Astronaut, fighter pilot and Senate candidate Mark Kelly brought his campaign to Payson last weekend, accompanied by his wife — former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

The former space shuttle commander, who also flew 38 combat missions in the first Gulf War, got the star treatment from the people who crowded into the Rumsey Park ramadas and pressed him for selfies.

But Giffords proved almost as great a draw. She survived an assassination attempt in Tucson in 2011 that killed five people and wounded 15. Her family at one point was told she had died, but she survived two shots to the head. Walking carefully with a cane, she smiled and joked with well-wishers.

Kelly said he’s a pragmatic, independent, moderate who will focus on fixing problems and applying “facts and science” to finding solutions.

“We have elected officials that don’t believe in immunization,” he said. “I don’t know how we got here, but these things are gradual. With the advent of the internet, there’s an opportunity for people to put ideas out there that aren’t based on reality. You’ve got a lot of people who get their news mostly from Facebook,” said Kelly, who has a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering. As a Navy pilot, he logged more than 5,000 hours piloting 50 different aircraft types as well as 375 carrier landings.

His twin brother, Scott Kelly, is also an astronaut, who at one point spent a year in space on the International Space Station. His parents were both police officers and he said he learned to overcome challenges by watching his tiny mother practice until she could scale a 7-foot-3-inch wall to pass the police exam. He then learned what it means to be tough by watching his wife reclaim her life after being shot in the head. He retired from NASA to help her.

Kelly’s so far running unopposed for the Democratic nomination to take on another fighter pilot — Air Force veteran Martha McSally. She was appointed by Gov. Doug Ducey to the seat left vacant by the death of Sen. John McCain, who was also a Navy fighter pilot during the Vietnam War. McSally, a former congresswoman from southern Arizona, narrowly lost a Senate race battle to Kyrsten Sinema, a former Tucson congresswoman.

If Kelly manages to defeat McSally, it would be the first time in 67 years that Arizona had two Democratic U.S. senators.

He has sworn off corporate political action committee (PAC) donations and vowed to take up campaign finance reform — one of McCain’s signature issues.

The U.S. Supreme Court in a split decision gutted campaign spending limits and disclosure requirements when it ruled corporations have all the free speech rights of citizens and therefore could spend an unlimited amount of money on elections without disclosure.

A reform group is circulating petitions to force disclosure of so-called “dark money” spending in Arizona, a move that Kelly supports.

“I don’t believe corporations are people,” he said. “A lot of folks in Washington are beholden to corporate interests for PAC money.”

One sign of that dependence lies in the administration’s decision to enact sweeping tax cuts weighted toward corporations and the richest taxpayers.

“If you’re going to give a tax cut, it ought to focus on the middle class,” he said.

The decision to not accept corporate PAC money could handicap his chances, given that spending in the last Arizona Senate race topped $100 million.

Kelly is currently tied in the polls with McSally, which means the Arizona race will likely draw national spending and attention, since it could determine control of the Senate.

Kelly staked out a series of pragmatic positions in his half hour appearance and a subsequent interview with the Roundup.

For instance, he said he’s an advocate of continuing to expand access to health care while controlling the cost. He calls the Affordable Care Act “a good step in the right direction.”

However, he’s also opposed to “Medicare for All,” the universal health care plan favored by many of the Democratic candidates for president. Kelly said he doesn’t want to disrupt the private health care plans that now cover 156 million Americans.

On the other hand, he wants to give Medicare the ability to negotiate lower prices, especially for prescription drugs — the cost of which has risen 300 percent, he said.

Although he fought in the first Gulf War in Kuwait and advocates for a strong defense, he’s also skeptical of the administration’s decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal while threatening possible military action.

“Clearly, we don’t want a shooting war in Iran. If we wound up in that situation with Iran, it would spread (to the whole Middle East).”

He flew hundreds of combat missions off aircraft carriers in the Straits of Hormuz during the first Gulf War and earned the flying cross. In that conflict, the U.S. and its allies forced Iraq out of Kuwait and shattered its power in the region, but then pulled back rather than occupying Iraq. The U.S. even convinced Saudi Arabia to cover most of its costs.

In that case, the U.S. “showed a lot of restraint. It took six weeks and (U.S.) casualties were low,” said Kelly.

Kelly also favors greater efforts to lower the cost of a university education, but stopped short at the call of some Democratic presidential candidates to provide free college or even forgiveness of existing student loan debt.

“We need to increase Pell grants, but I’m not in favor of simply forgiving a trillion dollars in existing debt. We already have a $20 trillion national debt and a $1 trillion annual deficit thanks to corporate tax cuts.”

He said the nation should only run deficits to offset the effects of a recession or depression.

“Deficit spending is reasonable when you have to stimulate the economy,” he said, not when you have full employment and economic growth.

He has also lobbied for added gun control measures ever since a mentally ill Tucson man shot Giffords at a meet-the-public event. The man also killed a judge, one of Giffords’ staffers, a 9-year-old girl and two others. He had been displaying escalating signs of mental illness for months. His parents had confiscated his guns and the local community college had barred him from campus. However, he bought a 9 mm Glock at a store the day of the shooting.

Kelly and Giffords established Americans for Responsible Solutions to advocate for restrictions on firearms after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in 2012. The group has pushed for universal background checks, including gun shows. The group has also pushed to bar people with domestic violence convictions from owning guns, a crackdown on gun trafficking and restrictions on silencers.

Congress has repeatedly refused to adopt those restrictions.

“Every year, 40,000 Americans die from gun violence. It’s like no where else on the planet, except maybe Yemen.”

But the failure of Congress to enact reasonable solutions is no surprise, he said.

“The folks in Washington are not addressing these issues in any coherent way,” said Kelly.

During one of his space shuttle missions, the crew discovered a gash in the side of the shuttle.

The incident prompted the pope to call the crew in orbit to offer his blessing, according to a Wikipedia account.

“When you’re orbiting Earth at 25 times the speed of sound and bad stuff starts happening, you have to solve the big problems as a team. In Washington, we don’t seem to be doing that.”

Contact the writer at paleshire@payson.com

Contact the writer at paleshire@payson.com

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