TIME Interview: Georgia Senate Candidate Michelle Nunn

12 minute read

In this week’s print edition of TIME, I have a story about Michelle Nunn, who is running to take retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss’ Senate seat in Georgia. Nunn is one of five women that Democrats are pinning their hopes on to win the South—not exactly a Democratic stronghold since the Civil Rights era. She has name recognition—her father Sam Nunn is a much beloved former Senator—and bipartisan bonafides thanks to her work as CEO of the Point of Light Foundation, a charity near and dear to another political patriarch, George H. W. Bush.

A couple weeks ago, I spent a day following Nunn across Georgia. At an Austin’s Steakhouse in Valdosta, Ga., Nunn sat down with me to talk moderation in a time of hyper-partisanship, the challenges of running as a mother of young children and whether she’d rather have Barack or Michelle Obama stump for her.

Here are excerpts from the interview:

Q. What do you make of the debt ceiling shenanigans of the past two years?

We cannot fool around with defaulting. It’s part of what’s created the uncertainty that we know, at least economically, the threats of shutting down, the threats of default. Business needs certainty in order to invest and it’s important that our leaders act responsibly around this issue.

Q. What did you make of the House Republican’s last attempt to tie debt ceiling to restoring the sequester cuts to veteran pensions?

What I would say is we need to, as much possible, ask our leaders to act without brinksmanship or gamesmanship around these issues. Everybody knows that we can’t afford to default and we should focus on that issue. We also should restore the pensions. But I think that we need more maturity in our leadership and more focus on the national interests versus the political interests.

Q. So you’re against the sequester?

As people have said repeatedly, sequestration is the absolute wrong way of making the cuts. Nobody in business would cut across the board, they would cut strategically. And we are going to have to make difficult cuts but we are not going to do it effectively when we do it through sequestration which everybody adopted only because it was such a preposterous thing that they would never allow it to happen.

Q. But you do talk about the problems of long-term debt, that is one of your central campaign themes. How would you go about cutting debt? Do you support Simpson Bowles? Is there a plan out there that you see that you like?

I think Simpson Bowles was a good step in the right direction. None of this can be done unilaterally. It has to be done in concert. It has to be done in a bipartisan way. It has to be done with trusting leaders who are also willing to speak with courage and conviction about the necessity of making hard choices and of living within the constraints of our resources and done in a holistic way because it’s going to take a holistic approach.

Q. But debt is not that much of an issue any more in Washington, maybe it still is on the campaign trail. But Democrats are actually talking about more stimulus spending, infrastructure investments, because the economy can’t afford more austerity at this point.

I’m not talking about short-term deficit reduction, I’m talking about long-term debt. And I think those are distinguishable things. And so when we’re talking about pro-growth policies in order to invest to ensure that our economy is growing that’s a part of the equation in dealing with long-term debt. So I think that we often in the political discourse conflate those things in a way that lead us to make short-sighted decisions like sequestration.

Q. Where do you stand on the Keystone pipeline?

I have studied it and I do believe it’s something we should move forward with based upon the practical economic imperatives, energy independence and also that many of the environmental concerns have been addressed.

Q. Who would you rather have stump for you, Barack or Michelle Obama?

I would say that I am focused not so much on getting others to stump for me as I am on getting Georgians to stump for me right now, and talking to the voters of Georgia myself directly. And then getting people that are from Georgia demonstrate their willingness to come out. I’ve worked with President Obama, Michelle Obama. I’ve had the opportunity to work with President Bush and Barbara Bush, and it would be a hard choice to say which of the Presidents and First Ladies that I have worked with that I would have most like stump for me.

Q. So it’s more Bush v. Obama?

Well, I’ve just had the privilege of working with Presidents across the aisle. That have embraced service and volunteerism and found common ground. It’s something that I believe that our presidents have done on certain issues, especially around volunteer service that is admirable and that we need more of.

Q. Some of your fellow southern candidates have run away from Obama. They didn’t want to be seen with him. Do you have a fear of being seen with unpopular President?

I ultimately think that people make choices based on individual candidates. As I said I’ve had the real privilege and opportunity to work in different ways with the Presidents over the last several decades and I have an enormous amount of respect for all of our Presidents for the public service that they do and the leadership that they provide our country.

Q. How do you balance appealing to younger progressive voters and older more conservative voters? Because those are two very different constituencies that you’re going for?

You know I think that’s true but at the same time, there’s a lot of common ground. Like, when I go around the table whether it’s young people or older people they still say jobs is their number one priority. They still believe that education, no matter what generation they’re from, is key to our future. There is a lot that binds generations cross Georgia and share a commitment to our future. I certainly think that we are going to be trying to appeal and engage folks through out the state and across the generations including really mobilizing and tapping into idealism and inspiration of young people and the experience and wisdom of seniors.

