I recently had the opportunity for a sit down interview with Rep. Alan Lowenthal, who represents California 47th Congressional District. We discussed the demographic and cultural shifts in Southern California that could make many congressional seats solid blue for generations to come.
Lowenthal, who has never lost an election during a political career that has featured multiple runs for the Long Beach City Council, the California Assembly, the state Senate and the House of Representatives, has been a beneficiary of these changes and appears likely to win re-election to his fourth congressional term with little resistance. However, the fates of the four open seats that surround his district are far more stochastic.
If the Democrats wish to wrestle congressional control from the Republicans, they must start with the Southern California congressional seats. While the Democrats have the statistical advantage in the four open congressional seats, they could fail to clinch all four due to an over-saturated political marketplace. This predicament concerns Lowenthal.
If Democrats want to take back the house, then they must refrain from cannibalizing relatively unknown talent, compel weak performers to self deport back to their professional careers and build up our bench. Lowenthal was quick to point out that our first and second string political talent is in need of reinforcement and prior elected office experience. Is this something the undisciplined Democrats can pull off? Can Reps. Tom Perez and Nancy Pelosi twist or cajole the arms of Democratic candidates who need to gracefully exit stage left? If a House of Representatives majority is sacrosanct to the Democratic National Committee and leadership, then let’s hope Pelosi starts offering golden parachutes, drop out packages and early termination benefit packages. That’s an appropriation we can all agree on.
Sara Corcoran: How did the midterm elections look in your district?
Alan Lowenthal: Well, first let me explain to you what my district looks like. My district goes from the western boundary Port of Long Beach ― about 90 percent of Long Beach ― a little bit of Lakewood … [a] bit of all of Signal Hill — that is about 58 percent of my district — and then 42 percent of my district is Orange County ― northern and western Orange County. If you’re asking about my re-election, I think I’ll do well. I normally do extremely well in Long Beach. When I first started to run for Congress in 2012, my Orange County part ― that 42 percent ― I lost that vote by 10 points and 55 to 45 [in 2012]. By 2014, I lost that by a few points. By 2016, I won it by 10 points. I unusually win Long Beach 65 to 70 percent. I am going to be spending more time in Orange County as it’s the most competitive part of my district and I’m surrounded by four congressional Republican seats that we want to win. I want to help those Democratic candidates and those districts so I’m going to be having a full-blown campaign, not only to help me, but all candidates in OC.
One of our biggest problems now is the California open primary. Despite Ed Royce [39th district]and Darrell Issa [49th district] retiring, these seats are very competitive. In California’s jungle open primary, the top two vote-getters move on to the general. This could be very detrimental and damaging to Democrats. When we add up all the Democratic votes we should win those seats but we may not have anybody running in the Royce and the [Dana] Rohrabacher [48th district] seat in the general election because we have eight to 10 Democrats running in each of those. We’re going to split the votes. Remember that Orange County is different than L.A. County. L.A. County has lots of Democrats [who] are board of education members, state assembly members, who are city council members. So, we have a large bench.
In Orange County we don’t have any bench, so all the people running in the seats are relatively unknown to their district. All of the Republicans running in these districts are former state assembly members, senators, former Orange County supervisors. So I need to help, not only myself to win, which I will, but also will help the Democrats win state assembly seats, state senate seats, boards of education. We need to build a bench in Orange County so we don’t get into this mess in the future and to make sure we win their seats around me…. the midterm elections will reflect a tremendous turning away from President [Donald] Trump and moving towards Democratic values. I also think the battleground for the State of California will be Orange County. So I’m going to be working very hard. I’m going to help our candidates win the seats, help bring back the Democrat majority in congress and shore up our OC bench.
SC: What about those candidates (for open congressional seats in Southern California) who aren’t performing well at the polls — shouldn’t they drop out so Democrats don’t cannibalize each other?
