“Last year wasn’t the first time I’ve been bucked off a horse,” former Congresswoman Ann Kirkpatrick told a small group of Democrats in Payson on Wednesday night in reference to her defeat after one term by District 1 incumbent Paul Gosar.
“But one thing I learned about riding: The only thing to do after you get thrown is to get back on,” added the former Flagstaff prosecutor and state legislator who has launched a campaign seeking a rematch with Gosar.
Kirkpatrick’s reflective question-and-answer session before about 40 people attending monthly session of the Democratic Club of Northern Gila County contrasted sharply with last week’s combative appearance of Gosar before 200 people attending a session arranged by the Payson Tea Party.
The Gosar session focused almost exclusively on cutting the budget deficit, reducing taxes and getting rid of Senate Democrats and President Barack Obama.
Kirkpatrick’s pitch focused almost exclusively on job creation and protecting education and Medicare from proposed cuts.
But the mood of the two audiences posed an equally stark contrast. The Republican crowd came across as angry and uncompromising, as the staunchly conservative Gosar found himself defending his vote to raise the debt ceiling in return for $2.7 trillion in future budget cuts.
The Democratic meeting featured more angst and soul-searching, as the audience members wondered how President Obama had lost the initiative and gotten trapped into imposing deep spending cuts rather than aggressively creating jobs to stave off a renewed recession.
“I’ve been a lifelong Republican,” said one listener, “but changed to Democratic. But the first thing I noticed when I walked into this room was: Where is everybody else?”
“So many promises were made and so much of it has backfired,” said one woman. “The young people have to see Democrats get some guts. When (House Speaker John) Boehner can say ‘I got 98 percent of what I wanted’ (in the debt ceiling negotiations). I am disillusioned — and I was totally in love.”
Kirkpatrick said, “It’s all about jobs, folks, it’s all about jobs. I’ve never seen anything so polarized as this Congress — more dysfunctional, more unable to cope. We have to get people back to work. The big corporations are sitting on $2 trillion in cash. Why aren’t they spending it? A lack of demand. We’ve got to get back to making things we can sell, which means we have to educate students in the best schools possible so they can innovate and become entrepreneurs.”
During her single term in Congress, Kirkpatrick supported the Affordable Health Care Act and other key Democratic initiatives, but voted against the Democratic House leadership more often than almost any other Democrat. That included her persistent but ultimately frustrated push for a 5-percent Congressional pay cut.
She acquired a reputation for close involvement in local projects, including a push for forest thinning, a persistent effort to clear the way for renewed copper mining in Globe and a bill to hack through red tape holding up the Blue Ridge pipeline — all projects Rep. Gosar has also made a priority.
Kirkpatrick never mentioned Gosar by name, but took issue with many of his votes — including his support for a plan to turn Medicare into a health insurance voucher for people currently younger than 55. The Nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the proposal would stabilize Medicare spending at the cost of doubling the out-of-pocket cost for health care for most Medicare beneficiaries.
“I’m adamantly opposed to a voucher system — it just will not work for Medicare,” said Kirkpatrick. She said many seniors could not afford to pay an extra $6,000 to $8,000 for health care, assuming they could find a private insurance plan to cover them.
However, she remained vague on an alternative plan to shore up Medicare, which is projected to use up its accumulated surplus by 2024, due to a steady increase in the retirement-aged population and a medical inflation rate that remains perhaps three times the underlying rate. Federal projections suggest the program will bring in about 17 percent less than it spends over the next 75 years without reductions in benefits, more revenues or a big change in the medical inflation rate.
Kirkpatrick said several bipartisan budget-balancing committees have already suggested a “balanced” approach to protecting Medicare and Social Security and dealing with the deficit. Moreover, the Affordable Healthcare Act included an array of mechanisms to control medical inflation and provide incentives that favor cost-effective medical care.
However, any solution must protect the embattled middle class, hit by dwindling services and high unemployment.
“People are so unhappy with this dysfunctional Congress,” said Kirkpatrick.
“The country is in such dire straits, it scares me,” said one listener. “But it’s such a cat fight, nothing is going to get done.”
“The dysfunction is with the 87 freshmen congressmen,” said one listener. “Electing 24 new Democratic representatives will end that dysfunction,” said another.
“Quite frankly,” said Kirkpatrick, “it’s both parties.”
“I hear the right saying its class warfare, anytime you talk about taxing the rich,” said one listener. “But what have they been doing to the working class for the past 30 years?”
Another listener said she didn’t see “any hope at all” in the very partisan people appointed to serve on the “super committee” charged with recommending more than a trillion in added cuts in the next two months.
“Both sides appointed partisan people,” said Kirkpatrick. Instead, Congress should embrace the truly balanced and bipartisan approach favored by groups like PEW Forward. “That approach will work, but I don’t have a lot faith in where this Congress is going,” said Kirkpatrick.