‘Let’s put our country above our political party’, Former Marine pilot takes aim at Barr
Even before she beat the man national Democratic leaders wanted to win the May primary, Amy McGrath was making headlines around the country.
An ad touting her service as a Marine fighter pilot went viral, campaign contributions came streaming in, and McGrath upset Lexington Mayor Jim Gray and others rather handily. She’s now hoping to do the same to Republican U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, who’s seeking a fourth term in Congress.
On Oct. 11, after visits to Callie’s and Ricardo’s restaurants, and before putting in a few hours at her Versailles campaign office, the 43-year-old McGrath stopped by the Sun for an interview.
Asked whether she then considered getting into politics when she grew up, McGrath chuckled and said, “No… It wasn’t my goal to run for office. My goal was to serve the country and be a fighter pilot.”
Her biography is already familiar to many: When she was 12 years old and wanted to become a fighter pilot and land on aircraft carriers, she learned there was a law prohibiting women from serving in combat. She reached out to Kentucky’s congressional delegation, then to the U.S. House and Senate Armed Services committees. After graduating from her northern Kentucky high school, McGrath was accepted to the U.S. Naval Academy. During President Bill Clinton’s first year in office, the combat exclusion law was changed, but another obstacle remained – her eyesight. After corrective eye surgery and pilot training, her childhood dream came true, and she flew 89 combat missions, becoming the first female to fly a F-18 fighter jet. Along the way, she earned a master’s degree in International/Global Security from The Johns Hopkins University, a host of military degrees, and a chest full of ribbons, some for service in Afghanistan and Iraq. Those challenges have helped prepare her for the grueling life of a candidate for Congress.
“I think what powers me through is the energy of the people I talk to. I mean, people are really excited… A lady comes up to me last night, for example, when I was in Frankfort at a rally there, and says, ‘I’ve never been to a political rally. I’ve never done anything in politics.’ And she’s probably 50-some years old. And I look at her and say, ‘Me, neither,’” McGrath said. She said some of the people she’s met are confused about the many attack ads against her, some of which led veteran political observer Al Cross to write, “So now we have outright lying and guilt by association. Looks desperate.”
“It’s hard, because a lot of (those ads) are lies, so when I talk to them, I just look them in the eye and say, ‘I’m not for open borders, I never said that. I’m not for abortion in the ninth month.’ I mean, that’s kind of ridiculous. So they can hear it from me. But for the most part, people have been, even if they disagree with me on certain issues, very good, and have wanted to talk and sit down and listen to what I have to say, and I like to listen to them,” McGrath said.
Like many candidates for Congress this fall, McGrath is talking about health care and “good, solid jobs.”
“You might disagree with me on who can marry who, (but) who your neighbor marries – does that put food on your table? Is that something that’s going to affect the health care for your family; somebody who has preexisting conditions, for example? I try to bring it back to the things that matter to people’s daily lives,” McGrath said.
Asked how she’d describe her political leanings, McGrath said, “I think there would be certain issues where I’d be considered conservative on. I think there are certain issues where I’d be considered progressive on. You can’t put most people in a box, and you can’t put me there, either,” she said.
Part of her argument to conservative voters is that the Republican party isn’t really conservative.
“I mean, when you look at the tariffs, when you look at the fiscal irresponsibility, when you look at the support of a president who doesn’t exactly embody family values … when I talk to people, especially people who consider themselves conservative, I asked them, ‘What makes you a conservative?’ And the answer is usually one of those three things. And I say, ‘How does that square with what the Republican party is today?’ So, I feel like I’m more conservative than the current Republican party is today on those issues…” she said.
McGrath said she’s “very progressive” on other issues, ranging from gay marriage to “equal opportunity for everybody,” which she calls wholly American values. If elected, she said she’ll work to fix the present health care system, rather than trying to sabotage it.
“I always say the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was never a perfect piece of legislation, but it did Kentucky a lot of good. I talk to people all the time who say, ‘The Affordable Care Act saved my life,’” McGrath said. She cited a good friend who, along with her small business owner husband, are Republicans, but love the ACA, in part because it forced insurance companies to cover their preexisting conditions.
She also favors a Medicare buy-in plan for those 55 years and older and a public option and said she supports part of the tax cut package signed into law by President Trump, but not the breaks for “the top one percent.”
“My opponent will say, ‘The economy’s booming.’ It is booming – it has been growing at the same rate for the last seven years, by the way – but it’s booming for really the one percent. Meanwhile, the rest of the working individuals, their wages have not increased, and in fact, if you add in inflation and the cost of gas and all these other things, wages have actually decreased,” McGrath said. She said the corporate tax rate needed to be cut, but too many loopholes remain, and while the corporate cuts were made permanent, those for individuals expire in 2025.
McGrath said tax cuts for businesses and the one percent are not the way to help “working individuals,” but rather, more spending on infrastructure, education and workforce development. Price tags for such proposals could be steep, however, and the rising deficit and national debt could reduce their political viability.
“I don’t think either party right now has a good plan (to reduce the deficit),” McGrath said. She said addressing that problem begins with being honest, and that leaders should consider a revised version of the 2010 Bowles-Simpson plan, which would have reduced “mandatory” (entitlement) spending, ended $1.1 trillion in tax loopholes, and capped government spending at 21 percent of the gross domestic product. The plan was set aside when Congress and President Obama couldn’t strike a deal, and the Republican tax cut plan is projected to add $1.5 trillion to the national debt in its first decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
Political analysts of all stripes point to partisan gerrymandering helping create a political environment where most members of Congress are more concerned about being “primaried” than losing in the general election. McGrath said she won’t be afraid to reach across the aisle and support some Republican proposals.
“I hope so, because, one, that is how you can effectively represent a district like the 6th District. This is a very diverse district. I don’t think you can adequately represent this district if you vote for your party and your president, who’s in your party, 98 percent of the time, which is what the incumbent has done,” she said.
McGrath is fond of saying that Congress doesn’t have an intelligence problem – it has a courage problem.
“And so while I’m a Democrat, I’m an American first, and my oath my entire life as a United States Marine Corps officer has been to the Constitution, and to the people,” she said. “That’s the kind of attitude I bring, going into this, and you know what? If I’m a one-term congresswoman, because I follow that oath, I’ll be OK with that.”
On Oct. 12, former Vice President Joe Biden headlined a McGrath rally in Bath County. The following day, President Trump, who won the 6th District by 15 percentage points, did the same for Barr. McGrath said she believed the impact of each on their favored candidates was “about even.”
During her Sun interview, she spoke quietly, but with increased intensity when federal deficits and misleading political ads were discussed.
She touted her own campaign’s refusal to use the latter (third parties backing McGrath have aimed several at Barr) but agreed that it was possible to “go negative” without being dishonest.
“The best leaders in the Marine Corps were not the ones who told me what I wanted to hear. They were the ones who told me the truth,” McGrath said. “My message from the very beginning has been, ‘Let’s put our country above our political party…’” she said.
Last Thursday, Oct. 18, more than 400 people heard that message during a potluck supper in the red barn at the Woodford County Park. She’ll need all of them, and more, on the first Tuesday of November.