Jared Huffman wants to know if I’ve seen the latest from Jerry Seinfeld as he eases into the passenger seat and invokes the popular web series, “Comedians in the Car Getting Coffee.” “You’re supposed to pick me up in some sort of interesting vintage sports car,” he says.
“Yes, I have seen it and I’m calling this story ‘Covfefe in the Car with my Congressman,” I tell Huffman, a riff off the Donald Trump neologism that emerged from the president’s Tweeting fingers last year.
The congressman lets out a short laugh and I ease my less than interesting Honda CRV out of a parking lot at Casa Grande High School campus, where the North Coast pol had just addressed a jam-packed auditorium filled with Petaluma upperclassmen.
The subject was seriously unfunny: gun control in the wake of the Parkland, Fla. school shooting last month, which left 17 dead and sparked anew the national convulsion over gun violence in schools and what to do about it.
After the shooting, local students and educators in Sonoma and Marin counties reached out to the popular two-term congressman and he obliged them with a visit. He’s supporting a renewed ban on assault weapons, enhanced background checks, raising the age of purchase to 21, and banning large capacity magazines.
Earlier in the day, Huffman had spoken to an attentive group of students at Lagunitas Middle School, telling them he was in the San Geronimo Valley in West Marin after House Speaker Paul Ryan had sent congress home. Ryan couldn’t deal with the heat being generated by Parkland survivors. Following the Parkland shooting, teenagers had come to the capital and crashed Congressional offices to demand action on gun control.
Now we’re now headed back to Huffman’s district office in San Rafael and the afternoon 101 is smooth sailing as Huffman reflects on the gun control moment, the wild Trump ride so far and the dysfunctional congress he’s been a part of since first elected in 2012.
The Time is Ripe
Just last week Huffman had signed on to articles of impeachment against the president which zeroed in on collusion, corruption and Trump’s general disdain for those parts of the constitution that don’t protect gun rights. Huffman’s support for impeachment comes with an acknowledgement that even if the merits for impeachment are unimpeachable, the politics are a different story.
“I’ve been in favor of impeachment almost since the beginning of his presidency,” Huffman says. “I’ve been waiting for the most serious and viable articulation for the grounds for impeachment. It is sort of a ‘ripeness’ issue and honestly, the politics still aren’t right. I feel that I have to constantly manage expectations on this issue. It would be pretty reckless for me to lead people to think that we’re on the verge of actually impeaching Donald Trump, because we are not.”
For the time being at least, impeachment is a partisan pursuit. Guns are a different story altogether. There’s a chance (a very slight chance) that Trump could have a “Nixon in China” effect on the gun-control debate, given his simultaneous fealty to the National Rifle Association and the fact that he threw the organization under the bus in the presence of a visibly stunned Senator Dianne Feinstein.
“Trump has the unlikely credentials to actually move the politics on this issue,” says Huffman as we head south to San Rafael, or try to, anyway. “If he had the skills and the focus to do it,” says Huffman, “unlike you, who just took the wrong exit—but the problem with Trump is his ADD and the fact that if we get excited about what he says one day, he is likely to say the opposite the next day and you can’t count on him for anything.”
The kids, on the other hand—are they going to save the world where the adults have failed? Huffman’s talks to the teenagers last week were of a piece with a growing consensus around Parkland and its aftermath, which he reiterated to the middle schoolers.
“We may just have the opportunity to push through some changes that wasn’t possible a couple of weeks ago,” he told the teens in Lagunitas that morning. “The difference is not what happened, but how young students responded.”
Huffman invoked gun control efforts by Newtown families in Connecticut, and by former congresswoman Gabby Gifford as he called them “great champions on this issue, but there is something about how your generation is carrying itself.”
The Parkland shooting is one of a few existential questions swirling around student life early in the divisive days of the 21st century. Gun violence in schools presents an obvious and direct existential threat to them; global climate change is a less direct and visceral, but equally scary proposition for young people. Then there’s the old standby of global thermonuclear war, on top of an administration that’s creating quite a bit of chaos for LGBT and immigrant youth these days with its various crackdowns amid the generalized sense of a national crack-up.
