Bryan Kennedy: Democratic Challenger to Sensenbrenner
by Aaron Barlow for ePluribus Media
15 September 2005

Bryan Kennedy is a specialist in Brazilian culture and is Assistant Professor of Portuguese at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. He has lived extensively in Brazil and has been fascinated with Brazil’s poor for more than a decade. The Democratic candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives in the Wisconsin 5th District in 2004, he is running again in 2006.


Kennedy was born on February 4, 1970, in Hagerstown, a largely blue-collar, middle-class city in western Maryland. He spent much of his youth as the only child of a single mother, but his household was later home to a pro-labor, working-class family, as his stepfather and grandfather were members of the NEA and UAW, respectively. In addition, his stepfather is a Vietnam-era Army veteran.


Kennedy’s signature proposal, a universal catastrophic health-care system, is designed to remove the most expensive elements from the health-care pool, to introduce greater competition in the health-insurance industry, and to bring overall health-care costs down.

The day after this interview was completed, Kennedy’s opponent, the incumbent F. James Sensenbrenner, Jr., voted against aid for Gulf Coast survivors (one of only 11 members of Congress to do so). On September 8th, Kennedy issued a press release in response that included the following:

“I don’t know what he [Sensenbrenner] was thinking,” Kennedy said. “An American city the size of Milwaukee is in ruins, its residents are scattered all over the country in temporary shelters, and Sensenbrenner doesn’t believe that they should receive assistance. I don’t think that Sensenbrenner is heartless, so I really can’t understand why he would vote against helping his fellow Americans through one of the greatest natural disasters in our nation’s history….”

The $50 billion aid package would provide $2,000 to families who had been displaced and would help pay for the cleanup efforts. Kennedy commented:

“Considering the economic standing of most of the Gulf Coast victims, this is the least the government could do to assist them. The good people of Wisconsin mourn for those who suffer and our heart goes out to those who have lost loved ones. The aid the President requested is the kind of assistance we expect from government in a time of crisis. Sensenbrenner owes the people of Wisconsin an answer and the people of the United States an apology. He needs to show the country that the citizens of Wisconsin care about what happens to our fellow Americans.”

ePluribus Media: Thank you, Professor Kennedy, for taking the time to answer our questions. In these interviews, we are giving candidates a chance to show themselves — there's no “gotcha,” no attempt to debate, though the questions can sometimes be a bit difficult. We want to help the process of allowing voters to get to know candidates, both in their own districts and elsewhere. Our questions are tailored, as much as possible, to the particular candidates. You, for example, seem much more focused on domestic issues than on foreign policy, so we’ll keep most of our questions in that area.

Bryan Kennedy: I do focus on domestic issues the most because I feel that is where the party in power has done the worst. Their policies benefit such a small percentage of the population and are detrimental to a large majority.

However, I am a professor of foreign culture and am well-versed in foreign policy. If I am elected, the people of my district will have someone to fight for changes to the domestic agenda but also someone who has lived in a number of foreign countries and understands the world. I speak fluently three languages (English, Portuguese and Spanish) and am functional in French.

ePMedia: Our personal backgrounds have a great impact, of course, on our political positions. So let’s start with a few questions sparked by your own background. As a professor of Portuguese language and culture, you have been studying Brazilian shantytowns for some time now. Has what you have found there had an impact on your political positions here, either on domestic issues or foreign policy?

BK: Absolutely. I have experienced first-hand true poverty and have lived among some of the poorest people on earth. Having spent significant time in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, I see where both business and government are failing the poor.

I have met people who work in factories for large multinational corporations. We often hear representatives of these companies say they are lifting the standard of living among the poor in developing countries by moving their factories to these areas. My experience is just the opposite: They are exploiting an already underprivileged population.

They claim they are meeting the minimum wage requirements, but the Brazilian minimum wage is 300 Reais per month (about US$125). Many American factory workers make that much in a day.

What I see happening in Brazil I do not want to see happen here. I will not sit idly by and continue to watch the current administration help large corporations to hollow out the middle class.

ePMedia: Like that of many Americans today, your upbringing varied a bit from the “traditional.” Before your mother remarried, you were being raised as the only child of a single parent. How has this experience influenced your adult views on children, the family and society?

BK: While my own childhood was not the Leave It to Beaver image, I learned a lot about self-sufficiency at a young age, and I also came to appreciate having a two-parent household when I was a teenager. I think it is important to help families and make it easier for those who choose to have children to raise them in our modern world. The current administration’s policies are destroying families. Their tax policies are forcing working parents to work more hours and, in many cases, more than one job. When that happens, children are being raised by babysitters, daycare and other relatives. Lack of health care forces far too many working families into bankruptcy.

I believe very strongly in leaving a better world for my kids than the one I see around us today. I also want to create more opportunities for our children. I believe in hard work and responsibility, but hard work is to no avail if there are no opportunities for advancement. I want my kids to be able to do more and to be around more to raise my grandchildren.

I am happily married, the father of three, and am active in a local church. I teach Sunday school. There is nothing more important to me than my family and my relationship with my Savior.

