Ron St. John: The Orange Juice Interview

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In the years before Jesus Christ began his public ministry, the Jewish community was roiled by a prophet known now as St. John the Baptist. Dismayed by his fellow Jews’ failure to live up to their destiny and calling to be the Chosen People of God and follow the law laid down by Moses, he preached a message of repentance and reform, and made some powerful enemies, as we all know.

Not living on honey and locusts but practicing property rights law in Huntington Beach, Congressional candidate Ronald St. John may seem like just as much a voice in the wilderness as his namesake. Running for Congress in the Republican primary against well-known immigrant-basher and “big-government conservative” Dana Rohrabacher, this St. John’s message of reform is directed at the Republican Party, at least that part of it that persists in trying to win elections by divisiveness and scapegoating of minorities. And the original values he wishes to re-instill in his Party are those of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, well-stated in inspiring quotes he reproduces on the front page of his website.

This past Sunday, in the first of our Orange Juice Blog Talk Radio episodes, which you can hear at this link, Art Pedroza and I interviewed Mr. St. John; our co-blogger Thomas Gordon called in with a couple of his own questions. The conversation ranged from immigration, Prop. 98 (which he supports, Larry!), and highway funding to the Bolsa Chica Wetlands and the recent gay marriage ruling of the California Supreme Court. Predictably, technical problems bedeviled our first foray into this format, so I’ve transcribed the most interesting excerpts from the interview here (click on “read more.”) Read some or all of this, Ron is a decent and fascinating guy. And if you’re a Republican in the 46th Congessional District, consider voting for RONALD ST. JOHN in the June 3 primary. Remember, your alternative is THIS!

Art: What are you doing in terms of running for this seat? What’s your plan and how do you think you’ll be able to put together a victory on June 3?

St John: Well, I’m trying on a real shoestring budget to get my message out to people, where I have a difference with Congressman Rohrabacher, particularly on the immigration issue…

IMMIGRATION

You know, I was supporting and voting for John McCain in the February Presidential Primary, at a time when Congressman Rohrabacher was campaigning against him. And Senator McCain won, not only in this state, but also in this district. Now, we have a situation where this district here, which consists of 24% foreign-born individuals and 33% of households that speak a language other than English at home, and this district is being represented by someone who’s really one of the country’s most outspoken anti-immigration voices.

And there’s just a disconnect there, and I really feel that if I can get that message across to voters … not just voters who are immigrants or foreign-born themselves, but really, the rest of us who get offended by that, because… this is not a district where we’re hostile to the immigrants who have come, I don’t pick up that vibe from living in Huntington Beach, from living in this area at all. It’s really just our new neighbors and our new friends, they’re not a threat, they’re not taking our jobs away, and the new Hispanic and Asian immigrants are not really – at least in the context of this neighborhood – not a threat, and just don’t deserve the kind of insulting remarks that keep getting launched on our behalf by Congressman Rohrabacher.

And I’m hopeful that if I can get that message out in a low-turnout situation where Decline To State voters are allowed to vote [in the Republican primary, if they request a Republican ballot – Vern] then I will manage to, you know, take the district back for the unrepresented middle within the Republican Party, and then try to solidify the traditional Republican base of support by emphasizing my differences with Mayor Cook… you know, looking at “support for the military,” looking at environmental issues versus business issues, looking at various forms of “universal healthcare – slash – socialized medicine” that are being thrown around – it’s there that, after June 3, I need to differentiate myself from her by saying, look, this is still a Republican district, and we need to have an Orange County Republican speaking a little common sense on these issues. (You know, looking ahead.)

ART: That’s great… Ron, Dana is quite a character; I’ve noticed that there is even a website called “Ditch Crazy Dana“… What do you think are the big differences between your approach and Dana’s?

ST JOHN: Well, the most obvious one is on the immigration point, where I favor a comprehensive reform that treats illegal immigration as a curse but treats legal immigration as a blessing. And that really embraces and assimilates the new immigrants, and looks for ways that we have more financial responsibility and accountability among the people who really are, who we really have become dependent on in our society, twelve million of whom are here without papers. [Vern note: This is accurate; anti-immigrant activists like the Minutemen use a thirty million figure.] That different approach is probably the major difference.

