Rep. Ami Bera, D-Elk Grove, is used to fending off criticism from his right.
But over the last several months, he’s faced increasing pressure from activists over his votes to advance a trade deal and limit Syrian and Iraqi refugees from resettling in the U.S. This week, Bera, who represents much of suburban Sacramento County, visited The Bee’s Capitol Bureau to talk about his record in Congress, his upcoming race against Republican Sheriff Scott Jones and the 2016 presidential race. Following is an edited transcript:
Q: What are the biggest policy differences between you and (Sheriff Scott Jones)?
A: He came out as 100 percent anti-choice – pro-life. He’s come out against the minimum wage (increase). ... (Television news) was interviewing him about some of the gun legislation and the concealed-carry permits. I’ve got pretty well-defined positions on community safety in terms of background checks and doing the research. I think there’s a contrast there. I was a little surprised that he came out saying he would support Donald Trump; so I think there’s some real contrast issues there.
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He’s talked about immigration as being the reason why he got into this race, but I still haven’t really heard him talk about where he would be different. I support and was a co-sponsor of the comprehensive immigration bill that was bipartisan in the last Congress. Obviously, the Republican majority in the House didn’t allow us to bring it to the floor for a vote. That largely is a compromise bill that addresses border security (and) addresses the undocumented here.
Obviously the one policy position he leaned in on fairly quickly was the Trans-Pacific Partnership. This is a huge, 6,000-page bill. We are taking our time with going though it; looking at (and) understanding how important this negotiation is. ... He must be a faster reader than I am because he quickly was able to analyze, digest it, talk to folks and come out against it.
Q: Who are you supporting for president?
A: As someone who is on the Foreign Affairs Committee and who has been looking at the complexity around the world ... the challenge of the Middle East and North Africa, there really is only one candidate who comes in with the full breadth and knowledge and who can hit the ground running ... Hillary Clinton.
Q: Where are you finding frustration in terms of getting things done (in Congress)?
A: We talked about comprehensive immigration. In the last Congress, you had a bipartisan bill that had broad support in the Senate; that had Republican ideas and Democratic ideas that literally got bogged down in the House, and they would never bring it to the floor for an up-or-down vote. There is broad support for wanting to do an infrastructure bill; maybe tying it with business tax reform as a way to fund an infrastructure bank. But again (there’s an) inability of congressional leadership to allow us to bring some of that to the floor ... I think there is a new opportunity with (new Speaker) Paul Ryan. He gets that he has got to figure out how to make Congress work.
Q: What’s your understanding of why (gridlock) happens?
A: I think it’s the politics of winning and losing elections as opposed to looking at policy and trying to set forth with what is actually best for the country. I am caught in the middle of that right now as well. When I looked at the TPA bill, the Trade Promotion Authority, just giving the president the ability to negotiate a trade deal, we put together a pretty good piece of legislation that was transparent. ... I think we put in strong provisions that we wanted to see the president negotiate on environmental standards, labor standards.
Only 28 of us as Democrats supported it, and this is a Democratic president. To me, we gave him good parameters. It doesn’t mean we are going to support the actual bill, but we ought to let the president try to negotiate a bill if it’s good for our economy (and) if it creates a fairer playing field for our goods and services ... Why would we not at least want to take and attempt to open up and remove some of the barriers to our goods? But that’s the politics of (the issue).
Q: Was it the influence of organized labor in the Democratic Party?
A: Certainly organized labor made their unhappiness known ... To come out against a trade bill when one doesn’t actually exist didn’t make any sense. I think we’ve got to be open to trying to create a 21st-century economy: One that is good for American workers; one that is good for our kids and grandkids. To not do that isn’t what we should be doing. And that probably is the politics of party and special interests.
Q: Do you have any sense they are hearing that message from you?
A: My job is to figure out what’s best for our region; the regional business plan and aspirations of the region, state and country. I am going to continue to engage (labor). I will go visit with the central labor council ... continue to have that dialogue. I am also upfront with them. I know this is their litmus test. I am not going to ask for their endorsement (from the AFL-CIO) until I have actually made a decision (on trade). I will go to teachers and others, individually.
They may or may not give me an endorsement based on (trade). They can look at my voting record and certainly if anyone looks at where I am, versus where Scott Jones is, nobody is going to see Scott as the Democrat on the ballot. They’ll know I am the Democratic nominee on the ballot.
Q: Do you sense you are as targeted (by Republicans) as much as you were two years ago?
A: I wish we actually had more districts like mine across the country. It’s always going to be a competitive race.
This is a weird election cycle. The top of the ticket on the Republican side may have impact down-ballot. ... For me, you always run as though you are in the toughest race of your life and you’ve got to talk to everyone and you’ve got to try to get every vote. That’s how I have always tried to carry myself. Presidential turnout should be a lot higher (for Democrats). We should get more younger voters, more minority voters, more Democrats. It should be an easier cycle. But, again, I’ve never approached it that way.
Q: Does Donald Trump help or hurt your chances?
A: I certainly won’t be voting for Donald Trump. I think he is certainly out of step with a lot of people in our district: Democrats and Republicans ... I have always said the Affordable Care Act is not what I would have done. They have spent millions of dollars tying me to (Obamacare). Certainly (Jones) is tied to whoever their nominee is.