“I am, first and foremost, a public servant to my district—not a Democrat or anything else.“
ndy Kim was elected to represent New Jersey’s 3rd Congressional District this past November, unseating Republican incumbent Tom MacArthur. Prior to running for Congress, Mr. Kim worked in the United States Department of State, serving as a diplomat and an advisor to military leadership, including General David Petraeus. He joins Merion West and Connor Mustakas to discuss his goals since taking office, including transparency and accountability, veterans’ issues, and combating the opioid crisis.
A focus of yours us transparency throughout government. Can you elaborate on how you aim to cut down corruption throughout levels of government and how you plan to remain transparent during your time in Congress?
The issues of transparency and accountability are fundamental to why I ran for Congress. I am not somebody who thought I would ever run for Congress. I am a former diplomat who comes from a national security background. I am also not somebody who sees themselves through a partisan lens because I have worked with Republicans and Democrats.
So for me, when I was thinking about why I decided to run for Congress, it came down to the fact that the system in Washington is really broken. I know a lot of people in my district share this feeling. I am looking at this stagnation down in Washington with my family in New Jersey wondering, and we’re wondering, “What happened”? Why did it get so bad? A huge part of that is the politics we have has become unraveled. It doesn’t have the same accountability and transparency that it used to have—or needs to have—to keep functioning.
To fix it, it starts in two ways. One is by example within the district itself. I promised to be the most transparent and accountable member of Congress there is. I do this by not taking a dime from corporate PAC money—and by hosting a monthly town hall meeting that is open to everyone in my district. We host them in both Democratic and Republican townships. We also post on my website daily reports of what I am up to everyday, who I am meeting with, and what votes I’ve taken. This is my way of explaining to the constituents what I am up to because I fundamentally believe that my constituents are my bosses. Whether they voted for me or not, they are my bosses, and I need to let them know what I’m up to—and that I am fighting to work on the issues they care about.
On top of that, I am also working on another level with H.R 1, this big bill we are trying to put together to address some of the systemic problems we have across the board: issues that affect voter registration, campaign finance reform, gerrymandering, and other problems that are corrosive to the ability of our government to work for the people.
I want to go back and focus on your monthly town hall meetings. In the previous one you were quoted by The Asbury Park Press as stating, “I’m the employee. You’re my boss,” as you just reiterated here. Do you feel standing up monthly in front of your constituents helps you stay level-headed when you return to Washington after events such as these?
It helps anchor me with where my priorities need to be. I want to be a workforce for the district. They are my bosses. I don’t report to party leadership; I don’t report to donors. I report to the constituents. I think it is incredibly important to have town halls because it is fundamental to democracy. Anyone can come and ask questions, which we don’t filter, and they have an opportunity to look me in the eyes and tell me their priorities. It is important for me to hear that without any filters. Because when I see what has happened in Washington and in the broader political debates we are in, people are often siloing themselves within a certain framework or ideology. They are not putting themselves in places where they will be challenged or confronted. That then accentuates this tribalism that is taking over our politics where people are seeing themselves as separate entities from other people.
I am, first and foremost, a public servant to my district—not a Democrat or anything else. I think that is so critical to how I see this job and is very much forged by the fact I have been a public servant my whole career working under Republicans and Democrats. We need to inject that type of humility into our politics.
On the topic of bipartisanship, you and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) introduced the SAVE Act recently. This bill is aimed at putting federal funding in the hands of the states to set-up their own web portals for medical insurance exchanges. Since this is a relatively new bill, can you help give our readers a better understanding of what you proposed?Furthermore, do you think working across the aisle on this issue with a Republican will help it be seen as a more inclusive, down-the-middle proposition?
What we have seen across the board over the last few years is that state-based marketplaces save money, rather than federal-run marketplaces. States that do transition to their own marketplaces save money and have greater retention of people into the market as they learn to cater to their own states. New Jersey has thought about doing this, but an obstacle of doing this is the funding needed to create a platform that is rock solid. The federal government used to provide funding for the states to make that transition, but that funding ran out and is expired.
