Q&A With Tom Tancredo

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The 2008 presidential race has special meaning for Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo. After all, he was part of the Republican candidates pack mere months ago – and in the hefty Q&A below, he recalls the good, the bad and the fugly parts of his experiences with humor and frustration, not to mention a decided lack of enthusiasm for Senator John McCain, his party’s presumptive nominee.

Tancredo makes it clear from the outset that he never had any illusions about his odds of success and concedes that those who accused him of being a one-issue candidate whose interests began and ended with immigration reform weren’t far from the truth. From there, he shares his take on the debates, expressing his irritation at the formats and critiquing the quality of the events, or lack thereof; argues that his presence in the race helped move the other hopefuls in his direction on the immigration topic; discusses the fundraising techniques that did, and didn’t, work for him; details the moment when he knew he should raise the white flag; defends a pair of startling campaign commercials; showers McCain with faint praise; reveals his struggles with the inner-ear disorder called tinnitus; and talks about his post-congressional future, which he hopes will include opposition to amnesty for undocumented immigrants and lots of games co-starring his grandchildren.

No doubt his opponents would prefer that he devote himself more to the latter than the former.

Westword (Michael Roberts): When did you seriously consider running for the presidency?

Tom Tancredo: About December, I would guess, of 2006.

WW: What was it that spurred the consideration?

TT: The rhetoric of the people who, up to that point in time, were announced candidates for Republican nomination, specifically as it dealt with immigration-related issues. A lack of focus, number one, on the issue, and the ones who did talk about it talked about it as something we could solve through an amnesty of some sort. I don’t know about the other folks who ran for president, but I can tell you that I actually never had the idea that I would be president. I never started out, ever, thinking, hey, I think I’ll run for president. Why? Because I want to be president. No, the reason is because I wanted to advance an issue, and I really recognized that my chances of becoming president were slim to none. And if you know that going in – if you know you’re not doing it for that reason – then you’re never upset about what happens. And I must admit, I feel pretty good about the whole thing.

WW: Did that message come across to all of your supporters? Or were there some folks out there who legitimately thought you had a chance to win the presidency and were perhaps disappointed at you being more interested in the issue than the office?

TT: I tried in everything I could to tell people that was why I was running. I always put that out there as the reason. People ask you why, and I’d say, “I want to do this.” Now, it is true that you are out there, you’re asking people for support. I was definitely running for president. You cannot do the things that are necessary, and certainly you can’t go into a debate or anything else and say to people, “I’m only here as a token – as a symbol of a cause more than anything else,” if you run for president. And I did everything I could do. And should the most incredible arrangement of stars have developed, I would have served. Of course. I just never in my heart of hearts never thought it was a true possibility. I was running. I was doing everything I could do as a candidate, and if the strangest of all words had developed, I would have done it. But I also knew the purpose. I always knew why I made the decision to run, and I never forgot that.

WW: Was it at all a distraction for you to have to come up with a platform and policy approaches to a whole range of different issues? Did it take you away from your main focus?

TT: Interestingly, everywhere I went, every speech I gave, it seemed as though, although I had pretty much primed myself for a lot of other issues, and trying to deal with them cogently, the fact is that everybody really knew… Ninety percent of the questions I got from the media and people in the audience were about immigration. So there was sort of an understanding on both sides of the table as for what I was about. But yes, I certainly did have to work hard on trying to develop a coherent policy statement on a lot of other issues. But being in Congress gives you a bit of an advantage, because you are confronted with them. The depth you have to go into being in a presidential race, you have to get to them a little more than in the superficial nature than would otherwise have been the case.

WW: Were the debates frustrating for you because you didn’t get a chance to talk about your central issue as much as had hoped? Or was it nice just to have that spotlight?

TT: No, it was enormously frustrating. First of all, if I ever did well – if I felt I answered the questions well and did so in a coherent manner – I felt good about that. But when I couldn’t, when I didn’t, when I fell short of my own expectations, I felt lousy about it. And then, you have to understand – the first debate was in the Reagan Library in February of 2007 [the event actually took place on May 3, 2007], and oh, man, I was just pumped for a lot of different questions. And the first question I got, after 45 minutes of just standing there, and all the questions going to three or four candidates who were the most well known, and certainly had the best chances of winning – they came to me and finally said, “What can you do as president to increase organ donations?” (Laughs.) I was, in a way, really thrown by it. It was a question I must admit I’d not thought about an answer for. And beside which, it seemed so irrelevant and almost inane – which most of them seemed to be. It’s funny: The debates themselves were really different, one from another, and I found that MSNBC was the worst in terms of the moderators.