“You’ve got to start with the acknowledgement that these kids are right, and when you look at these issues, our generation and the preceding generation has screwed a few things up.”
We talk a bit about the youth movement of the 1960s within the context of mocking comments being directed at the Parkland survivors. The venomous “crisis actor” nonsense around Parkland survivors David Hogg and Emma Gonzalez also reminds that the 1960s students who fought for civil rights and against the Vietnam War, were unpopular among much of the country. Huffman says that for every member of a youth movement, there’s a “grumpy old man in a lawn chair” who doesn’t want to hear it.
“The young people are coming from the perspective of wanting to accelerate changes to basically save their world, and the others are incapable of handling the speed of change that has been happening.”
During his school appearances, the congressman kept his critiques of Trump within the boundaries of the gun control debate and the reality-show president’s response to it. In his talk to the middle-schoolers, he didn’t mince on his view of arming teachers, calling it both a dumb idea and a stupid one, as he keyed on the Trumpian politics of the distracting head-fake.
Later in Petaluma, Huffman asked for a show of hands among the assembled students to see if anyone supported arming teachers, and the response was overwhelmingly in the negative—three or four hands raised in support, while more than one hundred arms shot up in opposition to the proposal. Teeing off on another Trump comment, one student asked him why all school shootings happened in places marked as “Gun Free” zones, and Huffman gently rebuked the premise of the question, given that there was an armed guard at Margery Stoneman Douglas High School, who didn’t do anything.
The students’ questions spoke to their own media savvy and connection with other issues of the day. Syncing with the demanding and unapologetic tenor of our times, one Lagunitas student asked if Huffman had taken money from the NRA. No, he said. “Generally I want you to get A’s,” he said to the kids gathered in the gym that morning. “But I’m proud of my ‘F’ rating with the NRA.” A Petaluma student wondered about hiring military veterans to protect schools, instead of watching them sleep on the street.
Later in the car Huffman says the youth activism now afoot is telling for what it disproves: that kids today aren’t invested in changing the world they’re about to inherit.
“To their credit there is something about these kids right now that is making them inject their voice, and that hasn’t always been the case. I’ve been visiting schools for a long time and there is a level of engagement that is sort of stirring right now that’s great to see, and it’s also a real relief, because I worried that when Donald Trump was elected that young people would say ‘this is the new normal, maybe politics is just a reality show and a food fight and we don’t need to take them seriously,’ and that hasn’t been the response, at least what I’ve seen.”
The Trump overhang is everywhere, he says, and it’s a further toxification of a politics that was already pretty mean before the country elected Trump.
The adults are in the room acting like children and crying about “they are coming for your guns,” while the children are getting shot or watching their friends and teachers get shot. Nowadays Republicans are either kissing up to Trump because of the dirty-30 percent Trump base that must be tended to, while others are saying they’ve had enough and are retiring from congress altogether. Who is winning that fight over GOP hearts and minds?
“I think more and more are falling into the latter group,” he says. “It’s unfortunate that they have to do that as they announce their retirement, and it sort of speaks to the fact that when it comes to being in Republican politics today and actually holding office, Trumpism is the dominant force.”
The toxicity brought on by Trump has trickled down into town halls and committee meetings, says Huffman, who is the second-ranking Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, a dream assignement for him. He recounts a recent dust-up he had with Texas conservative Congressman Louie Gohmert over environmental issues connected with Trump’s proposed wall. When it comes to issues of national security, the Department of Homeland Security has lots of leeway when it comes to adhering to environmental law. For that reason, the border wall would have a zone around it where environmental law didn’t apply—but Gohmert wants to extend that zone to 100 miles out from the border. Huffman wasn’t having it and told the committee that the GOP was angling for a cruel twofer: “You get to bash Mexicans and scapegoat the environmental laws at the same time,” he recalls saying, at which point he started to argue with Gohmert. The constant stream of extremism has taken a toll.
