With the exception of the presidential campaigns, the Pennsylvania U.S. Senate race between incumbent Republican Pat Toomey and Democratic challenger Katie McGinty is the most expensive in the country. The matchup is being closely watched because it’s one that could tip the balance of power in the Senate in favor of the Democrats. 90.5 WESA’s Paul Guggenheimer talked with Toomey about where he stands on some of the issues including the economy, gun control, foreign policy, energy and the environment.
Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
PAUL GUGGENHEIMER: Sen. Toomey, thank you for joining us. Perhaps the most important issue for you and your opponent in this campaign is the economy and job creation. “Depressed” is a word often used to describe the economies of the small towns and rural communities that surround Pittsburgh. What is your plan for reviving them?
SENATOR TOOMEY: The economy, I think, is capable of tremendous economic growth. Really, we have been underperforming where we should be for a long, time now. And all we need to do is have some sensible policies in Washington. So, for instance, reforming our tax code to encourage work and savings of investment would produce a lot more work and savings of investment and that would lead to growth. We’ve got to push back on these crazy, regulatory excesses, especially Washington’s ridiculous war on energy jobs. And we should take advantage of this incredible asset we have right underneath our own ground which is natural gas in an almost unlimited supply. That gives us a competitive advantage that no one else in the world enjoys. And that can help heavy industry. That’ll help people who have to bend metal. People have to use lots of energy. We have a terrific competitive advantage. So, I think that combination of a more competitive and pro-growth tax code, more sensible and less onerous regulation, and taking advantage of our energy, I think with that we can have a booming economy in western Pennsylvania.
GUGGENHEIMER: Let's talk about fracking. It is seen by many of your fellow Republicans, as well as many Democrats, an economic driver for western Pennsylvania despite concerns about how it can harm the environment. Should we continue with fracking and if so what is the best way to do it?
TOOMEY: I don’t know anyone who is not concerned about having a clean environment. It’s important to me, it’s important to just about everybody that I know. We have a lot of experience with fracking now and we should hold our natural gas development to the highest standards and that’s what our DEP does every day. What Katie McGinty and some others want to do is ignore the fact that this is already very extensively and adequately regulated and bring in another entire regulatory body, the EPA. And when asked why would you want to impose this whole new regulatory regime on natural gas development, since it’s already regulated, Hillary Clinton was very helpful with her candor. She said, "So that when we’re finished, there aren’t any places left in America where you can still frack." So, that’s the idea of Katie McGinty and Hillary Clinton, regulate it out of existence and that’s a really bad idea for Pennsylvania and America because natural gas is clean burning. It’s extremely inexpensive. We have a tremendous supply and we ought to be using it.
GUGGENHEIMER: Donald Trump famously said last spring that he’s going to bring the steel and coal industry back. Is that possible in this day and age and if not what are the industries western Pennsylvania can turn to in order to create jobs?
TOOMEY: Well, as you know, there is a very important major steel maker still in Pittsburgh and their business is viable and it can grow. So, a lot of steel can come back. It takes a booming economy to create enough demand for the steel products and right now our economy is weak. That absolutely can have a substantial rebound. Coal is a very, very inexpensive source of electric generation and we’ve learned how to dramatically reduce, I mean like almost eliminate, the pollutants that used to pollute our air from coal. So, if we didn’t have the regulatory obstacles, coal would come back absolutely.
GUGGENHEIMER: The Steel industry, as has been well chronicled, saw a decline in past decades to the point where it’s not what it once was. Are you saying Senator that you can see the day when the mills are back up and running the way they once were around here?
TOOMEY: Let’s be clear. Some mills have been closed for a very long time and those particular mills are probably not going to re-open. I understand that but my point is U.S. Steel is making a lot of steel and if the economy were booming like it should and we were building more bridges and skyscrapers and drilling for more natural gas and putting those steel casings into the ground … if we were doing more of all that then they’d be making more steel. And they’d be expanding and they’d be hiring more workers. So, that’s the kind of growth that I’m convinced is still entirely possible.
GUGGENHEIMER: The ethane cracker in Beaver County promises jobs, but many are worried that it’s a large new source of pollution in a region that has seen slow but steady improvement in its air quality over the years. What do you say to environmental critics of the plant or people worried this could set Pittsburgh’s air quality back?
TOOMEY: We hold industrial facilities like this cracker to much, much higher standards than we used to. And so they’re just not going to be permitted to put out the kind of pollutants that would have been standard back in the 1950s and '60s and '70s and even '80s. Technology has enabled us to engage in these industrial activities with far, far less pollutants. So, I think this is going to a huge, huge winner for western Pennsylvania.
GUGGENHEIMER: You oppose the Clean Power Plan and also voted to end subsidies for energy sources like wind. Could you explain your reasoning for opposing this?
