Mark DeSaulnier on the Future of the East Bay
Diablo sits down with the United States Congressman to discuss the region's most pressing issues and his political goals for the year ahead.
“We have to provide leadership for the rest of the country,” congressman Mark DeSaUlnier says of the Bay Area.
Photo by Nico Oved
Mark DeSaulnier jokes that he is the “Forrest Gump of Contra Costa politics,” meaning that he’s had a rather epic journey through the region’s political spectrum via chance and happenstance.
The Massachusetts native didn’t have political aspirations when he moved to the East Bay in the late 1970s. Instead, he opened a number of successful restaurants before being appointed to Concord’s Planning Commission, which was followed by a term on the city council and a stint as mayor.
In 1994, Governor Pete Wilson appointed DeSaulnier, then a Republican, to Contra Costa’s Board of Supervisors. DeSaulnier changed his party affiliation to Democrat in 2000 and served as a state assembly member from 2006 to 2008 and as a state senator from 2008 to 2015. In 2015, DeSaulnier was elected to his first national post, as the United States representative for California’s 11th Congressional District, which covers most of Contra Costa County; he replaced George Miller, who retired after 40 years in office. With Miller’s endorsement, DeSaulnier won the seat in a landslide victory.
Since going to Washington, D.C., DeSaulnier has worked to prevent gun violence, research climate change, and combat poverty. He sponsored a bill to help local newspapers operate as nonprofits and introduced legislation to establish a task force of experts to determine the impact of computer bots on social media, public discourse, and democratic elections.
Diablo recently sat down with DeSaulnier at Saint Mary’s College in Moraga, in between town hall appearances, to discuss his life as a public servant and issues that will affect his constituents in the near and distant future.
What concerns do you hear most from your constituents?
Housing and work issues are the top two. Even here, where wages and benefits are higher, the cost of living has really impacted that.
When I moved to San Francisco [from Massachusetts] in the 1970s, I didn’t have any money. I got a couple of temporary jobs, then I got a job in a restaurant, and I was able to get a one-bedroom apartment in the Marina. It was $300 a month, and I made $25 a month because I had a motorcycle and I rented out my parking space. That allowed me to save money, so I could open my own restaurant.
Kids can’t do that now. My generation was blessed by a great middle class. Part of that dynamic was that you got paid enough, and the cost of living wasn’t so exorbitant.
You moved to Concord in the late 1970s to open TR’s Bar and Grill. What was the cost of living like when you first came to the East Bay?
I bought my first house in Pleasant Hill in 1979. It cost $112,000 for a two-bedroom, one-bath house. When we had our second child, we bought our house in Concord, because it had four bedrooms. We still have that house.
[The cost of living has ballooned] because a percentage of capital, a percentage of our [national] GDP has [increased dramatically] while wages have been nearly stagnant since 1974. American workers are 75 percent more productive [since the 1970s] but have only gotten 10 percent better wages.
How is Contra Costa County positioned for the future, economically?
One thing we have here on the West Coast, especially in the Bay Area, is this kind of entrepreneurial, visionary risk-taker. … [And in] Contra Costa, and the Bay Area in general, we have these amazing research facilities: UC Berkeley, UCSF, the national laboratories in Berkeley and Livermore, and Stanford University. We have a lot of the best and the brightest here to work on [important] issues.
We have the best minds here. We’re driving a lot of the changes, between artificial intelligence and the gig economy. So, we have seen a lot of the benefits. … Additionally, Contra Costa is the industrial home for the Bay Area, with the exception of the Port of Oakland.
Which industries will provide the most jobs?
I have been working on the transportation industry. These are good-paying jobs. But we have to get ready for [a change] in the fossil fuel economy. One of the challenges with something like the Green New Deal is that you need to find a transition for the people who work in the fossil fuel economy. We need to get them work in alternative fuels and energy.
We have had huge investments in wind and solar, but we never did that for alternative vehicles. The Chinese are determined to make a billion-dollar investment, because they don’t have the fossil fuel assets. When you have a $25,000 battery-powered car that gets more than 200 miles to the gallon—which is inevitable, if not in the very near future, then in like five years—that changes the fossil fuel industry, and that changes jobs.
We need to transition those jobs into a zero-carbon transportation system. Even when you get battery-electric vehicles, you’re still going to have issues with congestion. And one of the weaknesses is that we have not developed a cheap storage system for alternative energy. There is a lot of money to be made in this, but we have to decide if we are going to ramp up research and development for alternative energy companies.
This is an international problem, but I would argue that Contra Costa is uniquely placed to be a leader, because we have the fossil fuel assets right now that are good for the economy. … California gets more venture capital to do research on renewable [energy] and alternative fuels than the other 49 states combined. It’s all happening here … and we have the time to prepare for it.
In California, we have had catastrophic wildfires every fall for the past few years. How will the pace of climate change affect the timeline of switching to alternative fuel sources?
This is a good example: San Diego saw this coming. They had fires, and they changed their grid and hardened their infrastructure. They set up their grid so they did not have to shut off large sectors of [it]. Sacramento did a lot of its own infrastructure, the way San Diego did, and you don’t hear about these problems.
PG&E could have done that [on a large scale], but they chose not to. This will need to change. We will need to create more microgrids [localized groups of electricity sources and loads that sync with a wide area but can also function autonomously]. A lot of those microgrids will be [powered with] renewables.
It seems like traffic congestion is much more intense than it was 10 years ago. What are the primary causes of this gridlock?
