Ashwin Madia talks McCain, Marines, and why he should be in Congress

This post marks a turning point for this blog. I’m enlarging the perspective, widening the peephole, casting a broader net. From now on, you’ll enjoy (hopefully) not only arts news and commentary but insights into politics, people, and the other facets of Minnesota life that MnMo regularly covers. In fact, expect most of the non-arts posts here to be additional material related to stories currently in print, bonus tracks, if you will. I’m kicking things off with an interview conducted with Ashwin Madia, the 30-year-old ex-Marine, ex-lawyer, ex-John McCain supporter who’s now surprising pollsters with his remarkable race as the Democratic congressional candidate in Minnesota’s Third District encompassing Wayzata, Plymouth, Brooklyn Park and other western suburbs.

You grew up in the Third District. What spurred you to represent it? I was born in Boston and we moved all over the country. I came to Minnesota in high school–Osseo Senior High and went to the U. My folks settled in Plymouth with my kid sister and brother. I think it’s one of the best places to live in the entire country. Very kind and decent people looking for a good place to raise their familes. It’s a pro-business community with some top companies–Target and General Mills, for instance. The private sector is important–the government is not the answer to all our problems.

How would you characterize the district politically?
I think it’s an independent district, with voting based more on the candidate than on political party. In the end, they’re looking for someone fiscally conservative and socially moderate.

Retired Republican Congressman Jim Ramstad was hugely popular in this district and has reportedy endorsed your opponent, state Rep. Erik Paulsen. How are you appealing to Ramstad voters?
Ramstad was a great rep because he worked with both sides to get things done, he wasn’t overly partisan. It’s about bringing both sides together to get things done for our country. He was pro-busines and so am I. I want to work with people and companies across the disrtict to get a business-friendly environment. Also, I’m a former Republican myself. I left the party a few years ago because I was concerned about rising spending, an inability to balance the budget. I’m emphasizing that I’m a fiscal conservative, and my No. 1 priority is to help balance our budget, something all sides of the political spectrum can agree on.
    I want to cut spending and reduce our prescence in Iraq. We can’t continue to spend this amount of money there and give tax breaks to oil companies. I want to work with both sides to go line by line and dime by dime through the entire budget and see what we can cut.
    It’s about priorities. Investing in education is investing in our economy. In order for our economy to be on solid ground in the long-term, we must have a competitive workforce. That means education from early childhood to higher education through life-long education.

Who are your political influences or role models?
Tim Walz [first-term Congressman from southern Minnesota] who’s another military vet and I think he does a good job as a moderate who works with both sides. Jim Webb, the senator from Virginia, a Marine Corps vet and a former Republican/conservative Democrat not unlike me. Jim Ramstad, somebody who’s always worked with both sides. I admired him from afar and met him in Washington.

When did you enlist in the Marines and why?
I went to officer candidate school in the summer of 1999. I was looking for a challenge in my life, looking for a good way to serve. When my parents came to America they had 19 dollars between them and lived every dream they ever wanted to. They  wanted to pass on so many opportunities to me and my siblings. The Marines was a way for me to give back. I graduated in spring of ’99, went to OCS that fall. I was at NYU then for law school. I came back to Minnesota in 2002 and in summer I took the bar and worked at a local law firm. I soon got orders to basic school and went active duty in January 2003. I was with the Rule of Law mission–we worked with the U.S. State Department, U.S. Justice Department, European Union, United Nations, the American military, Iraqi judges and lawyers as well.

What did you learn from your experience in Iraq? We’ve really lucky and blessed to have the military we do. I worked with some of bravest men and women. But also brave Iraqis. They risked their lives every day to come to work.
I thought we needed more oversight. I was concerned we didn’t have a system and procedures in place to ensure that the money we were spending was spent in the way it was intended. I was one of those people who didn’t understand why we couldn’t give the inspectors more time to find out if Iraq had weapons or not. And I was concerned that we couldn’t plan more appropriately for the occupation; failure to plan for the occupation resulted in lost opportunity.

What did you admire about McCain, and when did you begin to feel differently about him? I volunteered for McCain in 2000. I think he’s a good man, he served his country honorably. But I’m supporting Obama. McCain has veered away from his roots. I was raised as a Republican. I was a lifelong Republican until five or six years ago. They once emphasized fiscal repsonsibility and a balanced budget, pro-growth policies, and they reccognized that the government wasn’t the solution to every single problem out there. They took power and turned record surpluses into record deficits. When I switched, I didn’t think that they were the party of fiscal responsibility anymore. I’m a moderate to conservative Democrat. I think we need to work with the private sector to create pro-growth business opportunities. I want to balance the federal budget. I don’t feel I’ve changed all that much, the Republican Party has.

Where does your family live now? My parents are still in Plymouth. My kid sister, Surbhi, is married and lives in Madison, Wisconsin; she’s an elementary education teacher. My kid brother, Virat, is eight years younger, about to start medical school in Madison.

This is your first run for office. How important do you feel political experience is in this race?
Experience is important, and there are different kinds of experience. It’s true that I haven’t been a politician in St. Paul for two decades. What I do have is experience in Iraq. I served as Marine Corps officer in Baghdad, got experience working with the United Nations and the European Union and the Justice department to help build Iraq’s legal system. I also have experience working with the disabled and battered women.
    I’m not sure we need more career politicians. This country belongs to all of us, we’ve all got something to say. I’m not doing this because it’s a career, I’m doing this because I love my country. If we can send 17- and 18-year-olds 10,00 miles to fight and die in Iraq then we can send a 30-year-old to Washington.

What made you decide to run?
In the end I thought about what kind of country I want to pass on to my kids. When they look at me someday and ask what I was doing at this point in my country’s history, I want to say I was working my tail off to say they had the same opportunities I did as a kid. I believe we live in the greatest country in the entire world, and we can do so much better than what we’ve been doing. We just need the courage to change.