No Gambler: An Interview With Congressman Mike Levinby Brie Stimson January 2, 2019
Mike Levin is passionate about the environment. In fact, he made climate change one of the central issues of his 49th district run this past fall. (The 49th district encompasses much of coastal North County and a small part of southern Orange County). Before he ran for office, he was an environmental attorney and clean energy advocate. “In 2018, people said ‘Well, you know, you’re running on the environment among other things, is that the right strategy?’ In fact, there was even an article that said I was ‘gambling’ on climate change. For me, it would be gambling not to talk about climate change. So I’m proud to have run on a platform of strong environmental protection and clean energy advocacy, and that’s how I’ll serve as well,” Levin told me over the phone from his San Juan Capistrano home one brisk December afternoon. He had just come back from a trip to D.C. as he prepared to join Congress.
Levin’s accomplishments are astounding: he was the student body president at Stanford, he attended law school at Duke, he’s on the board of the Center for Sustainable Energy here in San Diego, he cofounded Sustain OC in Orange County and he served as the executive director of the Democratic Party of Orange County. But in speaking to him, Levin sounds more like a concerned citizen than an elite politician.
“We must take care of the environment. We don’t get another planet. We haven’t figured out how to live on Mars yet,” Levin tells me of why he chose to campaign on climate change. “We’ve got probably about 15 years to get this right and to try to dramatically reduce our emissions footprint … and so what we do in the next two years I hope is kind of the down payment on a Green New Deal that will create jobs that will protect the planet and that will ultimately help correct the course.”
He says they are recreating the select committee on climate change, which led to the failed Waxman-Markey bill that aimed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. “What happened was then speaker Nancy Pelosi created this select committee in 2007 and the draft of the legislation, which passed the House of Representatives. Republicans were in charge of the Senate so that legislation never even made it to the floor of the Senate,” Levin explains. “Then in 2010, we lost the House and when we lost the House, John Boehner became the speaker and he killed the committee so this would reconstitute that committee.”
“What that down payment looks like,” Levin says, referring to the above-mentioned Green New Deal, “is creating draft legislation that – assuming we retake the Senate and the White House in time and I’m hopeful that we will – we’ll be able to hit the ground running. It also provides an opportunity for us to press the Democrats running for president in 2020 to take a bold stand on climate change and on clean energy, and I’m a big believer that you can grow the economy and protect the environment at the same time.” He points out that has already been done in California where we’ve created clean energy jobs while protecting our air, water and coastline, we have a clean energy standard and a mandate for better building efficiency.
“A national building standard could be a great idea and also more supportive policies for things like electric vehicles, making sure that we continue to make electric vehicles the new most favorable form of transportation,” he adds. “We just have to, also at the same time, hold to account the Trump administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, the Department of the Interior and make sure that they are following the letter and the spirit of the law and that they’re actually trying to enforce the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and do their jobs – not deny science.”
He says one of the Democrats’ first priorities when they take over the majority this month is to draft an anti-corruption bill called H.R.1. “It would lead to significant campaign finance reforms,” he says. “It would protect voting rights, the Voting Rights Act and it would lead to more transparency and accountability in government. I think ending the corrupt system of big money and dark money, I think, should be on everyone’s list as a top priority.”
Levin, who is of Mexican descent on his mother’s side, will be joining the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, the Congressional Progressive Caucus and SEEC (Sustainable Energy and Environmental Coalition).
He is just 40 years old, practically a teenager in Congressional years, and will also be joining the Future Forum, made up of members who are under 45. “Sort of the future of the Democratic party,” he tells me. Levin has a young family – his children are four and six – and their presence is evident even during our phone call. “Hold on buddy. Daddy’s on the phone for a minute, OK?” he tells his son at the beginning of our phone call.
Levin was part of a Democratic sweep of Orange County that turned the once Republican stronghold blue. (He will be replacing Republican Darrell Issa, who announced his retirement last year). Levin attributes the wins mostly to a great field of candidates. “I feel like if we continue the work and if activists continue their engagement and we continue to recruit great candidates, we’re going to be able to do in Orange County much of what we’ve already done in San Diego County where we’ve now got fairly significant margins,” he says. With Levin’s win, Duncan Hunter will now be the lone Republican representing San Diego.
Despite the gains, he says Democrats still need to make inroads in down ticket races, including the city council, supervisorial seats, state senate and state assembly.
A Democratically controlled House and a Republican controlled Senate and White House could potentially lead to gridlock, but Levin is optimistic that there’s more than enough both sides can agree on. “The opportunity to work together … is significant on issues like infrastructure, the DREAM Act – the votes exist in the House today for the DREAM Act and the only reason it didn’t advance is because Paul Ryan wouldn’t allow it because he didn’t have half of his own caucus,” Levin says. “I think we ought to be working towards comprehensive immigration reform.” He also believes infrastructure is not a partisan issue. “There are plenty of Republicans that would love to see great new improvements to infrastructure in their districts just as we’d like to see them here in California,” he says. “My hope is that to the extent that there’s an infrastructure package, that it includes a lot of sustainable measures, that we’re creating green infrastructure.” He’s optimistic that they can also work together on health care – protecting those with pre-existing conditions and stabilizing rising costs – and lowering the cost of prescription drugs.
Levin was baptized Catholic but is Jewish on his father’s side. “I was raised with both the Catholic faith and also the Jewish faith. I have deep respect for Jewish culture and tradition and celebrate High Holidays with my dad,” he says. “I was baptized as a Catholic. Having a Catholic mom and a Jewish dad, I think my mom won that one.” He says he considers himself culturally Jewish. “[I] care very much about the Jewish community and the state of Israel and the Middle East,” he tells me. “I’ve been raised in a family where that’s part of the kitchen table discussion, so certainly something that I hope to bring to my service: a deep respect for Jewish culture and tradition and the state of Israel.”
Levin attended the gathering at Beth Israel after the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. “We had a multi-faith vigil, which was a really a remarkable event. The whole community came together in the wake of that horrible tragedy in Pittsburgh.”
“I’m just fortunate to have a multi-faith background,” he adds, “and I think that has given me an open mind when it comes to – not just religion – but to ultimately celebrate people from different backgrounds.” His grandparents on his mother’s side came to the United States from Mexico when his grandfather was 11 and his grandmother was around three years old. They had no money, no formal education and they didn’t speak English, “but they worked really hard and they started a business in downtown Los Angles to distribute [Wurlitzer] juke boxes.” Levin’s grandfather did well enough to send all five of their daughters to college, “including my mother,” he adds. “My mom likes to call them the DREAMERs of their day.”
Levin knows it won’t be easy balancing family life with Congressional duties, but he plans to make time for his wife and children a priority. He says generally each week he will fly to Washington on Monday and try to be back home by Thursday afternoon. “I’ll be with my family of course, but also in the district.” At the time of our conversation his team had not yet announced district office locations.
“I think the real key,” he says of balancing family time with professional responsibilities, “is just being available not just physically but emotionally for my kids, for my wonderful spouse and that is not easy and I don’t pretend to have simple answer.”
He says he thoroughly discussed whether to run with his wife, Chrissy, before he went all in. “I think my wife and I are both incredibly excited at the opportunity to serve the community,” he tells me. “Dad won’t be around quite as often, but I will always make time as much as possible for my family.”
“We now believe,” he tells me at the end of our conversation, “that we have an opportunity to leave a legacy for our children, and hopefully for future generations. And I don’t know what greater lesson I can leave to my two young kids than the importance of serving a cause greater than your own self-interest, and that’s what I’m going to do.”