Earlier this year, Congresswoman Jane Harman resigned her seat in Congress, triggering a special election in California's reliably Democratic 36th Congressional district. Sixteen candidates have filed for the May 17 special election; under California's newly adopted primary system, the top two finishers in that election will advance to a July runoff, regardless of party. Widely expected to advance to this runoff from among the crowded field are Los Angeles City Councilmember Janice Hahn, and current California Secretary of State Debra Bowen.
Debra Bowen (official photo courtesy of CA SoS office)
Secretary Bowen has a reputation among California's online political community for her groundbreaking work on issues regarding the internet and election integrity (and for personally responding to Facebook messages and Twitter replies). I recently got the chance to catch up with Bowen in the district and talk to her about the election and her priorities. Please note that the publication of this interview here does not constitute an endorsement by Orange to Blue or DailyKos.
DailyKos is a national blog, and not everyone is familiar with the 36th District of California. Can you provide a brief overview of this Los Angeles-area District?
It runs north and south, the coastline between Santa Monica and the South Bay. The 405 freeway is the spine of the District, but LAX is a third of the way down the district, ending just short of Santa Monica. It includes an area that is very Democratic north of LAX, and an area that’s not so Democratic south of LAX, by the beach cities. Wilmington and Harbor City are very poor areas. There are a lot of Latinos. And then there is San Pedro, an interesting community that started as a fishing community with a lot of Southeastern European immigrants. So it ranges from multimillion-dollar oceanfront homes to working-class Latino families who are barely scraping by and whose kids are in elementary schools in Wilmington where the teachers have to share classrooms. Huge variations. Five oil refineries, LAX, a sewage treatment plant, a lot of heavy industry—and a lot of environmentalists. And a big presence of the aerospace and defense industry. Northrup-Grummond is the district’s biggest employer.
You’re the current Secretary of State, but you have a deep history in this district.
I represented about 90% of this district, either for my entire 14 years in the Legislature, or for the eight years that I served in the State Senate. I don’t need a GPS unit to know where I’m going in the district. And one of the things that struck me when I’m out doing events is how many people I know. It’s nice to see all the young people who were too young to be involved in politics in 1992 show up in droves and get involved along with all the people who are wearing bifocals.
You’ve been known for a long time among California bloggers for the work you’ve done on internet and voter integrity issues. What do you consider your legacy?
The first thing would be AB1624. It was going to be a minor bill to put the legislature’s bill analyses, bill texts and voting records out in public online so that anyone could have access 24/7. We take that for granted now, but in 1992, that access did not exist anywhere in the world. The City of Santa Monica had planning commission agendas on a dial-up bulletin board system, and that was it. And that was my model. But some guys from Silicon Valley told me they had a better model; they said the bill needs to say that the information would go out over the world’s largest non-proprietary network, which is that series of tubes we now know as the internet! And we worked very closely with techies and geeks to get that bill passed and signed. It was actually one of the hardest bills I’ve ever carried because it had so much underground opposition; we never saw it, we didn’t know what they were doing, and it’s hard to combat that sort of opposition.
Who opposed that transparency?
There were a couple of private providers who were doing very well selling access to that information. One charged $200 a month for that information, another one had an annual fee of around $2,000. Well beyond the reach of a normal citizen. So of course, if I mandated that it be put out for free, their business would change or disappear. That was part of it. There were members of the Legislature who didn’t want to lose control over information about what their constituents were interested in. If you no longer had to call your State Senator’s office to get a copy of a bill, then how would that Senator know that you were tracking, say, insurance reform issues? And then there was an administrative group who wanted to create their own for-profit system and make it a profit center to fund the legislature, and that was the biggest challenge. That actually got amended into the bill, and as a legislator, I was in that place where you have to think hard: "Is this bill good enough to proceed, or am I better off scrapping it and starting over the next time?" And I had a nightmare about Thomas Jefferson hocking the Constitution on the Home Shopping Network, and decided that if we couldn’t get the charge provision out of it, then I would kill my own bill. I knew it was the first time ever that it was being done, and if we set the precedent for a fee, then that was how it would be replicated. It’s so basic to me that of course people should have access. So we did get it out of there without a fee, and that’s because a couple of programmers stayed up for 72 hours straight and gave it a funky, primitive front end that proved that it wouldn’t cost a million dollars, because that was the initial estimate. But if they could do it in a weekend, then obviously it wasn’t going to be an $800,000 expense.
Unless they got very rich!
But that bill was my jumping-off point into thinking about how technology could change democracy, where we needed to deal with some of the potential negative aspects too. Such as privacy issues, identity theft. Another bill that I’m very proud of, a measure I carried in 2001—it prohibited the use of a Social Security number as a public identifier. Before that, your library card, your insurance card, your student ID, all of that was based on your social security number, and that provided a key to identity theft. So it did that, and also established a credit freeze mechanism to prevent people from being re-victimized. Even, for instance, a spouse in a contested divorce. People could take control of their credit. And that bill was the first of its kind in the nation, and its provisions have now been adopted in many other states.
