The San Diego Union-Tribune Editorial Board met recently with candidate Denise Gitsham who is running for Congress, challenging incumbent Rep. Scott Peters. Here is an edited transcript of the interview.
QUESTION: Why do you think you should represent the 52nd?
GITSHAM: I never thought about running for Congress. For me, public service was always a job that I preferred to do behind the scenes. But I think that there are a couple of different factors that really went into my decision-making process. One was I felt like Donald Trump was representing a different type of Republicanism that was very… it wasn’t the one that I have traditionally ascribed to. I’m from the George W. Bush camp and so we really believed that uniters were better than dividers. So some of the tone of the party and the direction that it was going was one that I didn’t really ascribe to. I felt like I needed to lean in and really do something about it because people mostly had two options in this election cycle. They could either get away and kind of not participate and just say I’m not going to vote for anyone. Or they could lean in and say I’m going to fight for the things that I believe in because I’ve been working for this party for 17 years. So I know exactly what it’s all about and what I believe it should represent. So that was one…
Q: But you declared before Trump became a front-runner, didn’t you?
GITSHAM: Yeah. But it was more of a tonal issue I think. I saw what was happening in the different primaries. I didn’t jump in until November. So I was really late and I felt like there was a lot of confusion as to what the Republican Party stood for. And so I just wanted to propose my perspective on how I thought it should be. And so the other thing that really triggered me getting in was being a small business person. You know, I see that it’s harder and harder to do business in California. There’s not much I can do about Sacramento, but I’m hoping that Washington doesn’t make it even more difficult for us to keep jobs here. I saw the mass exodus of a lot of tech companies that I had worked with in my PR firm and … a lot of people had said, you know, nobody ever called me when we left California to even see why we left. There was no exit interview and I thought you should at least care enough to kind of make an effort to know what you can fix to keep it from doing in the future and so that was important to me. I think we’re going in the wrong direction. More government is not better in most areas of life and so… I saw that trend happening. There’s one more factor, but then I’ll go to the sort of overarching theme that I think is really going to determine how people vote in this election. The Iran nuclear agreement was a big deal for me. When Scott Peters voted for that, I decided that I had to get in the race. It’s a big triggering moment for me. It reflects a fundamental difference in opinion. Either you think that it makes sense to trust and give money to the largest state sponsor of terror, which we’re fighting, and fight both sides of the war, or you think that it doesn’t make sense and so for me I didn’t think it made sense. And so between sort of that national security/defense perspective that I really ascribe to, that was different from Scott’s, and the fact that, at the end of the day I think this election’s going to come down to, do you believe that Washington, D.C., bureaucrats… elected officials know better how to live your life, run your businesses, organize your communities than you do? And if so, then you should vote for the person who represents those perspectives. You should vote for the person who thinks government is the answer to most things. I do not. I think government does a few things really well and most things it doesn’t do very well that we can do better in the private sector and that’s really, at the end of the day, why I jumped in.
Q: May I ask you about Trump since you brought him up? In the primary you said you would support the party’s nominee. So will you be voting for him for president?
GITSHAM: I’m not focused on talking about any of that, here’s why, 87 percent of people in our recent study said whatever the statement was that was attributed whether it was to Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, they believed and when you switched the person that it was ascribed to even if it was the same statement, they still believed it because that was the person they had committed to. If I spend a moment of my time… if I waste a second of my time talking about things that people have already decided on emotionally using as a litmus test as to whether or not they think the policies of a representative that’s before them that they’re considering, instead of looking at the policies, they’re looking at the rhetoric, then I’m wasting my time. I’m not doing my job. I know Scott would love to make this an indictment of Donald Trump. I know that he would love to say that all Republicans are just like Donald Trump. Voters can decide based on what I stand for whether or not I am. I’m not going to talk about Trump.
I think it’s a litmus test that’s false. I think it doesn’t address the issue that people really care about in this election cycle, which is not something that’s going to be over in November, but what you’re going to do after it.
Q: Let’s talk about the issues. The wall.