AL: Let’s remember that the night Donald Trump was elected many people in Southern California were in tremendous shock. Then came the Women’s March and people were overwhelmed about what to do. There was a tremendous outpouring of people who were so frightened about the direction the country was going. So when I had a town hall meeting in Long Beach, 1,100 people showed up. Most were people who would never have been involved in politics. Many of them had never been to the Women’s March, the March for Gun Safety, [or] the March for Life. They just wanted to know what to do. I also ran a town hall meeting to get all of the OC congressional candidates, like Sam (Jammal), so we could get volunteers. Democrats are not good at being disciplined in Orange County.
Many people in Orange Country wanted to change the country so large numbers of people who would never run for office all decided they were going to run for office. The positive thing is that active participation is a wonderful thing for democracy; we should encourage it. The negative thing is we have the jungle primary and we could eliminate Democrats getting into the general election. I don’t like to tell people they didn’t can’t do anything but I did speak to many of the candidates who were very low on the polling and said, ‘You know, you staying in these races could actually help to hurt everybody.’ They all said, ‘Well, that may be true, but I’m going to win. Nobody knows these other candidates, either, so I’m staying,’ and that’s what’s happened. So they’re all staying ― Sam Jammal is staying, Joe Cisneros is staying, Dr. [Mai Khanh] Tran is staying. All of the candidates in these races are great people, but it is creating a problem. We could lose the June primary. The three top Republicans who have all held office there — state assembly, state senator or OC supervisor — they are all ingrained in their community. People like Sam and Dr. Tran and Gil [Cisneros] are not as well known, so that’s the problem.
SC: How have you seen the Democratic Party change in Orange County?
AL: Orange County has a reputation as an affluent, white, wealthy coastal community. That’s what many think of what they think of Orange County, the home of the John Birch Society, Robert Welch. But over the last 20 years there’s been a huge ideological shift. The Latino community and Asian Pacific Islanders (first generation from 1975 after the fall of Saigon through 1990s) the Vietnamese diaspora in Westminster/Garden Grove they were quite conservative Republicans anti-communist and Vietnam. Vietnam had an oppressive regime and in many ways they were right to stand up against communism. But the next generation, native California born, had different experiences. Children of these diasporas who have grown up in America and are either college-age or millennials. Though they’re still strongly tied to their families, they are more like millennials across the country. They aren’t registering Republican and represent the new face of Orange County, including a larger [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning] community. So Orange County is similar to how Los Angeles County used to be 25 years ago.
When I first ran for state assembly in 1998, which is now 20 years ago, my district used to be a Republican district. San Pedro was represented by a Republican named Steve Kuykendal. Long Beach was a Republican district. Palos Verdes Peninsula and Long Beach were all Republican districts. I broke that chain and a republican is never going to win that seat again. San Pedro/Long Beach/Orange County is becoming more urban and more diverse. Young millennials are not satisfied with this super nationalistic, anti-immigrant [and] anti-healthcare environment.
Healthcare is also very important to residents of Orange County. Twenty years ago, many of these folks were anti-government; now Orange County would be devastated if they didn’t have the Affordable Care Act
SC: What are your thoughts on the congressional midterm elections?
AL: The Democrats will take back the House. The signs are there and so are the tailwinds. We just witnessed one of the most conservative districts in the country (in Arizona) become competitive. President Trump won this district by 21 percent in 2016 and it has always been solid Republican. Congressman Frank ran and won by 25 percent in the past election.And look at how well our candidate performed. She came within 4.7 percent of winning. She actually won the vote the day of the election but lost on the early voting and absentee ballots.
The political landscape is is changing. Many polls predicted we’d lose by 12 percent but they were wrong. This is yet another sign for Democrats ― that if you work hard, are relatable to your district and have a solid grasp of local issues you can make tremendous progress. If you are rational ― if you don’t engage in the fear-mongering the president does ― the American public will elect you. For many Americans, it is a priority to keep the economy moving, fund education [and] have access to a robust employment market. Many also don’t want to live in a world where they are constantly berated by our president. They want a nation they can be proud of and people are not proud of the direction this president is taking this country
SC: What are the three main issues that you will focus on if the Democrats take back the House?
AL: I’m going to continue to work on things I do right now. In the past two years we haven’t had much traction because we can’t even get the bills up for vote. I’m the co-chair of the Climate Change Caucus (aka the Safe Climate Caucus) and the ranking member on the Natural Resources Committee, which deals with energy and minerals. I’m also the lead Democrat and ranking member around energy policies ― all policies on federal lands, all the offshore drilling. This includes all the oil and gas is produced in the United States on federal lands, either offshore or onshore.