It took us too long to respond to Silicon Valley. All of the traffic modeling had been: How do you get from Walnut Creek into San Francisco? Because that’s what the traffic pattern was. That’s not the way it is now.
Our system is so slow to change. We forgot about the urgency of developing a more efficient system. The Bay Area has 4 of the 10 longest megacommutes [in the U.S.]—meaning at least two hours one way.
Uber and Lyft and Amazon have all contributed to congestion, with nearby pickups and real-time delivery. It is all part of the brave new world we are living in.
What can be done to relieve the gridlock?
I am working on a bill that would [create] a zero-carbon transportation system. The two backbones for this are zero-carbon alternative fuel cars and a world-class passenger-rail system.
Our bill creates a model for a world-class rail system with appropriate [residential and retail] density around those stations. In the Bay Area, the three corridors would be the Capital Corridor, from the East Bay to Sacramento; the Altamont Corridor, where we have an oversubscribed commuter rail system; and the Pacheco Pass.
My bill would incentivize with federal funds all of these things that lead to a zero-carbon transportation system.
What can be done to improve public education?
Here’s an interesting statistic: In 1974, only 10 percent of women with children had full-time jobs. By 1994, that number was 74 percent. Twenty-five years after that, we have still never provided the infrastructure for that change, so that you have universal quality preschool.
The French did it, and the Germans did it—even though their sociological makeup didn’t change as dramatically as ours did. Most of the benefit goes to the employer, which goes to the productivity of the community.
We also need to be aware of issues and help children much earlier. If kids are living in poverty and stress, their brains are going to be wired in a different way, because their fight-flight mechanism becomes hardened. We’ve learned a lot about this in the past 5 to 10 years because of neuroscience.
We have a bill in Head Start that would start paying to have behavioral-health experts in as many places as possible, so when you see kids who are not developing the way they should, you do something about it right away. When a child’s brain is elastic and developing, that’s when you need to treat them.
You are an advocate for local and regional newspapers. Why does this issue stand out to you?
One of the things that has changed so dramatically in politics is how people get their information and how that information is being manipulated. We have all this information at our fingertips, but the average citizen is not getting accurate information. When you look at the combination of neuroscience and social media and 24/7 news, you realize how people can be targeted and led to believe information that is not remotely accurate.
We have spent a lot of time stressing the importance of local news for things like city councils and school boards. My argument is that most people learn about local issues because they are interested in their school board or city council, and they were able to stay informed because someone was writing about those issues and telling a story. There’s nobody doing that anymore. I hear these stories about local government, and it seems like these guys are getting away with murder because they know no one is watching. That keeps me awake at night.
Do you think misinformation is the main reason for the political divide across the country?
Yes, and [spreading misinformation] is being done deliberately. [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] did a study that showed you are 40 percent more likely to get someone’s attention with a negative political story. This is the thing that troubles me the most about the Russian influence [in U.S. political culture]. The Russians are very good at sowing doubt. [Vladimir] Putin does not believe in democracy. It is easier to start a fight than to get people to calm down and look at solutions.
Social media companies, like Facebook, make a lot of money by letting people start fights. We’ve created this environment that is incredibly sophisticated … [where] you have a very polarized country and a very polarized information system.
Your predecessor in Congress, George Miller, was elected in 1974 and went on to serve for 40 years. That 1974 midterm election was a wave election, with the Democrats picking up a net gain of 49 seats in the House as Richard Nixon faced impeachment. Do you see the 2020 election as a similar situation?
Yes and no. I was having this discussion with [a journalist] the other day. We were talking about Watergate and the point at which the Senate finally turned on Nixon. [Republican Senator] Barry Goldwater went to talk to Nixon and told him to resign because there wasn’t one Republican senator who would support him.
This isn’t 1974. People were certainly polarized then, but any kind of ethical outrage seems to have gone away [now]. President Trump doesn’t seem to have any constraint on [following the] rules, and I’m concerned that there’s a very large percentage of the American public that thinks that is OK.
When you come home from Washington, D.C., what are some of your favorite places to visit in the East Bay?
I love Mount Diablo. I live right at the foot of it in Concord, right at the Clayton line. I’ve been running on those trails for a long time. I’ve run 22 or 23 marathons over the years, although not for a long time. I love Saint Mary’s College and the proximity to UC Berkeley.
I always get a little lump in my throat when I get back to the Bay Area. This is just such a wonderful place.
Congressman Mark DeSaulnier is an avid reader. He recommends these books to voters seeking to better understand today’s issues.
Capital in the Twenty-First Century, by Thomas Piketty
“This is one of the most intense economic books I’ve read,” DeSaulnier says. “Piketty makes a compelling argument for when a smaller group disproportionately shares capital, sooner or later you’ll have a social implosion. His argument is that we need to fix this through our legislative process.”
Cyberwar: How Russian Hackers and Trolls Helped Elect a President—What We Don’t, Can’t, and Do Know, by Kathleen Hall Jamieson
“I’ve had multiple conversations with [the author]. She’s a statistician who looks at elections to see if they were conducted not just legally but ethically,” the congressman notes. “Her research showed what the Russians did to interfere in 2016, and how that did likely tilt the election to Donald Trump.”
The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr
“[Carr and his team’s] research was gathering skulls from different locations [around the world]; they estimate how old the skulls are, and where they were geographically in relation to the evolution of literacy. What they show is that skulls grew generationally, because people were reading more and storing more in their deep memory. [Carr’s] research ends with him saying, preliminarily, it seems as if [human skulls] are starting to shrink again, because people are keeping everything in their frontal cortex and not storing it.”