Tom O'Halleran served in the Arizona Legislature as a Republican, but he's jumped to the Democratic Party as he seeks the chance to replace Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick in Arizona's Congressional District 1. O'Halleran talked to Zona Politics with Jim Nintzel last week. This is a condensed and edited transcript. You can watch the whole thing at ZonaPolitics.com.
You served as a Republican in the Arizona Legislature, but now you're running as a Democrat for Congress. Why?
Well, my values haven't changed much. I worked in a bipartisan process down there all the time. I was concerned with issues like education and health care and I just feel that the direction that the party has taken is the wrong direction. So I feel that the Democratic Party, as far as those types of core issues for the American public—and for our state—is where I need to be.
Why did you decide you wanted to run for Congress?
I thought in 2008 that I was done with politics. I'd lost a primary and I said, "Okay, my time's done." And then Ann Kirkpatrick decided to run for the U.S. Senate, the opportunity came along and people started asking me to run, and I made a decision after a couple months and discussion with family. I have three grandchildren and three adult children. I want a better country for them. I want something where people are going to solve problems instead of create problems, and I come from a business background where people sit down and look at a problem and say, "We have to solve that or we might go out of business." I don't think that's done enough in government, today, especially not in Congress. So we have to find a way to work together. This is a great country, in spite of what some people want to say.
Some of that was what President Barack Obama said in his State of the Union speech. What was your impression of the president's State of the Union?
Not only did he say it, but Gov. Nikki Hayley said it. We need to find a way to have a positive influence on the issues facing America. We need to do it in a way that is collaborative. We can't give up on everything, but you have to compromise in Congress to make sure that you move our country further along in its greatness. I thought his speech overall was good. I think it's the type of message that we as leaders in the country need to give. You can't continue to tear down the country and say "Everything's bad. We're worse than China." We aren't worse than any of these countries. We have a better economy than anybody in the world. The president was right about that. We can do better, though. We're coming out of a recession that cost $5 trillion in wealth. This is not a normal recession. You're not going to automatically flow into what we used to have.
One of the big debates in recent weeks has been about gun violence, and what should be done about background checks, for example. The president had some executive actions that he took. What did you think of the president's decision to go with these executive actions?
I don't like executive actions in general, but there's a point in time in life when you have to make decisions, and Congress has failed to address the violence in America. Thirty-thousand people killed through guns. Twenty-thousand by accident. or suicide. Another 10,000-plus killed by murders on our streets, and there are other mechanisms that cause death, too. It's people who are out there making decisions that are irrational, and so I agree that the people who shouldn't have guns shouldn't have guns, and the only way we can find that out is through a background check. And if we don't want terrorists to have guns when they come into our country, then we have to have background checks online. If we're really going to fight terrorism, then we have to fight it across the entire spectrum, not a couple of different spectrums. And if we have a violence problem, which we do—I'm a former homicide investigator in the City of Chicago. I've seen violence on the streets of our cities for far too long, and in our country for far too long. I've been with people as they died from gun violence, and from stabbings or whatever, and we need to clearly study why this is occurring in our country, and do something about it. And I believe one of the steps is to make sure guns are in the hands of the right people. People talk about, "Well it's not going to stop all these mass murders." Nothing is going to stop murders when we don't have a mental healthcare system that's appropriately funded and get into some of these issues. I believe it's a step in the right direction, but I wish that it would have been Congress that did it and not an executive action.
Let's talk about the immigration issue. Obama also took executive actions on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and undocumented parents. Did you think that was an appropriate step to take?
Again, this is why I'm running. Congress has refused to step to the plate. You take a look at Congress today. Almost two years, now, there's been a Senate passed out a comprehensive bill on immigration, and we are still having a discussion politically of securing our borders That bill would have taken care of it—taken care of the visa system and people coming in and overstaying their visas. That bill would have started the path to taking care of that problem. Dealing with the 11 million, 15 million, however many millions of people are in our country illegally, that bill would have dealt with it. Instead, we're in a political discussion instead of a discussion on the reality of securing our borders and making our country safer.
Would you support a path to citizenship for folks who are now undocumented in this country?
If it's a path that includes background checks, that you can't be a convicted felon, that you have to pay your back taxes. That bill had those types of things in there, and that you've had to assimilate into our society, and that means language also.
The Obama administration is now doing a lot of roundups of the Central American asylum-seekers who have entered the country. Your thoughts on steps the administration is taking.
Right now, without enforcement, we have laws on our books. You know, I don't like to call them roundups. If you're caught, and you're here illegally, then we need to take action, and that's why we have a court system. That's why they go through a judicial hearing process It's not a round-up and ... if those people want a hearing, they can have a hearing. But, again, these are our partners within the continent. We have to find a way to deal with our neighboring countries.
The concern is there's so much violence back in Central America and concern for their lives if they get sent back.
There's violence all over the world today, very sadly, and so we have to make sure that the people coming into this country are not going to do harm to our citizens but we also have a history as a great country to open our arms up to people in need.