It's the middle of the afternoon and Mike Fallon is at Pint's Pub. The Republican candidate for Colorado's 1st Congressional District wasn't driven to the bottle by the rigors of campaigning, however.
Rather, he's holding the first in a series of town-hall meetings that will take place at bars and coffee shops around Denver.
Still, one could sympathize with Fallon if he did need a drink. He's running in a district that hasn't elected a Republican since 1970.
His Democratic opponent, Diane DeGette, has been the district's representative since 1997, and in 2008, she took 72 percent of the vote. But Fallon sees an opportunity in grassroots guerilla tactics like the town-hall meeting, and he hopes to capitalize on voter discontent with establishment politicians.
A former ER surgeon and urgent care clinic owner, this is Fallon's first foray into politics, and his campaign is fully leveraging his outsider status and background as a businessman. But unknowns have trouble raising money; Fallon estimates that he'll need at $1.5 million to unseat the incumbent, but he'll likely only bring in $150,000.
He also admits that his public speaking skills are rusty; although once he warms-up, he seems a natural at the podium. And at Pint's Pub, he displays a politician's innate instincts when he deftly deflates an audience member's call for a revolution.
We caught up with Fallon to discuss his uphill battle, the proposed ballot amendments, and how to be a social conservative in a liberal first district.
Westword (Jonathan Easley): Why are these town-hall meetings a better strategy for you than the suit-and-podium approach?
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Mike Fallon: I'm not a career politician. I'm an ER doctor, so I'm used to wearing scrubs. I'm also a business guy. I relate to people on a real level, and getting to know people in the district that you want to represent is very important. Where I think Congress has gone wrong is that they no longer represent their constituents. They represent their parties and ideological agendas, and I'm talking about both sides of the aisle. I'm trying to get with the people who are from our community and who have the best interests of our community at heart. I'm not just doing what the party tells me to do, or what the party power expects. So I think this fits my personality. I'm not just going to do the formal political stuff.
WW: Let's talk a little bit about the district you're running in. I'm sure you don't need to be told, but a Republican hasn't been elected since 1970 and Diane DeGette has been in office since 1997. What makes you think the district is ready for a change now?
MF: I understand that this race is a statistical challenge for me, but my campaign is not based on Republican versus Democrat versus independent. It's based on what is best for America and best for District 1. When I knock on doors, I'm finding that people are concerned about jobs, the economy,= and the out-of-control spending. Both parties have been guilty of the out-of-control spending, and both parties are somewhat responsible for the economy. So we're in a time when there has been a reawakening, or a realization that in our lifetime we are on a path that is not sustainable.
The entitlement programs, the government giveaways and the growth of government that has been going on for the past decade is so out of control and so out of touch with what the people of this country want that I think the message transcends party. I think for the first time in my life someone who has conservative fiscal values can win in Denver.
WW: Tell me about your time in the private sector.
MF: I did my residency at Denver Health in the early '90s, and then I went into a mixed private practice in Atlanta for four years. I came back to Denver in 1998 and was in private practice emergency medicine at Exempla Lutheran Hospital in Wheat Ridge. In 2004, I let my entrepreneurial spirit get the best of me, and I opened a customer-based medical practice. I opened an urgent care that was an ER in concept, except we treated you like a customer as opposed to a patient. I opened one in Lakewood in 2004, I opened a second one in Cherry Creek in 2005, I opened a third in Stapleton in 2007, and then I was lucky enough to sell those to a private equity group at the end of 2007.
Now I'm back working as an independent contractor in the emergency room. I work a few shifts in Wyoming, some in Steamboat, some at Denver Health. I work as much as I need to pay my mortgage, pay my kids' tuition, and pay my bills. And then I had this crazy idea to run for Congress.
WW: Where did that idea come from?
