Shawn Collins is an 41-year-old Orange County Republican, corporate attorney and eight-year veteran of the Navy legal “JAG” corps. He originally declared last year for Congress against U.S. Rep. Katie Porter, but final redistricting started a domino chain that led Porter to run in the new CA-47, and incumbent Republican Michelle Steel to move over to CA-45 where Collins had declared. Not wishing to oppose an incumbent Republican, Collins withdrew and opted to run against Gov. Gavin Newsom.
Raised in inner-city Dallas, Collins traces his Republicanism to his college years when Texas Gov. George W. Bush spoke of compassionate conservatism during the 2000 presidential election. In this Q&A, Collins discusses his passion to build on this ethos, broaden the GOP tent and help the California GOP learn from recent defeats – while still embracing get-tough approaches on crime and homelessness. Other top GOP contenders in the June 7 primary are State Senator Brian Dahle and Jenny Rae Le Roux.
SACTO POLITICO: You were raised in Texas, but moved to California. That’s sort of a reverse exodus. Please share what brought you here and keeps you here?
SHAWN COLLINS: The immediate thing that brought me to California was my lovely wife. She grew up in Irvine. She is actually an immigrant from Beirut, Lebanon. When she was 8, an RPG came through their apartment, and her father said, “I am out of here. I’m done with this civil war,” and her family emigrated to Orange County in 1990. When I met her while we were both in law school in 2005, I said, “I am marrying that woman,” and I immediately registered for the California bar. Now 17 years and four kids later, here I am.
I’ll also say that my mom recently was out here visiting, and she said, “I remember you as a kid always wanting to visit California.” We couldn’t afford it, but it was like a dream destination for me. When I was growing up in the ’80s, California gave us our president. That’s where all the movies were made. That’s where technology happened, Apple computers. Everything great happened in California. So my mother said, “You made your dream of living in California happen.” That’s why it pains me that people are leaving, but they are leaving not because California is tainted. Its political leadership is tainted. California is a special place worth fighting for. I fought too hard to be here, and I am not going anywhere and give up on it.
SP: Regarding people leaving California, I have looked at the polling on who has left California, and there’s a heavy GOP tilt to them, especially among middle- and high-income relocators. Does it concern you that all the negative rhetoric about California by state Republicans is making it that much harder for candidates like you to find the votes to be elected?
SC: I would agree with that, but I’ll also caution you about that. This is one of those things about which people need to take off their near-sight goggles and start looking long term. I keep an internal tracker, and [the state’s problems are] starting to impact people beyond Republicans. In the last five years, I’ve had eight friends pack their businesses up and leave, and three of them were Democrats. I asked them candidly, “Why are you leaving? You love Gavin. You love these politics.” And they candidly told me, “My margins are getting too thin. I can no longer provide for my family. I have to make a choice. Either the State of California puts me out of business or I move my business to another state.”
Two of them are now down in Florida, and one is in Texas. Those are Democrats who love the social components of Democrat policies but the fiscal component is putting them out of business. I forecast over the next five years we will lose such a significant part of our income tax base that the middle-class and low-income people are going to start shouldering the burden. So if they think the inflation and high cost of living is killing them right now, wait for what happens in five years if we continue on this trajectory.
S/P: As with many California candidates, the top issue on your web site is public safety. You note criminals in California “can engage in their day-to-day activities without fear of physical harm.” So what would you change so criminals start fearing some “physical harm”?
SC: Accountability. There is value to having accountability built into your criminal justice system. I was so confused by the unwillingness to refer to these people [who killed six people and injured more near the state capitol] as gang members. They’re gang members. You have to call them what they are. My point is there has to be a deterrent effect. There has to be a stiff penalty attached to that crime. The word is out among criminals that if you keep your thefts under $950 you will only be charged with a misdemeanor. That is a slap on the wrist and not worth the time of the arresting officer. That is why there has been a spike in smash-and-grabs and petty thefts. I would argue for bringing that limit down to $200.
S/P: You are speaking now about incarceration. But the term “physical harm” connotes bodily harm, right? For instance, if a criminal does “physical harm” to a victim, it’s understood to mean bodily harm, not detention.
