Jim Graves, Democratic challenger to Rep. Michele Bachmann: The City Pages interview

Jim Graves believes his ample business experience more than makes up for being a political newbie.
Jim Graves believes his ample business experience more than makes up for being a political newbie.

Jim Graves is coming for you, Michele Bachmann.

During an interview with City Pages, Graves -- a wildly successful businessman who created the AmericInn motel chain before founding his luxury-focused Graves Hospitality company -- suggested he probably wouldn't have launched a political career if his native 6th Congressional District were represented by somebody other than Bachmann.

But convinced that folks in his hometown of St. Cloud and throughout central Minnesota deserve better, Graves has hit the campaign trail full-speed. He took some time to chat with us about why he thinks he'll defeat the resilient Bachmann in November, what lessons he's learned as a businessman and how they apply to politics, and his legislative priorities, among other topics.

City Pages: It's been a little over a month since you tossed your hat in the ring. Is campaigning already a full-time job?

Jim Graves: It's full-time, plus. Really full-steam ahead. I typically have an interview in the morning, a meeting, talk over breakfast, then get on the phone with the press, like we're doing right now. I talk to potential backers and constituents, and meet with our staff. There's fundraisers in the evening, cocktails. I'm in business, so I'm used to working a lot of hours, but it's a pretty intense program. It's going to take a lot of energy, but that's part of my skill-set. I enjoy people -- if I didn't like people I wouldn't run.

Graves on why he's running: "It's not a stepping stone toward becoming a high-powered lobbyist. This is purely and simply, I'm going to serve."
Graves on why he's running: "It's not a stepping stone toward becoming a high-powered lobbyist. This is purely and simply, I'm going to serve."

CP: Are you still running your business? How is it different than before you decided to run?

Graves: My son runs the day-to-day. [Before], I was spending a lot of time on my hobbies, a lot of time reading and writing, with my grand kids -- those kinds of things. I had a pretty good life, pretty much traveled the world. This is a real commitment for the common good. It's not like a step up for me.

CP: You have little political experience. How do you think your experiences in the business world have prepared you for the job of congressman?

Graves: I've never served on the city council, but I've worked with people that have. My entire life, I've been an active participant. From the other side, the attributes that make a business person successful -- listening to the people, understanding their needs, finding creative and productive solutions, keeping goals in mind and your reason for being there -- it's all about serving the people. We [at Graves Hospitality] serve our customers, staff, communities -- the same things I'm going to do when I'm in Congress, every day of the week. It's not a stepping stone toward becoming a high-powered lobbyist. This is purely and simply, I'm going to serve.
CP: You've already secured the endorsement of the hospitality union Unite Here. As a business owner, what sorts of company-wide policies have you supported to make your hotels good places to work?

Graves: Our hotel workers are organized. The way we treat all our hotel workers and guests and investors is all about ethics and integrity and we all work hard together for a common goal. Graves, Marriot, the Residence Inn downtown -- talk to staff, they'll say 'they treat us like family, very, very respectfully.' They want the same things that I want, they want to get up and be treated with dignity. They also know that I want them to have good family lives and be able to support their lifestyle. Have homes, have access to health care, and they know we really care about them.

When it comes to our [labor] contracts, we sit across the table and talk. Our interests aren't mutually exclusive but mutually beneficial. The company has to make money and our employees and staff have to have a good life and good livable wages. The people who work for me and my company treat people with respect.

CP: Was your decision to run motivated primarily by a desire to hold public office or more by the desire to defeat Michele Bachmann?

Graves: Ten weeks ago, did I have any interest in being a politician? I had no thoughts of doing it. I actually got the idea watching Chris Matthews. He was saying 'where are the people in this country that are really true citizens and can fix this mess in Washington?' I was up at my lake home and they said, 'Jim, you really got to do this, the country needs a change.' And I decided, heck, I'm going to do it.

For one thing, in business, we like the truth and facts and like things to be based on reality and I don't think that's necessarily happening right now. I really do love this county and I think we deserve better than that. I see in Michele Bachmann a person who is willing to bend the facts and bend what's happening on the ground -- that doesn't relate to the district or the people. There is a way to do this civilly. I've always got things done by bringing people together. If we have a common cause and a common goal, I think the time has come to bring people together for the common good.

CP: You said you don't think Bachmann relates to the people of the 6th District. Then why do you think she's been able to win three elections to the U.S. House?

Graves: I think she probably is as good as anybody at effectively communicating with people from 30,000 feet. She has a very strong image. She's virtually a cash machine, has a lot of money, and she will this time too. She gets a message out there that isn't necessary accurate but it is effective, but she hasn't run into [a challenger] who is a business person that has created jobs, that understands how to get things done, is tenacious and street smart. She hasn't run into a business person like me before. When she talks about the economy or jobs she is going to be talking to somebody who really knows what's going on. The bottom line is we have to get things done. I think she's going to have to address the issues head on.
CP: What aspects of Congresswoman Bachmann's legislative record do you plan to highlight as you hit the campaign trail this summer and fall?

Graves: She has not been effective. Her record is nonexistent. She hasn't been the sponsor of one bill that's ever been passed, she's in the lower eight percentile of co-sponsorship of passed bills, hasn't worked to extend the Northstar Rail. The new bridge up in St. Cloud was building in spite of her, not because of her. She has a very low rating as far as being present on the floor voting. She has been an ineffective leader by all metrics, but a lot of people know that anyway.

Graves plans to focus on economic development, not divisive social issues.
Graves plans to focus on economic development, not divisive social issues.

CP: If elected, what will be some of your top legislative priorities as congressman?

Graves: My priorities will revolve around economic development. Extending the Northstar Rail, getting roadways built, stimulating the economy. I'm going to be a problem-solver. The tenor of my representation is going to be so different from [Bachmann's]. I know how to bring people together, and she does the opposite. Do you want somebody representing your district who goes to Washington and polarizes people? Who calls the president -- the CEO of our company -- bad names? I'm a problem solver who brings people together, she's a divider, a problem creator.

CP: Some have said the 6th District is too conservative to support a congressional candidate who is pro-choice and anti-same sex marriage ban. How do you respond to those people?

Graves: Don't underestimate the people of the 6th District. They want me to talk about the economy, jobs. They aren't interested in personal issues. You know, I'm a libertarian when it comes to that stuff. Let the synagogues and churches deal with social issues. I'm more interested in the economy and I think people will understand that. We respect people, everyone in the district -- that's the message we want to give. I think oftentimes people underestimate the people of the district.

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