An in-depth interview with Congressman Jared Huffman

In which we ask Rep. Huffman what's going on in Washington.

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Editor’s note: Due to some technical glitches, and scheduling conflicts this article is running late. The article was conducted before the inauguration of President Donald Trump, and Congressman Huffman’s answers reflect that. During the inauguration Huffman was one of many members of congress who elected to skip. He instead participating in various public service activities in Marin, Sonoma and Mendocino County.

MENDOCINO Co., 2/9/17 — The past couple weeks have been full of big news from Washington, with a lot of uncertainty, as a new president and congress attempt to enact major changes to the federal government. We talked to the North Coast’s congressional representative, Jared Huffman, in an effort to better understand what might be coming down the pike, and how it’ll affect Mendocino County.

The following interview has been edited for brevity, and reordered for clarity. You can also watch the full video of the recent Ukiah Town Hall with Rep. Huffman with Assemblyman Jim Wood here.

Cannabis

MV: Senator Jeff Sessions [now confirmed as Attorney General of the United States] has previously been openly hostile to cannabis cultivation and consumption. Nonetheless California and Mendocino have moved forward to legalize and regulate weed. What can we expect from the feds?

Huffman: Well, it’s not legal [recreationally] yet, it’s certainly legal as medicine, and it’s on a path to be legal in 2018 under state law…I think across the board on all the things we’re wondering and worrying about with the Trump administration, you have to prepare for the worst, because the warning signs are just too significant.

And when you do that with somebody like Sessions, who has said repeatedly he doesn’t think marijuana can ever be legal, even medical…I’d like to believe that’s the case, that we’re not going to see a backwards lurch, but I don’t think we can go to the bank with that.

This guy is straight out of the 1950s, if not the 1850s, and so probably the best case would be status quo continuation, and kind of an uneasy deference based on Justice Department policy guidance but not anything in law, and it would not resolve questions about banking and use of the postal service, and tax rules, and things like that. The worst case would be a rollback and federal rise in prosecutions, and I’m just not sure where we’re going to fall.

MV: So what can Californians and Mendonesians do to prepare for those contingencies?

Huffman: I don’t want to presume to tell people how to assess risk in the business decisions that they have to make, but I certainly don’t think they should start taking a whole bunch more risk right now. [Emphasis added] Because if cannabis businesses start venturing beyond the guidance of the Cole Memo [A justice department memo that gave states latitude to experiment with legal marijuana, under certain guidelines], I think they’re very likely to face federal action, notwithstanding Prop 64. Even with Prop 64, if they venture beyond the parameters of the Cole Memo, I think they should expect trouble.

MV: Californians have an entrepreneurial spirit, and have begun applying it to cannabis, is Sessions going to put the pause button on that?

Huffman: Forward progress is not going to come from the Attorney General’s office, I guess the question is can we continue to make forward progress in congress, and will Donald Trump honor what he said on the campaign trail that this is a states’ rights issue?

So we do have a healthy bipartisan coalition in Congress…we’ve been able to, on a year-to-year basis, to pass amendments lately that do defer to the states, on medical cannabis for example. And we’ve made progress on allowing Veterans’ Administration doctors to at least talk to their patients about medical cannabis in states that allow medical cannabis.

So we’re have a few victories, hemp is one where we’ve made some progress, too, industrial hemp. But I’m really not sure whether we have a critical mass yet to take those next steps on banking, on the postal service, on rescheduling marijuana under the Controlled Substances Act.

But we’ll try, we will try, and I’ll continue to co-sponsor all that stuff, and hey, the fact that the majority of Americans are now living in states where marijuana in one form or another is legal, that’s an important tipping point.

Immigration

MV: What about local law enforcement cooperating with the feds, worrying about sources of grant money, and penalties for non-compliance? What about sanctuary cities?

Huffman: I get it, I remember a day not too long ago when our local law enforcement felt compelled, because of strings that are attached to federal funding, to cooperate with the immigration cops, and when I was in the state assembly, there were several communities I represented, Latino communities, where kids were afraid to go to school, and the knocks were coming in the middle of the night, families were getting ripped apart.