SC: No, I absolutely don’t mean bodily harm. I mean incarceration needs to be on the table.
S/P: On the fundraising side, I see that you and the two other top GOP gubernatorial candidates have combined to raise about $1.8 million this year. By comparison, the top three 2021 GOP recall candidates raised about $23 million, not including the $9.5 million John Cox gave himself. Are conservative donors either tapped out or not extremely optimistic about any of your chances?
SC: I’d say the latter for sure. They are not very optimistic. The recall was just absolutely demoralizing for them. I lived through the recall. I felt like Larry Elder had a residency down in Orange County. I witnessed the euphoria and enthusiasm for him, and I was watching all that money come into his coffers. But to see the final results come on election night with [61.9%] voting “no” on the recall, you could feel the shock. I even attended a couple events the week after the recall, and the rooms were just deflated. Conservatives and Republicans. It was almost like a sense of despair.
But I am a glass-half-full guy. That’s just how I roll. I am going to be that way my entire life. And I was trying to convey that to them. You shouldn’t feel defeated when you look at the data. First of all, the fact Democrats tried to label it a Republican recall was just hogwash. There’s not enough registered Republicans to get the signatures required to trigger the recall, and there were a lot of Democrats and NPPs who voted to recall him.
[Editor’s note: There are actually three times as many registered Republicans (5.2 million) as the number of signatures needed to have triggered the 2021 recall (1.525 million).]
The problem is that when you look at the Democrats and NPPs who voted “yes” on the recall, a significant number of them left the second question blank. What that means is they know Gavin Newsom is not the answer, but they don’t know what the alternative is, and that’s on us. That needs to be our mission as Republican candidates. We need to be better at articulating positions. We can’t just be, “Oh wow, can you believe he was at the French Laundry.” Or, “Oh my gosh, he was at the NFC Championship game without a mask.” Voters got that. They all know he is a hypocrite, an elitist. We have to just as strongly convey our solutions.
S/P: That is a positive spin, but just like Trump did beat Hillary in 2016 in the electoral college, the reality is Republicans didn’t come close to beating Newsom in 2018 or the 2021 recall. Democrats figured out how to narrowly beat Trump in 2020. So what do California Republicans need to figure out to beat Newsom and the Democrats in 2022 and beyond?
SC: Focus on issues that transcend political party and matter to all Californians. Plain and simple. I had a lot of reservations about the issues we chose to make our flagship issues for the recall. For instance, Covid is a very weird issue. What I mean by that is I had donors approach me as a Congressional candidate and say, “I can’t support you if you are anti-vaccine.”
Now understand what I said. Not anti-mandate, because I am anti-mandate anything. It’s not the government’s job to tell anyone how to do anything in their lives, and I will go to my death bed believing that. You don’t tell people what to do. You trust them being informed, intelligent citizens and making their own decisions. But I know a lot of Republican donors who were very upset there were Republicans going around saying Covid was a hoax. Or that nobody should get vaccinated. It was a divisive issue within our party.
But we have a very unique opportunity now because we have three very big issues that impact everybody in the state irrespective of their political affiliation. Public safety is the top one and I include homelessness here – both in terms of a criminal element that exists among the homeless and the criminal elements who prey on the homeless.
The second big one is affordability and cost of living. When a Californian goes to the gas pump or to the grocery store right now, there’s not a price for a Republican or a price for a Democrat. We are all hurting right now. My message is let’s suspend the gas tax and start with that. Let’s save everyone 51 cents per gallon so they can weather the storm until this Ukrainian conflict resolves itself.
The third one is education. Right now, our public school system for pre-K to 12 is ranked 40th out of 50 states. It’s so bad, people are voting with their feet. Another 110,000 students left public schools [or 1.8%] this year. They are under performing. Again, the school doesn’t ask for your voter registration to determine whether or not your child gets a good education or a bad education. That’s everybody child who is getting a terrible education in our K through 12 system.
[Editor’s note: After this interview, new state data shows charter-school enrollment also fell this school year by 1.8%, or 12,600 pupils – the first such dip in three decades.]
