John Paschen: The Informer Interview

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Democratic congressional candidate John Paschen, center, speaks April 3 at downtown Ames bar London Underground. Photo: Gavin Aronsen/Iowa Informer

Back in town after a recent trip to Sioux Center, where he joined a protest outside a town hall meeting hosted by his would-be 4th District congressional rival Steve King, Ames pediatrician John Paschen visited downtown pub London Underground last Tuesday to speak with voters about his different vision for the district.

A political newcomer, Paschen is one of three Democrats on the primary ballot who is vying for the chance to take on King this November. Although the eight-term congressman has never faced a very serious re-election challenge, Democrats, eyeing major upsets in districts elsewhere with similar political alignments and sensing the nation’s discontent over the tumultuous Trump presidency, believe 2018 could be the year that King is at long last dethroned.

Paschen stopped by London Underground for one of the establishment’s regular Postcards and Pints events, at which Ames residents are provided postcards (and postage) to write their elected representatives and demand change. Before he visited with the crowd gathered to hear his thoughts on the 4th District race, Paschen sat down with the Informer to catch us up to speed on his campaign.

After Kim Weaver dropped out and J.D. Scholten entered the race, she endorsed him. Three other challengers later emerged. Two of them are on the primary ballot, you and Leann Jacobsen. What made you choose to enter the primary as opposed to getting behind the candidate who was already in the race?

That’s a good question. We all have our reasons for getting into this race. What I’ve found is my reasons have really focused as I’ve gone through this race. I’m realizing that everything I’m talking about is children and adult issues. I talk a lot about the Affordable Care Act. Children are involved with the Affordable Care Act and getting good health insurance. I talk about immigration reform, [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] recipients, the need to get those DACA recipients as citizens and have a path to citizenship for people who have been in this country for a while — illegally, but are staying on this side of the law. This involves children and families.

I talk a lot about mental health issues, and I’ve got an interesting mental health plan that would help the state of Iowa. Basically, the bottom line is turning our critical-access hospitals into temporary emergency beds. It would be a use of resources that we have available in this district and this state, and it would be very cost-effective.

What do you think of the ads that Weaver’s PAC for POWER is running in western Iowa newspapers? One of them says Steve King supports closing rural hospitals.

An ad that ran in 4th District newspapers last September paid for by former Steve King challenger Kim Weaver's PAC for POWER.
An ad that ran in 4th District newspapers last September paid for by former Steve King challenger Kim Weaver’s PAC for POWER.

When Steve King voted for several attempts at repealing the Affordable Care Act, and all of those laws would have decimated Medicaid. These critical-access hospitals depend upon Medicaid reimbursement, and they’re on the edge right now. If you cut their funding any more, many of them will close. So those ads are correct.

But going back to why I got into this race, it turns out that my big focus is on children’s and young adult issues. That’s what I know. I’m a pediatrician. The biggest issue I’ve been talking a lot about is the Affordable Care Act, and as a pediatrician and physician in training now for over 30 years, I think I can bring an insight into this debate that others can’t. While I’m not a big policy wonk, I will be able to look at policy and tell what works and what doesn’t work.

In fact, when I interviewed you before about a supporter of Leann Jacobsen being an attorney for the Dakota Access pipeline, you mentioned something to that effect, that you sympathized with environmentalists and other opponents of the pipeline but didn’t have a strong policy background. Have you done anything in the campaign to polish that?

On what issue?

Let’s say that issue. Is that a big issue in the primary at all?

I find out that not a lot of people are talking about environmental issues — first of all, It’s important to understand that I believe in the science of weather variability. I believe that it affects Iowa, and I feel that we can do things to help it. And that’s a big national issue.

You say weather variability as opposed to climate change. Why’s that?

Climate change, climate warming, weather variability, it’s all the same thing. But words mean a lot. When you talk about the Affordable Care Act, if you talk about Obamacare, if people hear Obamacare, they hate Obamacare. But when you talk about the Affordable Care Act, many people will say, “Oh yeah, I know a cousin who’s on the Affordable Care Act and it’s the only way they can get insurance. It sounds like it’s pretty good.”

“I’m a civil person. You can’t be a mean bastard when you’re working with kids.”

So wording means everything. When you say global warming, blinders go up. But if you say weather variability, farmers understand about weather variability, about how the droughts have been… droughtier, shall we say [laughs]. And the weather has not been conducive to as good of growing conditions. More flooding. That affects them.

What I believe you’re getting at is how politically polarized some of these terms have become.

Absolutely. It all depends on the wording. You will not hear me use the term Obamacare in my campaign. I use the Affordable Care Act. I call it by its proper name.

Along those same lines, you have made civility part of your campaign focus.

I’m a civil person. I’m decent. I work with children [laughs] — you can’t be a mean bastard when you’re working with kids, not very long at least. That’s just my natural tendency. Against my competitors — Leann Jacobsen and J.D. Scholten — we’re very civil with each other. We all have vowed that whoever wins, we’re going to work for them. We have one common goal.

Would you not describe this primary as competitive, then? Is it more collaborative?

I don’t know if I would call it collaborative. This is the first time that there’s really been a primary in the 4th District. I think we’re all trying to show the voters of the 4th District who is the best candidate. Call that whatever you want.

