Sep 1, 200602:20 PMThe Life
Sep 1, 2006 - 02:20 PMDavid Roth, Democratic candidate for Congress in California's 45th, recently invited me to visit his home. The whole family joined in our discussion, including his wife Anita ("We take time off from the campaign only when we're sleeping!") and his fifteen-month-old daughter (listen to Alivia's political commentary).
[Click thumbnail images for larger views. Drummer photo courtesy of Stuart Lynn.]
Your campaign recently held a Roth-A-Palooza concert. Did you attempt a bit of drumming at that event?
Some members of my staff were a little nervous, as to whether I could pull it off. They had not heard me play before. But after I finished, a couple of folks got up and said... I think the exact words were: "Dude! That was very cool!" And later in the evening, a few audience members said, "If you can do that, my goodness, we're on the team! Let us know what we can do!" So it worked out well. [Laughs]
Will there be any more concerts?
The goal is to have four more, all across the district, before the election. Roth-A-Palooza 2, RothFest, etc. [Laughs]
Did you play in bands, when you were younger?
Yeah, I've been playing since I was a child. Six, seven years old. I was in a garage band in high school, and a real band in college. I continued to play until life... got busy. [Laughs] But every time I see a drum set and a pair of sticks, I will play.
Do you have any other unusual hobbies?
Well, I'm a magician.
Have you ever done it professionally?
Yes. I was a member of the Magic Castle in Hollywood for a long, long time. In fact, I was a junior member before I turned 18. I've performed at birthday parties, etc. I'd still be doing it now, if there was time. I sometimes do tricks at dinner parties and fundraisers.
Anita: Really the ones who benefit the most from it are his nieces and nephews. When he walks through the door, you hear, " It's Magic Uncle Dave!" And it's great for our daughter Alivia... but to a fifteen-month-old, everything's magic. [Laughs]
David, do people ever mistake you for David Lee Roth (Diamond Dave, former Van Halen frontman)?
[Laughs] In reality, no. But sometimes radio interviewers will say, "We've got David Lee Roth with us!" And that makes people pay attention. [Laughs] But then they'll move into the reality of the interview. It's interesting, when I speak to people, there's now a generational gap. Most of the young people at Roth-A-Palooza had no idea who Diamond Dave was. But someone actually drove all the way to the concert, believing I was David Lee Roth. I think this person was from Barstow, outside the district, so he went pretty far out of his way to meet me. Even upon sight, he still didn't realize the mixup! He walked up to me and said, "I'm so excited you're into politics - I have all your records, and I've brought some of them for you to sign." I thought he was joking, so I went along with it for awhile, but finally I had to say, "I'm David MALCOLM Roth." And I've never seen someone look so sad. [Laughs] But he ended up staying for the show, and had a good time. He even put some of my stickers on his shirt.
Your first job was as a Junior Ranger at Mt. San Jacinto State Park - what are your fondest memories of that period?
Well, it wasn't really a job... they didn't pay me in anything other than scenery! When I asked what I could do to become a ranger, all they could do was make me a Junior Ranger and give me a patch. So I was responsible for leading people on nature walks. I got to stay in the Long Valley Ranger Station, and back in the Round Valley Ranger Station. I had been going up and down the tram ever since I could remember, so it gave me a chance to be in a place I loved. It was a great experience in leadership at a very young age: taking people on ranger walks, showing them flora and fauna, and talking about what they needed to do to be safe in the wilderness. I had a responsibility to make sure I was imparting information that was important. To this day, I still give basically the same talk, when I take people up there. It's great to see the joy and awe of discovery in their eyes, when they find out the names of certain trees, for example. I love taking Alivia up there, and now that she is starting to talk, it's time to teach her the names of those trees.
You adopted your daughter from Ethiopia - would you ever encourage her to become involved in American politics?
The greatest gift my parents gave me was the belief that I could do anything I wanted to do. And the only reason I'm able to do this campaign is because I believe in the cause of representing people well. So I want Alivia to grow up as a strong, independent, powerful woman, who can do anything she wants. If she decides to go into politics, I would want her to be a stateswoman. I'd like her to look at this as I look at this - that public service is a noble calling. Unfortunately, the discussion has been debased, and we've turned away too many good people. So if Alivia wants to go into government, I would encourage her to do it with the utmost integrity and enthusiasm.