If we win and I’m the chair of the Sub Committee on Energy, I will spend a lot more time focused on alternative energy. We need to transition off a carbon-based economy, nationwide. We need to have rational policies forcing the oil and gas companies to pay their fair share of corporate taxes. Right now, they (petroleum companies) get tremendous tax breaks. It’s so hard to change our policies as they are an entrenched special interest. This makes it hard for alternative energy to compete. We need to eliminate the tax breaks that let them drill on federal lands and offshore for next to nothing. All of that’s going to change. We’re going to have rational energy policy that reflects climate issues and we’re going to try to protect our oceans. So, that’s one of many priorities I’m going to continuing fighting for.
I’m also co-chair of the Ports Caucus…. I’m very concerned about infrastructure and the ability to move freight nationwide. Currently, we don’t have a nationwide infrastructure deal. We simply don’t have an revenue stream to cover the expenditure. So, I’m going to keep championing transportation and identify how to allocate resources toward a national infrastructure bill. I also want our transportation providers to be emission neutral, so it’s clean. We’ve been able to make great progress in this industry in California but we want to do it nationwide.
I also have the largest Cambodian community in the country, one of the largest Vietnamese American communities and a large LGBTQ community. I am going to keep championing the message and fighting for human rights.
I recently co-sponsored legislation with Ed Markey in the Senate to ensure that the State Department deals with LGTBQ issues internationally. Right now, there are some 70 nations where it’s a crime to be gay and in four of those countries you can be put to death. We need to make sure U.S. policy is working with those countries to change oppressive gender and ethnic policies. We have leverage over many of these nations and should make trade policies contingent upon human rights protections for all.
I am particularly concerned about recent developments in Cambodia. They just eliminated democracy and the head of the government. This is concerning to members of the Cambodian and Vietnamese diaspora in my district and to me personally. We need to identify the current Cambodian regime as illegitimate and work to restore democracy.
Having a sound immigration policy is also important to me personally and to many who reside in my district. I have a lot of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) students in my district, which includes the Dream Center at Cal State Long Beach. The Dream Center is one of the largest Center of DACA students — over 1000. So it’s important that we pass comprehensive immigration reform to protect them. We need to provide a path to citizenship, which includes more humane policies for DACA and Dreamers. We need to eliminate many of these horrendous ICE policies, especially in terms of deportations and rounding up people. ICE frequently rounds up people in my district. That has to change. I also see healthcare as a legislative priority.
It is vital to protect healthcare for all Californians. I want to see everybody included and ultimately would like to see Medicare for all. As soon as we gain the majority we must take legislative steps to protect and provide subsidies for healthcare. If you are a member in my district that can’t afford healthcare, I want it to be subsidized for you. Is that the ultimate answer? No, but immediately we have to protect people. This year the Republican-led Congress and president did a tax reform bill, which cut revenues by almost a trillion and a half dollars and gave those revenues to the wealthiest people in this country, while cutting healthcare subsidies. How can we possibly balance our budget with that type of revenue shortfall? The promise that trickle-down economics will bring prosperity for all is false. We know from past experience that it never does. If we don’t deal with the “tax reform giveaway” issue when the Democrats come back into power we are going to eviscerate Medicare and Social Security. We can’t let that happen.
SC: So what about the Senate?
AL: We have a great shot. Remember there are so many more senators up for reelection that are Democrats than Republicans but we have a great chance to pick up a senate seat. We could potentially pick up Nevada, where Jacky Rosen can beat [Dean] Heller. Congresswoman Kyrsten Sinema will hopefully take Jeff Flake’s open seat. Congressman Beto O’Rourke has a great chance to beat Ted Cruz. Beto is running a grassroots face-to-face campaign and is one of the finest human beings I’ve ever met; a person [with] great integrity. Nobody gave Beto O’Rourke a chance at first but I think he’s a contender now. It’s going to be a lot of work because people like Beto are key to flipping leadership. We have great candidates and am bullish on our bench.