Back to civility, what do you make of Steve King’s Facebook campaign page and how for months it’s been posting memes mocking liberals and now of course the Parkland shooting survivors? It’s hard to understand why his campaign would choose to focus on that — I don’t believe it’s even acknowledged you or any of your fellow Democratic challengers.

Of course, they don’t want to. Why would they? They have nothing to gain by acknowledging any of us yet. Once the primary is over, we’ll be the target of their venom.

What do you think King’s campaign has to gain by posting these mocking and insulting memes about high school students in Florida?

I’ve had a chance to see Steve King a couple of times now in public. I’ve had a chance to listen to him, what he’s had to say and how he interacts with crowds. I’ve come to the conclusion, right or wrong, that the people of northwest Iowa — the people of the 4th District — do not vote for Steve King because they necessarily agree with what he says. The reason that they vote for him is they feel that he believes what he says, and that he is not going to change his tone because a political pundit or adviser tells him to do that. He will say what he honestly feels, and the folks of rural Iowa, especially in the 4th District, admire that to some extent.

Related article: Steve King Defends Facebook Mockery of Parkland Students, Promotes Myths About School Shootings at Sioux Center Forum
Related article: Steve King Defends Facebook Mockery of Parkland Students, Promotes Myths About School Shootings at Sioux Center Forum

What we have to do is show them there is another way. When the voters of the 4th District [say they] like him because he has integrity, I’ll put up my integrity to his any day of the week. When he talks about how Obamacare is terrible, what we have to talk about is that the Affordable Care Act has given health insurance to people who have never been able to have health insurance before. When he mocks immigrants and says they’re all drug-runners with calves the size of cantaloupes, we have to say that the immigrants who are in Iowa are for the greatest majority good people, they have families, they’re raising their children, and they’re contributing to our society.

How do you think that message can be effectively conveyed in the 4th District? Do you think your campaign has been effective in getting that message across?

We’ve been talking to as many people as who will talk to us. You talk to one person, and they will talk to two or three more people. If you portray yourself as a reasonable person who has good thoughts, an intelligent way of thinking about things, I think it will take off. There has to be ads, of course, there has to be mailings, things like that. But I think the 4th District will be won by discussions, like what you’re having with me, and I think that’s kind of how we’re going to do it.

“In Sioux Center, we noticed that as King was talking, the crowd wasn’t really fired up. Maybe they’re getting tired of him, also.”

It’s a weird district. Christie Vilsack, who had a ton of money and a great organization, still lost. Jim Mowrer raised a lot of money, too. He still lost. But this is a different year. And I know everyone says that, but also, when you look at those previous campaigns, it tells us that you can’t run a typical campaign, shall we say. Steve King doesn’t raise a lot of money. He still wins. He gets out there, he talks to people, and he wins. He’s an incumbent. That helps.

But I think we’ll be able to do that. If he tells us one thing — when he talks about the fetal heartbeat bill and how abortion is terrible, what we have to talk to him about is that the abortion rate has been decreasing in this country over the past two decades and we have to continue to work toward that. If he says one thing, we have to show people another way.

One thing Christie Vilsack had against her was that she was viewed by some people as a carpetbagger — she moved into the district to run. What advantage do you have, being from Ames, which is kind of the liberal anchor of the 4th District?

I’ve lived here since 1990 and before that, I was educated here. I grew up in Camanche [in what’s now Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District]. I’ve spent a lot of years in this district.

Does that give you an advantage for the primary?

It’s a good question. I don’t know.

You were talking about how Steve King still wins even though he doesn’t raise a lot of money, part of that reason being that he gets out and talks to people. J.D. Scholten has raised, by a significant amount, the most money of the Democrats in the primary. Are you not worried so much about that?

Oh, I do worry about it. Money is a big issue; it always is. To say I don’t care about the money is just a lie. I really, honestly feel that whoever wins the primary will be able to raise enough money for this.

That doesn’t seem like it will be a problem, with all the national attention this race — or at least Steve King — has been getting.

Related article: J.D. Scholten: The Informer Interview
Related article: J.D. Scholten: The Informer Interview

I don’t think it will be a problem getting money. We’re going to kind of have to decide, if we win the primary, how much money we’ll take from out of state. I’m considering that a little bit. One of the things I don’t want Steve King to be able to say is that we’re getting our money from California elites and not true Iowans, and how come that’s happening, and here I am getting almost all my money from in state — I don’t know if he is, I’d have to look. Something I’m thinking about right now.

I like the fact that while we’re not raising as much as J.D. Scholten, many of our donations are small, from people who can vote. We’re having a lot of donations, and virtually all of our donations, except for a very small percentage, are from within the state, and most within the district. I’m kind of proud of that.

It sounds like you are in this primary to win it, as opposed to being just an issues candidate — and you believe Steve King is beatable?

Yes, I do. I think he’s beatable if we present a candidate that has something more to offer, and I think I’m that candidate.

Also, when I saw him in Sioux Center, I noticed that he didn’t rev up the crowd. There were more protesters than people there to see him. We noticed that as he was talking, the crowd wasn’t really fired up. Maybe they’re getting tired of him, also.

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Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.