Rich Ashooh On His Run For Congress And Where He Stands On The Issues

Jun 4, 2016

Republican 1st District congressional candidate Rich Ashooh.
Credit Brady Carlson / NHPR

  Early in his career Republican Rich Ashooh worked for a US Senator. Now he'd like to head to Capitol Hill himself. 

The former defense industry executive and head of UNH Law's Rudman Center is running for Congress in New Hampshire's 1st District. He joined Weekend Edition to discuss his campaign and the issues he might face if elected. 

 You ran for Congress in 2010. What convinced you to make a bid in 2016?

I ran for 2010 because I was concerned about certain things. Back then, especially, it was the fiscal situation - we had $17 trillion of debt, chronic deficits and then a new health care entitlement that I didn't feel was the right answer for the country and that will bring costs. Since that time, the problems have only gotten worse. That $17 trillion in debt is now $19 trillion in debt; we don't have a coherent plan to deal with it. Beyond that, our national security situation really is troubling. I think our leadership doesn't have a good grip on the threats facing us. Those are the things that really got me out of my chair this time.

We'll come back to those issues in a moment, but first, while you've said you're running for an office and not against anyone, there is a Republican serving in the district you'd like to represent. What is the case you're making to Republican primary voters that you could do a better job than the incumbent, Frank Guinta?

Certainly New Hampshire loves primaries - to me that's just the natural order of things. But I will say the reason why I run - and this might be unique to me - what motivates me are a certain set of problems. I happen to think we should elect people based on their ability to address those problems. As I told you, things have only gotten worse since the last time I ran. So something's not working. The nature of the problems - and I'll go to the national security one - that is a priority to me in a way that I don't see it being a priority, really, to many others. The failure of leadership in Syria - we've basically taken a back seat to Russia - and a disastrous Iran deal. Congress should have had more oversight.

Some of the frustration we've heard about politics is attributed to gridlock resulting from excessive partisanship. Is Congress in need of more dealmakers, and if so, could you serve as such a dealmaker?

I've never been elected to anything, and so to that extent, I'm an outsider, but I'm from New Hampshire. New Hampshire's steeped in a certain kind of politics. In fact, right out of college I worked for a guy named Warren Rudman. Rudman was known for his deeply held principles, and he was not known for compromising them. He was known for getting things done, and I believe that's true today. You can hold your principles close but still do the people's business and do it in a way that's going to really solve the problems that we're facing as a nation.

Is there still a place in the Republican Party for a Warren Rudman-style approach given that the party is nominating Donald Trump?

Sure. I will speak fondly of Rudman and consider him a mentor, but we need to look forward. I'm definitely a creature of today as well; things do need to be done differently. But what hasn't changed - and I hear it everywhere - people do tell me, and I'm talking about the conservative Republican voters, those are the people that I'm talking to right now: they want something done on the gridlock. It is not for lack of the people wanting to see work get done.

Do you see yourself advocating for a Trump Administration? Do you see yourself voting for Donald Trump?

I see myself advocating for the people of the 1st District. That is the job. And I understand I'm a Republican, I've supported the nominee every time. In a choice between Hillary Clinton, who represents the past eight years which I find to be a disaster, and Donald Trump, I promise you I'm not voting for Hillary Clinton. But I'm also running to do something very specific, and my campaign is going to talk about the issues that I mentioned to you, and it's not going to be an echo chamber for any other campaign. One could argue that I could help out all kinds of other candidates. Not gonna happen. The voters of the 1st District want representation, they want trust in their representative, and they want someone who knows how to solve problems, and I'm going to be those things.

On the issues you mentioned: you had a piece in the Union Leader this week talking about federal fiscal policy. One of the recommendations you had was for caps on the federal budget to contain spending. After sequestration we saw politicians in both major parties saying which parts of sequestration they'd like to undo. If there's a spending cap, would we hear from Democrats and Republicans saying we need to undo some or all of it?

