For most of the year, pundits gave Tom Smith, the 65-year-old Democrat-turned-Republican from Armstrong County, little chance of unseating U.S. Sen. Bob Casey. But the coal industry executive and political neophyte has injected $17 million of his own money into the race and, by hitting Casey hard on the airwaves, has found himself within striking distance. Smith is pitching himself as a self-made businessman who knows how to restart the economy and create jobs. The Lutheran describes himself as a “God-fearing man” and said that faith will play a strong role in shaping him as a public servant. He recently spoke about foreign policy and domestic issues with the Jewish Exponent. The following is an edited version of his remarks.
With regard to Iran, is there still time for sanctions to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons capability?
Well, I certainly pray and hope that the sanctions will have time to work. Could we have put them on sooner? Possibly, but I’m not going to second guess or be a Monday-morning quarterback. The sanctions seem to be working, but as I have said in the past, we need to leave all options on the table and to be as stern and as persistent as possible with our support of Israel.
Could you ever see any circumstances where, if asked, you would authorize the use of American force to deal with the situation?
I do firmly believe that Israel is a sovereign nation and they are our huge ally in the Middle East. If they are attacked or Iran does become a nuclear power, absolutely, a military option would have to be on there. If the country of Israel determines that they have to go in and take care of that, the United States should be at their side to do that.
Sen. Casey has pushed for more Iran sanctions. Is there a difference between you and the senator on this issue?
I think Sen. Casey, he’s a strong supporter of Israel, too, and I appreciate that very much. I think Sen. Casey and Tom Smith are allies and supporters of Israel.
Do you see prospects for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations? Is it something that the United States should be focusing on now?
It takes two reasonable people to negotiate. I’ve done a lot of negotiating in my time in business. When you have the Palestinian side of this equation not even willing to admit that Israel has a right to exist, it seems like there is a long, long distance to even be able to start negotiations. Hopefully, that will change and the Palestinians can admit that Israel has a right to exist, and then negotiate and proceed.
With regard to Medicare, your opponent has said that you favor eliminating the “guaranteed benefit.” Is that your position? What is your solution to the financial challenges facing Medicare?
I have no intention of ever agreeing to cut benefits like Social Security and Medicare for seniors that are on it or people who will be on it in the near future. What I do know for sure is that Social Security and Medicare, if there is nothing done, they will be on the road to bankruptcy.
And my plan is if [younger people] would like to take a portion of their retirement and put it into accounts of their own, it is their option. If they want to stay with the government system, that is fine, too. I think we need to give those options. There is no way that I would ever vote to cut the benefits that seniors and soon-to-be seniors were promised. We need to live up to that. But I want to have a conversation, which we have not had, on how to have long-range stability with these things.
I would be open to many options, not the least of which would be to increase the retirement age very slowly.
What are the top things you would do to create jobs that you feel our current senator is not doing?
The U.S. Senate hasn’t passed a budget for three years. That is one of their constitutional duties. We need to end deficit spending. We cannot continue to borrow money from China. We have got to live within our means. I think we should pass a balanced budget amendment. Also, I want to see the tax code redone so it is more simplistic and all the special interest loopholes are cut out.
Would making abortion illegal be a priority of yours if you are elected?
I am pro-life, period. On a federal level, I would vote for a constitutional amendment that states that life begins at conception.
You have spent millions of dollars of your own money on your campaign. Why is this fair? Doesn’t that give you an unfair advantage?
I suppose some people say that. I really think that the power of the incumbency is so hard for a citizen candidate like myself to overcome and that is why you have so many career politicians. My wife and I have agreed to do this and we can think of no greater cause than to try to defend the American dream for our children and our children’s children.
Do you believe climate change is a man-made problem? What is the best path toward energy independence?
I am a farmer. I still farm 400 acres a day. I love the outdoors and the environment. We should take care of it. The Earth does heat and cool over time, we know that. Whether we know that man-made, global warming exists, I’m unconvinced. The Earth’s temperature does heat and cool, and some people, like Al Gore, have gotten very rich because of it.
We have the tools right here. We have the Marcellus gas.
This administration has declared a war on coal. Thirty, 40 years ago, coal was a four-letter word. It was dirty. But it has cleaned its act up. It is now a clean-burning fuel. I believe that the people of Pennsylvania and across this country deserve the most reliable and economical source available [whether it’s coal, natural gas, renewable energy or some combination of the three.]
What can be done to fix what many say is a broken immigration system?
This country was built on legal immigration. But illegal immigration — I think that is a different story. I would assume that when there are laws, it is the responsibility of the administration to enforce those laws. If the immigration laws need changing, we’ll change them, but you can’t just pick and choose which laws you are going to enforce. Let’s get the border secured and then have that discussion. People all over the world still want to come to America — but lets have that discussion.