TOOMEY: They’re two very different things. The first, the Clean Power Plan is a regulation that has no constitutional legislative authority. I have a problem with that. If the federal government imposes a law or a regulation, it has to be consistent with the constitution. It is also designed to destroy the coal industry. And I think it’s ridiculous to destroy the coal industry. So, that’s my main source of objection to the so called Clean Power Plan. With wind energy it’s different. The problem I have is not with wind energy per se. Anybody who can make wind energy work, that’s great, I’m all for it. The problem I have is when politicians force taxpayers to subsidize wind energy. And we do that on a massive scale. So, what that means is, we end up paying more for electricity that we need to be paying.
GUGGENHEIMER: There have been several incidents throughout the U.S. in the last couple of years in which unarmed black men have been shot by police. What are your thoughts about what we’re seeing and how should this be addressed?
TOOMEY: Well, I’ve seen some of these videos and there are some videos that are very disturbing. There are some cases where people, young black men in many cases, have been shot and it certainly doesn’t look like it was necessary or appropriate. And so, I’ve said all along, any incident of that nature certainly has to be fully investigated and anyone who did anything wrong needs to be held accountable. There are bad apples in every profession under the sun and that would include police. What I object to is what I think is a completely dishonest narrative that has become all too common in America and that is this notion propagated by Black Lives Matter that somehow the police generally are racist rogues and they’re responsible for violence in our cities. That’s ridiculous. I know lots of police officers. The vast majority of them don’t have a racist bone in their body. Most of the police forces are racially integrated. There are black and white cops who work together every day and they’re in the same cruiser and they’re partners and this idea that they’re all racist is outrageous. And it is not fair to them. It is a smear. It is dishonest and it undermines their ability to do their work in tough circumstances. So, I have stood up for law enforcement and I’m very proud to have been endorsed by every police organization in Pennsylvania that does endorsements including the Pittsburgh FOP, the Philly FOP, the state troopers. I’m grateful for that support and I think it’s totally appropriate that we recognize and appreciate the risk and sacrifice that the men and women make when they put on that uniform.
GUGGENHEIMER: Someone listening to your answer there might disagree with part of what you said when it comes to the impact of what is referred to as implicit bias. What about the views that, some say, police inherently hold about minorities that might affect how they do their job?
TOOMEY: So, again I would say that implicit bias might very well occur in individual cases. I can understand that. But I don’t think it’s fair to smear police officers generally as racist and that’s what that message is.
GUGGENHEIMER: Following the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary school, Sen. Toomey, you won praise from Democrats by putting your name on a bill, the Toomey-Manchin amendment, that would have required a background check on all gun sales, including at gun shows and on the Internet. In the wake of the mass shooting in Orlando your opponent, Democrat Katie McGinty, criticized you saying you “disavowed” any attempt to move on the legislation. What do you make of this criticism and do you feel you have done enough to support your own measure here?
TOOMEY: Yeah, that’s yet another example of where Katie is willing to be very dishonest. The fact is one of the most painful meetings of my life, and certainly my term in the Senate, was with the parents of the Sandy Hook kids, little 6-year-old kids who were shot in cold blood. And these parents, they didn’t come and ask for an end to the Second Amendment. They didn’t come and say "let’s punish law abiding citizens." Nothing like that. All they said was "Could we do background checks to try to prevent people who are dangerous criminals, people who are dangerously mentally ill, to try to keep guns out of their hands?" And I’m a big Second Amendment supporter. I’m a gun owner, I take my son shooting. I think it’s a very, very important constitutional right that’s personal. And there’s no contradiction between that and a three-minute background check to keep guns out of the hands of people who have no right to them. So, our bill, the bill that I introduced with Sen. Manchin, we voted on that three times, three times in several years. And I didn’t stop there. This summer, there was an effort to include in the background check data base, terrorists who are on the no fly list. Makes all the sense in the world. If we think somebody is too dangerous to board a plane, why in the world would we let them walk down the street and buy an AR-15? We shouldn’t. And so, I worked with my colleagues. I actually wrote my own bill, I worked with Susan Collins who had a bi-partisan bill. There were only a handful of Republican votes for it but I was one of them. And so I have been very, very consistent. Gabby Giffords, who is a Democratic Congresswoman from Arizona, has endorsed me in this race. She was shot in the head and very severely wounded by a deranged individual. Her highest priority with her husband, professionally, is to try to expand background checks so that we can stop these deranged individuals from buying guns, whenever possible. I think it makes it very clear that I’ve been dedicated to this and, unfortunately, Katie McGinty is telling a dishonest story.
GUGGENHEIMER: Mylan CEO Heather Bresch was on Capitol Hill recently defending the price of EpiPens going over the last few years from $100 for a two-pack to over $600, by saying the company doesn’t make as much profit on EpiPens as many believe. What would you do to rein in what these that drug companies are charging?
