SD29: An Interview With Josh Newman, Part One

Last month, I sat down to interview Josh Newman, the unknown Democrat who scored one of the biggest upsets of the June primary, finishing ahead of Democratic establishment favorite Sukhee Kang to finish second – and square off against GOP Assemblywoman Ling Ling Chang in Senate District 29. Newman garnered 30% to Kang’s 25.8%; Chang finished first with 44.2%.

We covered a range of topics during the interview, which OC Daily will publish in segments over the next several days. Part One focuses on the Poughkeepsie, New York native’s background, why he decided to run and his unique approach to campaigning. The interview has been edited for flow and extraneous side conversations.

Matthew Cuningham: Tell me about your bio.

Josh Newman: Graduated university. I’m the only member, to my knowledge, to join the Army following graduation from college.

MC: Where did you go to college?

JN: To Yale, then enlisted in the US Army, went to officer candidate school, became an Army artillery officer following college, and served in the Army from 1986 to 1990. I went to a bunch of Army schools, and then served in a nuclear artillery unit for a year in South Korea. It was an interesting mission, where, had it been going really badly, we would have been entrusted with receiving nuclear projectiles, picking up a Korean Army unit, then firing them at the oncoming North Koreans.

MC: Were you near the DMZ?

JN: We were probably about 10 miles from the DMZ up in the northeastern part of South Korea, in the little city of Kimchung. Then after that, I was stationed in Hawaii for a couple of years in a conventional artillery unit that was kind of cave, jungle, desert warfare capable. Almost went to the Philippines, almost went to Panama, and then got out right before the first Gulf War. I assumed because I had a Reserve obligation there that I’d probably get called back, but never was. I actually volunteered to go to Somalia in 92, 93. Nobody called up my guy in Washington and he wasn’t really interested, so I would up not doing that. At the time, I thought that was cool, admirable use of our military presence. When I volunteered was probably some very short interval before the Black Hawk Down incident.

I moved to California when I got out of the military in 1990, and then wound up working in San Francisco, in San Francisco politics. I worked for a mayoral campaign there, and I wound up working for who was winning. His name was Frank Jordan.

MC: What did you do for Jordan?

JN: In the campaign, I was the issues director, and then the deputy press secretary, and then when he got elected, I was a special assistant to the mayor. I did policy analysis, and speech writing, and coordination, and things like that. I wound up getting kind of disillusioned with politics, because in my then kind of naïve, secure state, I was constantly surprised. It wasn’t like the books I read in college.

MC: How long did you work for Jordan? Through his whole term, or-

JN: No, just the first 2 years. Then I wound up leaving, thinking maybe politics wasn’t for me, and wound up doing a bunch of things from there. Wound up moving to LA and working in the entertainment business for about 5 years. From there, wound up joining an internet company called Real Networks. I don’t know if you remember the Real Player.

MC: Oh yeah – I used to have Real Player.

JN: I worked in internet stuff. It mostly revolved around mobile first internet media delivery, so audio and video over the web, and then a bunch of mobile companies after that. For some time I worked for a company that did that text message voting for American Idol.

Bunch of seasons, which was fun. Then about 4 years ago, I got very interested in the question of veteran unemployment. Why young vets coming home, just in southern California were having so much trouble finding gainful civilian employment, based on what I think I knew as a former Army officer and what terrific employees veterans should make, so I started a very small non-profit. It’s called Armed Force to Workforce, initially with the goal of… it seemed to me to be a very solvable problem, so I thought, what was missing? Based on kind of my assumptions, there wasn’t a really good broker function between vets coming home and employers who could utilize their talents.

It turns out that’s not the problem at all. The problem is not attributed to a lack of resources for vets. It’s actually there are plenty of resources. In fact, there are probably too many nonprofits. The real problem is a lack of coordination among different public programs that are charged with helping veterans make that transition to civilian life. At the core of it, I think I concluded it was a combination of a lack of oversight commitment by elected officials to do the things that everybody seems to agree that we want to do for vets, which is reward them for their service, and then connect them to the next chapter in their lives.

That was kind of the impetus for thinking about running. Not that veterans issues are the only thing, but if you ask the question this way, which is – if our state government, among others, won’t do the thing that everybody agrees we should do, and for which there is no political downside, what are the odds that we are going to collectively do harder things – where there are pros and cons, trade-offs, and different constituencies on either side of an issue? I think seeing through that prism, you can sort of draw a conclusion about the quality of elected officials, and I think then conclude that we deserve better, really.

