Congressional redistricting significantly rearranged Sacramento County’s two Congressional districts. Instead of the current city-suburb split, the county will next year feature the new northern CA-6 and the southern CA-7. Congresswoman Doris Matsui (D) chose to run in the southern CA-7. The district is highly Democratic, voting 66.1% for Biden in 2020 and 65.5% against the 2021 Newsom recall, and its 21.1% Asian-American voting base would appear to be a great advantage for the 77-year-old incumbent.
However, 47% of voters in the district have never been represented by Matsui. Likewise, of voters who pulled a Democratic primary ballot in the March 2020 presidential primary, 47% voted for either of the two leading Progressive candidates: Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Enter Progressive Democratic candidate Jimmy Fremgen.
The 33-year-old is currently a Sacramento-area public school teacher and former Congressional staffer well-versed in policy. While on Capitol Hill, he worked for former Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) and the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee. His top issues include the economy, homelessness, Medicare for All, and gun violence prevention. In contrast to Matsui, he has also pledged to take no corporate PAC money. (Note: Matsui’s campaign did not reply to offers for their own Q&A. Read the Q&A with the Republican candidate Max Semenenko here.)
SACTO POLITICO: What was your main motivation for running?
JIMMY FREMGEN: I am running because regular people are struggling. They’re not getting the same kind of support as big businesses, and we are being pushed out of the middle class. As the wealth gap is widening, we have inflation increasing and corporations posting record profits. But none of the costs that are increasing with inflation are affecting corporate profits, but it is hitting the wallets and pocketbooks of teachers and bartenders and shift workers. Our current representative doesn’t understand what that is like. She’s far too disconnected from our lives here.
We are forced to make choices between buying beef or chicken. Having to save money on staples. During the pandemic, I stopped shaving with a Gillette razor because I couldn’t afford the cartridges. I went to a straight razor with straight-edge razor blades because it was cheaper and that was a place for me to save money. There are lots of people who are having to make similar kinds of decisions because they don’t know if they are going to get that pay raise they desperately need.
One of the problems we have with Congress as a whole – and with Sacramento’s current representatives – is because campaigns have become so expensive, members of Congress have been captured by their corporate donors. These are the very same organizations our Congressional representatives are supposed to be regulating. But if you ask somebody for thousands of dollars to run your campaign but then are expected to hold them in the sunlight and ask hard questions, at some point selfishness is going to win out and you’re going to take it easy on your donors who are invested in keeping you [in office].
S/P: Those hard economic choices sound similar to what happens in a recession. Technically, the U.S. as a whole is not in recession, but there feels like two Americas. One part not in recession and doing fine, and the rest struggling as if already in recession. Is that accurate?
I think you are right about that. There are certainly two Americas right now. I work two jobs. I work fulltime in my classroom, and then I work my second job as a bartender in Sacramento. I have a number of colleagues at school who have to work two jobs to get by. I just talked with another colleague who teaches full-time and has three other jobs. If we had an economy that was growing and supporting middle-class people like it is supposed to, that wouldn’t be the case.
What we see instead is a stratification of wealth. You see people doing exceptionally well at the top, and when GDP is growing and the stock market is growing, those are numbers that get considered by economists to determine whether or not we are in a recession. But they’re not numbers that provide any solace to the person who had to quit their job because they can’t afford daycare anymore or afford to put gas in their car for the commute.
S/P: The greater Sacramento metro area currently has the second oldest House delegation among the 40 largest U.S. metro areas. The average age of its five representatives is 69, with Doris Matsui the oldest at 77. How important is it to infuse younger representation into Congress from Sacramento?
JF: It is interesting. I have been making phone calls every night. I was initially concerned that older community members would not respond positively to my candidacy, that they might consider it an insult to [the Matsui] legacy. But what I have heard instead is an emphatic positive response that I am in my 30s and would provide a needed generational change in Congress.
One woman who said she was the Congresswoman’s age even told me nobody who is her age should be in office. She said this is because we face many new modern challenges. As one example, I have been on social media my entire adult life, for better or for worse. There are millions of people in this country and billions of people around the world who are affected by the decisions we make in this country on privacy and social media on the internet. And unless you are personally invested in that outcome, unless you are aware of just how much Google knows about you and you didn’t have an opportunity to make that decision because you grew up with it, then you are not going to grasp how serious these policy decisions are.
More than that, I was trained by some of the brightest minds in the history of our nation on how to do this job really well. People like Elijah Cummings, John Lewis, Elizabeth Warren and Senator Sanders were all people I worked with when I worked on Capitol Hill. They were all people who were willing to run through a brick wall at 100 mph for their constituents, and I am excited to do the same. I have the stamina for it, the passion for it, and I want to do this job exceptionally well.
S/P: Progressives are also a much larger part of the district than even most Progressives realize. For instance, 47% of left-leaning voters in your district voted for either Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren in the 2020 primary. How important could that be for you?
JF: I think it is a huge opportunity. It speaks to how people want to see progress. When they don’t see that progress in government, they at least want to know that the person who is working for them is fighting really, really hard for them every single day. I think that is something that Senators Sanders and Warren represent.
Right now, a big part of that is lowering costs for people. Lowering the cost of health care and prescription drugs. Lowering the cost of education and discharging federal student debt. Making sure we have cheap clean energy and not relying on expensive, polluting foreign oil. These are the issues everyone wants to see progress on. When you vote for establishment politicians, you vote for more of the same. I am not okay with what we have right now, and those stats show a lot of Democrats want better too.