But there was a huge backlash to that, though, and it eventually stopped. What we what to make sure happens is that we don’t return to that kind of stuff, and so I think it’s helpful for communities to think about this in advance, some will choose to go all the way to sanctuary status, and ordinances…I know many other communities I represent simply have an informal understanding with their sheriff or their police chief that they’re not going to turn into immigration cops, and that’s good enough right now.

We’ll see whether the Trump administration starts trying to have those strings attached again on federal dollars, and that would put some of our local law enforcement leaders in a bind.

MV: President Obama was famously called the deporter-in-chief.

Huffman: Right, he deported more people than any president in history, contrary to the narrative you hear on the right.

[Trump has] hinted that there will be some kind of executive order on immigration right out of the gate, but I don’t think he can start putting conditions on federal law enforcement funding without an act of Congress, and that’s where there’ll be a robust fight in Congress if they try to do that.

Planned Parenthood

MV: There are claims that Planned Parenthood, which decades ago was championed by the Bush family, will be quickly defunded.

Huffman: That’s actually very much in my thoughts, because I think something approaching half of Planned Parenthood’s funding does come from the federal government, and there’s definitely going to be an effort in Congress to defund it completely. Now, this’ll be an interesting question, politically, because Trump has said he doesn’t want to defund Planned Parenthood, he’s said he understands that they perform an important women’s health function and they don’t just perform abortions. So he’s at odds, potentially, with the Republicans in Congress, and we’ll have to see where that goes.

Obamacare

MV: President Trump spoke frequently during the campaign of his intent to repeal the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare. What can the people of Mendocino County expect individually, and what can the county expect in terms of its finances.

Huffman: The first thing I would say is that no one should feel like they should have to do things like [rush out and get a doctor’s appointment]. Whatever happens on the Affordable Care Act I think we can say with a fair degree of certainty that it’s not going to change people’s insurance coverage this year, or at least through Oct. 1 which is the start of the next fiscal year for the federal government. And in all likelihood you would see a continuation of the current system for multiple years, if not indefinitely, because this is just far more complicated than what republicans have been telling people on the campaign trail.

Even if a bill [to repeal it] is signed, I can almost guarantee it won’t take effect immediately. Because these people, they might be wrong headed by they’re not suicidal.

MV: What about in a year or two?

Huffman: We have yet to see this much vaunted Obama care replacement, and the reason we haven’t seen it is because they don’t really have one. Until we can see the particulars of what they’re proposing to replace it with — and also the time frames that they’re proposing for when the replacement would override existing law — we really don’t know how we should respond…we know a fight is coming we know we’re going to have to defend the good parts of the Affordable Care Act starting right now, but until we see those details we just can’t be any more specific than that.”

Skipping the inauguration

MV: Can you tell us about your decision to skip the inauguration?

Huffman: We started multiple days of action this morning, I keynoted a huge naturalization ceremony for new citizens, so there were over 1200 new citizens sworn in today in Oakland, and I had the honor of being their keynote speaker — people from 40 different countries — and it was just wonderful.

[After this the congressman volunteered at a Habitat for Humanity project in Novato, worked on flood clean up in Guerneville, helped out at a non-profit in Ukiah, held a rally in San Rafael, attended an interfaith service, then was involved in two women’s marches in Sonoma and San Rafael.]

Government and strategy

MV: Is there a silver lining?

Huffman: We’re in full battle mode. Bad things are coming.

But, the silver lining is that the disaster of Donald Trump’s election, and the political reality that is setting in is providing the biggest wake-up call I’ve seen in this country as long as I can remember. People more than anything I’ve ever seen are stepping up and volunteering, they’re showing up at public forums, every kind of town hall or gathering that I do is just packed and our phones are ringing off the hook, more than they ever have before.

My social media is being lit up, and I’m finding that people are just far more engaged than they’ve ever been in the past. Some of that is driven by fear, and anxiety of Trump, but some people have already begun to make that journey from fear and despair into action, and that’s your silver lining.

MV: On that note, does the Electoral College need reform?

Huffman: Of course it does, but I would be disingenuous if I told you that was actually going to happen.

MV: You were elected by a very wide margin, what’s your plan over the next few months, year, two years.

