Ep. 59 Mike Levin CA-49

NICIE PANETTA: Greetings and welcome to another candidate Friday on The MidPod: The Midterms Podcast. I'm Nicie Panetta with Heather Atwood. Wow. We are finally done with the primary season for the 2018 midterms. I think we wrapped it up in fine style with our collaboration last week in Manchester, New Hampshire with Next Gen America. I moderated Next Gen's first ever Need to Vote town hall with Tom Steyer and about 200 active citizens. Next Tuesday we'll bring you a podcast version of that event and we'll bring you a combo pod next Friday featuring two voices from New Hampshire, Chris Pappas who's now the Democratic nominee in New Hampshire's first congressional district, and Lucas Meyer the dynamic head of New Hampshire's Young Democrats. And a quick pitch for events in real life. We're planning a listener meet up at Trib Fest in Austin, Texas on September 26th and we're looking for potluck attendees in the Twin Cities area in mid-October. Please get in touch at squad@themidpod.com or on social if you're interested. Finally we'll have a booth at Politicon on October 20th and 21st in downtown L.A., so please come on down for that if you're in the area. Speaking of L.A., we're taking you back to our SoCal stomping grounds today to a district we didn't have time to profile in depth but that is important to the contest for control of the U.S. House. It's California's 49th congressional district and it stretches north from northern San Diego County into southern Orange County along the coast. This is a highly competitive seat which is open due to the retiree of Republican Darrell Issa. Hillary Clinton won this district by seven points in 2016 but Mitt Romney won it by seven points in 2012. Mike Levin is the Democratic nominee here. And here is your chance to get to know him.

NICIE: Mike Levin, thank you so much for joining us this evening and welcome to The MidPod.

MIKE LEVIN: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.

NICIE: Now you're running for Congress in California's 49th congressional district right?

LEVIN: Exactly right. And it's been represented for the last 18 years by Darrell Issa. Many of your listeners have probably heard of him and our district is ready for a change. And we are really encouraged, you know California has a crazy primary system called the top-two primary. And in June we had four Democratic candidates. And between the four of us we got 51 and a half percent of the vote. So obviously if we can get 51 percent 51 and a half percent of the vote in November we'll do quite well. We're very excited about where we are but we still have a tough couple of months to go and we're not going to leave anything on the table we're going to work our tail off to make sure that we wake up the day after the election with no regrets.

NICIE: Sounds good. Now maybe just tell us a little bit about yourself, just where you grew up and what your path has been to this to this bid for Congress.

LEVIN: Well I grew up in south Orange County for those listeners that are familiar with Southern California, our district encompasses both south Orange County and northern San Diego County and in the middle is our amazing military base Camp Pendleton. And I grew up in the South O.C and it was a very conservative place back then. It's changed dramatically. I went to public schools in South Orange County, eventually my family moved from Orange County to L.A. during my high school years then moved back to Orange County after my college. And so I went to high school in Los Angeles and then wound up going to Stanford as an undergrad. I got very active in student government, was elected student body president at the end of my sophomore year, my junior year I started getting very active in real politics. You may recall the 2000 Democratic convention was in Los Angeles and I had the opportunity to drive around then-Congress member Ellen Tauscher. Fortunately Uber was not in existence otherwise I would have been out of a job. But as a as a young 20 year-old kid getting to drive a Congress member around turned out to be a great experience and Congress member Tauscher who's still a friend of ours and supporter, she gave me an all-access pass. And from there I knew I wanted to get involved, after law after undergrad I did a Coro fellowship, the Coro Fellows program and public affairs and got to work on campaigns and learn about a lot of different aspects of public affairs.

