Rep. Scott Peters is trying to paint himself as a centrist Democrat in his re-election campaign while calling his Republican opponent Carl DeMaio an obstructionist. In a Q-and-A with Voice of San Diego, Peters talks about his support for Chamber of Commerce- backed bills and the times he’s broken with his party. He also thinks DeMaio, a former city councilman who is openly gay, gets much more credit for being a centrist than his record would show.
“To be honest,” Peters said, “I think he’s got a lot of traction out of this, ‘I’m gay, therefore I’m moderate’ thing.”
We’ve asked DeMaio’s campaign for a similar sit-down, but haven’t received a response yet. Here are the highlights from our talk with Peters, edited for clarity and length.
What has surprised you the most during your time in Congress?
I think the culture is the surprise for me. It’s very hierarchical: “If you tell me your title, I’ll tell you if you have a good idea.”
In local government, you talk to each other about how you’re going to solve the problem. That has been cut off from the leadership, on both sides perhaps. The good news is that the freshman class was elected not in the anger wave, but in an exasperation wave. So all 85 of us, which is about 20 percent of Congress, have heard the same message that it’s about solving problems, not stopping things, which was the 2010 anger election, I think.
I joined No Labels, which is a bipartisan group trying to do things we could agree on. We did pass No Budget No Pay, which you have to laugh, because Carl’s touting it as his idea now. I ran on it, we passed it. We got the first Senate budget in four years and the first congressional budget in two years I think. After the Republicans shut the government down in 2013, we had a compromise negotiated by (Wisconsin Rep. Paul) Ryan and (Washington Sen. Patty) Murray, which I think is progress.
The narrative that you’ve pitched for yourself is as this independent Democrat. Can you give me a few examples where you’ve broken with the Democratic Party?
On the health care stuff, I’ve been very independent. I voted with the Republicans on, If You Like Your Policy You Should Get to Keep It. That was what the president promised. I voted to extend the individual mandate because I thought we weren’t ready. I think the website proved that. I voted that the part time should be 30 hours not 40 hours, to the great dismay of the labor community. I voted with some of the more moderate Democrats on some of the financial reforms. I voted for [National Environmental Policy Act] reform, which is the one vote I took that the [League of Conservation Voters] hated because I think you owe people an answer. You should do good regulations, but you can’t hold people’s applications for years. (Note: The bill would shorten the federal environmental review process.)
I voted against the high-speed rail, at least for the time being. It has nothing in it for San Diego. The contractor’s bill. I was the first Democrat to support that. (Note: The Associated General Contractors asked Peters to back a bill that would expand the number of subcontractors that would count toward federal small business requirements.) It really made them almost think about endorsing me. But they said, “Carl will always be with us. We thank you for being with us that time.”
If you had the power to make three bills law right now, what would they be?
Immigration reform would be No. 1. I would vote for the Senate bill. Carl says he wouldn’t vote for it. It’s not perfect. The House bill is better because instead of requiring a fence, it actually prescribes performance standards so you wouldn’t have to use a fence. You could use a number of monitoring devices in a lot of areas where no one can get over. But if the Senate bill is all we could get, it would be really important for the economy.
I think two, I would like to pass a budget for the future. That sounds silly. But we don’t really think about long-term trends in the budget. I have become part of the Fix the Debt, Simpson-Bowles movement. It’s another instance of independence, which would look realistically at how we make sure that we provide, we make sure that in the long run Medicare and Social Security are there for people who need it without damaging our ability to invest in anything else. There are lots of academic approaches out there that we could take that could accomplish that without cutting benefits.
The third thing is corporate tax reform. We have the highest corporate taxes rates in the world. Ours are at 35 percent. Britain is going on 22 percent. It’s a jumble. That’s not the actual rate that a lot of companies pay. But it tends to really discourage on-shore job creation.
What’s the Tea Party?
The Tea Party are the contrarians who would rather shut down government than solve problems and make it work for people.
Give me an example of things the Tea Party does or have done?
Well, they want to shut down the export-import bank. So we’ll be the only country not providing any credit support for exports. They want to repeal Obamacare rather than figuring out what the right fix is for that. They won’t deal with the broken immigration system because, well for whatever reason, they think that dealing the concept of the law is more important than dealing with the problem that the U.S. Chamber has identified, that the labor unions agree on and the farmworkers and the farmers and the tech community. They also would threaten the credit of the United States by threatening to not pay our bills.
