After sweeping to re-election in Connecticut's 1st District earlier this month, U.S. Rep. John B. Larson capped that success by being voted chairman of the Democratic caucus — making him the fourth-ranking member of the House. Tuesday, Mr. Larson joined The Courant's Editorial Board for more than an hour as he discussed his new leadership role and a number of issues important to the state's residents. Below is an excerpted and edited version of that conversation.
New Head Of Caucus
I hope to help Connecticut every day that I'm in this new position. I think the importance or the significance of being in leadership is that you have an enhanced role — and by that I mean no more of a role then Joe Courtney or Chris Murphy or Rosa DeLauro, who also sits at the table with me — but enhanced because you're in the room. So when big decisions are getting made, I'd rather be inside the room then outside the room.
The Democratic caucus is comprised now of 262 members. Within that caucus there are several different caucuses. There's a Congressional Black Caucus. There's a Congressional Hispanic Caucus. There's the New Democratic Caucus. There's the Progressives. There's the Blue Dogs. There's the Woman's Caucus, and I could go on. My chief responsibility amounts to herding cats. I am the voice for the members of the caucus. It's at the leadership meeting where you have the intersection of what's happening between the administration and with the other body in the Senate and proposals for legislation. So it's like a board of directors for the House and the caucus chair is the fourth in line. There are five elected positions in the House of Representatives — speaker, the majority leader, the whip, the caucus chair and the vice chair.
Rahm Emanuel [the previous chairman of the Democratic caucus who is joining the Obama administration] was my seatmate on the Ways and Means Committee. Very talented guy. If you were using generals as analogy he would be Patton. I would be Omar Bradley. [Rahm's] a combination of Chicago politics and policy wonk. Rahm's a very intense type, very driven. That's not my style at all.
Metropolitan Greater Hartford
I see my role really as the regional elected person for this area. We don't have regional government anymore, but we have regional interests. We can get far more for this region if we all pull together.
Prospects For Colt National Park Bill
I think the chances of passage are excellent. We're setting up meetings with both the city and the state and they will have to be willing partners with the National Park Service. But when you think about what this can become, it's pretty exciting. It's one of the most exciting things that I've been involved with, other then fuel cells, of course. We have a lot to learn from what was the manufacturing center and hub of the country.
When you look at that very small geographic area, the enormous history that we have only to be further highlighted or underscored by a national park. Whoa! You know that helps out the Old State House. That helps out Mark Twain House. That helps out the Historical Society. Look at Bushnell Park and the Pump House. We have our own Freedom Trail.
My own selfish Connecticut view is that we ought to be ever pointing toward hydrogen, which is the most abundant element in the universe, and we have the technology here. What we haven't been able to do is have the governmental will to make the investments. Where the private sector won't take the risk, government can and should for our sake in Connecticut, to hold on to vital industries but also in the long term, planning and transition in terms of alternative energy and fuels — this makes eminent sense. We have the first fuel-celled bus anywhere in the country. Now, that was a very expensive bus. It was done as a pilot. But guess what? Could it be utilized and could we produce more; and does it become part of a transit system that totally weans us off of our dependency on oil? You betcha it can.
And you know people will say, "Well, what's the cost of that?" What's the cost of avoidance of it? It doesn't have to be a million-dollar expenditure for a single automobile. It can be looking out and saying we're going to have a fleet of vehicles. Those vehicles can be hybrids. Those vehicles can be battery-driven. Those vehicles can be utilized with fuel cell technology. You can have buses. You can have buildings. If you were to talk to UTC [ United Technologies Corp.] they'd say go with the buildings first.
I understand that the transition to get from Point A to Point B, where it is affordable, is going to take more time. But the longer we postpone taking that first step, how much farther out do we push ourselves in terms of being able to see a real sustainable goal in terms of getting our arms around the energy crisis?
It has a feel and a look historically of depression type of economics and yet it's not quite the same.
I do think that what we're going to have to have is something on the level of a 9/11 Commission look at not only this past administration but going back to see just what's happened to our system, and what do we do to prevent this in the future.
We've got a foreclosure problem. Sheila Baird over at the FDIC has come up with a program for us to stop these foreclosures, [which] the Democratic leadership in the House is pressing them to fund.
We begged, pleaded in fact with [Fed Chariman Ben] Bernanke, [ Treasury Secretary Henry] Paulson two meetings ago. Well, last week, we were sitting this far away from them and they said again they'll be no other bank that's going to have a problem, and yesterday it was Citibank.
It's frustrating — they were talking about what they are willing to do while putting off what the Democrats have suggested in terms of directing the money at the foreclosure crisis. Thankfully, the Senate passed the unemployment bill, so I guess you can say they're not completely frozen in the ice of their indifference, as Roosevelt would say. But what's troubling here is they're resisting freeing up monies that could be used for Medicaid relief for the states. As well as for an infrastructure program — roads, bridges, etc. — for those projects that every state has had to put on hold or frozen that are in the pipeline already, if they were continued, it would certainly help people through the holidays and the economy in the short term. In the long term, the nation's going to need a big infrastructure stimulus package because of the need to put the country back to work and deal with this issue that is not only national but global. Initially, it will mean going further in debt. But putting the country back to work is how we will work our way out of this debt and keep the circular flow of goods and services local.
President-Elect Barack Obama
He's a human being, but he's an incredibly gifted human being and he comes along at the right time with the right temperament and the right intellectual curiosity and capacity to relate to people all over the world and here at home.
The first time he came to our caucus after he came back from Europe, he said, I know that some of you may have heard that a few people showed up in Berlin when I spoke. It got a little bit of a chuckle. He said, listen, this is not about me. He said, I am not a rock star. He said, I stand on the shoulders of those who have come before me. What I represent, what I symbolize is what the rest of the world longs for and loves about America. I represent its possibility. And it is so profound and true. Indeed, that's what he does represent.
I think he will do what Roosevelt did and talk directly to the people. He will create that warm courage of national unity that Roosevelt spoke about. I told our caucus that Roosevelt said of another generation, they had a "rendezvous with destiny," a nation that was in the throes of a depression and with the winds of war on the horizon. Today, we have a war on two fronts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
We are in uncharted waters economically. Different times. Not 1933, but certainly uncharted waters. What we have today is a rendezvous with reality. It's a reality the people at Augie & Ray's [restaurant in East Hartford] know too well. It's a reality, the rising number of home foreclosures, while income for the middle class is dramatically shrinking due to the mounting costs of health care and energy. I listen to my colleagues all over the country talk about what's going on. The situation is bad in Connecticut, but not nearly as bad as they are in a lot of other places around the country and the world. However, I still hear the concerns, about the job layoffs and job security issues that my constituents and this nation have. You can't help but sense the feeling that's out there. But I also sense a feeling of hope and expectation for a new president, a new Congress and a new day for the country.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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