After his first big campaign speech, Democratic U.S. House candidate Tim Bjorkman huddled with reporters for thirteen minutes of Q&A. KELO TV used about 20 seconds for its personality/horserace question; KDLT used about 25 seconds of Bjorkman’s comments on his judicial experience and his view that we need a federal solution on health care to make up for South Dakota’s failure to expand Medicaid.
Bjorkman’s full exchange with the press is far more enlightening (my apologies for poor audio—lots of people were behind us getting sloppy joes!):
Bjorkman’s first response, on why he’s running for Congress, reveals a deeply humanitarian, service-oriented motivation. He served the public for years as a judge. The problems he saw from the bench—mental health, drug addiction, health care in general—affect not just the defendants who came before him but their families and especially their children. Bjorkman speaks of kids in “highly dysfunctional” homes living “lives of quiet desperation in the shadows of our culture.” Without hope and guidance, those kids “fall into the patterns of their parents and experience poor educational outcomes,” and “all too often they’ll fall into alcohol and marijuana use” before their teens. Those children and their parents “need a counselor more than they need a guard. They need treatment more than they need jail or prison.” Bjorkman says he can’t get those people the help they need from the bench; thus, he feels compelled to seek solutions as a Congressman.
At 3:13, Bjorkman says three magic words: “universal health care.”
There’s a solution to our problems. All the other countries that are developed have developed it. Heritage magazine did a study of the most economically free countries in the world… ten of the eleven more economically free countries than the United States all had universal health care. That’s Heritage Foundation. Forbes magazine addressed it [Tim Bjorkman, press conference, 2017.07.13, timestamp 2:50].
Bjorkman was referring to the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom, on which in 2017 the United States has slipped to #17, and this 2015 Forbes article, which said that, sure enough, ten of the eleven nations that beat us in 2015’s Heritage economic freedom rankings had universal coverage:
The two advanced economies with the most economically free health care systems—Switzerland and Singapore—have achieved universal health insurance while spending a fraction of what the U.S. spends. Switzerland’s public spending on health care is about half of America’s, and Singapore’s is about a fifth of ours. If we had either of those systems, we wouldn’t have a federal budget deficit [Avik Roy, “Conservative Think Tank: 10 Countries With Universal Health Care Have Freer Economies Than The U.S.,” Forbes, 2015.01.27].
At 3:50, Dana Ferguson asked if Bjorkman thinks 2018 will be a good year for Democrats in South Dakota. Bjorkman showed no interest in handicapping the partisan horserace. He similarly declined to wave the partisan flag in response to the next question, about how a Democrat can win in a red state, by saying that sure, party matters, but that he believes South Dakotans vote for the person.
At 5:50, Bjorkman reiterated the call he made in his speech to raise the federal minimum wage:
Yes… the federal government should increase the minimum wage. I just suggest $11 an hour. It would be $11.25 an hour today if we’d kept pace with 1968. I think we’re as great a nation today as we were in 1968 and that we should pay $11 or $11.25 an hour. If we did, that’s an anti-poverty… an anti-welfare or a welfare-cutting program, because it will remove people from the welfare rolls if they’re earning a fair wage, and we will not have to subsidize the people who are paying low wages [Bjorkman, timestamp 5:50].
At 7:50, Bjorkman avoided (ducked! dodged! dang it!) my question on his stance on immigration. Having just announced a “few minutes ago,” Bjorkman said he wants “to give thoughtful answers” and “not just give off-the-cuff responses” that “wouldn’t be worthy of the question you asked.” He did promise to address immigration and other issues in position papers and invited all of us reporters to come back and interview him in-depth on those positions as the seventeen months of the campaign progress.
Bjorkman also left me hanging at the end on my question about engaging young voters. He certainly believes young people should be interested and involved in this House contest, because the race is all about “preserving the American dream for their generation and their children.” Preserving the American dream ought to be enough to mobilize everyone to study the candidates and vote, but preserving the American dream is a banner any candidate can wave. Bjorkman the man of principle, policy, and problem-solving will want to sit down with his team of campaign strategists and marketers to figure out how to distinguish himself in the marketplace and uniquely appeal to the young voters who, if properly motivated, could tip the election in his favor. (Of course, Bjorkman may have already distinguished himself from all comers by saying “universal health care” and “increase the minimum wage.” Team Bjorkman: are you positioning Bjorkman as South Dakota’s Bernie Sanders?)
Around 8:45, Bjorkman spoke of the hard, lonely accountability of being a judge:
There’s nobody else to point a finger at or blame for any decision you make. You alone stand accountable for it. You alone are responsible for it, and it’s a very lonely job to sentence somebody for first-degree murder.
A trial judge makes thousands of decisions that impact people’s lives in important ways every year, and every time your duty is to do what’s right, what’s fair and just. So do I think that’s a good exercise for making decisions for the public on issues? Yes, I do, I think it’s good training for that [Bjorkman, timestamp 8:45].
Bjorkman should speak of that experience and responsibility every chance he gets. That judicial experience may even excuse, explain, and justify his not having a quick answer on immigration. As a judge, Bjorkman spent years making decisions with grave consequences. The liberty, health, safety, financial well-being, and the very lives of citizens, not to mention the proper application of law, hung on his thoughts and words. The details of his every decision were subject to review by higher courts. Bjorkman had to take his time to make sure he reviewed evidence from all sides and worked toward a just decision. The courtroom is no place for off-the-cuff statements. Neither is the campaign trail or Congress, not for Bjorkman, a thoughtful decision-maker who recognizes the impact of his words and policies. He won’t wing it; he’ll take his time and think it through. (Another note to Bjorkman’s campaign staff: on this key quality, thorough, thoughtful Bjorkman is the anti-Trump. Keep him off Twitter!)
The follow-up question about whether handing out all those sentences might produce a backlash at the polls from convicts and families didn’t faze Bjorkman. “Most people who go to prison, they’re struggling and they know it, and their families know it.” He said many people he sentenced told him, “I don’t want freedom; I want to be cured.” Bjorkman comes across not as a hard case who doesn’t care about the defendants who’ve come before him; quite the contrary, he sounds like a judge at peace with his conscience who has used the bench to help broken people.
Making none of the press coverage was Bjorkman’s suggestion to the press for a really useful news story:
You want to see what’s going on in our culture… sit in court for a day, or better yet, do a story where you’re following someone into the couet system and through the penal system, parole system afterward. You’d have a very powerful story. It might win you an award if you want to do that. It just takes some work and effort. I’ve recommended that to several reporters. Nobody’s taken me up on that. The parole board will welcome you on that end, too, to sit in on hearings, they’ve told me that [Bjorkman, timestamp 11:45].
On this suggestion and in his resistance to standard reporters’ horserace questions, Bjorkman signaled a practiced, professional, and gently sparring relationship with the press. “I’m not gonna do what you’d like me to there,” Bjorkman said to KELO’s question at 12:20 about why voters should choose him over his Republican opponents Dusty Johnson and Shantel Krebs. Bjorkman is not nihilist tyrant Donald Trump trying to delegitimize the national press that is exposing his sins. Nor is he a naïf frightened or bedazzled by the cameras and mics. Bjorkman is gently challenging the local press to focus on issues that matter and not falling into the quick-hit horserace comments that make it easier for reporters to meet the ten p.m. deadline.
I still want answers on immigration and engaging young voters in democracy (plus education, Native American relations, net neutrality, privacy…)… but as Bjorkman noted, I’m asking several months before anyone will really be paying attention. I have high expectations, and Bjorkman has time to meet them. In his first campaign press scrum yesterday, Bjorkman showed he may have the chops to do it.