I do think that supporting families and helping them to fulfill their responsibilities to their children does not involve legislating religious morality. We need to let government assist the private sector in creating opportunities so that parents can be around more to raise their children and to teach them the values the parents deem important.

ePMedia: Recently we have seen a major rift develop in the American labor movement. As someone raised in a pro-labor environment, what are your views on the split between the Teamsters (among others) and the AFL-CIO? And what role do you see for labor unions in the future of American life?

BK: Obviously I believe strongly in unions and I recognize their importance historically in the United States. I was sorry to see the split with SEIU and the Teamsters leaving the AFL-CIO.

I can understand their concerns and reasons for doing so. Labor needs to fight for membership and to assist those who are working in $7-per-hour jobs and no benefits to organize and fight for better pay and health care.

Some labor organizations have neglected to grow their unions, and we are seeing a rapid decline among such unions. Business and industry are not helping things either. When a factory closes in Waukesha County, Wisconsin, and the jobs move to China, a union machinist or truck driver is put out of work. That individual’s family will have to survive on a drastically reduced wage and no health insurance when Dad goes to work at Wal-Mart.

The moral obligation business once had to build up America’s economy seems to have disappeared. The bottom line and the stock report trump valuing families and caring for American workers.

The service-sector unions ought to fight right now to organize those who are being disenfranchised and deunionized as their employer leaves town. Unfortunately, they do not see the AFL-CIO as sharing this same value.

ePMedia: While your attitude of tolerance and respect for the lifestyles of others (coupled with support of a clear church/state separation) is certainly shared by many millions of American Christians, there is a growing movement calling for the institutionalization of certain “values” within our government. As a practicing Mormon, how do you deal with those who say that acceptance of the right of others to live as they please is tantamount to endorsing immorality?

BK: Actually, Mormons believe in “agency.” That is, we have the right to make our own choices in this life. Christ calls to us to follow Him, but in the end, we have to decide if that path is what we choose. Our eternal blessings are predicated on choosing Him and following His example.

It is not endorsing immorality to allow others their God-given right to choose for themselves. Why does the Bible tell us so many times “Many are called but few are chosen” (Matt 22:14) or “Straight is the gate and narrow the way” (Matt. 7:14)? I do not believe that He ever intended to oblige anyone to follow Him. He is the Good Shepherd, not a dictator. Those who follow Christ stand out and are different.

What do we gain in terms of character and spirituality when we are forced to follow a certain path? Absolutely nothing.

I think there are many who want to be told what to do, to have someone else make the hard choices for them. I do not, and I do not understand Christ’s Gospel to be that way.

ePMedia: Now for a couple of “horse race” questions: We understand that you have set a goal of raising a million dollars for your bid to unseat James Sensenbrenner. How is the fundraising going so far, and how does what you envision spending compare with Sensenbrenner's war chest?

BK: Actually, $1.5 million. I have raised about $125,000 so far and have just begun daily fundraising calls — about 30 hours per week. I intend to raise and spend more in this race than Sensenbrenner did in 2004. He is independently wealthy and has deep pockets. He will certainly outspend me, but I will have enough this time to get my message out about why we need a change.

ePMedia: What has been the reaction from the national Democratic Party to your candidacy? Will you be able to count on substantial support, even though you are taking on the extremely difficult task of unseating a congressional veteran of more than 25 years?

BK: That is an interesting question. The DCCC has not really taken any interest in my race or in any race like mine. However, Gov. Dean has singled out my campaign against Sensenbrenner in at least three different national venues. We are seeing doors open in Washington that were closed previously. We are also starting into some national fundraising.

ePMedia: You claim a middle political ground — somewhere, as you say, between John Edwards and John McCain. Can you define that ground a little more clearly (but simply) before we get into specific issues?

BK: I am not a “tax-and-spend” liberal. I am fiscally conservative and believe in balanced budgets. I believe that government can have a positive impact in people’s lives. I live in a society and I expect to pay taxes. I do not want to overpay and I expect to receive a strong defense to keep my family safe, good schools for my children, good roads and transportation infrastructure, and a healthy environment, among other things. I pay good money and I want good quality. I have not seen my taxes go down under this administration, but the quality sure has. I am paying the same but getting less.

I believe that government needs to be responsible and I do not support government programs just to have a government program. I think there should be accountability; if a program does not meet its objective, we should ax it.

Lastly, I am more of a “think globally, act locally” kind of leader. I would like to have more of our federal programs outlined at the federal level but run and “fine-tuned” at the local level. We can meet the needs of people in Wisconsin better in Wisconsin by adapting federal guidelines to our specific needs.

ePMedia: Commenting on how Sensenbrenner behaves in Congress, you have said he “acts like a petulant child.” Would you expand on this?