I’m also the architect of a electricity rate system that protects the lowest users from rate increases and sets up a rate schedule so that people with 5,000-square-foot homes with their landscapes lit up all night will pay a higher rate. And that was my doing, at around 1:15 one night as we were hammering out a compromise on another bill. And that earned me the undying enmity of some of the large businesses. By restricting that, that meant the rates had to be paid somewhere, and it was usually the larger ratepayers.
You’re the current Secretary of State for a state that’s the eighth-largest economy in the world. If you win this race, you will be a freshman in the minority party with the least seniority. What do you intend to prioritize in Congress, and how will you make it happen?
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Regardless of that, it won’t be long before the press figures out that there’s a new kid on the block with an in-depth knowledge of voting systems issues and energy issues. And influence doesn’t come from your one vote on a committee or the floor. There are other ways of using that influence. There really isn’t anyone else who has been involved in these voting issues, with the exception of Rush Holt. It’s so important and there’s so much misinformation, or simplistic levels of understanding. I expect to also be involved in energy issues because they are so foundational for everything in our future. What we pay, how much we pay, the strength of our economy, what we’re doing to our planet, air quality, water quality, and now, in terms of foreign policy. Bottom line: cost, climate and foreign policy, all in one issue.
When I was in the legislature, people think of legislators as passing laws, but we also have an oversight function, and by being dogged, you can accomplish a lot. It was through that kind of oversight that I got the California lottery to reduce its overhead from what it’s legally allowed, which is 16%, to 12%, which is more in line with other states—even though the legislature had no statutory authority to oversee any aspect of the lottery. Just by staying on it and asking questions. I had the ability to hold hearings. Now, we’ll need a majority back before I get that authority, but it’s about helping shape the discussion and conversation so that when things do come to a vote, you have a much more educated population. That was one of the big issues with health care, and it’s a big issue with climate change. A lot of Americans are changing their minds, thinking it’s not a big issue, or it’s made up. Meanwhile, in California, in Los Angeles, we’re looking at dependence on our water from the Sierra Nevadas, and the devastating impact that a reduction in the snowpack could have. Right here.
A Democrat is going to win this seat, but this is the first election in the state that is using the new top-two primary system [California voters recently passed a ballot measure eliminating partisan primaries in favor of a system where all candidates are listed on the same ballot and the top two advance to the general election regardless of party affiliation]. How will that influence this race moving forward?
The answer is, nobody really knows yet. This is the first Congressional race under these new rules, and the legislative races before this didn’t have 16 candidates like this one, and were clearly Democratic or Republican. I have been winning in what’s largely this district for 18 years, and winning far above Democratic registration. So people who are decline-to-state or registered with other parties have been casting their ballots for me. But one of the downsides is, the cost to talk to all voters goes up astronomically, so you still have to focus on the people who vote most regularly and are likely to be your supporters. Having said that, one of the things I’ve done in campaigns in the last eight years has been to ask people to talk to their friends. Let’s say I have a Republican supporter, for instance that person will email their friends and say that I’m honest, I listen, and I pay attention. And I never would have become Secretary of State without that type of grassroots campaigning.
Speaking of cost: who are your biggest supporters and donors, and how does that contrast with your key opponents?
It has emerged as one of the key distinctions between my campaign and that of [Los Angeles City Councilmember] Janice Hahn. Eighty-seven percent of my contributors have given $100 or less. Over 97% are $500 or less. There are a fairly small number of people who have given the $2,500 maximum. I wish there were more because we could be communicating with people we can’t afford to talk to right now. I’ve looked briefly at Hahn’s contributors, and it’s astonishing how much she’s relying on classic special interests, lobbyists, people who do business with the City of Los Angeles. I’ve heard from a number of people about issues involving the awarding of contracts to vendors at LAX. There used to be at one point a lot of small businesses there, and now there are not. That is largely Councilwoman Hahn’s doing—favoring a couple of very large entities. I don’t have specifics other than the fact that there is a public record about it.
I actually have a policy of not accepting contributions of anyone who is doing business with the Secretary of State’s office. Not that Diebold would be writing me checks anyway! But it just creates such an obvious conflict of interest.
Congresswoman Harman, who resigned her seat creating this vacancy, received two stiff primary challenges, so it seems the district is ready for new leadership. How do you differ from Jane Harman?