S/P: But to finish in the Top 2, you must get more votes than the one Republican in the race, Max Semenenko. The means even with the new CA-7 solidly Democratic, 25% to 30% may still go by default to the Republican. What are you hoping for to help you make Top 2?
JF: You are always going to have people who vote just because of the letter after the candidate’s name. But we have entered a new era of politics in our country when it is no longer about party. Party is the side show. It’s about the extremely wealthy versus everybody else. If you are somebody who wants to see corporations held to account; if you are somebody who wants to see your health care costs decrease; if you are somebody that wants to see homelessness addressed with actual solutions, then you should vote for me. I have a plan to address those things.
I think people are disappointed with both parties. People are tired of being sold on changes that never happen. It is frustrating. When I tell people I am a Democrat, many of them just roll their eyes. I’ll press them on it, and they say, “Well, I am a Democrat and disappointed.” And I tell them, “I am a Democrat and disappointed too.” I have worked for five different elected officials. Some I would go back to work for in a heartbeat, and others I would never go back to work for. But if you want to see that change, you have to show up. You have to speak out, and I think we will see that in the election.
S/P: What is another major issue for you?
JF: When I ask people what they care most about in our community, the first thing most say is homelessness. This is something I have put a ton of energy into learning about and studying. Also unfortunately, there have been times I have been close to the homelessness spectrum. So the despondency and frustration that can come with experiencing homelessness is something I’ve worried about personally. I also know when the Sacramento Bee interviewed the Congresswoman [Matsui] for endorsement last cycle, the Bee noted that her response on homelessness was unimpressive.
In contrast, I will be releasing next month a three-tiered plan for introducing legislation to address homelessness. This starts with helping our homeless veterans. We know how much it costs to solve veteran homelessness. We can appropriate the money. Plus it’s something we can all agree on, regardless of party, but it’s not happening. But I will make sure there are no veterans experiencing homelessness ever again. To do this, we are going to make universal housing vouchers part of the G.I. Bill for low-income veterans. Because if you have served our country with honor and are eligible for healthcare and education benefits, then you should also be eligible for housing assistance. After all, if we have invested in your education, it’s hard to make use of that education and contribute to our communities if you lack a steady place to live.
This gets back to my earlier point about how this isn’t about parties. It’s about solutions that actually affect regular people. And when I’m elected, [Matsui donors like] Comcast and Verizon are going to be fine with one less member of Congress who is indebted to them.
S/P: Speaking of major donors, this publication has been alone in the state in spotlighting how much the largest opioid manufacturers and distributors have donated to California members of Congress, and Matsui has been among the richest beneficiaries, with more than $125,000 over the past decade. Any thoughts on this?
JF: I think it demonstrates unbelievable cynicism to take $125,000 from opioid companies at the same that the communities you are charged with representing are suing those companies for murdering your constituents. I think it is a betrayal of the people that voted for her.
The first story I heard when I started running was from a mom named Nikki who came into the bar I worked at. I told her I was running, and I told her I would likely represent her if I won. She said, “I need to tell you about opioids.” She described to me how her husband had committed suicide, how her son had self-medicated after the trauma of discovering his fathers body, and ultimately died from fentanyl. She described finding his cell phone as it rang next to his body with a call from his drug dealer. She held my hands and she begged me to do something about it.
I don’t know how anyone can in good conscience take money from companies that have profited from the suffering of so many families while claiming to represent them.
S/P: Given that Matsui carried over $324,000 in unspent campaign funds from last election cycle, do you call on Matsui to donate the $125,000-plus in opioid donations she’s taken to local opioid treatment programs or something else?
JF: Absolutely. Our community needs that funding more than her campaign does. Imagine what $125,000 could do for an opioid diversion or mental health program in our region? How many lives could be saved? The people of this community need that kind of help much more than they need another mailer they’re only going to throw away.
S/P: Any news about a future debate for your primary race?
JF: There is a group of neighborhood associations that would like to hold a candidate forum. I am very interested in participating in that forum, and I would hope all the candidates who are on the ballot attend. But I don’t know the last time we saw a true debate for a Congressional race in Sacramento.
(Editor’s note: The last time a Sacramento County Congressional incumbent agreed to debate was the 2016 Ami Bera-Sheriff Scott Jones race. Also worth noting, Elk Grove-resident U.S. Rep. Tom McClintock represents the CA-4 to the immediate north and east of Sacramento County, and he debated his Democratic opponent in both 2018 and 2020 despite winning by clear margins.)
S/P: Any final thoughts?
JF: This is personal for me. Right now, I am talking to you from P Street in midtown from my 400-square foot studio that I pay for more for than I ever imagined I would pay. I am barely scraping by. When I go and campaign and raise money for this race, I ask people who are struggling too because I want to fight for them, but none of them can spare the money.
We have a system that is becoming completely controlled by those with incredible amounts of discretionary income that they pump into elections and toward candidates who will shore up their lifestyles or business interests. And those who can’t – the servers and single parents and those working multiple jobs to get by – those people need a champion too. We need to send to Congress someone who will fight for all of us. Not just for the people who will invite us to the black-tie dinners and invite us to the private fundraisers. We need someone who will fight aggressively on our behalf. It is time for change.