Democratic Senate candidate: Tom Recktenwald

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By Stephen Lega

Tom Recktenwald, 67, worked at the Naval Ordnance Station in Louisville, where he was a union representative, for 30 years until it closed. He recently retired after 14 years as the technology coordinator at Notre Dame Academy, a private elementary school in Louisville.

He and his wife, Carol, have been married for 44 years. They have a daughter, a son and three grandchildren.

Website: http://www.trforsenate.com/


1. Why are you running for Senate?

TR: I am running to be the voice of the poor and middle class. I feel that we've lost our voice, that the big dollar donors have taken over Congress entirely, and that those who collect all those millions of dollars for their campaigns have just kind of sold out to the big money people. And they don't care a whole lot these days about the poor and middle class.


2. Why do you feel you are qualified to serve as a senator?

TR: I'm qualified because I was a, I represented people for most of my adult life. I was a union officer at the 30-year job at Naval Ordnance where I was involved in all kinds of union activities, and particularly around 1990, Congress was starting to look at all the military bases around the country to see if they could close some of them to save some money. And on that very first list in 1990, Naval Ordnance was on the list. And I was selected out of 2,300 people who worked there [unclear] other than that the powers that be recognized leadership skills that I had demonstrated before in my career. But at any rate, Ron Mazzoli, who was the Third District congressman at the time, hosted a breakfast on Capitol Hill and invited up there some reps from Naval Ordnance, and he had all the local political leaders — the governor, the mayor, the county judge and a couple of congressmen. Senator Mitch McConnell was even at that breakfast in 1990. But I made a three-minute speech, and when I returned I got a lot of accolades from my colleagues and my superiors and several elected officials. And this base closure process went on through 1996, and I was asked to go back up there on three different occasions, and each time I got more and more accolades, and I just kind of got the feeling that I have a way — I guess it's a god-given talent — to speak for the people who can't speak for themselves. I achieved almost rock star status during those times because all these publications came out at work saying we did this, we did that, Tom Recktenwald did a great job up on Capitol Hill today. And the last time I went, the commanding officer there at Naval Ordnance, he put out a six-page memo to all the employees, all 2,300 employees, stating what, where we were in the process and what we had done in our most recent breakfast. And in the six-page email, he started out by saying that I'm not going to single anybody out because there's so many people who worked hard to try to save Naval Ordnance. And he goes on until he gets to about the second or third page, he says but there is one person I'll single out. It's Tom Recktenwald. He's the one who really made the great, heartfelt speech there and spoke for the entire Naval Ordnance community. So I feel good about that. That gives my that ability to rec-, to represent people. 

And then on another occasion in my second career at Notre Dame Academy, there were three Catholic schools in the Shively area who were being considered to merge together and form a regional school. And each of the three schools' boards of directors had to agree before it would be a done deal. Our school was St. Lawrence at the time. We had a pretty stable enrollment. The other two schools were suffering a declining enrollment and the decline was increasing as the years went by. One of the schools had already said we're not going to be able to operate next year, and the other school said we may be able to operate one more year even though it would be a loss for them, but after that we'll have to close our doors.

Well, in our school, like I said, we had a pretty stable enrollment. And there was some pretty self-concerns among the board that we weren't really willing to take these other two schools in. And I thought well, what can I do to convince these people because it was decided that unless our board of directors voted unanimously to go for the merger, then we weren't going to do it. So, they asked people to come to the board of directors meeting, anyone who wanted to speak, and I spoke at that meeting. And what I did at school the day before the meeting, I had some of our students standing at the front door with the doors open wide and pretending to be welcoming other kids in. And then I had another picture with 'em standing inside the doors with the doors slammed shut. And I explained, that was heartfelt passion coming out of me at the board of directors meeting that said each of you has a key to that front door. Your vote is a key to that front door. Now, you can vote yes, open the doors, which I think you should, or you can vote no. But it only takes one no vote, we're not going to go through with it. This meeting was hotly debated up until about 1 o'clock in the morning and ultimately the board did vote unanimously to accept the other two schools.