I do think that Jane Harman has a unique relationship with defense interests and the armed forces. Much to her benefit. She may well never have been elected without that. In 1992, before the first round of base realignments and closures, that was a huge part of the economic well-being of the district. It still is. But it was even bigger back then. Nobody else has ever served as staff counsel to the Armed Forces Committee on the Hill. It will never be like that again.
Jane Harman also had certain issues that Democrats weren’t happy with on civil liberties issues. Where do you stand on this?
I have been a strong civil libertarian for a long time. I’ve worked with the Center for Democracy and Technology for a long time, and a lot of the non-profits who work specifically on privacy issues over the internet. I worked with them as a legislator. And I have said publicly, everywhere around the district, that I don’t think it’s too much of a burden on the government to go get a warrant before they wiretap. The court is open 24/7 for such things. It’s not all that hard to make a case. And it adds a layer of accountability that I think is really critical in our system where once something is done in the Defense Department, a lot of it is classified and so we don’t have an opportunity to review and evaluate it in the same way that we would if it were the Forest Service, or Department of Energy. And that makes it that much more important to have this right at the beginning.
You’ve been attacked by some supporters of other candidates for supposedly being against gay marriage, for three strikes, and a rabid death penalty supporter. Would you like to settle this?
The gay marriage accusation is ridiculous. There is a questionnaire that dates back many years that has several errors on it and that’s one of them. But I had worked against Proposition 22, Pete Knight’s first effort to ban gay marriage in California. And you can ask anyone in the LGBT Caucus in the Legislature; Sheila Kuehl, Mark Leno, anybody. And I had a long history before that—from raising LGBT rights in my 1992 campaign, back when it wasn’t common for people to bring up discrimination against the LGBT community in campaigns, to helping the first ever openly gay member get elected to the Redondo School Board. I have a long history of that, as well as supporting every bill on this issue that has come up in the Legislature. I have a 100% record from Equality California. I was deeply offended by that allegation. There is no way that anyone who looked at the whole record could have any question about my position.
Now, when three strikes was going through the Legislature, there was an attempt to negotiate something that would be less harsh than the ballot measure that was also moving forward at the time. It’s not uncommon for the Legislature to try to do something in terms of public policy that’s better than what’s on the ballot. But in the years following that, I worked a lot on substance abuse issues and making rehab available. There are an enormous number of people who are in prison for drug issues. And I also supported Proposition 36, which was on the ballot two years ago, to make that even more available. And when there was an attempt in the Legislature to countervene Proposition 36 by instituting flash incarceration, I was the only vote in the entire Senate against that. So I have a history or working on these things. I also took on the issue of the cost of phone calls for prisoners. If a prisoner wants to call a family member or pastor, it’s phenomenally expensive. Other states had a calling-card system that gave control over the content, but most people who are in jail are going to rejoin society and they will need a strong foundation. Making phone calls phenomenally expensive doesn’t foster that goal. And we made great progress on that issue.
On the death penalty, I haven’t voted on any death penalty legislation for over a decade. The last thing I voted on was a measure that established that in California we would not execute anyone who was developmentally disabled. Other states were still doing that. But I started out in 1992 with the position that the death penalty was only appropriate where there was actual physical evidence. Not just circumstantial evidence, because I was concerned about errors. But I’ve watched. I’ve looked as who is on death row, and what it costs, as well as more broadly, the position of the United States as a leader among nations, and I’ve concluded that it’s not the best thing for us in California. I am not a supporter of the death penalty. We would be far better off with life without parole. And I have also been influenced by something very personal in this regard where, without going into specifics, a victim's family did not seek the death penalty. I thought that that is a way to live with a terrible thing that happened without feeling like they have two lost lives on their hands.
The Republican Congress just voted unanimously to redefine rape and end Medicare. Is there a single one of these people that you can see yourself having a cordial relationship with in Congress?
There are a number of Republicans in Congress that I worked with in the State Legislature, but I don’t know how that will carry over into the federal arena. It’s very hard for me to imagine how some of the Republicans I served with could vote to redefine rape. They also have mothers, sisters, daughters. I’ll have to look at the language. But I have kept my relationship with some of those people. I may disagree with them on 90% of the issues, but if there’s something we can work together on, I will. I worked with Tom McClintock on public records issues, and establishing a precedent that you could not charge more than the cost of duplication for electronic access to public records. That was the law for paper records, but not electronic records. And we were successful on getting that problem resolved. I worked with Richard Mountjoy on getting MTBE out of gasoline. It was a very important issue. MTBE-contaminated water was an increasing problem, and solving our air quality problem by creating a water quality problem was not the solution. He was on the right side of it, and we worked together. Work together on the issues where you agree, and then see about the other stuff. Now, they’ve backed off on Medicare because it proved so unpopular when they went back to their Districts. And it was a nice gift to Democrats.
Thank you very much for your time, and good luck on the campaign.
On the web: Debra Bowen for Congress