Easy Reader News: The rise of Ted Lieu: South Bay congressman emerges as a national leader of the Trump opposition

June 8, 2017
In The News

Every two years, a lengthy tome entitled “Constitution, Jefferson’s Manual and Rules of the House of Representatives,” lands with a thud in the bays of the United States Government Publishing Office. The book contains the law of making laws in the lower chamber of Congress. And as a few days in Washington, D.C. makes clear, “congress” is not only an action and a place but also a duration.

Each volume is modified to reflect input from members of that particular Congress, but the resolution authorizing the document is usually approved at the end of the term. Thus, although the 115th Congress began Jan. 3, 2017, its rule book has not yet been released. The 1,488-page version currently in use is “of the United States 114th Congress” but is in fact House Document No. 181 of the second session of the 113th Congress.

In Cannon House Office Building No. 236, those wispy 1,488 pages sit on a shelf behind the desk of Marc Cevasco, chief of staff for Rep. Ted Lieu of California’s 33rd Congressional District, which includes much of the South Bay. I began thumbing through it on the first of several days recently spent with Rep. Lieu. People in the nation’s capital spend more time looking at screens than people just about anywhere else, and there are not many other books in Lieu’s office to keep it company. But the sparseness of the shelf gave the rulebook the look of that increasingly rare item whose printed version endures not merely because of nostalgia but because it is easier to use than its digital counterpart.

Rule IV governs the “Hall of the House,” otherwise known as the House Chamber. It includes a clause laying out who may be admitted “to the Hall of the House or rooms leading thereto.” Other than the actual voting members, entrance is limited to rather select company. The list includes the President, Supreme Court justices, governors and, somewhat randomly, the “Architect of the Capitol.” On the afternoon of May 17, I followed Lieu through the bowels of the Capitol on his way to the Chamber and, observing this bit of decorum, stood outside the entrance to the House Democratic Cloakroom while Lieu voted.

There was a reporter from Congressional Quarterly there too, skulking around, waiting for members of Congress to come and go. He said that for journalists assigned to cover a particular beat like the budget or the environment, this was usually the only place to catch a representative for comment. Members of Congress are constantly surrounded by staffers and assistants, but they go into the House Chamber as they come into this world: alone.

Lieu had been in the Chamber for about five minutes when it became clear that something unusually important was going on. More reporters gathered outside the door to the cloakroom, nervously circulating and clutching their tape recorders like tickets to a sold-out concert. A few minutes later, voting completed, Lieu emerged with a smile on his face. Cameras and reporters approached him as he exited the building and walked down the steps of the Capitol. Lieu told the assembled media he was “over the moon.”

His excitement, and the eagerness with which reporters now seek him out, stemmed from the fact that Lieu has become among the most assertive members of Congress in challenging perceived abuses of power in the not-quite-five-month-old presidency of Donald Trump. The week prior, the President had fired FBI Director James Comey; the bureau, along with multiple congressional committees, was investigating Russian efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election, including possible coordination with the Trump campaign. Shortly after Comey’s firing, Lieu and two other representatives sent a letter to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein demanding the appointment of a special counsel under Title XXVIII of the Code of Federal Regulations, which is intended to prevent conflicts of interest within the Justice Department. While Lieu had been in the chamber voting, this was precisely what Rosenstein had done, appointing former FBI Director Robert Mueller. (Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who as head of the Justice Department would typically make the decision to appoint a special counsel, had already recused himself from the Russia investigation because of false statements he made in his confirmation hearing about meetings with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the 2016 campaign.)

“I did not set out to oppose this president,” was a phrase I heard several times from Lieu over the days I spent with him. His record immediately following the election bears this out. Lieu issued a statement on Veteran’s Day that acknowledged Trump’s boorish campaign trail personality but essentially asked voters to give him a chance. “We were offended when many Republicans did not act as Americans first and opposed President Obama from day one…Now that the situation is reversed, we should not be hypocritical and reflexively oppose our next President,” he wrote. A little over a week later, at a meeting in Hermosa Beach hosted by Councilmember Hany Fangary, Lieu again refrained from judgment. “We’ll see what he does. I don’t know what he’s going to do. I don’t know if he even knows what he’s going to do,” Lieu said of Trump.