And I think it also keys into a key difference where I am more of a free-market, free-trade advocate, I believe, than Congressman Rohrabacher is; and I believe that both are connected, really: It’s the free-market, free-trade people who are the real constituency for the idea that immigration helps us, it doesn’t hurt us, overall, and let’s legislate accordingly. We’re not gonna try to use armies of border guards to try to influence the labor market. It’s not a sound use of public funds. And that comes from the Chamber of Commerce-type conservatives like me…

FREE MARKETS, FREE TRADE

And that difference becomes emphasized when you move over into other free-trade issues like the ethanol subsidies. I was surprised to see, when I was reading about the food crisis in The Economist, and the local papers trying to cover it, and I was thinking, “Why is no-one jumping up and down in Congress and saying ‘We need to repeal these ethanol subsidies! We need to repeal these ethanol production mandates!'” They’re so counterproductive, and they’re creating so much of a problem for the world hunger situation! (ART: That’s a great point.) …and no-ones raising that point.

And of course at the same time as I was raising the issue, there was a New York Times editorial saying pretty much the same thing, and The Economist saying the same thing, and there’s a lot of people kind of saying that same thing now, but then I was surprised to see… I thought that Congressman Rohrabacher, just being conservative, would probably be advocating the same thing, but he voted in favor of the Energy Policy Act of 2005. And I don’t see how a fiscal conservative, a free-market conservative, could ever support a provision like we had in the Energy Policy Act of 2005. So I think that’s another difference.

DO-NOTHING DANA

That, and the kind of the attitude toward service of the district, toward nonpartisanship, and toward just basically representing all of the communities in the district, whether or not they ever voted for me, whether or not they ever supported me, I as a Representative have a duty to represent the local interests, and to represent the really important interests of the Ports, the breakwaters, the beaches, etc., in terms of just looking out for the home district, and looking out for the economic infrastructure that’s been entrusted into the public sector. And that seems to be an area where – it’s hard to account for why, but for some reason Congressman Rohrabacher just doesn’t see his duty in quite the same way.

ART: Now, one of the knocks on Rohrabacher is that he doesn’t do anything, that he doesn’t advance much in the way of legislation, he doesn’t do much for the district. I went to his website, I’m looking at it right now. When you click on “issues,” the page is blank. What do you make of that?

ST JOHN: Let me give you a typical example of something that happened recently, where I was being asked to comment for the Daily Pilot and I really looked into it. This was where there was a Medicare Appropriations Bill that would have included a relatively small amount (I mean, it was in the billions of dollars, but it was stretched out over ten years and stretched out over the hospitals in the country) that would have partially funded the unfunded mandate that exists in the Emergency Room Act from back in the 1980’s, where Emergency Rooms are obligated to treat people who have no money, and are also not allowed to discriminate on the basis on alien status – you know, immigration status.

And he was initially opposed to the funding – cos it’s essentially taking an unfunded mandate and turning it into a funded mandate, which sort of like taking the next baby step toward “socialized medicine.” And I respect his opposition to the Medicare funding of the Emergency Room issue, but what he ended up doing was dropping that opposition in exchange for a procedural advantage where he would be able to bring up his own amendment procedurally and bring it up to a vote quickly, that would have required the hospitals to report illegal aliens who got services.

Now this was a complete nonstarter. When it eventually came up for a vote it did not even get a majority of Republicans, I think it got like 88 votes. All it did was give him a chance to make a lot of speeches, so he wasn’t accomplishing anything constructive on any of the issues that anybody cares about, but he was just giving himself a chance to posture about how much he hates illegal immigrants, without accomplishing anything constructive.

VERN: Yeah, it seems like it comes down to just demagoguery, with not just Rohrabacher but others around the country like Tancredo, and a lot of people we have running for office here in California, Mimi Walters and Tom Harman, and it seems like they talk and talk about how bad illegal immigration is, but it just seems like it’s to get votes, but they don’t seem to have any solutions, they don’t really do anything about it, it’s just to get people all riled up.

ST JOHN: I’m not saying I’m completely above that and that you’ll never see it from me, because if there’s an issue like for example the balanced budget, and there’s only a hundred other congressmen who are willing to agree with me that we need to have a balanced budget, I’m still gonna stand up there and make speeches about it. There’s a time and a place when sometimes if your in the minority, you need to keep raising these issues and bringing them out. But your primary duty is to represent the district, and to look for practical areas for reform.

