This newspaper group recently met with 50th District Congressman Brian Bilbray to discuss his bid for another term, this time as representative of San Diego’s newly redrawn 52nd District.By Pat Sherman
San Diego Congressman Brian Bilbray, a native of Coronado and former tax preparer, served as mayor of Imperial Beach before moving on to spend a decade on the San Diego County Board of Supervisors. From 1995 to 2001 the Republican represented San Diego’s 49th Congressional District (today the 53rd) before his defeat by Democrat Susan Davis, then a state assemblywoman.
After leaving office that year, Bilbray registered as a Washington lobbyist. His clients included the San Diego Regional Airport Authority, Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians, SDG&E, and the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a conservative, anti-immigration group.
In 2006 Bilbray joined Congress again, this time in the 50th District, winning in a special election to replace disgraced fellow Republican Duke Cunningham, who is currently serving time in prison for felony conspiracy and tax evasion.
An avid surfer, Bilbray has five children, one of which, Brian Patrick Bilbray, currently serves on the Imperial Beach City Council. Bilbray’s daughter, Briana, who battled Stage 3 melanoma, recently declared herself an advocate for medical marijuana dispensaries — something her father remains opposed to.
Viewed as the only truly competitive congressional race in the San Diego region, political pundits will be eyeing 52nd District results closely. In the first of California’s open primary elections on June 5 — during which independents or “Decline to State” voters may cast their ballot for a candidate from any party — the race should be close, as the district is divided nearly evenly between Democrats, Republicans and Decline to State voters.
We recently spoke with Bilbray via phone.
What could you do with two more years in Congress that you haven’t accomplished or already had the chance to do?
I have been placed back on the (House) Energy and Commerce Committee. ... I come back with congressional seniority, and, more importantly, the hands-on experience of working with the struggle and the interrelationship between government and business in the process of trying to create economic opportunity while maintaining quality of life. … It’s a cooperative effort. (Democrat) Bob Filner and (Republican) Darrell Issa don’t necessarily work together, but (they’re) somebody that I’ve been able to work together with for years, basically, because we try to build on each other’s strong suits. …
You’ve got Republicans, who know they don’t like regulation, but they don’t understand it. And you’ve got Democrats, who are in denial of the impact of inappropriate regulation on the ability of small business to create jobs. It was, like, 1995, when I introduced the bill to eliminate the mandate that you have to use ethanol, because the Democrats in Washington thought ethanol was good for the environment. Because of my background in the Air Resources Board I knew ethanol was bad in the ’90s. It didn’t take me a decade to learn that. That kind of practical experience of understanding the huge gap between the theory of what is good for the business community and the environment, and the practical application, that huge gap is something that you cannot just learn overnight. The only way you really learn it is by working with it hands on, which is the way I’ve done it over the years.
La Jolla is one of the great powerhouses of biotech and high tech, and that is all administered through my committees. That is why you see me being very involved in FDA (Federal Drug Administration) reform, working on cancer breakthroughs, talking about the FDA and NIH (National Institutes of Health) working together with the private sector to create, not just the jobs that San Diego desperately needs, but the medical breakthroughs that save lives.
Last month I came to the administrative assistant of the FDA and said, ‘Why wasn’t this melanoma scanner — something that could detect cancer when a dermatologist couldn’t — denied a review process?’ The guy had to admit in public session that it was a major mistake. This was a mistake that not only kept a local business from being able to sell its product, but it was a mistake that was denying citizens the ability to protect themselves from a deadly disease. Sometimes they even admit they make mistakes. I think Washington doesn’t do that enough.
How do you plan to differentiate yourself as a candidate in the 52nd congressional district, where the vote is split almost evenly between Democrats, Republicans and undeclared voters?
I come from the undeclared background. I used to be an independent voter myself. Frankly, (then and current Gov.) Jerry Brown drove me over into the Republican ticket. I think the biggest issue is … (that) nobody elects a political party. They elect individuals. People matter, and the backbone and the core of politics should be people. Fifty years from now my grandchildren and great grandchildren won’t give a darn about a Republican or a Democrat, but they will worry about how strong an economy they have or how safe they are and how clean an environment they have. The one thing I got in the habit of doing when I was a county supervisor and mayor was, you learn to vote the issue; you don’t vote the party.
