INTERVIEW by BRAD ROLLINS
Billing himself a “Blue Collar Republican,” San Marcos resident ROB ROARK says he has what it takes to win the solidly Democratic-leaning Congressional District 35.
The industrial inspector and single father of two thinks his heartwarming biography — and outsider status – equip him well to represent the Interstate 35 corridor in Washington.
We asked Roark why he thinks he’s smarter than the nation’s best economists and businesspeople — and if he would really be different as an elected official from what we’ve got now.
San Marcos Mercury: Are you finding it tough to hold down a job while campaigning in a district that’s spread out so much?
Rob Roark: What I’m doing now is basically what I’m going to be doing for the next two years. No different. If I get elected, I am going to be going at this pace for the next two years. I don’t usually take vacations, anyway. I don’t take time off. It’s part of my work ethic. It’s part of being a servant.
Mercury: I know you from here in San Marcos where it seems like you started appearing at city council meetings, and in public life, maybe three or four years ago. Why U.S. Congress? Why aren’t you running for mayor or city council?
Roark: If you’re going to do something, do it big. Do it where you think you could actually make the most difference. I’m trying to take a whole different approach to politics. We seem to have this expectation that you’ve got to go up this ladder, you’ve got to go up these ranks, you got to put in your dues. Once you become a politician, here is the role you play. Well, I don’t generally fit in those traditional roles and I’m trying to do this in a different way.
Mercury: How do you describe to people who you are and where you come from?
Roark: Well, for one, I am a Ron Paul Republican. My mother was a Goldwater gal back in the ‘60s. I was raised as a grassroots activist — you went out and you did things in the community to try to make it better.
I remember when I was living with my mother in Ann Arbor, Mich, we would go down and clean up at a local grocery store around the Good Will bin. I’d ask, “Mom, why are we doing this? Nobody can see this.” She said, “That’s the point. You do things because it’s the right thing to do. You help in your community. You don’t have to be seen. You don’t have to be heard but you do what’s right.” So I was always raised never to be afraid to speak up for people.
Mercury: How do you go about evaluating how to wage a grassroots campaign in a district as stretched out and diverse as CD-35? You’ve got part of two urban cores — Austin and San Antonio — and all the ground in between.
Roark: I work in New Braunfels, I live here in San Marcos so I am able to get to either end of the district within 35 to 45 minutes, depending on the traffic. What I am trying to do is to spend a little time one day in one area and a little the next day in another area.
One of the things about this district is this is a unique opportunity to really draw together both San Antonio and Austin. People [along the Interstate 35 corridor] generally are kind of looking either at Austin or they’re looking at San Antonio. I don’t think that really does a good service to New Braunfels, San Marcos, Kyle, Martindale and Lockhart. Now we actually have that opportunity to really tie these together at a federal level, to actually have someone to be an advocate for these areas. We need to have someone here that is advocating for the communities and we need to have a ground-up approach, rather than top-down from Washington.
Mercury: I’ve heard you described yourself as a blue collar Republican. What kind of work do you do?
Roark: I work for a company that makes steel piping assemblies for the gas, oil, power and nuclear power plants. I am a quality inspector. I unload trucks. I bring the materials in. I check them in. I verify metallurgy on them, verify paperwork, enter them into the system. Then I inspect them.
That’s probably one of the most important things that you would want for a person in Congress, someone that knows that you have to inspect to a specification. You know what passes and what fails. When I inspect something — if it’s going to go into nuclear power plants, it’s going to go to oil refineries — there is no gray area. It’s black or white. Either it passes or it doesn’t. When I go to Washington, if it doesn’t pass the constitutional test, I’m going to vote no.
The other side of this is that I’m working with all kinds of different people everyday — from truck drivers to engineers, to plant managers. I understand what people are going through, what hourly work is. I’m out in the sun every day. I wear steel toed boots. I wear jeans. I get dirty. But I also had 15 years in the semi conductor industry and computer chip manufacturing. I basically ran test floors to test silicon wafers and chips that went into everything from cell phones to missiles to the space shuttle.
Mercury: Was this in the Austin semiconductor industry?
