Q&A: Congressman Ron Barber reminisces about university, community activism
Congressman Ron Barber answers questions from students after the University of Arizona Young Democrats meeting in the Student Union on Aug. 28, 2014. Barber is up for election and will run against Martha McSally in the 2014 general election.
Congressman Ron Barber is gearing up for his second election for Congress. In 2012, he ran against Martha McSally and won by only .8 percent, and he plans to succeed with a larger gap this year. On Friday, the congressman spoke to the University of Arizona Young Democrats, and answered questions highlighting his opinions on student loan debt, his community service and what he misses about being a Wildcat.
Daily Wildcat: One of the biggest worries that students are facing right now is student loan debt. What are you doing to make higher education more affordable?
Barber: It starts with what Congress can do, and that is to put a ceiling or a cap on the interest rates. There was a proposal in front of the congress to increase the interest rates dramatically, to about 8.5 to 9 percent, and then to allow them to increase with inflation. We capped it at about 6 percent so that was one way we could make it more affordable. … [We’re also] protecting the Pell Grants, which the Ryan budget would cut dramatically. Pell grants are essential for so many students who otherwise wouldn’t be in college, particularly from minority and low income students. … So those are two things that are federal policy that we’ve tried to get ahold of, because the Republican alternative is to privatize student loans, to let the interest rates float, to cut Pell Grants and all of those things make it much more difficult for students to get to school. … In the end, the state Legislature and the governor are key players in this. If they keep cutting the amount of money that they give to universities, they are going to keep increasing the tuition, and it’s going to fall back on students.
Are you going look to continue to lower the cap of the interest rates?
Absolutely. I think we need to keep in low, and this is where we disagree with our Republican colleagues, who really want to see it float in the so-called free market, which I think would be a disaster for students. To increase the interest rate just makes the loans obviously more expensive.
You are facing McSally again for your seat. What are your biggest challenges in this year’s election?
I think it’s about making sure we turn out voters and register new voters to get people to the polls. In a non-presidential year, we know that fewer people show up at the polls. … The other challenges though come in to how is it that we can let people know the differences between me and my opponent … so we have to raise money in order to get our message out, and to counter … a lot of misrepresentation and negative ads. … And then, making sure that people know who I am and what I represent and that I have the roots in this community that go back many many years. … I believe very much in accessibility, and that’s why I come home every weekend and make sure that I’m listening to what people have to say here. You can’t represent people unless you hear what they have to say. And my opponent … is not a particularly good listener from what we can tell so far. We have to make sure people know the differences between us.
You’ve dedicated a large portion of your life to community service. What achievement in community service are you most proud of?
I spent the majority of my life in public service working for people with developmental disabilities and their families. … My goal as I began to see what our organization looked like was to close those institutions, and I’m very proud of the fact that we closed two institutions, one in Tucson and one in Phoenix, and we took the biggest institution in the middle of the state … we brought it down from 1400 people to 100 people. … Our youngest daughter Crissi went to a preschool that was integrated with kids with disabilities that we had placed there and one of her best friends was Chad, a young boy with down syndrome. She came home one night … and she said, ‘Mommy, Daddy, I was a teacher today. I taught Chad something.’ I said, ‘What’d you teach him?’ She said, ‘I taught him how to cut with scissors.’ We were really proud. … That’s the whole point. Is that we were breaking down the barriers between typical kids and kids with disabilities, to understand that that kind of diversity is part of a rich community.
Would you would say that your community service work affects your job as a congressman?
Sure … for all of my adult life and while I was in high school and in college, I was really motivated by the [Civil Rights Movement], which I came to be an active participant in. … The Civil Rights Movement was in full tilt during that time. People we marching all across the country, and we had segregation here in Tucson. I became part of that movement; I am very proud of [how] that really influenced not only what I did in public service, but it has influence, obviously, in my work in Congress. I believe that, [for] a member of Congress, one of their strongest duties is to make sure that the people they represent have a fair chance and have a level playing field. … There’s no question that my work in public service has influenced by work in Congress. I think that this is an extension of public service.
Lastly, you graduated from the UA. What do you miss most?
My roommate and I decided that what we needed was a forum here at the university where people could have debates, where they could speak their minds, where they could have freedom of speech. So, we went to the administration of the student union at the time and we said, ‘We’d like to set up what we call the Speakers Corner.’ … The man who was in charge of the student union at the time said, ‘Oh, that’s been tried 100 times, and it’ll never work.’ He said, ‘OK, you can set up a microphone and speakers, and we’ll even help you do it, but no one is going to show up.’ Actually, he was right for a little while. … So, we staged a [fake] debate between us … on capital punishment. We were arguing about it, and people were curious and they came over and it never stopped. From then on, Speakers Corner, which was right out here on the [UA Mall] in front of the student union, was packed every single day. So, if I miss something, it’s that lively debate about an issue or issues that are really important to all of us that we have to have.