SC: It often seems like Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton are still top targets of Republican ire. Are they doing more harm than good for the party at this point?
AL: If the question is, ‘Would you change supporting policy for leadership?’ the answer is, ‘It doesn’t really make a difference.’ The reason I’m saying that is that a key tenet of the Republican playbook is to attack Hillary and Nancy. Even if we announced that she wasn’t going to seek the speaker after the midterms the Republicans would still run a campaign against Nancy Pelosi. They’ll try to destroy her just as they did against Hillary Clinton, but this tactic may soon be obsolete.
The Republicans tried anti-Nancy tactics in Pennsylvania and Virginia and it didn’t work. If the Democrats take back the House, it will be up to Nancy to see whether she wants to stay or go. At some point we need to think about the next generation of leadership, but I don’t think that’s some sort of main issue right now. The most important thing how we are going to win back the House in 2018 and support those candidates I mentioned. Those candidates will win because they relate to their communities better than the Republicans who were just into “no” and cutting everything. The Republicans are complicit and never stand up or challenge the president.
The biggest problem is not so much the Republicans and Democrats differ. Having differences is good. The problem is that the Republicans are complicit. They refuse to deal with the real problems in Trump. They just go silent at some point; they are going to be held accountable
SC: James Comey recently made a similar prediction about this concept of politicians being complicit with a president who thinks he is above the law. What are your thoughts about Comey’s statement that those who are complicit will have a lot of explaining to the next generation in their own families?
AL: Interesting. I believe we will win or lose these midterm elections because we offer an alternative. Being accountable to the next generation is more important than who the next Democratic House leader is. We will win or lose this not because of Nancy. We will win or lose because we have good candidates, because we offer an alternative and people do not want to keep going down this route of fear and excessive nationalism. Not since the second world war have we failed to play a major role and human rights and promoting democracy throughout the rest of the world. The president would be perfectly content to walk away from this legacy and the Democrats in Congress were not going to do [so]. It was really nice to have the French leader [Emmanuel] Macron here because he says and thinks the kinds of things that we wish our president would.
SC: Have you read the Harbor Community Benefit Foundation Report?
AL: I have read the executive summary and know the key takeaways well. It’s a 200-page document and I have read the three or four page summary. I understand what they want to do and how they want to continue to study this and the critical importance of the impacts on our community not just in the port area, but [also] in Wilmington and other communities. The report contemplated the whole issue of environmental justice ― which has been raised but they continue to focus on that and there’s still a lot of issues that have not been addressed. That was very good of them.
RLn: Are you aware of the Chinese Conglomerate COSCO group?
AL: Yes I am. The proposed merger doesn’t bother me that much because we are talking about Cosco Chinese shipping line which has their administrative offices in Beijing and OOCL which is another Chinese company whose offices are in Hong Kong but controlled by Beijing. In essence it’s not going to disrupt the marketplace. The combined entity will have a larger influence with our ports though.
With the exception of Matson Shipping, which just travels between Hawaii and the United States and some of the territories, there are no US shipping lines so we are just talking about foreign countries who are already. What I take issue with is to the extent that the shipping lines are carbon neutral.
We have problems with Japanese, and South Korean carriers. They all do not abide by all environmental laws. I’m more concerned that we keep our foot to the pedal and like that Harbor Community Benefit Foundation report stipulates, we continue to protect our community. How do we balance and protect communities while also having economic development? I’m most concerned with this. The fact that one Chinese company bought another Chinese company doesn’t bother me as much.
RLn: So you don’t anticipate this being an issue with the Committee on Foreign Investment?
AL: I don’t think so because it’s a Chinese company buying another Chinese company. I went with leader Pelosi to Hong Kong to meet with the activists about a year-and-a-half ago. After the British had left Hong Kong was supposed to be a protectorate and have a separate government from China. In practice, it was something very different. Folks in Hong Kong will have an election but Beijing will dictate which candidates can run. I view human rights and environmental justice as more paramount.
If it was an American company, then it should be something we should be figuring out how we are going to support our own but I don’t see any problem with a Chinese company buying another Chinese company.