Max Steiner has a problem. The 36-year-old Iraq War Army veteran and northern California native is running as a centrist Democrat in northern California’s solidly Republican 1st Congressional District, where voters have repeatedly elected rightwing rice farmer Rep. Doug LaMalfa by double-digit margins since 2012.
It’s not that LaMalfa has delivered economically for most of the 700,000 or so citizens of the mainly rural first district, which includes Butte, Lassen, Modoc, Plumas, Shasta, Sierra, Siskiyou, and Tehama counties and parts of Glenn, Nevada, and Placer counties. Nationally he’s infamous for repeatedly voting to cut the food stamps program in the farm bill even as his family farm conglomerate has received $5.5 million and counting in federal rice subsidies since 2012.
Instead, since his days in the state assembly in the early aughts, LaMalfa has styled himself as a Christian crusader, battling against the twin alleged evils of abortion and LGBTQ rights spread by the liberal elites of the “radical Democrat Party.” It has played well with the district’s outsized proportion of conservative evangelicals, who like the voters described by Thomas Frank in his seminal 2004 work, “What’s the Matter with Kansas?”, have rejected substantive candidates such as Democrat Audrey Denney, who lost to LaMalfa in 2018 and 2020, in favor of candidates like LaMalfa who espouse culture war rhetoric.
The deal struck between presidential candidate Donald Trump and Christian evangelicals in 2016 paid dividends when President Trump, with the help of Sen. Mitch McConnell’s treachery, managed to appoint three ultra-conservative Supreme Court justices during his term, tilting the court’s conservative/liberal balance to 6-3.
As a result, Roe v. Wade was overturned this summer and the constitutional right to abortion that women have enjoyed since 1973 — nearly 50 years — was repealed, immediately imperiling the lives of women across the country in states where anti-abortion trigger-laws kicked in.
“It is past time that the radical Democrat one-party rule stop imposing their immoral and dangerous agenda on the American people,” Congressman LaMalfa quipped unironically about the court’s decision to strip women of their reproductive health rights.
LaMalfa is a key player in Trump’s ongoing Big Lie scheme to relitigate the 2020 presidential election results. On Dec. 1, 2020, shortly after it became clear beyond a shadow of a doubt that Trump had lost the November contest, LaMalfa introduced the Election Uncertainty Act, which was based on Trump’s false claims of widespread election fraud. Confronted by now-ex CNN anchor Chris Cuomo to produce any evidence of his claims on Dec. 13, LaMalfa said it didn’t matter that he had no evidence, “I don’t have proof that men landed on the moon in 1969 because I wasn’t there.”
“Really?” Cuomo said. “Do you believe the world is round?”
LaMalfa paused to think it over before answering in the affirmative.
On Jan. 5, 2021—the day before the Jan. 6 insurrection—LaMalfa continued to spread false allegations of election fraud on social media. During the Jan. 6 insurrection, he posted from inside the chambers, calling the riot he helped instigate the work of “a small group that violates the goodwill of all Americans.” Afterward, LaMalfa voted with 133 other Republicans to not certify the election results.
On Jan. 13, the day the House of Representatives impeached Trump for inciting the Jan. 6 insurrection, in which five people died and 138 police officers were injured, LaMalfa refused to hold Trump or himself responsible for the carnage.
Instead, this self-proclaimed supporter of law and order uncorked a paranoid, grievance-filled rant blaming the impeachment trial on Trump’s enemies, who hate him because he’s the most anti-abortion president ever, a climate change denier, and an unrepentant bigot who dared to put America First.
(Granted, those are all pretty good reasons to hate Trump.)
With that short speech, LaMalfa was at last consumed in the flames of full-blown white Christian nationalism, which is probably good for the brand. LaMalfa enjoys support from evangelicals across the district, including from the higher-ups at Bethel Church in Redding. Here’s Bethel’s Bill Johnson and David J. Harris Jr., who are also election deniers, explaining how they’re going to expose, expel and break the enemy, i.e., anyone who says the election was legit.
But if Democratic first-time candidate Max Steiner has a problem, so may LaMalfa & Co.
Steiner is Catholic and personally opposed to abortion, but politically he supports a women’s right to choose. In the Q&A below, Steiner notes that in the wake of the Dobbs decision’s gutting of the constitutional right to an abortion, Republicans including LaMalfa may now be in the enigmatic position of the dog that caught the car.
We don’t know what happens to the dog that catches the car because it’s a rare event, not counting those sad occurrences when the car hits the dog. Republicans and the religious right have been promising to overturn Roe v Wade for nearly 50 years, raising millions of campaign dollars along the way, but only true believers imagined it might ever happen. Now that it has been overturned, hardly a day goes by without the report of some new atrocity caused by Roe’s sudden repeal, be it a 10-year-old rape victim denied abortion services, or a woman forced to carry a dead, headless fetus at the risk of sepsis and infertility.