MF: I've been increasingly frustrated with the government in general, and the out-of-control spending. The government is overtaking our personal responsibilities; they're making it a government-dependent society and it's ruining American motivation and ruining the American dream. It came to a head when I was listening to a radio program where they were interviewing Mrs. DeGette, and they asked her about the health-care bill. They asked her, "Aren't you concerned that a majority of Americans are against this?" And she said, "No, once they find out what we've done for them, they'll really like it."
That is a really arrogant and really paternalistic answer and that's what's wrong with the system. Then they had a follow-up question where they asked her how she was going to pay for it. Her answer to that was, "That's the best part. We're going to save $500 billion in Medicare and it's actually going to be beneficial to the national debt." I was beyond irritated because those numbers are made up. If there is $500 billion, why didn't they get it in the last decade? Was that $500 billion just wasted money? Or is that a made-up number in order to balance the books to sell us this health-care bill that really isn't going to do what they're telling us it's going to do. It's either dishonest or it's incompetent. So I became motivated to run against her because she was a big part of health-care reform.
WW: So what is your position on health-care reform?
MF: What they set out to do with health care was a noble thing, but making access available and not making it affordable doesn't fix the problem. The same thing is going to happen as with the Massachusetts plan. Doctors are going to quit taking Medicaid and Medicare because it doesn't financially benefit them, and eventually all of those people will be pushed to government-employed physicians. Massachusetts is a perfect example. They've had the biggest increase of ER wait times in the country. They have the longest wait times to see a primary care physician, and their premiums have gone up the highest in the country. We're going to have this on a bigger scale, and we're not going to be able to find physicians who are willing to take Medicaid and Medicare. I think they set out to do the right thing, but they did it in a completely backwards manner.
WW: As a former small business owner, what do you think can be done to jump-start the labor market in Colorado?
MF: The United States has become unfriendly to business. We have increased regulations, we have an increased tax burden as a way to supply this ravenous spending binge, and businesses are afraid to hire because they don't know what the regulations will be like next year. They don't know what their health-care costs will be next year. What businesses need is some certainty. Let's do away with all the games where we pick winners and losers, where we give a tax incentive to one business by taking it from another, where we punish one business with a regulation but we favor another business with grants. Let's do away with the games that deem who the winning company is and who the losing company is. Why are we bailing out failed companies? Let them fail. Let's encourage the good companies who play by the rules. If we become more business-friendly, then jobs will pour back into the country.
WW: There are three amendments on the Colorado ballot this year that might look appealing to taxpayers. Amendment 60 will decrease your property taxes, Amendment 61 will put restrictions on government borrowing, and Proposition 101 will reduce state taxes and fees. But these will also result in massive cuts to services and education. What do you think about these ballot amendments?
MF: As an individual taxpayer, they all sound good. As someone who is realistic and realizes that we have to balance budgets, I think that it's dangerous to micro-manage state government with amendments. Instead of having all of these amendments designed to make the government behave, let's just have a government that behaves on its own. We need responsible people at the state level that can make these hard decisions and not play games with the taxpayers. We need people who will make the difficult decisions about how to balance our budget. On the surface these amendments are exactly like you said -- they look appealing to the taxpayer. But it would make it very difficult for the state to meet its budgetary requirements. The Republicans probably don't like me saying those things, but I'm a realist. Let's make it so that we don't have to restrain the government through external means like amendments.
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WW: Would you consider yourself a social conservative? If so, do you think those values are in alignment with your potential constituents?
MF: I am a social conservative. I think Denver is probably more liberal than I am; its voting history would suggest that. But from a government standpoint, I'm more of a social libertarian. My socially conservative principles will not dictate the way I legislate. I'm a strict constitutionalist, and nowhere in the Constitution does it say that we should be legislating morality on social issues. These are state and court issues, not congressional issues. So even though I'm personally a social conservative, that is not the way I will legislate.
WW: Is there anything else you want to get out there?
MF: I know some of these things don't play well with the Republican party, and they obviously don't play well with the hard left. But I'm a common-sense guy who has a lot of practical experience, and I think that we should run government how we run our homes and our businesses. That's why I'm doing this, and I think the people of Denver will be open to it right now.