VERN: That’s true, and speaking of representing the district, a criticism I often hear from Republicans and Democrats alike, that’s real frustrating to office holders especially, is that he brings no resources back from the Federal government when they need help with a highway, or help with an environmental project. At one point he said to Gerri Shipske out in Long Beach, “Don’t expect me to carry your water.” And another time told people who needed funds for a highway, “Get your money from Costco.” I think it’s the little remnant he still has of a “libertarian” philosophy that he always claims to have, where he thinks that no Federal funds should come back to his constituents, despite all the taxes we pay.

ST JOHN: Yeah, really, I consider highway funding to be one of my most important priorities, cos I just get the feeling (and I might be proved wrong on this because I haven’t really worked out all the numbers) but I really get the feeling that highway tax money which should all be going to highway maintenance and construction is not, AND, that the big-city areas like us get the short end of the deal in terms of the amount that we pay, versus the amount we get back. There really ought to be a strict proportionality that should work in the favor of urban areas, where we’re paying an awful lot of money in gas tax that should be highway tax, we should be getting that money back, being spent on the highways. I mean it’s something… if you commute between LA and Orange County like I do every day, you’ve got lots of time to think about that. (laughs) It’s a huge problem in this area.

VERN: Yeah, well, Dana likes to tell a story, in fact he starts out by saying “I have this story I like to tell…” When people come to his Washington office he tells them, “Look out the window there, do you see all the Money Trees?” And they say “No.” And he says “Well, that’s because money doesn’t grow on trees out here in Washington, it comes from out there, from all you hardworking folks!” And you know, that part’s true. But the corollary of that is that some of it should come back to us.

ST JOHN: Yeah, exactly. Exactly…

MORE ON IMMIGRATION

THOMAS GORDON, joining us late: How would you differentiate yourself from Dana, how would you stand out?

ST JOHN: [repeats some earlier comments on immigration] … People come here because we’re the greatest society on earth, God bless America, and we get the diversity in the labor force, we get actually a younger demographic coming out of immigration, there’s many many positive things… now, ILLEGAL immigration is an absolute plague, but it’s because of the illegality that we run into the national security problems, the tax collection problems, the accountability in law enforcement problems, and those problems can be resolved in a practical way – not in a perfect way, but in a practical way – by displacing illegal immigration with legal immigration. There’s no real alternative right now for people to just wait in line for, for the people who are basically breaking the law in order to fill our labor shortages.

And so just that whole attitude and approach toward immigration reform is what starkly differentiates me from Congressman Rohrabacher, who is a very outspoken opponent to, really, ANY immigration, and who is in the “enforcement-only” camp, for basically just treating the 12 million undocumented workers who are in this country as an invading army and having a militaristic-type solution that would depopulate the country. If he HAS a position that seems to be what it is. And I have to shake my head, “No, no, no, no, no.”

VERN: That reminds me of his connection to Blackwater, which is run by his good friend and former aide Erik Prince. I’ve talked to him about a lot of things, and half the time his solution is mercenaries. “Send in the mercenaries! Mercenaries can take care of that!”

ST JOHN: Send in the mercenaries, use prisoners to pick the fruit, it gets to be a little bit … It’s the sort of thing that you might chat about on talk radio, but I think there should be a different level of discourse when you’re addressing the Congress of the United States America, and you should be making a little bit more serious proposals for solutions.

PROPOSITIONS 98/99, RENT CONTROL

ART: [You’re a property rights attorney;] Now, there is a ballot measure on the ballot in June having to do with property rights, actually two of them, Prop. 98 and Prop. 99. Are you familiar with those at all?

ST JOHN: Yes, I am!

ART: Would you like to address your feelings about those measures?

ST JOHN: Yes, I sure would. You know, it’s a little bit unfortunate that those measures are being presented in a deceptive way – really, both of them. And it’s aggravating the way that some of these things are presented to the people. They’re taking the eminent domain issue, which is really a pretty narrow issue involving whether private property can be taken for public use, if that “public use” involves immediately transferring it to private developers. That seems like taking private property for PRIVATE USE, and arguably it wouldn’t come within the Fifth Amendment that allows taking private property for public use if you pay just compensation.

