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Justin Kim is a graduate of Pacific Union College and Yale Law School. A native of Loma Linda and Redlands, he is running to represent California's newly-redrawn 31st congressional district in the United States Congress. The district covers a wide swath of San Bernardino County in the Inland Empire. It also includes Redlands and Loma Linda—communities with significant concentrations of Seventh-day Adventists—and the City of San Bernardino, which has recently seen home foreclosure rates among the highest in the nation. Six candidates—four Democrats and two Republicans—are on the ballot. Due to California's recently-adopted Top Two Candidates Open Primary Act, California-31 congressional hopefuls will all compete in one primary. The top two vote-getters on June 5 will move on to the general election, regardless of party affiliation.
In this interview with Spectrum, Justin Kim shares his vision for living his values in public office.
You grew up in and continue to be a part of a faith community that has often held politics at arm's length. So how did you, a Seventh-day Adventist, decide to become involved in politics?
Thank you for having me on the Spectrum Blog—I am a longtime subscriber to your RSS feed.
I grew up in a faith community that deeply values service and missions. That impression led many of my friends into ministry, education, and healthcare. The core value among all of these pursuits is the principle of public service. This principle leads me. Whether or not we embrace all aspects of political engagement, it is the process by which communities are defined, voices are heard, and certain problems are addressed; it is both inevitable and desirable. When we have opportunities to improve peoples’ lives, we should not shy away from them just because it involves “politics.”
Following up on that, how do you see your faith informing your political values and how do you integrate it with your views regarding the separation of church and state?
Faith-inspired values form the foundation of my political views. Respect and dignity for others, burden for justice and caring for others, choice and free will, service and sacrifice, and community and connectedness are all biblical values.
Of course, our Constitution prescribes how political institutions interact with religious faiths. Adventists have a strong and proud tradition of upholding the institutional separation of church and state—one that protects religious freedom and values its free exercise while standing against the establishment of religion as a state enterprise. This separation protects against government coercion in the religious sphere to preserve religious freedom and simultaneously protects against any one religion dominating the public sphere. There is wisdom in this divide and I support it even while using my faith-inspired values in all aspects of my life and work.
What are some major life experiences that guide your goals in public service?
I am in public service because of a high school teacher that really inspired me. My civics teacher at Loma Linda Academy approached government and politics in a way that I had never encountered before. Despite all of the obvious reasons to be cynical, she, unlike others I knew, spoke passionately of civics and public service as a very real and meaningful way to serve others. That is why I took a lot of history and government classes and interned at the White House while enrolled at Pacific Union College, why I went on to law school, and spent seven years working for the federal courts, the Department of Justice, and the Senate and House of Representatives.
I understand from these experiences that many people are deeply frustrated and angry because they feel that their government is not working for the public good but for other special interests. These frustrations arise because our system breeds unnecessary complexity, rewards narrow interests who have special access, and therefore creates deep inequities. One of my overarching goals in public service is to reverse these tendencies and promote simple, direct, and accountable programs with which the public can easily engage.
Take our current federal income tax system. How long does it take to figure out our tax liability? Can you even calculate that yourself? Our system is so full of loopholes and deductions, both good and bad, that some taxpayers with higher incomes pay a lower tax rate than middle-class taxpayers with modest incomes, and households with similar incomes can easily have wildly different tax burdens. While at the Department of Justice, I worked on a big tax shelter case against one of the richest Americans in our country—a multi-billionaire. This person tried to shelter $1 billion of income from federal taxes using a complicated scheme involving Chinese banks. He almost got away with paying next to nothing on 1 billion dollars of income. Only after years—years!—of court litigation did we successfully stop him. This multi-billionaire is an extreme but real example of the kind of people who benefit from complexity—those who have the time, energy, and resources exploit the gaps and loopholes.
I saw the same problems working for the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform while investigating financial institutions, the mortgage servicing industry, and key government-sponsored enterprises that guarantee the bulk of mortgages in the United States. The 2008 housing and financial crisis was sparked by an industry that irresponsibly sold millions of mortgages that preyed on less informed borrowers. The industry then repackaged and sold these unstable mortgages to investors and earned billions in fees. While the borrowers in this situation bear some responsibility, they were not the ones who, armed with the necessary technical knowledge and the resources, made billions in this scheme. Remarkably, these financial institutions and their officers continue to make money in servicing fees while many homeowners are deeply underwater on mortgages, facing foreclosure, and ruined credit. Just like the multi-billionaire, the mortgage industry was supported by a system that promotes exploitation by those that have the time, energy and resources—a condition that should not continue and that I would fight against.
Why are you a member of The Democratic Party?
