“We really need to have more civic engagement by our young folks who are just as savvy, dynamic, and interesting as folks of older generations and have more at stake,” said Chris Duncan, a grassroots politician running for State Assembly. (Chloe Hernandez/Lariat)
An enlightening 1-on-1 interview with California State Assembly candidate Chris Duncan
Former Homeland Security attorney Chris Duncan is a local community member who has embarked on a mission to run for State Assembly in California’s Mar. 3 Primary Election. In this interview, Mr. Duncan tells the story of his personal and career development, and how he came to realize the partisanship in the state and federal governments have inflicted real damage to our nation’s democracy. California’s State Assembly needs new representatives, and Mr. Duncan makes an incredibly compelling case as to why he should be the individual to take on the responsibility to serve California’s 73rd district.
What inspired you to run for public office?
I was a Homeland Security attorney specifically in an agency called Customs and Border Protection which is protecting the borders. I originally signed up to do that because I was in Washington DC when 9/11 happened. I was near the Pentagon when the plane hit, and I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my legal career and all of a sudden a kind of light bulb went on in my head and I realized I wanted to be of service, I wanted to help protect people, to do something bigger than myself and this is an opportunity to do that.
They were looking for attorneys to go all over the country and I jumped in. I was hoping to go to like Miami or New York or somewhere really interesting where I have never lived, and they sent me to El Paso Texas. This actually ended up being a blessing in disguise because it was a great place to learn about border issues. It was really where the action was happening.
I had an incredibly rewarding career getting involved in important things, but the things I enjoy the most were when I was again stepping up to help protect vulnerable people and businesses.
I worked with law enforcement officers and special agents to dismantle a human trafficking organization so that the vulnerable people they had taken advantage of would be freed essentially from their captors. What would happen is that they would smuggle these people in and then they would have to work off the smuggling fee which was thousands of dollars through forced labor. When we took apart those organizations it felt like I was doing my purpose.
Similarly on more of an economic end we also regulated cargo so when we stop foreign companies from cheating on customs tariffs or bringing in trademark infringing goods that hurt U.S. companies, it felt like we were helping protect those U.S. companies and domestic businesses, a lot of which being small businesses.
Well what happened a few years ago is that, things changed. When the Trump Administration came in there was a different emphasis on priorities, much more immigration focused and frankly some of the policies went against some of my basic values.
First, there was the travel ban. In my mind it focused on preventing people from coming in based on religion, but we were able to work around that. I was a supervisor at a legal office, I had a bunch of young attorneys and we were able to negotiate that and provide waivers to people.
The straw that broke the camel’s back, so to speak, was the child separation policy. As a father with small children, especially. I like to think that even if I didn’t have them I would be equally concerned that we were doing something that was having long-lasting and detrimental effects on children. It didn’t matter where those children were from, it was something I couldn’t stand for.
Like I had done in my career where I stood up for people I felt needed somebody to stand up for them, I decided that I needed to step away from that very comfortable career to do something where I got back to helping people. I looked around and I saw the State Assembly race and I saw it as an opportunity to help people in the community who needed someone to advocate for them.
I didn’t think they had been well served by the representation in the state, so it was an opportunity for me to serve in a different way and in a way that has more of an impact in my immediate local community. That was another interest in mind since I had always been working on these big National issues, now I want to do something where I could really be in the mix with the community and see for myself the real positive effects of stepping up again for the people in the community who needed the most.
That’s the long story that gets me to this: doing something as out of the box and sort of very risky, some people would say crazy, as running for local office.
How has working as a Homeland Security Attorney prepared you to represent our district in the California State Assembly?
Thanks for asking that because I think that’s a key part of my platform, or my theory of the case, as I might say as an attorney. Sacramento is a very partisan place these days and the elected officials that have been sent from South Orange County in particular have been unable, frankly, to build the coalition’s necessary to get legislation that delivers for South Orange County.
I spent my whole career at Homeland Security building those types of teams and coalitions with different types of folks. We never focused on the party, it was what can you bring to the table, what do we have in common. Let’s focus on that, and let’s work to accomplish it. Because I don’t come from a political background and I don’t have an affiliation with a special interest, I am the type of person who can focus on bringing people together and build those types of coalitions to ensure the interest of our local community are well served by Sacramento.
With my experience of doing that, being in law enforcement, not being partisan, and putting policy over party I think I can be a different sort of elected official that could actually make a difference.
