Pat Toomey has a battle ahead of him. The Pennsylvania Senator has continuously been listed by national media and pundits as a Republican who’s in danger of losing his seat in 2016, and he doesn’t have the city support that state Democrats can enjoy.
But the Dems in the state are all over the place about who they want to replace Toomey, and he’s leading them in polls by double digits as the 2016 primary draws nearer. Billy Penn spoke with Toomey, the state’s junior senator, about his campaign, his thoughts on immigration and how Philadelphia has changed since he entered office.
Here’s our conversation, which was edited lightly for clarity and brevity:
Both Philadelphia and Pittsburgh are seeing huge population growth from two areas: immigration and young people. Much of Philadelphia’s economic vitality and growth in recent years has come from a massive immigration boom. But you’ve been clear about your stance on immigration policy and have voted on many occasions for further restrictions. How can you justify these stances when the largest city in your state is clearly benefitting from the influx of immigration? And do you think people misunderstand your record?
I think you do. I’ve always argued we’re a country built on immigrants. I’m the grandson of an immigrant. They contribute to our country and help it grow. And I want to have a robust process by which people can come here legally, and I think that helps us across the spectrum of nationalities and levels of human skills. And the threshold that I think is important: people who want to come here and be law-abiding citizens. My attitude is we should welcome those folks. People who want to come here illegally, that’s a different category.
Moving onto young people. What are some things the two largest cities in your state can do to foster growth and keep millennials from bolting to New York or DC?
At a very practical level, the first obligation of a city is to make sure it’s safe and clean. There’s a certain basic threshold. Both Philly and Pittsburgh have done a good job of making a big improvement, and we’ve seen a huge migration into the city. New companies are coming to Philly and expanding in Philadelphia. The Navy Yard is a great example of a place that’s a really cool place to work, whether its Urban Outfitters setting up big employment. Or whether it’s Comcast downtown. So there’s got to be a lot of opportunity, and both Philadelphia and Pittsburgh are creating that.
So we’re a local site here in Philadelphia, and I’m wondering: What are some of your memories you have of time you’ve spent in Philadelphia, and can you talk about how the city’s really changed since you first entered politics?
Philadelphia has just become a phenomenal city. It’s amazing, and it’s been fantastic to watch and to visit. I live an hour north, and I get in all the time. I don’t know if there’s another city in the country that can compete with the range and diversity and the appeal of so many great places to visit. It’s always had great institutions like theaters and museums. What a great city for sports. My family and I have been to Phillies games and Eagles games. The fact is the city is safer. It’s cleaner. There are more people living downtown.
Well, and now we have the Pope coming. Will you be around for that?
My plan is I’m going to be in Washington for the Pope’s address to Congress, and then I’m planning to attend some of the events on the Saturday that he’s in Philadelphia.
In general, does it serve you to spend time in Philly? The city has a 7-1 ratio of Democrats to Republicans. From a political perspective, is it really worth it for you to campaign here?
I don’t concede a single vote in a single corner of the Commonwealth anywhere. I have no doubt that the policies I’m advocating for — and I focus a lot on economic and fiscal issues — and those policies will generate stronger economic growth. And my job is to communicate that.
I see your father was a union worker and a laborer and your mother worked in a church. How did your upbringing affect how you work today, and do you feel like you can sort of better relate to constituents because you didn’t grow up with a silver spoon in your mouth like so many politicians do?
Well yeah, absolutely. Growing up in a blue collar working class family, I was one of six kids born over the course of seven years, and it was tough for my parents to raise six kids with very limited income. And so we learned the importance of hard work. We all worked as teenagers, and I understand what it’s like to live paycheck-to-paycheck. It was a splurge once a year when we could go out to a restaurant and celebrate good report cards. We would go to this Chinese restaurant.
But it was a great childhood, and it definitely makes it very understandable for me what most families go through and most Pennsylvania families. People work hard for income, and there’s no guarantee jobs will be here.
What can you say about the state of Washington right now and the state of the Republican party? Some have said the Republican presidential race has turned into something of an entertainment spectacle. Do you agree? What can be done about this reputation that Washington isn’t getting anything done?
As far as the primary goes, there’s a lot of candidates. But it’s still very early. If you watched the debate the other night, you saw a lot of really capable people. I thought Carly Fiorina was fantastic. Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, Scott Walker (Ed. note: This interview took place before Walker dropped out) and Jeb Bush all made some really strong arguments and had great moments. I see a pretty broad field of really capable and talented people.
As far as the dysfunction in Washington, it’s been very frustrating for me. I think it’s very clear that I’ve been willing to reach out to the other side of the aisle and find common ground where we can, and I’ve been able to make some progress for Pennsylvania. I worked with Senator Casey on confirming judges, and we have an excellent track record there.
Is this you trying to appear more moderate?
This is what I’ve been doing since my first day in office, and there’s an old saying in politics that some people run for office to make a point, and I’m trying to make a difference and get things done.
Like what? What’s big on your to-do list right now?
We’ve got a ridiculously complicated, unfair and counterproductive tax code, and we desperately need to reform this tax code. If we did, it would trigger economic growth and job creation. We have a federal government that’s not on a sustainable path. We’ve got to come to grips with that, and we have over-regulated this economy to the extent that it is definitely limiting economic growth. There’s a reason this has been the weakest recovery after a recession since the Great Depression, and we have just buried the economy under an avalanche of new regulations to hire workers, and we need some relief there.
So you officially launched your campaign for re-election recently?
Sunday (Sept. 13) was the official campaign launch.
So then let’s talk about the Democrats running against you. You have Joe Sestak, whose struggling for support from the party, you have the person who came in last in the Democratic primary for governor and now some Dems are rallying around a popular small-town mayor who’s never represented more than a few thousand people. The party is clearly fractured at this point — that must make you feel pretty confident in your chances.
Let me be very clear: I take absolutely nothing for granted. I am operating on the assumption that before this is over, this will be a very competitive race. That is the nature of statewide politics in PA. I have no idea who the Democratic voters will nominate in the spring of next year, but I will be ready, and I’m confident we can prevail.