Not since 1879 have voters in Tennessee’s 1st Congressional District sent a Democrat to the U.S. House of Representatives, but Olsen is confident 2018 is different.
A West Virginia native, Olsen has lived in Johnson City for 25 years. Olsen has made numerous trips to the Middle East to help develop and teach maternal safety. He currently works at East Tennessee State University caring for opiate-addicted pregnant women.
Olsen is a moderate Democrat, who previously labeled himself an independent before this election. He became interested in running for Congress around the same time lawmakers in Washington, D.C., were attempting to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
Here are some questions Olsen answered about his campaign:
Q: What will be your top three priorities entering Congress?
A: “Health care, education and the opioid epidemic are my top three. It was health care that put me over the edge (and made me run for Congress). The thought of 22 million Americans being moved off the Affordable Care Act, I felt, was wrong ... I think we can afford gradual Medicare expansion. I think Americans do better with gradual change than revolutionary change, especially in health care.
“To me, public schools are the backbone of American education and the pillar of American education. And we just have to make sure that our public schools are as strong as they possibly can be. I’m not going to support anything that weakens the current schools. The current voucher programs, as they’re being laid out, do indeed weaken the public schools so I’m going to oppose anything that does that.
“I’m pretty sure I would be the only congressman who has ever helped a person kick their opioid habit. It’s not a large number, but it’s some, and I think I could use that experience to craft policy that would be helpful for getting people off opioids.”
Q: Congressman Phil Roe has said he has concerns about hosting public events, as there have been instances where people get in his face and scare his grandchildren. He even said a man spent time in jail for threatening to kill him and his family. How would you improve constituent accessibility while keeping security a priority?
A: “I was very saddened to hear that Dr. Roe’s family had those experiences. That was completely inappropriate and I would condemn that type of action because we need to treat each other as human beings and with appropriate respect and dignity.
“Myself, part of my charm is that I irritate people. If they need to be irritated, I irritate them. In my time in Johnson City, I’ve been removed from a position in my institution. I’ve had dead animals placed in my yard. I’ve had phone call threats because that’s part of my persona. If you’re doing something wrong, I’m going to tell you about it.
“So I’ve had some personal experience, not to the level that Congressman Roe described. I recognize the fact that if you’re going to put yourself out there, you’re going to make people mad. I think a congressman just has to find ways to physically shake hands with people (and) hear their concerns.
“As a candidate, what I notice is I can disagree with people. A lot of my supporters are far to the left of me and we talk about that. I say, ‘I recognize your point, I recognize the fact that your point is well thought out and you believe it strongly. I just don’t happen to share that opinion.’ It’s the same with people on the far right of me. So it’s my hope that you can have conversations with human beings where if the human being believes you’ve listened to them, you’ve heard their viewpoint, thought about it and don’t agree with them, but there is some other issue you will agree on, then I think they walk away from there satisfied. That’s been my approach so far and I would like to continue that approach.
“Practically speaking, I’d like to have forums where I’m personally present, talking to people and people came come up and chat with me afterwards.”
Q: What are your thoughts on President Donald Trump and his performance?
A: “My thoughts are look to the future. I think the administration looks a little bit too much to the past. I am concerned about the overall meanness that has increased in our country and in our region since the election of 2016. I think the meanness is wrong. I mean this is an area of the country where neighbors look after themselves. It’s really a part of our culture.
“One of the things I agree with are the technological advances that the Trump administration has promoted. Technology is very, very important. I don’t agree with the trade war, but I do agree with intellectual property protection. I think the Chinese... it’s been a very difficult road in protecting American intellectual property, and I agree with the Trump’s administration’s decision that we have to do something about it.
“There are areas where I can agree with the Trump administration, and if there are areas that are best for America, best for the 1st District, then I’m going to vote for them. There may be some areas where I say, ‘This might work for me if A, B, and C.’ Then we can start talking about whether we can tweak it a little bit. That’s, to me, what’s not going on in Congress now.”
Q: Considering Tennessee’s 1st District is extremely conservative, how do you appeal to Republican voters?
A: “One out of four Republicans in one poll think Congress’ job is to ‘keep a check on the executive branch.’ And that turns out to be about the same number I need to win. I mean there are some Republican values currently being ignored. Values like fiscal responsibility. I think the budget plan, with its increase of $1.5 trillion debt, it’s just going to be paid by my daughter’s generation and the next generation. I think that’s irresponsible and the average East Tennessee Republican voter agrees that it’s irresponsible.
“The thing that actually resonates most with Republican voters is (Roe’s) broken promise of (only serving) five terms. I don’t know how many conversations I’ve had where I (introduce myself) and say I’m a Democrat, and they say they’re voting for Roe. Then I ask, ‘Do you believe in term limits?’ They say they do and then I ask if they know (Roe) promised to serve only five terms and broke that promise. In that 15 seconds, I go from a voter who was going to reject me to a voter that’s now going to give me a chance. It seems to be resonating.”