And guess what?
Those voters in Kansas? Those religious voters who keyed on culture war issues instead of policies that might promote the common good? They don’t like the repeal of Roe v. Wade! According to the Associated Press analysis of the Kansas primary election results, they don’t like it one bit:
“An increase in turnout among Democrats and independents and a notable shift in Republican-leaning counties contributed to the overwhelming support of abortion rights last week in traditionally conservative Kansas, according to a detailed Associated Press analysis of the voting results.”
By a 20-percent margin statewide, Kansas voters overwhelmingly rejected the initiative, which would have banned abortion in Kansas. Trump won the state by a similar edge in 2020, but even deep red religious rural counties that supported Trump the most voted against the anti-abortion initiative or passed it by a slim single-digit margin.
That’s roughly a 20 percent to 30 percent shift from right to left on the abortion issue in conservative Kansas, which is somewhat analogous to the conservative 1st Congressional District in northern California — Calabama, some people like to call it. Based on the results of the 2018 and the 2020 elections, that’s the kind of shift Steiner would need to prevail against LaMalfa on Nov. 8.
As it happens, abortion rights are on the ballot in November. California Proposition 1, the Right to Reproductive Freedom Amendment, will amend “the state constitution to prohibit the state from interfering with or denying an individual’s reproductive freedom, which is defined to include a right to an abortion and a right to contraceptives.”
Prop. 1 is important because if Republicans take control of the House and Senate, as originally forecasted for the midterm elections, they’ve promised to pass a nationwide ban on abortion.
A News Café approached Steiner with this Q&A after it became clear that abortion would be on the ballot and the economic fortunes of President Joe Biden and the Congressional Democrats had turned positive with falling gas prices, the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, and favorable job creation numbers.
As a first-time candidate running as a centrist against a far-right incumbent in a profoundly conservative district, Steiner needs all the help he can get. He has the sort of traits conservatives used to love. In Iraq, his work with four-man squads outside the wire earned him the rank of Sergeant and the coveted Combat Infantry Badge. He remains in the Army Reserve and serves as First Sergeant for a Civil Affairs Company in northern California.
After active duty, Steiner used the post 9/11 GI Bill to pursue a bachelor’s degree at UC Berkeley, where he met his wife Nika and graduated in 2011. He joined the Foreign Service in 2012 as an economic generalist, and for the next eight years served as a foreign service officer in Honduras, Mexico, Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, and Washington, D.C.
“Sixteen years ago I swore an oath to defend American democracy against all enemies ‘foreign and domestic,’” he states on his campaign website. “I intend to keep that oath.”
“In 2020, the Republican Party lost the presidential election and refused to accept the results,” he continues. “Doug LaMalfa and 133 other Republicans voted against certifying the results. Now the GOP is trying to rewrite state laws to ensure that their next attempt to steal an election is successful. This is unacceptable. Our democracy depends upon politicians respecting the results of free and fair elections.”
In a normal election year, Steiner wouldn’t stand a snowball’s chance in Cottonwood against LaMalfa. But this isn’t an ordinary election year. LaMalfa and the Republicans have been praying that rising inflation and popular resentment will sink the economy, propelling them into the majority in both houses of Congress as predicted.
Now, just as Biden and crew appear to have righted the economic ship, large numbers of voters are voicing their displeasure with the Republican attack on women’s reproductive rights. When Congress returns from recess in the coming weeks, voters will learn more about Republican efforts to reverse the 2020 presidential election results.
Maybe come November, just like happened in the Kansas primary, more Democrats, independents and even a few Republicans will turn out to vote for women’s reproductive rights and against the politicians like LaMalfa who took those rights away.
When and if they do, Max Steiner deserves their vote, too. The following Q&A has been lightly edited for clarity and punctuation.
Q&A with Max Steiner: The Dog has Caught the Car!
R.V. Scheide: Similar to the voters in Thomas Frank’s “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” voters in the First District have repeatedly chosen a representative, LaMalfa, who continually votes against their own interests. How do you convince such voters to vote in their best interests, i.e., proposals such as increased access to healthcare and background checks for all gun purchases that enjoy widespread public support from Democrats and Republicans?
