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Senator-Elect Mark Kelly Aims To Bring Innovation To Congress

By Steve Goldstein
Published: Tuesday, November 17, 2020 - 1:01pm
Updated: Wednesday, November 18, 2020 - 1:37pm

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STEVE GOLDSTEIN: U.S. Senator-elect Mark Kelly helped make Arizona history when he defeated incumbent Sen. Martha McSally this month. Kelly joins Sen. Kyrsten Sinema in giving the state its first tandem of Democratic senators in nearly seven decades. Kelly ran as a candidate who wasn't going to be influenced by partisanship — that he would go to Washington to serve the interests of Arizona and science and would be independent. Now Kelly has the chance to put those themes to work as he's expected to be sworn in at least a month ahead of his fellow senators. I spoke earlier with Senator-elect Kelly and asked him as the cases of COVID-19 spike again, what he would do to help forge a plan to fight the virus.

MARK KELLY: Well, it's not dismissing the science, listening to the public health professionals, providing good examples of wearing a mask, social distancing, washing our hands — those recommendations that we receive from the [Centers of Disease Control and Prevention] CDC and the [National Institutes of Health] NIH for months now. And then it's also clear that we need COVID relief. We've got 440,000 individuals, many of them have families who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own, who are trying to get by on $240 a week of unemployment income benefits. And the United States Senate has not acted in months on this in a way that would provide that relief. And I hope after being seated in December that that will change.

mark kelly
Mark Kelly for Senate
Mark Kelly

GOLDSTEIN: So you approached the campaign in a way that a lot of people saw as nonpartisan, maybe bipartisan, even in a sense. Is that something you can bring to the table on the pandemic situation? Because as you mentioned, there have been a lot of people who listen to the science, a lot of people who haven't. In your eyes, has that been too much of a political football as opposed to actually taking care of what needs to get done?

KELLY: Well, it shouldn't be. It shouldn't be political. I mean, science isn't political. And I'm somebody that believes in science and data and facts. And I don't believe in partisanship. I was a registered independent here in Arizona longer than I've been a registered Democrat, and I feel that the problems that we're facing as a country are generally really hard to solve. And the only way we're going to solve them is by working together. That's why over the last couple weeks since the election, I've been reaching out to folks across the aisle just to introduce myself and, and say that I look forward to working with them on issues that we can find common ground on.

GOLDSTEIN: Well, on that issue, you'll be taking a seat that Sen. John McCain held for a lot of years, and you brought him up — a lot of people bring him up as someone who yes, he was a dyed in the wool Republican, no question. But on certain issues, he was willing to cross the aisle. How important for you do you think that is in taking that seat to try to follow along those same footsteps?

KELLY: First of all, I think that's how everybody should be. You know, looking for those opportunities and not being beholden to a political party or a big corporation. If we had 535 members of the U.S. Congress that were willing to work together, our country would be in such a better place. And John McCain was one of my heroes when I was a young pilot in the U.S. Navy. He was the model of how you handle an impossible situation and later got to call him a friend. That's kind of rare. So I would and I plan to serve the way he did. And Sen. McCain and I didn't agree on everything, but when it really mattered and it was in the best interest of Arizona and our country, he was willing to work across the aisle to get things done.

GOLDSTEIN: This was your first time campaigning. And U.S. Senate is a huge sort of campaign situation. And you were getting questions, "How do you feel about the filibuster?" You're being put in ads where you —  you, in fact, Mark Kelly are Nancy Pelosi — I don't know if you knew that, but that's the way the ads seem to portray it. So when you go into this and you have a campaign like this, is it something where as a, someone who wants to accomplish things, do you just sort of shake off the campaign and say, "OK, now it's time to get down to business?"

KELLY: Absolutely. That's exactly what you do. That's, that's the campaign. Now, the work starts. Now we've got to focus on these issues. A little bit of a short timeline here. You know, I'm likely to get sworn in this December. I spoke to Sen. McSally about this is as a short transition period. And yeah, you're right. I mean, this is now about, it's about doing the work. And the campaign is something that — that's behind us.

GOLDSTEIN: What was the campaign like for you? I mean, you're someone who, having been an astronaut, you know a lot about stamina, you know a lot about doing a complicated job. How did the campaign compare to what your expectations were and how it turned out in terms of, of what you had to bring every day and what people, frankly, were asking you about, were telling you about, the ads you saw — those sorts of things?

KELLY: I expected if we, if we worked hard and had a positive message and tried to keep the campaign about the issues and try to keep the partisanship and the negativity out of it — I expected to have a chance at winning a tough election. I also found it very similar to my previous job. I mean, this surprises people, but it's about the same period of time. Hard to do. You've got to pay attention to the details. There's little risk along the way — it's a different kind of risk. But it's a lot like training for a space shuttle flight. There's a countdown to a certain day. Instead of launching in the rocket ship — I don't know if any of the listeners today saw there was a SpaceX launch this week. Very successful. But running the campaign is kind of like that because it comes down to one day — the election day.

GOLDSTEIN: A lot of people go to Washington because they do have legitimate goals of wanting to improve things however they, in fact, see it. And then some of them end up going for a long time. Is this one of those things where you could see this being a longer term commitment for you? Are you going to be able to keep the Mark Kelly standards as opposed to falling into the Washington trap that cynics will bring up?

KELLY: Well, hey, I hope so. When my wife, Gabby, served in Congress, you know, she was there for two-and-a-half terms for the entire time. She worked incredibly hard. She got things done. She did it in a bipartisan way. And I hope to be able to look back and say, I did the same thing.

Mark Kelly and Gabrielle Giffords
Mark Kelly and Gabrielle Giffords in Phoenix in 2016.

GOLDSTEIN: If I may, forgive me. But since you mentioned former Rep. Giffords, who obviously is a beacon of hope and strength for a lot of people around the country and the world, how did she feel ultimately when you won? Was this sort of a triumph for the whole family in a way?

KELLY: Well, Gabby's very positive. Been doing this longer than I have. Offered me some great advice along the way. And, you know, she's very optimistic. So she was counting on us winning this election.

GOLDSTEIN: In your previous career, as an astronaut, in a lot of ways — I mean, that was, when we think back to the build up to the space race in the '60s. And this was something where astronauts were certainly seen as heroes, but there was also seen as something that was a nonpartisan kind of thing. Do you think the country needs something like that again? Do we need some really big thing to shoot for in order to get back to making it a less partisan way?

KELLY: Hey, I think whenever we're pushing the boundaries in a bold, bold way, especially with new technology, with innovation, with invention — it's great for our country. And we are so good at it compared to other nations. I mean, we're the best in the world at innovating and inventing. And I hope we can find other areas to be bold. Certainly improving our infrastructure is one we can do right now in a bipartisan way. Republicans and Democrats, independents all realize that we have aging and failing infrastructure in our country. I was on a call just talking about rural broadband in northern Arizona on the Navajo Nation, which is a big problem. And there are technologies that can be brought to address this issue. And I think that's true for so many issues. I hope that I can benefit the United States Senate with my background as an astronaut, as a combat veteran, as an engineer — and bring some of these technologies to bear on some of these problems we face.

GOLDSTEIN: Mark Kelly is U.S. Senator-elect from Arizona. Senator-elect, congratulations again. Thanks for the time.

KELLY: Thank you, Steve.

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