Now, I don't claim entire credit for that, but I believe that my heartfelt plea played a major part in that decision. And again, it's a talent. I've had many people from Naval Ordnance and from the school told me later that you said exactly what I wanted to say but don't know how to say it. And if I can quote Ron Mazzoli after one of our breakfasts, he sent me a personal note, and he said I'll just quote this, you continue to impress me with your ability to say a lot in a few words, and to select those few words carefully for maximum effect. Now, you know, this if from a congressman. This wasn't solicited by me. This is what the talents and skills that other people have seen in me that give me the reason that I want to run.

And then one more thing from the school. I got a little card within my mailbox the day after I made that impassioned plea. And the front of the card, it's just preprinted, said some people make the world more special just by being in it. And then a handwritten note on the back from my assistant principal said, 'Tom, thank you for your wisdom yesterday. You always seem to have the right thing to say and know the right time to say it.' So with these kinds of other folks, influential people have made these decisions about me.

And I know a senator would be on a much larger scale, but I believe that I have that ability to speak. And again, I'm mostly concerned about the poor and the middle class who really don't have a voice, and if they do, they don't have an avenue to voice it. 

So, that's kind of a lengthy answer to your question, but that's, those are my reasons.


3. The Affordable Care Act, also referred to as Obamacare, has been controversial since it was passed, and the public remains divided over whether it will be beneficial or detrimental in the long run. What are the next steps the government should take regarding health care?

TR: Well, I think it was certainly the right step to make to adopt the Affordable Care Act. Certainly, there are some problems with it. The first one being that the president has been accused of lying about telling the folks that you get to keep your insurance if you want it or you can change, and that didn't turn out to be true. I believe in the president enough to, maybe it's naive, but I believe that he didn't intentionally lie to anyone. I believe that he really thought that it was a small percentage of people who would be actually required to change, and those who would be required to change would be actually improving their lot in life by getting a much better health care plan other than what they'd had before.

But what I would really like to see, and I've written a few letters about this before, but as a civil servant, a retired civil servant, I have the federal employee health benefits that I got to carry into retirement with me. It's the same plan that Mitch McConnell has, and any other federal worker or retiree has that plan. I would like to, it's a good plan and it's affordable, and I would like to see Obamacare move toward that direction where, I think the term they like to use is one- what is it? One care provider or something like that, where everybody, every American would be eligible to come under that federal employee health benefits. It's proven to work, and I know a lot of, lot of people, co-workers and friends, who have it, and I've never heard one person say anything bad about the federal employee health benefits program.


4. The economy has shown signs of improvement, but it hasn’t bounced back as quickly as many would like. What, if anything, can the federal government do to help create more jobs?

TR: OK, I have at least one thing I want to comment there, maybe two. But, I have an idea that we could provide incentives for employers. This is not only Kentucky, but across the country who would hire new employees. The incentive would be that the employer would not have to contribute into the Social Security fund for any new hire for a period of one year. Now, that could be a part-time or a full-time person. So, right now, the employee and the employer each put 6.2 percent of the employee's income into the Social Security plan. Then again, I would say that the employer would not have to contribute that amount from the employer for one year, and I would pay for that, pay for that loss of income into the Social Security fund by increasing the ceiling where I consider wealthy or at least upper middle class. For 2014, there's an amount of $117,000. Once your income reaches $117,000, you as am employee no longer have to pay into the Social Security fund. So, to me that's a huge break that the upper middle class or wealthy are getting, and then the poor and the middle class don't enjoy that and those seeking jobs need the break far more than people who are earning $117,000 or more.


5. Along those same lines, wages remain a concern for many people who are already working. Should we raise the minimum wage? Why or why not?

TR: Absolutely we should raise the minimum wage just because the minimum wage right, I think, is $7.25, and there's no one anyone could raise him- or herself on that kind of money, much less a family. But I am certainly in favor of the proposal that's somewhere — I'm not exactly sure where it sits — but to raise that $7.25 up to $10.10 over three years.

