Ep. 40 Joseph Kopser, TX-21

NICIE PANETTA: Welcome to another edition of The MidPod, the Midterms Podcast. I'm Nicie Panetta with Heather Atwood. We are two moms traveling America to chronicle the 2018 congressional midterm elections, from a left of center perspective. Tuesdays we bring you in-depth profiles of individual congressional districts and context interviews with thought leaders and change makers. On Fridays we bring you long-form interviews with candidates running for Congress, candidates we believe have the capacity to put country over party and reinvigorate our first branch of government, the U.S. Congress. We hope that you had a chance to celebrate the Fourth of July and to reflect on your personal commitment to active citizenship this week. Today we want you to hear from a very active citizen, Joseph Kopser. He's the Democratic nominee in Texas's 21st congressional district. You heard a little bit from Kopser in Episode 13 of the MidPod. He's a former Army Ranger who was awarded the Bronze Star for his service in Iraq. After selling his startup company a couple of years ago, he decided to run for Congress. As a reminder, this district contains a portion of Austin, stretches south to San Antonio and then west across the beautiful Texas Hill Country. This district has a ten point Republican lean and is rated likely Republican by the Cook Political Report but Kopser's chances have been boosted by the decision of incumbent Lamar Smith to retire. Kopser's facing former Ted Cruz's chief of staff, Chip Roy, in November's general election. In this episode we're going to share the conversation that we had with Joseph Kopser when we were in his district in late 2017. But first, I ran into him last week in San Antonio at an informational event about the children who have been taken from their parents by the U.S. government at our southern border with Mexico. Joseph Kopser had just returned from a fact-finding mission in El Paso, and he told me what he learned.

JOSEPH KOPSER: Yeah, well so, in my career I've actually spent six years living in El Paso on the border. In my company I hired employees that had to go through the H1-B process because they lived outside the United States, and I've of course served in Iraq, where we were not far from the Iranian border, the Turkish border, and the Syrian border, so I'm very used to border issues. However, the nature today of the Trump Administration decision to go to the zero-tolerance was something new. So I wanted to go firsthand to see what was going on and before I go into the groups that I met with, the biggest takeaway was - which is: everything has been going on the border, as bad as we see it and as much as we don't like it, it's all legal. It's 100 percent legal because our Congress over the last 40 years has enacted those laws and they have failed, both Democrats and Republicans when they control the House, to do anything about it. And that's what angers me the most after returning from Juarez in Mexico and El Paso, is that it's all 100 percent legal. It's all legal what they're doing.

NICIE: I think many of our listeners have been very upset to learn about the family separations policy, but let's make a list. What are the other things that you think are problematic?

KOPSER: Well first of all, we're not recognizing what's causing the real issue around immigration, which is supply and demand. One of the parts of the supply is the number of people that live in Central America who live in abject poverty. They live in crime, they live in fear of drugs and violence and so they are leaving Central America. It's called the Northern Triangle - Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala - and they're moving north through Mexico often on this train called "La bestia.” And they are trying to make a better life, that's one part of it. Another group that means a lot to me are U.S. military veterans, some of who have served in combat who are guaranteed or, at least given, legal resident status on the condition that they not commit any crimes they could stay in the U.S.. Well some of them, their crimes included possession or use of marijuana. Others were DUIs. So we have situations where one particular gentleman I met, Jose, who lived in the United States since the 1950s enlisted in the Army in the 60s, served in Vietnam, lived by the book until the year 2000 was caught for possession of marijuana and was not only put in jail in the United States but then after he got out of jail was sent back - deported to Mexico.

NICIE: Was that under the Trump Administration?

KOPSER: No, this is what I mean. These laws have been on the books for a very long time. We have to review as a nation, a compassionate nation, to figure out what is the goal? If our goal is to be a beacon of hope, like I think it is, we need to go back and look at all of our immigration rules and have real comprehensive reform.

NICIE: I think it's a great point because so many Democrats, or folks who are independent left of center, they - this open border thing as kind of a canard, I mean, the vast majority of people we've interviewed believe there should be a border and it should be monitored and kept kept secure but that we should have an open-minded and compassionate policy to how we welcome people into the country. So that's helpful. What do you think it's going to take to get Congress to act in that fashion?