Max Steiner: I’ve had a lot of conversations with independent and conservative voters over the last year. Fundamentally, they are not policy voters – they are cultural voters. They think that the GOP views the world ‘the right way (like they do) and that, conversely, Democrats are ‘wrong.’ The key here is to subvert this misconception – and it is a misconception because, as you said, most of LaMalfa’s actual policies are bad for the North State. It’s why I present myself as a “Kennedy” Democrat–a moderate and veteran who can get things done. It’s also why I emphasize how Doug takes massive agricultural subsidies every year and enjoys his life as a career politician–the opposite of the Republican ideal. Most people like veterans and hate hypocrites.
RVS: The Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision stripped the right to privacy underlying abortion from the constitution in late June. As it turns out, women turned out in droves in the recent Kansas primary to vote down an initiative that would have outlawed abortions in the state. It was an unexpected and dramatic result. Do you think a similar upswelling could be happening in the First District?
MS: Yes. I’ve met a lot of women who are either planning to vote for the first time in years or even switch their votes from Red to Blue. The decision was an outrageous reversal of rights. It’s exactly the kind of big government intervention in a private decision that Republicans claim to oppose. Hypocrisy is obviously a part of politics, but forced pregnancy shows just how empty GOP language about ‘small government’ really is. The ascendant faction of the GOP is not the libertarians–it’s religious fundamentalists. I will also add that the GOP is now in the position of ‘the dog that caught the car.’ It’s easy to make blanket moral claims about how every life is precious, but what happens when banning abortion actually means that 8-week pregnant 10-year-olds have to carry a baby to term? Or that you’re going to force a woman to carry a non-viable fetus to term – jeopardizing her life and her ability to have other children in the future?
Government is complicated. Policy is complicated. Life is complicated. That is why Roe v. Wade worked: it was an acceptable compromise – that Republicans have now blown up without thinking through what comes next. It is just another example of the lack of seriousness by the GOP when it comes to actually governing.
RVS: Your opponent calls Democrats radical left socialists every time they propose a program that might help people, like the child tax credit, but continues to accept farm subsidies totaling $5.5 million so far. How do you respond to such criticism and hypocrisy, and how do you teach voters not to fall for it?
MS: It’s important to speak clearly to voters: Doug is a hypocrite who pushes for massive farm subsidies for himself but votes against aid to struggling families and sick veterans. His votes are indefensible–but as a candidate, it’s important to punch through the ‘Democrats Take, Republicans Make’ propaganda that is pushed daily on right-wing news.
RVS: Your opponent played an important role in the Jan. 6 insurrection, including his vote to not certify the election results and his continued maintenance of Trump’s Big Lie that the 2020 election was stolen. Do you get the sense that First District voters are aware of the revelations of the Jan. 6 hearings and the FBI’s seizure of classified documents at Mar A Lago? Have you met any Republican voters who said, “Man, I’ve had enough of these insurrectionists.”?
MS: I have met many Republicans who are sick of the election conspiracists still trying to throw out the 2020 election result. I’ve also met many Republicans who continue to believe that Trump won and say that I would understand ‘if I only watched 20,000 Mules’ (a conspiracist piece of propaganda made by Dinesh D’Souza–a man who in real life was convicted of election campaign fraud). I hope that the first group outnumbers the second – but right now they’re certainly afraid to speak up in Districts like CD-1. There is a second issue here: many of those Republicans who know that the 2020 election was the legitimate belief that the January 6 riot was a one-time aberration. I think this complacency is misguided. Part of my campaign is to convince these ‘Reality Republicans’ that dismissing the Big Lie and the January 6 Attack only make them more likely to happen again in the future.
RVS: You’ve said your opponent and the GOP use the military as a prop. They’re all for the vets on Memorial Day but then they vote against things like PACT in real life. This has been repeated over and over. Again, how can you counter this blatant hypocrisy and show veterans, especially older veterans in the north state who’ve been hoodwinked by rightwing politics, that you’ve got more to offer them?
MS: Most importantly, I draw a contrast between myself and Doug LaMalfa. I’ve served in the military for 17 years–2 in Iraq, 4 total on active duty, and 13-and-counting in the Reserves, where I’m currently a First Sergeant. Doug LaMalfa has never served. He, like Trump, does not care about the military. LaMalfa and many in the GOP like to pretend that they’re the ‘real patriots’ because they brag about how much they can wave the flag, but they’re never willing to put their lives on the line for America–and people like Doug are unwilling to even pay for the veterans that come home broken. LaMalfa is spend, spend, spend when it comes to farming, but as soon as veteran’s healthcare comes up he pretends to be a fiscal conservative. Voters understand this hypocrisy– I just hope they’re willing to vote on it.
RVS: What are the rough details of your $1 billion proposal for the timber industry? Does increased mill capacity also include increased biomass energy capacity? Will it include carbon capture technology?
