July 10 2013 08:53 AM

Freshman Congress member wants voters to know he's a man of moderation

Scott Peters listens to a constituent talk about the impacts of the Affordable Care Act.
Photo by David Rolland
If you go to the government-transparency website GovTrack.us and look for Scott Peters in its Sponsorship Analysis graph, you'll find him right where you'd expect him to be—smack in the center, ideologically to the right of most of the House Democrats and to the left of all of the House Republicans.

The graph analyzes Congress members' authorship and co-sponsorship of bills and places them on a spectrum from liberal to conservative.

"For better or worse—I've been criticized for it—that's what I do: I try to work with everybody to try to make things happen," Peters says, speaking to CityBeat in an hour-long interview in his University City district office. "I'm a fierce moderate, committed to making solutions, and I think compromise is good. That, I believe, is what the district wants."

The district is the California 52nd. It starts in San Pascual at the northern tip and spreads southwest all the way to Coronado, picking up Mira Mesa, Poway, Rancho Penasquitos, Kearny Mesa, Clairemont, La Jolla, Pacific Beach, Point Loma and Downtown on the way. Of its registered voters, 34.3 percent are Republicans, 32.6 percent are Democrats and 28.1 percent decline to state a party affiliation.

Peters, a Democrat, yanked it from incumbent Republican Brian Bilbray last November by less than three percentage points. In 2014, he'll face Republican former San Diego City Councilmember and failed candidate for mayor Carl DeMaio in a race during which Peters will tout his moderate bona fides and pit his eagerness to compromise against DeMaio's combative nature.

Clearly, he believes his willingness to stand up to Democratic leadership will win him more votes than it'll cost him.

"The National Journal called me the fourth most independent Democrat, based on how many times I've voted against the party," he says. "So, out of 201 of us, I'm No. 4."

Issues on which Peters voted with Republicans include: funding for homeland security even though the bill would bar funding for the president to legalize undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children (he hopes that language gets removed when reconciled with the Senate bill), barring the secretary of health and human services from waiving work requirements for welfare recipients and keeping student-loan rates from doubling but not capping them (he was one of only four Democrats to vote yes).

Another example of Peters upsetting progressives—although Democrats were close to evenly split on the bill—was the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA), which would let the U.S. government and private companies share Internet traffic data in order to fight cyber-terrorism. Privacy advocates opposed the bill on grounds that it would erode civil liberties. The bill passed in the House with overwhelming Republican support. Peters voted yes.

"I think the threat of Internet hanky-panky is a lot greater than it was a year ago" when the bill failed in the House, he says. "I was convinced that they'd done a lot of work to protect personal-privacy information in the new version of CISPA." He acknowledges that the American Civil Liberties Union and groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation disagree.

Peters sits on the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Intelligence, Emerging Threats and Capabilities and has had private briefings that have given him sufficient cause for concern for cyber-attacks on critical infrastructure, like water, power and banking systems.

He says the bill's "imperfect" and that the Senate and the president will "push back" in favor of greater privacy protection. "Maybe the Senate can make it better," he says.

It so happens that San Diego is trying to develop a cluster of cyber-security companies. "I hope San Diego companies are chosen to do the cyber stuff," Peters says, "but that's not the kind of stuff I'm getting involved in."

Those are the kinds of links Peters is working to make between San Diego and Washington, D.C.—not on a contract-by-contract basis but by being in positions to help industries that have presence in San Diego.

That raises a question: What would he do if he felt tension between what's good for local industry and what's good for the country as whole? For example, Peters co-sponsored the Protect Medical Innovation Act, which would remove the excise tax in the Affordable Care Act on medical devices. (Peters wanted to author the bill, but that perk went to a more senior legislator.) It would improve the bottom line of some local companies, but it would also reduce revenue nationally.

After he was elected, Peters went to the trade life-sciences organization Biocom, which supported Bilbray, and asked how he could help its member companies innovate and create jobs. One suggestion was the repeal of the medical-device tax.

Yes, there's a local interest in repealing the tax, but Peters believes it's "righteous and appropriate," as well, because innovation lowers costs in the long run. He calls such thinking the "California perspective."


Peters has gotten good at steering an interview in a direction he wants it to go. Asked for anecdotes that illustrate how the capital has surprised him, Peters politely answered a different question—what he's been doing since he arrived and how it'll help San Diego.

He asked for committee assignments in tourism, military and technology and innovation because those are the pillars of the San Diego economy. He was assigned to the Armed Services Committee, with seats on the Emerging Threats and Seapower and Projection Forces subcommittees. He also got appointed to the Science, Space and Technology Committee, with seats on the Oversight and Technology subcommittees.

One of his focuses is increasing funding for basic scientific research. Nowadays, he says, a U.S. scientist needs to be about 40 years old before she or he has the wherewithal to compete for sparse grants. As a result, young folks coming out of grad school are going to places like Singapore, China, Brazil, England and Israel to work.

"We know this erosion is taking place," Peters says, "and we're not doing anything about it."

