Matsui’s next generation of opponents in Sacramento’s District 7

Photograph by Stephen Leonardi

By Jeff Burdick for SactoPolitico

This story was produced by the Sacramento-based political publication and co-published here with permission.

CA-7 Congressional candidate Jimmy Fremgen Q&A

Congressional redistricting significantly rearranged Sacramento County’s two Congressional districts. Instead of the current city-suburb split, the county will next year feature the new northern CA-6 and the southern CA-7. Congresswoman Doris Matsui (D) chose to run in the southern CA-7. The district is highly Democratic, voting 66.1% for Biden in 2020 and 65.5% against the 2021 Newsom recall, and its 21.1% Asian-American voting base would appear to be a great advantage for the 77-year-old incumbent.

However, 47% of voters in the district have never been represented by Matsui. Likewise, of voters who pulled a Democratic primary ballot in the March 2020 presidential primary, 47% voted for either of the two leading Progressive candidates: Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Enter Progressive Democratic candidate Jimmy Fremgen.

The 33-year-old is currently a Sacramento-area public school teacher and former Congressional staffer well-versed in policy. While on Capitol Hill, he worked for former Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) and the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee. His top issues include the economy, homelessness, Medicare for All, and gun violence prevention. In contrast to Matsui, he has also pledged to take no corporate PAC money. (Note: Matsui’s campaign did not reply to offers for their own Q&A. Read the Q&A with the Republican candidate Max Semenenko here.)

SACTO POLITICO: What was your main motivation for running?

JIMMY FREMGEN: I am running because regular people are struggling. They’re not getting the same kind of support as big businesses, and we are being pushed out of the middle class. As the wealth gap is widening, we have inflation increasing and corporations posting record profits. But none of the costs that are increasing with inflation are affecting corporate profits, but it is hitting the wallets and pocketbooks of teachers and bartenders and shift workers. Our current representative doesn’t understand what that is like. She’s far too disconnected from our lives here.

We are forced to make choices between buying beef or chicken. Having to save money on staples. During the pandemic, I stopped shaving with a Gillette razor because I couldn’t afford the cartridges. I went to a straight razor with straight-edge razor blades because it was cheaper and that was a place for me to save money. There are lots of people who are having to make similar kinds of decisions because they don’t know if they are going to get that pay raise they desperately need.

One of the problems we have with Congress as a whole – and with Sacramento’s current representatives – is because campaigns have become so expensive, members of Congress have been captured by their corporate donors. These are the very same organizations our Congressional representatives are supposed to be regulating. But if you ask somebody for thousands of dollars to run your campaign but then are expected to hold them in the sunlight and ask hard questions, at some point selfishness is going to win out and you’re going to take it easy on your donors who are invested in keeping you [in office].

S/P: Those hard economic choices sound similar to what happens in a recession. Technically, the U.S. as a whole is not in recession, but there feels like two Americas. One part not in recession and doing fine, and the rest struggling as if already in recession. Is that accurate?

I think you are right about that. There are certainly two Americas right now. I work two jobs. I work fulltime in my classroom, and then I work my second job as a bartender in Sacramento. I have a number of colleagues at school who have to work two jobs to get by. I just talked with another colleague who teaches full-time and has three other jobs. If we had an economy that was growing and supporting middle-class people like it is supposed to, that wouldn’t be the case.

What we see instead is a stratification of wealth. You see people doing exceptionally well at the top, and when GDP is growing and the stock market is growing, those are numbers that get considered by economists to determine whether or not we are in a recession. But they’re not numbers that provide any solace to the person who had to quit their job because they can’t afford daycare anymore or afford to put gas in their car for the commute.

S/P: The greater Sacramento metro area currently has the second oldest House delegation among the 40 largest U.S. metro areas. The average age of its five representatives is 69, with Doris Matsui the oldest at 77. How important is it to infuse younger representation into Congress from Sacramento?

JF: It is interesting. I have been making phone calls every night. I was initially concerned that older community members would not respond positively to my candidacy, that they might consider it an insult to [the Matsui] legacy. But what I have heard instead is an emphatic positive response that I am in my 30s and would provide a needed generational change in Congress.

