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Tim Bjorkman and the Race for U.S. House

Last Updated by Lori Walsh on

Is everyone talking about nonpartisan efforts these days or is no one talking about them?

Tim Bjorkman led with his nonpartisan leanings when we sat down to discuss his campaign for U.S. House in 2018. It made me wonder how many Americans are interested in working across the aisle. Is that what we want as voters? Or do we just want our "side" to win?

He also spoke about an "anxious decade" when his grown children were at war and how this might impact decisions he makes in Washington, should his campaign be successful, regarding sending American military members into combat.

As you prepare to vote in 2018, remember it's never too soon to pay attention. Go to town halls. Browse the candidate websites. Consider what you like and don't like about your current Congressional delegation.

Becoming an informed citizen might be the most nonpartisan effort of all.

The below conversation has been edited for web publication. You can listen to the conversation in its entirety here.

Lori Walsh :

Welcome to In the Moment. I'm Lori Walsh. Tim Bjorkman is a fifth-generation South Dakotan who says running for congress wasn't on his radar until recently. Bjorkman graduated from Kimball High School and the University of South Dakota. He served as a lawyer in the state for more than 20 years in 2006. He was elected as a judge of the First Judicial Court for South Dakota. He was reelected without opposition in 2014 where he served until leaving the bench in June 2017. While on the bench, Bjorkman served as President of the South Dakota Judges Association. He's with me now at the SDPB studios at the University of Sioux Falls. Judge Bjorkman, welcome. Thanks for being here.

Anything that I should really make sure I mention there that you want people to know?

Tim Bjorkman:

No, that's fine. That's fine. I'm lifelong South Dakotan, grew up in rural South Dakota. My wife Kay and I had been married 35 years, and we chose to raise our kids in Canistota where we still live today.

Lori Walsh :

All right, so let's talk about what you got you into this. Certainly not a retirement job running for US House of Representatives. Tell us why you want to go to Washington.

Tim Bjorkman:

Well, as you mention Lori, I spent, after serving as a rural lawyer, I spent a decade on the bench as a circuit court judge, and I had a front row seat to many of the problems that face American families today. I've always believed in the importance of strong families as the nucleus of American democracy, but the time on the bench that I had reinforced for me what happens when families aren't strong, and the children that grew up in highly dysfunctional homes, for example, are those who populate our felony courts and those who I had to send to prison. I've seen the pattern of generational dysfunction and how damaging that's been to the American dream.

Not all the problems that we face that I saw in the courts are solvable by government, but many of them have to do with some economic factors that affect families and that make it very difficult for middle class families to get ahead and for other working families just to remain in the middle class at all. That's what drove me into this race because I see some problems that I think are solvable through bipartisan efforts, and they aren't getting addressed.

Lori Walsh :

Right. Were you seeing that as a judge? Were you actually thinking there's policy things, there's reasons that these people are coming back again and again?

Tim Bjorkman:

Definitely. You can talk with just about anyone who participates in the court system, and they'll tell you that the lack of access to mental health treatment and addiction treatment prior to entry to the court system is the most common denominator in the lives of those who get sent to prison.

Lori Walsh :

Is that something that congress can work on, or is that something that needs to happen in a state level? What are your thoughts there?

Tim Bjorkman:

Well, congress attempted to address that issue with the American Health Care Act as you know, and that required that every policy contained mental health treatment and addiction treatment as part of the coverage. It also provided for medicaid expansion that would cover working poor and others who weren't covered by employer health care. Now, that part of the law was challenged in the supreme court, and it was stricken, and so states have the discretion to expand Medicaid in their states. Ae you know, South Dakota's one of 19 states that chose not to.

I'm not a fan of Medicaid expansion. I believe everyone should pay something, what they're able to pay, but there've been some clever efforts by other conservative states to get Medicaid expansion that fits the people's beliefs in those states, for example, Mitch McConnell's Kentucky-adopted Medicaid expansion, Mike Pence's Indiana did so with some clever rules that allow people on it to make payments and has deductibles that are very creative.

