By Miriam Raftery, East County Magazine
September 4, 2017 (San Diego’s East County) – Josh Butner says he’s running for Congress against Representative Duncan Hunter in the 50th Congressional District to “put people first, not personal profit or special interest politics.”
A former Navy Seal Lieutenant Commander and current trustee on the Jamul-Dulzura Union School District board, he wants to champion a strong public education, restore integrity, and provide strong leadership on issues ranging from foreign policy to helping military families to combating climate change.
East County Magazine’s Show recently sat down with Butner for an in-depth interview originally aired July 21 on KNSJ radio. Hear the full 42-minute interview by clicking the orange audio link, and scroll down for highlights. He is one of five Democrats in the race; two Republican challengers to Hunter have also announced intentions to run. With Hunter under a federal criminal probem, this race is drawing national attention.
Butner has 23 years of military service with the Navy Seals, including combat duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. He comes from a family with a long, proud tradition of leadership and military service dating back to the Civil War. A Jamul resident, he’s raised three children, including a son who serves in the Navy. Now he's running to serve constituents across the 50th Congressional District, which includes much of East County as well as San Diego and other communities.
After retiring from the Navy Seals in 2011, he ran and won a seat on the rural school board where his daughter was a student at the time because he says he missed public service. Serving on the school board “gave me a chance to champion a cause near and dear to my heart, which is public education,” he says.
It can also be a good training ground for higher office. Supervisor Dianne Jacob, like Butner, served on the Jamul-Dulzura school board before winning election to the County Board of Supervisors, where she's held office for some 25 years.
Butner says that serving on a school board means he is seeing “on the front lines, the impacts of not properly funding public education.” He wants to make funding public schools a high priority and voices concerns about the Trump administration’s “attack on public education” by taking money away from public schools and diverting it to vouchers to fund private charter schools without elected boards.
He makes clear he is not against public charters, such as one his daughter attended in Jamul. (She’s now a student at U.C. Santa Cruz.) Butner is against policies of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who backs public funding of private charters that “get started in affluent areas where the money is” and can cherry pick students, meaning poor areas wind up with schools getting worse, he notes.
“What’s great about having public funds go to a public education system is we are required to treat everyone equally,” he says, “including special needs students…My district is quite small, and we’ve managed to do the best with what we have.” He opposes taking money from special needs students and giving it to kids who are already well off in affluent areas.
Hunter, by contrast, supports vouchers and taking money from public schools for private charters. As Butner notes, Hunter also cosponsored a bill to take funds away from public colleges and universities that are sanctuaries for undocumented students. “To withhold federal funding from your state schools in your district is harming students, not helping them,” says Butner.
Healthcare, Medicare and Social Security
On healthcare, Butner opposes efforts backed by Hunter to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and kick some 20 to 23 million Americans off of healthcare coverage. He acknowledges that the ACA has deficiencies which should be fixed, but says it was a “step in the right direction. We should be looking at how we can best help Americans” to make healthcare “more affordable and more accessible.”
Unlike Hunter, who stated at his town hall in Ramona that he does not believe healthcare should be a right, Butner believes it should be. “We have one of the most innovative countries in the world,” he says, adding that access to healthcare, clean water and energy should be available to everyone in the U.S.
He also opposes GOP efforts to slash or eliminate Medicare or Social Security, noting that working Americans have all been paying into these systems for years. “Now is not the time, when people need it most, to cut it out from underneath them,” he states. He calls for working across the aisle for healthcare reforms to help constituents, something the GOP leadership has thus far refused to do, shutting out Democrats from health care talks.
He adds that Republicans have made things worse through inaction, “sending shock waves into the insurance industry” that have led to some companies pulling out. “If you look at states that expanded Medicaid and took advantage of the expansion, they’re doing better. Their rates are lower and they have more providers.” He likens that instability to defense funding when the government shut down, leading to “spikes and dips” that “caused a lot of pain and cost a lot of money.”
Military, Veterans, and Foreign Policy
One thing Hunter and Butner have in common is that both are military veterans, and both served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Butner notes that America owes a great debt not only to veterans, but to their families. He recalls a photo of his mother, holding himself as a baby, while Butner’s father was deployed in Vietnam. Without that family core of support, he notes, “you can’t have that warrior out there.”
He wants to see priority for helping families of active duty military and veterans, including help with housing, healthcare, and job training to help transition to civilian life. “These are highly skilled, highly capable people,” he says.
As a Seal, he's seen his share in military combat zones including terror hot spots. He believes in leveraging diplomacy, intelligence, our military and economic power in foreign policy matters. “General Mattis said if you take away foreign investment, you might as well buy bullets with that money because now we’ll have to fight the people” he hoped to avoid engaging in battles. “We need to be leaders…leaders abroad, to invest in our partners and emerging partners.”
Butner sees deep cuts at the State Department budget and eliminating of many long-serving State Department personnel as a “big mistake. These are the people with the most knowledge about these foreign areas. We should retain that knowledge and use it to the best of our ability.”