“I don’t deal with it as well as I should,” he says. “I have found myself getting increasingly flippant and feisty and even taking the bait and getting into some rather unpleasant conversations with my colleagues lately that probably aren’t wildly productive. But it frustrates me…. My patience is wearing thin with some of that and I think the country’s patience is wearing thin. It’s just not sincere, some of this posturing and extremism, and to continue to try and be deferential and genteel about it, just doesn’t feel right in this moment.”
Huffman name-checks some prominent media figures of the right who have seen the light—Michael Gerson, Bill Kristol, former congressman Dave Jolly. “I served with [Jolly] for a term, he’s a pretty conservative guy and he’s just going off on these guys,” Huffman says. “That tells me that something is going on here. Our job is to help the Republicans help save their party by just beating the shit out of them this fall. And a lot of Republicans are calling for that.”
Back in the San Rafael district office, Huffman has the iconic Truman sign on his desk: “The Buck Stops Here.” Huffman is 54 and has two teenage children—and like his childhood political hero Harry Truman, hails originally from Independence, MO.
Given the hyper-partisanship of our times, I ask Huffman if there’s anyone in the congress who he would identify as the conservative version of himself—anyone who he admires on the right. He immediately identifies Nebraska Rep. Jeff Fortenberry.
“He is a quality human being,” Huffman says. “I would be proud to take Jeff Fortenberry around with me in the district to meet my neighbors and friends, they would love him, and he would love them. I’m just as comfortable as can be around Jeff, we get along great, and he is a pretty conservative Catholic Republican. We talk a lot about religion too, which is always interesting because he is intellectually curious devout Catholic and I’m a humanist who doesn’t believe in God.”
For his part, Fortenberry feels the same about Huffman and says he’s honored not only by his peer’s shout-out, but that a reporter at a left-leaning newspaper would call about it, given “the basic breakup of the media into segments that appeal to [a] base.”
“I have great respect for Jared,” he adds, describing Huffman as a very good friend who is both “intellectually honest and effective…. He has a noted character trait of being very respectful in dialogue, and I really admire that.”
Toning it Down
Trump’s shadow follows Huffman wherever he goes in his North Coast district and I ask him if there are any constituencies he wants to crack in a third term.
“There are a number of constituencies where I want to build better relationships, and probably would be farther along today than I am but for Donald Trump and the difficult politics that we’re in right now,” he says. “I’m in what feels sometimes like a political knife-fight that can be very charged and very partisan, and it’s not sustainable.”
He singles out Republican-leaning organizations such as the Rotary Club and the Farm Bureau as places where he’d like to build bridges but can’t, “because we’re all kind of on edge, and if we might once have had some differences of opinion and perspective, but we wanted to work together, that’s harder to do now. The flip side of that is that politically, my base, and a whole bunch of people that used to be apolitical and moderate, are animated and would show up at a town hall and do a lot of the things I’m asking them to do.”
Given the tense, Trumpian climate, Huffman says he goes out of his way to not tick off any absent Republican parent. “Even now I try, when I’m talking to school groups, to have some balance, to show some respect and to validate other’s perspectives because I know that they’ve got parents and they’ve got their own sensibilities and I want it to be a civic exercise when I do this. Every now and then you’ll get a disgruntled parent.”
Or a disgruntled Republican who is also looking to build bridges. Huffman recalls a recent town hall in Windsor where he was approached by a woman who gave Huffman her card and said, “‘If you ever want to talk to a Republican call me, but I feel like you were very disrespectful of the Republicans in the room tonight.’ And I told her right there, I said ‘I think you’re right, actually.’
The final existential issue of the day is Trumpism and whether the -ism will outlast the man—and Huffman thinks it will but with a catch: Future Trumpists won’t be saddled with the incoherence and the cult of personality that the party leader brings to the spectacle now unraveling. The ‘paranoid style’ in American politics is as old as dirt and Huffman says he “doesn’t know what Trumpism will mean 10 or 15 years from now, long after Trump is gone, but it might actually be more coherent than it is with this kind of crazy man driving it.”
All the more reason for the kids to seize these various existential crises from the clutched and angry fists of angry, armed white men.