If the past is an indication, U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael) is going to be very hard to beat as he seeks a third congressional term this election year.
As a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, he came out of nowhere to win election to the State Assembly in 2006, and succeeded in getting re-elected twice, in 2008 and again in 2010, before getting termed out.
In 2012, his knack for getting people to vote for him continued when he captured California’s 2nd Congressional District seat, replacing Lynn Woolsey, who had decided to retire after 20 years.
His unbeaten string continued two years later, in 2014, when he kept his House seat by capturing a whopping 75 percent of the vote in the general election, besting Republican Dale Mensing, a supermarket cashier from Southern Humboldt.
Mensing has thrown his hat in the ring again this year, along with Erin Schrode, a Marin County Democrat, and Matthew Wookey, a Sonoma County independent. The top two vote-getters in the June 7 primary will meet again in November’s general election.
Given that Mensing is a Republican in an overwhelmingly Democratic district, and that none of the trio have much in the way of political experience, it would be a major upset if Huffman weren’t to win a third term.
In an interview last week, Huffman, 52, pointed to a number of things he plans to focus on in a third term.
“At a national level, I want to reset this economy and create more middle-class opportunities. I want to start addressing the income inequality problem. And I want to do more on climate change and alternative energy, and on reforming the campaign financing system,” he vowed.
Sounds good, but of course Huffman hasn’t gotten much traction on such matters to date due primarily to opposition from Republicans. Unless the GOP were to lose control of the House in November, Huffman would presumably continue to be stymied.
Given that he’s in the minority party, what he has been able to accomplish — as he himself pointed out — has been smaller-scale and more local in nature.
“Even as [we’ve been] stalled in D.C. on big issues, I’ve still been able to get stuff done on the ground in Humboldt County,” Huffman contended.
“I spend lots of time in and around the county,” he went on. “There’s no way I can understand the priorities and solutions for the area if I’m not there on the ground developing good working relationships.”
One accomplishment he pointed to was pushing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to conduct “emergency dredging [of Humboldt Bay] twice in the last two years.”
“It’s not high-profile, but it means that wood chips [that are] loaded and ready to ship out can actually get out [of the bay] and [that] boats can get in.”
He also pointed to “getting emergency support from [the Environmental Protection Agency] to make sure the Samoa Pulp Mill didn’t become a toxic disaster.”
“We still need [to do] more work on that site to transfer it into something positive and exciting for the region,” he added.
A third achievement had to do with an effort in 2014 to help keep open a Eureka slaughterhouse that had run afoul of regulators for its treatment of animals — in particular, slaughtering lambs improperly.
He said his office “got involved and worked with owners of the slaughterhouse to address the concerns [U.S. Department of Agriculture] inspectors had.”
“USDA inspectors were on the verge of shutting it down,” explained Huffman, referring to the fact that the Redwood Meat Co. was in danger of losing its federal certification.
“It was not a glamorous issue. [But keeping the slaughterhouse open] meant a lot to [local meat] producers.”
On the hot-button issue of cannabis, Huffman said he was “looking to support” the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, the ballot measure to legalize recreational marijuana that is slated to come before state voters in November.
“It looks like an acceptable way to move over the threshold of decriminalization, which I support,” Huffman commented.
But if it’s approved, Huffman warned that there would still be “conflicting federal policies and laws” to contend with. “I’ve been co-sponsoring bills and amendments to fix that. This is not a new issue to me.”
As a congressman, Huffman has pushed for reclassifying marijuana so that it was no longer considered a Schedule 1 drug, the most dangerous category. He has also sponsored legislation to address the environmental damage caused by trespass marijuana grows.
When asked where things will stand cannabis-wise five years from now, he said his hope is that state law will have been reconciled with federal law “so that the marijuana economy can come out of the shadows and be regulated, taxed and trusted by consumers.”
Huffman recollected the chopper ride he and television newsman Dan Rather took over Humboldt County back in the summer of 2013. Pointing to the grows down below, Huffman drew a comparison with Kentucky during the Prohibition era, when stills were rampant on the landscape.
“I said: ‘We’ll decriminalize [marijuana] in the near term and we’ll see the same change [as we saw with alcohol].’ He laughed. He didn’t buy it.”
Huffman ended up betting Rather that legalization would happen by the end of the decade. “I look forward to collecting on that bet,” he said last week.
Regarding relations with his Republican colleagues in Congress, Huffman said that “on a personal level, it’s not that bad. These are human beings. I treat them with respect and [I] feel like I’m treated with respect.”