Special prosecutor and Russian election meddling
Asked about special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian ties to the Trump campaign and Russian interference in the election, Butner says, “We should all be concerned. From day one, I thought this was a very serious matter. It’s a known technique from the Russians and some other adversaries to use misinformation…to mislead people” as part of information warfare, which is effective in the digital age, he adds. He supports letting the independent investigation play out “wherever it leads.”
Hunter, by contrast, has publicly voiced opposition to any independent investigation during his town hall in Ramona earlier this year. Butner, who was at that town hall, says Hunter seemed “tone deaf to the audience…he also said `let’s cozy up to the Russians even more,’” a stance Butner finds incomprehensible.
Butner faults Hunter for staunchly backing Trump regardless of various serious controversies. “I think it’s a lack of critical thinking on his part, or putting party over country. We should always put country over party,” Butner believes.
Hunter's criminal probe and ethical questions
Congressman Hunter is currently under criminal investigation by the Justice Department and the F.B.I. for using campaign funds on lavish personal expenses such as a family vacation to Italy, expensive jewelry and payments to his children’s school. A House ethics probe was halted at the request of the Justice Department to allow the criminal investigation to proceed unimpeded.
“Congress should hold itself to a higher ethical standard than a private citizen, and that’s what I would do,” vows Butner.
Border security and immigraton reforms
Asked about border security and immigration policies, Butner calls for comprehensive immigration reform. Those in the U.S. illegally fall “outside of our protection and outside of our ability to benefit from their labor in a positive way and benefit from their tax base,” he notes, adding that in California, more people have left the state to return to Mexico than entered in recent years. He wants to create a program that would allow “responsible immigration” into the U.S., address those already here “in a humane way.” He opposes spending some $70 billion on a “mass wall” similar to the Berlin Wall that ultimately failed, a plan he says “takes money from things that actually keep us safe” such as equipment and technology for the Border Patrol and funding for the Coast Guard, which Trump has cut.
Jobs and economic growth for this district
As for bringing good-paying jobs to this Congressional District, he believes innovation is key. He cites his work at Aqua Lung, a dive equipment manufacturing company founded by Jacques Cousteau. “I was actually able to win a contract with the U.S. navy and bring some contracting jobs to California to make some equipment,” he recalls.
To compete against foreign businesses, the key is innovation, such as Apple, the world’s largest company utilizing technology and innovation to create jobs. By contrast, Trump has backed creating more jobs in coal mining, an industry that hires fewer workers than Carl’s Junior, while creating severe environmental negative consequences, Butner points out.
El Cajon and Escondido are “great places to live but have high unemployment due to people who have just come to this country” such as Iraqi Chaldeans, he notes. “These people were engineers and doctors, now working at lower wage jobs only because of their language skills. You get their language skills up and within one or two years, we could have a skilled labor base” for innovative jobs such as in “blue S.T.E.A.M.” (science, technology, engineering, art and math) fields that could be brought to East County. “We can build these in those urban centers, and also you can build corridors of public transit,” such as the Santee trolley.
Women's rights and LGBT rights
Butner differs from Hunter sharply on rights for women and LGBT individuals. He was in the military when the don’t ask, don’t tell policy banning gay and lesbian troops was repealed (a move Hunter opposed). “I didn’t notice a change at all. I don’t care what your sexual orientation is,” the retired Navy Seal officer says. “If you’re in a foxhole next to me and you’re protecting me with a gun…that’s all that matters.”
On women’s issues, Hunter coauthored a bill to ban all abortions, even for rape, incest or life of a mother. “Some of his policies are quite extreme,” Butner says. He supports funding for Planned Parenthood and notes, “studies show this actually reduces abortion” since the clinics provide birth control and are sometimes the only medical clinics in some rural areas.
Wildfires, infrastructure, and climate change
He criticizes Hunter for being silent on key issues related to wildfire protection and the role of climate change in California’s increasingly severe fires. “I’m out in the backcountry…My valley hasn’t burned in at least 30 years…It’s a concern for all of us,” he notes. “Climate change is causing some of these problems.” Addressing the roots of climate change is key to prevention of devastating natural disasters such as fires and hurricanes in his view. He also wants investment in infrastructure to prevent fires caused by power lines and other energy equipment.
He questions why Hunter has been silent on the U.S. Forest Service refusing to pay Cal Fire bills, an action that has left Cal Fire threatening to stop fighting fires on federal lands. “This is where the state needs to work with the federal government…That’s a job for a Congressman,” he says, adding that he would stand up for his constitutents.
Standing up to special interests
As of when we taped our interview a couple of months ago, Butner said his campaign had raised $141,000, “just shy of the incumbent,” Hunter. That puts him at or near the top of this race in fundraising among five Democrats still in the running. He’s been endorsed by Vote Vets and says most of his donations are from smaller, grassroots donors across the district. He views corporate money, PACs and dark money as a “threat to democracy.”
The former Navy Seal Lieutenant Commander believes his life experiences have toughened him up to tackle the challenges in Congress if elected, and to stand up against special interests. “Don’t confuse civility with weakness,” he cautions. “What I’ve learned in the Seals is we work together as a team. There are a lot of opportunities to face situations that may seem insurmountable, but we just need to see a way forward—and we don’t like to lose.”
You can learn more about Butner’s candidacy at www.JoshButnerforCongress.com.