Throughout your career as an attorney you have worked under both Republican and Democrat administrations. Why do you believe it is important to have an open mind in politics?
I think we’ve seen what happens in a tribalistic hyper-partisan political framework. Nothing gets done. Even when something gets done it’s because one team was victorious over the other team and now the team that lost feels like the government was working against them.
That’s not going to get us where we need to go. We need to focus on the things we have in common.
Again, because I don’t have those affiliations, I don’t go in trying to push an agenda that might not match up with the interests of other people I need to join my effort. Another part of it is because I have been part of Homeland Security and have experience standing up for principal that has brought me some personal cost. Frankly, I would stand up to Democratic officials party officials who I thought were going against something I thought was a good idea proposed by someone of the other party.
I think we need more of that because at the end of the day, where we’re going to succeed is where we have the type of compromise that gets investment and engagement from the largest group of people so that people feel there is something in it for them. A compromise where they don’t feel like they have to work against whatever policy representatives are talking about.
Why do you believe it is important to include the younger generation in political discussions?
I believe I’m the youngest person in this race by a lot – and I’m not young. But I am certainly from a different generation from the rest of the candidates.
I have three young children myself, I have gone to a lot of schools, and I really believe in education. I feel as though we have missed the boat by not engaging our younger generation more. I think young people are looking for something or someone to get behind that has a message that resonates with them. They’re not seeing it which is why you see a lot of young people registering as no party preference these days. I actually think that is a good thing because it shows they’re open-minded and are thinking of the individual over party affiliation or other things.
Another part of it is that my mother was a community college professor, so I saw first-hand the incredible success stories that she would tell me about. For school like Saddleback in particular I think these are folks who are our future and we’ve got to find a way to engage that generation that segment of our population who sometimes feel left out of the process and because of that they don’t vote perhaps as much as other folks and that’s a shame.
You look at things like climate change and the environment, these are things that are going to affect young people disproportionately. They need to have at least as much of a say, if not more, as the generations who frankly are not going to suffer from the consequences of the policies we have passed in the past.
I hope we can send this message to the younger generation: there is somebody who is thinking of them, somebody who wants their input on what they think is important.
On the issue of education, you state the importance of investing in educational programs. What do you believe the effects will be on generations to come?
I think the education system in some ways has gotten boxed in by the way they’ve always done it.
I like to think more creatively generally and I know that there are some programs going on, particularly in elementary school and middle school education where a lot of the personal growth happens. I think we need to be more holistic when we think about education and not just look at test scores and not just making sure we hit all of the typical subjects, but that we make sure we are fostering a complete individual. An individual who will give back to society and has a moral compass.
So how do you get that? The things that I’ve seen and the things that I would support are programs that talk about mental health and emotional support, and make sure that those resources are available to our kids even at a young age so that they are in a better position to learn and interact with other students. What I hear from teachers is that they want that too. It helps the overall classroom atmosphere when they have a counselor or another resource there to address a child who might be having certain issues and help them down the road to more stability and ultimately resilience. I really support those programs.
I think we will see corollary benefits down the road by making that initial investment in our kids overall mental and physical condition. I think we’ll see it in school violence, substance abuse, and a host of other issues. Thinking holistically and putting resources in a programs like that will be incredibly beneficial
If you could send one message to young voters, what would it be?
Get involved. It is easy these days to feel that things are a foregone conclusion. To feel as though there is nothing really you can do, that it doesn’t really matter who gets elected into office or what law gets passed because it doesn’t feel like it affects your everyday life. It’s not true.
I hope that people are seeing that more with the present state of our politics. We really need to have more civic engagement by our young folks who are just as savvy, dynamic, and interesting as folks of older generations and have more at stake. You look at the race like the assembly race, I’m as guilty as anybody, because I used to look at the assembly race and say “who cares!” I never knew what our assembly person did, but now I know that the individual who serves our district does a heck of a lot, but they could accomplish much more if we had somebody in place who wasn’t part of the classic political structure. Someone who didn’t owe things to special interests and go to Sacramento to further those interests.
We need an official who has the community’s interest in mind and will go to Sacramento further those interests. That’s what I am running as.
When I talk to young people that’s the message I’m trying to get out there. Look, there are people out there who are involved in politics for the right reasons, and can make a real difference in your life. Focus on those people, get involved with those people, share your thoughts with those people, and let’s see what happens. I think we can do amazing things.