Neither party is perfect, but I am a Democrat first and foremost because our party is the one that broadly engages and welcomes all Americans and their diversity—age, gender, race, national origin, religion, and sexual orientation. The Democratic Party’s priorities better reflect the kind of country and community I want to live in and represent a more sensible, humane, and pragmatic approach to caring for those who are struggling and supporting a strong social safety net that protects all of us.
What are your policy positions on the following issues:
Global warming: I accept the consensus in the scientific community that climate change caused by human activity is a real and serious problem. We are the stewards of our planet and must enact sensible reforms to reduce our dependence on carbon-based fuels and strengthen clean-energy alternatives.
Health care reform: I support the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and its efforts to address two widely acknowledged shortcomings of our healthcare system: the millions of Americans who lack health insurance and the unsustainable long-term growth in both public and private healthcare spending.
There are approximately 50 million people in the United States without health insurance. Creating access to affordable health insurance is an important public health issue. The ACA creates access to more affordable health insurance options, requires everyone to obtain health insurance, and closes some of the gaps in our current system.
The United States also has significantly higher rate of aggregate healthcare spending when compared to other countries. Whether the spending is through public programs like Medicare or in private insurance, the cost of healthcare is a concern for patients, employers, providers, and taxpayers. The ACA enacts pilot programs within Medicare aimed to improve care and reduce costs, including an effort to link reimbursements to patient outcomes. A lot more work remains to be done to control costs, but the ACA is the first step towards much needed reform.
Same-sex marriage: I support marriage equality and an end to the broad government-sponsored discrimination based on sexual orientation that currently exists in our system. It is a matter of respect and dignity for our LGBT brothers and sisters.
Immigration: I support comprehensive immigration reform that strengthens our communities and provides a conditional pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Our primary goal should be documenting every person within this country—this is a matter of our securing our nation, allowing everyone who participates in our economy to pays their share of taxes, and treating those who are most vulnerable with respect and dignity. A good first step would be the federal implementation of the DREAM Act that would allow students that have grown up in the U.S. to have a chance to promote our society by serving in the military or attaining a college education.
Student loan reform: I support the recent reforms in the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act that offer relief to repayment terms and cuts out middleman private banks who merely issue and profit from loans guaranteed by the federal government. This reform moves the status quo toward a leaner and more straightforward system where the government can better provide affordable student loans through direct subsidies and guarantees to the student consumer without private bank interference.
When we talk about inspiring figures, past and present, who have bettered this nation—and the world—who do you list among those key people?
Thurgood Marshall. I enjoy the full privileges, rights, and opportunities as an American because of his work as a civil rights activist and litigator. For twenty years leading up to Brown v. Board of Education, he challenged laws and policies that prevented African Americans from voting, accessing higher education, and fully participating in American life.
There are agents of change who work within the system and those who work outside of it. When injustice is entrenched in public institutions and society, there is a powerful impulse among those who are wronged to reject and condemn it all. I admire Marshall and many others like him, who accepted the challenge to bring reform and justice through the very legal system that had legitimized discrimination.
California's 31st Congressional District includes areas with high unemployment rates and areas of relative prosperity. It includes cities with high crime and areas of comparative peace. With such diverse constituents coming from such disparate circumstances, how do you propose to represent the wide-ranging needs and interests of the 31st district?
We are all neighbors and we are all in this together. Unfortunately, however, when times are tough our natural impulses often lead us to more divisive mindsets—we tend to look out for what we perceive to be our interests and act as if our neighbor’s gain is our loss. In reality the opposite is the truth and we are worse off when our neighbors get laid off while being better off when our neighbors are employed. Whether the issue is the economy, housing, healthcare, or tax reform, our own economic recovery starts and depends on helping our neighbors.
Many of the immediate challenges in the 31st Congressional District reflect problems caused by the 2008 housing and financial crisis. Across the United States, there is $700 billion in negative equity in the U.S. housing market. Think about that for a moment. That is a staggering number and an obvious drag on middle-class household finances, the housing market, and the broader economy. San Bernardino County has seen some of the worst of this—a 40-plus percent decline housing market, high foreclosure rates, and a 12% unemployment that devastates many middle-class families.
I will fight for reforms that broadly help those hardest hit by the recession and those who are still struggling to get by. These reforms include the necessary expiration of the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts for those in the top income brackets, extension of the payroll tax cut that directly aids all working Americans for as long as unemployment remains high, and providing relief to underwater homeowners through principal reduction and refinancing programs. These priorities will help the finances of millions of middle-class households and create the rising tide that lifts all boats.
Learn more about Justin Kim here.