The Battle for California
A Front Page exclusive interview with Chuck DeVore, a Republican candidate for the California Senate.
[Editors’ note: Can California elect a Republican to the Senate? In a more conventional time, that might seem like a fanciful question. But with Scott Brown’s improbable victory in blue-state Massachusetts, the possibility of a shock GOP upset cannot be entirely discounted. California Democrats continue to enjoy the traditional perks of home field advantage, including 1.5 million more registered voters and a nationally known incumbent in liberal icon and 17-year Senate veteran Barbara Boxer. But polls increasingly show that the three Republicans vying for the party’s nomination – state assemblyman Chuck DeVore, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, and former Congressman Tom Campbell – could all pose a formidable challenge in the general election. As part of our coverage of the California Senate race, Frontpage magazine will invite all of the candidates, including Senator Boxer, to participate in a conversation about state and national politics. Our first guest is Chuck DeVore, who represents California’s 70th state assembly district.]
FPM: I’d like to start off with a local California issue. After the Muslim Student Union at the University of California at Irvine last month disrupted a speech by Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, you sent a letter to school’s chancellor, Michael Drake, urging him to ban the MSU from campus. Why did you decide to get involved in the controversy over the MSU and why did you call for a ban on the group at the UCI campus?
DeVore: The MSU has been complaining that this is a controversy created by outsiders who are calling for their punishment. But I am not an outsider. I represent a district that’s home to UCI and I’ve been following this issue closely for quite some time.
For years, the MSU has been bringing in speakers – people like [Hamas and Hezbollah supporter] Malik Ali – who call for the destruction of Israel and the death of the Jews. Unfortunately, the school has long had a walking-on-eggshells policy when it comes to the MSU. For instance, it allows them to ban recording of their events, which of course prevents people from finding out about the kinds of things that are said at those events. In the past, if you tried to record something at an MSU event, their members would surround you, and they would get the campus officials to drag you away. UC Irvine is the only UC campus that allows the MSU to get away with this.
It’s different for conservative students. When the College Republicans and conservative students tried to show the Dutch cartoons of the prophet Mohammed in 2006, the MSU complained and the school initially tried to shut down the event because of threats of violence. At the time, I told Chancellor Drake, “If you shut down this event, in a few years time you’ll have the equivalent of Sharia law on campus.” Eventually, the administration issued a wishy-washy statement of support for free speech, saying that if the students went ahead with it the school wouldn’t shut them down.
The MSU, on the other hand, has repeatedly violated school policy – and gotten away with it. In 2007, the MSU packed a room with protestors when Daniel Pipes was giving a speech. I showed up for that event, not only because I’m interested in Pipes’s work, but because I knew there would be trouble. And there was. The MSU’s members had duct tape over their mouths and they said that they would not be silenced and tried to shut down the event. That was a violation of university policy.
Then, last May, the MSU hosted a fundraising event with George Galloway where they were videotaped passing around a hat for donations to Hamas. First, this is a violation of UCI policy about fundraising on campus. Second, this is a violation of federal law prohibiting raising money for groups on the State Department’s designated list of terrorist groups. It’s not a hard list to figure out and Hamas, as I recall, is on it.
My understanding of radical Islamic thought is that if you keep giving them ground they will keep on taking it. That’s what happened last month when the MSU tried to shut down a speech by [Israeli ambassador to the United States] Michael Oren. Before he could even get his speech launched, 11 of them, all members of the MSU, including its president, stand up and start yelling. Finally they were taken away and arrested. This comes at the end of a very long string of abuses.
So this is something we need to deal with. The MSU at UCI is the most virulent and the most militant of the Islamist groups on American campuses today.
FPM: Why do you think UCI has not dealt with it? More generally, surveying the modern university scene, you could make a compelling case that universities have been too-tolerant of the MSU and kindred groups. What does that say about the current state of academia?
DeVore: It’s not just an issue of tolerance. It’s politically correct behavior that you find in some – not all – academic departments, especially in the social sciences. It’s a vision of the world in which America and Israel are cast as imperialist powers, where Zionism is racism, and where the MSU is a member of a noble, persecuted minority that deserves support, and even encouragement, for standing up to these evils. What the MSU has in common with these academics is that they both see the world through the same lens.
FPM: The MSU of course is just one offshoot of radical Islam. How do you see the issue in a national security sense? Do you think our policymakers understand the threat?
DeVore: I have differences of opinion with the current administration and to some extent the previous administration. I studied Islamic political thought at the American University in Cairo, Egypt, and there was even a time when I used to speak passable Arabic. I studied the region closely and I came to the conclusion that there are strains within Islam that are uncompromising and at war against the West. In Islam, there was never a reformation of the kind you had in the Christian West, and the result is that you have a religion that believes you cannot separate church and state. What you have, then, is an Islamic world that has fallen behind the West in recent centuries and is driven by powerful feelings of inadequacy. Not only are Muslims ruled by corrupt – and secular – governments in many countries, but they’ve been unable to recapture the Islamic caliphate. This encourages the conflict within Islam, between Dar-al-Islam and Dar-al-Hrab (the house of war and the house of Islam). Now, this conflict can either be internalized as a conflict between good and evil or it can be externalized as jihad. This latter way of thinking motivates many of our enemies; it’s endemic within al-Qaeda, Wahhabist Saudi Arabia, and the Islamic Republic of Iran. It’s a way of thinking which holds that you cannot have peace with a non-Islamic power. I don’t think a lot of American policymakers understand this.
FPM: That’s a very detailed assessment of the threat. A more difficult question, perhaps, is: How should the United States counter it?