MS: There are two big ‘buckets’ for that spending: the first is funding to treat forests and the second is subsidies to improve the health of the timber industry. The first bucket is proportionally larger and is designed to increase funds for thinning (cutting down smaller-diameter trees), chipping/mastication, and prescribed fire. The goal here is to reduce the biomass volume per acre, which will drive down fire risk and severity. The second bucket includes subsidies for new mills and, yes, biomass energy. The intent is to generate some employment and market value (wood products, energy, etc.) out of trees that need to be cut down anyways.
RVS: Your opponent has spent most of this year running against inflation and predicting economic recession. All of a sudden, it appears inflation may be on the wane, the economy has picked up and Democrats have passed the Inflation Reduction Act. Do you sense there is a turnaround, and how do you think it might aid the prospects of the so-called Blue Wave?
MS: Doug is not an economist. He just jumped on the right-wing ‘inflation bandwagon’ because Republicans don’t have a real platform right now. The most cogent policy proposal out of the GOP today is, as far as I can tell, to throw out the 2020 election. That’s obviously not going to happen. Plan B has been to complain about inflation. It’s obviously hard to complain about a problem that is quickly getting better though so, yes, any serious turnaround in inflation will likely doom a Red Wave.
I’m not sure if there will be a Blue Wave, however: the polls have turned lately to the great benefit of Democrats, but historically the President’s party underperforms in the midterms. I think, at best, the Democrats will add a few seats to their majorities in the House and Senate–but probably not at a 2018-level wave.
RVS: What are your stances on the Sites Reservoir, Shasta Dam Raise and the Delta Tunnel projects? Currently, most of the increased storage would be headed south via the new tunnel, should it ever be built. Can these projects be built without further degrading the environment, especially here in the parched north state?
MS: I support Sites, I think the Shasta Raise deserves serious consideration, and I oppose the tunnel. Climate change is going to put stress on the California’s water infrastructure, and we’re going to need to build big projects to deal with those changes. Not every project is a good idea–like the tunnel–but the idea that we can have 40 million people, an agricultural industry, and a ‘natural’ watershed is a pipe dream, pun intended. We depend on water in this state: the increasingly likelihood of BOTH long-term droughts and catastrophic floods will increase due to climate change. The near collapse of the Oroville Dam in 2017 has been followed by 5 years of drought. More dams will be part of the solution.
Sites Reservoir is a solid project that should be built as soon as possible–there are minimal environmental costs to an off-stream reservoir. The Shasta Raise has greater environmental costs (it will flood nearly 2 miles of the McCloud River), but it is financially a great bang-for-the-buck in terms of price-per-acre-foot. It’s also a key component of flood control for the Sacramento River and salinity control for the delta, so increasing the overall capacity of the reservoir gives water managers more flexibility.
The tunnel, on the other hand, is a hand-out to big ag interests in the San Joaquin Valley. It’s the big farms, not the cities, that want to take the North State’s water. I don’t think taxpayer dollars and North State water should be used to further enrich billionaires like the Resnicks and the Boswells.
RVS: For his entire career, your opponent has savaged the LGBTQ community. What can you do as First District Rep. to ensure the LGBTQ community doesn’t lose its rights thanks to the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision eliminating the constitutional right to privacy?
MS: Doug LaMalfa’s malicious treatment of the LGBTQ community shows him at his worse: a small-minded bully who whips up cultural conflict in his base for political gain. As a congressman, I would fight to protect LGBTQ rights –including the right to marry.
RVS: You’re a soldier and a diplomat. Do you think it’s possible for the United States to play a role in de-escalating the conflict between Russia and Ukraine before it spins off into a larger conflagration? How do you see the conflict developing during the coming months?
MS: The United States must continue to support the Ukrainian military in their fight against an expansionist, imperialist Russia. Russia must learn that unprovoked aggression will not be tolerated or rewarded. To that end, the primary objective of the United States should not be to ‘deescalate’–or to force a peace treaty on Ukraine that would allow Russia to consolidate control over Southern and Eastern Ukraine. Instead, the United States should make it clear that it intends to support Ukraine until either they desire peace or they force the Russians back to the pre-2014 borders. A larger conflict is unlikely: only Putin would start a broader war and its failings in Ukraine mean that any expansion of the conflict would be disastrous for Russia.
Over the next few months, Ukrainian forces will continue to make limited gains in the South while damaging Russian forces through long-range fires (artillery and HIMARS). There is a small chance of a catastrophic collapse in the Russian will to fight–but it’s more likely that both sides will continue the artillery war until winter. If the war lasts past winter, the major Ukrainian counteroffensive will likely begin in the Spring. Russia cannot sustain this level of combat indefinitely, while Ukraine is motivated, well-resourced, and fighting on home ground.
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