This is the first time you've run for public office - why would you put yourself out there, and open yourself to the insults and name-calling?
It's actually a great honor, to be able to do this. And I'm doing it because the stakes are really high. The decisions that have been made--by my opponent, and by this administration--have moved this country so far off course. Whether the decisions were about foreign policy, health care, education or energy policy, they have not been in the best interests of either the people here, or the people of our nation. Nothing will change, unless we change the people who are in Washington. Politics, when practiced correctly, is about empowering people and empowering communities. We have to make sure that every person and every family can achieve to their best dreams. We *have* to do this, and I *have* to do this, because it really matters. It matters a great deal.
Anita, I've been told you're very protective of your husband. How are you handling the rough-and-tumble of this campaign?
Anita: I'm just disappointed, when the level of conversation drops to such a low level. Campaigning, win or lose, is an incredible gift in our life. People entrust you with their stories, their hopes for their communities, and I hate to see the process cheapened.
David, in recent U.S. elections, incumbents have won 98% of the time - do you have specific ideas on how to overcome this built-in disadvantage?
Our process of politics, the campaign financing, the gerrymandering, the privileges that come with incumbency, all would seem to make incumbency very powerful. But it's powerful only when the incumbent is delivering. The other reason that incumbents are often elected is that so few people are part of the political process. Only 22% of the people turn out to vote, and that is a recipe for the breakdown of democracy. When the people feel that there really is a choice, that there is a viable alternative, something that involves them, then they'll participate. They'll feel that their vote makes a difference, and that's how we change things.
This district has traditionally been conservative - how do you beat a Republican, any Republican, here?
If you look at the registration, the demographics, you'll see it's not really a conservative district - these are progressive communities with a whole lot of people who want to see change. It's a fascinating equation - in the past, the people who voted were the ones who had an interest in maintaining the status quo. This time--we even saw it in the primary--that's very, very different. The desire for change is pretty universal, here and around the country. This is not the Coachella Valley it was ten or fifteen years ago. The only reason there hasn't been a change in our representative is: there hasn't been a campaign that could make a strong enough argument for that change. There hasn't been enough of an effort to engage people to get out and vote. The numbers are there. I'm a political scientist... I'm a candidate, but academically I'm a political scientist. I wouldn't have done this, if it wasn't clear that I could win in a way that would send a message--certainly around the state, but also around the nation--of what real progressive leadership can do in a place like this, that has such a diverse population.
Your major area of expertise is education - do you have any really radical "out-there" ideas that might help improve our educational system?
I wouldn't say that my ideas are "out there" - they're past their time. They should have been implemented a long time ago. So they're ideas whose time has come. [Laughs] For example, one of my first actions as a member of Congress would be to ensure that the Pell Grant is increased. The Pell Grant is one of the best grant programs the federal government is administering, to enable students to move on to higher education. The value of the Pell Grant has not been increased in almost a decade, and because of that, students' buying power has been greatly decreased. What that means is that we're not making it easier for students to go on to higher education. I believe, as many have argued, that education should actually be a fundamental *right* in the United States. That's an idea that could be considered radical, but I think it should be considered seriously.
How is your website's blog intended to help in communicating with voters?
It's a way for people who can't have a direct conversation with me to hear thoughts directly from me. It's almost like our MySpace group - a way to try to reach out in a manner that is not the sound bite, not the photograph, and not even the interview, but directly from my experiences. That's why we really try to have the postings be about an experience of the day, or an experience of a conversation, or an experience in the campaign, so that people can really understand who I am, within the context of this race. It's another way to try to reach people, so that they can feel a part of this.
Stephen Colbert (of The Colbert Report on Comedy Central) has started a 434-part series called Better Know A District, in which he interviews individual Congressional representatives. Have you seen any of those interviews?
Yes. And they often turn out horribly for those poor members of Congress. [Laughs]
Would you ever consider subjecting yourself to Colbert's ironic questions?
I knew you'd ask that. [Laughs] Yes. And I wouldn't feel like I was "subjecting" myself - these comedy pieces are, and could be, a way to humanize a process and a political system which is unfortunately far too removed from people's lives. So I guess the real question is: am I going to be the type of lawmaker who is accessible and trustworthy and understandable? Yes.
Now I'm wondering if it would be possible to get Colbert to interview the challenger, rather than--or in addition to--the incumbent?
I don't know. But if he offered, I'd do it!