San Diego Union-Tribune: Levin prioritized environmental and veterans issues in Year One, will it earn him another term?

January 19, 2020
In The News

By Charles T. Clark

Rep. Mike Levin, the newest member of San Diego’s congressional delegation, is competing in one of the most closely watched races

Last January the San Diego Congressional delegation saw a new member join it’s ranks for the first time in six years: Rep. Mike Levin, a San Juan Capistrano Democrat and environmental attorney.

Although he had been heavily involved in Democratic politics for years, Levin had never held elected office before and was stepping into a seat that had been held by a powerful Republican incumbent for nearly two decades.

It left many in the 49th Congressional District — which stretches from northern La Jolla to Dana Point and includes Vista and Camp Pendleton — wondering how effective a freshman could be and curious about how he would represent a district that is transitioning from red to purple.

With a year under his belt and bolstered by some key committee assignments, Levin has sought to answer those questions by racking up a few bipartisan wins and focusing on local priorities, even as national headlines are dominated by the longest government shutdown in U.S. history, a potential war with Iran, and the impeachment of President Donald Trump.

“You know, there’s a lot of people that haven’t had a voice in this community or felt their representative wasn’t necessarily focused on local concerns enough,” Levin said during an interview with the Union-Tribune. “For me it is a situation where my name might be on a door, but it is their office.”

“People want representatives that are actually doing something substantive and tangible for the district and representing the values they believe in. I feel pretty confident we’ve done that.”

A member of the Natural Resources Committee, the Veterans Affairs Committee and the special select Committee on the Climate Crisis, Levin cut his teeth on popular local issues such as supporting veterans and protecting the environment.

More than 45,100 veterans and 23,910 active service members call the 49th District home, according to U.S. Census Bureau data from 2018.

People over 65 have a 70% chance of needing long-term care. Are you ready?

As chair of the Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity, Levin had a role crafting bipartisan legislation catering to veterans.

So far nine pieces of legislation related to veterans issues that Levin introduced have either passed or been wrapped into other bills that have passed out of the House.

Among those are the Protect the GI Bill Act and the Housing for Women Veterans Act, both of which received bipartisan support in the House and are now in the Senate.

The Protect the GI Bill Act would require schools to be clear with students about the cost of attendance and how much their benefits will cover, among other things. The Housing for Women Veterans Act would direct at least $20 million of federal grants to organizations that help women veterans and their families. It was adopted into the Deborah Sampson Act, now before the Senate.

Lori Boody, executive director of the Veterans Association of North County, said Levin and his office have been attentive and “truly focused” on veterans issues, and appears to be aware of the high importance community members in the 49th District place on supporting veterans.

As a freshman legislator, Levin is doing his best to work the system, she added, but there is still tremendous need. Her organization, the largest resource center for veterans in North County, continues to see more people seeking assistance each year, including more than 20,000 people in 2019, she said.

“He and his office have been helping to get legislation through,” said Boody, “but the impact is yet to be seen. I’m hopeful that the results will be positive for our veteran community.”

Much of Levin’s time also is spent on environmental issues, a subject of intense interest in his coastal California district.

A member of the House’s select Committee on the Climate Crisis, Levin participates in the committee’s development of a comprehensive climate action plan.

He also backed the Green New Deal, a resolution he often is asked about at town halls. Levin praised the resolution for engaging people in environmental issues and said it’s important to remember that the Green New Deal lays out a bunch of objectives, not a specific prescription.

The real question, he said, is how legislators can craft legislation consistent with those objectives in a way that sparks economic growth.

“It’s just not accurate to say ‘You can’t protect the environment, fight global climate change and grow the economy at the same time,’ because that’s what we’ve done in California,” Levin said, citing the state’s clean energy initiatives, incentives for zero-emission vehicles, and its cap and trade program.

“The notion that somehow we will damage the economy by protecting the environment or combating climate change is just a false notion being promoted by a handful of very powerful oil and coal companies,” he said.

Levin’s most visible local environmental entanglement involves the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, which closed in 2012 after some new steam generators leaked radiation.

The plan to decommission the facility calls for moving and storing 3.6 million pounds of radioactive waste in canisters that have been federally licensed for 20 years. South California Edison, the majority owner of the plant, is supposed to maintain a dry-storage facility on the north San Diego County shoreline until the fuel can be moved to a national repository elsewhere.

Storing radioactive waste on the shoreline without a definitive plan to relocate it has not sat well with environmental activists and some residents.

A month after assuming office, Levin created a task force to devise potential solutions to move and safely store the waste. On the task force are experts and community stakeholders led by Rear Admiral Leendert “Len” Hering Sr., USN (Ret). and former U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko.

The group has met many times over the past year and plans to release a research paper on the subject in coming months.

Gary Headrick, head of the environmental advocacy group San Clemente Green and a longtime critic of the storage plan, said the task force - which he is part of - has created a situation where real potential solutions are being discussed.

“I don’t think you could ask for a better representative, especially on environmental issues,” he said of Levin.

The congressman said his goals for Year Two include getting several of his veterans bills signed into law, advancing actions related to San Onofre and introducing legislation to address another local environmental issue: bluff collapses.

Levin’s critics, including challenger and former San Juan Capistrano Mayor Brian Maryott, contend that Levin is too liberal for a district where registered Republicans outnumber registered Democrats by about 6,000 voters — 142,910 to 136,889.

“His tone, tenor and approach is that of an aggressive liberal member of Congress in a very liberal district,” said Stephen Puetz, Maryott’s campaign consultant. He cited Levin’s support for the Green New Deal, MediCare for All, and for Trump’s impeachment.

“He is spitting in the face of his constituents who, at best, want a middle-of-the-road congressman,” Puetz said.

Voters prefer someone sensible they can trust, like Maryott, Puetz said, pointing to his record as mayor and experience as a certified financial planner.

“It is lip service, if you look at the veterans stuff or the stuff on San Onofre,” he said. “It is like (Levin) is almost trying to check the boxes to be a moderate in the district.”

Levin, who backed impeachment proceedings in July, said his record speaks for itself.

“He (Maryott) wants to label me an extremist and a socialist, and at the end of the day I’ll leave it to voters to determine whether I am sufficiently representative,” Levin said. “I think I am. I am working across the aisle in virtually everything I do. I’m extremely transparent, accountable and accessible, and I always try to be receptive to others’ ideas and views.”

Whether Levin is too liberal for the district will be determined by the November election. Because there are only two candidates in the race, they’re guaranteed to get through the primary.

For now though, some political observers say he is hitting the right notes to retain his seat in the 49th.

“He’s not the highest profile member, but he has certainly been working hard at the job and has a pretty good chance at re-election,” said Jack Pitney, professor of political science at Claremont McKenna College.

He added that the issues Levin has focused on, veterans and San Onofre, are highly appealing to voters in the district, regardless of where they sit on the political spectrum.

Pitney also doubted that calling Levin too extreme for his stances on the Green New Deal or Medicare for All would resonate with voters.

“On a rhetorical level, those positions are actually appealing to a lot of people in coastal communities,” he said. “Environmental concerns are economic concerns; they go hand-in-hand. What is good for the environment is good for the local economy. And with Medicare for All, the real issue is about the details and cost but ... people like the idea of strengthening Medicare.”

Financially, Levin’s campaign has significantly outraised Maryott’s every quarter. It currently has $1.2 million in campaign cash, compared to Maryott’s $361,446. The next campaign finance report is due Jan. 31.