Arizona’s Democratic nominee Mark Kelly: “We want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.”

By Tom Reardon, October 2020 issue

United States Senate candidate Mark Kelly took some time out of his busy schedule to have a short conversation with Echo about the upcoming election and it was pretty eye-opening. The retired U.S. Navy pilot and space shuttle commander is running the type of campaign that is fairly unheard of these days and frankly, it’s refreshing.

While his opponent, Senator Martha McSally (who was not elected, but placed in office by Arizona Governor Doug Ducey), has used a barrage of smear tactics to discredit Kelly in her television and print ads, Kelly’s campaign is based on bringing the voters facts and open discussion about the problems facing our state and nation. Kelly would rather discuss what he can and will do as opposed to merely stating negative things about Senator McSally.

The husband of former United States Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in 2011 in Tucson, Kelly is running as a democrat, calls Tucson home, and looks forward to working with a new administration in 2021. We spoke over a zoom chat in late August with Kelly rocking an unassuming, plain black t-shirt as he chatted from his office couch.

Mark Kelly and spouse Gabby Giffords.

Here’s what Kelly had to say:

A plain black t-shirt is a good look.

That’s what I’m doing in my ads, mostly. Somebody called it my uniform. I put my Mark Kelly uniform on.

I went many years wearing nothing but black t-shirts and jeans. It’s a good look.  Your ads have a very different tone than your competitors.

I appreciate you noticing.

What’s it like being on the receiving end of such a campaign (from Martha McSally) of bullshit and bashing?

I would say it’s expected because for folks that paid attention in 2018 to the U.S. Senate race here when Senator Jeff Flake decided not to run for reelection and it was a race between Congresswoman Kyrsten Sinema and Martha McSally, we saw similar things from now Senator McSally in that race. Very divisive. Very negative. A lot of attacks. So, I knew to expect that, and it proved to be the right expectation.

Is that one of the reasons your ads have a very different feel and tone to them?

No. Not at all. I feel that regardless of what Senator McSally will do and how she’ll run her campaign, I wanted our campaign to be about the future, about issues that Arizonans care about. Positive. When necessary, I think it is important to draw contrasts, but to run a positive campaign.

One thing I learned from a lot of years of flying the space shuttle, first as a pilot and then as the commander of the space shuttle, is to focus on the stuff you have control over. I don’t have any control over how somebody else wants to run a U.S. Senate race. So, I focus on us, our message, we want it to be positive and respectful. We want to get information out there. We want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. I want to see other folks watch and maybe it can be a positive example.

As I’m listening to you, I keep thinking, you have a whole different perspective on weightlessness than your opponent.

Yes. I’ve spent a lot of time floating around a couple of spaceships.

She just spends a lot of time putting weightless things out there. My words, not yours. I would not want to put words in your mouth. What do you want the voters in Arizona, many of which are Echo readers, to know about you that they aren’t going to see in your political ads?

I’m the son of two police officers. My mom was one of the first female cops in northern New Jersey. I’m somebody who, I guess at the right time, decided to work hard to achieve some goals. I’m also somebody who really believes in our country and that are days ahead of us are going to be better than our days behind us. We do have some serious problems and they are hard to solve.

My experience has been that, when you’ve got something that is really hard to do and a hard problem to solve, you’re only going to solve it with teamwork. So, bipartisanship is important. Not being partisan. Often, members of Congress, not all of them but some of them, become incredibly partisan and only do what their party wants or some big corporation.

I don’t take any corporate PAC money, which I’m very proud of. I made this decision early on that I’m going to do what’s in the best interest of Arizonans and not some big company in some other state.

That’s a breath of fresh air. What about for Echo readers, many of whom are part of the LGBTQ+ community or allies, how will you stand up for LGBTQ+ rights in Washington?

Well, I will fight for those rights, including the passage of the Equality Act. But then, we have got to figure out how do we extend those to other places, whether it is equality in healthcare or housing. I served in the military for 25 years. There is still bias in the military. We saw with the Trump administration decision which has taken us in the wrong direction, so that has to be fixed. I will be fighting for those rights, the rights of all Americans to be treated equally.

What about transgender people serving in the military?

That’s what I was getting at, actually, without mentioning it. Is that where he (Trump) undid the Obama administration’s ruling about transgender service members serving. That should not be a factor in their service. It doesn’t even seem to be an issue with the military. It’s just an issue with the Trump administration. So, I think with a new President, with President (Joseph) Biden and Vice President (Kamala) Harris being elected, I think we’ll be able to straighten that out pretty quickly.

But then Congress really needs to focus on these things with legislation. Clearly the Equality Act needs to be passed, but then, you know, we’ve to figure out and get legislation passed to prohibit discrimination across the board. I think our country is clearly at its best when everybody is treated equal and when our policies include everybody. It’s also what makes us great as a country is our diversity in so many different ways.

I think when you have people with different backgrounds and experiences and you’re trying to move our country forward, it’s best to have those diverse opinions and backgrounds and it extends to a lot of different things. I noticed that, especially during my 15 years in the space program, that you’re much better off on a space shuttle crew to have folks that are different and not have everybody who is exactly the same, like a Navy or Air Force test pilot, that doesn’t help.