WW: Was that because you felt they were biased toward the left? Or condescending?

TT: All those things. And the questions were just inane. They went all over the board. You may never remember this – I certainly wouldn’t if I’d just been an observer. But that was the debate when they said, “How many of you think Bill Clinton should be invited to the White House?” Asking nine Republican presidential candidates if they would invite Bill Clinton to the White House – if it would be important to do so. That’s how they put it. I don’t know. Just so stupid. It seemed like every time they did it, it was the same way. Whereas on the other hand, I felt one of the best ones was public television. That was somewhere in New Hampshire I believe. I can’t remember now. [Tancredo may be thinking of a PBS-sponsored debate that took place on September 27, 2007 at Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland.]

But the one I won hands-down, the one I one with no disagreement from anyone, because no one could disagree, was the NAACP event. [He laughs because he was the only Republican candidate to participate in the July 12, 2007 forum in Detroit.] It was the most fun I think I ever had. Getting to walk out, and there were eight other podiums standing there. And they gave me a standing ovation! I always say they gave me a standing ovation because I showed up. But they gave me another one, a nice one, when I left. Maybe it was for the same reason – or maybe it was because I’d finally finished. But they were very pleasant to me. And that’s one place where I did have to talk about a lot of other issues, because, of course, I was the only other guy. I got every question.

WW: Strangely enough, it seems that the remark you made in a debate that got the most play was when you referenced Jack Bauer, the lead character in the television show 24. Does that speak to what you seemed to be alluding to earlier – the lack of substance of the media coverage?

TT: Yes, and it’s horrible, because you have so little time. I understand you have a lot of people who have to answer questions. But even if they’d at least give us a question and let all of us answer it. Going down the line, or switching it, so everybody has a chance to answer it. Maybe they thought it was too boring. Although a couple of debates did do that, and I thought they were much better than the ones where you’d just wait and wait and wait and wait and wait, and then finally, you might get one, and it might be something that was substantial, or it might be something as off the wall as what would I do to increase organ donations. Those were very frustrating. I would go into the last six or eight debates, and they’d take us around two or three hours before to show you the set – “Here’s where the cameras will be,” blah blah blah blah blah. And I’d always say, “Just tell me this: Which end am I on?” (Laughs.) Because I’d always be on one end or the other. Duncan Hunter [a congressman from California and fellow longshot candidate] would usually be on the other. We were the bookends. And so you’d get used to and you’d sort of know what was going to happen.

But toward the end, I would enjoy it, because everything had changed. The rhetoric had changed. Here I was listening to all these people who I’d watched over a period of eight or nine months completely change themselves into really tough border advocates. I’m going to clamp down on illegal immigration, I’m going to build a fence, and all of that. And to watch that happen and think to yourself, I remember what they said the first time, and to know that probably the reason they’re doing that is because you’ve done what you’ve done. That gave me a great amount of satisfaction, I must tell you. Who knows? Maybe I’m rationalizing. But I felt very good about it, and I still do.

WW: Tell me about the fundraising, which has always been a big part of campaigns, but seems to be an even bigger part of this one. How difficult was it to raise funds when, as you mentioned, there were a number of much higher profile candidates? And what proved to be the most effective fundraising methods for you?

TT: Direct mail was the best, with the Internet afterwards, and events being a very low third. A way, way distant third. It really primarily the methods of direct mail and Internet.

WW: Was it tempting at all to overspend in the hope that you would raise more money down the line? Or were you very disciplined, so that you made sure you wouldn’t be hugely in debt as a result of the campaign?

TT: That was a deal we struck right at the beginning with my campaign manager [originally Shelly Uscinski, who managed commentator Pat Buchanan’s 2000 presidential bid; a few months later, CNN pundit Bay Buchanan, the well-known sister of the aforementioned candidate, took over the post]. We decided that we would never be doing anything that would put us into debt. I guess the closest we came to that was relying on… At a certain point in time, we relied on matching funds, and there was a gap of probably a month where we didn’t know for sure how much would be guaranteed by them. We were spending at that point in time more money. We’d gone and gotten a loan from a bank based upon our commitments for a matching-funds arrangement. That was as close as we ever came. But we will be, I’m sure, returning dollars to the treasury. The audit won’t be done for about a month, but we still have money in the bank.