GITSHAM: The wall. Here’s what’s so interesting about the wall. I went to the Border Patrol union representative. I don’t really understand the border as well as I should. I haven’t been since I went to Juarez and El Paso in 2001 with the White House delegation. So I know things have changed enormously like the technology and everything else. So I just want to go and understand what the real issues are today… and I asked him, I said from your perspective and the Border Patrol, do you think a wall is necessary? And the first thing he said was, first of all, there’s no such thing as a wall. There are fences and we have three of them here at the border and he showed me all of them and he explained the roles that each of them played. One was to keep people out from that sort of in between area. One was to really stop people from coming in, they were like on both sides, there were really hardcore walls, some fences, some with razor wire and concertina wire and just different … different fences serve different purposes, which I didn’t realize.
And the issues that we talk about that are symbolic again. The first order issue that we have to address in this election cycle in the future is the people that are here coming to do us harm. Not the poor people who are trying to come over to reunite with the families or hoping to get through, but there are actual issues that we have to solve with respect to our immediate security. And those issues are people who are coming over declaring asylum, having no way to background check who they are or what country they’re from and then allowing them to come in because we say we can’t hold them forever, right? If you’re from Haiti or from the coast of Africa or you’re from Turkey, from anywhere that you come, if you’re not Mexican you get to walk through the border, go up to the Border Patrol and say, I declare asylum, and we have to take you, once they do a cursory check to see if you’re on the terrorist watch list. Then we send you in an address that you give us and then you either show up or you don’t for your hearing. Now according to the Border Patrol guy that I … this is how I’m always going to govern. I’m not the expert. I’ll never be the expert on any of these issues. So I listen to the people who are on the front lines and this guy said, look, this morning we had two Turkish nationals, young guys in their 20s. They came through, declared asylum. We held them in there … that room. We checked the terrorist watch list and they were both on it. So those guys were honest, they gave their right name … hopefully they gave the right name. And they figured out what to do with them from that point on. So they were able to stop them, but he said what’s scary is that there was actually an ID card from a Saudi Arabian national that was in the trash can in the holding room and he looked through the list of people who had come through that day and no one had declared themselves as a Saudi national and all of them had gotten through and been taken to the addresses that they had given.
So there’s no way to verify who’s coming through our border. That’s the real issue. … President Bush says family values don’t stop at the Rio Grande. He was signaling to people that there’s a lot of gray area in how we address people who come here from Mexico. That’s not the issue right now. The issue that have is a national security issue that has nothing to do with Mexican nationals. Also overseas visas. What does a terrorist need now to inflict an act of terror on our country? Generally an overseas visa is what they use. It’s one of the ways that they get in and stay. So we don’t enforce them the same way. There’s no parity in the way that we treat people who overstay on the visa and people who cross the border illegally. It seems kind of racist to me that we would treat people differently just because there happens to be some sort of, you know, declaration against Mexican nationals. Is that why we treat them with criminal prosecutions, when the real people who are inflicting harm on our country are the people who are overstaying their visas? That just seems like it’s not fair. So we got to harmonize a lot.
My parents are immigrants. My dad is from Canada and that technically counts. He came when he was 13 and he became an American citizen his first year into joining the U.S. Air Force. My mom is originally from China. My grandfather was a two-star general with Chiang Kai-shek and she moved to Taiwan when she was 9 because they lost the civil war to communists and then she came here in the ‘60s. And when my mom and so many other… we’re all immigrants. We’re all descendants of immigrants. None of us are here originally, right? We’re not Native Americans and so people have to… there are laws on the books, if you want to talk about the bigger immigration issue. There are laws on the books and we have very confusing, conflicting mandates and executive orders that require a lot of those guys that are at the border to not really know what the rules of engagement are when they are dealing with folks at the border.
Q: So… just real quick, no wall?
GITSHAM: I’m for whatever the Border Patrol people tell me they need to do their job well and what they told me is they need physical… they’re like the wall is totally a fabricated political issue. They said they need physical infrastructure and they need manpower and technology; all three, that’s what it takes.
Q: More and more I agree with Ruben Navarrette, the columnist who lives in San Diego County and who has written for years that neither side is honest about this. Republicans like cheap labor and Democrats … The unions don’t like mass immigration that depresses wages in theory at the low end of it. So, I don’t know, it just feels like neither party has any kind of claim to the high ground on immigration.