Eventually though, things changed. A drumbeat of news, including revelations on Russia, cabinet secretaries from Wall Street, and the President’s refusal to divest from his sprawling array of businesses, challenged the administration before it began. Around the time Trump insulted Congressman and Civil Rights icon John Lewis, Lieu announced he was boycotting the Inauguration.

“I realized after a while, that he is a danger to the republic. Not because I disagree with his tax policy or health care policy, but because he was attacking the foundations of American democracy,” Lieu told me.

Lieu’s claim to be standing on principle in resisting Trump, as a matter beyond party or policy, can be hard to swallow in a time of fake news and alternative facts, of stark partisan division and enormous cynicism about politicians. Though Trump’s approval ratings are lower at this early point than any other administration’s since modern polling began, he remains far more popular than Congress. The May Gallup poll found that just 20 percent of Americans approve of the job Congress is doing.

Lieu’s popularity, on the other hand, is soaring, thanks in part to his Twitter feed. He relentlessly tweaks Trump on the President’s favorite medium, using humor, bluntness and, occasionally, coarse language. (As of this writing, Lieu had more than 240,000 Twitter followers.) His Twitter usage has been the focus of profiles in the Washington Post and Cosmopolitan. And Lieu makes frequent appearances on national news programs: as the Mueller announcement made clear, he is a sought-after voice on the administration’s missteps.

Lieu’s rise is wrapped up in the surge of interest in politics that has swept the country since Trump’s election. Though they are the “failing New York Times,” in Trump’s dactylic hexameter, the Times and other papers have racked up readers since Trump’s election. The Times added 308,000 digital subscribers between January 1 and March 31 of this year, the highest-growth quarter in company history. Given how many of the stories that have followed are unfavorable or embarrassing to the administration, a significant segment of the country appears to fixate on Trump the way passing motorists do on a car crash: revulsion combined with overwhelming interest, a thing too gruesome from which to turn away.

Unlike the rest of the country, though, it is literally Lieu’s job not to turn away. He fears that the administration’s purported corruption and dissembling constitute the first steps, as he said, “on the road toward authoritarianism.” That this concern does not come off as hyperbole is rooted in Lieu’s background, and his deeply personal reverence for American ideals.

“I didn’t set out to have a national profile. I’d much rather have had Hillary Clinton win and still have a Twitter following of 9,000 people. That’s not what happened,” Lieu said.


Called to serve

Lieu’s political biography reads like that of a character in “A Cool Million,” Nathanael West’s cartoonish send-up of Horatio Alger stories. He and his parents immigrated from Taiwan when he was a child, and the family settled in Cleveland. (Lieu remains a Browns fan.) The family had nothing when they arrived. The lived in a rented basement and scraped together a meager existence selling trinkets at flea markets.

His parents finally gathered enough money to open their own store. They put Lieu and his brother to work, he often deadpans, so that they would not have to pay their employees a salary.  He went to Stanford, where he studied political science and computer science. Lieu attended college in part with the help of the U.S. Air Force, and committed to serve on active duty in exchange. But before graduating, a physical evaluation revealed deterioration of his vision. The Air Force forgave his obligation, but Lieu wrote a series of pleading letters to high-ranking officers. His persistence paid off, and he was commissioned. Lieu attended Georgetown Law School, then began active duty at Los Angeles Air Force Base in El Segundo, where he worked in the JAG (Judge Advocate General) Corps.

“I believed I could never fully give back what this country had given me,” Lieu said of his eagerness to enlist.

Military service left a deep impression on Lieu, who remains a frequent booster of the armed forces. (Lieu is a member of the Air Force Reserves, holding the rank of Colonel.) Shortly after arriving in Congress, he  authored a bill to revitalize the Veterans Administration campus in West Los Angeles.

