Justin Ha is a 17-year-old news editor for the Granite Bay High School newspaper in Placer County, Calif. In February, he became the only journalist then or since to directly question State Assemblyman Kevin Kiley (R-Rocklin) about his speaking at a controversial March 2021 rally at the California state capitol. As first reported by SactoPolitico.com, the rally was co-organized by Dr. Cordie Williams, who after the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection in D.C. called for Americans to arm for civil war. The rally also featured speakers with known associations with hate groups, militias and QAnon.
Kiley is an alum of Ha’s high school and is running in the June 7 primary for California’s open 3rd Congressional seat. The district comprises the Sacramento suburban cities of Folsom and Orangevale, Placer County, and eight other counties from Plumas in the north to Death Valley in Inyo County.
For more than a year, Kiley has avoided questions about the rally from SactoPolitico. Kiley’s Democratic opponent Dr. Kermit Jones has called on him to address “radical associations.” Oddly last month, the Sacramento Bee asked another Republican candidate in an unrelated race about this issue but has yet to publicly query Kiley (while including his comments in other stories). So we decided to query the high school junior who had more gumption than most professional journalists to get Kiley to respond – sort of.
SactoPolitico.com: Do you like covering politics?
Justin Ha: In the beginning when I was a freshman, not necessarily. I also write features about people in the community, but as I kind of matured, I find myself writing more stories about politics. I don’t know if I enjoy it, but I definitely find myself gravitating toward it.
What I really like about writing about politics is I feel my work really matters. That is important to me. I am writing about things that are affecting real people. These are important decisions that are happening in our community. With that, I feel my work has a lot of meaning.
The thing that is most difficult about it is you have to be very careful. Because politics is very important to people, it isn’t just a game. So you have to be very careful with your words and how you want to approach interviews because you don’t want to hurt anyone or waste anyone’s time.
S/P: What led you to cover the 3rd Congressional race and interview Kevin Kiley and Dr. Kermit Jones? Were you assigned it or did you assign yourself?
JH: It is actually kind of an interesting story. So I have known about Kevin Kiley. He graduated from Granite Bay High School, and I interviewed him during my freshman year and earlier this school year. So we had sort of a professional relationship, and I knew that he was running against Kermit Jones. So I just assigned myself as the best person to tackle this since I felt I had the best connections and knowledge to ask good questions.
One thing I was definitely concerned about with this story was getting the interviews early. When you are a student journalist, sometimes you won’t be a priority on politicians’ schedules. I also learned this firsthand when I interviewed Kiley during his campaign for governor [in the 2021 recall]. I actually waited a little too long, and the interview ended up getting scheduled right before the recall election. This made me move my schedule around a lot, which was definitely difficult. So getting these interviews early when their schedules were more lenient was a big goal.
S/P: How did you find out about Kiley’s participation in the March 2021 rally and the other rally participants’ histories?
JH: I do a ton of research on both candidates. I look at what they are saying on social media and what other people are saying about them. Of course, you can’t trust everything on social media, but you can get a lot of valuable information about what people are feeling. I’m sure that was where I saw reference to the rally.
I knew [his speaking at the rally] was a very sensitive topic because that was one of the things I saw in social media from supporters of Kermit Jones. I wanted to be very careful about my words and not get myself into trouble. I was a little bit nervous about that, but also kind of excited when he did make a comment on it, as I was worried he might try to decline to answer the question. It was an awesome thing for me to get, and I thought some people would find that interesting. [See Ha’s story here.]
S/P: Congratulations asking the question and getting a reply on the record, but I found Kiley’s answer equally interesting because it was a classic dodge. The first part of his response was “I don’t think anyone who actually makes that sort of allegation is a serious person – they’re some fringe types, who will say anything to try to discredit you.” But his speaking at an event co-organized by a radical isn’t an allegation. That it featured other speakers with radical associations is also true, as I reported firsthand.
JH: Yeah, in that context, I agree that it was a dodge. The challenge is when you aren’t well versed in the situation, it’s tough to follow-up. But I can see how it was a dodge for sure.
S/P: When you asked Kiley your question, do you think it surprised him?
JH: Yeah. I don’t know if it stumped him, but it definitely surprised him. That was an advantage for me because it gave me a more raw answer. I couldn’t mention that [reaction] in the article, but it definitely adds some extra context.
But there were quite a few times with both candidates where they would pause and say, “That is a good question.” Definitely when people get interviewed by a high school journalist, they expect I will go easy on them or won’t know what I’m talking about. But I try to come into every interview knowing more than they would think.
S/P: Beyond this article, what do you feel are the most pressing political issues for you and your classmates?
JH: What I have noticed in my school is there is definitely a big debate over what students will be taught. I think parents want to be more in control of what students are learning. I think it is coming to the surface now because a lot of educators and parents aren’t on the same wavelength. They are also not on the same wavelength as the district. And ultimately it is making for kind of a confusing situation for the students.
For example, we had ethnic studies, and that class has gone through a whole rigmarole because some people want it; some people don’t. And some parents are nervous about what is being taught, and some teachers are like, “Of course we should be teaching this. It is valuable information.” And the district has to deal with both of those sides and ultimately come to a decision.
And that is just one of a thousand decisions [for the district]. For example, masks. While we were mask mandatory, a lot of the parents wanted to go more mask optional. I think there are a lot of parties who have different interests, and all think their interests should be valued higher than the other parties’. That’s coming to the forefront right now, and that’s one of the big things affecting the student body.
S/P: Do you feel your fellow students have the same wide range of strong opinions or are they more flexible and will do whatever is decided?
JH: A lot of the students have opinions on these sorts of things. They are more educated on the issues than the parents and teachers think. But ultimately a lot of us realize that these decisions, while usually in the context of being for us, they are not about us. We ultimately have no power. So whatever decision is made, there is no point in trying to fight it because it has been decided for us. That is the mindset of most of the students I talk to.
S/P: These are appropriately very local issues, but do you feel national politics is influencing how much attention and passion they generate?
JH: Personally, I do feel those national attitudes are sort of echoed in smaller ways in our community. Usually they aren’t directly said or at the forefront of the conversation, but there is an underlying context that these national politics do play a large role in our decision making in our area. And it is pretty conservative from what I have seen and has influenced a lot of the direction that we have gone.
S/P: Do you expect to pursue journalism after high school?
JH: Yes, I really want to pursue journalism. It’s what I love. Journalism I feel has a lot of meaning, and that is what I strive for. I want my life to have a lot of meaning, and I think writing is something that can produce a positive in the world. I would love to pursue journalism in the future. I visited NYU and Boston College, and I will be visiting Northwestern University in the summer.