(Editor’s Note: Both the questions and answers have been paraphrased for brevity and clarity.)
Rep. Zoe Lofgren was elected to Congress in 1994 as the only Freshman Democrat to win an election west of the Rockies that year which saw Republicans take control of the House.
Where did you grow up and go to school?
I grew up in South Palo Alto. My dad was a truck driver and my mother originally worked in a school cafeteria. That was at a time when a truck driver could afford to buy a house in Palo Alto. I don’t think that’s the case anymore. My father bought our house with the help of the GI Bill for $9000.
After high school I got a scholarship and went to Stanford where I received a degree in political science. After that I went back to Washington D.C. to look for a job and change the world. I eventually started working for Rep. Don Edwards (who was her predecessor in Congress) and ended up working for him both in D.C. and back here in California over the next several years.
I then went to law school at Santa Clara University, graduated, and opened a law practice called Webber & Lofgren, practicing immigration law. I’ve gone on to tackle the issue in Congress, while my law partner became an immigration judge.
What shaped your early political thinking?
I have been a lifelong Democrat. My parents were modest working people who were FDR Democrats, which is to say that is the first president that they voted for. Growing up we always worked in elections for one candidate or another and we always sat around the dinner table and discussed the political issues of the day. In fact, I always thought that everyone did that. It wasn’t until much later in life I discovered that wasn’t true.
I never really thought about elective politics, but I’d have to say that I had a mentor at Santa Clara — the dean of admissions — and she seemed to always assume that I wasn’t going to be practicing law for my career. At the time I didn’t realize that, but looking back I think she realized I would do some other kind of work and she was right.
When did you first get elected to office and did you have a signature issue?
I was elected to the Community College Trustees board in 1979, but it was in 1980 when a position on the Board of Supervisors (Santa Clara County) came open. I didn’t have the same agenda as the person that the Democrats were going to put up so I ran against him and won.
At that time my signature issues were health care and other services for children and families. But when you are elected you don’t always get to choose the issues you work on. At the time, Proposition 13 had just passed so we had some money problems in the county. We began working on issues dealing with the local prison population and we were able to pass some innovative programs to reduce recidivism. I am also very proud of the work we did to fix some roads in the area. We were able to pass a ½ cent sales tax increase for 10 years and built several highways.
I was on the board for 14 years when Don Edwards decided to retire from Congress after 32 years. Again the local Democrats were putting up a candidate that was a nice fellow, but I didn’t agree with him on several issues so I ended up running against him and winning.
Did you bring any pet issues to Congress?
Again I wanted to work on health care service for families, but when you get into Congress you don’t really get to decide. The year I was elected was the first year Newt Gingrich was Speaker of the House. I was put on the Judiciary and Science Committees. In those early years I spent a lot of time on immigration law.
Here we are 20 years later and it is still an important issue. Any guess as to how this will play out over the next several months? Is a Discharge Petition forcing a floor vote on immigration reform a possibility?
I wish I had a definitive answer, but I do not. I think the pro-reform advocates did an excellent job this summer keeping this issue front and center and the Democrats are pretty much onboard. In fact, Western Growers did an excellent job on this issue along with the Bibles, Badges and Business coalition. There were a lot of great events in Red States and Red Districts to keep immigration reform alive. However, now we are back in Congress and the Syrian issue has taken all of the air out of the room. And soon we will have the budget debate as well as the debt ceiling debate. We have to make sure that immigration reform doesn’t get lost in the shuffle.
With regard to a Discharge Petition, I am not opposed to that path, but I would like to see us bring the issue to a vote through normal proceedings. I think a Discharge Petition would have a difficult time passing as the Republican leadership would urge its members against signing it.
Speaking of those other budget problems, are you expecting a resolutions to some of those issues or gridlock?
It is difficult to know. A Republican, who I won’t name, told me today that the Republicans don’t have the votes to do anything on those issues (debt ceiling and budget). I think it would be very bad if they shut down the government. Regardless of how one feels on the Syrian issue, which we were debating today, we are the most powerful nation in the world and shutting us down certainly isn’t a good idea.
Congress is very polarized. You came in with Newt Gingrich as the new Speaker of the House. Was it as polarized back then?
I think Newt was the beginning of it. To give an example, before I was a freshman, the freshman class — both Democrats and Republicans — would always go up to Harvard for an orientation with people from the entire political spectrum talking to the class. My year it didn’t happen. The Republican leadership wouldn’t let the Republican freshmen meet the freshmen from the Democrat side of the aisle. At the same time the Vice President (Al Gore) had a reception for all new freshmen and not one Republican showed up. It’s been getting worse ever since.
Agriculture thought it had a new Farm Bill this summer, but then the issues were split on the House Floor. Is there any hope the food stamp provisions will be passed by the House and the bills can go to conference with the Senate version?
That was a very sad thing that happened. The bill came to the floor and the majority of the Republican committee chairman even voted against it. Agree or disagree with Nancy Pelosi, she never lost a floor vote when she was speaker. She always said there are votes of conscience but if it isn’t a vote of conscience, she expected the votes of the members and she got them.
The Republicans tried to bring a bi-partisan vote to the floor but then they allowed Rep. Cantor to add a provision that they were warned would cost them most of the Democrats’ votes and they did it anyway. I do not know what is going to happen now. I have been told that the only bill the House Republicans will pass is one that will truly gut nutrition and food stamps and that will not pass the Senate.
You mention that you came into Congress on the issue of health care service for families, what do you think of the Affordable Care Act?
Overall I think it is going to be a plus for the country that more people can be insured. I do understand that there could be a pernicious impact on the agricultural sector and we would like to address that. The law has minimum limits which probably don’t make sense in the agricultural sector where there are so many undocumented workers.
We (the Democrats) know there needs to be changes, but the Republicans won’t let that happen. Today, for the 41st time, the Republicans voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Their position is they don’t want to make any changes; they just want to get rid of it.
Every big law like this has errors — even clerical errors. The act establishing Medicare had many errors that had to be corrected. The Republicans aren’t letting us fix this.
What is in your political future?
I am going to run for re-election and I would like to see a Democratic-controlled House because then I can tackle the immigration issue and other problems as the Chairman of the Judiciary Committee rather than as the ranking member.
Our members produce the finest fruits and vegetables in the land. Are you a consumer of our products?
Usually I am a regular eater of fruits and vegetables, but right now I am on a low carb diet. I have lost 30 pounds and I have 40 more to go. So no raspberries or strawberries or other fruits are on my diet right now, though I can still eat avocados.
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