Q. Georgia’s demographics are clearly changing but are they going to be enough for your candidacy?

Georgia’s demographics are changing and we have to both mobilize the base and attract some independent and Republican voters. And I think we can do both and I’m having a good indication already that we can and will attract folks on both sides of the aisle for my candidacy.

Q. How helpful has your dad’s name recognition been to this race and could you have run without it?

It’s impossible to separate who I am from my parents in the same time that it is for all of us. I’m very grateful for his support. It’s an enormous lift to have his advice. He’s been great councilor for all of my life, certainly my professional life as well as my growing up. I’ll continue to look to his guidance and can’t think of a better person to give counsel based on the enormous respect that he has from so many across the state. It is absolutely a wonderful thing to have his partnership and to have him as my father.

Q. Do you ever get sexist question or feel any sexism as a female candidate?

You know, I have not really. I believe that actually a lot of people are excited about having a woman candidate. I talk to a lot of women and men who look to the Senate and see for instance that it was the women that helped resolve the federal shut down that they believe that it’s a good thing to have a diverse set of leaders in our congressional body.

Q. They say women are often more difficult to convince to run. Was it difficult to convince you to run?

You know, I’m not sure that I could discriminate based on gender. But will say that I spent a good bit of time thinking about it. It’s a very big decision for someone with a 9 and an 11 year old and a career that I loved. I definitely wanted to make sure that I believed that I could make a difference, that I could make a contribution, that we could win in Georgia and that it was the right time for me personally.

Q. Did you speak to other women politicians in Washington like Kirsten Gillibrand and Debbie Wasserman Schultz who have young children?

I did, yeah.

Q. And what was their advice?

The main thing that they convinced me of was that it’s possible to be both a great mom and also a great public servant. And they sort of gave me all sorts of tips on how to do that, which we all have to fund our own path but they convinced me that there was a way of doing it and I think they reinforced what I believed, which is that it’s really helpful to have mothers who are keenly aware of a certain set of issues that are shared by mothers across the United States and that having their representation, having their voices, is an important part of our leadership.

Q. You are one of five Democratic women running in the South. This seems to be almost a strategy. Do you think that Democratic women have a better shot in the South than male Democrats?

There’s a great opportunity for women in the south and that’s part of the equation. But I certainly think that people vote on who they think the best candidate will be to representing their state, their interests. And I hope that’ll be me.

Q. How much do you benefit from a chaotic GOP field?

I do believe that as I look to the Republican primary it does seem to be a race to the extremes and to embracing the political dysfunction in Washington. I certainly think that the contrast is clear and that continue to be evident and potentially even to grow and the differentiation around the ideas that are there. Ultimately, I believe that Georgians are looking for more pragmatism, more collaboration, more problem solving and less extremism.

Q. One point one of your “5 Ways to Fix Washington” bars members from becoming lobbyists. You realize, that most former members who lobby aren’t technically lobbyist, right?

I’m not saying that I don’t want people in Congress to not continue to influence things for the public good. I think what I’m pointing out is that we should not have congressmen and women use the privilege and platform of the relationships and the understanding that they have through their service and apply it parochial or special interests.

Q. Another point of your “5 Ways to Fix Washington” is if Congress doesn’t pass a budget they don’t get paid, you realize Dems didn’t pass a budget for four of the last five years in order to protect Obamacare, right?

There’s blame on both asides of the equation for the failure of getting things done in Washington.

Q. So are you equally happy to run against Democratic dysfunction as you are Republican dysfunction?

I’m running against dysfunction in Washington and I’m running against the polarization and I’m running for a spirit of focus on common ground and problem solving, which I think would be helped by sending more people to Washington with those commitments also with a lens that’s outside of Washington and brings a new perspective.

Q. How hard is it to run on Obamacare?

I am running as someone who ran an organization and understands the responsibilities and the difficulties of providing health care for employees. I also believe that we need to fix what’s broken and there are clearly some things that have no worked well in the Affordable Care Act rollout and I think there’s a variety of things that we could and should do differently. I’ve been talking about some ideas that include adding a tier of coverage for more affordability for families, ensuring that we extend the tax credit for small businesses. One of the things that’s happened here in Georgia—because we did not accept Medicaid expansion—that nobody anticipated would be part of the equation is that a number of our rural hospitals are now having cuts that are really problematic. So I am running as someone who wants to fix the things that are broken in the health care system and build upon the things that are good, including ensuring that people who have preexisting conditions have access to health care, that kids up to age 26 have the opportunity to be covered by their parents. So as I’m talking to people about it, I’m talking about let’s take it out of the political lens and let’s just focus on what we would do together to fix health care and make it better and more available, more effective and more cost efficient.

More Must-Reads From TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com