Inside RFK Jr.’s VP selection process — according to one of the contenders

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Mike Rowe thought he was walking into a meeting with Robert F. Kennedy Jr. to talk about his efforts to bolster the skilled trades.

It became “pretty clear right away,” Rowe said, that the conversation about a month ago would be much broader than the longtime TV host’s interest in workforce development. The room was packed with not only Kennedy but also seven or eight additional advisers and staffers for his independent presidential campaign. And it turns out Rowe was being interviewed as part of Kennedy’s vice-presidential selection process.

“The bottom line is, when a serious person who’s willing to throw themselves into this meat grinder taps you on the shoulder and says, ‘Hey, I would really like you to consider this. Would you?’” Rowe said. “You take the meeting.”

In an interview with NBC News, Rowe laid out the most detailed look yet at how Kennedy is vetting potential ticket-mates. Rowe said he and Kennedy ran through the candidate’s views on key issues and policy areas important to him, including on the national debt, foreign policy and public health as the independent contender made clear he doesn’t want a running mate who sees “eye-to-eye” with him on everything.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. speaks during a voter rally (Emily Elconin / Getty Images file)
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. speaks during a voter rally (Emily Elconin / Getty Images file)

Rowe, best known as the host of the Discovery Channel show “Dirty Jobs” and as an advocate for the blue-collar trades through his mikeroweWORKS foundation, is among a handful of contenders to serve as Kennedy’s running mate. The list includes New York Jets quarterback Aaron Rodgers and Jesse Ventura, the WWE star and former governor of Minnesota, which NBC News confirmed Tuesday.

A source familiar with the pick told NBC News then that the independent candidate has offered the vice presidential slot to a candidate who has accepted the offer. Kennedy’s campaign announced Wednesday that it will reveal his running mate at an event in Oakland on March 26.

Rowe, who on Wednesday tweeted a photo of a CNN segment including him among the Kennedy contenders, neither confirmed nor denied that he had been offered the job. But he did describe what went into the vice-presidential interview.

Rowe said he and Kennedy spoke at length about workforce development and Rowe’s advocacy, with Rowe pushing back on criticisms Kennedy raised about him being “anti-college” or “anti-education,” which the TV and podcast host denied. But Rowe said Kennedy also spent a lot of time discussing the national debt, ending “the forever wars” and waging “his own war on chronic disease.”

Kennedy expressed interest in creating a “team of rivals” around him in advisory roles, Rowe said. Rowe recalled Kennedy saying he did not want to surround himself with “yes men and yes women.”

“The funny thing through all of it was I, I must have reminded him a dozen times that I’m probably not your guy,” Rowe said. “We don’t agree on this. We don’t agree on that. Look, I’m in business with people in the energy business who he’s sued multiple times over the years. And he laughed and said, ‘Yeah, I know that. I just don’t believe I’m going to find anyone who agrees with me on every single thing. And I really like what you stand for.’”

The most controversial part of Kennedy’s background — his years-long crusade against vaccines — also came up in the conversation.

Kennedy has not made his anti-vaccine advocacy, which includes spreading the discredited idea that early-childhood vaccinations are linked to autism, a cornerstone of his campaign, and he has defended his past remarks by saying he is not against vaccines but merely skeptical of them. He has hired staff from the anti-vaccine advocacy space but has focused his campaign rhetoric on broader criticisms of public health leaders and pharmaceutical companies.

Last week, Kennedy criticized former President Donald Trump for promoting the Covid vaccines that were developed during his administration, tweeting that Trump “clearly hasn’t learned from his Covid-era mistakes.”

“That did come up,” Rowe said of vaccines. “I said, ‘What’s the deal?’ And he said, ‘Well, it’s nonsense.’ He said, ‘I’m not anti-vax. I’ve never said I’m anti-vax. I said, I’m anti-mercury.’”

As NBC News has previously noted, the kind of mercury that was, up until 2001, included in many vaccines was different from the type of mercury found in contaminated fish and does not cause neurological problems.

Rowe said Kennedy focused on the idea that the major pharmaceutical companies and their products deserve significant scrutiny and should be met “with some level of skepticism” because of how high the stakes are.

“But ultimately, I think what he said was, ‘Look, I’m anti-mercury, and I’m anti-mercury in fish too, right? But I’m not anti-fish. I’m anti-mercury in vaccines, but I’m not anti-vax.’”

Rowe said he was vaccinated for Covid, in addition to taking other common vaccines.

“I was desperate to get back to work,” Rowe said, noting that he needed to get a Covid vaccine to return to work. “I was nervous about it, to be honest. Because, I mean, who wouldn’t be?”

Kennedy’s campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment from NBC News.

Beyond his hours-long discussion with Kennedy and his team, Rowe, currently focused on his foundation’s scholarship program, said he has not been personally subjected to any additional vetting.

Kennedy’s running mate search heating up now is no accident, as NBC News reported Thursday, because the decision is set to come as he seeks to qualify for the ballot all over the country. And a majority of states require a candidate to have a running mate in order to qualify for the ballot.

What’s more, a key part of the strategy to get Kennedy on every state ballot has suddenly changed. The pro-Kennedy super PAC American Values 2024 announced this week it is stopping its signature collection effort on Kennedy’s behalf, but said it had collected enough signatures to get him on the ballot in Arizona, Michigan, Georgia and South Carolina — though it is worth noting that some petition signatures are often invalidated by state elections officials when turned in, which is why campaigns try to obtain far more than the required minimum.

But as the super PAC stops its signature-gathering efforts, Kennedy’s interest in attention-getting vice presidential hopefuls is putting him in the news.

Kennedy polls better than other third-party contenders, with surveys showing him pulling support from voters who would otherwise consider backing Trump or President Joe Biden. But it is tough to tell what his real impact will be this fall until he qualifies for ballots across the country or wins the nomination of an existing party that has widespread ballot access, such as the Libertarian Party.

“It feels to me as if the country were a restaurant [and] 330 million people picked up the menu and said, ‘Hey, wait, really? These are the only two things on here? I’m allergic to both of these,” Rowe said. “So whatever [Kennedy] does, I think people are going to be surprised by the response.”

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com