Editor’s Note

Our discussion with J.D. Vance, Ohio’s Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, touched on a variety of issues, using some of the questions developed by author and reporter Amanda Ripley as a way of cutting through conflict with questions that “complicate the narrative.”

Ripley’s work is aimed at helping reporters and editors dig beneath people’s positions and get to their motivations, to cover conflict more thoughtfully, to “revive complexity in a time of false simplicity.”

Our conversation with Tim Ryan can be found at this link.

MANSFIELD — Republican J.D. Vance, a candidate for the U.S. Senate from Ohio, stopped for an interview with several members of Richland Source’s news staff on Monday afternoon.

The 25-minute meeting was conducted at Idea Works, the home of Richland Source in downtown Mansfield.

Below is the balance of that conversation, which has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Richland Source: What single issue is being oversimplified in your opinion. Is there a lone issue for which people think there’s a simple answer, but there’s not. And what do you think divides Ohioans the most on that issue?

J.D. Vance: That’s interesting. I guess it’s very easy to oversimplify the inflation issue. A thing that you’ll hear from my side, which I think is partially true, is inflation is the consequence of too much borrowing and too much spending by the Biden administration.

You have got to think of it like fuel on the fire. The more fuel you throw on the fire, the more inflation you’ll have. But we also have a longer-term issue, which is so much of what you buy is fundamentally a factor of energy costs. The price at the pump went to $5 and is down now $1.25 maybe, but natural gas is a main component of every manufactured good, nearly, that you buy — whether it’s in a grocery store or anywhere else.

Natural gas is the main component of nitrogen fertilizer, which is a core component of what you buy in most food places. We have an issue of inflation, but it’s caused by both short-term and longer-term problems in the economy.

And then the final point is we have an inflation problem because we have a supply chain problem. Why do we have a supply chain problem? Because we’ve become too dependent on the communist Chinese to make critical goods for us. I guess that’s the issue where I think it is a real problem. I think the Biden administration’s policies have made it much worse.

It’s also incredibly complicated … I think frankly, a lot of people over the past 40 years deserve the blame for the inflation crisis. And we need to fix a lot of the long-term problems, not just short-term problems.

Richland Source: Was that inflation coming even before the COVID-19 pandemic?

J.D. Vance: Maybe a little bit, but I think what the pandemic did is it effectively exacerbated and made us realize how fragile these things were.

Talk to any business and they can’t get critical supplies because a lot of the supplies are made in China — and China completely shut down their economy for much longer than we shut down our economy.

But I think the energy issue in particular is much more of a recent phenomenon. I think that we had very solid energy policies under the last administration. We have really terrible energy policies under this administration.

So some of this stuff comes from the pandemic. A little bit of it maybe predates the pandemic, but some of it is just much, much worse, long-term policy than we’ve had in the past.

Richland Source: Is there any part of Tim Ryan’s position on that issue that you just discussed that makes sense to you? And what do you think the other side wants? Where is there common ground between the two of you?

JD Vance:  My guess is … you wouldn’t necessarily know this from the campaign … but my guess is that Tim Ryan recognizes that natural gas is a core component of both making our economy cleaner, but also making our energy costs go down long term.

You cannot get from where we are now to any reasonable energy, independent future without natural gas. I would hope that being from Northeast Ohio and seeing how much local steel manufacturers, for example, rely on natural gas, that he recognizes the importance of the natural gas economy.

I do think rhetorically, and a little bit of his consequence of where the Democratic Party is these days, or at least where the activist base within the Democratic Party is, you hear a lot of talk about solar. You hear a lot of talk about wind. You don’t hear nearly as much talk about natural gas. It’s sort of the energy source that you dare not speak its name.

But there again, there’s no way to energy independence unless you get there (with natural gas). And so my guess is Tim Ryan knows that, but maybe you can’t talk about it because of where the Democratic Party is these days.

Richland Source: Is there anything that Tim Ryan does talk about that you, in your heart, say that’s not all together wrong? Something that you kind of agree with?

J.D. Vance: He went down to the Piketon plant and talked about the importance of developing Piketon’s nuclear energy resources. He is right about that.

I’d say the problem is he hasn’t done much about it. A big reason why we haven’t built a nuclear reactor in this country in 50 years is because policy coming from Congress has been so bad.

So when Tim Ryan says nuclear energy is important, he’s absolutely right. I guess my question is why haven’t we done anything about it in the last 20 years? The main reason other countries have built nuclear reactors, but the United States hasn’t, is because the legislation he’s been making in D.C.

Richland Source: What’s the question that nobody’s really asking in this campaign so far? And how would you answer that question? 