While I was in Washington, Lieu was the keynote speaker at an event designed to encourage Asian Americans participation and leadership in the military. He began his remarks by discussing Operation Pacific Haven, which he helped oversee while enlisted. Following the Gulf War, the United States rescued thousands of Iraqi Kurds, airlifting them to Guam before a looming attack from Iraqi forces under Saddam Hussein. The operation helped cement an alliance between Kurds and the United States that continues to benefit U.S. interests abroad. Kurdish forces have proven to be crucial allies in the battle against Islamic State.

But for Lieu, the value of something like Operation Pacific Haven went beyond mere strategy.

Years later, during his first term in Congress, Lieu went to Iraqi Kurdistan on an official visit, where he met with President Masoud Barzani. During Lieu’s time there, one of Barzani’s young staffers approached him. The staffer had been a child during Operation Pacific Haven, and had relocated to the East Coast of the United States, gotten an education, then returned to his homeland to work in government. He thanked Lieu for making it possible.

The story made clear why Lieu believes well-intentioned, government efforts can produce tangible results. Rooted in his up-from-poverty background, this philosophy, more or less out of vogue since Reagan, shapes how he tends to think of political solutions. For him, foreign aid, the social safety net, environmentalism and the like are not abstract government money pits, but real, particular people, living safer lives and breathing cleaner air.

The young cadets set rapt as Lieu paused to reflect on Pacific Haven before moving on with his address. “Very few countries would have done that,” he said.


In the Committee Room

Lieu prepares for a television interview in a room near the Capitol’s National Statuary Hall. Photo by Ryan McDonald

The House Judiciary Committee meets in an expansive, windowless chamber, illuminated by a massive panel of fluorescent lights, clinging to a ceiling at least 30 feet high and arranged in the shape of a bodysurfing handplane. The committee has jurisdiction over courts and law enforcement. And, as was mentioned frequently during the time I spent with Lieu, it also considers charges of impeachment against sitting presidents.

Judiciary, along with Foreign Affairs, is one of two committees Lieu sits on. Lieu was there the morning after the announcement of the special counsel for a session devoted to markup, a process of debating and amending bills and resolutions before they reach the floor. The resolution being considered expanded protections against sexual abuse for young athletes on national sports teams. It was spurred by a recent criminal investigation into Dr. Lawrence G. Nassar, who allegedly abused at least seven young members of USA Gymnastics he was treating at his clinic at Michigan State University.

After some initial comments from Rep. Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican and the chairman of House Judiciary Committee, and John Conyers, the ranking Democrat on the committee, Goodlatte recognized Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Democrat from Houston.

Jackson Lee began by addressing the bill at hand, but quickly turned to Trump, and the need for further action by the House Judiciary Committee. The seats for committee members, mostly empty when the hearing began, began filling, at least on the Democrat side, and the members followed Jackson Lee’s lead. Recognized for five minutes, various Democrats devoted perhaps 20 seconds to the resolution at hand, then turned to Trump. When it got to be Lieu’s turn, he too began by expressing support for the bill, then spoke on Trump and the special counsel. “We need to make sure the Department of Justice has the resources they need to conduct this investigation,” he said.

Though vigorously delivered, these speeches appeared to have almost no effect on the Republican side of the committee, which was mostly empty. Those who were there barely looked up from their phones. (A notable exception was Rep. Darrell Issa, a Republican from a  contested San Diego district, who spoke to support the appointment of Mueller.)

When Goodlatte finally closed off discussion, Jackson Lee raised a question about the effect of a proposed amendment to the resolution. She had questions on the amendment’s impact on the statute of limitations and reporting requirements for victims of sexual abuse. Her words hung in the air as Goodlatte called for a voice vote, sending it on to the broader House, where it passed 415-3 on May 25. It now awaits consideration by the Senate.

The focus on Trump is a reflection of constituent concerns. General congressional call volume statistics are kept secret, but Kathryn Schulz, of the New Yorker, reported that the two-week period following Trump’s Inauguration included the three busiest days ever for the Capitol telephone switchboard. Nicolas Rodriguez, Lieu’s district director, told me that constituent call volume has jumped “100 to 150” percent over the same period two years ago, and that a narrow majority of all calls to the Congressman’s office concern Trump.