Huffman: It’s a tricky balance, because I know that part of my job is going to be standing my ground and fighting as vigorously and effectively as I can, when all of these redlines are crossed by Trump and my Republican colleagues on core values. But at the same time, you have to keep looking for opportunities to get things done and make progress, and so I feel like it’s always incumbent on me and other people in office to put out terms and conditions where if the other side met you in good faith, no matter how big of jerks they are, you would agree to try to get something done for the people.

I think that my fellow Democrats and I need to do that even with this terrible guy Donald Trump on a couple key issues where he has said things that suggest we might be able to get some things done together. And I’m thinking in particular infrastructure, and maybe a few aspects of tax policy, although I’m very leery of any kind of broader tax reform package from this president.

…There are certainly some people in Democratic or liberal or progressive circles that would say, “No, you can’t cooperate with him on a single thing, you have to do what Mitch McConnell did,” and that’s make your number one goal be to make him a one term president and give him zero chance for success.

The problem is, that kind of scorched earth approach works for Republicans, it’s very much on brand for them, because they hate government, but it’s very much off-brand for people who went into public service because they actually want government to do good things. So I think Democrats have to be very careful about not being complicit in the destruction of our own brand.

Environment

Water and fish

MV: Right before she retired Senator Barbara Boxer had a very public split with her long time colleague, Senator Dianne Feinstein over federal water policy. Where do you stand on this, and how does it affect the North Coast?

Huffman: There is a connection…even though even though none of [Mendocino’s] water is part of the state water project or the federal water project, and these San Joaquin Valley mega-farmers are not directly impacting Mendocino’s water supply, they are affecting jobs, and communities on the Mendocino coast, because they are killing Central Valley salmon runs.

And for over 100 years, the salmon communities on the North Coast have depended on Central Valley salmon — it’s not anymore the coastal salmon runs that are the bread and butter for the salmon, it’s the Central Valley salmon run…The Central Valley salmon stocks are critical to commercial fishing. It’s not commonly understood but it is true.

…Anyone anywhere near Noyo Harbor should care about it, and anyone else that is connected with the fishing economy.

Public lands

MV: What about changes in federal public land policy. A huge portion of Mendo is national forest and BLM land.

Huffman: [Montana Representative] Ryan Zinke is better than a lot of people Trump could have appointed as secretary of the interior, he has defended public land. He is someone who appreciates the National Park Service, and he’s an outdoorsman, so he understands that public land provides access and recreation and lots of important things.

Where we strongly disagree is he also wants public lands to be pretty aggressively exploited by mining and other extractive industry, so we’ll have our battles on that front. But Zinke is actually someone who has stood up to his own party on things like the land and water conservation fund, and I’ve been pleased to work with him on a few areas where we could agree, which is better than I can say for most house Republicans.

Logging

MV: Will the new administration affect logging practices in Northern California?

Huffman: Well I think there will be some moves to streamline Endangered Species Act processes, [the National Environmental Policy Act] will probably see some new waivers and categorical exclusions and things like that, they’ll probably make it harder for private citizens to file lawsuits. These are things that all for a long time have been on their agenda, and now that they’ve got both houses of Congress and the presidency, there’s no doubt these are the things they are going to try to do. So if they can get those kinds of things through the U.S. Senate, you’ll probably actually see those changes in law, you’ll probably see less thoughtful timber harvesting, you may see an increase in volume, you’re gonna see an awful lot of litigation, and we’ll just have to see the particulars of what they propose as to how it plays out.

[But] we’re talking about a year or more before any of this could take effect, in the best case for them, nothing moves quickly in Washington.

The size of the district

MV: Your district takes about six hours to drive across, are you ever jealous of congressmen who can walk their districts in a few minutes?

Huffman: [Laugh] I do have colleagues who, when there’s no traffic, can drive across their district in about five to seven minutes, but I think they’re missing something. I actually like the expanse and the diversity of my district, even though it’s something challenging…

I’d love to be able to spend more time in Mendocino, I’d love to be able to include stops in Trinity and Del Norte and Humboldt. But logistically you can’t cover everything…But overall my constituents are pretty understanding…they do know I’m trying to cover every part of my district and they appreciate it.”

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