Inside D.C. With Congressman Mark Desaulnier
As partisanship reaches a fever pitch, we talk to an East Bay representative about life in Washington, D.C.
After decades running successful restaurants in the Bay Area, including popular TR’s Bar and Grill in Concord, Mark DeSaulnier turned his talents to politics. He spent a decade on the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors after a stint as Concord’s mayor, then another eight years in the California State Assembly and Senate, authoring and passing more than 60 bills.
Now, as the congressman from California’s 11th District starts his second term in the House of Representatives, he has a front-row seat to one of the most divided U.S. governments of modern times.
We asked the Democratic representative about the challenges ahead on Capitol Hill, his hopes for the East Bay and the country, and how he plans to reach out to his colleagues on the other side of the aisle.
Q: What’s the political climate like now in Washington, D.C.? Is it as contentious as it looks, or is work still getting done behind the scenes?
A: It is contentious on the big issues. There’s a lot of give and take. You find opportunities to work [with the other side]. I strongly believe that’s what American democracy is all about. You’ve got to feel passionately about your principles and ideology, and fight for those.
But ultimately, it’s like what [Thomas] Jefferson said, “The art of politics in America will be the art of compromise.”
Q: You are on the front lines of one of the most polarizing administrations in recent memory. What is your biggest concern?
A: The concern is this administration is going to be a test on [the Constitution], because it’s clear to me the president does not think the rules apply to him.
I don’t think this is ideological. We have ideological differences that are real and genuine and need to be worked out, but President Trump is more a phenomenon of our times. He could wake up tomorrow and decide to be a liberal, and I would have the same feelings about him.
Q: Clearly, many Californians are unhappy with President Trump. What have you heard from your constituents?
A: People are shocked this has happened. A lot of it is listening [to and] engaging them, so they can be helpful in change; a lot of it’s having them understand how the process works, what’s wrong with the process, and where they can help us.
It is quite amazing for somebody who’s been in public office for almost 30 years to have so many people engaged. This is a real opportunity to get more people, particularly young people, engaged for the rest of their lives.
Q: Would you say Californians live in a bubble?
A: We live on the leading edge of change in this country and the world; I don’t think that’s a bubble.
I think our problem is—and I’ve expressed this to folks in the Democratic leadership—we’ve left too many people behind. There are ways we can help people in West Virginia and Ohio, and parts of the Bay Area and parts of my district.
Q: Some in your district voted for and support President Trump. How do you plan to represent them?
A: I am respectful of people who have a different opinion; that’s how the system works. If Trump ever gets around to promoting legislation I can support, I’ll find ways to support it. If there are things within the legislation I think I could support but I need to have some changes [first], then I will do that.
Q: No one wants continued partisan gridlock on Capitol Hill. How will you break through that divide to work with your Republican colleagues?
A: I do that every day I’m here. I have a good friend, John Ratcliffe [R-Texas], whom Heritage Action for America rates as [tied for] the second-most conservative member of Congress, while a website called Progressive Punch rates me as the fourth-most liberal. We disagree on many things, but I like him as a human being, and he’s a good person. I’m hoping we can go to each other’s districts and listen to [each other’s] constituents.
Q: You opted not to attend President Trump’s inauguration. What was your reasoning behind forgoing the ceremony?
A: I decided after the election that President Obama and Secretary Clinton were right: that I should take a deep breath and see if [President Trump] could govern, in spite of my concerns.
Then, when he had his press conference [before the inauguration] on how he was going to deal with his conflicts of interest, it was clear to me he was going to put us into a constitutional crisis as soon as he put his hand on the Bible. All these issues with Russia, I believe, are tied into that same problem.
Q: What are your thoughts about communications between the Trump administration and Russia?
A: Extreme concern. From what I’ve read, both the classified and unclassified [information] tell me there is much more here, and it needs to be investigated in a bipartisan way to make sure no laws were broken, and no treason was committed.
It’s not about liberal or conservative. This is about the future of this country and the integrity of the Constitution [against] a foreign power. Do you want to be run by Russian oligarchs? I don’t!
Q: You took part in the Women’s March in Walnut Creek. What was your impression of the march?
A: I thought [the march was] spectacular. I’ve been in office for a long time, and I have a deep reverence for American democracy. I’ve often been chagrined that people aren’t engaged. So, for me to go to Walnut Creek and see 10,000 people expressing their heartfelt concerns about the election—and doing it in a manner that was dignified, respectful of the law, but in a very demonstrative way—was one of the most uplifting experiences.
[A young woman asked me] at the event, “How does this make you feel?” And my response was, “It makes me damn proud to live here.”
Q: You are on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. What are your goals for your district?
A: I want to engage regionally and in the district to make sure we do more projects to alleviate congestion in the district. And how we do projects needs to be reformed. They have to be more performance based and less politically based. I intend to do that.
Q: You are also on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. What do you hope to accomplish there?
A: Ultimately, I believe as our founders did that if democracy is going to work, you need the best public education system accessible to everyone. We once had that in California, and that’s part of what has benefited our economy.
The good news for our district is we have the infrastructure and history to be world leaders [in education]. But the demands of the system are very different than 50 years ago.
We have to think about kids in disadvantaged parts of the district who live in poverty. How do they get the same help that people who are more advantaged get? It requires after-school programs; it requires single-income households getting the counseling and support that two-income households get. We can be a model for the rest of the country.
Q: During the election, President Trump positioned himself as pro-business while critics say Hillary Clinton lost in part because she didn’t focus enough on the economy. Do you agree that the Democrats need to focus more on jobs?
A: Yes. The challenge in this global economy [is] just like any other historical period of social displacement: You can’t leave people behind and just say, “You’ve got to catch up.”
You’ve got to go in there, give them training, give them education, attract jobs, do tax policy that benefits mom-and-pop businesses on Main Street.
I think jobs and income inequality are the biggest challenges for this country. If we can get people back to making a livable wage, then we will have made America as great as it ever was or better.
Q: How can we do that?
A: We have to support an indexing of the minimum wage. In business, your rent is indexed, and your purveyors charge you more based on indexing. Why wouldn’t you have [those who make] minimum wage, the poorest of the poor, at least have the same purchasing power?
We have to close loopholes on corporate taxes. The benefits would go back to Main Street businesses so they can compete against the Walmarts and create jobs locally.
But we also have to spend a lot of money in places like West Virginia, where the coal industry is gone forever. When you look at the problems in those communities, the level of despair is very real, and it reflected itself in this election. And if Democrats, the party of working people, don’t realize the level of urgency, then we will continue to lose elections.
Q: Looking ahead, what do you hope to see from President Trump and his administration, as well as Congress?
A: For the administration, I would hope for an appeal to the country that he has learned from his mistakes and is going to listen to people, and for some humility and respect for the job and the Constitution.
For Congress, I hope that we come together on defending the Constitution and assert ourselves in that regard. And I hope that we have an honest, open, and tough fight about how we view the economy for the future, and how we protect Americans to make sure everyone benefits from it. desaulnier.house.gov.
Got an Opinion?
Let Congressman DeSaulnier know what you think about the current state of affairs in California and Washington, D.C.
Twitter:@RepDeSaulnier // Facebook:@RepMarkDeSaulnier
3100 Oak Road, Ste. 110
440 Civic Center Plaza, 2nd Floor, Richmond
115 Cannon House
And keep an eye out for the congressman at a town hall near you: The next congressional recess is April 10–21.