TOOMEY: I think the most important thing we can do here is make sure there is robust competition. There’s a reason McDonald’s can’t charge $50 for a burger. It’s because Burger King will take all their business if they try. Well, this works throughout our entire economy in all the products and services but there’s one big area where it doesn’t work very well and that is prescription and generic drugs. The EpiPen is a patented device that administers a generic medicine. The problem is the FDA makes it so difficult to compete with the established player in a given market, in a given space. Sometimes there’s an effective monopoly even if it’s not an illegal monopoly. So, what I’ve been pushing for is let’s get the FDA to reform so that a safe competitor can get to the market sooner. EpiPen could not raise their prices if there were a viable competitor offering an equivalent product because everyone would just then go to the competitor. That’s the answer here, I’m convinced, in both medical devices in some cases and even more so with prescription drugs.
GUGGENHEIMER: Democrats, including your opponent Katie McGinty, have portrayed you as too close an ally of big banks and Wall Street — where your ties to the industry also include a major financial stake in a small bank you co-founded. What is your response to that criticism?
TOOMEY: Well, first, the small bank is a little, tiny community bank serving several neighborhoods where it has branches so it has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with Wall Street. The biggest gifts that Washington ever gave to the Wall Street banks is the bail outs in 2008. Massive, hundreds of billions of dollars of taxpayer’s money given to these banks. I was on record at the time and ever since in complete opposition to those bailouts. Taxpayers should never be made to bail out those banks. Katie McGinty never opposed it. She was fine with it. But even more so, Dodd-Frank was passed in the summer of 2010. Dodd-Frank specifies a whole mechanism by which the next failure of a big bank will be bailed out by taxpayer dollars. I’m totally opposed to that. Katie McGinty’s totally in favor of it. I’m the one who’s introduced the legislation to repeal that part of Dodd-Frank and force a failing bank to go through bankruptcy. And the shareholders get wiped out and unsecured creditors get wiped out and that’s what should happen when a firm fails. Taxpayers shouldn’t have to bail it out. So, I’m the one who opposed Wall Street bailouts and Katie McGinty supports them. Who’s the friend of Wall Street?
GUGGENHEIMER: We’ve been hearing a lot about something called the Trans Pacific Partnership. The TPP is a trade deal between the United States, Japan and 10 other Pacific nations. President Obama has signed it but your opponent opposes it and you Sen. Toomey oppose it after initially indicating you would support it. Why is this a bad deal for people in places like Pittsburgh?
TOOMEY: So first, I never indicated I would support it. I was certainly open to it. I was hoping it would be a trade agreement I could support if it was going to open up foreign markets and create enough opportunities for Pennsylvanians. When we saw the text, when the deal was finally struck and we got a chance to read it, it fell short. Pennsylvania’s biggest industry, believe it or not, is agriculture. And the biggest segment of our agriculture industry is dairy products. One of the members of this 11 nation TPP agreement is Canada. Canada is a big wealthy market nearby to Pennsylvania and they don’t allow us to sell dairy products there. It’s outrageous. I mean there are lots of protectionist countries but it’s outrageous to be part of a free trade agreement and not engage in free trade. So, I communicated to the President’s trade negotiators from very early on that "you’ve got to fix this." That would be a huge source of new income for Pennsylvania farmers, a huge new market for them if it were opened up. I can’t support this agreement.
GUGGENHEIMER: It’s been one year since the Iran Nuclear Deal was signed which prevents Iran from developing a nuclear weapon in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. Senator, you have long opposed the Iran Nuclear Deal and believe sanctions should have been maintained. But at a recent World Affairs Council event in Pittsburgh, Jim Walsh, a research associate at MIT’s Security Studies Program said Iran has removed 98 percent of its low enriched uranium and shut down two-thirds of their centrifuges. At the end of the agreement, if Iran wishes to make a nuclear bomb, they’re going to have to start from scratch. Why not let this deal play out?
TOOMEY: First of all, you have to ask yourself "Why did Iran insist on retaining the centrifuges that they have?" They have dismantled many. They’ve not destroyed them. They’ve not shipped them out of the country. They’ve put them in storage somewhere. Then there’s the whole category of centrifuges that continue spinning. Then, this agreement permits them to develop the next generation of centrifuges. Now, why does a country need centrifuges? There’s only one reason and that is to enrich uranium to the point at which it is weapons grade. If all they want to do is generate electric power, they could buy uranium on the open market. There are many countries that sell it. They don’t need to retain that capability. So, first of all, that was a foolish concession that the administration made. Secondly, some of their most notorious defensive sights, very, very large military industrial complexes where they do their research are off limits to their inspectors. They will self-inspect. They will go through and do an inspection and then tell us if they’re in compliance with the rules. How ridiculous is that? Thirdly, every few weeks, they’re launching a new round of precision guided ballistic missiles. They’re getting ever more sophisticated. It is in flagrant violation of the U.N. resolution that bans it and these missiles are designed to carry nuclear warheads. If they have decided to abandon their pursuit of nuclear weapons, then why are they spending millions of dollars and risking all kinds of repercussions developing a delivery system for nuclear weapons? I don’t think they have given up on nuclear weapons whatsoever. And, by the way, as we have this conversation today, the Iranian parliament has not ratified that agreement and no Iranian official has signed it. It does not block their path to a nuclear weapon. I think it’s a very bad agreement.