GITSHAM: That’s true. I agree with you. I mean we’re confused because we’re a country that’s so compassionate. Look … I was the first natural-born American citizen in my family. And my grandfather was 80 when he came to America and he wanted to die an American citizen. This is a man who was a war hero in Taiwan, in China. He wanted to die an American citizen because he wanted to be American. He got it when he was 90. He spent 10 years studying for his citizenship test and working hard to do it. People want to come to America not just for the jobs. People want to come because we’re a compassionate, incredible country. And when you stand on that border and you look at TJ or you stand on the border at El Paso and you look at Juarez, the Rio Grande is like not even a trickle, right? You’re literally within a stone’s throw of a different world. Who wouldn’t want to come to a country that extols personal freedom and rights regardless of the economy? So we have to decide as a nation what’s most important. Of course we’re compassionate. But how do we make sure that we’re able to stay that way for the future? We have to make sure that our immigration policy serves our interests so that we can continue to be that country that people want to come to.
Q: Where are you on trade? I know that’s an issue in the campaign because of Scott’s support for TPP.
GITSHAM: I’ve always been for free trade. I mean that’s just a Republican principal. That’s a conservative principal that’s always been enduring. This new era of isolationism concerns me and the America first protectionism. There’s a whole trend where people are scared. There’s a sense of anxiety in this country. People are not at ease with where our country is going and what’s going to happen, what the future can hold. And part of that, they’re looking to see what can they do in the near term to stem sort of the outflow of jobs and money. And what they see is what’s kind of screwing them in the long-term as Americans. And the truth is NAFTA brought in 25 million net new jobs into America. So while it’s easy to look at some sort of singular issues and say, well, I lost my job because … there’s no one off, right? You don’t lose a job because somebody in another country gets it and so I get that frustration. We need to figure out ways to make America a more attractive place to do business. That’s why being pro business is so important. If we’re able to get a strong, healthy economy … you didn’t see this trend before. That’s because our economy was strong. We were able to keep jobs in this country. We’re chasing them out and that’s why people are looking for who’s a scapegoat and free trade has become the issue du jour.
Q: I understand the critique of the Iran deal. We’ve written editorials that say this is a huge gamble that may or may not pay off. The Republican foreign policy seems to be based on the idea that we should impose our will around the world. It hasn’t gone well lately. So on the one hand, you’ve got Obama, who seems kind of feckless at times on foreign policy, but at least he’s not adding to our wars. And on the other hand you have Republicans, who have a model of intervention. It seems like we need a third way.
GITSHAM: Yeah. I’m in agreement. We have a neocon hangover still from all of our engagements that didn’t pan out well like Iraq and we’re oversubscribed in every single place. We don’t have the money or resources to effectively combat anything so we’re kind of half-assed everywhere. You know, when I look at the biggest geopolitical threats right now, we’ve got Russia, which is really a regional superpower. It will never be more than that because of their economy unable to sustain any sort of cold war like superpower status.
We have North Korea, which is like a rogue, crazy threat because there’s this fat kid that thinks he’s like God sitting there and he’s delusional. But he has six to 12 nuclear warheads and ICBMs that are capable of reaching Italy. That’s a real problem regionally. That’s something that China needs to step up and deal with. You know, we’ve got to work with our regional partners to make sure it’s not in their interest to have a nuclearized, ICBM-capable North Korea. That threatens their interest.
Then we have ISIS. And we have, you know, all… all of the threats that come from radical… radicalized ideology. And that’s our most… that’s our biggest threat existentially to our ally, our strongest ally in the Middle East, Israel, and also to our interests as Americans.
And we have China, which you know there’s a whole different world. I ascribe to the belief that countries that have McDonald’s in them don’t go to war with each other.
Q: What do you think about banning all refugees from countries or areas where terrorists are from coming here? Is that a smart policy?
GITSHAM: I saw the poll numbers on it recently. I think they’re still in favor, maybe 60 percent or 58 percent of Americans don’t want Syrian refugees. Again, I feel like the Syrian refugees are… we… as a nation we’ve given over $4 billion to that issue, which is more than we’ve ever given to any humanitarian effort ever. Ever. We are compassionate. For people to say that we’re not compassionate is ridiculous. We have given so much resource-wise. Right now, based on our inability to even gauge who’s coming over our border, as evidenced by that border example that I gave, I don’t know that we’re equipped as a nation to receive Syrian refugees where we don’t know where they’re coming from. I think we’ve got to come up with a better plan for them. We need to work with the international community to do so, but I don’t think that right now we are equipped to do that. We just don’t know who’s coming in. It’s not about Syrians. It could be anyone. Fill in the blank. We are having problems tracking who’s coming in and that’s a serious threat to us.