But after the morning’s events, I wondered whether farm bills, road bills, and other important but unsexy topics were being neglected — if the fires of outrage over Trump controversies were burning so bright as to consume all political oxygen. When I asked Lieu whether the display was typical of what committee work had become under Trump, he laughed.

“Judiciary is just more partisan. The makeup of members and the issues we deal with make it more partisan. But it also happens to be the committee that has oversight over the FBI and the Department of Justice. Not all hearings are like that, but when stuff like this happens…” he trailed off. “I guarantee you, the Energy and Commerce Committee is not like that.”

The next week, I was going over Lieu’s Tweets from the time I was there. I came upon a black and white photo taken from Lieu’s desk in the Judiciary Committee, posted the morning I spent there. It was captioned, “This is the House Judiciary Committee. Fun fact: if there are impeachment proceedings, this is where it would start. Just sayin’.”


The Climb

Lieu began getting involved in politics shortly after completing his military service. He served on the City of Torrance’s Environmental Quality and Energy Efficiency committees, and in 2002, won a seat on the city council. In 2005, State Assemblymember Mike Gordon died, creating a vacancy in the district covering the South Bay. Lieu jumped into the race.

Manhattan Beach Mayor pro tem Amy Howorth, then a school district board member, first met Lieu at a teacher appreciation event where she was speaking. A mutual connection subsequently arranged for Howorth to host a fundraiser for Lieu at her home, the first she had ever held. Though the fundraiser was not exactly a bonanza — “I think I probably raised all of $200, maybe $400,” Howorth laughed looking back — she was impressed by Lieu’s reserve and straightforward demeanor.

“He was soft-spoken. He had this impressive background, but he was very humble about it, very kind and patient with everybody there,” Howorth said.

After being elected to the Assembly, Lieu quickly got a preview of legislative life under a brash executive with Hollywood ideas: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was swept into office following the 2003 recall of Gov. Gray Davis.

“We saw this same thing happen under Schwarzenegger in the first few years. He had no governing experience when he came in. He attacked the legislature, saying he was going to do all this, and then nothing got accomplished,” Lieu said.

The difference between Schwarzenegger and Trump, Lieu said, is that the Governor appeared to learn from his mistakes. After calling a special election in 2005, in which he sponsored a raft of ballot propositions, many of which went down in defeat, the governor began working with legislators and “started to accomplish things,” Lieu said.

Among the major pieces of legislation the governor approved was AB 32, the landmark Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, which required reductions in the volume of greenhouse gases produced in the state. Lieu was a co-author. The law has served as a model for other states and countries around the world, and subsequent California legislation has set still-more aggressive targets.

Rep. Karen Bass, whose Los Angeles Congressional district borders Lieu’s, was Lieu’s colleague in the Assembly, where she spent four years as Speaker. She recalled the difficult decisions the legislature had to make to balance the budget at the height of the Great Recession, and said Lieu was willing to make unpopular decisions, even as he was running for a vacant state Senate seat.

“Some of the votes he took on the budget could’ve had negative effects on his race, but Mr. Lieu never hesitated to do what was right for his constituents, and what was right for California,” Bass said in an email.  

Lieu won the spot in the state Senate in 2011 and then, with the retirement of Henry Waxman, made his first run for Congress in 2014. He faced a crowded field of some two dozen candidates, which included spiritual writer Marianne Williamson and former Los Angeles City Councilmember Wendy Greuel. Fresh from a bruising loss to Eric Garcetti in the Los Angeles mayoral race, Gruel had snagged the endorsements of many leading Democrats, including then-Attorney General Kamala Harris and former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Lieu beat Gruel in the California’s open primary by fewer than 3,000 votes, then trounced Republican challenger Elan Carr in the general election. He was elected president of the freshman Congressional class of 2015.

