After the election of Donald Trump, it was clear to many in the country that it was time for a change and certainly that times were changing. Fed up with the status quo, newcomers to politics as well as seasoned veterans in the field have sought higher office by taking on longtime incumbents. Kevin de León who was elected to State Assembly and then the State Senate for a combined 12 years, is one of those challengers, pitting himself against U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who has held the office since 1992. The youngest child of a Latino immigrant, De León is primed with passion for immigrant rights and more.
After a visit to Rio Plaza Elementary School in Oxnard on Sept. 24, De León stopped by the VCReporter for an impromptu discussion about all things politics.
VCReporter: There are a lot of normal Democratic issues, which include free education, Medicare, health care for everyone. Many people believe there isn’t funding for them and bipartisanship won’t happen in Congress. What would you do differently?
Kevin De León: Let me say this, I spent the vast majority of my childhood without health care. And health care is a huge issue for all Americans regardless of where you are politically on the spectrum. Today, in America, we spend $3.3 trillion on health care. It is both public as well as private, whether it’s HMOs or PPOs, whether it’s public, county general public hospitals as well as community, we spend about $3.3 trillion on health care. It is estimated at $3 trillion on expanding Medicare, not for some, but Medicare for all. If you don’t believe me, ask the Koch Brothers. The Koch Brothers initiated this study; they wanted a very clear outcome, but per their methodology, it came out clear, it would be $3 trillion a year as opposed to the current system, $3.3 [trillion].
You save 10 percent by insuring everyone.
Kevin: You save 10 percent by insuring everybody. The bottom line is this: This system is not sustainable. We have millions of Californians that have health-care coverage but can’t afford their deductibles, their co-payments. They are underinsured. We have millions of Californians who have no access to any type of quality health care and use the emergency room at county hospitals. We know that’s disastrous financially; we are now footing the bill. This issue shouldn’t be a politically ideologically driven issue because health care is health care. Having access to quality health care, whether you voted for Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton, to me, having not to pay co-payments, deductibles, having not to continuously call insurance companies to get this approved or that, having not to fear if you lose your job, that you lose your health-care coverage for you and your family members. I guess that health care is, I think, a universal right and if you believe in that, you believe in that, you believe in Medicare for all.
Any way California can break away and test this model and prove the concept?
I think that the current political climate, it’s a little challenging. Medicare for all is best under a federal framework. The reason I say this is because you need exemptions, waivers from the federal government. With the current administration, obviously, that would be very difficult. If you had a Democratic administration, and wanted to do a sort of a test-model state to see if it in fact does work, you could, in fact, secure exemptions and waivers that are needed as well as subsidies that are needed. Perhaps you could do that, but not under the current administration, but this is best under a federal framework.
How you engage Republicans is that health care is health care. Again, it doesn’t make a difference who you are and where you come from, you shouldn’t politicize this. It shouldn’t [be an] ideologically driven issue because when you break a leg or have a tumor and it’s metastasizing, the tumor doesn’t care if you are a Republican or a Democrat. It’s your health, especially if you are the head of household, if you are a mother, or single mother, or head of household, you are bread winner of the house; it impacts the whole family. So that’s why we have to deal with this issue of health care for all.
You would be taking over Dianne Feinstein’s seat, but she has decades of experience, she has seniority. How would you overcome those sorts of assets?
That’s a good question. I would say that seniority means nothing if you don’t use your seniority. That’s the classic narrative of Washington is that built-up seniority over a course of many many decades, positions certain individuals to do well but the reality is this, we have witness certain hearings of Brett Kavanaugh, much younger senators in terms of seniority, … Cory Booker, Richard Blumenthal from Connecticut, Kamala Harris, provided much more energy, much more pointed questions. They are not senior members. Whether people agree or not, Elizabeth Warren has clearly elevated key issues to a national level; she has no seniority. Seniority means nothing if you don’t use it. I think that was displayed clearly through the hearings of Brett Kanavaugh.
