Rodolfo Cortes Barragan is running for Congress as the Green Party candidate for California’s 40th District this year – and he has already made history.
As only one of two candidates on the open primary ballot, he will automatically advance through California’s “top-two” primary on June 5th to the general election in November. Only one third party candidate has previously made it through to the general election for a Congressional race since the top-two system was enacted in 2011 (this being a Peace & Freedom Party candidate who received five write-in votes in the 2014 primary).
But just getting through the primary is not enough for Cortes Barragan. To win his race in November he will need to defeat one of the most entrenched incumbents in the House of Representatives: Lucille Roybal-Allard. Roybal-Allard has represented the area since 1993, pretty much inheriting her seat from her father Edward Roybal, who himself was first elected in 1975.
Representative Roybal-Allard has never faced serious electoral opposition during her time in Washington. She has won every race with over 70% of the vote except for two, which she each won by close to 60%. But where others see an impregnable stronghold, Green Party candidate Rodolfo Cortes Barragan sees a complacent opponent.
Running as a third party candidate is never easy, but so far Cortes Barragan has hit the ground running. Energetic and friendly, he is counting on a grassroots, insurgent campaign to topple a representative he describes as out of touch and distant from her constituents.
The 30-year-old Cortes Barragan studied at UC Berkeley before earning a PhD from Stanford, so properly he is Doctor Cortes Barragan. We asked him to be the first News Growl interviewee, and were delighted when he agreed.
The News Growl interview: Green Party candidate Rodolfo Cortes Barragan
News Growl: Let’s start with the basics. How long have you been an active member of the Green Party?
Rodolfo Cortes Barragan: I joined the Green Party when Senator Sanders failed to walk out of the Wells Fargo Center and instead proceeded to endorse the pro-corporate candidate. I’ve been volunteering for Green electoral and movement efforts ever since.
NG: And is this your first time to run for office?
RCB: It is! Some people tell me I should have started with a smaller office, but my goal isn’t just to win this seat, it’s to transform how the U.S. government spends money. We need to repeal Paul Ryan’s destructive economic policies. We need to spend on improving our society and healing our climate by creating local Green jobs, just like we spend on expanding our military by funding defense contractor jobs. I can’t really advocate for that kind of macro-economic change in local office. I need a national platform to push forward my policy goals and force other U.S. Representatives to engage with them.
NG: How and when did you make the decision to run? Were you expecting to be the only candidate besides Roybal-Allard at the time?
RCB: Like much of my generation, I’m feeling economic pain. I’ve still got $40,000 in student loans, and that’s not much compared to many of my peers. While the post-war generation got a leg-up from the Congresses of yesteryear, the recent Congresses have been stomping on young people and working families more broadly.
I decided we needed a change in direction, and so, I filed the paperwork. As the weeks went by, nobody else filed. I was pretty shocked.
NG: How are your friends and family reacting to you being a congressional candidate? Does it surprise people, or were they expecting it?
RCB: Nobody is surprised and everyone is supportive. My aunt in particular is very happy that I’m doing this. She lives right in the area of the District where the water comes out like it does in Flint, Michigan. I’m doing this for her, and for the countless other seniors and families who have been assaulted by the recent Congresses.
NG: You have a PhD in psychology and studied how altruism can flourish in some circumstances and not in others. How much of your academic work informs your beliefs as a politician?
RCB: In my dissertation research, I showed that when we take the time to interact with children in a warm, responsive manner, we increase the chances that they will show generosity toward strangers. I believe that this is the type of thing we should be doing at a macro-level, and not just for children, but everyone, across a variety of contexts.
For example, when people are treated with respect at work, they will be less likely to act against the system. On a more general note, my policy proposals and bills in Congress would always been informed by science, all the way from astronomy and geophysics to psychology and sociology. We need scientists, doctors, and engineers to enter Congress. We have a lot of problems to solve.
NG: On your website you mention that Roybal-Allard, and her father before her, have been representing your area since before you were born. How is she perceived in the district?