One woman who said she was the Congresswoman’s age even told me nobody who is her age should be in office. She said this is because we face many new modern challenges. As one example, I have been on social media my entire adult life, for better or for worse. There are millions of people in this country and billions of people around the world who are affected by the decisions we make in this country on privacy and social media on the internet. And unless you are personally invested in that outcome, unless you are aware of just how much Google knows about you and you didn’t have an opportunity to make that decision because you grew up with it, then you are not going to grasp how serious these policy decisions are.

More than that, I was trained by some of the brightest minds in the history of our nation on how to do this job really well. People like Elijah Cummings, John Lewis, Elizabeth Warren and Senator Sanders were all people I worked with when I worked on Capitol Hill. They were all people who were willing to run through a brick wall at 100 mph for their constituents, and I am excited to do the same. I have the stamina for it, the passion for it, and I want to do this job exceptionally well.

S/P: Progressives are also a much larger part of the district than even most Progressives realize. For instance, 47% of left-leaning voters in your district voted for either Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren in the 2020 primary. How important could that be for you?

JF: I think it is a huge opportunity. It speaks to how people want to see progress. When they don’t see that progress in government, they at least want to know that the person who is working for them is fighting really, really hard for them every single day. I think that is something that Senators Sanders and Warren represent.

Right now, a big part of that is lowering costs for people. Lowering the cost of health care and prescription drugs. Lowering the cost of education and discharging federal student debt. Making sure we have cheap clean energy and not relying on expensive, polluting foreign oil. These are the issues everyone wants to see progress on. When you vote for establishment politicians, you vote for more of the same. I am not okay with what we have right now, and those stats show a lot of Democrats want better too.

S/P: But to finish in the Top 2, you must get more votes than the one Republican in the race, Max Semenenko. The means even with the new CA-7 solidly Democratic, 25% to 30% may still go by default to the Republican. What are you hoping for to help you make Top 2?

JF: You are always going to have people who vote just because of the letter after the candidate’s name. But we have entered a new era of politics in our country when it is no longer about party. Party is the side show. It’s about the extremely wealthy versus everybody else. If you are somebody who wants to see corporations held to account; if you are somebody who wants to see your health care costs decrease; if you are somebody that wants to see homelessness addressed with actual solutions, then you should vote for me. I have a plan to address those things.

I think people are disappointed with both parties. People are tired of being sold on changes that never happen. It is frustrating. When I tell people I am a Democrat, many of them just roll their eyes. I’ll press them on it, and they say, “Well, I am a Democrat and disappointed.” And I tell them, “I am a Democrat and disappointed too.” I have worked for five different elected officials. Some I would go back to work for in a heartbeat, and others I would never go back to work for. But if you want to see that change, you have to show up. You have to speak out, and I think we will see that in the election.

S/P: What is another major issue for you?

JF: When I ask people what they care most about in our community, the first thing most say is homelessness. This is something I have put a ton of energy into learning about and studying. Also unfortunately, there have been times I have been close to the homelessness spectrum. So the despondency and frustration that can come with experiencing homelessness is something I’ve worried about personally. I also know when the Sacramento Bee interviewed the Congresswoman [Matsui] for endorsement last cycle, the Bee noted that her response on homelessness was unimpressive.

In contrast, I will be releasing next month a three-tiered plan for introducing legislation to address homelessness. This starts with helping our homeless veterans. We know how much it costs to solve veteran homelessness. We can appropriate the money. Plus it’s something we can all agree on, regardless of party, but it’s not happening. But I will make sure there are no veterans experiencing homelessness ever again. To do this, we are going to make universal housing vouchers part of the G.I. Bill for low-income veterans. Because if you have served our country with honor and are eligible for healthcare and education benefits, then you should also be eligible for housing assistance. After all, if we have invested in your education, it’s hard to make use of that education and contribute to our communities if you lack a steady place to live.

This gets back to my earlier point about how this isn’t about parties. It’s about solutions that actually affect regular people. And when I’m elected, [Matsui donors like] Comcast and Verizon are going to be fine with one less member of Congress who is indebted to them.