BK: Four examples:

  1. Last fall Sensenbrenner held up the 9/11 Commission recommendations while he pouted on national television that people in his party were not paying him the respect he deserved on his immigration reforms.
  2. In May he falsified a report of an abortion bill out of the Judiciary Committee, making it appear that the Democrats on the committee were trying to protect sexual predators. They were not trying to do anything of the sort. He said, “You don’t like what we wrote about your amendments, and we don’t like what you said about our bill.”
  3. In June he stormed out of a Judiciary Committee meeting and ordered the microphones cut because he did not like the testimony. Invited guests and the Democratic members of the Committee were left sitting there speechless. No one called for an adjournment and his conduct was out of order, as well as offensive.
  4. In July he blew up at a constituent at a Pewaukee town hall meeting because she questioned a piece of legislation he sponsored. It was recorded and is available on the Internet.

ePMedia: You have complained that the media gives Sensenbrenner something of a free ride. How have you felt about the coverage of you and your campaign so far this time around, as well as in the 2004 campaign?

BK: Our local paper’s writers try to appear so “fair and balanced” (so the right-wing media does not label it a liberal paper) that they end up ignoring the left. It took [five days] this summer before the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel even mentioned Cindy Sheehan’s protest near the president’s home in Crawford. Yet the month before, they had run a two-page “fluff piece” on Sensenbrenner’s wife that tried to make Rep. Sensenbrenner look more human. We will have to buy our publicity before the local media take notice.

ePMedia: Now on to specific issues: You have characterized the national debt as a “birth tax.” About your opponent you say, “Sensenbrenner votes to mortgage our children’s future and then has the audacity to call himself a ‘Hero of the Taxpayer.’” Could you expand on this, explaining what you would do to bring the deficit under control?

BK: Balance the budget by closely examining every line of it. There is so much waste, especially in the confidential parts of the budget. We can also stop throwing money down the “black hole” that is Iraq. We need to change our focus on catching Osama bin Laden. He is responsible for killing 3,000 Americans. If we caught him, we would be closer to destroying his network, and we could concentrate on the important issues at home.

We also need to reverse the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy. We middle-income families are shouldering a much larger burden and receiving less for our schools, roads and parks. We are sending our children off to war zones and paying for it with credit cards that our kids will have to pay off.

ePMedia: The No Child Left Behind law seems to have engendered a mania for measurement. Quantification has become the basis for judgment of both schools and students. Specifically, what would you do to keep accountability within our educational structures while still taking into account the fact that the learning of measurable items is only one aspect of a good education?

BK: Accountability is more than one national, standardized exam. We need to set federal standards and provide the funding to achieve those goals. Then we should allow the local schools to determine their own curricula and their own plans to meet their objectives.

To determine success, we should examine a variety of factors — test scores, grade-point average, attendance averages, parental involvement, tax base, class size, technological resources, etc.

When we find schools that are failing, we should intervene and help fix them, not cut their funds and use the money to fund private schools.

ePMedia: You speak of instituting a universal catastrophic health-care program (while leaving standard care to the competitive marketplace). How would such a program be administered?

BK: Using the same mechanism that is in place to take care of uninsured children. We already have a Medicaid system for poor children. We can provide access to all the uninsured and still keep a private insurance system for those who can afford it. We should determine a class of illnesses that will be universally covered, as well as a benchmark total expenditure that we deem to be “catastrophic.” Those illnesses would be covered by a universal catastrophic system.

I would also like to place the choice of private health-care providers in the hands of consumers, not employers. We have seen that competition keeps prices low as companies compete for customers. Rarely do consumers have much of a choice regarding their health-care options. Employers present them with one or two options, and those options are getting more costly each year. Rather than relying on the workforce of a company as the pool for an insurance company, we should eliminate the group pool and preexisting-conditions clauses. Employees should be given a form of “block grant” subsidy from their employers and be allowed to select the health-care options best for them and their families.

This will force health-care companies to compete. They will have to offer the best service possible and to find a way of measuring that level of customer service for marketing. By removing the preexisting-conditions clause, we will be saying that a company must insure everyone. If they are truly competing for the lowest-risk consumers, they will be able to afford the higher-risk individuals in their plans as well. Even with some higher-risk individuals in their pool, costs will be driven down through competition coupled with a universal catastrophic-care system.

Reforming health care is not a liberal social policy; it is pro-business. It will make us better able to compete in a global marketplace.

ePMedia: You are in favor of a “three strikes rule” regarding felonies as part of a program to reduce crime. However, the United States already has the highest incarceration rate in the industrialized world. In addition to your “community-oriented policing system” to keep people from becoming criminals, what would you do to decrease recidivism so that people don’t ever get to that third felony?

BK: Our crime problem is far more a problem of poverty and inequality than one of “bad guys doing bad stuff.” I believe that almost everyone when pushed far enough would do anything to feed their children. Some people, unfortunately, do not need as much pushing to resort to violence as others. Furthermore, when people have no hope for their future, they do not see death in the same light. They do not believe that they have as much to live for. I have seen this in the slums of Rio.

We have a moral obligation to create opportunities and to give people hope. Milwaukee now has America’s 7th highest level of poverty in cities. That is a direct correlation to this year’s sudden surge in violent crime in the city.

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