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Democrat Mike Levin Aims To Champion Clean Energy, Health Care And Education

Editor's note: KPBS Midday Edition is continuing to pursue interviews with 49th Congressional District candidates Republican Kristin Gaspar, Republican Diane Harkey and Democrat Paul Kerr.

Democrat Mike Levin, a candidate in the 49th Congressional District race in a...

Credit: Mike Levin campaign

Above: Democrat Mike Levin, a candidate in the 49th Congressional District race in an undated photo.

Democrat Mike Levin Aims To Champion Clean Energy, Health Care And Education


Mike Levin, candidate, 49th congressional district


Orange County environmental attorney Mike Levin is running in a crowded field in the race to replace Republican Darrell Issa in the 49th congressional district seat.

The 49th congressional district stretches from La Jolla to parts of Orange County, including Dana Point and Levin’s hometown of San Juan Capistrano. A majority of registered voters in the district live in San Diego County with registered Republicans slightly outnumbering registered Democrats.

Levin has raised the most individual contributions of either party. Still, a recent poll shows he’s in third place overall.

Levin, who also served as the executive director of the Democratic Party of Orange County, talks about his run for Congress Tuesday on KPBS Midday Edition.

Q: What are your qualifications for this congressional seat and why are you running?

A: Well I am a clean energy advocate and environmental attorney with over a decade of experience working at both the state and the federal level to try and pass legislation and better regulations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, deal with air and water quality issues, improve the energy efficiency of buildings, deploy more electric vehicles. I am incredibly proud of the work I have done in that area, and I was content doing a lot of that work and helping to start an environmental non-profit, and serve on the board for the Center of Sustainable Energy here in San Diego. And then Donald Trump started running for President and I was no longer content. I have been involved in Democratic and progressive political organizing my entire adult life as well, and my wife and I, I’m very fortunate to have a wonderful spouse and two great children who are 5 and 4, we just decided that we could not remain silent. This was really unlike anything we’d seen particularly after the election result in November 2016. So we have been ever since fully committed to trying to help turn things around for this country.

Q: Congress has not yet passed a replacement for DACA. Would you support a clean bill that provides a path to citizenship for people brought to the United States illegally as children?

A: Absolutely. I think we need a clean DREAM Act and we need comprehensive immigration reform, and this is very personal to me. You wouldn’t know it from my last name−Jewish ancestry on my grandfather's side on my dad’s side of the family, but on my mom’s side of the family my grandparents came from Mexico. My grandma was only three years old when she got here and my grandpa was only 11 years old, and as my mom likes to say “they were the DREAMers of their day,” so I have an incredible amount of empathy for those who are here, who are productive. We’ve got DREAMers who are working on our campaign, and they’re the best that this country has to offer, and we’ve got to treat them with the respect and the dignity that they deserve.

Q: If you're elected what would your position be on funding for the border wall promoted by President Trump?

A: I do not support the border wall. I think that if Trump wanted the money for that wall he should’ve thought of that before blowing a trillion-and-a-half-dollar hole in our deficit and debt for tax cuts for the very wealthy and big corporations. I think we have far more important priorities as a nation, and I think it’s a self-serving attempt by Trump and the Republicans who enable him, and unfortunately we see more division and partisanship than I would like in our politics right now. We are dividing on the basis of race and country of origin and not to mention religion and gender identity in a way that is fundamentally contrary to the values I believe in, and I believe so many in the 49th believe in as well.

Q: Many politicians on both sides of the aisle agree that the Affordable Care Act needs some fixes. Do you see problems with Obamacare and if so how would you fix them?

A: Well the problem is Trump and the Republicans eliminating the individual mandate, also apart of the tax bill. The reality is that a single-payer Medicare-for-all system would be the most efficient and effective way in order to organize our healthcare system. About 95 percent of those would save money under that system, and I believe right now our healthcare system we’re getting far too little for the money we are spending. There are too many drug companies that are gouging on prescription drug prices, and we all pay for that even if insurance we think is covering it, we still pay indirectly. As I travel this district, the number one thing that I hear are the high costs of healthcare plans and people one medical bill away from going bankrupt, and it’s really unconscionable to me that in this incredible country that we cannot provide quality and affordable healthcare for all. That’s what I would be a strong advocate for, if I so honored to serve.

Q: Would you support creating additional regulations on gun ownership?

A: Absolutely. I am strong proponent of an assault weapons ban, universal background checks, fully funding the C.D.C. research into gun violence, and ending concealed carry reciprocity. Because I don’t think the gun laws of West Virginia should apply to San Diego. It’s a very personal issue having two young children myself. The other day I dropped my son off in kindergarten and then I went back to the car. I turned on the radio and i heard trump talk about arming teachers. I simply don’t think that’s a solution. We don’t need more guns. We don’t need less restrictions. We need sensible gun violence prevention measures that are going to ensure the safety of our communities, our neighborhoods. And that’s what I would fight for every single day. And I think the NRA has far too much political power as well. I think you need a member of congress who is going to stand and fight against the NRA and that’s what I’ll do.

Q: You are the candidate that has raised the most in individual contributions. But doesn't a lot of your support come from Democrats across the country, not necessarily in the 49th district, who want to that 49th district flip for the Democrats?