S/P: Speaking of major donors, this publication has been alone in the state in spotlighting how much the largest opioid manufacturers and distributors have donated to California members of Congress, and Matsui has been among the richest beneficiaries, with more than $125,000 over the past decade. Any thoughts on this?

JF: I think it demonstrates unbelievable cynicism to take $125,000 from opioid companies at the same that the communities you are charged with representing are suing those companies for murdering your constituents. I think it is a betrayal of the people that voted for her.

The first story I heard when I started running was from a mom named Nikki who came into the bar I worked at. I told her I was running, and I told her I would likely represent her if I won. She said, “I need to tell you about opioids.” She described to me how her husband had committed suicide, how her son had self-medicated after the trauma of discovering his fathers body, and ultimately died from fentanyl. She described finding his cell phone as it rang next to his body with a call from his drug dealer. She held my hands and she begged me to do something about it.

I don’t know how anyone can in good conscience take money from companies that have profited from the suffering of so many families while claiming to represent them.

S/P: Given that Matsui carried over $324,000 in unspent campaign funds from last election cycle, do you call on Matsui to donate the $125,000-plus in opioid donations she’s taken to local opioid treatment programs or something else?

JF: Absolutely. Our community needs that funding more than her campaign does. Imagine what $125,000 could do for an opioid diversion or mental health program in our region? How many lives could be saved? The people of this community need that kind of help much more than they need another mailer they’re only going to throw away.

S/P: Any news about a future debate for your primary race?

JF: There is a group of neighborhood associations that would like to hold a candidate forum. I am very interested in participating in that forum, and I would hope all the candidates who are on the ballot attend. But I don’t know the last time we saw a true debate for a Congressional race in Sacramento.

(Editor’s note: The last time a Sacramento County Congressional incumbent agreed to debate was the 2016 Ami Bera-Sheriff Scott Jones race. Also worth noting, Elk Grove-resident U.S. Rep. Tom McClintock represents the CA-4 to the immediate north and east of Sacramento County, and he debated his Democratic opponent in both 2018 and 2020 despite winning by clear margins.)

S/P: Any final thoughts?

JF: This is personal for me. Right now, I am talking to you from P Street in midtown from my 400-square foot studio that I pay for more for than I ever imagined I would pay. I am barely scraping by. When I go and campaign and raise money for this race, I ask people who are struggling too because I want to fight for them, but none of them can spare the money.

We have a system that is becoming completely controlled by those with incredible amounts of discretionary income that they pump into elections and toward candidates who will shore up their lifestyles or business interests. And those who can’t – the servers and single parents and those working multiple jobs to get by – those people need a champion too. We need to send to Congress someone who will fight for all of us. Not just for the people who will invite us to the black-tie dinners and invite us to the private fundraisers. We need someone who will fight aggressively on our behalf. It is time for change.

CA-7 Congressional hopeful Max Semenenko Q&A

Ukrainian-born Maksim “Max” Semenenko is a 39-year-old father of four (with a fifth on the way) and owner of his own construction company. A Sacramento-area resident for the last 25 years, the Republican said he now wishes to give back by serving in Congress. “I say I was born again three times. The first time by my mother. The second time as a Christian, and the third time when I arrived in America.”

Semenenko is running in California’s 7th Congressional district against incumbent Doris Matsui. The newly redrawn district covers the southern half of the city and county of Sacramento, and at 77, Matsui is older than the combined ages of Semenenko and her other opponent, progressive Democrat Jimmy Fremgen (33).

Elected in 2020 to the North Highlands Recreation & Park District Board, Semenenko lists his top issues as reviving the economy, defending the 2nd Amendment, reforming the U.S. immigration system, and lowering healthcare costs. Last week, he answered questions from Fremgen’s Q&A can be found here. Matsui’s campaign did not respond to multiple offers for their own Q&A.

SACTO POLITICO: What top issues inspired you to run for Congress?

MAX SEMENENKO: There are a lot of issues that inspire me. The top issue is the economy. People in this district are feeling the real impact of record inflation. Rising housing costs and everyday goods are more and more expensive. So I will fight for my district to give a break to our people.