Roark: Austin and San Antonio. I came to San Antonio in ’95. I transferred in from Arizona where I’d been working for a silicon manufacturer called VLSI at the time. They had their major lab there in the west side of San Antonio. Later, I helped with the transfer of the operations overseas. Like most manufacturing, they had gone overseas and both the Sony plant and the Philips-VLSI plant shut down there in the San Antonio area.
At the same time, my wife of 18 years had decided that she wanted to go in a different direction and she left me with our two children. So there were lot of changes and I was out of work — a single dad with two small kids and no family in the area. I found work in Austin and was driving every day from the west side of San Antonio. That’s how I ended up in San Marcos. It was halfway and it had good neighborhoods, good public schools and I was very happy to bring my kids here. That’s what made San Marcos my home.
The job I got in Austin [in the semiconductor industry] ended up going away after a year and a half and I was faced with the choice of either picking up and relocating one more time or staying put. I could have gone up to northern Texas or Oregon and I said, no, I have my family settled in and I didn’t want to move them again.
For a while, I had a small business with vending machines. I’d also go out and buy storage units and sell the stuff. I even ran firework stands out here locally with the kids during holidays. But the problem with that was, on my own, it was costing me almost $1,200 a month for insurance. So in between jobs, I tried to get CHIPS (government-subsidized childrens’ health insurance) and decided that, no, this isn’t what I should do.
It’s one of the times when I realized that what people have to go through in order to get on the government programs and stay on the government programs. When you don’t have a steady paycheck, the government doesn’t understand how you could be doing all these things to make a living. That’s when I started to realize the barriers that a lot of working-class people have to get help.
Mercury: Since we’re on this subject, let me ask: Do you believe there is a role for those safety net-type of programs?
Roark: I do believe there’s a role for safety net programs but with the caveat that I believe that there should be more at the state level and not at the federal level. We can take care of people on a state and local level.
When I was in between jobs, I realized that I really had to have help for my family. I didn’t want to get on food stamps. So one of the low points for me was walking through the doors of the [Hays County Area] food bank as a single dad, realizing this is what I got to do to feed my family. So I have been involved since that point with volunteering my time at the food bank. It’s been seven years now. Every Wednesday, we feed about 150 to 200 families in Kyle in San Marcos. I realize how hard it is for people to come in to ask for those handouts. Most people do not want to do that.
I’ve seen these things from different angles. I went from making $70,000 a year to, now, making less than half that. So I have a much better understanding of these programs and the people they help from being out there.
Mercury: You kind of scored a coup by getting the Austin American-Statesman endorsement over your two challengers. Most conservatives I know wouldn’t want their endorsement or at least say they wouldn’t want their endorsement. People think of it as being a liberal editorial board. In fact, [State Senate candidate] Donna Campbell, who you support, put out a statement saying she was glad she wasn’t endorsed by the Statesman.
Roark: It’s a double-edged sword, no doubt about it. But I like the way they put it. They said, yes, even though he’s a Tea Party activist, he’s not an ideologue. They clearly think the Democratic candidate is going to win but they said here is the guy to keep the Democratic nominee on their toes.
Mercury: Does any part of you wonder if the Statesman [editorial board] endorsed what they thought would be a weaker Republican candidate because they want Lloyd Doggett to win?
Roark: The numbers are with the Democrats in this district. They have the overwhelming majority and it’s roughly 60 percent minority. One candidate has been in Congress for 20 years and hasn’t had a real job in 30 years. The other guy is in his in his 40s and wears steel toed boots to work. We will ask people, “Who do you have more in common with?”
And, really, the endorsement that is going to matter is that of the 24,000 people or so that I’m going to need in order to win come Tuesday night at seven o’clock.
Mercury: Your primary campaign has been very low budget. If you get the Republican nomination, do you think you’ll be able to raise the large amounts of money that anybody is going to need to win in November? Will you even try?
Roark: I will seek to raise large amounts of money — no question about it. One of the things is with this moving primary, it’s been very hard to raise money. The other thing is that this is the one that the Republicans kind of gave up on. They said, “We’re going to give this one to the Democrats.” I kind of think it’s like what we did [in 2010] with Jason Isaac’s race. Everyone said, “Oh, he’s not going to be able to win against Patrick Rose.” But we were able to get out there and get that momentum going for him and he won.
