BRIDGEPORT, Ohio — Charlie Wilson can drive to Washington in less time than it takes him to drive the length of his 335-mile, 18-county district. He knows because he’s spent the better part of a year traveling the district in hopes of winning a chance to represent it once again.
Wilson lost a closely fought race in 2010 to now-Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio) in a contest that enjoyed a significant amount of outside spending. Since his loss, Wilson has studied the electoral trends and is confident that he will run a closer race this time, because his Democratic base of support reliably turns out in presidential election years.
2chambers spoke with Wilson on Thursday afternoon at his campaign office in Bridgeport, next to Wilson Furniture Store, which his family has owned since the 19th century. Our conversation — edited for clarity and length — appears below:
2chambers: Exactly six years ago today — Sept. 27, 2006 — two of my colleagues came to visit you during your first race for Congress. They said you were coasting to victory. Six years later, what’s changed politically around here?
Charlie Wilson: Well, I’ve gone through redistricting, but I’m not the incumbent this time. I was running for an open seat.
During my years in Washington, I had primaries both times and was able to do those well. My last election, the one that I lost in, was very different. The trees weren’t moving when the wind was blowing. It was just surreal. The Republicans had their game in order and they did a good job. The tea party was a part of that in whipping up the anger.
In analyzing our precincts in this district when I came home and could finally get off the couch – you do take it personally – we found out that my people just didn’t come out. My vote in 2008 – which would have been Obama’s first presidential – in 2010, went from 362,000 to 290,000. A big drop-off.
So this time, I had a lot of encouragement out on the street. People saying, ‘We really want you to run again.’ One of the biggest factors isn’t that Johnson is bad for the area, they just feel like they want somebody they know.
We’ve been here since 1898, generations of us. You make a lot of friends. We’ve had good support and I truly believe that my primary – even though not a strong man who was well-funded – but we won it with 83 percent. So I think it’s going to be a little different cycle this time.
So how did you lose the seat two years ago?
I think there’s no question that they bought the seat. Money came in here like we’ve never seen money on television before. Karl Rove was at the operating station of that exercise that was done. I think it was just flooded.
And yes, again, the tea party did some good ground work, I can’t deny that, and accused me of not being anywhere. It was not one of my better performances.
Guys like Jim Oberstar, I would say to him, ‘Jim, what the hell is going on this election?’ He lost too.
But why didn’t Democrats see it coming?
We should have. We knew health care was very toxic, we saw that in 1994. It wasn’t just health care either.
Were Democrats perhaps passing all these things in a vacuum perhaps and not thinking about potential backlash?
I thought there would be backlash, but I didn’t think it would be a tsunami. My polling showed I was okay, that I was in good shape, my campaign thought we were fine. We were shocked on Election Night, we thought we would win by what we lost by.
But our people didn’t come and we never planned on that, we thought we’d have the base we always had.
But not even the base showed up.
Not enough, when you drop 75,000 votes in an off-year election. But the Dems love coming out to vote for the president, and I’m hoping they’ll just click everything down our ticket.
Why on earth do you want to go back to Congress?
I truly see things askew. I can hardly tolerate the changes in Medicare with the Ryan budget. I just can’t fathom that people would be able to get insurance that would cover them for $6,000 or $7,000 a year. Right now they’re covered.
But Medicare can’t be the only reason you want to go back to Washington.
It isn’t the only reason, but it’s the things that I see coming. I think we’ve suffered enough trade policies, I want to go down there and stop NAFTA and CAFTA, that kind of stuff. I would like to take away one of the obstruction seats that is in Congress.
It’s at the point now where people stop me in the grocery store and ask me to run. They don’t know Mr. Johnson. They know me, I live here.
One of the things that was pressed on me last time is that I was not available. Ed, I have five offices in this district. I’m the only congressman who had his home phone number in the phone book. It was not uncommon for me to come home at 8:30 or 9:30 at night and have two or three messages from constituents, and I’d call them back. I might not have always had the answers, but I got back to it first thing in the morning.
I’d like to go back to that kind of Congress. I get a lot of satisfaction in helping people.
If you win again, what will you differently?
Probably spend more time crossing that aisle. I had a good relationship with Republicans there. I’d cross that aisle and try to get help passing some bills, present my labor agenda and the folks I’m working for, in a common-sense way that it would compel people to join me. Just to be there and not be obstructive.
Who was the Republican you worked with the most?
Steve LaTourette. He was a really great guy. I did some things with Todd Akin. And John Boehner – he chose me to go with Republicans when they went to Iraq and Afghanistan. It was a wonderful trip, they couldn’t have treated me nicer.
One of the things we did too is we had a prayer breakfast. It was majority Republican – I don’t mean that the majority of Democrats were sinners – but there were more of them. Probably 25, 30 people, and probably a division of maybe 20 Republicans and 10 Democrats. But when you work together and you pray together, you don’t fight on the floor. We rarely saw one of our people from that group be disrespectful to each other. I think those were the kinds of things we used to basically make more camaraderie among us.
One of the ways you succeeded before is you brought money home to the district. How do you plan to do that now that earmarking is taboo?
Well, if the congressman doesn’t bring home the earmark, who does? Would we want some faceless suit from the administration to come here and decide what’s good for our area? I don’t think so.
I bring it home, I’m going to be responsible for it. I’m not going to bring things home that build bridges to nowhere. It’s going to be infrastructure, communities are going to benefit from it. We’re going to get more teachers, our students are going to stay in good schools. In the state legislature I did the same thing. I don’t think that Appalachia should be a donor district to Washington, D.C. I think we ought to get our fair share of money back.
Anyone who thinks that we’re getting fat and rich in Washington, no, they’re getting every pound out of us.
There’s so much walking – you don’t realize, I betcha we did five miles a day [while on Capitol Hill]. And it’s so important to be staffed right on things, because it’s almost impossible to remember everything and every connection and every amendment that needs to be done. So the choosing of my staff has been very important – and will be in the future.