LEVIN: And then went to Duke for law school out in Durham, North Carolina, graduated in 2005. While I was there I got involved in environmental law, continued my involvement in politics, and eventually when I graduated I had a really neat opportunity to run the Democratic Party in Orange County which I did and also to practice environmental law. And so I've been practicing particularly with regard to the clean energy industry. I founded the Clean Energy Trade Association in Orange County back in 2009 and got very active when the Recovery Act hit and President Obama was investing in renewable energy. When when Trump started running, we did everything we could to try to prevent him from becoming president. And ultimately when November 16 hit it was a wakeup call for my wife and I and we knew then that the status quo wasn't good enough. And so we've been fighting very hard for the two years since. I want to be a small part of the solution.

NICIE: Great. Lots of themes to try to develop here. I have to ask you about being president of the student body. You were that guy weren't you?

LEVIN: I don't know. Somebody had to do it but we had a good time.

NICIE: Tell me where did it come from? Did you have in your family parents...

LEVIN: You know my my parents, my parents ask that question from time to time. You know I wish I could tell you. My my grandparents were were immigrants on my mom's side from Mexico and they were you know small business owners, incredibly hardworking when they came to America, my grandpa was 11 years old, my grandma was three years old. And they didn't have a lot of money or speak any English or anything like that. They just had extraordinary work ethic. My grandpa started distributing jukeboxes for the world's Juke Box Company. If your listeners can remember the Wurlitzer, and they had five girls including my mom. My mom was the second oldest of the group and wound up becoming a toy designer she my my mom worked at Mattel toys for many many years she was the first in the family to get an advanced degree getting a master's degree from Art Center College of Design. And you know kind of the remarkable thing is that all five of the girls wound up graduating from college and yet my grandparents never so much as graduated from high school.

LEVIN: And then on the other side of the family, the Jewish side, my grandpa and grandma were also extraordinarily hardworking. They ran a carpet and drapery business. My grandpa was a World War II veteran the Army Air Force and taught me a lot about what it means to be a patriot. And after the war when they had their business they called it Levin interiors, after our family name and they found that they had to change the name due to anti-Semitism in Southern California in the 1940s 1950s. So they changed the name to Dean Interiors after the actor James Dean, and though my grandpa bore little resemblance to James Dean I must admit, and years later when I found out why they had to change the name it did not sit well with me as someone who had just served their country couldn't use their own last name, so I always encourage everyone when they see our name on signs or shirts or buttons or whatever it may be, eventually the ballot here the 49th District. Don't think of me, think of my grandparents and the sacrifices that they made where they couldn't even use that name in business.

NICIE: Wow. I want to talk to you, you've been in Democratic politics for for quite some time, about your experience running the Democratic Party in Orange County. We had a number of interviews in Orange County this winter and including one with that Gustavo Arellano and others talking about how you know it's been kind of a tough road for a long time. Hard to build a bench all that kind of stuff because it has been such a historically Republican area until recently. So just talk about what was that like? Was it an underdog feeling? Was it a Bad News Bears feeling or how did...?

LEVIN: Well it's kind of interesting the political history of Orange County, you know we haven't elected a Democrat for president or haven't haven't had a majority or a plurality of votes for Democrat for president since Franklin Roosevelt up until Hillary Hillary Clinton. But there was a period of time in the late 70s where there were actually a plurality of Democrats registered in Orange County. Then the Reagan Revolution happened and Orange County for whatever reason became one of the centers of that. And you know from the 80s 90s 2000s we were always playing catch up up until recently. When I was running the party back in the mid 2000s the registration gap was around 12 percent if I remember correctly. And now it's around three and a half and I believe by 2020 election it's going to be once again a plurality of Democrats in the district. What I think is different is unlike the late 70s I don't see us going back to to a Republican plurality anytime soon. If anything we'll see no party preference voters outweigh both Democrats and Republicans. That's those are just the trend lines. Republican Party is shrinking overall in California but particularly in places like O.C. And you know the Democratic Party is growing but not as quickly as it should. But the real growing group of voters are the no party preference voters and that's how ultimately you know if you look at all of our races whether it's mine or whether it's Gil Cisneros, Harley Rouda, Katie Porter are the four of us trying to flip these seats, all of us are going to have to win by virtue of getting you know 60 plus percent of the no party preference voters. Ultimately that's the only way the math makes sense assuming that Democrats or Republicans largely stay home or largely vote for their own.