That is why [Republicans] have to message on those three things, and the message is “Republicans have better solutions. What Democrats have been doing for the last 20 years is not working.” We’re failing on every major metric for the health of a state, but the crazy thing is we are the fifth largest economy in the world. We have an over $300 billion budget, over $60 billion in reserves. Resources are not the problem. That leaves only one other option: incompetency.
S/P: On education, your website calls for California to end “the divisive curriculum taught under Critical Race Theory.” I am a very involved parent of a third grader and haven’t personally seen evidence of CRT influence in our K-12 schools. But everyone has different experiences. As a father of school-age children yourself, what have been your personal CRT experiences?
SC: I haven’t experienced anything like it, but my kids go to a private Christian school. I am fortunate that I live down in Orange County, and we are lucky that we have some of the best public schools in America, and a lot of that just has to do with the property taxes we’re paying. But I have peers who’ve said, “My child’s teacher divided the class up between white and brown and was trying to prove a point about privilege.” That was disturbing to me.
An example I use to expose people to the hypocrisy of CRT is my sister-in-law. She is Lebanese and married a red-headed white kid from Chicago. So I have a niece and nephew who are as pasty as can be. If they go out in the sun for three seconds, they are going to be sun-burned. We live close to each other, and we raise each other like everybody is the same. We both have 4-year-olds, and one day they will be in the same classroom. And for a teacher to stand up there and say, “You Bradley are an oppressor, and you Karter is the oppressed,” well, over my dead body am I going to allow a teacher to teach that. Because we are raising those two children to believe they are brothers because they have the same blood pulsating through their veins.
S/P: Another big issue you have spoken about is homelessness. You have regularly noted your Uncle Tim has been homeless for 10 years on Los Angeles’ skid row. Tell me more about him and the causes of his situation.
SC: The causes are just drug addiction. He’s made poor decisions throughout his life. It’s my mom’s youngest brother. We don’t know where he’s at right now. My mom recently told me she regularly visits the California Correction’s website to see if he pops up in one of the detention centers, which we think would actually be a better alternative than just being homeless on the street. My mom is one of seven. Four of her siblings were wiped out by the crack epidemic. One is deceased, and three are still alive – my Uncle Tim and two aunts.
So when I talk about the homelessness, I talk about it from a personal experience. The reason why [California has] spent $13 billion over the past five years and the homeless problem has gotten worse is a direct result of the housing-first policy. That is a classic example of what happens when you have academics from elite institutions come up with a theory in their ivory tower when they’ve never actually smelled, touch, tasted or experienced the problem.
Let me explain how addiction works because I had a front-row seat with my aunts and uncle. If you give a homeless person who is drug-addicted a house, they will stay in that house for as long as it takes for them to have cravings for their drugs of choice. Then they are going to leave the home that has been provided at very high cost by the State of California and go looking for the closest drug dealer. Then they are going to stay in close proximity to that drug dealer, whether that means pitching a tent or sleeping on the street. That’s because their bodies are craving more drugs.
The same thing with mentally ill people. There is mental illness in my family. People who struggle with bipolar disorder. When those family members have bipolar episodes, they do not distinguish from a roof over their head and the stars in the sky.
My approach would be conditioned-based. That is how we have operated with my family members for as long as I can remember. If we are going to offer you a home, then there will be conditions attached to it. You will not use drugs. You will have a job. You will not steal from this house to support your drug addiction habit. And there will be a curfew so you will not come in at any hour.
So my approach will be tough love. If they don’t want to do that, the next step is incarceration, and I am saying this from a position of compassion. My mom and I would much rather have my Uncle Tim be in a prison than living in his feces on the street or living in a tent on skid row. It is not compassionate to let a person live in their own fecal matter.
S/P: You mentioned your get-tough attitude toward criminal offenders and those who are homeless and addicted. These individuals tend to represent the lower end of the economic spectrum. Can you share one get-tough position you have against bad corporate behavior?
SC: Bad corporate behavior... [pauses in thought].