Q: How would you improve the system?
GITSHAM: I was trying to think of like where we could put folks that would help them really build roots and have a new life. And all the temporary sort of fixes, while we try to figure out whether or not we’re able to put in the systems like the [Israelis]. Israel is so, so good at doing biometrics and tracking who comes in and goes because it’s an existential issue for them. If they don’t have strong borders and know who’s coming in and out, they’re not able to survive as a country surrounded by people who want to obliterate them. And we don’t feel bad as Americans, thank God. We don’t have to live in that kind of fear, but I think the threat is somewhat growing. It is growing, if it’s not already there, and we need to be more aware of how we do that. I want to create a society in America where we really feel like we can welcome people with open arms. That we’re capable of doing that. So we need to figure out how to make ourselves stronger and more capable of tracking people when they come in and knowing what their backgrounds are, so we can. The goal is to can, but not right now. We can’t do it. And that’s what every… every bill … I mean people love to use that as a litmus test of whether you’re a jerk or you’re like a loving person and the reality is all of those bills were about a pause on the system until we figure out how to get there.
Q: On mass surveillance and the rise of the government information state, Republicans are split. You got the libertarians on the one hand who say civil liberties matter. We used to care a lot about civil liberties and now we just accept the government’s assurances. And then we have the right that says no, we must do more and more and more. We must have no privacy because we’re at risk. It seems that’s something the party can’t finesse. Where are you?
GITSHAM: Nobody can because you’re seeing crazy collaborations between the ACLU, which would never be confused for being conservative and the far right, you know, the black helicopter people. So I was on a boat called Summit at Sea where they bring in the thought leaders from all over the country. Edward Snowden came in, [via] Skype… and the guy from Google, Eric Schmidt, was asking all these questions and making him a hero and I thought that’s not really the answer. And then you had Grover Norquist and Nadine Strossen talking on a panel, which you would never imagine to see happen, about civil liberties and how important they are. I think that that really thoughtful, sensible, moderate tact will prevail as it should. We have to figure out a way to protect ourselves from unnecessary government intrusion. At the same time make sure that we’re able to track what’s going on. I worked in the Bush White House on 9/11. I worked at DOJ where we had Patriot Act coming up for reauthorization at that time. I traveled around the country and I talked to prosecutors and U.S. attorneys and I heard the PFAW and ACLU and all these other people make statements in conjunction with the tax folks of America against the administration and efforts on Patriot Act. And, yet, when it came up for reauthorization it was almost unanimously reauthorized because it worked.
And so there are parts of it that don’t work and have been sunsetted. I think we need to sunset everything. This is not just for patriot or civil liberties issues. We need to look at what the realities of today require from our legislators. If we are able to lower barriers so that FBI, you know, all the divisions, CIA, local and federal law enforcement can cooperate to track people that could be bad, that makes common sense. That’s part of the Patriot Act. That was a big driving force of it. There are other things like warrantless wiretaps. Those were things that we as a country have to decide on, but you don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. We need to remove barriers between communication and effectively address the issue of terrorism and folks who come in and try to do us harm. That doesn’t mean that we throw out the whole Patriot Act for the issues that don’t work. So let’s sunset things and make people debate them. Let’s talk about whether or not given what we have in this day and age with the new technologies that have arisen since then, our laws still make sense. That’s true for our budget. You know, we’re able to figure out with Uber what the cost of a ride is going to be based on supply and demand. When I was 26 years old working in the Department of Justice, working for a Republican administration, I was told to go figure out how to spend the last half a million dollars. We’re going to come together. Come with ideas because we have to use it or lose it. I’d never heard of that before because I’d never worked in the government before, never been part of the budgeting process. Why don’t we have zero-based budgeting? Why don’t we justify how we spend taxpayer dollars? Why is it presumed that what we needed last year is what we need today and tomorrow? That sort of rigidity and thinking, that sort of positional, rather than, you know … positional thinking, which is we must have this or we’re going lose it. Why is that a bad thing?
