For many cycles, Democrat dreams have danced of supplanting Congressman Tom McClintock in California’s 4th Congressional District. Reasons have ranged from McClintock’s hard-right positions on most everything to invoking George Floyd in his podium one-liners. Thus they pumped more than $6 million the last two cycles to support mildly progressive Jessica Morse (2018) and pro-business centrist Brynne Kennedy (2020), but this got them no closer than 8 points to the dream.
This cycle, U.S. Navy veteran Dr. Kermit Jones is taking his shot but with the wild card of final district boundaries still to be worked out. Jones declared his candidacy in September and raised a very respectable $315,000 in his first two months. The 45-year-old said he splits time between Sacramento and Placerville, and central to his bid is being a doctor, a moderate and a veteran – all of which we covered in the following Q&A.
SACTO POLITICO: You grew up on a cattle and blueberry farm in Michigan. What were your least and most favorite farm chores?
DR. KERMIT JONES: [Laughs] I hated the chicken coop more than anything. I hated cleaning it out. It just stunk to high heaven, and when you are reaching for the eggs, the hens peck at you.
My favorite chore was chopping wood. Doing that as an 8- or 9-year-old was when I started feeling like a man. My older brother and I used to go to the woods, chop down a tree and let it dry. Then by the end of the summer, we would chop it all up. It ended up being a nice way to spend time together.
S/P: The biggest hurdle for a Democrat in the CA-4 has always been demographic. Republicans currently comprise 41.5% of registered voters, Democrats 30%, and Independent/No Party Preference 28%. In 2020, Trump beat Biden there by about 9 points, and 59% voted “Yes” to recall the more liberal Newsom. So you’ll need a large majority of independents to win. What is your best pitch to those voters?
JONES: I do think redistricting could shave a good 3 to 4 points off the Republican advantage, but yes, it will come down to those independents. First, I think I will appeal to them because I have been treating people in northern California as a physician for the last four years. I don’t ask if they are Republican or Democrat. I just take care of them. This is important because health care polls very highly, and I think there are things we can talk about in health care that aren’t contentious. Sure, Covid may be contentious, but not needing to drive an hour to see your doctor like some people in Alpine [County] have to do with zero primary care doctors in the area is a bipartisan issue. Not paying three to four times as much for your prescriptions as you need to is a bipartisan issue.
Second, the fact that I am a veteran proves I have a record of service regardless of who is in office. I joined the military under George W. Bush in September 2004 and deployed to Iraq in 2007 and 2008 as a Navy doctor for the Marines. El Dorado County and elsewhere has some of the highest concentrations of veterans in California. So, when I go out there and I talk to them as a member of the American Legion and as a member of Veterans for Foreign Wars, I am coming to them as someone who has treated veterans, who has treated active-duty service members, and someone who knows what they are facing regardless of political affiliations.
Third, I honestly think people are just fed up with Mr. McClintock. People can’t eat rhetoric. It may sound funny on Twitter, but it doesn’t run a business, and it doesn’t pay for healthcare. I think there were a lot of Republicans and libertarians who voted for him because they felt they didn’t have a real choice in the past. I think people will see I am not a highly partisan politician like McClintock, but someone who will come forth with real solutions. That I feel will help close that 35,000 to 40,000-vote gap we need.
S/P: Let’s bore further into your specialty, healthcare. Where are you on Medicare for All versus the current public-option system? I didn’t see it mentioned on your website.
JONES: Let me first say, I am a doctor who has seen more than 20,000 patients, deployed out with the Marines twice to Iraq, and seen patients in multiple settings. With Biden’s human infrastructure bill [the “Build Back Better” reconciliation bill], I was disappointed to see Medicare coverage for dental and vision stripped out. I think if you had more doctors in Congress, that wouldn’t happen. A real doctor would tell you, “With dental, one of your highest risk factors for heart disease is gingivitis and dental inflammation. So, if you want to help bend the curve on cardio vascular disease, you take care of people’s teeth.”
With Medicare for All, there is no mention of it on my website because I am not a bumper sticker candidate. I am supportive of plans that make sure we have universal coverage and that we simplify our insurance system. There shouldn’t be so many prior authorizations so that doctors burn 20% of their time on the phone. Or that people need to pay so much of their money for their prescriptions. They should be having the federal government and the insurance companies negotiating for lower costs.
S/P: But doesn’t getting to universal coverage require a single-payer program like Medicare for All?
JONES: I see retaining a public option as a very strong option for two reasons. One, because if we use what we’ve actually seen work – which is real competition – then we will get real results. This means having a public option that is available to everyone, is completely portable, caps the amount people pay out, and is fully backed by the federal government. They should have the option of staying with their current insurance company or going with something with about 2% administration costs and doesn’t have someone at the top getting paid $25 million a year like you have with the CEOs of some insurance companies.
So, competition will work itself out. Everyone will have choice, and if everyone prefers [the public option], then the other ones will fall by the wayside. This will also mean we don’t need to have the 800,000 people who work in the health insurance industry start looking for jobs right now.
S/P: Where do you stand on vaccines, masks and employee mandates?
JONES: I believe vaccines are the true way out of this pandemic. When I was in the military, we had to take the anthrax vaccine. We had to take the smallpox vaccine. When you are in the military, no one asks, “Hey, do you want to take this vaccine?” You just have to take it. The unfortunate thing is vaccines have become so politicized that not enough people are getting the vaccine. Some of this is misinformation, but there are also people who are legitimately afraid. I have had patients who say to me, ‘I am afraid of Covid, and I am afraid of the vaccine. What should I do?”