RCB: She is out of sight and out of mind for most voters. The assumption is that, since she’s a Democrat, she is fighting for our Latino working class communities. But it doesn’t take much digging to realize that’s far from the truth.
NG: Your website also talks a lot about what you see as Roybal-Allard’s shortcomings. It seems to be your biggest message, in fact. Do you see yourself as running against her as much as running for Congress?
RCB: I’m running for Congress to fight for a bold new direction for the United States of America. And the reason I need to do that is because longtime U.S. Representatives, such as Mrs. Roybal-Allard, have failed our nation at every level. Our families are dying from lack of access to healthcare. Our roads are falling apart. Our veterans are not receiving adequate compensation. Our glaciers are melting at an alarming rate. Our teachers don’t have the supplies they need. The list goes on and on. And all of this is the fault of the Congresses from around 1970 onward. We need new people in D.C.
NG: Have you ever met Roybal-Allard?
RCB: I did a project on her in Middle School. That’s the closest we’ve gotten. A debate would be great.
NG: Will there be a debate?
RCB: We have constituents calling up local papers to call for a debate, but we haven’t heard back yet. If it does happen, I’m guessing it’ll be after the primary. I do think people take her re-election for granted. Our city councils and state representatives never question how her policy priorities impact our local communities, so people have mostly forgotten that she’s been in Washington for 25 years.
NG: How are voters reacting to the anti-Roybal-Allard message so far?
RCB: Very well. People understand that she is entirely disconnected from our communities. It’s time for a bold new direction.
NG: How do California voters react to Green Party candidates in your experience? Is it different from other 3rd party candidates or are the experiences similar?
RCB: In Southeast Los Angeles, we basically have one-party rule. The GOP collapsed back in the 70s. That means that nearly all of our local problems are traceable to the Democratic Party and their corporate donors. Voters are very happy to learn that there is another option other than the corporate Democratic Party.
NG: What would be the biggest difference residents of California’s 40th Congressional District would see if you win in November?
RCB: The most pressing issues in our area are low wages and off-the-charts pollution. Thus, I will join the people on the picket line. I will use the privilege of the office to demand higher wages from mega-corporations and force factories in our District to follow environmental standards. Before long, we will have fixed two of the biggest problems facing working people in Southeast Los Angeles.
NG: What do you think your chances are in the upcoming general election? What do you need to happen or not happen in order to win?
RGB: Whatever happens in the primary, we will have five months to prepare for the general election. I think our chances will be very good. Our opponent cannot defend her record, much less the record of the corporate Democratic Party, to our overwhelming working class Latino community. We are going to win.
NG: How is fundraising going?
RCB: We’re somewhere between five to ten thousand dollars, and though that doesn’t sound like much at all, it’s actually a fortune in this electoral context. We are the biggest campaign the incumbent has ever faced. We are the first to file with the FEC. The incumbent is so confident in her re-election is in the bag that she isn’t even campaigning or seriously fundraising. Indeed, she hasn’t run a real campaign since the 90s.
NG: Can you explain how yours is the biggest campaign your opponent has ever faced? Do you mean in terms of money, organization, boots on the ground, or what? Her toughest races were against a Democrat David Sanchez in 2012 and 2014 – are you saying your campaign is bigger than his?
RCB: We are definitely the biggest in terms of money. David Sanchez ran three times against her, but his operation was focused on East L.A. It’s amazing he got as many votes as he did. This time around, we are all over the District and I’m a data person, so we are targeting exactly the voters we need.
NG: For a third party candidate, raising five to ten thousand dollars is not bad going at all. How can people living in your district help your campaign, and how can people living elsewhere help your campaign?
RCB: We are lucky to have amazing volunteers delivering our message to voters. If you live around here, shoot us an email! If you’d like to phone bank or text bank from home anywhere around the country, also send us an email! Everyone is welcome in this campaign.
NG: Thanks for taking the time to speak to us. What’s the one last thing you would like to tell News Growl readers?
RCB: Kudos to you for supporting independent media!