That’s what got me to thinking about running in the first place. Like I mentioned, I was vice president of the Democrats for Orange County, and the co-vice chair for the state Democratic Party at the caucus, and I’m a member of the board for something like Neighbor’s United Board, and I’m a member of the board of county-wide collaborative called the Orange County Veterans Military Family Collaborative. That’s a consortium of all the different organizations that work on veterans issues across different spheres, with the goal of sharing information about best practices and better coordination. I would say again, veterans issues aren’t a particularly partisan issue, but we’re not doing a particularly good job. That probably isn’t too different than my politics. Generally, I’m a Democrat, but I’m somewhere toward the center, and my orientation is more toward problem solving than ideology or politics, per se.

MC: A couple of mechanical questions, too. Who’s your campaign consultant?

JN: In the primary, my consultant was a guy, Bill Fletcher, from a firm of Fletcher Raleigh out in Nashville. The firm has done a bunch of races. They’re very good, it’s just hard for an out-of-town form like that to run a state senate campaign.

MC: How did you find them?

JN: Actually, at a veterans event, I think. It was a workshop about if you were ever considering running for office, here’s what you need to know.

MC: Is that your general election consultant?

JN: No, I’m actually talking to a bunch of consultants.  I’m a relative newcomer to this, and when I got in, there was already a fairly established Democratic candidate who had pretty deep relationships. It wasn’t very likely that I was going to be able to secure a really good local, California-based consultant firm. They’d kind of taken a side already. Kang’s list of elected officials endorsing him was really impressive. It left very few who were even open to the conversation.

MC: During the election, did you do polling in your race?

JN: No, I didn’t do any polling. I did hear via the blogosphere, I guess there was kind of a poll done..there was one pol done that wasn’t really a poll, early, that sort of asked the question.. I guess what there were trying to do was position Sukhee against Ling Ling Chang for the general, and it asked a bunch of leading questions.

There was a poll that I’d heard about a couple of weeks prior to the actual June primary voting where they had done some exit research on permanent absentee voters, where it became pretty clear that I was in the mix. I was sort of in the margin of error. That was one of the first kind of firm indicators to me that I had a legitimate prospect of finishing second in the primary.

I did have a model, and it was based on an approach toward the electorate that took into account the top down primary system, which is relatively new, and it assumed that if I could get decent support among Democrats and slightly better support among independents, and then some measure of support among Republicans, probably moderate Republicans, that I’d finish somewhere between 29 and 30% in the primary. I came in within a percentage point of that.

MC: At what point did you have an idea you might make the top two?

JN: I knew I had a really good prospect because I took a deliberately different approach. It wasn’t simply because I wasn’t the insider, it was probably because my genuine take on politics and elected service. In going out to the electorate as broadly as possible. Not just the Democrats, and not really running against either of the other two candidates.

The value proposition was effectively, and I believe it, that when you vote, you’re hiring somebody. We vote as a way of hiring the people who will work for us in the public sphere, and if you’re going to hire somebody to work for you in the state senate, then hire somebody who has a reasonably accomplished career, a record of service, and is truly committed to serving you and your family in Sacramento. In taking that approach, I got a lot of feedback from people across the political spectrum that it was actually very encouraging. It wasn’t always that they didn’t like candidate A or B, it was that they were almost surprised to hear a candidate take that approach, because they’re so disillusioned with politics as currently practiced.

MC: This is probably the year where voters are more open to that kind of…

JN: Maybe that was a good sign for me, or maybe it truly was a coincidence, because that’s my point of view also.

MC: Did you get mail out? I saw the signs, but I was really surprised when you came in second, because I, like a lot of insider types, can get mesmerized by all the conventional factors of victory.

JN: Mail is thought to be not only effective, but a proxy, like your ability to do mail is a proxy for your credibility, because mail’s really expensive.

MC: Or your ability for voters to know anything about you, other than your ballot statement.