We figured it out in technology… where entrepreneurs could come together and think about how to address these issues with technology so we didn’t have to be afraid of losing what we needed. If we fostered an environment where we could talk to each other and trust each other that when you came to me and said I really need this and this is why? That’s a conversation that needs to happen.
GITSHAM: I can guarantee you I’ve never said we should reduce Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. I guarantee that.
Q: I have that on tape.
GITSHAM: Oh you… I said reduce? I never said that.
Q: What is your position on those things?
GITSHAM: The only way that we can protect and preserve Social Security so that it actually exists for our generation is to reform it. I’ve never said to cut. Now how you define cut? There are many, many different ways. Are there things that we need to be smarter about as to how we spend? Can we have it all? First of all, no, we can’t have it all. We can’t have more benefits, we can’t have more of everything and expect to preserve it when baby boomers are coming into their full fruition and in need of a lot more medical care. And a lot more of their benefits across the board. And so unless we have some way of saying, look, without these reforms, without some cuts somewhere and maybe that’s where you got it from, those are just words that you use to balance any sort of program that’s out of control. Without smarter, more accountable measures that keep our costs in check like free-market principles that enable there to be competition, growing competition within medical care. Without some sense of accountability and incentives that drive costs down rather then drive them up, Medigap, for example. Medigap users use 25 percent more health care than anyone on just regular Medicare. The costs that they pay in addition to do Medigap doesn’t cover the additional 25 percent on average that they use in services. Does that make sense? Is that the best way for us to ensure that Medicare exists for the future? No. We have to look at where that doesn’t make sense and figure out how we help people make smarter decisions.
Q: Now I’m confused because you didn’t say reduced, but then you also said you have to…
GITSHAM: Cuts, right?
Q: So explain what you mean?
GITSHAM: So how do you define reduce?
Q: Less of something, right? Which is what cutting something is …
GITSHAM: Right. So there are all sorts of ways… we have to cut the things that don’t make sense, the parts of the programs that don’t make sense and hopefully give people better options to make better decisions. So the way that I see Social Security. There are folks … so you could define this as cutting… there are folks that do not need Social Security. I know because one of my big supporters in La Jolla… She lives in one of the La Jolla Farms Road homes. She doesn’t need Social Security. Does she get it? Yeah. I think personally, I think they’d be willing to give up what they supposedly, you know, they get as benefits. Well they’re not entitlements, people paid into it, but should they be the ones that should continue to get Social Security benefits? You can call that cutting, I guess. I guess you could. You can define it however you want. I think there should be a means test for Social Security. Social Security wasn’t designed to be a replacement for… it was a social… it was a safety net to protect against poverty, not for people who really have enough money and don’t need more.
Q: But means testing doesn’t really solve the problem. Means testing can take up maybe 4 percent, 5 percent is the estimate I saw.
GITSHAM: That’s a start.
Q: And meanwhile, the whole thing is broken. I mean life expectancy… if the average 65-year-old according to CalPERS’ last study, which is now out of date, the average woman lives to 87 or 88. The average man lives to 84. There’s lots of people who think that we’re on track for that to be 92, 93 for women and 87, 88 for men. So the whole thing’s broken… in 1935, the life expectancy was in the 60s and now…
GITSHAM: Well, let’s talk about indexing to life expectancy. That’s another thing that you can maybe cut off a couple percentage points on, right? So if Social Security… if you determine what the purpose… what was the original intent of these laws? And then you track common sense ways that track with reality.
Q: But in the 1960s we had four people working for every person receiving Social Security. It’s going to be two to one, I think in 2030. So it’s just, the whole thing is just an absence of reality about this.
GITSHAM: So there has to be decisions that we make as to how we save it without cutting benefits that are needed for the people who need them the most. If we do not protect those that this was actually designed for and instead we kind of just start saying, this is… a supplement for middle income people, you know, in their retirement. That’s not enabling us to preserve the program for its original intent and to enable people who really need to have it when they do.
Q: Should we raise the retirement age?