J.D. Vance: I talk to a lot of people, so it’s hard to identify an issue where no one’s really talking about it. I do think an issue that was huge in the Republican primary that I think is still a top-three issue and maybe a top-one issue is the Southern border.

It doesn’t get nearly the same amount of focus as it did in the primary. And I think there’s this perception that maybe Republican primary voters really care about immigration, but general election voters don’t. I think that’s wrong.

You have to understand the Southern border as a drug problem. Ninety percent of the fentanyl coming into this country manufactured in China. Most of it makes it through this country via the drug cartels through the Southern border illicitly.

We don’t live on the border of Texas and Mexico, right? You don’t see the immigration problem in the same way that south Texas does, the way that it manifests here is drug trafficking. And that’s a huge, huge issue. And we don’t talk nearly enough about it.

Ohio is the third-leading state when it comes to fentanyl overdose deaths in the country. We’ve had a heroin (problem) and before that an opioid problem. I think unless we get that border under control, we’re gonna continue to have a lot of Ohioans dying, more a disproportionate share of Ohioans dying from it.

Again, we don’t talk about this nearly enough. There are pieces of this, too. So you hear a little bit of conversation about the opioid problem. You hear a little bit of conversation about the drug cartels shipping in drugs and so forth.

What you don’t hear all about is there is a generation of grandparents in this state who are raising grandchildren that they didn’t plan for. There’s a generation of orphans in this state that lost their parents either to jail or to an overdose or maybe just incapacitation because they can’t take care of them because of the drug problem.

So you have a massive family component of the drug issue. It’s not just the people who are dying. It’s the hundreds of thousands of Ohioans who are left to pick up the pieces. And unless we do better by those people, we’re gonna have generational problems.

Richland Source: This drug issue is personal for you, isn’t it? Talk a little bit about how your experiences have helped to shape your views?

J.D. Vance:  I was raised by my grandparents because my mom struggled with opioid addiction. And so I sort of see this in multiple dimensions.

I see the way in which these drugs have a hold on certain people’s minds, it’s hard to define. It seems almost spiritual, but it’s very hard once people get down that rabbit hole of addiction to get them out of it.

That’s not to say there’s no hope, My mom’s been clean and sober for seven years. There is hope, but it’s a very, very hard path to get from where she was to where she is now.

But I also really do see it as a family issue. We’re talking about kids like my sister, who have to take care of younger siblings because their mom or dad isn’t able to take care of them. My own grandmother was living on a fixed Social Security income, unable to take care of young children, or at least forced to take care of young children that she really wasn’t able to take care of. She was pretty handicapped at that point in her life, not as able to get around.

It’s the negotiation that happens between families and treatment providers about whether you can get somebody a treatment bed that they need. If they do, how do you ensure that they have the healthcare taken care of so that it doesn’t bankrupt the family?

So I guess I just just see it as a multidimensional problem, because it is, and I don’t just see this as a death statistic. For every one person who’s died of a fentanyl overdose, there are 30 people behind them that are affected by it.

I really worry about those people because nobody else really is. And the problems are extraordinary. If you look at high school dropout rates, if you look at drug-addiction rates, take a kid who has all the classic social problems that we think of troubled kids having … there is almost always something troubling that was happening at home behind it.

If you don’t fix these problems now, they become something that gets passed on to the children, to the grandchildren, to the great-grandchildren. And that’s where I really worry about it. We’re still at a phase where we could stop a lot of the long-term damage, but nobody’s even talking about the long-term damage.

If we’re talking about it at all, we’re talking about the drug statistics, the death statistics. Obviously that’s an important piece of it, but there’s a whole social fabric around it that’s being torn apart.

Richland Source: What are some of the solutions about this issue that have caught your eye?

J.D. Vance: There are a few. One is you really do need better healthcare in this country and you need to properly resource drug-addiction facilities so that if a person is ready to take that first step to treatment, there’s an actual option available to them.

I will say (U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, R-OH) has done a very good job on this. We are better now than we were six years ago. It’s noticeably improved, but it’s far from perfect. Six years ago in southern Ohio in particular, but I think really all across the state, if you had somebody who wanted to get into a detox facility, which is you have to go to the detox typically before you can go to a long-term treatment facility, there just weren’t options available.

You had church groups, basically, volunteering to provide beds to people to do two-day detoxes because there wasn’t any real healthcare available for people. That’s gotten better … could get a lot better.

Number two, if you are a foster care parent, you get a lot of resources from the state, as you should, taking care of kids and trying to make sure they have a stable home. If you’re a grandparent who is taking care of a kid who’s been orphaned by the fentanyl problem, you get very little, sometimes nothing.

So you gotta make sure that grandparents actually get the same level of support that’s provided to our foster care system. That’s number two.