But that's not taking this step far enough because I think it's been seven years now since the minimum wage was increased. But going back to the $10.10 over three years, we don't stop there. At that point we should index those raises for inflation where we don't have to come back every two or three years and say, we'll let's raise the minimum wage again. Much of our tax plan is already indexed to inflation, and I would certainly index that $10.10 minimum wage as time went on. 

Additionally, one way we could help the lower paid workers, those that are around the minimum wage, is to increase the earned income tax. The EIC as it's referred to, where the lower end people are actually receiving a bonus for finding jobs. It's sort of an incentive by government to encourage people to say, well, you don't have to live off the government dole. If you'll go to work, even if it's a minimum wage job, we will give you a bonus called the earned income tax credit. And I would certainly consider adjusting that to inflation and maybe even increasing the amount they could make before they start losing that credit.


6. The Bluegrass Pipeline has been another source of controversy. Proponents say it will bring jobs to the our state, while opponents are concerned about its potential effect on the environment and private property. What is your view of this and other proposed natural gas liquids pipeline projects?

TR: Well, there certainly are the dangers there of leaks and all those kinds of things. But if it would increase jobs, and I think there's no doubt it would. And if, a bigger if, is if we can do this safely. When I think at what has happened over recent years, I think on the Republican side of Congress, they've sort of taken a lot of teeth out of the Environmental Protection Agency, where they can't even guarantee folks like in Eastern Kentucky, they can't even ensure them clean water. 

But going back to the pipeline, if we had a strong EPA that oversaw and had the oversight to make sure that all the safety features were in place, and then, we'd have to have ongoing inspections of the pipelines throughout to make sure that it's not deteriorating to a point that where we are going to have a huge leak like the BP oil leak down in the Gulf of Mexico. We certainly have to do everything in our power to prevent that.

But again, yes, I would be in favor of it mainly because, yes, it would increase jobs.


7. American reliance on foreign oil remains a concern. While some groups have advocated for the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, other groups are pushing for a greater focus on alternative and renewable fuels. How should the United States address its energy needs?

TR: We certainly should be looking toward any kind of renewable energy. Wind, sun and water, we should be going to the nth degree to find sources of fuel there because there's far less chance of environmental problems with those. I don't think they're problem free, but I think, the main thing is it is renewable and we don't have to keep digging deeper for coal and deeper for oil, and depending on foreign countries for that.

I know Mitch McConnell likes to talk about the war on coal in Eastern Kentucky. I was just down there the other day at the Pikeville Stump Speaking Days. And I just mentioned in my speech there that, yeah, there is a war on coal, and you can bet which side Mitch McConnell's on. He's on the side with the coal barons with the big dollars. And he likes to brag that he cares about coal miners, and coal miners keeping their jobs. But his history has shown that he doesn't give one darn about the little guys. It's always about the big people that are pouring money into his campaign coffers that, I think. I don't know where the number is now but I recently saw a figure that said he's got $27 million in his coffers, so that's where he's getting all that money is those kind of big corporate owners.


8. What role should coal play in meeting those energy needs?

TR: What role should coal play? Well, coal, certainly there's a lot of it still in Kentucky, and in the Appalachians there, I don't think we'll see the end of it in my lifetime, but again, the mountaintop removal processes, boy, they're really getting into some ecological problems there. And again, they've taken the teeth out of the EPA, and they let these coal owners come in and scrap the tops off of those mountains. The runoff that goes in and poisoning those streams and rivers down there. Third District Congressman John Yarmuth had a bottle, a clear bottle like a water bottle, that he likes to take to his speeches whenever he's talking about that. It's got this ugly, orange liquid in it, and it literally came from someone's tap in Eastern Kentucky. So, yeah, coal is cheap and I've used coal my entire life, I guess, through the Louisville energy producers, but we have to get the environmental people in there to be able to oversee the entire process and keep it as pollution free as is possible.


9. The NSA’s data collection programs are a concern for many Americans. What procedures should be in place to protect privacy while allowing data collection when warranted?

TR: That's a tough one for me to answer. I think I would just not answer that one at this point because I don't really feel like I have all the information that would be at my disposal as a senator. You can bet that whatever it is from day one as a senator, whatever the issue is, my very first concern is how it's going to affect the poor and the middle class. So, I would make any decision along those lines with that basis. How is it going to affect the poor and the middle class? Those are people I know. Those are people I've lived with my entire life, and those are the ones that I care for the most.