I think it was a real mistake, a wrong direction for the State of South Dakota, the past sub Medicaid expansion. North Dakota's had it, for example, for four years, and we've probably lost a billion dollars or more in revenues as closely as I can tell by failing to accept back our tax dollars that we're sending away to Washington to expand Medicaid. We're really paying twice, Lori, because we're not only playing our federal tax dollars for other states to care for their poor and working poor adults, but we're also paying for that 50,000 who don't have access to health care because we didn't expand by higher health care costs for all of us that the hospitals pass on to us, by county poor care that we pay taxes on, and in a variety of other ways.  Everybody gets health care as a general rule. It's just not that all get timely health care, and when the poor get it later, we tend to all pay at very high rates.

Lori Walsh :

What do you think needs to be done in Washington to fix the Affordable Care Act? What would you bring to the conversation? I'm sure you've been following some of the debate and the CSRs and cost-saving reductions and things like that. What needs to be done to shore up health care in America at this point?

Tim Bjorkman:

I think there's some short-term solutions, Lori, and then some longer-term solutions, and the bipartisan proposal to shore up the American Health Care Act by addressing the credits issue is the first thing to do, and we had 12 senators from each party who've signed on, and to Senator Rounds' credit, he was one of them. I think that's just a common sense first step because when the insurance companies are uncertain, it makes the markets jittery, and they're going to err on the side of increasing cost, and that's what we've been facing.

The first thing is to stabilize the market for the near term and allow another effort, a bipartisanship to get common sense solutions that reflect who we are as Americans. We can debate about the type of coverage that we decide on, but there's some basic requirements that I think every plan that we consider seriously should have, and that is everyone needs to be covered under a plan because if they're not covered, we're all going to pick the tab as we've seen under the circumstances today. That's one reason we pay so much more than any other nation on Earth for health care, like two and a half times the next most expensive because we get care for some people that becomes much more costly because it wasn't timely given.

There are a number of ways to bring everyone in. Automatic enrollment is a proposal republican senators proposed so that people who are eligible are enrolled automatically unless they dis-enroll. That's something to consider as a compromise. I think we need to send people to Washington who are going to work across the isles for common sense ways to address health care, but then there are a number of other common sense things we can be doing, and one of them has to do with prescription drugs, Lori. Medicare, for example, should have the authority to negotiate with Big Pharma to lower drug prices. That's simply, in my view, the result of corporate control of Washington that allows Big Pharma to keep our United States government from negotiating to get the prices at a reasonable level.

The second thing is, there's no reason for this, current circumstances that we can buy American designed and developed drugs under American patent laws cheaper in Canada and Mexico than we can in our own country. Again, it's a function of how we've allowed almost a corporate control of our leadership in congress, something that I've written about and spoken about at length, and we need to send people to Washington who aren't going to participate in that game and who are going to be solely there to advocate for the best interest of South Dakotans. If we do that, we're going to support the drug importation plan that Senators Klobuchar and Sanders both supported but that failed in the senate, and it actually failed with 10 or 12 democratic senators voting against it, so this is, there's a bipartisan effort to support Big Pharma here and not the people and that's very troubling to me.

Lori Walsh :

I'm going to interrupt you for a minute and talk about this word bipartisan because it seemed like there was a time when everybody was saying they would work across the isle, and that was something that high value to voters, and now, it seems like we're moving in to a period where people are digging their heels a little bit more and talking about the specific party agenda. Coming from South Dakota, as a democrat running for office, do you ... Let's explore a little bit of that bipartisan and why it matters right now to you.

Tim Bjorkman:

Yeah, couple of thoughts there, Lori. First of all, I've never been a very partisan person. People who know me had no idea whether I was a democrat or a republican until I announced, and I liked that. I don't have anybody that I have to do stand alongside. I don't have any special interests who I have to back. I'm very free to just go and reflect what I believe the people want in congress.