And number three is you’ve gotta close the border because every single time you add more fentanyl into the state, you’re gonna have more people dying from this problem.

Richland Source: We’ve been talking about the drug problem. That’s something that’s very important to you, so much so that you had started your own non-profit, Our Ohio Renewal. It definitely takes some flack in the media. From those critiques and from what people are saying, do any of those critiques have merit? Do you agree with any of it? And more importantly, what are some of the lessons that you’re learning from them?

JD Vance: There’s one thing that I think that we can learn from it, but a couple of the critiques are just completely baseless. So the first accusation is that donations that went into the nonprofit somehow accrued to me personally.

I believe I was the single largest donor to the nonprofit. I never collected a dime from it. So the idea that this benefited me financially is ridiculous.

Number two is the idea that it didn’t help anybody. I mean, we had a person in southern Ohio for a year who was providing treatment to people who wouldn’t have otherwise had access to treatment. So we certainly did some good and she provided treatment. That was a good thing.

I think the lesson learned from it is that sometimes things are outside of your control and you have to try to plan for those things.

What Tim Ryan doesn’t say in his attack ads is the person that I hired to become the executive director of the nonprofit was 33 years old and got stage four cancer. And for a year, we basically had a person who was our most expensive employee who was not really able to take care of the nonprofit and do the job.

Now, of course … that is a problem. That happened, that was unexpected. And we probably could have better planned for those unplanned circumstances.

And I think the other thing is that, a lot of what we ended up doing was sending resources, sending grants to other organizations, because to really start a nonprofit, it really needs to become a full-time job.

And I think that was the thing, especially in light of the person getting cancer and not being able to take care of things day to day. I certainly think that we were caught off guard by not having our full-time person and trying to effectively pick up the pieces.

Despite that, it did some good. Now is it a going concern in the wake of the Senate campaign … no, and I wish that it was. But the idea that the benefits accrued to me and that we didn’t do anything is just ridiculous.

Richland Source: What experiences have re-shaped your view of former President Trump? In 2016, you were critical of him and said you were a ‘Never Trumper.’ What changed your view?

J.D. Vance: In some ways, it’s complicated. We could talk about this for a very long time. But being respectful of time, I mean the very simple thing is that I thought Trump would be a bad president.

And in fact, I thought he was a very good president. Some of that is his particular management style … a little bit more combative actually kind of worked in a Washington, D.C. that was pretty broken.

A little bit of it is critical policy changes that needed to be made in the country, especially on trade, on regulatory policy (that) got made under his administration and they hadn’t for 30 or 40 years. Basically, we had bad trade policy in this country and it was bipartisan and he kind of broke that mold and that was very effective.

Also, I just got to know the president personally a little bit. And I think that the image that had been built up in the press of Trump is like this evil authoritarian who was gonna take over American democracy. In practice, he is a pretty easy guy to get along with. Certainly he says some things that offend people, but I think his view is people should have a sense of humor.

And I think on the policy, he was pretty good.

Richland Source: Along the same vein, are there areas that you disagree with Trump about?

J.D. Vance: I think the main thing that the Trump administration could have been better on is personnel. There are some, like (former U.S. trade representative) Bob Lighthizer, probably the most effective cabinet level official in Washington in 40 years, a truly historic figure.

Other people like (former National Security Advisor) John Bolton … I think his basic approach was ‘I would like to use the Trump White House to start as many wars with as many countries as possible.’ I think Bolton is a crazy person and it’s good that Trump didn’t listen to him.

But I think if you asked the president, he would admit that Bolton probably shouldn’t have been in his ear in the first place. So I think there were some personnel decisions that could have been better.

Richland Source: It seems pretty clear that Ohio voters now are more divided than ever on some fundamental cultural principles. Where does all this distrust come from?

J.D. Vance: I think the country has some very, very fundamental disagreements. But I think more importantly, the country hasn’t grown in 20 years.

What I mean is in real economic terms, we’ve had some periods where GDP has grown 2 or 4 percent. We’ve had some periods where it’s shrunk a little bit. But if you look at all the growth that’s been in the country, it’s basically been a mirage.

We had a massive expansion in the housing market, but it was a mirage. We all learned about that the hard way in 2007, 2008. Our manufacturing sector, which is sort of the backbone of the middle class and the backbone of every country that has a viable middle class, has been shrinking pretty much, you know, consistently with some few exceptions up at least up until 2016, 2017.

When that happens, when you have a country that’s built on dynamism and growth and the pie is shrinking, or at least staying the same, I think that creates divisions and it exacerbates divisions. And that’s probably where we are.

I also think that there is a way where our leaders have failed and rather than accept and own up to their own failures, they divide the country against each other.