WW: The end of the campaign – what made you decide, “I’ve done what I needed to do, and it’s time to get out”?

TT: I remember that very vividly. I was in Iowa. It was mid-December. It was cold, it was nasty, it was about eleven o’clock at night. I’m eating my dinner in a motel room that had a posted sign on their mirror, a decal type of thing, that said, “Please do not use the towels to wash your car.” (Laughs.) And I’m sitting there eating my dinner, which I think was from Jack in the Box or something, and Rudy Giuliani comes on – a commercial. And he says, “If you elect me, I’ll build a fence. We will secure our borders.” And that was it. I picked up the phone and I called Bay Buchanan, and I said, “Bay, I just watched Rudy Giuliani say he would support securing the borders. Let’s pull the plug on this thing.”

And there was another kind of interesting aspect to this. Probably the person who was least supportive of my position on immigration was John McCain, and at the time, John McCain… Even though he had switched his rhetoric to, quote, “I’ve gotten the message,” unquote – whatever the hell that means, he was finished at that point. Remember? He was done. No money, no momentum. Nothing. It was fascinating, actually, how that all developed. So I felt I’d really accomplished the goal, and there was no purpose to continue. And I’ll tell you, it’s a very arduous undertaking. It was the most challenging, physically challenging thing I have done probably in my life. I’m not a marathon runner or anything. But having to do that and be a congressman, meaning you had to fly every week at least two or three times, and the change of time, the time zones, and not eating right, and constantly having to be, quote-unquote, on. I was exhausted. I never regretted it, I don’t to this day, and at the time, I felt this tremendous load off my shoulders, because he was the last domino to fall.

WW: Did you lose weight? Did you have physical changes as a result of the campaign?

TT: I did not lose weight, but my tinnitus. I have tinnitus [ringing or buzzing in the ears] – I’ve had it for three years. And it’s exacerbated by a lot of air travel and by a lot of stress – and I had a tremendous amount of both. It was really plaguing me.

WW: You mentioned commercials earlier, and I wanted to ask you about one spot that you broadcast – one that showed a terrorist striking a mall, which was a shocking concept. What kind of effect did it have where it aired? And do you think that ad contributed to moving some of the candidates closer to your position in the ways you’ve talked about?

TT: I think it did, and yes, it was sort of a shocking one – that’s true. We had relatively little money. I told my staff that if we were going to do any television commercials, they would not be here’s Tom Tancredo, nice guy, you should get to know him and then you’ll vote for him – that kind of thing. First of all, we never had enough money to push a message like that. We could never put a number of points behind that, so what would be the purpose – other than to make a kind of shocking statement that drew attention to the issue you want to talk about. Other than that, it’s a waste of money and time entirely. So we chose to do it, and certainly, it doesn’t get me any farther up the ladder, but what it does do is what we were trying to do, which was to force the issue into the campaign, and I think it worked very well for that. There were actually two ads we ran of a similar nature. One was the terrorist in the mall and the other one was gang-related violence – gangs coming over from El Salvador, MS-13 and things like that. It was also very graphic.

WW: Did television stations get complaints about the graphic nature of the spots?

TT: I don’t recall. I don’t know if I ever heard about it if they did.

WW: You pointed out that John McCain’s campaign seemed to be dead at one point, but now, he’s the presumptive nominee – and historically, he’s been the furthest away from your position on immigration of all the major Republican candidates. And yet, you’re supporting him in his bid for office. Has that been a difficult choice to make? Or do you feel that he’s moving in your direction, and he’s clearly the best of the available choices from your perspective?

TT: Well, the answer to your question is “yes.” It was a very difficult choice, yes, and yes, he’s certainly come a lot closer. He was not my first choice, not my second choice, not my third choice. He’s the party’s choice, and therefore, that’s the end of it, and there really isn’t much more to say about it from that standpoint. I hope that he will at least do what he says about border security, and then I’ll have to fight him as hard as I can from wherever I am, and a lot of other people will have to fight him, on the issue of amnesty, which I’m sure he will move toward.