NICIE: Great. So let's just segue to that pathway. What would you say are the issues that you find really resonate with those voters in the middle that you do need to sway?

LEVIN: Well there are certain things that are just not partisan. I look at our environment as being one of those things in our district. It extends 52 miles north to south along the coast from Dana Point down to San Clemente down Oceanside, Carlsbad, Solano Beach, Encinitas, Del Mar all those coastal communities they don't care Republican or Democrat doesn't matter. They want clean air they want clean water. They want a cleaner beach. They want to keep the we have a nuclear power plant want to keep the nuclear waste off our coast or get the nuclear waste off our coast. And you know what I have seen growing up in Southern California as you know back in the 80s, we had smog alerts routinely that you know would cause us to stay inside as children during the smoggy days you couldn't go out during recess because of the air pollution. And we had a huge problem with air pollution in the 50s 60s 70s in Southern California and what we did proactively is you know the federal government passed the Clean Air Act by the way Richard Nixon was the president.

LEVIN: I'm sure your listeners many of them will know that when the Clean Air Act was passed and when the EPA was created and the Clean Air Act had broad bipartisan support, then California received a waiver from the Clean Air Act to go even further to reduce emissions because of the big pollution problem we had at the time. Ronald Reagan was the governor. So again you had Richard Nixon as the president, Ronald Reagan as governor not exactly tree huggers but they agreed that clean air was important. So what we did is we aggressively reduced emissions from vehicles, from industry, and from power plants. And as a result we dramatically reduced air pollution. So the average voter in this district knows the importance of that issue and that's what I've worked on for the last 13 or 14 years is cleaner air, water, and a cleaner beach and protecting the environment. By contrast my Republican opponent in the race a woman named Diane Harkey who is the handpicked successor of Issa has received a lifetime score of an F from the League of Conservation Voters and even voted to make it easier to drill offshore. And I don't think most voters want that regardless of party. That's one issue. There are several I would say responsible gun ownership, gun violence prevention is another, health care making sure that people have quality affordable health care that they actually aren't going to be bankrupted by the next visit to the doctor.

NICIE: I'd love to just spend another minute on the environment given your expertise, we're on a little bit of a roll lately with green policy. We recently interviewed Sean Casten in Illinois he's running in Illinois' sixth. He's got a business background in clean power. And we've interviewed Nathaniel Stinnett at the Environmental Voter Project talking about his hunt to use big data to identify nonvoting environmentalists and turn them out to the polls. You've had as you referenced a really interesting role in policy and kind of the convening role. Tell us tell us just a little bit more about how you would bring your background in environment and environmental policy to to Congress, like what would you what committees would you want to be on, what are the steps you would really loves to see Congress take?

LEVIN: So it's really simple for me its whether or not we're going to be using those technologies those clean energy clean tech technologies that are developed manufactured here in the United States or whether we're going to be using those technologies that are developed elsewhere whether it be Asia or Europe or other parts of the world because those technologies will be developed and the United States has led in every other industrial revolution. So I think the clean tech industrial revolution should be no exception. And I want to see our federal government continue to innovate and to invest in clean energy because we've got to lead the way. And in California we know for a fact that if you invest in clean energy technology it is an economic gain. Never listen to those who will tell you or will try to tell you that you can't have a cleaner environment and economic growth because in California we are experiencing a cleaner environment and we're experiencing economic growth at the same time through the clean energy jobs of the future. A lot of those are here in our district. I want to make sure we lead again.

