Rep. Jim Himes & Steve Obsitnik face off in District 4
CONGRESSMAN JIM HIMES is currently serving his second term in Congress and is a member of the House Committee on Financial Services.
Born in Lima, Peru in 1966 to American parents, he spent the early years of his childhood in Peru and Colombia while his father worked for the Ford Foundation and UNICEF. At the age of ten, Jim moved with his mother and sisters to the United States. After receiving his Bachelors degree from Harvard University, he received a Rhodes Scholarship which enabled him to continue his studies of Latin America at Oxford University in England. Prior to his service in Congress, he ran the New York City branch of The Enterprise Community Partners, a non-profit that addresses the challenges of urban poverty. He served as a commissioner of the Greenwich Housing Authority, ultimately chairing the board and leading it through a much-needed program of reforms. Jim went on to become an elected member of his town’s finance board. He began his professional career at Goldman Sachs & Co. During his 12-year career there, he worked extensively in Latin America and headed the bank’s telecommunications technology group. He lives in Greenwich with his wife Mary and two daughters, Emma and Linley.
STEVE OBSITNIK is the Republican nominee for Congress from Connecticut’s 4th District. A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis with a Bachelors degree in electrical engineering, Obsitnik had a five-year career in the U.S. Navy primarily serving as a Lieutenant on board a Sturgeon class nuclear attack submarine. He was awarded eight medals during deployments to the Arctic Circle, Atlantic and Mediterranean. He also served in the Pentagon with the Bureau of Naval Personnel and Submarine Squadron Six in Charleston, S.C. After completing his naval duty, he attended The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, graduating with an MBAS in finance. Over the past 20 years, he has worked in the technology industry as a business executive in both the Silicon Valley and Connecticut. Most recently, he was CEO of Quintel, a provider of wireless infrastructure to mobile operators with operations in the U.S., Europe and Asia. He has served on several advisory, corporate and government boards including the U.S. Small Business Administration National Advisory Board. As an educator, he is an adjunct professor of entrepreneurship at the Jack Welch College of Business at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield. He lives in Westport with his wife, Suzanne Tager and their two daughters.
LEDGER: In a broad sense, what is your perspective on the relationship between the U.S. and Israel?
HIMES: Israel has been and continues to be the United States’ strongest ally. Further, its history, politics, and thriving economy create a special and unbreakable bond between Americans and Israelis. The preservation of this strong bond is necessary as our countries partner to face unprecedented challenges in the region. I have visited Israel repeatedly and met with the President, Prime Minister, and
other senior government officials.
U.S.-Israel security cooperation and security assistance have never been greater. Just last week, the U.S. military and the Israel Defense Forces began the largest ever joint anti-missile exercise. I will continue to support measures which strengthen our nation’s relationship with this critical partner and help it prosper in peace and security. As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said during a recent trip to the White House, “Americans know that Israel and the United States share common values, that we defend common interests, that we face common enemies. … We are you, and you are us. We’re together.”
OBSITNIK: My perspective on Israel and the Middle East has been a gentle sunrise of many decades now. When I first moved to Connecticut as a boy in the sixth grade I don’t think I knew what a Jewish person was. I was born Catholic and when I was in sixth grade we moved to Connecticut. There were many Jewish people in the area we lived in and many of my friends were Jewish. I started going to Shabbat dinners at their homes and would see the energy and passion with which they were debating about the Middle East. So, I learned very early on about the importance of Israel. Later, having served in the Navy in that region I gained an understanding of what was going on militarily and geopolitically. After the Navy, I went to Wharton and met a beautiful girl there and she was Jewish. We were married by a rabbi; we have two girls now and we attend services in Norwalk at Temple Shalom. Commercially, I’ve done a lot of work with people in Israel. I’ve watched closely Technion and Weizman and all the wonderful technology that’s come out of Israel. I’ve read, of course, [the book] “Start-up Nation” and feel like I’ve lived a good part of it. So, my perspective is intertwined by a personal connection to Israel as well as a commercial one.
As for the United States, our national interests are to ensure the security of the American people, ensure our ability to conduct commerce in a safe manner around the world and extend our partnerships with countries that are important to those objectives. We share with Israel a free market system and a democratic system. They share our economic and government principles. So the security of Israel is and will always be an important part of America’s national security. For six decades the state of Israel has been surrounded by forces that want to destroy her, and they’ve never asked for American lives, they’ve only asked for weapons and money, and most of the money has been paid back. For of all those reasons, I side with Israel from a foreign policy standpoint.
Congressman Himes was one of the 54 congressmen to sign the “Gaza 54” letter effectively asserting that Israel was in a collective punishment of the people of Gaza. I was one of the first to issue a statement condemning the letter. Congressman Himes never retracted his words and, while he took the time to sign the “Gaza 54” letter, he never took time to write a letter when President Obama said that the 1967 lines may have to be reviewed, and he never wrote a letter to the President when Mohammed Morsi said we may have to rethink the Camp David accords. So, I am a vocal supporter of Israel and I always will be. Seventy-seven percent of the land that was promised Israel in the Palestine mandate has already been given up — and we’re still talking about land for peace.
LEDGER: Prime Minister Netanyahu has made it clear that he believes the time to take military action to curtail Iran’s nuclear program is drawing very near. Would you support that course of action? Do you believe the economic sanctions have worked, or are working?