WW: Tell me a little bit about your plans after you leave your congressional seat. Have you mapped everything out very specifically? Or are you still in the figuring-it-out phase?

TT: One of the things I know I’m going to do, and to which I look forward with great elation, is seeing every one of my grandkids’ games. I know that seems a bit trite or insignificant, but it is nonetheless true. I do enjoy that a great deal. When I was away and my wife was here, and she’d go to the games, and she’d e-mail me all during the games. And my wife is really a dear woman and I love her, but she’s a lousy color commentator (laughs). She would say stuff like, “They just got a hit.” And I’m going, “They? They them or they us?” There’d be these cryptic notes she’d shoot me on the e-mail and I’d never really get the full flavor of it. One game was supposed to happen tonight, but it was canceled, but there are two tomorrow. I was just running through my schedule as I was running up to my house, right before I called you, and there’s six things, and I’m going, ugh, er, that’s okay – and then, “Ah! The game’s tomorrow!” (Laughs.) It’s funny what happens to grandparents. It’s really a very odd thing, I have to tell you.

But other than that, I know I’ll be involved in public policy, and specifically immigration related public policy, and I will either form my own organization or I will work for some of the larger immigration groups for the purpose of trying to take the battle to the states and replicate Oklahoma and Arizona, and even go to the local level and get ordinances past. I think that’s where the battle is. I don’t think the issue is going to be solved to my satisfaction in the next couple of years. Certainly regardless of who’s president, whether it’s John McCain or Obama. So that’s the next logical line of defense, and I think it’s a rational place to go. And that’s, therefore, where I’ll go.

WW: Do you see that strategy as one that may prevent the federal government from doing nothing on the immigration issue and simply letting things drag on?

TT: That’s exactly right. What we hope to do – and that’s a royal “we” there, by the way. What I hope to do is to keep the spark alive, if you will – keep people focused on it, and therefore at the same time, keeping the heat on members of Congress so nothing worse happens. I don’t believe we’re going to have a solution, but because the issue is still so important, as evidenced by what’s been happening in Congress over the last couple of months.

It’s really been fascinating watching the Democrats strip every single reference to immigration from everything they can. They don’t want to vote on it, and when we run – they’re privileged motions, and it’s called a motion to recommit, we always throw something in about immigration, and they won’t accept it, because they’re petrified of immigration as an issue. I know it’s still there, I know it’s broiling under the surface, and therefore, I think it’s a natural way of dealing with it. You know, I’m leaving House of Representatives for the exact same reason that I left the presidential race. I really believe I’ve done all I can do there. There are a lot of people out there who are going to read this and say, “Thank God he’s gone. He’s done a lot of damage.” But I think I have elevated the issue in the Congress and in the country. I believe that when I first came, I guarantee that there wasn’t a soul, not a soul that I could get to support me and advance the issue with me. And now, you have to race to the microphone to get an amendment in on it.

That’s the House side. The Senate is a little more difficult. But I feel as though I really have accomplished a series of goals. I wrote a letter to constituents when I decided to break my term-limits pledge, and it said in there, and I can’t get it exact right now – but it said, “I know I made this term-limits pledge, but the way this issue of immigration has developed, for good or for ill, I have become the leader of it in the Congress of the United States. I cannot walk away from it. I have a commitment there just like the commitment I made to you when I made that pledge. So it’s a dilemma in either case. So as soon as I can say that I’ve accomplished the goal of getting this issue to the top of the heap, I will leave this place, because I didn’t look at it as a career.” It fits for both things. If you’ve done what you said you were going to do, or at least you’ve done all you can do, then it’s time to leave and I feel good about both decisions, actually. I feel very, very relieved about both.

That doesn’t mean I won’t run again for something. I’ll have to see what the conditions are at the time. If nothing else, I have to tell you that the tinnitus is a problem, a real problem. I need to try to get that a little more under control. I’m working with an audiologist. I have been for a while, gone to every clinic. When I got this, I knew very little about this malady, but there are over 44 million people who suffer from it to one extent or another, and mostly it’s very moderate. Some people, it’s very bad. William Shatner, he almost had to leave Star Trek because of it. And there’s an association, there are support groups. The University of Virginia and the University of Maryland both have centers to study it. It costs us more money than any other malady for veterans today – $540 million a year. And yet little is known about it. But it is a problem, and it’s something I have to deal with no matter what comes next.

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