JN: I think the question is, do people… how deeply do people read mail? If you think about it, an advertising type mail is an impression. The act of getting mail entails going through your mail that comes in from the post office and looking at the front page, maybe flipping it over, and then throwing it in the trash. That’s not a deep engagement. What we did was in looking at it; I did the assessment, and I thought I could do kind of the things I wanted to do for about 100, 120 thousand dollars. I also thought, I believe mail works, but I believe it has a diluted impact, when you think about it, per dollar base. You can’t just do one mail piece. You have to do 4, you have to do more. You have to do 4 mail pieces across the senate district. It’s going to cost you about $50,000 a piece, so unless you drop another $200,000 on top of that 120, none of it matters. The question was, how close could I get to 30 without spending another $200,000?

But to the extent that people look for mail, it’s kind of an indicator of either seriousness, credibility, or standard tactics. People didn’t see it, so people assumed he’s not serious and not a serious threat. What we did do was I had the signs, that I think were reasonably clever, right? What we also did in kind of reverse engineering the mail question was, if you ask the question differently, which is, if it costs like give or take 70 cents to a dollar to put a piece of mail in somebody’s mailbox, how could you kind of get that down to a really reasonable amount. What I think I came up with was just fliers. We figured out, where do voters go? We went to all the places where we thought voters would go, and it’s a lot cheaper to put a flier in their hands or on their car than it is to pay the US Postal Service.

I did put out well over 100,000 pieces in collateral but they didn’t arrive through your mailbox.

MC: That’s interesting. It’s a unique approach, and sometimes that’s what it calls for. Campaigns can get caught up in a certain paradigm.

JN: Let me ask you a question. If this is the way we do it, does it have to be done that way? Then I think more smartly, I think, if I can’t afford to do it that way, how else could I do it? It wasn’t really a matter of afford, but it was a matter of, is it the best use of resources? The bet was, you can get something close to the same amount of impact in the primary electorate that you could at a very expensive, fairly low yield basis with mail.

MC: What kind of reaction did you get from the Third House and Sacramento after the election was over?

JN: At the local level, I think I ruffled some feathers, and I understand why. I was the second Democrat and didn’t yield. I get that. Post primary, really an interesting experience to call somebody in Sacramento and have them say, “Hey, heard all about you. Congratulations!” I mean, that’s actually been quite fun.

MC: Are they congratulations, or is it turning into, “Hey, what can I do to help?” Or are they still not sure what to do with you?

JN: There is that question of, what can I do to help? What are the terms of you helping, kind of thing. What I think has been fascinating for me is I’ve done a bunch of things in my professional life. You look at me and I’m kind of your average middle-aged dude, but I ran a sort of unconventional campaign. Like you said, I snuck up on some insiders. Among the things we did to get attention was dress a couple kids up in this California bear mascot costume and had a big version of my sign and had them stand out on high traffic intersections.

Just seemed like a good way to get impressions made and name recognition. When the Register article appeared, it had a picture of somebody in a bear mascot costume. Martin Wisckol emailed me and said, “Hey, is that you in the bear mascot costume?”

In the back in that picture, that was, in fact, me, because I tried it on to see how hot is it to stand in the sun. It wasn’t as if I was out there every day waving at people at intersections. I felt like if I sent a kid out there to stand in the hot sun in a bear mask, I wanted to make sure that I don’t injure somebody or jeopardize their health in some other way, so that happened to be me. I think there was this, especially locally, this idea that I was some kind of fun-loving, free-spirited dude who kind of lucked into a second place finish. I think to some degree, when you talk to people they want to make that assessment, like are you for real or…

I think a lot of people weren’t paying attention to this race and were truly surprised, because the conventional wisdom across the board, but especially as you got further away, was, there’s a guy down in the 29th who has everybody’s endorsement, so let’s see how it plays out in the general. Then everybody was quite surprised, like that guy didn’t make it to the general.

People aren’t always explicit, right? You have to infer a bunch. I had conversations with people that were like, “So…a picture of you in a bear costume.” You start to be like, okay, do you think that I’m just some dude walking around for a couple of months in a bear costume?

The question becomes, after the primary, after the three way race and down a few candidates, how real are this guy’s chances? I think my chances are quite real. If you look at the combined vote between me and the other Democrat, it comes to a little over 54%. There’s clearly a majority to be had there.

There is a big gulf between the just below 30 I got to get the 50. If you think that it was a fluke, 20 percentage points is a ton. If you think it was something real, and there’s also a dynamic that tends toward a credible Democratic candidacy, then it’s a whole different ball game.

Coming up in Part Two of the interview: extending the Prop. 30 taxes, ballot-box budgeting, revisiting Prop. 98 and Prop. 13 and the split-roll tax…

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