I think unless you change the people that's exactly what's going to happen, and that's what's wrong. There is no discipline. We're not talking about austerity - we're talking about limiting growth, really. Sequestration is not supposed to be the way it works, but it happened because they couldn't reach agreement. I have a different thought: how about we elect people with the political will to make choices rather than let a sequester do the job for you?

You've pointed to your experience in the defense industry as proof you could help build a proactive foreign policy. What would a proactive foreign policy look like, and what more, if anything, would that ask of the US military?

Actually it would be less stressful on the military, because right now we are suffering from a very ill-conceived strategy. We have a president who did not run to be Commander in Chief; he's uncomfortable being Commander in Chief, and we're paying a price for that right now. That price was taking our eye off the Middle East ball too early, aiming it towards areas that they wanted to pay attention to, not that we needed to pay attention to, and that specifically is the Asia-Pacific region. [It's] an important region, we need to pay attention, but it wasn't the kind of threat that we were dealing with in the Middle East. And then layer on top of that spending all the effort and political capital, first on an Iran nuclear deal which, in my view, wasn't the issue it needed to be. It's fine to talk to the Iranians about their nuclear program; it is not fine to not have the kind of preconditions that we should have had before we ever sat down. They're still sponsoring terrorism.

That comes with a cost. The fact that we changed our view from the Middle East to Asia-Pacific, that comes with a cost. We're going to find ways to save money; it's going to be by not doing wrong things in the first place.

On health care, you've said Republicans have focused too much on repealing the Affordable Care Act and that's made it more difficult to reform health care. What kinds of reforms would you propose and what, if anything, from the current system would you keep in place?

There's very little from the current system I would want to keep in place, because the current system started from the wrong area. It started from this idea that the government needs to be a provider of insurance to everybody, one stop shopping. Rarely is the government good at such things. What the American people want is freedom and choice. What they also want, which Obamacare did not address, is the cost of health care itself. Remember, all the discussion is really around insurance. Why is insurance so important? Because the basic cost of health care is too high.

There are many reasons why the basic cost of health care is too high and a lot of that needs to get addressed with quite frankly wrong-headed incentives in large government programs like Medicare. Medicare drives costs all across the system. You're not going to be able to balance the budget without reforming entitlements; you're also not going to be able to reform health care without reforming entitlements. It's all wrapped up together. And we need to be honest with the American people that we have to tackle some time-honored, but not time-well-served, programs. Social Security, Medicare, these were important programs; they still are. They are not sustainable in their current form. In order to balance the budget, in order to reform health care, in order to create economic growth, we have to tackle those programs, because left to current law, they're going to eat up more and more of federal spending and ultimately consume themselves. We just can't have that; we need to preserve those programs.

On immigration, you've talked about border security coming first, and you've said no amnesty. What would you do with the millions who are already here?

I think for us all, we need to start having a little bit more of a finer view of who we're talking about. Those 14 million Americans are not created equal, and a reasonable system is going to be one that makes a difference between the criminals in the country and those who maybe are here under different circumstances, like they were brought here or they overstayed a visa. You have to handle those things differently.

We need a comprehensive immigration policy that is capable of addressing those, prioritizing them and then resourcing it. Right now it's the Wild West. Border security is the start, and I will say the war that's going on in this nation over immigration comes down to the fact that you've got states, cities, municipalities that actually encourage illegal immigration. They're called sanctuary cities, and until you start dealing with the incentives for people to take their lives in their hands, the lives of their families in their hands, and these incredibly risky journeys into the US - we have to diminish the attractiveness of undergoing that, and that means stopping these incentives.

You've worn quite a few hats over the hears - working for Sen. Rudman, you worked for BAE Systems, higher education capacities and a number of nonprofits. But you also worked on a family farm that grew "fancy Pascal celery"?

I did. My family came here to work in the mills in Manchester, but mill work, a lot like farm work, can be really hard. My grandparents wanted to control their own destiny, so they started a farm in south Manchester, and there's this strain of celery, fancy Pascal celery. They sold it all over the place; it provided a wonderful living for them. I'm trying to create the fact that this should be the house vegetable, but I keep losing out to carrots.