But I fall on the side of supporting the federal government, but not mandating all of us to get the vaccine. That’s because I do think there needs to be a government with limited powers. But I do back the federal government supporting businesses and institutions that require people to show proof of vaccination to come into their establishments.
That’s because vaccinations are the only way we are going to get out this pandemic before another variant comes along. There are no politics with viruses. They just duplicate until they can’t. Also, it’s the only way to stay healthy in other ways as a country. Consider that one in four active Covid cases are in the hospital. What happens when you get in a motorcycle accident? Where are you going to go? Where are you going to go when you have a heart attack?
S/P: Another big healthcare problem over the last few decades has been the corporate closure of hospitals and clinics in rural areas. But neither national party seems much focused on it. Is this an area you wish to push, and what is your preferred solution?
JONES: I agree. I don’t understand why Democrats aren’t doing more on that. But the only conclusion I have is we don’t have enough doctors in Congress. Part of it is infrastructure. You do need more trauma care centers and providers. But any doctor who is on the frontlines like me also realizes that the number of primary care doctors has not really increased in the last 40 years, and that’s a big part of the problem too. The number of hospital administrators, though, has increased by 3,000%. This increases your cost per physician, and guess what? When you have doctors who are employees of hospitals and big hospital organizations, then the footprint is too large in rural areas to put them there.
My solution is pretty simple. The federal government just proved last year with Covid that when it really needs to it can throw $6 trillion into the economy. That means it can take some of that money and tell a doctor, “Look, if you go to a rural area, we will give you $250,000. We will give you the business training from the Small Business Administration to run a practice. If you join with another doctor, we won’t give you $250,000, we’ll give you $600,000 so that will be an incentive to join together. Then if you join with a third doctor, it will be $1 million to cover your practice’s insurance, and as long as you stay there for seven years, that will be a forgivable loan.
The reason why that’s important is a lot of doctors come out of training with a $300,00 to $400,000 loan at 6%, and instead of going into general practice, they subspecialize [because it is more profitable]. The Affordable Care Act did a lot of good things, but it didn’t increase the number of doctors.
S/P: Do you think anything has changed about McClintock’s reputation in the district since the last election? He ultimately voted to certify the 2020 presidential election results, but he was also one of only three U.S. House members from California to sign onto the attempt by the Texas attorney general to get the Supreme Court to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. Then more recently, he voted against enforcing a Congressional subpoena on Steve Bannon to answer questions about the Jan. 6 insurrection.
JONES: I think there are two things there. First, McClintock voting for Bannon’s case to not even be referred to the Department of Justice for ignoring the laws of Congress will resonate with a lot of independents. You cannot ignore our laws, claim all laws our are political, and pick and choose which ones you will abide by. That will rub some people the wrong way.
Second, I think voters want someone with a real history of service and who is willing to be in Congress for a few terms and make a difference for people. That’s what I want to do and then return to what I was doing before, which is treat patients. Mr. McClintock has been in different offices for 40 years and is highly partisan idealogue. I think people are fed up with that and with Mr. McClintock.
As one example, we are in an era where we had the second largest fires to date. Last year, California had about 4 million acres burn. This year, we had the Caldor fire that is now 100% contained, but a lot of time, it was burning and threatening a lot of areas, including the Tahoe area. That caused maybe $12 million lost due to the air quality and lost tourism. Meanwhile Mr. McClintock was at the Texas border. So we need to know, do you want to be the representative of CA-4 or Texas? I think he has worn out his welcome.
S/P: Where were you on Jan. 6 when you heard about the Capitol Riot, and what were your thoughts about the state of our democracy?
JONES: I was at work. Sometimes I end up working six days a week, so I saw some of the news feeds. It really shocked me. I read we hadn’t had a storming of the U.S. Capitol since the War of 1812, and the fact the second highest person in command in our country [Vice President Mike Pence] had to go into a secure location with his family, it shocked me.
I feel the state of our democracy is in a tenuous place because I think a lot of people have lost faith in our institutions, and they have lost faith in evidence. They have lost faith authority. That is a scary position for the oldest and most powerful democracy in the world to be in.
But I am very hopeful. I am hopeful because of things like the vaccine numbers. The vaccination numbers through most of the counties in our district are actually more than 50%. So, despite what some people are saying, people are going out there to get vaccinated to protect themselves and to protect their families. I think there are people out there that have had enough of the crazy behavior of the last four years and, frankly, even the partisan behavior of both parties. They want to just get people in office who will help their communities and help our country stay on track. I think that is why we have one of the highest percentages of independents in our district.
S/P: President Biden ended the War in Afghanistan, but our commitment to veterans of that war – as well of other eras – continues on. As a veteran and a doctor, what do you see as the current most important veteran issue?
JONES: Unfortunately, I can’t even pin it down to just one. I think the two most important veteran issues in our district are, one, homelessness and access to stable housing and, two, access to reliable healthcare and, specifically, mental healthcare. Large percentages of veterans who deployed multiple times had issues with PTSD. I had my own challenges adjusting getting back from Iraq, and we’ve never really had the infrastructure in the Veterans Administration in general to deal with these types of issues and give people the kind of resources they need.
S/P: You were just in D.C. Your race isn’t listed as targeted by the national Democrats. Did you hear anything that might give you hope of some national assistance to your campaign?
JONES: The fact that we were able to raise $315,000 in our first 57 days makes me feel people are looking at this district, and we have a chance to flip this district. But there are also people who are waiting to see what these district lines look like. They feel they were burned in 2018 and 2020. So, people are on the fence and waiting. I have even talked with some of those donors. However, I am hopeful because a lot of people feel if redistricting gains us even three points and we have the right candidate, we have a chance and donors will jump in.