The issue of gun control many of us are concerned about, but there is the gun rights aspect. Why aren’t things being done now in the way you feel they should be addressed?
Let me say, we have to do something about this because of the way our children are dying. I thought that Sandy Hook, Connecticut, would be that watershed moment when Americans would come together regardless if you were Republican or Democrat, that we would come together as a nation and finally do something about gun safety, gun ammunition safety. That wasn’t the case. … Because of the inaction in Washington, because of the lack of leadership, for example, on ghost guns, I’ve been tough on ghost guns way before the mainstream media that just recently started reporting on the issue of ghost guns through the manufacturing of ghost guns through 3-D printers as well as ordering parts online, having them delivered, which was legal, no longer legal now in California. You can assemble a semi-automatic weapon and one of those weapons was used in the massacre at Santa Monica College. Definition of ghost gun: made it in office at home.
The other ghost gun parts that you purchase, and you assemble ghost guns; because there is no registration number, serial number with the Department of Justice, the gun itself, doesn’t exist until it is apprehended at a scene of a crime. That is one issue on the ghost guns. The other issue is magazine clips. In California we banned magazine clips that passed 10-plus bullets. You don’t need a magazine that has 100, 50, 25, 30, 20, 15 bullets; that’s why someone can easily walk to an elementary school, a college campus, a theater, a church, and easily mow down so many folks with the one clip. You have that rapid-fire capacity, you surely don’t need that for hunting. These are weapons of war and they belong exclusively in the hands of the U.S. military for any type of engagement sanctioned by the federal government and specifically the checks and balances by Congress. So we have reduced the numbers of bullets in magazines in California. Also the issue of ammunition, ammunition plays a huge role; and let me tell you a story: a Thai girl, 9 years old, very precocious little girl, she was playing in her mother’s kitchen and all of a sudden she fell to the ground and she was shot in the head, temple, a bullet pierced through the door and through the wall. Two gang members outside going after each other as usual, they miss each other, innocent victim falls: she was taken off life support right before Christmas, and this was right after I was elected for the first time in my life to the State Assembly. I said to myself, we have some pretty good restrictive laws that are on the books. (Recorder stopped here. New recording device with next question. De Leon discussed the new laws he passed as stated above.)
What are your thoughts on immigration reform?
The issue of immigration is something that is deeply personal to me, being the youngest child of a single immigrant mother with a third-grade education. And this is a sad reality; immigration reform has failed in Washington, D.C., because of the lack of [action] in Washington. And because lack of [action] from our leaders in Washington, D.C., I’ve had to act in California on the issue of sanctuary state. I am the author of sanctuary state. On the issue of driver’s license, I negotiated a deal with the driver’s licenses with the governor, Jerry Brown. I also committed roughly about $40 million for naturalization to encourage folks to become U.S. citizens, or legal permanent residents. Also, too, allocated money for dreamers who are under the threat of being detained and eventually deported by this administration.
And with regards to the issue of ICE, now I will give you the story of Romulo … Avelica. Romulo is a constituent of mine. He’s a hardworking man, a loving father. He was detained by ICE just about maybe a block away from dropping off his daughter at school in the morning. He was dehumanized and he was humiliated by ICE agents who took him away. And because of an outpouring of anger from the community, ICE eventually [released] him. Right now he is a free man … They released him, they released him right now. But this has happened time and time again.
And ICE, by the way, was created by the vote of the senior senator, Dianne Feinstein back in 2002, the National Security Act. A part of it was a creation of ICE. And ICE is a police agency that has strayed greatly from their original mission to deal with, it was created in the wake of 9/11 to deal with terrorism, to deal with drug traffickers, human traffickers, gun-running traffickers, to deal with international cartels, TCOs (transcontinental organizations), to deal with pedophiles, cybersex. But now to deal with violent criminal felons. To me it doesn’t make a difference if you are from Ireland or from China or elsewhere, but they focus on hardworking families, dreamers, people who sell tamales, oranges, who are trying to make ends meet. You have a wayward agency that’s out of control, that’s been weaponized and politicized by [a] White House that is using it for their own electoral objectives by dividing the community.