But the Court has decided differently, and been more permissive of these… I call them “Wal-Mart situations,” because I think that’s what gets people exercised, is that, some people’s land will be taken away for a Wal-Mart development, and then … you know, because the city gets a better revenue base from a Wal-Mart … and then, it’s aggravating. That situation, you have a real broad consensus among the people, whether it’s among the people on the left who hate Wal-Mart or the people on the right who want to support property rights, or just ordinary citizens who don’t like to see people’s property taken away, that that’s inappropriate.

Now, both sides in the debate between 98 and 99 have sort of co-opted that base, that obvious support for eminent domain. 99 only applies to homeowners, owner-occupied homes, and Prop. 98 goes broader and includes commercial property. But the real agenda, I think, between 98 and 99, is getting rid of rent control, which is thrown into Proposition 98, but not really included in much of the advertising. And then the real point of Proposition 99 is, essentially what’s called its “poison pill” provision, which says that if it gets more votes than 98, it overrides 98, just cancels out 98.

So the real battle deserves to be fought over rent control. Now, rent control is a bad idea for a lot of different reasons. And if you’re against rent control, then this is a wonderful opportunity to vote yes on Prop. 98 and no on Prop. 99, which is what I plan on doing, for that reason.

VERN: It sounds like you’re too honest to be a politician.

ST JOHN: Maybe so, and in that case, I tried! But I’d rather not be elected than to lie to people.

ART: That’s a breath of fresh air.

BOLSA CHICA WETLANDS, ENVIRONMENT

THOMAS: I got a question – What’s your take on the wetlands area down there at Bolsa Chica?

ST JOHN: The Wetlands is a part of the public infrastructure that really needs to be maintained on a nonpartisan basis on behalf of the people, not only of this district but all the people. Similar to the other … wilderness area that’s preserved out on Catalina Island which is also part of this district. And so that area needs to be guarded, both by state, local, and federal government officials on behalf of the people, and not be made a pawn to partisan politics…

…the Wetlands is a very small area, really, of wildlife preservation, that all of us who live here really value, you know, I like that area, I like to go look around in that area, you know, you take it for granted for a while, you look closer, and there’s a lot of interesting things going on in a tidepool area, so that.. that area, and the areas that we’re preserving out in Catalina, all part of the infrastructure – along with the ports, along with the Naval Weapons station, along with the beaches, are an essential part of the infrastructure of this area, and we need to sort of, in a business-like way, look at being good stewards of that area, to the extent that the government has taken on responsibility for taking care of that.

GAY MARRIAGE RULING

VERN: This might not be germane to anything you would be voting on in Washington right away, but I think it relates to your criticisms of the Orange County Republican Party not being inclusive enough, being divisive. It’s not just the immigration thing, but especially over the last couple of days this has come back with a vengeance: their fury over the recent California Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage, and I think that’s another direction the Republican Party needs to go I think is to be more inclusive of gays as well as Latin-American immigrants. We were talking about this before, and like you said you might not get a lot of votes talking about this, but you were saying some interesting things….

ST JOHN: Right, well, let me correct one thing. I haven’t ever tried to criticize the Orange County Republican Party over these issues. Really, when you look into the OC GOP, there are a lot of what you’d call moderating, inclusive voices – the people involved in the Lincoln Club, the people involved in the New Majority Group, the Log Cabin Republicans, there are lots and lots of Republicans, including in the OC GOP who do not indulge in the divisive rhetoric that you’re alluding to. So I really don’t mean to criticize my Party as a whole, and to paint with a broad brush like that.

When you look at the decision that was just made on homosexual marriage that came out last week, that was a Long Beach Republican who wrote that decision, Chief Justice George, who was appointed by Pete Wilson. And it’s been approved by a Bel-Air Republican, Governor Schwarzenegger. So it’s not a matter that’s strictly a red-state-blue-state kind of thing, and the big tent concept for the Republican Party is, I think, still very much at work within the Party. Now of course no two people agree on everything, and there are going to be some people that fit the profile that you’re talking about.

