Wednesday Q+A With Rep. Jim Himes

The New Democrat leader talks infrastructure, housing, and the need for some candidates to break with party orthodoxy.

Rep. Jim Himes
AP Photo/Cliff Owen
Alex Clearfield
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Alex Clearfield
April 24, 2018, 8 p.m.

Rep. Jim Himes has served in the House since 2009. Last year, the Connecticut Democrat became chair of the 68-member New Democrat Coalition. He sat down with Alex Clearfield last week to discuss the Coalition’s policy priorities and what November could hold for party centrists.

Does Speaker Paul Ryan’s impending retirement give you more of an opening to work with Republicans on trade and tariffs?

We will continue to work with any Republicans on trade and tariffs. The reality is the Republican who matters is the president, who is at odds with congressional Republicans. New Democrats are going to continue to be opposed to tariffs and trade wars. We’ve seen this movie a bunch of times in our history, and it always ends badly for Americans. … We’re meeting with [U.S. Trade Representative] Robert Lighthizer [this] week. … If someone starts bringing up ideas to reassert congressional authority on tariffs, you can bet the New Democrats will be at the center of that discussion.

Are you optimistic that an “infrastructure bank,” something both New Dems and President Trump have expressed support for, will become a reality?

I think it could. Policy is unpredictable; we wake up every morning to what the policy of the executive is on Twitter, knowing there’s a good chance it will be different the next day on Twitter. … We sometimes hear from some in our party, “Don’t work with this president.” I say, “Baloney.” If we can come to a deal that looks like the way he talked about infrastructure during the campaign, we are excited to have that conversation.

One of the New Democrats’ main planks is expanded vocational training and apprenticeships. Do you think the White House is committed to that mission?

We were concerned initially he wasn’t focused on things we think are essential. We’re about to come out with a report called “The Future of Work.” …We have researched the fact that while we may have gotten a college degree and then a law degree or a master’s, our kids will need to be constantly learning; they’ll need certificates, to sharpen their skills every five or 10 years. That points you to apprenticeships, internships, a much more robust retraining regime.

You used to work for a public-housing nonprofit, and the New Democrats have a Housing Task Force. Have you made progress on the issue with Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson?

Not really. Ben Carson is not a housing guy, and HUD is arguably one of the more complicated departments in the federal government. So he’s been going through a process of coming to understand how HUD operates. And I’m not sure he’s philosophically inclined to think innovatively about the future of public housing.

How do you help bring New Democrat PAC–endorsed candidates over the finish line in historically Republican districts?

You’re asking that of a guy who won in a district that hadn’t voted for a Democrat in generations [Connecticut’s 4th District]. Very personally, I can tell you there are Republican districts I think are unwinnable, but there are a lot that are winnable—more suburban, diverse districts—in a wave like I think we’re going to see.

Will trade and tariffs be a main issue helping those candidates win, especially in suburban districts?

Not really. The president’s proposed trade wars are going to alienate a lot of establishment Republicans, which have always been reflexively pro-trade. And you’re going to have the regional issues you always have. … These are going to be deep, underlying geographical issues, but Trump has injected a great deal of political confusion into the Republican Party.

You said after Conor Lamb’s election that candidates in conservative districts need some latitude to break with the party. Should it extend to abortion?

Women’s reproductive rights is a core value of the Democratic Party. That has always been true and will always be true. That doesn’t mean we don’t have room for people who disagree with that core value. … I often pose the question: Do you want a majority with 10 pro-life Democrats or a minority with no pro-life Democrats?

Does that extend to supporting Nancy Pelosi as party leader?

You need to run your own race. If you don’t, there’s a good chance you’ll lose. Any leader or aspiring leader who doesn’t understand that they may not be able to be supported by everybody doesn’t understand how you get to leadership. I don’t think there’s a leader in the party who wants unanimity of support more than they want a majority.

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