Ben McAdams: Mayor, Dad and Candidate for Congress
An exclusive conversation with one of country’s emerging young leaders and member of the New Deal
The Well News recently sat down for a conversation with one of the country’s emerging young leaders, Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams. Mayor McAdams talked candidly with us about his experience as mayor, his race for Utah’s fourth congressional district and what he hopes to accomplish if elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.
As mayor, tell us about your fiscal track record. What have you done on budgeting and taxes?
McADAMS: As mayor, we have to balance our budget every year. I have a republican council, five republicans and four democrats on the council, and we have to work together to balance our budget in a fiscally responsible way. And we’ve done that. We have a triple A bond rating at the county, and while I’ve been Mayor, we’ve actually been able to improve our credit rating. When you balance a budget, you have to make tough choices. I wish that I could say yes to all the good things in balancing the budget but there are a lot of tough choices you have to make, and we have to come together and work collaboratively to balance our priorities that are both Republican and Democratic, and we do it every year. I think we need more of that in Washington. We have to come together to make the tough choices in a collaborative way to responsibly act towards the future.
Are Utahns worried about what is happening with the federal deficit? Is it an issue in your campaign?
McADAMS: Yes. It’s very troubling that we’ve seen the national debt increase by over a trillion dollars with actions that Congress has taken in the last year, and that is troubling to Utahans. Every man, woman and child in Utah has six thousand dollars more in debt today than they had a year ago. Choices have consequences, and when we make choices to increase spending and balloon the debt, that ties our hands in the future and puts at risk some of the things that Utahans rely on, including Social Security and Medicare. It puts those important programs in jeopardy when the deficit is what it is, and the debt continues to increase. That is a choice, and we can only estimate what the consequences of those choices will be. Make no mistake there are consequences to some of the reckless financial decisions that Congress has made.
As mayor, you are known as someone who quietly lived on the street for several days, to learn about the challenges facing the homeless population in Salt Lake County. Why did you feel like that was important?
McADAMS: I think it’s hard to understand someone’s challenges unless you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. We were making some pretty significant decisions as it related to homelessness and people who are in crisis, and I felt that before I would be prepared to make those decisions, I needed to see it firsthand what challenges people were facing, how the system worked and what opportunities existed in the system. So, I spent three days and two nights living in the streets of Salt Lake and didn’t tell anybody, and ultimately it came out about six months later. I felt that it was an important thing for me to see, firsthand, and to understand what we could do to help people to get back on their feet and to regain some degree of self-reliance, and to really move our homeless services system forward.
Health care costs are a big concern across the country. Is that an issue you’re hearing about in Utah?
McADAMS: Congress, and particularly Congresswoman Love, voted to increase healthcare costs by almost twenty percent this year. We’re seeing healthcare costs really breaking the budgets of hardworking families. A friend of mine, Dawn, whose husband is self-employed as a consultant, was telling me their family pays two thousand dollars a month for healthcare coverage, and that even with that, their copays and deductibles are so high that if their kids are sick, they can’t go to the doctor. The fact that they are spending more on healthcare than their mortgage and are not able to even use the healthcare they pay for is pretty outrageous. A lot of people are seeing rising healthcare costs that are constraining their budgets and impacting their quality of life, and that’s tough. Even then, a lot of people still don’t have coverage. Expanding coverage to those people is a concern and something we’ve got to do as a community. A lot of Utahns are suffering because of the lack of access to affordable healthcare and lack of access to healthcare.
What do you think about recent budget votes with respect to the impact on Social Security and Medicare.
McADAMS: These are programs that people have paid into, sometimes for a lifetime, and that they are relying on in their later years of life. To see these programs put in jeopardy and votes and statements by some legislators that these programs might be cut, I think is reckless. It’s not fulfilling the debt we owe to older generations of Americans who have paid into this program and really need it in their later years in life. I think it is one of the crucial items that is on the ballot this year. What will Congress do to either erode Social Security and Medicare or to shore these programs up? We have to make sure that they are there for those who paid into it and rely on it.
People are disillusioned with the gridlock and dysfunction in Congress. How would you be able to change that, if you’re elected?