I feel the main way to lower costs right now involves sustainable energy. Right now, we are purchasing all of these fossil fuels from other countries, but I would encourage [the Biden] Administration and our people to be energy independent again. Even as a builder and a business owner, as soon as the prices and materials and gas go up, costs go up for everyone.

Another big cost here in California involves the [scarcity] of water. This affects the cost of everything farmers produce. I know we passed $5 billion in bonds to build water reserves. Something happened, but we still don’t have the water that our farmers need. We need to focus on building more water reserves and give more water to our farmers. They are paying a premium right now.

S/P: What is your background?

MS: My parents received refugee status and emigrated from Ukraine. We arrived in 1997 at Sacramento airport in the middle of the night. I was 14½, and driving on the freeway after arriving, I was fascinated by all the street lights. I was like, “Wow, how can these Americans handle all of those battery replacements?” on those lights. [He laughed.] I knew America was great, but not that great. It was like a Disneyland for me. In Ukraine at that time, street lights at night and water was a luxury outside the cities.

Once here, we worked at night. I helped my dad clean the Florin Toyota. It’s not there anymore. We were very grateful for the social welfare programs we were on the first couple years. My second job was as a paper boy for the Sacramento Bee, throwing the papers at 6 a.m.

I grew up in Oak Park near Fruitridge and Stockton, right there at 56th Street, and I graduated from Hiram Johnson High School. And I wish to thank everyone for helping me and my family become free Americans. Now it’s my time to give back.

S/P: Most Americans are saddened by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Given the level of destruction and personal upheavals happening there, do you think the U.S. is doing enough?

MS: I think we are doing everything we could. You can always do more, but American people are doing more than enough at this point.

I’ll note that when the war started, I almost made a decision to go back [to Ukraine]. My wife Irina said, ‘We understand and respect you as a man. You have protected us for 20 years. We know you are real. When you say something, you do it. You’re not just talking. But if you are elected to Congress, you can do more. You can finish your dream. Your dream was to show the whole world that America is a free country that gave you the chance to become somebody. To become a business man, a husband. Then you can show to Ukrainians how to be a free country and free human beings.” That made a lot of sense to me.

S/P: Why are you a Republican?

MS: This is very interesting. I was brought up as a non-party person in Ukraine. For us, it was a sin to be part of any party, to carry any kind of firearm, to reflect any of the government positions. But when I came here, I was looking for ways to be involved in American society, and I decided to run for office in 2020. When I was looking through the parties, the Republican Party was closer to my beliefs and perspective of life.

For me, everybody is an American, and everybody is fighting to protect this country and protect the Constitution. But in the Republican Party, they are pro-life like I am. They are pro-family like I am. They start meetings with prayers and the Pledge of Allegiance. They believe a little bit better world can exist. This the is best country, but there is going to be another, I hope, another big country like America. We call it heaven. My main purpose on this Earth is to serve and to show I have a little bit bigger dream, and I think Republicans have that bigger philosophy that is motivating them.

Additionally, coming from a country with too much government overreach, I am all for small government and reducing regulations on the economy. Republicans encompass the beliefs of small government and more economic freedom for businesses. We saw what leadership did during the pandemic to shut down so many businesses, which should have never happened. Small businesses, restaurants, and everyday American workers took the biggest hit from Democrat policies on shutdowns, and we need to get government out of the way on this.

S/P: What are your thoughts about your main opponent, Rep. Doris Matsui?

MS: I know her story. I respect her. I know she is doing everything she can to help the district, but people start saying, “You know Max, we never see her. She doesn’t live anywhere near here. She has already been too long in office. Her husband was in office too long. We want something different, and we believe that you can bring the difference.”

It’s not that I am saying I am better than her, but I think I have more in common with regular hard-working people. I came from nowhere. I was a nobody, but now I am a true free American and a successful businessman. I hope I will next be a true servant in Washington. People are tired of lifelong politicians and its time Sacramento vote for someone who will fight harder for them. I am that person.

S/P: I saw on your Facebook page your November post about “industrial child trafficking.” Please explain this issue and why it is so important to you.

