate somebody questioning my patriotism or my support for the troops.
Didn't Secretary of Defense Robert Gates criticize Sen. Webb's version of the bill, saying the education benefits would "undercut retention" or something like that? That it would discourage re-enlistment.
We're trying to give veterans a good college education. In Mississippi, nobody but nobody is going to lift us up but ourselves, so we have to help ourselves. Good jobs is what we ran on, but good jobs, more jobs, better jobs won't happen without a good education. We have to educate our people. I take offense when people say, "You're one of those guys who thinks they can solve any problem by throwing money at it." If we ever have done that, then they can say that to me, but so far, we haven't done that, so they can't say that to me. Give me a break on that.
We need to educate people, we need bright minds in Mississippi, and people who want to grow up and stay in Mississippi. We don't need them moving away, and that's what I'm going to work toward.
You said you're getting on well with the Blue Dog Democrats, right?
The Blue Dogs have a philosophy of pay-as-you-go that I find myself in line with. I've always felt that people should live within their means and that you should not continue to spend money that you don't have. They have completely adopted pay-go. I liken the nation's budget situation to a household with credit cards. Those credit cards have to be paid some day. No household could run like the federal government is running right now.
I came from a background of county government, and county government never had the luxury of ending its fiscal year in the red. Every year, our budget had to be balanced, and we had to pay for everything we got. I'm human like every other working-class American, and I've been in financial jams myself, but we've always paid our bills, and America, like Americans, needs to pay its own bills.
But could you see yourself parting ways with the Blue Dogs on some of their philosophies? Take the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Sen. Kit Bond, of Missouri, proposed a FISA overhaul. His compromise includes unlimited warrant-less wiretapping for the executive branch for the next six yearswithout judicial oversightand also grants retroactive immunity to the telecom companies that are alleged to have helped the Bush administration wiretap Americans without the warrants required by FISA. The Blue Dogs themselves have supported a Senate version that allows for warrant-less wiretapping and retroactive immunity, but should the House battle this compromise or let it slide on through?
I'll be honest with you. I am not as familiar with that issue as I should be, but I imagine I will be familiar with it very soon. I believe in protecting people's rights. I've been taking a stance for that. There was a bill, for instance, allowing some military contractors to administerI don't want to use the word "torture"eh, maybe "pressure" is the word?
Frankly, we need to leave military issues like that to military people. I'm not really that big on subcontractors having unlimited authority over this kind of thing. Then there was another bill that would require the military to videotape every single detainee and every single question that was asked and all that, but I believe the military should have at least some latitude in how it protects us.
What does that say about your opinion on the FISA issue?
I'm a pretty firm individual's-rights person. I'm not so sure I could sign on to giving unlimited immunity to telecom companies who've given information on citizens to the government.
And of wiretappingdoes it still need a warrant?
Yes, yes it does. The Blue Dogs have a fiscal philosophy that I relate to, but I know I won't agree with them on everything. I'm a Democrat, but I always won't agree with my Democratic fellows. We agree on many issues, but any personRepublican, Democrat or Independentif you go up to Washington and vote with one group all the time then you're just being a follower, and what good does that do your voters?
I don't disagree just for the sake of being disagreeable, but I will have political differences with everybody. Democrats are right on a majority of issues, but I haven't found anybody who feels exactly like I do on everything, yet, not even a Democrat.
Quite the independent, apparently. I notice, for instance, that you haven't endorsed any presidential candidates, yet. Do you plan to?
Here's my situation. We've been without a congressman for five long months in North Mississippi. We've had no representation. Granted, we had our two U.S. senators, but the system's not set up for long vacancies. For five months we've done without. I just feel like the people that I serve and the people I represent want me to get busy with the business of the First Congressional District, represent their interest, and I don't think they want me meddling in presidential politics, because every hour I spend on any other subject, other than the First District of Mississippi, is an hour away from issues concerning the people I serve.