Today, Lieu’s district, which runs from the Palos Verdes Peninsula north to the edge of Leo Carrillo State Park in Malibu and is among the wealthiest in the country, is considered safely Democratic. In 2016, he doubled the vote total of Republican challenger Kenneth Wright.


Best Laid Plans

Lieu, a Colonel in the Air Force Reserves, has made veterans issues a priority in his time in Congress. Photo by Paul Roustan

“There’s always another flight,” Lieu sighed.

It was Friday afternoon, and Lieu was scheduled to return home to Torrance on a 7:30 p.m flight. But the deluge of Trump news had prompted an invitation to appear on “All in with Chris Hayes,” an hour-long panel discussion program on MSNBC. The program began at 8 p.m. EDT. Jackie Conley, Lieu’s scheduler, began looking for later flights, and found one leaving out of Dulles Airport that would put him in Los Angeles around 1 a.m. Lieu greeted this news with considerably less enthusiasm than his staff, but agreed to appear in deference to the importance of the week’s news.

The demand for time with a member of Congress is so high that Conley is considered responsible for ensuring that Lieu gets enough sleep. The Congressman had an event in Culver City the next morning, and his staff were worried that the late flight would leave him overly tired. Lieu assured them that it would be alright, reminding his staff that L.A. traffic would be light on Saturday morning.

“I’ve gotten pretty good at saying no. I’d like to say yes to everyone. And I think Ted would too. Unfortunately, he just physically does not have the time,” Conley said.

Every minute of Lieu’s day in Washington is plotted out. But as detailed as it is, the daily schedule is aspirational at best, and frequent changes are a given. Some are due to the fact that certain duties of a member of Congress take precedence over everything else. (My interview with Lieu had to be rescheduled because of a hastily announced, classified briefing from Rosenstein to the House Judiciary Committee.) But others are just exaggerated versions of the same sort of things that cause missed appointments and cancelled plans in the world outside of Washington. After Lieu’s speech to young service members, I counted 14 attempted exits from the Capitol Hilton ballroom, each hamstrung by a request for a selfie that Lieu simply could not refuse.

The day’s schedule is maintained on an app. The morning’s rough guess is posted, and senior staff have access to the constantly updated version. In between votes, speaking events and committee work, Lieu’s staff squeeze in a growing number of television appearances. Jack D’Annibale, a senior advisor and Lieu’s director of communications, described Lieu as the “most media-active member” of Congress he has worked with.

One of the most common interview locations for members of Congress is a small room on the second floor of the Capitol, in between the rotunda and the entrance to the House Chamber. The room is known among both media and staffers as “Will Rogers” for the large statue of the famous comedian that stands in the corner. (The statue is part of the National Statuary Hall Collection and was donated by Oklahoma, Rogers’ birthplace.) His smirking visage looks down on people as they come and go from the House, and it is thought to be good luck to rub his feet as one passes.

Lieu was talking about the appointment of Mueller. Unlike many politicians, Lieu does not have a “television voice.” He speaks in the same tone, whether he is talking to one person or 500. When he is addressing a crowd in person, his hand and arm motions are better indicators of emotional excitement than his voice. They move in a set of rotating patterns that sometimes feel too early or too late to accentuate the point he is making, like an out-of-rhythm conductor. Perhaps aware of this tendency, he keeps his arms glued to his sides when speaking on television. They hang with shoulders drawn down his back, an echo of the posture of his military service.

After eight years of Barack Obama, one could be forgiven for thinking of his modest speechmaking as a fatal flaw for a politician, but Lieu proves otherwise. Amy Howorth, who served as emcee for Lieu’s district swearing-in ceremony in 2015, sees him as carving out an essential niche in the opposition.

“He sees that, to fight this person, the old rules don’t apply. You don’t usually see congresspeople making puns, attaining celebrity status,” Howorth said. “Ted is really, really smart. He’s going to out-Trump Trump. He was a computer science major at Stanford and he’s a colonel in the Air Force: the crisis we find ourselves in was made for Ted Lieu to navigate for us.”