I’ve been doing this in California because of the failure of Washington, and that’s why I am running to have new strong leadership, a voice of change, a progressive voice in Washington, D.C., who can say very clearly and elevate it that diversity, inclusivity is our strength in the fifth-largest economy in the world.
Here in Ventura County, for example, with the hospitality industry that you have here because of the beaches, you have many men and women who work in the hotels and the motels. We go a little south … here, obviously, we have strawberries, we have citrus here, we have lettuce. We have Somis, Moorpark, you have Piru, you have Santa Paula, Fillmore, Oxnard, a lot of agricultural workers that are under threat of detention and deportation.
This economy in Ventura County is driven much by immigration and it would be a huge blow to the economy of Ventura if every individual were to be detained and deported. Now with that being said, that’s why I moved on sanctuary state to make sure that our local police departments, our county sheriffs, would not be an extension of the federal government and be utilized as a cog in the Trump deportation machine, that even though you may have certain sheriffs who may raise their hand and say, “Sign me up, boss, I am ready to go,” we wanted to make sure that we put a firewall, a clear wall with church and state, and say, these are our local tax dollars, these are our local resources and they will be utilized to enforce public safety laws of our city, of our county, and to protect and serve all of our residents, not to be utilized for immigration enforcement. If you want to do that, then resign from police or sheriff and go apply to ICE and work for the federal government, if that’s what you want to do, so people are very clear what the functions are at the local, state and at the federal levels.
We need a voice, a strong voice, a voice of change in Washington to elevate this issue, to work with Republicans. And I know there is quite a few Republicans who want to move forward with immigration reform, that have been threatened in so many different ways that if you work towards any type of reform, we will primary you and we’ll have someone much, much further to the right come after you. We have to decompress the polarization and the polemic tone and tenor of the issue of immigration.
I just came back from an elementary school where I spoke to fifth graders, lovely, lovely children. The classroom was Mr. Denis O’Leary, a lovely teacher, Denis O’Leary [Rio Plaza Elementary]. I mean, the kids in this classroom, 100 percent were Latino. It wasn’t 98, 95. It was 100 percent. I think I asked him, is this like a 90, 95 percent Latino school? He said, no, it’s 100 percent. The kids were amazing, precocious, bright, raised their hands and asked me numerous questions and it was beautiful to the see the dynamic between this teacher Denis O’Leary and his students.
What makes these very extraordinary times in our nation’s history, in fact, very dangerous times, is that you have a president that makes Richard Nixon look like a choir boy in comparison. But what is very key here, too, is, had Jeb Bush won the presidency, John Kasich, even Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, had they won the presidency, I’d be disappointed as a Democrat but I’d get over it in a couple weeks. And I would just try to figure out where we can find common ground as a country, and where we can, let’s move this nation together forward.
When we cannot find common ground, which is normal — that’s why we have different political parties, different ways of thinking — when we cannot find common ground, then we debate our ideas, our values within the parameters of normalcy, within the spirit of the American body politic. Identified this presidency as being dramatically different, from a departure from any other Republican president in history, at least in modern political history. George W. Bush, George Herbert Walker Bush, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan. And Ronald Reagan’s footprint looms large right here on the Central Coast, Los Angeles and … all of California, but especially here, culturally, in the Central Coast and Los Angeles. And when you saw children, or heard of children, on Nov. 9th, the day after the election of 2016, crying, crying because Trump was elected to become president, this is something that I never heard of before. I have never heard of any child from a hardcore Republican who cried because Barack Obama was elected president. I’ve never heard of any child from a leftwing activist cry because George W. Bush was elected president.