Some tout you as a maverick who is tough on immigration and has strong conservative credentials, while others have criticized you as a RINO (Republican In Name Only) who has received low marks from some conservative organizations, such as the Heritage Foundation.
(Laughs.) Some people call me a squishy moderate. I like to think of myself as a radical incrementalist. I believe in America the things that are done right and that last are done in small, incremental steps. We’re not a radical country and I think extremists on both sides injure, not only the nation, but themselves. You’ve got to keep your eyes open and your mind open and I think that too often the extreme left and the extreme right do neither. I think there are too many people in politics who think that being right is all that matters. … I think we should keep our minds open. Sometimes the answer to problems comes from a different direction.
We’ve seen partisan gridlock in Washington (and in California) for a long time. How would you, if given another two years, help to build consensus?
Like it or not, the voters have created an environment where you need to try to work with people in the other party. So, you try to find those things you may agree on and build a relationship on those things you agree on.
It’s like immigration issue. Democrats are not going to support a whole lot of things, but for God’s sakes they darn-well should be supporting cracking down on not giving tax deductions to people who are hiring illegals, not rewarding businessmen who are breaking the law by hiring people who are illegal. You know, a lot of Republicans may not be comfortable cracking down on the employers because that’s where they get a lot of their political support. You don’t need to attack the immigrants, you don’t have to be anti-Latino, but you genuinely have to crack down on the real culprit here, and that’s the businessman who is (importing) the cheap labor.
What is your view of amnesty programs of illegal immigrants?
My view is that they should come to the border and have to recover bodies the way I have. I’m the only member of congress that has rescued illegals when they’re drowning. … For anybody in the federal government to be talking about and announcing to the world that we are going to create a special reward for those who have broken our laws is as immoral as proposing to build a candy store in the middle of the freeway and then being shocked when children get hurt. … Giving amnesty to stop illegal immigration is as logical as drilling a whole in the bottom of a boat to drain it out. It just shows you do not understand the dynamics of (the issue).
What do you view as your opponents’ primary deficiencies and how would your tack be different?
I’m really not looking at any of my opponents. I don’t see us really running against each other. We’re running for the seat. … I look more at what is the opportunity and the challenge that we’re going to have in the next two years in this country—and it is going to be horrendous. I don’t see anybody whose announced for the seat who has shown that they can really rise above the political partisanship. They all say I can do it, but they’ve either not been in the political environment and understand how absolutely absurd it is, or they’ve been there and they’ve proven that they’re more politically absurd than even the situation in Washington. It’s pretty scary when Sacramento and City Hall can make Washington look good.
You’ve been criticized for your time as a lobbyist after you left congress in 2001.
I focused on working with nonprofit groups, mostly, that I really believed in, that I worked with when I was in office. The Federation for American Immigration Reform, I feel strongly about the immigration issue and I was able to participate in that. … Almost all of my contracts that I was working with were either government or nonprofit organizations. Very few (in the) private sector were even involved, as far as I know. I did stuff like trying to get power links and utility links, and that was one of the few private sector things, and even that was tied directly to something I felt strongly about — access to reliable energy for San Diego County.
One of your major priorities in this race is getting Americans back to work. How do you plan to do that?
The federal government needs to be an ally and an aid at working with the private sector to create the next generation of, not just new jobs, but also great health breakthroughs. … We’ve also got to maintain the venture capital that actually takes the research that we get from NIH, and bridge what they call the valley of death, from research to consumer, so that all of this research we do actually produces the medical breakthroughs and the benefits, which also has huge financial benefits, not just for new jobs, but also (for) healthcare prevention.
Any final reflections on how you feel you are the best candidate for the job?
Washington hasn’t been a pretty place to be, and it’s not going to be a place where someone’s going to have the time to go through a learning process. It takes a lot more than just good intentions, because we’re actually going to decide what kind of America we leave our grandchildren in the next few years. I honestly believe we’re really at a tipping point where America, through its representatives, are going to really make some watershed decisions of where we want to go.