Mercury: Well, Patrick Rose’s seat was always a Republican seat. He was just an exceptional figure and he could raise the money to get and keep [the seat] for eight years. But this brings something else up — Do you have Rep. Isaac’s support in your race?
Roark: He is not doing any endorsements but, yes, I have worked on his campaign and he is thankful for the work that I did on his campaign. He has no problems answering questions about the work that I did for him. So that’s kind of our agreement on that right now.
Mercury: Jason Isaac definitely tapped into some Tea Party power, but I’m still having a hard time understanding how an identified Tea Party activist thinks he can win a district that is so solidly Democratic. In the early days of the movement, there may have been a fair bit of confusion about just who these people are. But I don’t know that anybody sees it as a bipartisan group now. The Tea Party is one element — maybe, currently, the most powerful element in terms of agenda-setting — of the Republican Party, isn’t it?
Roark: The Tea Party as a whole is a bipartisan group. There are some that have tended — and I think that’s more at the national level — that have tried to make this a Republican group. So it’s just a matter of who uses the label. You know, I am a Methodist. I was raised in the Nazarene Church, which is kind of a free Methodist. And you’ve got every different kind of Christian out there and they practice different ways. And you definitely know the difference when you go to a Presbyterian Church versus a Baptist Church. And even depending what part of the country I am in, or what part of the city I’m in, there’s the same creeds and the same beliefs, just different approaches. The Tea Party is kind of like that.
Mercury: What are the core issues in this race?
Roark: First and foremost, it is financial debt. It’s that we have got to have someone whose going to go up there with some backbone and say, “Enough is enough on spending because this is the future and it’s not easy. This is going to be painful, folks, but we all have to realize that we’ve all have to go through those adjustments to our budgets.” This is not about my generation. It’s about the next generations who are coming behind —
Mercury: — I understand kind of the bumper sticker arguments on national debt. But when you have all the smartest people in academia and banking and business and government tell you that it will irretrievably collapse our economy if you don’t, for example, raise the debt ceiling, do you have enough confidence in your understanding of macroeconomics to stare them down and say, “I’m still going to vote ‘no'”?
Roark: I carry this around with me. If you can take the federal budget and shrink it down to your household and, say, your household income is about $22,000 a year, we’re spending about $38,000 every year. We’re adding in $16,000 to our credit card every year. We have $142,000 in debt right now and we only make $22,000 a year, okay.
Now what’s going to cause collapse first: If we continue doing this or if we stop and try to do something now? So if the choice is continuing the madness or something else, I’d say the more reasonable risk is trying to do something now and get us back to a balance budget.
Mercury: I interrupted you when you were talking about core issues. What else is important to this district?
Roark: The other major defining issue with this race is: Do we want to have the same kind of representation in Washington that we have now? Here’s a brand new district and do we still want to have someone that’s going to go up and be a Washington insider or do we want something different?
One of the things that I want to do is to flip staffing levels on their head. When you go to Washington, you have between 16 to 18 people on your staff. The majority of the staffs for most congressmen are there in Washington with only a few people are back out in the district. I want to reverse that. I want to have the majority of people out here in the district. I want my staff out among the people reporting to me on what the people want.
I will set up help desks on the Internet where you will have a ticket number just like you do when you have technical problems. I want to know how long it takes for my staff to solve you problem. We can take that data and compile and look at what the main issues are in the district.
Right now, Congress has something like a 9 percent approval rating. Why? Because people don’t feel that anything is getting done. Why is that? We don’t have any measurements. That’s not how the private sector works and neither should Washington.
Mercury: One last thing — and from what I’ve seen about how things get done, maybe one of the most important. Would you, as a congressman, actively look to bring earmarks for transportation projects back home?
Roark: It’s always a hard question but I would go after earmarks because that that seems to be the only way. I would much rather get block grants than have earmarks for specific projects with strings attached. My preference would be to get block grants and give them to the local areas so they can decide how best that’s going to be used. But I also have to be reality-based and know that that’s not the way the system is working right now. I would not be naive enough to say, no, I’m not going to take any earmarks for the district. Because that’s the only way to get any of the projects done that we’re probably going to need to do.
[EDITOR’s NOTE: Questions and answers were edited, sometimes extensively, for clairity and cut down for space. In some cases, questions appear here reworked to include background and context that was not mentioned in the course of the interview.]