But you had elementary school children as young as 5, 6, 7 actually physically tremble, anxiety and panic, because they feel it from their parents. And these young children at this elementary school — fifth grade, by the way — they knew Donald Trump, they didn’t like Donald Trump at all. I didn’t coax it out of them, I didn’t politicize this engagement, they volunteered it themselves; and I said, some of you may be the children of farmworkers, some of you may be the children of housekeepers, some of you may be the children of men and women who work at a car wash, who are dishwashers, who are cooks, and I want you to be very proud of what your parents do, and they all shook their heads; and I want you to be very proud because they work so hard to take care of you and I don’t think they want you to do what they do and that’s why they want you to get a good education here. How many kids here want to go to college? And they all raised their hand. Why do you want to go to college? One says, you know, because it makes your brain stronger, you have a stronger brain. And I said, yeah. Why do you want to go to college? To have a good job. Why do you want to go to college? So that I can have a good life. Why do you want to go to college? Because I can buy the things that I want to buy. I said, you go to college, your brain gets stronger; you go to college, you get the good job; you go to college, you get the good job, you get to do good things with your life, and then you get to buy the things that you want.
I says, and it was a wonderful conversation with these young children, but this situation with immigration has a huge impact here, and that’s one of my highest priorities, to be a voice in Washington on the issue of immigration reform, and last thing is that our senior senator has not been a leader on the issue of immigration reform. Saying I am going to vote for this bill or that bill, or “I support comprehensive immigration reform” is dramatically different. Submitting a bill and sending out a press release or a twitter, a tweet, saying I support this, is like saying, I support the environment, I support clean water. Yeah, I support clean water — what are you going to do about it?
I support clean energy; I did 100 percent clean energy, moving the state of California legally with a mandate that we are going to decarbonize the grid and we are going to move towards 100 percent clean renewal [renewable] energy by the year 2045 and I foresee us getting there by the year 2035. It’s not a question of just agreeing with issues, it’s a question of doing; and even if we are in the minority, even if we are in the minority, what can you do to elevate the issue of immigration reform? Especially since we are the home to the largest number of immigrants in the country, naturalized citizens, legal residents, dreamers, TPS, undocumented immigrants, we are the largest state. We shouldn’t be outsourcing this leadership to other U.S. senators.
The Democratic Party is at a kind of a cross roads. You’ve got your traditionalists in the Dianne Feinsteins, you’ve got people like you that are progressive, and then you have the democratic socialists, their visibility becoming more prominent. How does all that work to try to unify when you’ve got these different directions?
I think the more ideas, I think the more policy ideas we have within the party and different ways of thinking, I actually think the better. I am not an orthodox, restrictive individual that there only has to be one set of ideas. I think that some folks maybe find it a little messier; I actually don’t find it messier. I like to sit with folks more to the right, you know, left of center, socialists — that’s much more to the left — and sit down and engage in different policy issues. So to me, it’s not about going more to the left or going more to the right, being conservative or liberal. To me it’s about doing what’s right for Americans, clean air, clean water, health care for all, sensible immigration reform, elevating our economy so we can have high-wage-paying jobs as opposed to struggling with two or three jobs to make ends meet without any health-care benefits, without any defined contribution plan at your place of employment. So to me, it’s not about being more liberal or more conservative, it’s about doing what’s right. And I think that, to date, I have been successful in moving policies using political capital, using that political capital to leverage and moving the policies that I think are right, even though it may be controversial, that I think are right for all Californians and that would be good for all America.
What was your mindset when you were hearing about sexual harassment, when you didn’t want to push forward that bill as a senator for whistleblower protections?
It’s really, really important to sort of distinguish the content of that bill by a Republican, Ms. [Melissa] Melendez, who has demonstrated an anti-woman track record, not supporting Yes Means Yes, sexual assaults on college women, not supporting equal pay for women doing equal work, anti-immigrant, and also too sits next to Donald Trump in the White House and a strong supporter of a man who has been accused repeatedly of sexual assault, repeatedly, so she can’t have it both ways. Her piece of legislation never included, never included any provision on the issue of sexual harassment until recently, until the #MeToo movement happened and then we inserted that language on the Senate side. Now it’s beyond hypocritical, it is politicization now is what they are doing on this issue. Because if you have someone who strongly supports Donald Trump and all his sexual assaults, and probably someone who was a strong supporter of Brett Kavanaugh, didn’t support the minimum wage, didn’t support Yes Means Yes on sexual assaults, did not support equal pay for women doing equal work, is an anti-immigrant basher, and, you know, she is going to lecture me? Please.