LEVIN: When President Obama was there we were beginning to lead you know in terms of our footprint, our carbon footprint, our global responsibility as a world leader on climate change. When Trump took over we abdicated our responsibility under the Paris Climate Accord. We went from a leader to a laughingstock virtually overnight. And I know that we can get back to being a leader again if we commit ourselves to help reduce emissions in this country. What does that mean from Congress? Well we got very close in '08 '09 with Waxman-Markey and we need to explore whatever options we can to reduce greenhouse gas emissions whether it's a renewable portfolio standard, a cap and trade policy similar to Waxman-Markey or similar to what we've done here in California, or a revenue neutral carbon tax. As former congress member Inglis one wants to do or something else that we haven't even thought of yet. We've got to put all options out there on the table. The main thing though is we've got to stop digging the hole deeper.

NICIE: And meanwhile Republicans in California and I think your opponent specifically I just checked her Twitter feed are campaigning on a gas tax repeal. Is that getting any traction with swing voters?

LEVIN: You know I have no idea what I can tell you is they're desperate and they want to make this campaign about everything other than the issues that really matter to most Californians. But let me say this. Our roads and our bridges are simply not safe right now. And that's because we've had decades of neglect by the federal government and that has left our transportation infrastructure in shambles. And here in California we have an 150 billion dollar backlog of really important repairs. So as a member of Congress you know what I want to fight for is rebuilding that infrastructure, taking a fair share of the burden off of the state government off of the local government because if Congress were doing their jobs we wouldn't be having this discussion at all. And so it's entirely disingenuous for the Republicans who have had control of the House the Senate or the White House who have failed failed to pass any sort of meaningful infrastructure package now to turn around and to try to you know to to blame the Democrats. It's absolutely disingenuous. I think people will see through it and I think they're going to pay for their disingenuous attacks at the polls.

NICIE: You mentioned corruption and many of our listeners may know that the congressman and very nearby district to yours Duncan Hunter in the 50th is currently under federal indictment for misusing campaign funds for personal use. But you've made some accusations about your opponent and her background her financial dealings. Do you want to just spend a minute on that?

LEVIN: Well they're not accusations they're absolute facts anyone can look them up. Diane Harkey my opponent was a senior officer in a Ponzi scheme as a jury and then a judge an appellate judge called it a Ponzi scheme that her husband ran that was found guilty of ripping off seniors and she used the profits from that scam to help pay for her political campaigns. In fact the San Diego Union Tribune wrote that and I'm quoting now "both Harkey's refusal to answer basic questions about her family scandal and her decision to depict herself as a victim are unconscionable. She is unsuitable for public service." Again I repeat that "She is unsuitable for public service" as said by the editorial board of the San Diego Union Tribune which is the largest newspaper in our area. So you know perhaps it's one of the reasons why she's refused most of our requests to debate.

NICIE: And she's now accusing you of having worked on behalf of Countrywide Financial in relation to its mortgage practices. Do you wanna respond to that just?

LEVIN: Yeah so so these same charges were made back in the primary as well by the candidate who wound up finishing in last place. But she has a TV spot attacking me. The reality is I never represented Countrywide in a foreclosure action I never represented anyone in a foreclosure action. If anything I tried to help keep people in their homes. And you know I am no fan of those folks at Countrywide who were doing all kinds of horrible things. My dad almost lost his house to them. So the insinuation that I somehow was a bad actor in this is wholly disingenuous and I think it's indicative of someone who has nothing positive to say so is using their time to attack me.

NICIE: Got it. On a brighter note I gather if I'm not mistaken that former President Obama is coming to Orange County in Southern California this weekend to campaign for you and some of your your colleagues on the Democratic side. Is that true?

LEVIN: Well it is and I have to tell you one of the great honors of this entire campaign has been to receive President Obama's endorsement back on August 1st I believe was when we found out about it. He is coming Orange County I believe it's his first stop on the trail and you know he's certainly a political hero of mine and someone that we miss every single day. And you know he believed in a more hopeful and optimistic vision for the future. That's where we need to get back to. And I think we will I think a brighter day is coming.

NICIE: Yeah. Let's talk about that. You know the situation in Washington continues to deteriorate with President Trump. You have a law degree. You may be coming to Congress next year. How would you think about being a newly minted lawmaker in the U.S. House? Should impeachment come to the table?

