ADAM SCHIFF REPRESENTS the 28th Congressional District of California, which includes Glendale, La Canada, La Crescenta-Montrose and Burbank in addition to parts of central Los Angeles. He has recently entered the national spotlight for his work on the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation into allegations of collusion between the Trump Campaign and Russia.
You grew up in Massachusetts but moved with your family to California while you were still young. What brought your family to the West Coast?
My father was in the fabric business, the “shmata business” in his words. He was transferred to Arizona for a couple years so we lived in Scottsdale. Then we moved to Northern California near Danville when I was 11, back in 1971. His work brought us to California and I’m glad that it did.
Growing up, how would you describe your family’s affiliation in Jewish life, and how did Judaism affect your upbringing?
We have always been involved with Jewish life, we were part of a Conservative shul in the Boston suburbs. In Scottsdale we were members of Temple Har Zion and then we joined Temple Isaiah in Northern California. That’s where I attended most of Hebrew school and had my bar mitzvah. When I had a family of my own, originally we were part of Temple Sinai of Glendale and we’re now members of Temple Beth Ami in the Gaithersburg area of Maryland. My involvement has been quite continual, and I think my biggest influence was growing up with the ethic of tikkun olam, and the fact that we all have an obligation to do our part to try to mend the fabric of society and leave a better world for our kids than the one we inherited.
While studying political science at Stanford, could you already see yourself working in politics?
I was pre-med and a poli-sci major, so I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life. I procrastinated for as long as humanly possible and took the MCAT and the LSAT, and ultimately decided that I was interested in public policy. I didn’t know what that would mean in terms of what kind of work I would be doing, but I decided to go to law school in order to develop skills that would help me in policy-making. After law school I came out to Los Angeles to clerk for Federal Judge William Matthew Byrne who was a great role model and wonderful judge. I practiced law for a while and I joined the U.S. Attorney’s office where I was a prosecutor for six years.
You rose to national prominence when, as an assistant U.S. Attorney, you prosecuted a case against Richard Miller, a former FBI agent convicted of espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union. Did this experience further an interest in or passion for foreign affairs?
I think that it certainly gave me a lot of experience that is pertinent to my current work on the Russia investigation, in the sense that it taught me a lot about Russian statecraft. For example, who the Russians target, what tactics they use, and what information they’re interested in learning about us. I think what probably had a bigger influence on me than that case was one of my colleagues Tom Umberg who was in the U.S. Attorney’s office with me, and who ran for state assembly. Seeing the work he was doing as a legislator really intrigued me. It was a way of being proactive, as opposed to a prosecutor’s job which is generally responding to a crime after the fact. As a legislator you can work on solving the root causes of crime, whether they’re based in education or economics. Looking at the work he was doing really started me thinking about running for office.
California’s 28th Congressional District is home to the country’s largest Armenian-American community. As its representative, you have been an outspoken proponent encouraging the U.S. government’s formal recognition of the Armenian genocide. To what degree are you furthering the interests of your constituents, and how much of your position is informed by other factors?
I think my experience in the Jewish community has really been pertinent to my representation of the Armenian constituents in my district. When I got to know the community, I immediately found an enormous amount in common between the Armenian and Jewish communities. Both have experienced the terrible trauma of genocide. Both are part of diasporas that have very strong affinities to countries surrounded by hostile neighbors. Both Jews and Armenians strongly value family and engagement in civic affairs. There was so much about the Armenian experience that I could relate to, and I think it’s helped me be a more effective representative of the Armenian community. Understanding the pain of Holocaust denial helped me understand the pain of genocide denial.
You’ve introduced legislation to overturn Supreme Court decisions that struck down campaign finance reform. Why is this an important issue?
The very first bill that I co-sponsored when I got to Congress was the Mccain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform. My interest in it was an outgrowth of the fact that my campaign in 2000 was the most expensive campaign in House history. There were millions of dollars of “soft money” spent in a completely unaccountable way. The problem has gotten nothing but worse since those days. We now have vast anonymous campaign funding that was unleashed by Citizens United and other decisions. I took the rare step a couple years ago of proposing a constitutional amendment to allow there to be limits placed on independent expenditures, and to allow states to have public financing of elections. I think this unrestrained and often anonymous spending is a real threat to the health of our democracy.
Recently you have garnered attention for your role as the leading Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, which is currently investigating alleged ties between the Trump Campaign and Russia. Can you give an update on the investigation’s progress?
In terms of an update, we now have a new Republican lead, Mike Conaway from Texas. I think he and I are working together very well, and the investigation is back on track after a couple rough weeks. We are in the process of bringing witnesses to the committee and scheduling hearings that had been cancelled or suspended. I think the investigation is once again moving forward the way it should and that’s very positive. In terms of how long it will take, that’s probably the most difficult question to answer. It’s a massive undertaking. It will take time to go through the documents, to begin hearing the witnesses and following the evidence trail wherever it leads. The FBI has been working on a parallel investigation since July of last year, so nobody should expect results overnight. Nonetheless we feel a real sense of urgency.
If the investigation were to turn-up evidence of collusion, could you speculate as to what the next step might be?
I really try to avoid that speculation. We don’t know where the investigation will end up. I don’t think we should pre-judge it, so I’m more than content to follow the facts, see where they lead, and worry about consequences later.
What is your opinion of President Trump’s decision to proclaim the month of May as “Jewish Heritage Month”?
I think it’s certainly a positive step. I think after some very serious missteps early on, including [Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s] Holocaust statement, I appreciate the effort to speak out against anti-Semitism. However, I’m still deeply concerned by some of the advisers surrounding the president. People like Steve Bannon and [Sebastian] Gorka, people who have trafficked in bigotry in the past or have very questionable ties to fascist groups. It concerns me greatly that the President has surrounded himself with people who have these kinds of records, and I think it would be appalling if this became the new normal.
Jewish supporters of President Trump often point to the proponents of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement among the more radical left in order to deflect from accusations that the President’s campaign reinvigorated bigotry in political discourse. Do you agree or disagree that there is a need to combat anti-Semitism on the extreme fringes of both sides of the political spectrum?
I certainly am no supporter of the BDS movement, and I think it’s very ill considered and destructive. I think it employs the worst kind of double standard against Israel, but I don’t think that in any way justifies the Trump Administration’s welcoming of people with histories of bigotry into the White House. I think that this is part of a pattern of the administration that rather than confront the choices it has made and the backgrounds of the people it has brought into the White House, it attempts to place blame elsewhere. Nobody forced the President to bring Bannon or Gorka into the White House. The fact that the BDS movement is terribly unhelpful and has its own undesirable individuals doesn’t forgive the administration for its conduct or personnel.
Can you comment on the problem of gerrymandering and efforts to make the process of drawing congressional districts less partisan?
I think that probably the single most important process reform we could entertain would be a national redistricting reform that would employ independent commissions in the 50 states to help draw the lines. It would mean that members aren’t insulated from the popular will, and it would make the House far more responsive to what the country needs and wants. Of all the process reforms I think that’s the most important, and I’m glad to see that former Attorney General Eric Holder is leading an effort to undertake redistricting reform.
Thank you for your time Congressman Schiff. You’re welcome, take care.
Perry Fein is a contributing writer and editor for JlifeSGPV.