Freshman Rep. Harry Mitchell bounced among events throughout Arizona’s 5th Congressional District last week, his first full week back in Arizona since being sworn in as the oldest freshman member of the 110th Congress.
The 66-year-old Democrat attended events at Arizona State University, the state Capitol, Scottsdale Heatlthcare Osborn hospital, Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport and a Phoenix light-rail facility, among other locales.
The former Tempe High School civics teacher, Tempe mayor and state senator also slipped into the Tribune offices for a 40-minute question-and-answer session. Mitchell fielded questions about the war in Iraq, immigration, energy and more.
Here’s a sampling:
Q: Did anything productive result from last week’s debate in Congress about the Iraq war?
A: More than anything, it was an expression of what I believe the American people feel. This was a big issue to a lot of people running for Congress, that we needed to change direction. I think the very fact that the House voted for this resolution — and even in the Senate, even though it did not get 60 votes, it got a majority, it had 56 votes — people want a change in direction.
Q: What sort of change?
A: Where we need a new direction is in the areas of politics, economics and diplomacy. And that hasn’t happened. People are saying we need to change some direction here. We need a different emphasis. Even the military. The military should be there for what we hope they should be there for — not to fight in the middle of a civil war, but to train an Iraqi military, an Iraqi police.
Q: How do you respond to criticism that the resolution was just window-dressing, that if the Congress was serious, it would have cut funding for the war?
A: Part of that resolution was that we support the troops. There’s no way we are going to withdraw any financial support for those troops. They entered that war without adequate armor, without adequate manpower. No one, no one wants to undermine the troops that are there. They have paid a significant price. A large portion are Guardsmen and reservists (who) have interrupted their normal lives, and they have paid a dear price for this. There is no way we should try to undermine what they are doing. I just think there just needs to be a change of direction.
Q: There is growing evidence that the neighboring country of Iran is instigating violence in Iraq. What role should the United States play concerning that threat?
A: Iran doesn’t have the best relationship with some of its neighbors — Jordan, Syria. Economic sanctions are an important part in trying to bring Iran around. We can’t do that by ourselves. I don’t even know what kind of diplomatic relations we have with them, but we certainly can try to encourage surrounding nations. My understanding is that nations like Jordan and Syria are very nervous about Iran. We have to engage these countries.
Q: Do you agree with President Bush that Iraq is the central front in the war on terrorists?
A: No. I think if you look at the reasons we went into Iraq, it had nothing to do with fighting the war on terrorism. It was weapons of mass destruction; it was getting rid of Saddam Hussein. I think if you listen to the generals, if you listen to the diplomats who are either retired or who have long histories in this area, you’d find that what we’ve done over there is encouraged terrorism. We’ve done nothing more.
Q: On a different topic, immigration was one of the top issues in your campaign. What do you foresee happening concerning immigration?
A: I think something is going to be done in a comprehensive sense this year. People are going to demand it. People expect it to happen. I found that it’s really a bipartisan issue, a nonpartisan issue. ... The president’s for it. You have Sen. McCain, Congressman Flake all wanting some type of comprehensive reform. I believe if it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen this year, or this Congress because there’s a better chance for it. The president is going to have to show some real leadership in his party. It can only be done in a bipartisan way.
Q: Will legislation this year be similar to the Bush and McCain plan that failed last year?
A: One of the good things about that not passing last year was the fact that there was a lot of input about what might have been some of its shortcomings or the good parts of that bill. As a result, there’s a different bill, but along the same lines. Different than maybe what the president wanted, but it deals with border security, it deals with guest or temporary worker programs, and it deals — and I don’t know the details of this bill yet — with how to handle the 11 million to 12 million illegal immigrants that are already here.
Q: A path to citizenship?
A: That’s probably what it would be.
Q: How do you assure Americans that after allowing those who already made it here illegally to stay, that the country will get a handle on continued illegal immigration?
A: You have to realize that people are coming here because there are jobs. Once those jobs are taken by people who are here legally on a temporary status or a guest worker status, there are no more jobs. As long as there are jobs and we don’t have workers to fill them, you’re going to find people trying to cross the border to get here. It’s just pure economics. If there are no jobs here and they are not being hired, where’s the incentive?
Q: Energy also was a major component of your campaign. On Tuesday, the Australian government announced plans to phase out incandescent light bulbs and replace them with more energy-efficient compact fluorescent bulbs. Would you support a similar plan in the United States?
A: I had not heard of that. ... Energy efficiency, along with trying to become energy independent, is a huge issue. We look at becoming energy independent three ways: We look at it as national security; we look at it as the greenhouse effect; and we look at it in terms of jobs. As a result of all three of those, you’re going to find a great deal of work and interest in terms of energy policy. But I hadn’t heard about the fluorescent lights. I’ve got a couple of those little screwy things in my house.
Q: Do you plan to introduce any bills yourself?
A: Yes. I think you’re going to find some on water issues. Water Resources is one of the subcommittees I’m on. And I think you’re going to see some action as a result of the Veterans Committee as well.
Q: Do you want to talk about those in any more detail?
A: No, I don’t want to talk in any more detail than that.
Q: What’s the learning curve been like with your new job?
A: It has been a learning curve because a lot of these issues I wasn’t concerned with in the state Legislature. But there are a lot of these issues we talked about during the campaign. I’m not amazed or surprised, but those first six bills that we passed, every one of those issues we talked about during the campaign. I’m also a student of government and I’ve enjoyed it.