From the days that he was first elected to the Concord City Council in 1991, Mark DeSaulnier has constantly acted as though he needs to earn the respect and support from his constituents. After a term as Mayor of Concord in 1993, DeSaulnier was appointed by Republican Governor Pete Wilson to replace Sunne McPeak on the Contra Costa Board of Supervisors. He ended up being elected three times to this post.
In 2006, DeSaulnier who had earlier changed his political party affiliation from Republican to Democrat, ran for the vacant State Assembly seat ending up winning 66% of the vote in the General Election. After serving just two years, he migrated to the 7th Senatorial District winning two terms in 2008 and 2012. Scheduled to be termed out in 2016, Mark DeSaulnier ran virtually uncontested for the Congressional seat to replace his mentor George Miller who choose to retire after more than 30 years in office.
Barely eight months into his term, had the Freshman Congressman from Concord undertaken a busy schedule during the summer recess? Between meeting with constituents (especially on the nuclear agreement with Iran), town hall meetings, fund raisers, etc…, Mark DeSaulnier sat down with the Contra Costa Bee to give his impressions on his first term in office.
Let’s start with the most important question “How do you equate the success and attention of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign?
I have no idea. I don’t know what the appeal is. I take the comments from people to mean they are looking for authenticity. Yet, he has a bit of a shtick. I think to be fair people are angry and frustrated with government, I share that frustration not to the point I am angry at everything, but it’s frustrating that government does not want to change in an era of bureaucracy. There are a lot of good people, but government does not always act like citizens are its clients.
The next burning question is the peace accord with Iran. I know you are supporting it. Can you advise what went into you making that decision?
I have said that if I were to vote today (8/25/15), I would vote in favor of it. I have, however, told both supporter and opponents of the Iran Proposal, as well as the Administration and leadership in the Democratic Caucus, that I was going to take the time to listen to both sides. If the opponents were to dissuade me, I would let them know.
The two people whom I met with before you arrived oppose the deal. I met with them for half an hour, they told me what they thought, and I told them the same thing I said to you – if I had to vote for it today I would vote for it, but I would continue to meet with people and consider their opinions. This is my first important foreign policy vote and there is no reason for me to commit without doing my due diligence, listening to both sides, and hearing directly from constituents. (Update: Congressman DeSaulnier voted in favor of the Iran nuclear proposal on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives on Friday, September 11th. Although the symbolic vote failed by a vote of 162-269, the agreement went into effect on September 17th).
What is it like relocating to Washington D.C.? How is it different than commuting to Sacramento When being in the legislature?
The physical distance alone is different. I come home almost every weekend. I just think it’s important to stay in touch with constituents, plus I prefer to be in my own backyard in Concord, California than to stay in D.C.
How is the difference in your role in the State Senate and that of the House of Representatives?
Also, there’s a big difference having been in the majority party in the state legislature. When Congressman Miller announced he was leaving, I was a candidate to be the presiding officer in the Senate. I was at a point in my career where I could get things done. So, that’s the biggest adjustment. I am a Freshman Member of the Minority party, learning how to get things accomplished.
Who in Congress has been the most helpful in getting you acclimated?
That is a good question. I think the California Delegation has been incredibly helpful. California has such a large delegation with a total of 54 Members, of which 39 are Democrats. Many of my colleagues from both sides of the aisle served with me in the California State Legislature. This is particularly helpful because we have personal relationships and friendships with Representatives from both parties. We all talk a lot about what it is like in Congress and we share our perspectives. Of course, Congressman Miller (Ret.) has been helpful to me throughout my career.
If this is the picture does everything fall apart once you get on the floor of the House floor?
I think there are two reasons for this. One is just the process we use in Congress.
In the State Legislature and local government you actually have public meetings were people can discuss differences of opinion. I think this was conducive to a multitude of things. In Congress, partially due to the size and the structure of hearings there is not as much give and take. The witnesses only have about five minutes for their testimonies and Members are allocated five minutes each for their questions.
Also, our country is very polarized. I respect the opinions of each of my colleagues and it is our job as Representatives to reflect our constituents, but it is important to recognize that Northern California is very different than other regions of our country. It is for this reason that when a bill comes to the House Floor for a vote the American public sees these differences on display.
Have you set up personal goals for yourself as a member of Congress especially considering you have been elected to this post in the later stages of your political career?
My biggest personal goal is to be part of making the institution work again. I hope to try to find ways, as I always did in the Legislature, to work with members on both sides of the aisle to get things done.
Since being sworn into office in January, I have had legislative items within the jurisdiction of the Committee on Education and the Workforce where my Republican colleagues approached me to be their co-author. In several of these instances, when and if the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is finalized, some of these items could be included in the final bill. While the bill itself will not have my name on it, it will be a bill that I contributed to.
Which bills are those you dealt with?