KOPSER: I think first of all you have to have an understanding that has to be bipartisan. Second of all we have to stop the fear-mongering on both sides, on all sides. We have to quit calling names. We have to quit dividing people and instead focus on what, for instance, we can agree on. I think we can agree that our economy is so red hot that we need workers of all skill levels, from everyday laborers who want to help whether it be in construction or be in agriculture to high tech industry, they wanna help build the next great companies of the United States like so many immigrants in our country have done the last 15 years. That's the first thing we have to do is have a bipartisan agreement on what we're trying to go for. And then secondly we just have to have an incremental approach on how we solve some problems, and one might be as simple as just allowing more green cards or allowing more people to be able to have residence status. At the end of the day, this notion that a wall is required before we can have these discussions is out of touch with most Texans because most Texans know that down on our southern border, you can't even physically build a wall much less actually enforce it.

NICIE: And just on the asylum question, there does seem to be a number of folks in Texas and elsewhere that don't really believe that these folks are seeking asylum. Did you get any insight into whether some of these families are genuinely in fear of their lives and appropriately seeking asylum legally, which is, you know, legal under international law?

KOPSER: Right. So one of the places we went to is a place called The Annunciation Home. It's run by a gentleman named Ruben Garcia. It's been open for 40 years in El Paso and they have anywhere between 100 or 400 families living there at any one time. The kids are sometimes separated. But the time that I was visiting there yesterday there were actually kids present. And I can assure you, if you have compassion and you meet the families that we're talking to, it's quite clear that the vast majority are desperately seeking asylum for all the right reasons. Now, there will be perpetrators. There will be fraud. There will be people who try to use that as a way to get in. But I believe, just like our criminal justice system in the U.S., that it's better to make sure that we allow a system that helps the majority and then in the case of the minority that get into trouble we can deal with those as opposed to a blanket solution that is no solution, in my opinion, that actually penalizes all involved, which is what we have now.

NICIE: Anyone else you spoke to or anything else you learned?

KOPSER: Absolutely. There are two other groups that I haven't mentioned yet. One is the Borderland Immigration Coalition. This is a group of nonprofits, sometimes faith-based organizations working from a legal perspective to be able to provide the defense for those detainees that are listed as asylum seekers but are technically criminals under the rules because of where they entered. etc. That group was fascinating to talk to. Even one of their members, a woman who I talked to said even something that might seem cruel like an ankle bracelet is actually a fabulous way - fabulous might not be the best word - it's an effective way to allow asylum seekers to be able to be here not in a detention center with the promise that they're going to show up at their court hearing to be able to try to prove their asylum case. And it does seem harsh but it's a lot better than where they came from and a lot better than being in detention.

NICIE: And from the standpoint of the taxpayer, a fraction of the cost.

KOPSER: Oh, there are no words to describe how much cheaper it is. The facilities that I was in today for instance with - it was an ICE-run facility, a detention center. But the majority of the people that I actually saw and talk to were guards that were wearing patches not of ICE but of a private security firm so they were contractors. And that's expensive. No matter how you slice it up, it's expensive.

NICIE: On the use of public resources, I was reviewing the data today and noted that our Border Patrol staffing on the U.S.-Mexico border has skyrocketed over the last 15 years at the same time that apprehensions on the border have gone down significantly. So the money that we're paying per apprehensions, so to speak, is - that cost has gone up significantly. I'd also add that from the standpoint of everyday life, being near the border, everyone has to go through often multiple checkpoints a day where you are queried about your citizenship status. And I'm just wondering how you feel about, you know just again, that sort of cost benefit of that spending.

KOPSER: Yeah, I'd encourage your listeners to do a fact check. But what I learned today in El Paso is that Border Patrol is now seven times larger than it was 25 years ago. And you are correct that apprehensions are down and one of the reasons why apprehensions are down is because the economy in Mexico has improved under NAFTA. And so therefore we don't have as many people seeking work as they used to. What we now have is an influx, especially since 2014, of asylum seekers due to the drug war in the Northern Triangle in Central America. So in terms of government tax dollars, rather than spend the money at the border detaining people, ripping apart families and paying for all these detention centers, use that money in Central America as aid and international development and fix the problem and go after the source of the issue.

NICIE: So now we turn to our earlier conversation with Joseph Kopser in Austin.

HEATHER ATWOOD: So, our first question for you is: tell us about a mom that has meant something to you. Doesn't have to be yours, could be another mom.