How do you feel about campaign finance reform? Because literally, so many elections are bought.
I support it. I have always supported it. I always voted for campaign finance reform.
What can we do to actually get that moving?
We need a Democrat. We have millions of dollars being spent out of the pocket of a multibillionaire who is a senior senator incumbent in California. I agree with you, elections should not be bought. These are not coronations. These are elections. It’s a part of the democratic process. We need a Democrat in the White House. We need to overturn Citizens United. We have no other choice. We have to work toward taking back the House and the U.S. Senate and working feverishly to get a Democratic president in the White House. Ultimately it relies on Citizens United. With that being said, there are many local municipalities as well as state governments that can move towards campaign finance reform. I wrote the language, I am not the author, but I wrote the language with regards to a disclose act on ballot initiatives that you had to, in a transparent way, name the top three contributors so you wouldn’t have dark money coming in and influencing the ballot initiative process, which is a bastion for very wealthy individuals who want to circumvent the legislative process. If they can’t get something done through the legislature, then “I’ll just go and finance it via the state ballot initiative and I will communicate exactly what I want to communicate directly to the voters themselves,” which is oftentimes quite misleading. So I negotiated the disclose act. You have to name the top three individuals, so if it’s RJ Reynolds, Philip Morris, whomever that is on the political spectrum. That is about transparency, but we have to repeal Citizens United.
What’s it going to take to bring this country together?
In modern political history, this is the most divided, most polarized we have ever been in this country. I think we need mature leadership, I think we need leadership that brings this country together, but also through policies that improve the human condition for all individuals regardless of who you are and where you come from, regardless of which god you pray to, regardless of who you love, economic policies that allow you to take care of your family, to put a roof over your head, to put clothes on your back, to put food on the table, that’s why political leadership is consequential, it’s consequential.
Any Republicans you could see yourself working with in the future?
Let me take that a step further, there is a lot of Republicans that I have worked with. In fact there are a lot of Republicans in the [state] senate and Assembly who actually voted for me for U.S. Senate. They sent me texts and showed me pictures that “I voted for you.” And I know why they voted for me. Because although we may be from different parties, although we may have different outlooks and perspectives, I have never denigrated them, I’ve never humiliated them, I’ve always treated them with respect. I may not have voted for their measures, and some measures I may have voted for; I helped them when they needed my help, and I had to secure Republican votes for cap and trade, I needed republican votes for SB1, also known as the gas tax, which they are trying to repeal right now through Prop 6. I needed Republican votes so I needed to sit down and negotiate with them. I have a track record of bipartisanship. I have a track record of working and reaching across the aisle.
I have my values and I know what I care deeply about, and I know how to use political power to achieve my goals and objectives but in doing so in a manner that doesn’t denigrate another human being or another political party. That’s dramatically different than voting for 60 percent, 60, 60 percent of Donald Trump’s nominees to the federal bench. Men and women who seek to undermine our democratic institutions as we know it today. That is a different type of bipartisanship. I know how to use strength when I need to use strength and not capitulate and ask for passivity or patience with the present with the hopes that he will be a good president in the future. And be mindful, that comment made by the senior senator was made after the Muslim ban, was made after he pulled out of the Paris accords, was made after he unleashed ICE to terrorize communities, and made three weeks, three weeks after the tragedy of Charlottesville. So there’s a lack of comprehension and understanding of what is happening in our communities, that goes when you are born in a wealthy family and have lived a very wealthy privileged life, all of your life, all of your life.