The Democrat Taking a Sledgehammer to Politics as Usual
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because he’s protecting your liberties.
Tucked casually into the corner of a couch in his Capitol Hill office, Ted Lieu rests his hands patiently on his knees. Sitting next to coasters designed to look like computer motherboards, the slight first-time congressman from Los Angeles County looks positively disarming. Then, at one point, the 47-year-old geekily raves about the miniature iron throne from Game of Thrones on his desk; that’s there, he explains, to “intimidate insecure people.”
Despite less than two years representing California’s 33rd District in the U.S. House of Representatives, this quietly feisty legislator has passed four of his bills, secured a spot on the influential Budget Committee and been named Democratic Freshman Class President of the House by his peers. Hillary Clinton supporters might have noticed the slick-and-suited star in a far different scene than this quiet office when he gave a rousing speech during the final night of the Democratic National Convention this summer. Now, he’s campaigning for reelection — a battle he’ll likely win next month, armed with the efficient precision of a Georgetown-trained lawyer and the deferential grace of a Taiwan-born son of immigrants. “His reputation is that he’s an earnest legislator,” says Zev Yaroslavsky, director of the UCLA Los Angeles Initiative.
There are three things that legislatures are not: We are not nimble. We are not elegant. And we are not precise. Because when you pass a law, it’s like a sledgehammer over a certain issue.
These days, Lieu is lauding a law to take nuclear codes away from the sole purview of the presidency, worried about what Donald Trump might do with them should he win — as unlikely as that seems right now. It’s just more proof that he can be quite the rabble-rouser. During a committee hearing just after taking office, Lieu ordered a testifying lawyer to “write an essay” and “just follow the damn Constitution” when it came to government surveillance. Or, for that matter, when Lieu was a state senator in the California legislature, where he proposed a bill to allow legal action against law enforcement personnel who destroy DNA evidence improperly, a move hailed by libertarians. He’s also been a vocal proponent of Silicon Valley tech companies like Uber or AirBnB, which some leftists say skirt workplace protections. And after lining up with other liberals to allow affirmative action programs in state schools, Lieu controversially withdrew his support after hearing from his Jewish and Asian-American constituents. “He’s truly straddling an older style of partisan politics and this new emergent postpartisan era that is largely being led by technology issues,” says Mike Madrid, a Republican strategist from California.
Indeed, as the only House Democrat with a computer science degree, courtesy of Stanford University, the now silver-flecked Lieu has heroed cyber privacy and encryption issues like few others. He backed Apple in its fight against the FBI, which wanted to force the phone maker to release certain data records after the San Bernardino shooting last December. He has a Hollywood-trained eye for the limelight too, starring in a 60 Minutes episode that showed how easily cell phones could be hacked — by hacking his. “First, it’s really creepy,” he said after an intercepted phone call was played back to him, “and second, it makes me angry.”
When it comes to standing up for what he believes in, Lieu doesn’t seem to be afraid of ruffling feathers, even within his own party. In his waiting room hangs a photo of him shaking President Barack Obama’s hand. What isn’t shown is that, soon after, Lieu publicly rebuked his fellow Democrat with a bill opposing the president’s support for Saudi Arabian military action in Yemen, which Lieu believes has led to civilian deaths. “Obama is a phenomenal, transformational president,” the former military prosecutor and current Air Force Reservist says, “but it doesn’t mean I agree with all his policies.”
Lieu arrived in Cleveland when he was 3 years old, and his parents sold goods at flea markets to support the family. He grew up wanting to represent people who typically don’t have a voice, noting that immigrants are still often underrepresented in government. (Though he doesn’t raise this himself, Lieu is one of only 10 Asian-Americans in the House and 11 in all of Congress.) His bootstrap start helps explain the reputation he’s built as being more fiscally moderate, says Yaroslavsky, who nods to Lieu’s humble roots as a Torrance city councilman: “It’s hard to be a tax-and-spend politician when you’ve had to actually run a local government and balance a budget.”
Lieu, who lost the attorney general race to Kamala Harris in 2010, professes a deep reverence for the Constitution — an appreciation honed as a former editor of the Georgetown Law Journal and informing his present-day fondness for protecting civil liberties. When asked if it’s fair to call him a pseudo-libertarian of the left, Lieu hesitates. “At first thought, it seems like an oxymoron,” he says. Then, he adds, “politics is sort of like a circle: Sometimes you’re so right, you’re left.” Admittedly, Lieu’s voice will be drowned out at times. There are 53 Californians in the 435-person House — Los Angeles County alone has 18 districts, and his predecessor, Henry Waxman, was a four-decade statesman and a tough act to follow. As an early adopter of Twitter, Lieu earned a reputation for being tech-savvy … and biting in his 140 characters, Madrid says. “If he were to tone that down, I think he would have a much broader appeal across partisan lines.”
Despite all the time Lieu spends away from his wife and two kids, he’s decided to stay — and to be vocal when it comes to issues he finds important, such as the introduction of a bill on carbon pricing to battle climate change. “I will speak up when I am morally outraged,” he says, softly.