I saw a tweet yesterday from the Associated Press that the Federal Reserve, which of course is the agency that probably controls most or has the most to do with inflation in this country, was celebrating because it has the most diverse representation in its history.

And I think that’s fine, it’s a good thing. But is it really reasonable to celebrate the fact that you have a diverse group of people when the Federal Reserve has failed to control inflation for really the first time in 40 years?

We have a terrible border crisis and yet normal people feel that if they complain about the border problem, they will be labeled xenophobes or racists.

There are people, I think, who benefit from our border crisis. There are people I think who’ve gotten very wealthy from it. They shouldn’t be silencing the rest of the country where the rest of the country says, ‘You know what, maybe this isn’t actually in our best interest.’

Another classic example of this is for a long time, if you questioned the fact that there was another factory moving to Mexico or another factory moving to China, it was ‘Oh, don’t you realize this benefits American consumers? What are you … a backwards person? You just don’t understand economics.’

Well, people may not have PhDs in economics, but they realize they were getting screwed. And I think that a lot of what’s going on in the past 30 or 40 years is people have materially not gotten better off.

Instead of reckoning with that failure, our leadership attacks them on these cultural issues and that deflects from their own failures. I think that divides the country in the process.

Richland Source: We touched on manufacturing. Obviously in our area, a big story that’s developing and will continue to develop over the next four or five years is Intel. Any thoughts on that?

JD Vance: Well, it’s a great thing, assuming everything happens, of course. It’s something that hasn’t yet happened, but appears to be in the process. So with all those caveats, if it actually happens, it will be very good. It will be good for jobs in Ohio, but it would also be good for our national security because we can’t continue to rely on east Asia to provide all of computer chips.

I think that one of our jobs as legislators is gonna be to do what we can to make sure that process and that project proceeds at pace.

Richland Source: You are seeking to replace Rob Portman. What will you do differently than he did in his two terms in the U.S. Senate?

J.D. Vance: Rob is really good at focusing on the details of public policy and I think he’s broadly right on that, or at least he’s right to actually be concerned about public policy as a legislator.

It’s kind of crazy, but if you think we have 535 legislators in Congress — 100 Senators and 435 on the House side —  a substantial majority of them actually don’t care about what goes in the laws. They don’t read them. They don’t really pay that much attention to them.

And so I think that’s sort of one thing that he’s been very good at.

I would say I’m more of a China ‘hawk’ than Rob Portman. I’m more skeptical that globalization has quote unquote ‘free trade,’ which I think is not the right term, but that’s what people call it, has been good for Ohio.

Generally. I think Rob has gotten more skeptical of this. I’m very skeptical, that this has been good for the state as a whole. So there are little issues like that. I think that we certainly agree more than we disagree.

But I think one obvious issue is that I think Rob was a real driver of China being admitted to the WTO, for example. And I think that was a mistake. My guess is Rob would probably admit in hindsight, that was a mistake, but that’s one area of disagreement.

Richland Source: If you are elected, you’re gonna have to work across the aisle. What’s one thing that you hope to understand or you wish you could understand about people who believe differently than you?

J.D. Vance: Let’s just take the energy issue cause that’s where we started and that’s a good place to finish. What I see on the energy issue is that there’s no plausible way to get to the level of power we need with solar and wind.

It can, by all means, be part of the equation, but you need nuclear and you need natural gas to get there.

I wish that I understood why people who care a lot about the Ohio and American and world environment … I wish I understood why they weren’t more supportive of natural gas and nuclear. That is one thing that I wish that I understood.

On most issues, I’m reasonably confident that I’m right. On some issues, I’m mostly confident. On that one, I’m very confident that I’m right. And I wish I understood why the other side felt the way that they did.

Richland Source is inviting all statewide candidates on the November ballot to visit our offices at Idea Works in downtown Mansfield to have on-the-record interviews with our local journalists.

Our plan is to interview all of the major candidates for statewide races. Our goal is not to write the political “horse race” stories. We want to dig a little deeper and find a way to perhaps complicate the narrative.

Today’s story is based on a recent interview with J.D. Vance, the Republican Party candidate for the U.S. Senate.

U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan (D-13th District) is running against Republican J.D. Vance, a Cincinnati resident and venture capitalist making his first run for elected office.

One of them will replace Sen. Rob Portman (R-Cincinnati), who has announced he will not seek a third term in office.

Richland Source election coverage is brought to you by The North End Community Improvement Collaborative (NECIC).

City editor. 30-year plus journalist. Husband. Father of 3 grown sons and also a proud grandpa. Prior military journalist in U.S. Navy, Ohio Air National Guard. -- Favorite quote: "Where were you when...

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