A Conversation with Marin Congressman Jared Huffman

Jared Huffman
Huffman answers questions at Book Passage in Corte Madera

IN COLLEGE, JARED Huffman was an all-American volleyball player; now, in his free time, he plays guitar and sings in a country and western band. Whatever 51-year-old Huffman does he seems to do well — and often he does it in front of a crowd. Now in his second term as the representative from California’s 2nd Congressional District, Huffman, a Democrat, is playing before his biggest crowd ever, and from all accounts he’s doing it quite well.

Representing his district’s 685,000 people in Congress is no easy task. Stretching from the Golden Gate Bridge clear to the Oregon border, a distance of more than 300 miles, California’s 2nd District includes not only Marin, but also all of Mendocino, Humboldt, Trinity and Del Norte counties, plus much of Sonoma County. Huffman certainly seems up to the task; in his previous job in the California Assembly (2006–2012) he authored more than 60 pieces of legislation and gained a rare reputation for forging bipartisan consensus on challenging issues.

Huffman graduated magna cum laude from the University of California, Santa Barbara (that’s where he played volleyball), and cum laude from Boston College Law School. He and his wife, Susan, live in San Rafael with their two children, Abby, 15, and Nate, 12.

How do you compare serving in the California Assembly with serving in the U.S. House of Representatives? It’s similar to the difference between minor and major league baseball. I am now in the arena on a much broader range of issues and at the highest level — and along with that comes a faster pace and a more intense set of challenges, as well as some amazing experiences and opportunities.

Is the increased workload, at times, overwhelming? Actually, I’ve found a second wind because there’s adrenaline that comes with this job. You are constantly in motion, whether it’s traveling coast-to-coast or, whatever coast you are on, the constant whirlwind of meetings and speeches and appearances. And, if something like that works for you, that’s the greatness of the job. I like that I just came from a town hall meeting in Corte Madera where, in an hour and 15 minutes, I answered more than 25 questions ranging from dog control policies in the GGNRA to Israeli-Palestinian conflict issues to international trade agreements and much, much more. You finish a discussion like that and, for me at least, you feel revved up. You’re exhilarated.

If there is a typical week for you, what’s it like? On Monday morning I’ll leave SFO early and arrive in Washington around three, in time for a few meetings. Most of the work in the nation’s capital gets done on Tuesdays and Wednesdays; then on Thursdays we usually vote and I’ll fly home in time to see the kids off to bed. Friday is my day to work in the district and weekends could easily be filled up with parades and politicking. But that’s where I try to keep a balance and spend time with my family as much as possible.

How do you handle the wide range of subjects? Are you a fast reader? I’m not a quick reader. Six years ago, I took a speed-reading course because I wanted to improve my reading skills. I needed to assimilate so much information and my deliberate reading pace was, and still is, a constraint on my bandwidth. But the good news is that I’m a good retainer. When I do read, or hear, or observe something, it tends to stick with me. Then, maybe six months later, I can usually pull it out of my mental archive and usually it will be in pretty good shape.

What has been your biggest surprise with Congress? I’m surprised at the slowness and the inertia of Congress as an institution. Especially after serving in the California Assembly. In my six years there, I was a prolific legislator. I passed over 60 pieces of law. It would take more years than I have to live to do that in Congress.

Any surprises regarding fellow congressmen? If I formed my judgments regarding my colleagues by watching cable news, I would really dislike a lot of them. But I form my judgments by how I encounter them personally. So probably some of the Republicans most reviled by people in my district are colleagues with whom many times, on a personal level, I get along with quite well. An example is Trey Gowdy, the Republican congressman from South Carolina who’s chairman of the Select Committee on Benghazi. He’s the point person going after Hillary Clinton, continuing what Darrell Issa started in this witch-hunt. But I think if you follow that issue you’ll see he’s going about it in a much more professional and responsible way than did Congressman Issa. I still don’t think the investigation should even be happening. But there’s a lot more to Trey Gowdy than meets the eye. He’s a very interesting and colorful character. I may not agree with him on a heck of a lot, but I respect him as a person; he’s a straight shooter.

So far, what is your biggest accomplishment in Congress? Helping create a new coastal national monument on the Mendocino coast. It’s permanent, forever and I feel really good about it. It was also a great experience for me, as a new member of Congress, to be in the Oval Office with the president at a signing ceremony. And now I’ll be able to take my kids to the Point Arena–Stornetta Unit of the California Coastal National Monument and let them know I did something big — it’s 1,665 acres of coastline, estuaries and beaches — and permanent. And I did it during my first term.