MS: Children are very vulnerable human beings. For me to hear that one child has been abused is a tragedy for me. I will do just as I do to protect my girls and my family. I am every day talking to them. “Be sober. Be vigilant.” I want to make sure they are protected. Especially for girls, I know how easy it is for them to be abused in this world. Same thing for the average child, for my neighbor’s child, for all American children. I will fight to make sure they are protected. This will be my second most important issue.

This is a disease. If we look at history, we will not be able to eliminate it, but at least I can protect at least one more child in my district. It is a world issue. Even in Ukraine, there were people caught over the last six, seven months trying to take children over the border. It is like a small business already. They are also using technologies like social media to lure in children. I want to make sure we have more tools to catch these guys.

S/P: Sacramento has a significant human sex trafficking problem, and there are also high-profile national cases like Jeffery Epstein. But other people have taken this real issue and taken it over the top by claiming there was a child sex ring beneath a D.C. pizzeria or that Hillary Clinton was involved with sex trafficking. What is your feeling about these over-the-top claims?

MS: I want to be honest with you. I understand the laws and that you need proof of these things. Right now, I am on the sidelines, but I said I’m not going to believe in [the over-the-top claims]. So I don’t believe that our government, our leaders, are doing this. I believe they are clean. That they are fighting for us. But if I am elected and I see the evidence myself, then I will say it openly.

At this point, I believe it is a smaller number of evil people hiding and abusing children. I still believe ours is the greatest government in the world, that they are doing their best to protect our children, to protect me, to protect our system of government. So no, I don’t think there is some underground world in which our government is involved trafficking children.

S/P: One of your top issues is the 2nd Amendment. Roughly 15,000 Americans die every year from gun-related homicides (not including suicides). To reduce this, do you believe we have all the laws needed or should we do more?

MS: The 2nd Amendment is something I thank Americans and our Constitution for. I know I can smell it that someone is working behind the scenes to erase or change our Constitution. The 2nd Amendment has given us the right to protect ourselves. Not to hunt, but to protect ourselves. We see what dictators do. They first will divide the country and the people, and then they will disarm them. Then you have what we see in Ukraine right now. People are dying.

But I will work hard to protect the 2nd Amendment and to find ways to disarm the criminals. We need to make sure law-abiding citizens are not suffering. I have firearms, but I am limited in their use. Right now regular people are suffering, but not the criminals. We need to change that.

S/P: What about the view of those people who do not wish to get rid of the 2nd Amendment but wish to ban automatic and semi-automatic weapons?

MS: I would keep the 2nd Amendment at its fullest as it was originally intended. But of course, we aren’t going to allow the sale of rockets and tanks and land mines, but [beyond that] I will have to think more about supporting other kinds of limitations on fire arms.

S/P: Your website also lists the need to “loosen big pharma’s grip on our healthcare system.” How extensive are you recommending the U.S. government intervene to achieve this, and in what ways?

MS: I would like to see more affordable healthcare and greater availability. This includes lowering the cost of prescription drugs. I think the main issue right now is Big Pharma has too much access to our politicians. I would vote to restrict or have a moratorium on the financial contributions that members of Congress can receive from Big Pharma so they will not influence law makers.

S/P: However, the Supreme Court ruled in its 2010 Citizens United ruling that political donations are a form of free speech and corporations are considered an actual person in this respect. So their free speech and donations cannot be curtailed differently than for actual human beings. Would you like to see this changed?

MS: Yes, there should be a change to this.

S/P: Do you believe California elections are free and fair, or do you believe – as more than a few California Republicans do – that the state’s election system is riddled with fraud that makes our elections untrustworthy?

MS: I believe our election system is fair, especially as compared to where I come from. But not just that. I did my research, and we met with our voter registrar. They are very transparent and very open. Yes, I believe that our system is fair. But we know if humans are involved, there will always be some errors.

S/P: Do you believe Joe Biden was fairly elected?

MS: Yes, I didn’t see any evidence over the last year.

S/P: Any final thoughts?

MS: I just wish to thank you for this opportunity to share my story. Overall, I am grateful. Every day for me in this country is like Christmas. I just want to serve as I serve my community.

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