KOPSER: My shout out in terms of moms probably has to go to my grandmother who I had the great fortune of knowing before she passed away. So as a kid growing up she was about a mile and a 16th from our house and she always reminded us of that. So we could get there easily on my dirt bike and pedal my way over there before or after school or before or after baseball practice. She was always whistling and so I'm a whistler to this day so I'll be caught whistling and don't even realize what I'm whistling and it's because of my grandmother. She just always had a whistle going in the house. I never left the house hungry. She would feed me everything from Spaghetti-o's to Twinkies to whatever - Steak-Umms, I remember distinctly, she'd throw on the grill or on the pan and would have it ready for me just by walking in the front door. She herself didn't finish education past elementary school but was always working with us. I remember as kids teaching as math and numbers and coins and I just remember everything about all that early education coming from her. Obviously a Depression-era survivor, I guess, is a nice way to say it. She had a real conviction toward hard work. I can't tell you how many expressions I use today. They're common expressions but they are expressions that I learned from her growing up and so she was a wonderful woman and had four sons and a big family and kept it all together nicely so I'm a big fan of moms, you might say.

HEATHER: It sounds like you have a riches of moms in your life.

KOPSER: I do, a lot of great role models.

HEATHER: So where in Texas did this happen, this childhood?

KOPSER: Well actually, I was born in Lexington, Kentucky so I grew up in Lexington, then went off to West Point. In '93 I graduated and came down to Texas in '94 actually, after I finished a bunch of army training and Ranger School and my wife Amy was the very first person I ever met in El Paso, Texas. We share a friend in common who was in college with me and said, "well when you get to El Paso," said to me, "when you get to El Paso, look up my friend Amy." And so I had this little scribble of paper. This is pre-cell phone, of course. Little scribble of paper and I drove my little U-Haul truck around to the west side of El Paso from Fort Bliss and found her and she showed me around, helped me find an apartment, and then the rest is history. 23 years of marriage. So that's how I got to here.

HEATHER ATWOOD: OK I have a question for you. Sort of a personal question.


HEATHER: My 19-year-old daughter joined the Army.

KOPSER: Oh. Congratulations.

HEATHER: Thank you. I'm very proud of her. She goes to the University of Michigan, she's in the ROTC program there. She's now training with the Rangers. So I am incredibly proud of her. And I also read the newspaper and I read about North Korea. I read about just what seems like an incredibly unstable Commander-in-Chief making these kinds of decisions. So can you talk to me, as the mother of this, you know, potentially a new Army Ranger, how I should feel?

KOPSER: These are very serious times. I'm just afraid that this president is too quick to grab the saber and rattle the saber. And that's really what bothers me when we look at the military angles. Here's a guy who's never served. His kids never served and yet he has no problem grabbing his saber and rattling it. And so I think it's a lot less likely you're going to rattle that saber if you've actually held one in your hands and know how lethal it can be. Two things give me great comfort. First of all, we had the most professional Army that the nation has ever seen. It's an all-volunteer force. It's now combat-seasoned and at every level of the military we have combat experience now to know the horrors of war. So if anybody, if anybody wants to keep us out of an all-out war North Korea it's our military.

HEATHER: So you, according to your resume, you worked on free and fair elections in Afghan - after the regime fall in Iraq.


HEATHER: So, do we have free and fair elections?

KOPSER: We have the freest and fairest in the world. Doesn't mean that it's the best. Churchill once said about Americans, "if nothing else, they'll get it right after getting it wrong nine hundred ninety nine times," or something to that effect. But the point being, I wouldn't want to live anywhere else. I'll just tell you that. But there are two things we have to, have to, have to fix. We have to fix gerrymandering. And what it means in terms of how representatives today pick their voters instead of voters being able to pick them and we have to be able to fix campaign finance reform. I don't mean to spoil anybody's surprise or tell you how this movie turns out. But right now the United States, unless you are an extremely compelling story, which there are some that are out there, unless it's extremely compelling. The only real way to get into this process unfortunately is to be able to raise a ton of money. To be able to go out and harass your friends and relatives and keep calling and go until you do and work hard and hopefully that brings in more money and there's just so much money involved right now in politics. It's one of my only - it's my only disappointment in running, is how much less time I have to actually spend meeting people and talking and studying policy and how much time I really have to spend trying to raise money and going to fundraising events. We have to fix it. We have to fix it or else that's going to limit the amount of people and limit the backgrounds of people that want to run; I want to see more teachers. I want to see more mechanics. I want to see more bank tellers running for offices but they just don't have the capacity to tap into that network. And that's disappointing. And so we have to fix gerrymandering. We have to fix campaign finance reform. We'll never get it perfect but there are some things we can do to improve them.

NICE: I was wondering if you could pinpoint it just a little bit more in terms of what it was about the '16 cycle. If there's one incident or episode or something that just made you think, "I have to I have to step up and run for Congress and run against Lamar Smith.".