How has your experience with your wife, Gabrielle Giffords, work in politics, helped with your run?

When we started dating, she was in the State Senate. I remember asking her at one point, I don’t know how many months later, “Are you ever going to run for Congress?” and she said, “Probably not.” I was like, “Well, why not?” and she said, “Well, there aren’t many open seats.” Jim Kolbe was the member of Congress for district 8. He was the member of Congress at the time. He was a moderate Republican and she thought he was doing a good job, so she never thought she would have the opportunity. Then he decided that he was not going to run for re-election, so it became an open seat. We got married the year she was first sworn into Congress.

Having been there for her, as a new member of Congress at that time, how has that changed your perspective on the race this year?

Well, I would say for someone who has not run for elected office before, at least not since the 11th grade, having been married to a member of Congress who went through three Congressional elections and then served two and a half terms in Congress, at least I kind of knew what I was getting myself into. I understood what the process is like. How challenging parts of it is, how much fun it is.

You know, this is fun, meeting folks and traveling all across the state. Not as much fun right now, I don’t think anything really is. The world is kind of stuck inside. But I knew what the experience would be like. I think I was at least a little prepared for it.

What do you see as the biggest issues facing Arizona?

We are clearly, there is the crisis part of what we are facing. Public health crisis, economic crisis, clearly a crisis of leadership. Not only in D.C., but at the state level. We’ve got to fix all those things. It will help to fix the crisis of leadership. It will help us solve those other problems.

But beyond that, clearly there are a bunch of different things that are at the top of Arizonans’ minds and that’s making sure they can afford their healthcare, that they can keep it if they get sick, and they can get healthcare if they have a pre-existing condition. The price of prescription medication is way too high and Congress doesn’t do anything about it.

Senator McSally, you know, she might say that she wants prescription drugs to be lower but doesn’t vote to allow the Health and Human Services to negotiate down the price of prescription drugs for people on Medicare. It really hurts seniors and it’s not fair. Seniors often have to pay more the same drugs that somebody is paying when they get it from the Veteran’s Administration. For the same exact medication. It’s just fundamentally unfair. I think 30% of all drugs are purchased through Medicare. That needs to be fixed. You can ask, “Why are certain members of Congress not fixing it?” Well, a lot of them take campaign checks from the corporate PACs of big pharmaceutical companies.

So, healthcare is high on the list. Clearly, protecting social security and Medicare, as well as protecting Medicare. There have been Senators, including Senator McSally, who want to turn Medicare into a voucher program which will mean that seniors will pay a lot more for their healthcare. Also, in 2017, the Trump administration and Congress, collectively, through a budget resolution process gave the wealthiest companies and the richest Americans a 1.9 trillion-dollar tax cut. And then, because of the impact that had on the deficit, followed up with looking into cutting social security. That’s something my opponent has supported. These are the things we have to get back on track immediately.

Our state has so many other issues that have to be addressed: infrastructure, energy, climate issues, water. When you look at the water issue in Lake Powell and Lake Mead and the amount of water we get from the Colorado River. Lake Powell currently runs at about 50% capacity and Lake Mead as well. When Lake Mead gets down to a certain level, we go into a drought contingency and we’ve got to cut back on our water usage. That’s a big deal for not only residents, but agriculture here. We’ve got serious issues, but we’re only going to solve them if we are willing to work across the aisle. Not everybody in the United States Senate is willing to do that. Now, Senator Sinema is, which is a great thing for our state, she’s willing to do that, but not everyone.

It’s frustrating and I’m glad you’re willing to do something about it. Where can you improve and be a better leader?

Well, this experience … a year and a half of campaigning has been helpful. You have to build a big team to be successful. Our campaign staff, it is a big organization. You’ve got to raise the funds to build it and then you have to manage it. You have to manage it efficiently and effectively. So that’s helped me.

I’ve got 25 years of experience in the U.S. military and I’ve got some business experience. I was involved in building a company here in southern Arizona and I have some other business experience that I’ve been involved in, so I understand small business. Not every member of the United States Senate has anything like that, including Senator McSally. I respect her service in the Air Force. She flew an airplane much like the one I flew in the United States Navy. My brother likes to point out that they are equally ugly airplanes. The A-6 Intruder and the A-10 Warthog, which she flew. I really respect her service, but I feel that I have a set of experiences that not a lot of U.S. Senators have. I’m an engineer by training. I not only served in the United States Navy, but I spent 15 years at NASA. I’ve been involved in business and starting organizations. I’ve worked on policy issues, so I feel I’m well prepared, but you can always improve, right?

You need to. Constant improvement, improvement of processes, trying to do things differently, change. Change is important. My former commanding officer, a guy named Terry Toms who was my commanding officer in the first Gulf War, used to say, “If you are not changing it, it’s getting worse.” So, change is important, and I think it makes our country our better and stronger.

Thank you, Mark. Any last words?

Make sure you encourage people to get out and vote, even if they are voting for the other guy. The most important thing is that people get out and vote.


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