HIMES: Iran is the single biggest strategic security threat that we face today. The President of the United States has been very clear that the United States will not permit Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon and that it will intervene militarily if necessary to prevent that and I agree with that. An Iran with a nuclear device is truly a catastrophe for world security, including our own.
I have been a loud and persistent voice in Congress calling for a tightening of sanctions and the sanctions are having a severe effect on the Iranian economy including devaluation of their currency, shortages of essential commodities, and civil unrest. We have seen that Iran’s economy is badly damaged, but our ultimate goal is to bring the regime to its knees. We need to continue to tighten the screws as much as we can. Towards that end, I authored language that is part of our most recent sanction order that has been signed into law. My amendment prevents members of the Revolutionary Guard from getting visas to travel here to the United States. Prior to my amendment, these individuals were decrying the Great Satan in Tehran but then coming to Miami Beach for health care or for a vacation. We’ve put an end to this practice. But again, if sanctions fail and if Iran is close to developing a nuclear device, all options must be on the table, including military intervention.
OBSITNIK: Obviously, all of us want to avoid war at all costs. Have economic sanctions worked? I’m not on the ground, so I can’t really say. I’ve seen the fluctuation of their currency; I’ve read where they’ve had some impact. But I also know that the top 20 oil trading companies are still trading oil with them — so I’m not sure it’s having an impact. Is it having the desired affect? No, because we know they’re still pursuing nuclear weapons – and I think we’ve seen what long term sanctions and diplomatic discussions have gotten us with North Korea. When you have a regime whose mission it is to obtain a nuclear weapon and then to transport those technologies around the world, like North Korea has, then you have to realize that at some point diplomacy and sanctions don’t take it all the way. For those reasons, I support Benjamin Netanyahu who says that we need to define a red line. I’d urge the President to define that line with Israel because I wouldn’t want them making decisions unilaterally which would draw us in. We ought be putting together a joint strategy, as opposed to Israel putting together a strategy by themselves. So, I would be working very closely with the Israelis to define what that red line would be.
LEDGER: Any thoughts on how the U.S. might be instrumental in helping to restart the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians?
HIMES: The realization of a two-state solution is an opportunity for Israel, America and the world. In this success we would enshrine Israel’s security, democracy and Jewish character. Bold U.S. leadership will be required to help the parties move forward from their current stalemate. I would like to see the President appoint a Special Envoy for Middle East Peace, perhaps former President Bill Clinton, to jump start discussions. Further, the President must go early in his next term to Jerusalem to lay out a path toward a negotiated and agreed upon two-state resolution. Kicking the can down the road means putting Israel’s security at risk. That is not an option. I support all efforts to make the hostility Israel faces a thing of the past and share the vision of two states living side by side in peace.
OBSITNIK: In all these issues you have to keep the conversation going. You never know when the breakthrough is going to happen.
I think, right now, they haven’t invested in the relationship on either side to get them together in the way that President Clinton with Arafat and Ehud Barak at Camp David and, in many ways, George H.W. Bush did as well. When you shut down dialogue that’s when people start acting independently.
LEDGER: Is there a role for the U.S. to play in the crisis in Syria?
HIMES: Many of my positions on foreign policy are informed by my belief and my agreement with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright that the United States is the indispensable nation. During my four years in Congress, I have traveled to Afghanistan, I have traveled to Israel, I have traveled to many countries. And in each of these places, I’ve sat with government leaders and have heard that our active engagement and our careful engagement is essential to good outcomes in each of those areas.
Syria has a murderous dictator who has killed thousands of his own people and militarized a region that borders Lebanon and Israel and is a conduit for Iranian arms to go into Lebanon and to fund Hezbollah. I am not one bit confused about what we must do in Syria.
First, we must continue to work with the international community to put pressure on the murderous regime of Bashir Assad so that he comes to understand that he has no choice but to step down. Second, I would encourage that we continue to provide non-lethal aid to the rebels, and I say non-lethal very deliberately. There are those who advocate putting heavy weapons like artillery or shoulder-fired anti-aircraft weaponry into the hands of people who are operating within striking distance of the border with Israel. I do not agree with that point of view. Third, we should work with the international community to impose a no-fly zone over Syria. We must take away the one thing that is maintaining Assad in power right now – his ability to intimidate the rebels with his air force.
OBSITNIK: We know that Assad is a tyrannical ruler and has caused upwards of 30,000 deaths in his country. The impact of that is a destabilizing factor in the region – we’ve seen how it’s spilled over to Turkey and Lebanon. We also know that Iran is kind of the exporter of the arms that have fueled Assad’s regime. The President really has to make it clear what our policy and interests are in Syria, other than we don’t want people to die. What would the mission be and what resources would we allocate there? Syria’s future has profound implications in terms of the impact on the Middle East. It would either embolden Iran and Hezbollah or it will not. I’ve been on the front lines before and I’ve been privy to intelligence. I’ve known what’s going on, and when you’re in that environment you’re confident in your actions based on the mission. But right now I’m sitting in the bleachers, reading information sifted through by the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. I don’t have the briefing to know what we should do. I still don’t have a clear understanding of who the Syrian resistance is and what they’re fighting for; and I don’t want to create another power vacuum like we see in Egypt or Libya for that matter, where we really don’t know who’ll be coming afterwards. Of course, as far Assad goes, it can’t get much worse.