A: We have a tremendous of support in the 49th district. Just the other day I had a wonderful house party at Cardiff by the Sea. Francine Busby, who was the chair of the San Diego County Democratic Party, hosted me. We had over 125 people. We’ve had 146 house parties across this district. I’ve got an incredible amount of support, over 25 local elected officials have endorsed the campaign. But you’re right we also have raised the most in individual contributions. In fact, not just among any candidate, Democrat or Republican in the 49th, but we’ve raised the most for any candidate up and down the state of California running for Congress. About 1.6 million dollars from 16 thousand contributors, and I am incredibly honored by that. What it says to me is that we’ve got the resources to win, and to be effective and successful, but we’ve also built the campaign the right way. There is a huge difference in building a grassroots fundraising base and the amount of organizing and strategy that that takes, versus writing yourself one huge check or having huge family wealth contribute to your campaign. So I know that when push comes to shove we’re running to best campaign. We’ve got the most grassroots support, we’ve also got, I think, an incredible strategy to win.

Q. Do you know how much of that support is coming from outside of the district, do you have any percentages?

A. It’s a little bit hard to say because all the contributions under $200 they don’t get reported the same way. I know we’ve got thousands and thousands of contributors from within the 49th district and I’m incredibly grateful to all of them.

Q: I want to ask you a question about your background, your previous employment. It includes employment with Fuel Cell Energy, which has worked with Exxon Mobil on carbon capture and clean coal. Critics claim that compromises your status as an environmental champion. How do you explain that association?

A: Well I am incredibly proud of the work I have done in clean energy over the last 12 years, and in particular the Fuel Cell Energy work. If you look at the biggest projects that I have worked on, the renewable projects based here in California. In fact one of them is just down the street at UC San Diego, where they got a large fuel cell power plant that is running off of renewable waste methane that is coming from the Point Loma wastewater facility and it’s actually powering a fuel cell and generating electricity and heat for the campus. So I am incredibly proud of innovating on renewable energy and advocating for 100 percent renewable energy, the elimination of fracking and offshore drilling, and I’m also proud of the work that we did with the Obama Department of Energy, to try to clean up the pollution of a facility that you mentioned, a fossil fuel facility in the South. Certainly not the right solution for the rest of the United States, but we do have these legacy plants and we’ve got to figure out ways to clean them up, and I was very honored to work for a company that got to participate in a Barack Obama D.O.E grant to do just that.

Q. So you yourself are not a big fan of clean coal or carbon capture programs?

A. Well I think coal is yesterday’s technology. The reality is that in California alone we already have 87,000 people employed by the solar industry. That’s more than the entire nation has for the coal industry. When you look at projections on how we can grow the solar industry the number one fastest growing job over the next decade is solar voltaic installer. That industry is growing at a rate 17 time greater than the economy as a whole. What I know from having been involved in the clean energy industry, having served on the board at the Center for Sustainable Energy, having started the Clean Energy Trade Association for Orange County is that if we think ahead and if we don’t get mired in the energy technologies of the past but if we think about the integration of solar and wind and storage and other renewables, waste to energy, where eventually they will become 100 percent of our energy mix, it will be a massive economic opportunity for the residents of san diego because of all the new companies that will be created and because of all the new infrastructure that will be necessary. Now what we need is a supportive federal government. Unfortunately right now we have an EPA run by a guy who doesn’t believe in environmental protections. And we have a DOE run by Rick Perry and they’re doing the bidding of the big polluters and the fossil fuel lobbyists. We need to stop giving in to the Koch brothers and start thinking about clean air and clean water and a sustainable future. This is not a partisan issue. Richard Nixon was president when the clean air act and the clean water act came into being and when the EPA was created. Somewhere along the line we lost sight of the importance of climate change, the importance of leading the world over on sustainability. And we’ve gone from a leader to a laughing stock. So my great hope is that I can get to Washington DC and I could work with others who are friends. I’ve had eight members of congress who have endorsed the campaign. One of the big reasons why is they know how committed I am to sustainable energy and that I’ll get things done.

Q: The Democrats in this race for the 49th don't differ a whole lot when it comes to policy. How do you distinguish yourself from the other democrats in the race?

A: I think we’re all different people with different experiences and voters will learn about the entirety of our experiences over the next 42 days. What I can tell you, that for one, I come from a working-class family. My wife and I, we were a dual-income family before I started running for congress, I had to give up my full time job. But we face the same challenges of so many families across our district, with childcare and healthcare and housing. It wasn’t that long ago when I had huge student loan debt. I know what that is, I have just normal experiences compared to some people in this race, and I also think I’ve got the background actually getting legislation passed at the state and federal level, including some things that required Republican support. I built coalitions and I am a political organizer by background. I think any of the four of us on the Democratic side that are running would probably vote the right way in most scenarios, but I don’t think the residents of the 49th just want a vote. I think they want an organizer, and moreover I think they deserve a member of Congress who’s going to keep showing up even when the going gets tough. Darrell Issa had three townhall meetings in a decade. I want to have one a month. And i would encourage all of the other candidates on both sides to agree to do the same. And the voters of the district, the residents of the district, they’ll let us know if they’re tired of us. But i think each and every tuesday morning when you see the hundreds of people who show up in front of Darrell Issa’s office, in fact I think we’re about to have the last one of those historic protests, I think there were 65 of them give or take, and I participated in as many as I could, probably over half of them. But what I took from them is that you’ve got to go out and represent the constituents of your district. You’ve got to be present and visible. Not just on Fox News in the morning, but actually out there in the community. We’ve had the wealthiest member of congress who has been woefully out of touch. He’s now retiring because he saw the writing on the wall. Now we need someone who’s going to empower and enable the community. Young people and those who have been disregarded and disenfranchised. We’ve got to make sure that we represent the people again and I want to return the seat to the people of the 49th.

Election 2020 news coverage


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