The first bill that I referenced would set aside funds to create wraparound services for students. These services would provide kids with a safe space and access to the tools and services that would help student outcomes. Some examples of wraparound services are behavioral health counseling, nutrition assistance, and tutoring. The other bill is a nationwide grant to help schools modernize their kitchen equipment and training to meet national school lunch nutrition standards. These standards were updated to reflect the best interest of our children, and we must now help our schools meet these guidelines.
Do you think your experience on all levels of government will help you be more effective sooner?
Yes, having experience at all different levels of government can help to make you more effective. Like with any job, it is important that elected officials do not get burned out and continue to approach the work with passion and authenticity.
What is the major difference for you coming from Senate Leader Pro Tem elect to be a freshman Representative from the Minority Party in Congress?
It’s very different. In California we do what some people say are crazy things. Sometimes they are, but often times these ideas are innovative. Part of it is that the nature of the institution in Washington D.C. is designed to be reflective of the rest of the country, which is often more cautious and risk-adverse than California. On the other hand, when you make a difference on small things like a line item in an education bill, they have national implications which are important. As a Member of Congress, we have the unique opportunity to effect change on both the national and local level. On the local level, we are able to help families with constituent services ranging from Social Security and Medicare benefits to tours of the Capitol.
Do you have any regrets for doing this?
I am not one who believes in regrets. One door closes and another opens. The thing is I was in my last two years under term limits in the Senate. I could have gone back to the Assembly, but preferred to do this.
Or you could have run for State office?
Yes, I had some people who wanted me to run for Secretary of State. I gave i some thought, but that is a position for a younger person and someone who has an aspiration for higher office. Besides, my friend Alex Padilla is running for this post.
I know you are on the education committee. What other ones you involved with?
Correct. I serve on both the Committee on Education and the Workforce as well as the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. I feel very fortunate to have been appointed to committees with issues of importance to our district. I believe that oversight of government should not be partisan, and I rather enjoy this assignment while many democrats do not.
As is well known your close friend Susan Bonilla was badly beaten in the Special election to take your place in the State Senate. Considering these same voters make up much of your constituency’s, has this changed your outlook?
No, I don’t think I’ve changed my outlook since I started. I‘m socially progressive and think I am responsive to my constituents irrespective of their political point of view. And, I believe in good oversight of government.
What attributes are people looking for?
In my time listening to citizens, I have learned that people want to elect someone who is independent and can stand up for the causes they support with conviction. For instance, I have agreed with labor on many things and am pro-labor, but we have had some significant disagreements, such as the BART strike. I thought the strike was a mistake for a variety of reasons, and I let labor know where I was coming from.
What do you mean a big mistake?
I was very involved in those negotiations, trying to get both sides get together. I told labor that they should not go on strike because there a lot of people having a tough time. Regardless, labor was not sympathetic and they were mad at me, which was very publicized.
Do you think the district has changed politically from the one George Miller reigned supreme for over 30 years
Districts change every 10 years because of redistricting. However, I think the district is still pretty similar. Danville and Alamo were added to Congressman Miller’s district later in his term, but as a totality the district is about the same politically. If anything it has gotten more liberal because the democratic registration has gone up because of the urban core moving over the hills.
Is it not more Independents because of more people not belonging to either party?
But you see how these independents voted for Obama and Jerry Brown?
Isn’t this group the undecided’s who determine most close elections?
That’s true. One of the things about the demographics of this district is not only the wealth but the education. We are among the most educated Congressional districts in the United States. When you have that demographic, people expect their representatives to understand the issues.
How do you compare yourself to George Miller
Our demeanors are different. George was famous for his passionate speeches on the House floor. He did it so long and was comfortable with the institution. He was well respected on both sides of the aisle even though he was very liberal. Earlier this year, I was at a dinner with long term conservative Senator Roberts who looked across the table shook my hand and said “I loved George Miller. We did not agree on a lot but you could trust him because he was a man of his word.” I would love to think that we are similar in this way that your word is your bond.
There is a lot of concern on the Democratic side on the leadership of Nancy Pelosi and that it might necessary for new blood to invigorate what could be considered geriatric leadership in your party and with Republicans as well. What is your take on this?
I think turnover is good, but so is experience. With any job it is good to know when it is time to move on. On the other hand, drawing on personal experience, I think having done this for a long time I have seen the benefits that experience can bring. It is about finding a balance.
How can you make a difference in the next 10 years should the voters continue to send you back to Washington D.C?
In today’s political climate it is difficult to work with the Republicans because their party is made up of so many different factions, including moderates, traditional conservatives, and then people who do not believe in government.
I spent 8 years in the legislature and think I got a lot done there. I think I have been able to do the same thing at every level of government where I have served. By third party standards, I’ve been very effective in elective office. I try to balance accomplishing what my constituents express are their priorities and working on key issues that I am passionate about. My hope is that I will continue to be effective in working with my colleagues and ultimately for the American people.
Thanks for taking the time to doing this interview. It is much appreciated as I know how busy you are.