That said, the reality is that bipartisan cooperation on major pieces of legislation is extremely rare given the polarization between the two parties.
“I would like my Republican colleagues who are bold enough to join me on clean energy legislation,” Huffman shared as an example. “They talk privately about it. But the [Republican] party is ruled by an iron fist. [GOP] members of Congress who show bold bipartisanship are generally punished.”
To some extent, there’s been bipartisan cooperation on marijuana. Two years ago, for example, Huffman and 17 other members of Congress sent President Obama a bipartisan letter asking him to direct Attorney General Eric Holder to reschedule marijuana from Schedule 1 of the Controlled Substances Act.
Huffman pointed to Orange County Republican Dana Rohrabacher as someone from the other side of the aisle who has co-sponsored marijuana reform legislation. “I really admire his analysis on these issues,” Huffman remarked.
Nonetheless, Huffman indicated that Rohrabacher — who last summer co-authored an amendment to protect medical marijuana patients and providers from federal prosecution — is the exception, not the rule. “I know lots of Libertarian Republicans who should be supporting [marijuana] legalization [but can’t],” Huffman commented.
Occasionally, a political enemy of Huffman on one issue can be a political ally on another.
Such is the case with Sacramento-area Republican Tom McClintock, an adamant opponent of something that Huffman has pushed hard for: The removal of the Klamath River’s four dams.
“There’s no one I do battle with more on water and fisheries issues than Tom McClintock,” Huffman remarked. “He ridicules the Endangered Species Act and would dewater North Coast rivers if I let him.”
Nonetheless, the pair have found common ground on one thing. They are both opposed to what’s known as the “zombie coal earmark,” which since the 1970s has required the Department of Defense to purchase anthracite coal from Pennsylvania to heat American military bases in Germany.
Spending taxpayer dollars to ship coal 3,000 miles across the Atlantic strikes McClintock as a waste of taxpayer money. Huffman agrees, and adds an additional gripe: “I don’t like our country propping up the coal industry [at a time of climate change,]” he explained.
“He approaches it from a government waste perspective. I approach it from a climate change perspective,” was how Huffman summed up the alliance.
Last year, the House approved a Huffman-McClintock amendment that removed the earmark from the Defense spending bill for the first time since 1972. Last week, however, the House Appropriations Committee included language in the 2017 Defense Appropriations Bill that, in effect, reinstates the earmark.
“The coal industry got it back in. So McClintock and I are suiting up again [to do battle],” Huffman said.
Speaking of battle, when asked about the three people seeking to take his seat — Mensing, Schrode and Wookey — Huffman had this to say: “I get interesting competitors every time I run. They are individuals who are willing to put themselves out there and often brings some novelty to the race.”
Back in 2012, Huffman recalled, one of his challengers, Andy Caffrey, made a splash of sorts by vowing to light up a joint on the steps of Congress if elected. This time around, he noted, it’s Schrode, just 25, who’s creating a bit of a stir because of her age.
“Now Erin Schrode wants to be the youngest woman elected to Congress. It’s good for members of Congress to be challenged,” Huffman said.
When it comes to the presidential race, Huffman has liked what he has seen in terms of the Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders contest.
“There are two good candidates for president on the Democratic side. I’m proud of the debates and campaign we’ve had.”
He said he found it “pretty positive” that the competition between the two has focused on substantive issues such as climate change, campaign finance reform and income inequality.
And while Clinton and Sanders’s supporters have at times gone at each other tooth and nail, the reality in Huffman’s view is that when it comes to the issues the two candidates aren’t terribly far apart.
“The common ground among Democrats is far greater than the spirited contest between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders sometimes makes us feel,” Huffman remarked.
Needless to say, things have been a bit different on the Republican side.
“It’s a spectacle. It’s uncharted waters for the Republican Party. [The GOP] needs to fundamentally reset itself,” Huffman declared, sounding not at all alarmed. “Donald Trump is an absolute train wreck. He will unify the Democrats unlike anything that could have been predicted.”
So much so that Huffman sees the possibility of a Democratic clean sweep. He said he was “cautiously optimistic” not only that his party would hold onto the White House, but that the Senate, currently controlled by Republicans, could “flip.” As for the other chamber, he said it’s not out of the question that voters “could give us the 30 seats needed to take back the House.”
Even if that doesn’t happen, Huffman indicated that would still find satisfaction in representing the 2nd Congressional District. “The great thing about the job is that you can make a difference in a lot of ways. That’s why I want to re-up for another two years.”