Can't spare the 30 minutes to write an endorsement, eh?
Mississippians are an independent-minded group of people, and as far as I'm concerned, they are free to vote for whomever they want to for president. I hope they choose me as their congressman, but that's about where my personal preferences should stop as far as the voters go. Mind you, I am a Democrat. I don't think people question my Democratic credentials, but I really don't want to wade off into this issue, because when I do that, I think it detracts from my mission to be the best congressman this district has ever had.
You know your opponent is going to tie you with Obama anyway by virtue of your both being Democrats, right?
Well, sure he will. They'll all try more of the same stuff that they tried during the last campaign. But Mississippians have tired with that. They're tired of empty rhetoric, they want solutions. The other guys may outspend me, they might outdo me in a lot of other ways, but they will never outwork me. Never.
Has Obama endorsed any positions in his campaign that you feel would not suit the people of North Mississippi?
I was so busy seeking the office during the campaign that I haven't really studied most of his campaign positions. There are some issues that we might disagree on, but it's dangerous to make assumptions about his legislation before the guy is even president. Like universal health care: I'm all for making health care more affordable for Mississippians, but until I see more detail on how we're going to pay for it, I'm not 100 percent ready to sign onto a universal health-care bill. I'm very suspicious of something like that until I see all the language. You understand?
How about if he offered a plan to cut college and university costs by half for students whose parents make less than $80,000 combined income. Could you see yourself siding with him for the people of Mississippi on that?
Again, I'd have to look at the details on something like that. It's hard to offer an opinion on a hypothetical situation, but let me tell you this much: This current administration has cut Pell grants and has made it harder to get student loans. I'm not at all for that. I don't share the Bush administration's philosophy on that. In rural North Mississippi we need to be helping young people get a quality education. We don't need to be making it harder. I've said many times on the campaign about how we need to be educating all these great bright minds in Mississippi. And I'm tired of the youth leaving Mississippi. If increasing opportunity here in Mississippi means lowering tuition or tax credits, then I'm always interested in looking at something like that. Public education and higher education will never have a better supporter than Travis Childers.
Let's talk about the war in Iraq. Do you still, personally, favor ending the war?
Yes, you bet I do. And, again, I'm tired of those who want to attack me on that, calling me weak on defense and questioning my patriotism. The problem is that this administration has no plan, no plan whatsoever to end this war. I'm not afraid to say that the appropriate people in authority positions in the military need to be supplying information and working with this administration so that we can see an end in sight to this thing. I've always said I thought 12 to 18 months was a good time (to end the war), but I don't have to see that figure chiseled in stone. If somebody says we need 18 to 24 months to substantially be out of Iraq, I'd be OK with that, too. But right now, the way things are, I see this thing going on, and on, and on.
My daughter is 19, my son is 24. He's at the Mississippi College School of Law. My daughter will be a sophomore at Ole Miss. Obviously, they are both still somewhat dependent on me and Tami for their maintenance, but if they graduate, and I continue to pour money into their account"Let me buy you gas; let me pay your insurance; let me even make your house payment for you, and your light bill,"they will never, ever, stand on their own and be independent.
That holds true for nations, too. The longer we continue to do these things for the Iraqis, the longer they'll continue to be dependent on us. I know there's been a lot of progress made, but the longer we keep pouring all this money in, the longer it'll take for them to start standing on their own. They're supposed to be a wealthy nation. What happened to all the oil they were suppose to have over there? Since I got to Congress, nobody's been able to answer that question for me. You'd think they could at least afford to be on their own with that kind of money under their dirt. We're pouring several billionwith a 'B'into their country every month while our own country is struggling.
I've heard about $250 million a day.
Sounds about right. It averages close to $2 billion a week, according to one report. I'm a firm believer that charity begins at home. We need to be spending that money on our infrastructure, our interstate system. We need to be building better schools and better hospitals and so forth. I am for finding a solution for a termination of this war.