KOPSER: Yeah well that's a great - there's actually two or three things to unpack there in your question. So the whole time during the campaign even during the primaries, I was trying to work with my friends through blogging, through Facebook, through social media conversations over beer to say, "we really do need to focus on the most important things in the race which is experience and the ability to work within the process in D.C. and I thought very clearly that Donald Trump was not that person. So I started inching closer and closer to public service as we grew closer to the election, whether it be PTA president, whether it be running for school board, whether it be running for city council but it was as I was doing that homework through the winter this last year that I saw Lamar Smith stand on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives during that whole fake news flare-up around the crowd size that was very clearly obvious to anyone who could look at those pictures what was really going on. But yet he got up there and defended the president of United States and said that the news is indeed fake. And that was really kind of the tipping point for me because when Representative Smith said get your news directly from the president. Well that stands counter to everything I know I've wanted to make sure that my daughters do, which is get varied opinions, get a lot of advice, read a lot, make your own informed decisions. And then when I realized after that statement I did a little bit of homework on the guy and found out that he was the first member of Congress to give Donald Trump money, I realized, "wait a minute.” Here's a person that not only believes that it's appropriate to have your own set of alternative facts but more importantly he was the first member of Congress to come out and legitimize this whole new brand of politics that we're in that is anti-science, anti-facts. And as an aerospace engineer myself I said, "Well, you know who better to stand up to someone like Representative Smith,” who's been there for 31 years, totally out of touch. So he is currently the chair of the House Science and Technology Committee, which I humorously point out he believes in neither science nor technology. The committee has existed for 52 years. He in his three years has subpoenaed more scientists and brought them in to harass them over their findings, usually around climate science, and in his particular case he being in denial of the climate science. So instead of celebrating science he's bringing them in there and berating them, which doesn't sit well with me. But you look at a couple of things he's actually done. One is - most striking is, he has stood with the president, you know, almost locked arms over the repeal of the progress that we made with the Clean Power Plan and for your listeners that aren't familiar, the Clean Power Plan was an effort in the last administration - years of work, years of interviews, and years of debate, to get to a point where we could put more restrictions on the dirtiest forms of energy we have, which right now is coal. And yet Representative Smith for whatever reason, ask him if you can figure it out, is trying to bring back coal and bring back coal jobs. Because for whatever reason he believes that he can excite the far side of his base to be able to rally to his cause when it stands in stark contrast to the market forces. It stands in stark contrast to the science and it stands in stark contrast to the actual businesses of his district.

NICIE: One of the things we've heard while we are here is that you know, people who have been voting Republican, who are Republican-minded, do not vote for Democrats. And so what the Democrats have to do in Texas-21 is find more Republican - excuse me, find more Democratic voters and not even try, essentially, to win over Independents.

KOPSER: So I would actually take an alternative look at the way you described that. So, do we need to find more Democratic voters? Absolutely. Voter registration is going to be huge between Austin and San Antonio and that's Hays County and Comal County, all up and down I-35. I would encourage your listeners to go and look online. Forbes Magazine recently, a couple of months ago, described that that region from Austin to San Antonio is going to be the next great megalopolis of the United States because all of these cities are growing and they're growing together. And they're growing together and their shared opportunities are going to include business and technology and cybersecurity and medical advances, with the new medical hospital here in Austin. So it's going to be an unbelievable opportunity to register new people that have moved into the state. Austin grows 111 people a day. So the challenge for us is to make sure we get them registered as much as possible. And to your second point about Republicans always voting for Republicans and never voting for a Democrat, I would push back on that a little bit and just point out that first of all the state itself, up until 25 years ago, was always a Democratic state, in terms of who were elected. Think about the presidents that have come from Texas in terms of LBJ and his long history as a Texas Democrat. What the Democrats have had a hard time doing is putting up candidates that provide a viable alternative to the Republican that's there. And this particular case there's never a better example than me and Rep. Smith. [MidPod theme music]
NICIE: That was Joseph Kopser, candidate for Congress in Texas's 21st congressional district. You can learn more at kopserforcongress.com. Tune in next Tuesday for an interview with another veteran, Daniel Barkhuff. He's the founder of the bipartisan political action committee, Veterans for Responsible Leadership. We interviewed him in collaboration with a group of middle- and high-school students to learn more about his group's desire to elect members of Congress who are willing to work across the aisle and strengthen Congress's ability to serve as a check on President Trump. That's it for this edition of The MidPod. See you next week.

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Eunice Panetta