Politics

The dude running for Congress: An interview with Tommy Sowers, Democratic candidate for Missouri’s 8th district

Alex Pappas Political Reporter

Tommy Sowers is a man’s man, a 34-year-old unmarried dude who served in Iraq and Kosovo and whose frat brother from Duke is running his congressional campaign.

Challenging a seven-term incumbent in southeast Missouri, the former Green Beret just completed a 28-day “boots on the ground” tour of every county in his rural district, mostly shunning hotels and crashing at voters’ houses instead. He worked a different job every day, from frying chicken to working in a dairy to tending bar to helping out at company that manufactures ball caps.

The ever-energetic military man — who also has taught politics to West Point cadets — said during an interview at a Washington, D.C., coffee shop that the four-week exploration of his home turf was “exhilarating.”

Sowers says he “didn’t get into this business to be like every other politician,” and that certainly rings true — considering that he’s running as a Democrat in a district that voted 63 percent for John McCain for president in 2008 and is the hometown of conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh.

But Sowers is not being written off. Democrats are enthused that a serious candidate with serious financial backing has emerged to take on Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, the Republican officeholder who took over the seat from her congressman husband in 1996 when he died of cancer. His campaign manager Jonathan Feifs, and fellow Kappa Alpha Order brother, said they’ve raised money from all 50 states, as Sowers’s national profile has been enhanced with the endorsements of former Sen. Bob Kerrey and Gen. Wesley Clark.

The Democratic Campaign Congressional Committee in January listed Sowers as one of 26 “races to watch” in 2010. Long-time Democrat Paul Begala wrote “this reddest of districts has a realistic chance of turning blue, and the reason is former Green Beret Tommy Sowers.”

During the age of Tea Parties, where the resentment of doing business as usual in Washington is high, Sowers appears to be running more on the anti-incumbent party ticket than the Democratic ticket. “I go up to a guy sitting in a coffee shop, and I introduce myself, ‘I’m Tommy Sowers and I’m a veteran running for Congress. And the guy looks up at me and says, ‘Are you running for re-election?’ And I said ‘No, I’m the challenger.’ He said, ‘That’s good, you got my vote. This year if you’re in, you’re out.’”

Visitors to his Web site are hard-pressed to find any mention of his Democratic affiliation. Sowers — who says he supports health-care reform but is waiting more details before making a final decision on the president’s bill — did not tout the party of Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi when asked about his party label, instead simply responding: “To me, I’m many things.”

“I’m a native [of the district], I’m a soldier, I’m an educator, and I feel very passionately about specific issues and that’s what I want people to find out first. And I was raised in a family that voted for the person instead of the party, and I think most people in southeast Missouri feel the same way,” he said.

“I think people are sick of the sort of Washington game where one party wins and another party loses and the people — the working people — lose in that process,” Sowers added.

He said voters in his district — who voted for Bill Clinton and George W. Bush and who have a Democratic governor — “go back and forth” and elect officials from both parties. He said 57% of the county officials in the district are Democrats.

“This is a district that really cares passionately about kicking the tires, getting a sense of who the person is and voting their conscience instead of just simply party,” he said. “What I can tell you is this: The people I spoke with in the 8th Congressional District are ready for new blood in D.C. And it’s party neutral. They’ve seen Republican and Democrats … sort of leave rural America behind.”

Though Sowers said he first thought about running for Congress while deployed in Iraq, he’s running a race “focused specifically on southeast Missouri” and those people are focused on the economy, he said. His district is the 10th-poorest in the country, but Sowers described it as a scenic, small-town area where there’s no commute to work and property taxes are low. Still some counties have even seen their population halved in the last 30 years, he said, as many of those who grow up there inevitably leave for jobs elsewhere.

His district of 70,000 veterans is “where the armed forces come from” and is still very in tune with what’s going on overseas. “I’m getting a lot more questions on Afghanistan in terms of, what’s our mission there. Because people see a lot of money and a lot of blood and their family members going back over and over and over again and they want to know that there is an end stage. They want to know that this just isn’t an open ended commitment.”

“Is it in our strategic interest? Are we funding this the correct way? Do we really want to train and fund 400,000 Afghan army and police and fund a force that is not financially sustainable for the long-term? These are questions Congress needs to be asking,” he said.

The Iraq War veteran — who was there for the country’s first Democratic election — wouldn’t say, even when pressed, whether the United States should’ve fought the war in the first place: “As a military guy, you don’t have positions. I mean you’re apolitical.”

The candidate, who has a full-time campaign staff of five plus other consultants, said he’s “all in” for winning the race. “I took a 100 percent pay cut to do this. I left the military after 11 years to do this. I was 8 and half years away from a full pension and retirement.”

“We’ve gone from me to a pretty rapidly growing organization with $400,000 in revenue and a number of employees and advisors,” he said of the campaign. “We’ve scaled up pretty quick.”

Though he called the connections to newly installed Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown “coincidental,” Sowers’s Dodge Ram 1500 is an integral part of the campaign, he said.

“So you know, in a climate where a guy in a truck seems do well against entrenched power, I’m a guy in a truck that’s wrapped like a NASCAR truck with a dog, working my tail off for every vote.”