LEVIN: Yeah we have a fundamental responsibility as the House of Representatives constitutional responsibility to hold the executive to account. I think it's very simple. If the President of the United States you know is is an unindicted coconspirator in a federal offense. We're in uncharted territory here. And had he been merely a candidate had he lost the election he probably would have been indicted by now. So you know we have to continue to peel back the onion and we have to make sure that all of the documents that were provided to the House Oversight Committee in the House Intelligence with Nunez are made public or at least shared with Mueller. I don't think it's why necessarily voters want me to go to Washington. I think they want me to to go to represent their interests here in the 49th district. But I can tell you I'll do all I can to hold Washington accountable and to speak truth to power and to make sure we get to the bottom of what's been going on.

NICIE: Yeah. How does it does does the severity of the situation in Washington inform at all your thoughts about House leadership and Leader Pelosi and you know who's who would be the right we're seeing so much voter demand for generational change. You know we see it with almost every primary week that goes by. And yet as a kid who grew up looking at Watergate and you know just the gravity of that crisis as it unfolded you know the need for people with some level of experience and temperament is so important too.

LEVIN: Well you know I've always been an admirer of Leader Pelosi and right now I'm obviously focused on winning the election rather than on a hypothetical race for Speaker but it would be hard to imagine someone more qualified to advocate for democratic values. And I also believe Leader Pelosi is sincere in her desire to bring along a new generation of leadership which is absolutely critical. But I think she gets attacked often unfairly because she's been effective. We forget her effectiveness in passing the Affordable Care Act and preventing the privatization of Social Security. In passing the Recovery Act. So moving forward perhaps more than some I've been I've been willing to admit my admiration for Leader Pelosi who I consider to be one of our great modern political figures and you know obviously as first female Speaker a person whose legacy is extremely important.

NICIE: And then last question for you Mike. Something that I've been thinking about a lot again as the situation in D.C. continues to get worse, are is that you know the history that I've read and what we should be looking back in history and then also you know frankly people in in my life what would my parents think of all this? Is there someone in your life who's maybe no longer around or someone in history that you particularly admire and think about their example as you think about potentially becoming a member of Congress and how you would how you would serve.

LEVIN: Well it's my grandparents their legacy lives on with me every day and I think often about the type of country that that they believed in. You know it was really one where we were we not only tolerated one another but we appreciated one another and it was our differences whether it be our country of origin or our race or our religion our gender our gender identity or sexual orientation all the differences that we think about that that you know the current occupant of the White House likes to use to divide us, my grandparents believed in a far different set of values where we actually saw those differences as our strength as a country. We're better than what we're seeing from this president. We're better than what we're seeing from the Congress that empowers him. And I just think there are too many people in Washington for the wrong reasons today. And I think we need to we need to throw the bums out and if we are able to take back the House and eventually the Senate and the White House we've got a lot of work to do to repair our global reputation and to restore the values that made America strong to begin with.

NICIE: Well on that positive forward looking note I'd like to say thank you so much Mike Levin for your time this evening really really appreciate it.

LEVIN: You got it. Thank you for having me and I encourage your listeners if they're interested in our campaign go to mikelevin.org or visit us on Twitter @MikeLevinCA. And we'd love to have your help. We need all the help we can get to finally flip the 49th.

NICIE: That was Mike Levin, Democratic nominee in California's 49th Congressional District. Now as I'm recording this, residents of the Carolinas and Georgia are preparing for the impact of Hurricane Florence. I read just today that the Republican-controlled legislature in North Carolina passed a bill in 2012 called HB 819. That law literally forbade state and local agencies there from taking the latest climate science into account when regulating real estate development. It's another reminder that we need more lawmakers with environmental expertise in elected office. It's also a reminder that wise leadership really matters to our jobs, to our homes, and to our lives. So thanks for listening to The MidPod. Thanks for being engaged in the process. And see you next week.

Eunice Panetta