The problem that I see, and it's something that I spend a lot of time looking into and evaluating, is just to just what's gone on in American government over the last 10 or 15 years especially that's kept us from being able to resolve these basic issues like immigration, health care, tax law in bipartisan ways. One of the most striking things I found is the corporate due's system, and it's something that I've written about. It's very seldom heard about, and our own congress delegation hasn't talked about it to my knowledge, but in the House of Representatives, the leaders of both parties for the last 10 or 13 years had been assessing dues to their membership to actually do the work that we elected them for. They assess it based on their committee choice of that congressman or woman. The more attractive committees for fundraising, the higher the dues so that a freshman congressman in a mid-level committee like judiciary is expected to pay $220,000 every two years to serve on that committee, Lori.

Where do they get the money? They're told, "Not to worry. You can raise it through gatherings right here in Washington. We have people who are willing, interested in supporting people like you," and so they hold fundraisers that well-connected, well-off people, and corporate interests attend, and it's a huge moneymaker for each of the party congressional committees.

What do they do with all that money? They build up a war chest, Lori, and they tell the congressmen that when you're in a close race and your district will be able to step in and help you, but here's the problem. When you get to a big issue, the recent health care bill's a good example where there were people on both sides of the republican caucus who didn't like that bill, some thought it was too liberal, others thought it was too restrictive, they were brought in line. One can imagine the conversations that took place because others have reported, in the republican caucus in particular, that they were threatened with primary challenges in their home district if they didn't go along, and that that money that they helped raised for the congressional committees would be used against them to support a primary challenger. That's how leadership in both parties are owning their congressional delegations. Democrats have had what I think has been referred to as a wall of shame, so if you don't pay your dues, you go up on that, and you'll eventually get dun letters and collection calls even.

It's a very offensive practice. Both parties need to be called out on it. I've called for the other candidates in this race to speak out against it and state that whey won't participate when they go, and I think candidates all across the country should state on the record that they won't support party leaders who continue that practice.

Lori Walsh :

I want to talk a little bit about your family. Switching subjects a little bit because you have some very interesting children who have done some things that, in the military and in their service that might impact how you look at situations in North Korea and Afghanistan and Syria, other places in the world. Talk about your son's military background and how that's sort of, how you'll take that to Washington because there's a huge separation now between people who serve in Washington who are actually connected to the United States Military these days or anymore. Tell me a little bit about your son's service, and then tell me how that impacts some of the decisions and conversations you would be a part of in congress.

Tim Bjorkman:

I was always raised in a family where we were always taught to give back more to the community than we received from, and then we tried to raise our own kids that way. Really, wasn't with our encouragement, but our oldest son, from the time he was a, in his early teens, wanted to served in the army. He eventually was given the opportunity to go to West Point and graduated and served as a platoon leader and a decorated officer, Iraq. His brother followed him into the National Guard and served two deployments during the war for Iraqi freedom. Our third son followed our oldest to West Point and served as a platoon leader and captain and was deployed. His wife also actually is a West Point grad and an Aberdeen native, our daughter-in-law Naomi who remains captain in the army.

Kay and I know what it's like for families to see their sons and daughters go off to war, and I know the importance of a vote to send our children into harm's way, and so, yes, we had about a decade where our days were very anxious, and the war doesn't end for our soldiers when they come home. That's another they we learned, and so it's a very important decision for a congress person to make. I'm also troubled not only that, only I think about 1% of American families actually experience a member in the war, but also that our congressmen and administrations have sent people into harm's way without a plan to pay for it. If elected, I just decided I'm not going to vote for war unless we also have a tax increase that we vote for at the same time that honestly tells people what the cost of that war is excepted to be for the next year and that'll cover that cost.

Lori Walsh :

If you're successful in this campaign, you'll be the only congressman from South Dakota there, in the US House, you'll be from an agricultural state, you'll be one of the few people who has children in the military, and with a strong bipartisan viewpoint, how do you think you can navigate those waters and really get, make the alliances that you need to get things done for South Dakota.

Tim Bjorkman:

One of the gifts I've been given, I think, is the ability to work across the isles with people from different backgrounds, different cultures, different political views and find a common ground. I've always been pretty good at mediating, for example, and even on the bench, settled quite a few causes informally with the parties before they went to trial. I think the people who I've worked with through the years, whether they're republicans or democrats, would say that, "Yeah, one thing about Tim, he can work with people from different perspectives to accomplish goals."