GITSHAM: Everyone has proposed doing that. I mean, Joe Lieberman… he said it’s not going to be popular. He said over the next… every year… this is 2011… he said, these are bipartisan principles that Cato and Brookings and everyone in (AEI) and Heritage, everyone seems to agree on is that without raising that incrementally, we’re not going to get there. And guess who that falls on? I’m 39. That falls on our generation, not the folks that are there now. So we can plan in advance. We need to have a level of personal accountability for our futures. If we know now and can plan in advance with 20 years foresight and be able to save for our future and our retirement knowing that it’s not going to be what folks have now, that’s forewarning. That’s good. We can plan for that in the future. It shouldn’t affect what people get now, but slowly and surely we need to increase that age to one that makes sense and is consistent with the spirit of the law. Nobody will talk about this because it’s politically unpopular and when it’s characterized as cuts and people can use them as talking points to scare seniors, well, it’s simply not true and it’s all about whether you want to protect and preserve it or not. In order to save Medicare, we have to revamp it, period. And if that entails changing parameters to keep it consistent with its purpose, then that’s what we need to do and it has to be hard and everyone needs to give.
Q: What do you see as maybe the one or two headline issues that are going to move that needle for you? How are you going to close that gap? What are you hearing in that district?
GITSHAM: The polls, based on what we know about the issues consistently, they’re consistent with Americans, right? It’s the anxiety that people feel over the economy and national security. And… it’s not that people feel we’re going to get attacked in San Diego. It’s really not even though San Bernardino happened not far away. People aren’t feeling like there’s an imminent sense of attack. People are uncomfortable about where we stand in the world and what we’re… fostering, what’s growing out there. So there’s a general sense of unease. So hitting things like that head on trying to fear monger is not going to work, right? It’s not about that and it’s not true. People just want to know how are we going to deal… do we have a plan to deal with what’s happening in the world and keep those guys away from us and to protect our national security interests and our lives? Really it’s our lives. National security is too big of a word. What are you doing to protect my family?
And then the other thing that I think is important is jobs and the economy. The student loan issue is so interesting to me because I went to Georgetown Law School. I was a Virginia resident at the time. Because… and which was way cheaper because I felt like the cost benefit analysis of going to Georgetown made sense even though I was paying for it at $50,000 a pop and working full time to do it while I was in law school. And so, I worked at DOJ and I worked in the Senate. I worked full time and went to law school full time my second year on Chief Justice Roberts’ confirmation. I worked because it was such an important time to be involved in our government. And I knew what the terms were. And guess what? When I got out of Georgetown, I went straight into a big law firm and I got my cushy salary and I knew what I had to do to pay it off and I hated working there. But I did it because I had to. I hated my life every day that I was at big law, but I had to do that to pay off my debt. The people that came right after me got hit with the recession. And so it was a totally different world for me. We need to have a business environment that enables people to get hired. We need to think about what we’re doing on the policy level that enables businesses to succeed. This is not a trickle down effort. This is for future employees that are graduating. We need to give them jobs. We need to have jobs for them to get and we need to train them for those jobs.
When I worked at Sapphire, one of our founders created the Edge Program. It was specifically to train people for jobs in the bio fuels industry. It was a whole curricula at the associate degree level, the community college level, at the high school level. So if you wanted to be a technical person in that realm, you could go in straight and get a good paying job. My dad was a vocational education teacher for the state of California. It was called the Regional Occupational Program. He did that for 20 years when he retired from the Air Force. To this day the students that come to our house for holidays, they’re some of my dad’s very dearest friends because they are making phenomenal livings doing technical, vocational jobs that they didn’t want to go to college for and they didn’t need to. We need to stop thinking that there’s a one size fits all. The notion of free college is so, so nice, right? What are our priorities as a nation? Is that at the top of it? Can we afford it? And is that right for everyone or does it funnel people into career paths that don’t give them the jobs that are ultimately what’s fueling this unease to go back to your original question.
Q: You have a 30-second close.
GITSHAM: This race is a lot about change. If the rise of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump wasn’t about change, then I don’t know what was. I believe that if you’re part of a problem, Scott’s part of a 15 percent approval rating in Congress that has hovered there since 2010, really, it’s between 12 percent and 15 percent approval rating. If you haven’t proven that you’re able to solve problems in the 3-1/2 years that you’ve been in, then you’re part of the problem, you’re not part of the solution. I think it’s time for a fresh perspective. One that’s based on our interests in San Diego and not the special interests that he takes half of his money from.