Is it true that some politicians are calling for about 60 U.S. military bases in Iraq? Iraqi officials seem convinced of it, according to recent news articles. If it's true, do you think we need that kind of presence over there?
If anything, we need our presence diminished, and I would like to see that happen in my lifetime. We probably need a presence, but certainly not the presence that those 60 military bases imply.
I know you do a lot of work in the mortgage market. What condition is the market in right now?
Just recently I was named to the Capital Markets Subcommittee, in the Financial Services Committee. I literally got the last seat on that subcommittee, and I can't wait to pick up on the information coming through that subcommittee. I think it will help me get a greater understanding of what's going on with the mortgage problems in America.
From what you know already, is there one place to lay the blame, or was this collapse due to a combination of factors?
A lot of lenders and mortgage companies were preying on people who normally would not be able to have afforded the mortgages they were shooting for, but the lender somehow made it work, but then ran the interest rates way, way up. As in most situations, there's a lot of blame to pass around, but I just don't think this administration has done everything it can, in a quick enough fashion, to address the issue.
Some would say perhaps the borrowers shouldn't have engaged in risky loans that allowed them to lie about their income. What's your response?
I always want to be on the side of the working folks, but working folks sometimes make mistakes, too. Yes, in all honesty, there probably were some folks who weren't totally truthful in their quest for a loan, and they're now, sadly, paying the price. But I still think we could have done more to soften the blow. Before Congress adjourns for the year, I think you'll see some action taken. I can't give you any real details this early, but I want to be a part of the solution.
Gas cost is one of the issues that helped get you elected. Is it time, finally, to address the possibility of finding an alternative to gasoline?
I know we no longer need to be held hostage by oil barons and people from other countries who have no interest in America other than to make money off of us. Our energy policy is where we've failed miserably as a government. You have two of America's biggest oilmen in the White House. It makes me hit my head with the palm of my hand. We actually elected two oilmen as president and vice president of the United States, and we're furious that oil prices have exploded. In fact, the last president who had any real ideas on energy policy and any kind of energy plan was Jimmy Carter.
Ah, yes. I think he gave us the 55-mile-an-hour speed limit and told us to put on sweaters in winter, didn't he? What do you think of Carter-type ideas being suggested today, such as federally mandated higher fuel efficiencies in cars and tax incentives supporting the purchase of hybrids?
This is where my job gets tough. I generally don't like government mandates of any kind, but we're living in a society with gasoline costing $4 a gallon. Sometimes you just have to do things that maybe we wouldn't have wanted to do five or 10 years ago. I'm looking at buying another automobile in the next five or six months, just because of the age of my car. I never thought I would be seriously considering buying a hybrid vehicle, and this is not just because I was elected to Congress and have an image to keep, but because it's the right thing to do, and it's the logical thing to do. Heck, I need to save some money. We all do. So for the first time ever, I'm thinking about it.
Some have suggested pulling tax breaks to oil companies and putting that money to the search or development of new energy technology.
I will support tax incentives that would encourage alternative fuel and energy research, but I don't want to jump ahead of the information that's out there. I'm a middle-of-the-road guy, and I have to be careful of getting too far off on either side. In the short haul, we need to be conserving, and in the long haul we need a better energy policy. I can't force this philosophy on the whole country, but I think as one of those 435 congressman, I can help send us in the right directionon that and many other things.
OPEC sells Oil. They have zip to do with people jacking futures prices up to make billions.
I'm looking at buying another automobile in the next five or six months, just because of the age of my car. I never thought I would be seriously considering buying a hybrid vehicle, and this is not just because I was elected to Congress and have an image to keep, but because it's the right thing to do, and it's the logical thing to do. Heck, I need to save some money. We all do. So for the first time ever, I'm thinking about it.
I've wanted a hybrid since 2002. One day I'll get one when I can afford it.
Yeah, me too, L.W. I was pleased to hear Childers say that.