DeVore: The Obama administration has rightly gone after the terrorist leadership in Pakistan and Afghanistan, but we should do more. In particular, we should place greater emphasis on human intelligence. We need to make sure that the people who mean us ill do not feel safe wherever they happen to be. At the same time, we should engage those in the Muslim world who do not see this as an intractable conflict and who recognize the threat from the extremists. But how can they see the threat in their homelands when we don’t acknowledge it here at home? What message does it send to them when we stand by passively as a group like the MSU radicalizes a center of higher learning in this country?
In keeping with the same region, Israel has recently become an issue in the California GOP race. Can you talk a little about how you see the Jewish state’s relationship with the U.S.?
DeVore: I’ve been to Israel four times, most recently in 2007. I view it not only as a strategic ally in the region but a friend that shares the common values of the United States. Not just the democratic values, but the foundational values – the rule of law – that allows the Western world to flourish. Israel is also an improbable nation. Few people 100 years ago would have prophesied the reemergence of Israel in the modern age.
From a policymaking standpoint, we should have a close alliance with Israel. There’s a strain of political thought, on the anti-imperialist Left and the isolationist Right, that if Israel would just disappear all our problems in the Middle East would go away. But that’s just absurd. Almost without exception, Israel’s enemies are our enemies. Of course, some of them cloak their agenda in the rhetoric of anti-Zionism; but scratch just beneath the surface and you find that Israel and the United States have the same enemies.
On the subject of enemies, you’ve had some close calls yourself in the Middle East. For instance, you were once shot at in Lebanon. Can you tell us about that?
DeVore: In 1984, I was visiting the Bakkah Valley with some journalists, when the Syrian Army in Lebanon started shooting at us. I’m a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve, and I had gone though basic training, so I dropped to the ground. But the journalists we were with just kept standing. You could hear the shh, shh, shh, of the bullet rounds as they got closer. And the journalists were still standing. I asked the Israelis we were with, “Why are they test firing?” They said, “Don’t take it personally, but they’re not test firing.” The Syrian army was trying to shoo us away from the hill. They’d never seen journalists up there before and they didn’t want them taking photographs of their lines.
To switch gears a bit to politics, you’ve spoken at a lot rallies for the Tea Parties. How do you see the Tea Party “movement” and do think you, or any other Republican candidate, can harness its energy in your campaign?
DeVore: I don’t think it’s quite right to see Tea Parties exclusively as a conservative phenomenon. I’ve spoken at a lot of Tea Party rallies and talking to the people who attend them you find that 30 years ago many of them would have been labeled Reagan Democrats. They are working Californians who are extremely concerned about the explosion of government fueled by debt and they are worried about the huge impact that will have on their children. There are a number of people who have gotten activated because of their tremendous concerns about government overspending and the fact that it is running on borrowed money. They are also worried about the threat of larger and more intrusive government and what impact that may have on their liberties down the road. I understand and respect those concerns, but I also recognize that the movement is decentralized and there is no such thing as unified support from the Tea Parties.
Still, they will play a significant role in the nomination. I estimate that there are about 350,000 to 400,000 Tea Party members and supporters in California, out of roughly 5.4 million Republican voters. That means that between 8 and 12 percent of GOP primary voters would be comfortable being identified as Tea Partiers. What’s certain is that they will bring a lot of enthusiasm to the nomination. Whenever I speak at a Tea Party rally, I always ask how many people are active in politics for the first time in their lives. Typically, between 80 to 90 percent raise their hands. As someone who’s been active in politics since 1981, when I was 19, I see this as an amazing phenomenon.
**You’ve taken on quite a tall order in the current race. The prize for winning the Republican nomination is the chance to take on a liberal stalwart in Barbara Boxer, whose Senate tenure is now in its 17th year, and become a Republican Senator of a traditionally liberal state. What makes you think that you, or any Republican, can become the next Scott Brown?**
DeVore: California is not as uniformly liberal as people sometimes cast us. Remember, this is a state that in a May 2009 special election overwhelmingly rejected a ballot measure to extend the largest tax increase at the state level by another two years. On top of that, the voters are becoming restive: California is suffering the fourth highest unemployment rate in the country, and the government bailout, which Barbara Boxer supported, remains profoundly unpopular with California voters. We’ve been a laboratory for failed big-government experiments for too long.
You can see this in the polls. This January, Rasmussen polls showed all three of the Republican candidates running within a statistical margin of error of Barbara Boxer. Her lead is narrowing and her approval ratings have fallen to the mid-forties. When an incumbent candidate is mired in the mid-forties, that tells you that she is vulnerable and that there is an opportunity for the right type of candidate. California may have a reliably liberal reputation but all the evidence suggests that we’re not as liberal as people think. I think there’s a tremendous opportunity in California for a plain-spoken, common sense conservative who has the support of the grassroots.
The “common sense conservative” moniker is one you’ve adopted in your campaign. What does that mean, exactly? What does a common-sense conservative believe?
DeVore: Well, for instance, when a bill comes up to vote, a common-sense conservative might ask, “Is this constitutional?” “Is this something the government should be doing?” A common sense conservative would resist the urge to do something like what they did with the bailout of Wall Street. Look at our financial system, which is in greater risk now than it was before the bailout. At the same time, we’ve seen the unprecedented and unsustainable expansion of government and an explosion in deficits. That’s harmful to the economy, it slows economic growth, and it will result in inflation down the road. Sometimes, the best thing a lawmaker can do is to do nothing.
FPM: Chuck DeVore, thanks very much for joining us.