So, this was an area I thought that we had a proven record, which could help lower costs and save money and try to retain people in healthcare that my state needs. I thought it was an area here in healthcare where Congressman Fitzpatrick and I could find some common ground to show the American people that there are different ways to go about addressing our needs that both parties can talk about to build trust.
As someone who has been trained as a diplomat, that is my approach. I don’t try to take a maximalist position; I want to find an angle of initial common ground and build it out from that. I want to really deliver for the district and exist on positions where the rubber hits the road, and this is somewhere I want to find something tangible for the district.
Another issue that has come up in your town hall meetings is veteran treatment. It was also a major part of your campaign platform. You have mentioned helping veterans via lowering prescription premiums with healthcare and by updating and modernizing health clinics in your own district. What is your plan now that you are in office to better serve the veterans in your community and nationwide?
A promise we have made to everyone who has served our country is that we are going to have their back because they sacrificed and served us. Having been in national security, I worked out of Afghanistan as a civilian advising General Petraeus and General Allen when they were four stars, so I have worked beside our servicemen and women while I was abroad. I often think about the fact that they saved my life when we were under attack. So I feel very personally indebted to our veterans and servicemen and servicewomen. My district is one with a joint military base: McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst. So it is certainly very important to this district because a lot of people here have served or understand the sacrifice that comes with it.
So when I hear that there is a clinic in Ocean County where veterans do not have the full scope of the medical facilities they need and deserve—or that there is a parking lot that is too small for them to find parking which accommodates some of their physical disabilities—these are problems I am working incredibly hard on. [We need] to make sure the VA follows through to build a larger health facility for the veterans in our communities. When we have such a large and robust population of veterans in our district, there is no reason why they should have to travel to East Orange, Philadelphia, or Delaware to get some of the higher level treatment they need. We try to do as much as we can to deliver. That is a tangible step that I know will have immediate and important impacts on the lives of veterans in our district.
Furthermore, we are taking on the issue of fighting the opioid crisis, which is affecting many veterans and, frankly, a lot of people across my district alike. These are the type of issues that I think we can get bipartisan support for. Even in this time of partisan knife fighting, issues, like addressing the opioid crisis, lowering the cost of prescription drugs, and fighting for healthcare for our veterans, is where I can be of most impact to the people in my district. I think we can move forward and show them something really tangible and show them how we can govern and deliver for the people when we don’t think of everything as either a Republican idea or a Democrat idea.
When considering your dedication to fighting the opioid addiction crisis—or introducing the SAVE Act—do you think these ideas are ones that can help bring bipartisanship back to Congress?
I would say that they are pragmatic ideas: ideas that address specific problems we face. When addressing the opioid crisis, it is at a level of magnitude where this problem has become so severe that the scale is astronomical. As someone who has dedicated his life to trying to help save lives, 70,000 Americans each year is more than the total number of American fatalities during the entire duration of the Vietnam War. So in terms of scale, that is a huge problem. So to be able to fully address it, we can’t use pie in the sky ideas; we need to come up with a real strategy—one that is grounded in research, medical procedures, and tried-and-tested law enforcement efforts so that we can have a national strategy to address this crisis. If you were to ask me now what is our national strategy, I can’t actually point to anything of any significant substance that says, “This is what our country is trying to do right now.”
Coming from a national security background, that is a huge problem for me. Because that was exactly how we chose to address issues of counter-terrorism and others that we faced. We tried to understand the totality of the problem, figure out the scale of what you need to address it, and try to reach that level. While Congress has taken some positive directions and steps to tackle the problem, it hasn’t even come close to the scale of what we are trying to fix here. That is how I am trying to come at this: to understand that the opioid crisis is a national security crisis.
We should treat this with every bit of urgency or attention as we would something that may be considered a more traditional issue such as terrorism, war, or conflict. So if we bring together the urgency and resources we quickly put forward for these types of crises, we can begin to wrap our hands around the issue. We just can’t think about this as an abstract issue with only stats and figures. That is where I hope to have an impact: bringing my experience tackling these big crises and helping to draw up a bipartisan solution that will have a real strategy, real substance, and real resources behind it to truly tackle this issue in a comprehensive way.
Thank you for joining us today at Merion West today, Congressman.