S/P: If you need a clear corporate example, let’s use PG&E. They have been fined nearly $6 billion over the last 10 years, found guilty of causing the felony deaths of scores of Californians, and deemed responsible for tens of millions of dollars in private property damage. They are clear recidivists. What should be done to get tough on that sort of bad behavior that’s hurt lots of Californians and their communities?
SC: That’s where you need to crack down on special interests. How you pull back the wool on that is with what our controller candidate Lahnee Chen proposes, and he is so spot on. We need to do a full-on audit of our state. That’s the question I ask myself each tax season: “Where has all of our money gone.” Because we are paying a lot in income tax each year, and we get very little in return.
In terms of getting tough on a corporation like PG&E, you put the screws to them. You say, “You will bring your infrastructure into compliance and stop creating wildfires because that is costing people their homes and impacting their life.” I would take a tougher approach like that.
S/P: Can you be more specific? After all, corporations have many ways of wriggling out of full accountability. PG&E filed for bankruptcy after the deadly 2018 Camp Fire, and although corporations are considered a person in the eyes of the law, they can’t be incarcerated like a person.
SC: That’s right. One of the ways you can put the screws to them is go after them financially. A lot of their contracts are with the state of California. So you take those away from them. You hit them where it hurts. You take away their bread basket. As an economics major, I’ve never liked the fact that they are monopolies, which is why we pay some of the exorbitant energy prices we pay. We live in the land of entrepreneurs. I am all about introducing competition into our energy production market if they don’t start doing right by the energy consumer.
S/P: I think we are at the end of our time, so perhaps we wrap up.
SC: Well, I am enjoying this. If you have another question, go ahead.
S/P: Okay then, in terms of gun violence, get-tough-on-homeless solutions are generally justified by needing to do something to protect others and our communities from harm. But shouldn’t that same justification extend to our nation’s out-of-control gun violence problem? In 2020 alone, almost 20,000 Americans died from gun-related homicides and another 85,000 were wounded. That’s more American deaths than in any single year of the Vietnam War.
SC: You just struck a chord with me. First, I get really upset every time a gun crime happens that the knee-jerk reaction from Democrats is we need tougher gun laws. The criminals in the community in which I grew up were not legally purchasing their firearms from Bass Pro Shop. California has the strictest gun laws in all of America, and it still did not stop six people dying senselessly in Sacramento and 12 being wounded.
I always tell people no one in the community I grew up in bought their weapons from a Bass Pro Shop. Gangs and criminals get their weapons from the black market, and a lot of the time those guns come from across the border. So when cartels run drugs across the border, they are usually also running guns across the border as well. If people want to get serious about getting rid of ghost guns and illicit black-market guns, it starts with your border.
S/P: California may have the strictest gun laws now, but that standard is still far lower than when President Reagan proposed the Brady Bill in 1987 or when it was signed by President Clinton almost 30 years ago (1994). But those restrictions lapsed, and violence rose to where we are now.
SC: That is certainly the case, but the problem is when you get these more and more restrictive gun laws, you are now punishing the law-abiding citizens for something they had nothing to do with. Again, the incident that happened in Sacramento was gang-related. We have no idea yet where they got those guns, but I can guarantee they didn’t get those guns at the local gun shop. They were illicit, black-market guns, and it will always be easy to access and purchase those guns as long as we have a southern border.
S/P: Illegal guns are one part of the violence. But isn’t another part situations like the Sandy Hook tragedy. That involved a permissive parent buying an AR-15 for her son. That semi-automatic weapon was not a ghost gun, but it would not have been available under the Brady Bill.
SC: On that point, that’s where I agree with [U.S. Rep.] Dan Crenshaw. There needs to be red-flag laws. 100%. I know some NRA people don’t like this, but I really don’t care. If you know there are mental health issues or if a family has a history of mental disorders, then you need there to be alerts that could prevent situations like Sandy Hook. So I do not understand the controversy around there being red-flag laws.
[Editor’s note: In 1999, Connecticut was the first U.S. state to enact a red-flag law, but this did not prevent the 2012 Sandy Hook mass shooting.]