McADAMS: I have a track record of working across party lines. When I was in the Utah State Senate, and as Mayor of Salt Lake County, I’ve never done anything that didn’t have Republican support. I think 97% of the bills I introduced as a State Senator had a Republican cosponsor of the bill. As mayor of a Republican council I don’t get anything done without Republican votes in Salt Lake County, and I have a proven track record of being able to work across party lines and build bridges and get things done as a result of that. We need more of that in Washington. That just isn’t happening today with the hyper level of partisanship and gridlock. It’s just not happening.
Tell us about your involvement with The New Deal, and how that organization has made an impact across the country.
McADAMS: The New Deal has been an incredible opportunity for me to get to know other problem solvers in other places across the country. These are leaders who are tackling, a lot of times, the same problems we’re tackling, and it has been invaluable to me as an elected official to hear their innovative ideas and what’s working in their districts and how they are implementing solid, creative policies to tackle some of the same issues that I’m facing in Salt Lake County. Getting to know and learn from leaders who are innovative and forward thinking has been an incredible resource, and it’s something I will take with me into Congress. Not all solutions come out of Washington. In fact, a lot of the best problem solving that’s going to happen is going to happen at the local and state levels, and I recognize that that’s an important place to allow the formulation of ideas and policies to originate. That’s one approach I’ll take with me to Congress, to recognize that the best ideas don’t come out of Washington and we’ve got to allow the laboratory of ideas to happen at the state and local level. Furthermore, I recognize that there are going to be good ideas and good people who are trying to tackle the same problems whether they are in Congress or another elected office or the private sector. You can learn a lot from people by just keeping an open mind and always looking to learn.
We know you are a dedicated father and husband. Has your family enjoyed being on the campaign trail with you?
McADAMS: My family is really excited. We campaign as a family, and we’ve done that since I first ran for mayor six years ago. As mayor I visit every city in the county, and now in the congressional district. From Spring to Summer to Fall, I have parades and festivals throughout the district, and it’s a fun family activity to get out there and be together. The kids really get into it, from throwing candy to waiving signs and cheering. Campaigns are so great, the people you meet, the stories you hear, both inspiring stories and sometimes-heartbreaking stories of people who are really doing incredible things.
What are some of the memorable stories you’ve heard on the campaign trail?
McADAMS: I met a family in part of the district where we were doing meet and greet at a park. It was a husband and wife who have three kids, and they brought their family to meet me. Their little son, Spencer, was born with a heart defect, so he’s had two open heart surgeries, and he’s about to have his third. They talked about some of his health challenges, and they said that their fear is that if pre-existing conditions comes back that it would bankrupt their family and even then they probably still wouldn’t have access to the healthcare that they need. They talked about how, fortunately, he has a job right now where he does have healthcare coverage and has been able to get the help that they need for their son, but they don’t know what the future holds. So to meet this adorable, little, three-year-old boy, Spencer, and watch him play on the playground is heartbreaking and inspiring. So to watch him, one of the things I love about being mayor is that you’re able to connect policies that you are working on to real people, and I think sometimes people in Washington forget that. They forget that the debates that they are having and the tweets they are sending have real impact, and there are real people who have real challenges that they need help with, healthcare being one of them, Spencer being one of them.
This debate that Congress is having back and forth, throwing grenades at each other, is Spencer’s third open heart surgery, and whether he’s going to have that or not. One of the things that I love about being mayor and about campaigning and hearing the stories of people is just connecting these broad philosophies to real policies that impact real people on the ground is one of my favorite things about a campaign, and I will never forget that.
A lot of times campaigning comes with heartbreaking stories like that. It also comes with criticism. People are sometimes frustrated that their issues haven’t been solved, and listening to that and being exposed to what’s on people’s minds both for good and for bad is an important rite of passage for a candidate if you want to be a good elected official. For me, hearing both the story of Dawn whose family pays two thousand dollars a month for healthcare and can’t afford to take their kids to the doctor when they’re sick, or Spencer and his health challenges – two open heart surgeries before the age of three – really grounds in reality some of the top topics we’re debating at a national level.
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