Now, if you wanted me to address the gay marriage issue more broadly… You know, I’ve kind of avoided that issue, because, for one thing it divides people so much, and how many enemies do you want to make in a primary campaign? And another thing, it’s a state issue, not a federal issue….

But it’s an interesting issue overall, because it implicates so many different Constitutional principles. You know, just as a Constitutional scholar, I’ve been interested in it for years. There’s the separation of church and state, and there’s the free exercise of religion. There’s the people who really object to the homosexual lifestyle, and feel so strongly, and so what are their rights? There’s the equal protection under the laws, and there’s freedom of association, and then there’s the possible implication of the anti-discrimination laws.

So, then looking at the narrow issue about, you know, the state needs to be neutral relative to these “sin” issues and that sort of thing, and homosexuals are entitled to equal protection under the laws, and so, Chief Justice George’s decision in this case is very well-founded, and I would not favor a Constitutional amendment to try to change that decision and to try to deprive homosexuals of equal treatment under the law.

But I am sensitive to the people that are all concerned now that, when you factor in all the anti-discrimination laws, does that mean that, if I’m a Christian minister do I have to perform a ceremony for a homosexual union that is offensive to me personally, or do I have the privilege to say, “That’s your choice but it’s not my choice and I don’t want to participate in it,” without being sued under the anti-discrimination laws?

I get a lot of questionnaires now… and I answer every damn one… and you can tell by their questions what their agenda is, and these “traditional values” groups really are taking seriously this kind of religious exemption: Will these anti-discrimination laws be extended to the (gays, transgender, etc.) And on those issues I am with them. And on the narrower issue of equal protection under the law, homosexuals are entitled to equal protection under the law, the law should be neutral. There I am with the gay community, I mean the gay community and the people that have thought about it enough that they are in favor of equal protection.

Did that answer your question? Kind of a long answer to a short question, and not really relevant to Congress, but it is an issue people think about a lot.

VERN: Yeah, I just like hearing smart lawyers talk about that, you were saying some funny things earlier.

ST JOHN: (laughs) Yeah, I was telling Vern before when we were chatting about this, could you imagine a law that said… “Men are the traditional contractors, so only men should be able to be licensed as a contractor. And if a woman wants to be licensed as a contractor then we’ll give her something different, we’ll just call her a ‘construction coordination professional.” And then we’ll have a different statute that says “Construction coordination professionals are entitled to all the same treatment as licensed contractors, but they can’t call themselves licensed contractors.” You know. What would be the point of that? And then to have a Defense of Traditional Contractors Amendment: “I believe in traditional contractors!” You know, it would be so patently unconstitutional, you wouldn’t think twice about it.

Or to say, homosexuals can’t get a drivers’ license because their lifestyle is sinful, so they get a motor operating permit but they can’t get a drivers’ license. That’s basically the absurdity of the separate-but-equal system we had before Thursday, of domestic partnerships I guess they were called.

ART: Good point. I think what Vern was hinting at here is that, it seems like the Republican Party here in California over the last fifteen or twenty years, has tilted so far to the right, that it’s lost a lot of the voters, a lot of them are now DTS.

WRAP-UP

ST JOHN: By my estimate, I really only need about 20,000 votes on June the 3rd, because if you figure a 25% turnout for the primary, then 20 to 25,000 votes should actually constitute a majority. I’m the only one running against Congressman Rohrabacher, and there seems to be a lot of people who don’t like him. And I did not create that situation, but I am volunteering to serve this district if there are that many people interested in supporting me.

ART: That sounds fantastic, any other questions?

THOMAS: Best of luck to you!

ST JOHN: Thank you so much for all of your help, and I really appreciate your helping, you know, it’s a matter of democracy, it’s a matter of people making the choices, and not the choices being made in the back rooms for the Party. There’s nobody in any back room in any Party who’s ever been in favor of me. You don’t have to be a superdelegate in OUR party in order to have an impact, you just have to show up and vote.

ART: Touché!


About Vern Nelson

Greatest pianist/composer in Orange County, and official troubador of both Anaheim and Huntington Beach (the two ends of the Santa Ana Aquifer.) Performs regularly both solo, and with his savage-jazz quintet The Vern Nelson Problem. Reach at vernpnelson@gmail.com, or 714-235-VERN.