After the interview, Lieu, D’Annibale and I left Will Rogers and wound through the halls of the Capitol on our way back to the office. As we passed several banks of elevators and ascended a staircase, Lieu looked at me and said, as if in explanation, “By the way, this is my only exercise.”


Why he does it

Although the Russia investigation and other Trump news has Democrats hopeful that they will be able to pick up seats in the 2018 midterms, the party has wounds of its own to mend. The Democratic National Committee endured a soul-searching battle after Trump’s election, pitting factions that mirrored the ones that divided the party during the primary contest between Sen. Bernie Sanders and eventual nominee Hillary Clinton. Obama Administration Labor Secretary Tom Perez became DNC Chairman in February, beating out Sanders-backed Rep. Keith Ellison, of Minnesota.

Less than two weeks earlier, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had elected Lieu as one of five regional vice chairs. From this position, Lieu will oversee efforts to capture House seats in the western United States. Lieu denied that the infighting that took place at the DNC was hindering the work of the congressional campaign, but he conceded that his new role was a reflection what happened in November. The DCCC voted to elect, rather than appoint, the chairperson, and created the five elected vice-chair positions to “provide more diversity in the guidance and views” of the party.

“We actually picked up seats, but the Democratic caucus was not happy with the performance.

We’re doing a deep dive into what didn’t go well, looking at polls and evaluating consultants,” Lieu said.

As a result of his position with the DCCC, Lieu is a sought-out visitor by those considering a run for Congress. In exchange for agreeing not to disclose details about the people he met with, I was allowed to observe some of these conversations. The people Lieu spoke with were highly qualified and intelligent, with ready answers about fundraising and endorsements. What stood out was that that Lieu kept returning to the question of why they wanted to run.

“That’s the first question I ask any candidate. If they can’t answer it, that raises all sorts of  red flags,” Lieu said. “To win, you need to know why you’re running. You’re going to have some good days, and some awful, awful days. It makes it easier to get through those bad days if you know why you’re running.”

The rise of Trump has made the work of a member of Congress even more political than it already was. There is a non-trivial faction of Democrats that believes any idea of Trump’s ought to be resisted solely because the President supports it. And while Lieu’s position has clearly evolved since he warned against this kind of obstructionism in his Veteran’s Day statement, he is not in this camp. He agrees, for example, with Trump’s support for the Export-Import Bank, saying it can help small manufacturers. And he is linked to a stable of bipartisan bills, including the PATCH Act, introduced while I was there, which seeks upgrades to the nation’s cybersecurity following the WannaCry ransomware attacks.

For Lieu, the choice of which priorities to pursue with limited time and political capital comes down to the same question he asks candidates: why do you want to be here? What purpose do you want to serve by serving?
“Anybody can do my job if what you want to do is help WalMart,” he said. “They will write the legislation for you. They have an army of lobbyists that will lobby all your colleagues on both sides of the aisle. They will lobby the executive branch, and your legislation will get signed without you having to do anything other than dropping in to vote. It’s much harder to help people who don’t have lobbyists or massive bank accounts. How many homeless people can hire a lobbyist? How many homeless people even know how to call their member of congress?” (Just before heading back to his district for Memorial Day, Lieu introduced legislation that would enhance access to pro bono legal services for homeless veterans.)

Lieu’s willingness to stand firmly on principle brought me back to the steps of the Capitol, following Rosenstein’s announcement. It had been a long day, with more events to come, but Lieu was still visibly energized by Mueller’s appointment. After Lieu concluded interviews that day, we were by ourselves as we waited for his car, not a staffer in sight.

House Rule IV, the reason Lieu emerged from the House Chamber by himself, is a small procedural rule, and it probably has not changed in decades, if ever. But the overlapping authority of the book in which it is contained — a document drafted by people elected in 2012, intended to govern those elected in 2014, and still in force for those serving in 2017 — evoked the kind of structural check on power that Lieu has accused Trump of regularly flouting, and that Comey’s firing endangers. This lingering of institutional norms would surely have pleased the Founding Fathers: if the rule of law meant anything to them, it meant that no one gets to set his own rules.