10. What other issues do you believe will be important during the next six years, and how should we address those issues?

TR: Well, I forgot to mention one other thing back when we were talking about jobs. This would not effect only jobs, but it would benefit the entire country. Anyway, I have an idea that we should, with technology that we have today that we could do almost anything through the Internet that we want to. I think that we should offer free online college degrees for those living under the poverty level. I probably would not be exactly equal to a classroom college degree has been traditional, but you know, I'll go back to Eastern Kentucky where I've been down there a dozen times in the last decade or so, living and working with some of those people on occasion. And it's almost like they have no way out there. Not only do they not have the money to go to college, but even if they could get a scholarship, they don't even have the transportation to get there. They can't get there. So, you know, free only college courses for the poor. All the way up to a bachelor's degree should be totally free for them. Others would pay on a sliding scale based on their ability to pay. To me this wouldn't take anything away from traditional schools. Those that have the means to go ahead and do that, it probably would be a somewhat better viewed college degree than these online ones, but still, if you got none at all and you can step up to get this online, let's do it.

I think it was in the Courier-Journal this morning [Aprill 30], I believe it was that it said the state universities have been approved to increase tuition 8 percent over the next two years. And it's already up 45 percent since 2007. So that would be one of the things I would push and work hard for is to be able to provide education for any Kentuckian who wants to do the work, who wants to at least be able to get one online.


11. What else would you like voters to know about you?

TR: OK. Very often you hear elected officials or candidates even more so, they want to use the word fight. They want to say I will fight for your rights. I will fight for this or fight for that. Well, if you have a fight, and that's all that Congress ever does now, it seems like. We fight. There has to be a winner and there has to be a loser in a fight. I want to not use the word fight in my campaign or in my career as a senator. I will tell you that I will work for you. I will not be outworked whatever the issue is when it affects Kentuckians. I will work very hard for you, but I won't fight for you.

Like I said, the reason why, there has to be a winner and a loser. I don't think all these controversial issues have to have a winner and loser. I think in nearly every case, there's some middle ground that we should be able to find where we can work together where maybe neither side gets everything they want, but the final result would benefit Kentuckians and all Americans as well.

A prime example would be the Social Security program. Three, four years back, I don't remember exactly when. We heard that all this noise that the Social Security program was going broke, scaring the heck out of people thinking why should I pay into Social Security now because, because it's not going to be there when it's my turn.

Social Security could be fixed very easily the way they did it, I know remember, I'm just going to pull a number out, maybe 18 to 20 years ago. All they have to do is just tweak the system a little bit where it might take the younger people six months or a year longer before they become eligible. But people working today might have to pay a few more cents into the fund, and those who are taking the money out of the fund might see that amount reduced by just a few, maybe a dollar a month. That would make so much difference. But again, that doesn't even seem to be an issue now.

The Republicans and Democrats ought to be able to sit down and work that problem out in a day. Social Security it just, it could be fixed so easily. Why? Because we got to fight. When we fight, there's a winner and loser, so what you usually end up doing is nothing. And who benefits by Congress doing nothing? We shouldn't even pay 'em when they do nothing.


Anything else you want to add?

TR: Let's see what we got here. Again, just a couple little comments I'd like to make. One is I think today we have a government of the wealthy, by the wealthy and for the wealthy. That's not the way it was intended to be.

I think that we should have term limits. I'm not too concerned about what the number would be, but probably somewhere in the 10 to 20 year range for all members of Congress. I would certainly vote for term limits.

Now, if I could end this just on a quote, that really applies to Congress. I heard my pastor say this from the pulpit one day not too many years ago. And I firmly believe in this comment that says, "There is no limit to the good you can do if you don't care who gets the credit." And I believe that from the bottom of my heart.

And when you see Congress, one of the biggest reasons nothing gets gone is because neither side wants to let the other side get credit for doing something good. So, again, I will serve as a senator with that comment in mind every minute of every day.