And, besides, with research outfits like UCSD, the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute, The Scripps Research Institute, the La Jolla Institute for Allergy & Immunology and the Sanford Consortium, increased funding would potentially benefit the local economy.

Another focus is on housing and employing veterans. He's authored or cosponsored bills to fund supportive housing for elderly vets and expand a tax credit for hiring recently discharged service members.

A third focus Peters mentions is climate change. Chair of the Climate Task Force for the Democrats' Sustainability Caucus, he introduced a bill that would require the president to convene the Task Force on Super Pollutants to study how to reduce so-called short-lived climate pollutants, having read a New York Times commentary by Dr. Veerabhadran Ramanathan, professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, on harm caused by methane, hydrofluorocarbons and black soot.

He'd also like to help the military invest in sustainable energy, including biofuels like algae, and, yes, San Diego does algae. The Navy wants to diversify its fuel portfolio, Peters says, and "the Marines are big on solar energy, it turns out." 

Peters acknowledges that because he's a Democrat in a House controlled by Republicans, his bills will have a hard time getting out of committee, let alone becoming law. He has high hopes for his STRONG Act, which aims to better prepare the country for extreme-weather events. Also, language in standalone bills can sometimes find new homes in larger bills.


One thing that's struck Peters in particular is just how dysfunctional and intransigent the Republican Party has become.

"The Tea Party really has the place locked up," he says.

It's clear that he feels sorry for the GOP's relatively moderate members, who are terrified that if they ever vote with Democrats, they'll be challenged from the right come reelection time and punished by party leadership.

There's a reasonable Republican from the Midwest whom Peters works out with at the gym. Peters says he asked the guy if, when he goes home to the district, he'll hear from constituents about immigration. Oh yes, the Republican said; the big issues in his district are immigration and guns. He was already in hot water over his support of background checks in gun sales, and the Republican senator from his state voted against the Senate immigration bill, so the House member has no political cover for voting for it in the House.

In the run-up to consideration of this year's Farm Bill, annually one of the biggest and most important pieces of legislation—particularly for the Republicans, who represent much of the heartland—the GOP had 40 or so Democrats on board, even with the inclusion of large cuts to food stamps. But they couldn't help themselves from making amendments that eroded Democratic support, like adding drug testing and more stringent work requirements in a time of high unemployment.

The Republicans needed all the Democratic support they could get because 62 Republicans ended up voting against it. In the end, only 24 Democrats voted yes, and the bill failed, providing, for Peters, the best example of both GOP dysfunction and Tea Party power.

Still, he says the immigration issue might present the best chance of getting something big done. The Senate passed an immigration bill on June 27, and now it moves to the House. Even the Tea Party must understand that the Republican Party needs some Latino voters in order to survive, Peters says.

"If they want to give away the country like Pete Wilson gave away California—it could happen," he says, referring to the Wilson-backed Proposition 187 in 1994 that would have barred undocumented immigrants from receiving healthcare, education and other social services and is widely regarded as the beginning of Republican political insignificance in California. "And Texas could be a blue state very soon if they treat Latinos this way."


It's widely acknowledged, Peters says, that the hardest feat in politics to pull off is to defeat an incumbent, and the next hardest is to fend off the first challenger; after that, it's all cake and ice cream.

The National Republican Congressional Committee regularly sends out attack emails linking Peters to anything it can spin as negative.

Like most public servants, he can't stand campaign fundraising. He describes going back and forth between the Capitol and a telephone to call prospective donors.

"It's a terrible way to fund campaigns," he says. "I'm fully supportive of campaign-finance reform and overturning the Citizens United case. I think the perfect system would be a lot of low-dollar contributors. I like the idea of people making a contribution and investing, but the idea of unlimited money and being on the phone all the time is not good.

"The political people would like you to spend all your time campaigning, and this is not my orientation," he adds. "I have this quaint feeling that if I do a good job, people will reelect me. So, I have to be spending some of my time doing the job."

Peters smiles when says he appreciates the Republicans giving him the gift of a bill to vote against— the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act—that would ban abortions after 20 weeks. That's the sort of thing that helps come reelection time.

"I mean, crazy, right?" he says. The progressive Democratic faithful will never consider Peters a darling, but he bristles when it's suggested that liberals might wonder if he's any better than the Republican Bilbray would have been, rattling off a list of social issues on which he's different: reproductive rights, employment non-discrimination, violence against women, voting rights, marriage equality, immigration.

"I'm still pretty firmly a Democrat," he says, just more middle-of the road on economic issues.

"I do give credit to the Democrats because we have a big tent," he adds. "One of the nice things about being a Democrat is that, as long as they know you're not going to be with them, I haven't been given any grief… And I think the Republicans, by contrast, have a pup tent. There's not a lot of room to maneuver."

Peters identifies as a New Democrat, a group of centrists in the mold of Bill Clinton.

"We generally feel like there's an appropriate role for government to allow people to have the opportunity to get into the middle class and to make the country competitive," he says. The New Democrats would love to stop talking about social issues, he adds, but social conservatives keep fighting, so government has to protect civil rights.

"But on the economic stuff," he says, "it's about sitting around the table and making a deal."

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