Lori, going to Washington, that's one of the reasons that I want to remain kind of a free agent because doing that, one of the restrictions the people in the delegations have now is they're really kept from working across the isles from their party leadership all too often. That's such a disappointing thing, and so I don't plan to be encumbered by party as I've already mentioned, and so I think that gives me a freedom to work across the isles and to speak out when I can for bipartisan agreement because our problems, this is the good news. We don't have any problems that can't be solved in this country. I believe that with all my heart or I wouldn't have made this commitment to leave the bench and enter this race, but it takes commons sense people willing to work across the isles to get things done. There are people in Washington right now in congress who want to do that. They need our help. They need more people going there to work together.

Lori Walsh :

You mentioned families at the beginning of our conversation and just how you saw families over your years, throughout the years on the bench, and so many people who run for office talk about the American family and supporting the American family. How do you get beyond that sound bite and dig deeper into what that really means to support families in South Dakota.

Tim Bjorkman:

One of the first things is the current income tax bill, which is billed as a middle class tax relief, and it couldn't be farther from that, in my view, sadly. In fact, the vast amount of gains will go to major corporations, and the highest 1% of incomers, on top of that, it's going to require massive cuts to Medicaid. 60% of the elderly in our nursing home rely on Medicaid to keep them there, and then also massive cuts to Medicare, and even that's not going to be enough. It's going to leave a massive debt for future generations, another 2.4 trillion dollars. I look at everything as, I think I mentioned to you earlier, through the lens of what'll help make strong families in this country and what's the fiscally responsible thing to do in every way that bill fails that test.

What we need in this country is middle class tax relief, in my view, and we need to close the loopholes that exist for well-off people that regular Americans can't take advantage of, and use the closing of those loopholes to fund middle class tax relief so that it's revenue neutral because it's not right when we have a 20 trillion dollar debt, Lori, to add to that debt to give not just rich people and corporations a tax cut, but even middle class people a tax cut.

We have to be fiscally responsible, and it is incredible to me that this congress is proposing to run up more debt after all the talk I heard about wanting to be fiscally responsible. What we need is middle class tax relief, and this bill is going to raise taxes for many families. A family of six like the one we raised would probably face tax increases because what's not talked about is they're taking away the personal exemption, which families get a deduction for each child for. When that's taken away, the increase in the standard deduction actually is going to still result in more taxes for middle class families with more than two or three children.

Lori Walsh :

So much more to talk about. We have to close now. Hopefully, you'll come back and have these conversations as you continue your campaign. Let's close with just, what are you hearing from South Dakotans as you travel the state, as they contact you through your website, which is timbjorkman.com?

Tim Bjorkman:

Yes.

Lori Walsh :

Is that right? Okay. What are they saying that they really want from you?

Tim Bjorkman:

We've conducted five town halls across the states and many, many coffees. We were just in Hot Springs and Martin and Pine Ridge and Edgemont and other communities over the last several days, and the overwhelming theme, Lori, is that they want bipartisanship, they want our members of congress to go and work to do the people's business and not be controlled by corporate and special interest. I hear the same thing from republicans, democrats, independents over and over again, and I ask them, "What are your concerns about Washington?" they react invariably the same. They just kind of are overwhelmed. They don't know here to begin, but it starts with commons sense, advocacy. They want someone who will stand up for the people and not be controlled by corporate Washington.

 

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I have always been a devoted scribbler in the margins of books. As a reader, I underline and highlight. I add questions marks and exclamation points. I argue with the author. But where are the margins in a radio program like In the Moment? 

You have to create them. 

Welcome to In the Margins. It’s a place for behind-the-scenes. It’s a place for expanding the conversation.

It’s a place for just one more question.

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Meet me in the Hills! In the Moment heads to the South Dakota Festival of Books for a live broadcast from the Deadwood Mountain Grand. It's my favorite event of the year, and much reading awaits. I'm currently deep into the sweetness of "Braiding Sweetgrass." Here are a few other titles waiting on the nightstand.