Senate challenger Ward hopes to help change D.C. culture
PRESCOTT – Even before her first statewide election, former state Sen. Kelli Ward says she won’t be a career politician.
“I don’t plan to run for office after this,” she said of her primary bid to unseat 2008 Republican presidential nominee and five-term U.S. Sen. John McCain.
Ward, a 17-year resident of Lake Havasu City, made a circuit through Prescott this week, with stops at community and civic groups, and an exclusive interview with The Daily Courier.
She’s quick to recognize the uphill climb of taking on an established politician.
“We have a small window before the attacks from the McCain campaign start coming,” she said.
Building on the tea party momentum that sent her to Phoenix in 2012, she said she hopes to be part of a movement to change the culture in Washington, D.C.
“They want all of us to think that the other 300-plus million people in the country think they’re the only ones,” she said of the current Congress.
Ward said she sees general distrust of Congress among voters, a position that’s backed by public polling. The Pew Research Center said at the end of 2015, “Only 19 percent of Americans today say they can trust the government in Washington to do what is right ‘just about always’ (3 percent) or ‘most of the time’ (16 percent).”
Ward said she hopes to ride the same wave of mistrust that is growing support for presidential candidates Donald Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders.
“That’s what has given my campaign momentum,” Ward said.
Despite not wanting to be a politician, she said she caved when people started asking her to get involved in state politics and, after becoming a state lawmaker, entering the national arena.
“I’ve never been a person who sits back and watches things and complains about it,” she said.
Ward calls herself a political junkie, but said the partisan battles in Washington have become more about personalities and character attacks than about policies and issues.
She said voters should look at the issues that set her apart from McCain, rather than listening to the mudslinging she expects during the primary campaign.
“I’m a true conservative,” Ward said. “I see him (McCain) as a big government, big spending Republican.”
She said McCain and others in Congress are too willing to bend constitutional principles, leading to warrantless searches on Americans, increased restrictions on gun owners and amnesty for undocumented residents.
Ward was critical of McCain as a veteran and prisoner of war in Vietnam for not being a stronger advocate for reforms in the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Drawing on her own experience as a doctor running her own practice, she said veterans need easier, more streamlined access to health care in their own communities.
Ward advocates a complete dissolution of VA health services, converting to a program more like Medicare that allows veterans to pick their providers and have medical costs covered by federal benefits.
She said on the day military personnel leave service, their benefits should kick in, instead of the 12-18 months they experience currently.
“It should be much more simplified,” Ward said.
She said during her campaign, the importance of veterans benefits reform has grown.
“That has moved up on my priority list,” she said.
But Ward doesn’t think the VA needs more funding.
“I think there’s a lot of money in the VA system, but it hasn’t been used effectively or wisely,” she said.
If she can’t completely overhaul the system, she wants more accountability for the department and more ability to remove bad actors who have been sheltered by labor agreements.
“We should make our veterans hospitals into places of excellence,” Ward said.
She said unlike McCain, she’s not quick to send troops into foreign conflicts.
“I don’t know that that’s the best use of our troops right now,” she said.
Rather, she advocates the U.S. join with other nations to support regional coalitions led by the countries where conflict occurs.
Ward said that in no way reduces the country’s military needs.
“Our military needs to be the strongest military in the world,” she said.
She said the distinction between her position and what she described as the “dismal foreign policy” of the Obama administration, is that troops need to know they are being deployed to protect American interests and values.
“A lot of the people who served don’t know what their sacrifice is for,” Ward said, “I might be a little more cautious on sending people in.”
On the domestic front, she contrasted herself against McCain’s position on groups like the Bundy family that led occupations of federal lands in Nevada and Oregon.
McCain has taken a position that such occupations should be left in the hands of local authorities as much as possible, and has said members of Congress should not be involved.
Ward said she would stand up for peaceful protest in any form, comparing the occupations in Oregon and Nevada to movements like Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street.
“They should really be celebrated,” she said, adding her view that the standoffs are a First Amendment issue.
“I will always stand up for their right to do that,” she said. “The answer to speech people find offensive is more speech.”
Ward also built on her history as a 10th Amendment advocate when it comes to issues like education.
“I don’t’ think the federal government should have a role in education,” she said.
She said at its core, her campaign message “is one of liberty and freedom” that she hopes will appeal to people across the political spectrum.
Ward said as a state senator, she worked with and listened to Democrats, despite ideological differences.
She said in Washington, she hopes to reach across the aisle in ways that don’t undermine her conservative values, but still find common ground with her colleagues.
“The federal, state and local … all the way down to the school board, need to have good relationships,” she said.
“Two-way communication between the elected and the represented has gone by the wayside,” Ward added. “If someone takes the time to send me a letter, I take the time to answer them.”