"Self-absorbed, egomaniacal"

Eric Cantor's challenger, Wayne Powell, speaks with Salon

Published September 15, 2012 12:00PM (EDT)

Wayne Powell has a daunting task. A lawyer, businessman and 30-year Army intelligence vet, Powell is trying to take down one of the biggest bucks in the Republican Party in his first bid for elected office: Rep. Eric Cantor. Cantor's 7th Congressional District is conservative, but polling has convinced Powell that Cantor is vulnerable. "The odds have been against me since the day I was born," says Powell, who grew up in Richmond. He's also got legendary and colorful Democratic strategist Mudcat Saunders on his team, which should scare any opponent. Powell tells Salon that Cantor is too beholden to corporate interests and too "self-absobed" to care about average folks. Powell says he thinks he'll convince voters he's the right guy after an upcoming debate. This conversation has been edited for conciseness.

Why are you running?

I’m one to take charge and do things myself and that’s why I’m in the race. I love my country, we've got problems and Mr. Cantor has caused a lot of them. And I want to defeat him and replace him. After the meltdown of 2008, which has cost me a lot, personally, I decided that someone needs to stand up and face this man, who basically represents the greediest amongst us, and not the people of the 7th District. And that’s why [I'm doing] what [I'm doing].

Why do you think you can win?

Well, first of all, I know that I’m right. I know that’s not enough. But also, he’s vulnerable. There have been several polls that show that he’s vulnerable … And I don’t think I’m a generic candidate, both with my military service and legal as well as professional business experience. You know, I’ve been a small businessman. I want to support small business. His idea of supporting small businesses are the small business on Wall Street, some of which have led to the economic meltdown of 2008. My idea of a small business is a Mom and Pop business that needs help and isn’t getting help, that’s over-regulated. And the big businesses, with multi-million bonuses that people don’t deserve, they’re ones that don’t need helping. But they’re the ones whose payroll he’s on. He’s not on the payroll of the people.

He’s a big spender and big borrower. He’s not a conservative economically speaking. He has no legislative history, except to try to expose people to be exploited by greediest and most powerful on Wall Street, and that’s a fact.

It’s a conservative district, and in your ad, you joke that you’re a Democrat who might be the right kind of Republican for the district’s voters -- where do you break with President Obama or congressional Democrats?

Well, first of all, I really don’t like labels, though I’m a Democrat, and I don’t back down from that. I don’t really know who traditional Democrats are, but I will simply say that I am a fiscal conservative and that I also believe in economic fairness. And that’s not what’s been going on for the last 30 years, particularly in the last 12 with Eric Cantor representing this district. And I am for social justice. So that means we need to protect the rights of all -- gay people, as well as women. And how these so-called fiscal conservatives on one hand want to deregulate Wall Street while at the same time trying to take away women’s rights, I think that’s crazy.

At the same time, I realize we need to cut spending. So I guess I would say the difference between me and a lot of stereotypically Democratic people is that I think we need to look at the entire budget and cut where we need to cut, change the rules to preserve Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid. We don’t have to limit benefits, but we can modify them to save money. For example, Medicare Part D -- Eric Cantor helped pass that -- did not allow the federal government to negotiate for drug prices. Well, the pharmaceutical industry gave $620,000 to his campaign. Obviously, he’s on the pharmaceutical payroll, not the payroll of the people who need Medicare Part D.

We need to reform the tax code, not necessarily to raise taxes, although I do think that people who are blessed with more money need to pay their fare share, and I’m one of them.

Have you gotten much attention or money from national Democrats and progressives?

I don’t take secret money. I [don't] send my staffers out to start Super PACs. I’m dead set against Citizens United. It is wrong. It is a wrong decision and it’s wrong for our country and wrong for our political system. It invites our political system to be taken over by corporate interests. By the greediest interests, by a plutocracy. We must fight it. And the best way to fight it is through the ballot box.

So I would say I’ve received a lot of both. And as far as being an untraditional Democrat, I think we need more nontraditional candidates. And we still have fundraising to do, and hopefully those people will be involved in that. But what really makes me happy is that I’ve received support from places [where] people told me I’d never receive support, including my home neighborhood, which is very conservative. Look, people in this country are not red or blue, they’re red, [white,] and blue. I know that’s a very trite or overused metaphor, but that’s true. And by the way, I don’t want to make this a career like Mr. Cantor has. If I lose, I have a job. If he loses ...?

He’s built this so-called empire that he wants to use to propel himself to the speakership and maybe even higher, but he doesn’t care about his district. Just look at what he did on disaster funding about the earthquake last year. He has a totally self-absorbed, egomaniacal approach to everything. And it’s all about him. I think his approach to politics was summed up by what he [wrote] in his yearbook when he was 18 years old -- “I want what I want when I want it” -- that’s what he wrote. That’s amazing. What kind of a credo, what kind of a value system, does that reflect?

Has he agreed to debate you?

For 10 years, Mr. Cantor refused to debate any of his opponents. I absolutely think that’s an un-American approach to take. When I’m in Congress, I never refuse to debate anybody. The people have a right to know. I mean, the House of Representatives, as it’s described in the Constitution was the representative body that was supposed to be closest to the people. That’s why there’s an election every two years. We’ve got to expose ourselves to the people. He does not.

People need to see who their representative is, who he really is. And who the man who wants to take his place is. And I think when they see that, I think the election will be over, and I think I’ll win.

By Alex Seitz-Wald

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2012 Elections Eric Cantor Virginia Wayne Powell