Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance) spent close to a decade as a legislator in Sacramento after a stint on the Torrance City Council. He has kept a relatively low profile since being elected to Congress in 2014 as the successor to longtime Rep. Henry Waxman.
Lieu is a new darling among Democrats in the Trump era, building a reputation for brash tweets regularly challenging the president and his allies.
Lieu also has a new role as one of the regional vice chairs in the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the party’s campaign arm dedicated to winning control of the House in 2018. His turf is House races in California, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Alaska and Hawaii.
Lieu was the main attraction at an Aliso Viejo town hall organized by liberal activists in Orange County who are working to oust Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Costa Mesa).
The Times sat down with the Democrat in the high school’s indoor basketball court to talk Twitter, 2018 and politics in the era of Donald Trump. The transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Why come to another member’s district and hold a town hall?
What I am doing is not unique. It is happening in other districts. Linda Sanchez is going to Ed Royce’s district. This is happening in different parts of the country. One of the points is to highlight that you’ve got certain members of Congress who are afraid to hold town halls.
I think that is unfortunate. I think they should hold town halls and answer questions of their constituents and address their constituents directly. But if they are not going to do that, then I think Democrats should step in and do the town halls for them.
I think there is a lot of activism and energy from people all over America, and some of them are being represented by members that appear to be ignoring their constituents. And this is a way to answer questions and to provide updates and information about what’s happening in Washington, D.C.
Have you talked to candidates in the 48th congressional district?
I haven’t endorsed any of them, but I have talked to many of them. There are 23 seats in America that Hillary Clinton won that have a Republican incumbent. Seven are in California, five are in Southern California. One of the reasons this happened is, last term in many of these districts, we didn’t have a top-tier candidate [and] we didn’t have a second-tier candidate. We largely ignored many of these districts. That’s not happening this time.
We have actually the opposite problem. We have a huge amount of enthusiasm and a lot of high-quality candidates. We are going to have a lot of messy primaries in a lot of these districts. But at the end of the day, there will be a strong general election candidate going into November in every single one of these targeted districts. We are going to have a very different field of candidates than last term.
What do you mean messy?
We are going to have five, six candidates running in the primaries — maybe more — [and] some districts with double-digit numbers of Democrats running.
Is that a problem for Democrats?
No, I think it is actually a reflection of their energy and activism that we are seeing among many Americans. And I believe competition is healthy and is good. At the end of every primary, there is going to be a strong, tested Democrat running.
What do you tell these candidates?
I tell them don’t go negative. You should talk about yourself and what you want to do for the community. Especially if there is multiple candidates running because then it is not even clear what happens when you go negative. So let’s say you go negative on candidate A, maybe that’s helping candidate C instead of yourself. And … it’s hurting Democrats if you do really go profoundly negative in the primary. Most of them don’t. They actually realize the most effective use of their money is to make sure they stand out in front of the voters and the voters understand their story.
Do you think Clinton’s winning in a GOP district is a strong enough metric to go for a seat?
There are different structural things happening specifically in California. One of which is there is a very interesting governor’s race. And there is going to be a very interesting lieutenant governor’s race. A lot of statewide races for Democrats are of very low interest to Republicans because historically Republicans understand they just don’t win statewide races. So you have a bunch of Democrats being drawn out next November in a way that Republicans will not be. Second, I supported what is now a law, which is if you go to the DMV, you are automatically registered to vote unless you specifically opt out. That will go into effect … around spring of next year.
Which means by [next] November, we are going to have hundreds of thousands of new voters. Many of whom skew younger.
And third, when you don’t have a presidential election, you can run 100 different congressional campaigns. In a presidential, all the oxygen is sucked up by two candidates. … But individual congressional races, it is very hard for them to get their message out. Now, next November, you can run all these different congressional races.
So the candidate running in Dana Rohrabacher’s seat is going to have different issues than a candidate running in Wisconsin. And you can get that message out to local media because you don’t have two presidential candidates dominating the whole election cycle. So that, I believe, is helpful for challengers.
Your California colleague, Democratic Rep. Karen Bass, has a PAC registering voters in targeted districts. What are you doing in 2018?
We are raising money. We will be using those funds to support Democratic candidates to take back the House primarily in California but also Nevada.
What will that do?
One is direct donations to candidates. But those are capped. And then two, to get people to show up. Especially in our districts, like Karen’s and mine, you have these volunteers that just want to go help take back the House. So giving them a district to go to and helping them get there and then helping them do the right thing — there are ways to do voter registration that are more effective than others. Going to a supermarket and doing it is probably not the best way to do it, but going to specific neighborhoods and precincts and targeting those is a much more effective way.
Is it hard dealing with all the groups and activists that have sprung up?
Democracy is messy. And I actually think it is good that we have so many different groups that are not necessarily coordinated because to me, we are in such an abnormal time in our nation’s history. To me, it has moved beyond the realm of not normal. I think we are actually moving into the realm of criminal. You have certain actions by this administration that appear to me to violate federal laws. My view is this is an all hands on deck moment for Americans, and everyone should want to get involved. And they can get involved in their own way. I am glad there are so many different groups. I think it is OK it is not coordinated.
You are pretty active on Twitter. Do you do all your own tweeting from @TedLieu?
I do my own.
Is that buzzing out of control all the time?
There are a lot of followers now. It just sort of exploded since January.