So just people who don’t want to do anything?
There’s not any kind of sense of duty to agree. People send you to Congress, and like I said, people in my class have heard all over the country that, “We want you to fix stuff. We’re exasperated with your fighting.” These are the folks that like to fight. There’s a real problem within the Republican Party right now. They say there’s only 50 Tea Party people. But all 238 vote the same way. So it’s the Tea Party that’s really got the whole thing locked up.
Why is Carl in the Tea Party?
He himself identified the Tea Party as the conscience of the reform movement. I’m sure you saw that video that we sent out. In that video, he scorned people who would sit down around a table and compromise. Scorned them. Like, sneered at them. And that’s his record. He was our Tea Party guy here. If you look at his record, 102 times he was the one no vote on the City Council, and it was to the right of the Council. He voted against all four of (former Mayor) Jerry Sanders’ budgets. The biggest reform that happened, one of the biggest reforms that happened, after I left the city was the (retiree) health care reform. He voted against it.
In every sense of his record, he would rather pick a fight than solve a problem.
How do you think that would practically play out if he were in Congress?
What he would do in Congress is do the same thing that the Tea Party does in Congress, which is vote against everything. The thing about voting for something is you have to be accountable for it. The only way you solve problems is you get a majority of votes. One of the things he’s criticized me for is my vote on the Ryan-Murray budget. First of all, every compromise isn’t going to be perfect. So you say, OK are we going to keep shutting down the government or are we actually going to vote on a budget? This is going to be the first budget in two years. I said I was going to pass No Budget, No Pay. I said I was going to vote for the budget. We voted for it. Well, it had in there a reduction for the cost-of-living increase for working-age veterans. People who have not even retired yet. The check amount would never go down. He’s hammered me about this. That I cut benefits for veterans. That’s what you get to do when you vote no. When he never voted for Mayor Sanders’ budget he never has to say that he voted to cut library hours because he never did anything that he could be accountable for.
It’s very insidious to be the outsider yelling at people and blaming people, because you’re never accountable for stuff. When stuff goes right, OK, no one is mad at you because it worked out. When stuff goes wrong, you can point the finger of blame, which is too much of what we have in politics today.
How do you feel about fundraising?
The thing about Carl is he is a hard worker. To be honest, I think he’s got a lot of traction out of this, “I’m gay, therefore I’m moderate thing.” Outside of San Diego, people say, “Wow, he’s going to save our party. We’ll have a gay person.” Now that Eric Cantor’s lost they won’t have one Jewish person. They’re going to have one black person, who is a Tea Party person from Utah. So, I mean we’ve certainly held our own. I think we’ve done a good job.
We’ve reported on Carl’s history with the Republican Party and his ties here locally, but I do understand the argument that, “I believe climate change is a thing, I’m pro-choice, I’m pro-same-sex marriage, I’m pro all of these things that are out of step with the mainstream national Republican interest.” Do you understand why folks nationally consider him a moderate, particularly on social issues?
First of all, this is all new. Now that Carl’s running for Congress he’s announced these positions. He never has any history with Planned Parenthood. He had the worst environmental record on the City Council. The worst. By a lot. He was bad on same-sex marriage. That’s why the gay community’s so mad at him. Yeah, he’s saying the right stuff. I understand that that would be very appealing to folks. But it ain’t him. That’s my frustration.
So you think if he were elected, he would not vote in line with what he’s saying?
You know what? I don’t know what Carl would do.
I don’t know where he’s coming from other than he wants to get Carl elected. If you want to look at me, I have a history on this environmental stuff. I have history of volunteering for foster kids, for libraries, for LBGT Center.
What gets me is I bust my tail on this stuff. I have a record going back 30 years. And he can fill out some questionnaire and people say, “Oh he’s good on climate.” It’s the same thing. He’s for marriage equality now. Well, good. But where were you in 2008 when you were an elected member of the City Council? You’d been elected in June. All they needed was one Republican elected official to say, “This is the wrong thing to do.” Well, today now that he’s running, he looks at the polls and he’s decided OK this is what his position will be.
It flabbergasts me that people let him get away with that. I get it outside of town. But we know him.