Jared Huffman and band
The congressman plays a few tunes at an event at Lagunitas Brewing Company in Petaluma.

What have you done for Marin County lately? Well, I got $20 million put into the president’s budget for SMART to extend its rail line from San Rafael to Larkspur. We’ve got a lot more work to do, but I’m cautiously optimistic that eventually it will happen. Also, last week we got a bill out of committee that will allow Marin County and local affordable housing advocates to purchase the surplus Coast Guard property in Point Reyes Station that just about everybody wants to see remain as workforce housing rather than be sold to the highest-bidding developer. As for Highway 101 going through the Novato Narrows, I’m working very hard to keep federal transportation programs funded. In California, 48 percent of transportation funding comes from the Federal Highway Trust Fund and, if we don’t get it reauthorized, all that funding will dry up and that would definitely affect the Novato Narrows. So I’m working very hard on that.

Your biggest controversy to date seems to be attending Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to Congress. Do you regret doing that? I’d do it over again exactly the same way; I think I struck the right balance. This was a situation where I was never going to please everyone. Some of my constituents urged me to boycott the talk; others asked that I not only attend the talk, but also agree with Mr. Netanyahu. Some even supported the idea that we move forward with military action against Iran. So I received all kinds of opinions on this very hot-button issue. In cases like this, you have to be true to your own judgments and sensibilities.

How are you and President Obama progressing? Do you mean have I played basketball with him? Not yet, but he promised me a game and we’re working on that. I’ve met President Obama a number of times and that’s a special experience. He’s doing some great things, but I can’t say I’m 100 percent with him on everything; we have our differences on trade right now and I don’t agree with every aspect of his energy policy. But I give him high marks on a number of things; his presidency is very good and will look even better in the eyes of history.

What about President Obama as a person? As a human being, he has to be one of the most impressive people we’ve ever had in the White House. He is extremely cerebral and thoughtful and, when he wants to be, convivial. But no one is perfect. In some ways, the president’s leadership style is limiting when it comes to getting things done because he can also be aloof. He is much less interested in schmoozing with Congress than he is in having a quiet dinner with his wife and family. That speaks to the depth of him in a very good way. But for the chief executive of the United States of America, those relationships with Congress really matter, and he’s really never been very interested in them.

It sounds like you have concerns about the Trans-Pacific Partnership. First are my environmental concerns. If we are going to grant favored trading status to 14 or more different countries — Vietnam, Singapore, Chile, Brunei and Japan among them — I think we have to be sure that our high environmental standards are not threatened, and that hopefully we’re going to lift some of the bad actors up to our standards. So far, I don’t see either of these things happening with the Trans- Pacific Partnership. And our environmental standards are in jeopardy of being deemed in restraint of trade in one of the international tribunals being set up by the TPP. Also, the standards we are asking of other TPP signatories, save for two or three matters, are very weak, to the point of being meaningless.

What about global climate change? The TPP agreement is completely silent on climate change, the biggest issue of our times. I’ve been told earlier drafts had some restraints, but House Republicans and fossil fuel company executives in the room during negotiations didn’t like them and they’re now gone. So we are missing opportunities to use these trade negotiations to make progress on all sorts of international environmental issues. Frankly, I think the environmental aspects of TTP, as few as they are, are being grossly oversold.

As a congressman not directly involved with trade, how do you get your information regarding the Trans-Pacific Partnership? That’s a problem too. Not only can the public not even see this document, but for all intents and purposes, I can’t see it either. They’ll tell you that I can, but I’ve been in classified briefings regarding TPP and, believe me, all I see are PowerPoint presentations, not the full document. And the sad thing is that hundreds of corporate executives throughout the country are not only seeing the document, they’re working on it. So it’s a very flawed process that promises to be one heck of a fight.

How are Democrats opposing President Obama regarding the TPP? There’s a very active group of my Democratic colleagues that regularly have trade experts come in and talk with us. I recently had a brown bag lunch where Robert Reich, the former secretary of labor in the Clinton administration who helped negotiate and pass the North American Free Trade Agreement or NAFTA, was warning us not to pass the TPP. Another person knowledgeable in these matters is Rosa DeLauro, congresswoman from Connecticut, who hosts informal dinners at her house where we discuss the trade agreement. We had a dinner a couple of weeks ago with Senator Elizabeth Warren. She’s fantastic; she’s spot on regarding these issues.

Any final thoughts? To my constituents, I’d like to convey that I’m working very hard on their behalf. I hope that I am accessible to everyone. I don’t want them to think of their congressman as some distant figure in Washington. I want to be thought of as a friend and neighbor who wants to help them any way I can.