DeSaulnier focusing on gun control, mental health, just transition to green solutions

DeSaulnier focusing on gun control, mental health, just transition to green solutions

DeSaulnier focusing on gun control, mental health, just transition to green solutions
Mark DeSaulnier discussed his priorities and current work in a wide-ranging interview with the Pioneer.

CONCORD, CA (April 24, 2023) — Congressman Mark DeSaulnier (D-CA) was on home turf last week to present a $631,200 check to the Concord City Council for pedestrian and traffic safety in the room he presided over as mayor in 1993.

The funds were Concord’s share of the larger $21.7 million Consolidated Appropriations Act. It provides funding for 15 projects across the county, including welcome funding for CASA, Court Appointed Special Advocates of Contra Costa.

While he was in town, he sat down in the Pioneer office for an hour-long talk covering such wide-ranging topics as how a self-described “saloon keeper” ended up in national politics, what formed his political philosophy, where his passions lie and a brief update on his health.

He was surprisingly robust after a near fatal fall in 2020, when a fractured rib and punctured lung put him in ICU on a ventilator for more than a month. He still speaks quietly with a somewhat hoarse voice.

DeSaulnier is tall and athletic, with deliberate moves. The avid runner has completed 26 marathons and is back on the trail, but at a modified pace.

He also remains in remission from Stage 4 acute lymphocytic leukemia, which he was diagnosed with in 2015. He meets with other cancer survivors a few times a year to review research and advocate for increased funding.

Answering the call to serve

DeSaulnier was born in 1952 in Lowell, Mass., into a deeply political family and educated by the Jesuits. His father was a 26-year-old state senator and later a judge who was accused in front of the U.S. Senate of accepting a bribe. He was never convicted, but he was forced to resign. He later died of a self-inflicted gunshot.

“After that, I didn’t want anything to do with politics,” DeSaulnier said. “I came to California to get away from it.”

He went to work as a probation officer, truck driver and bartender in San Francisco, then into the restaurant business with Jeremiah Tower and finally opening his own TR’s Bar and Grill in Concord.

But the call to serve was louder than his distaste for politics. For the next 35 years, he served in elected office in local, regional and state government – finally landing a seat in the U.S. House after Rep. George Miller retired.

Once a registered Republican, DeSaulnier has always found himself on the more liberal side of issues. As the GOP moved further and further to the right, he found himself standing on blue ground.

“The party changed. I’m still the same,” said DeSaulnier, who is sure of himself and of his purpose. In 2000, he switched to the Democratic party.

Former Clayton Mayor Julie Pierce met DeSaulnier when they were both planning commissioners and assigned to TransPac. “We hit it off and have been friends ever since,” she said.

They worked closely together to open the fourth bore of the Caldecott Tunnel. She applauds his ability to work “across the aisle” to do the right thing.

“He’s not about himself. He’s about the job,” she said. “He sees democracy the way it’s meant to be. I love the way he can quote Lincoln or any philosopher off the top of his head.”

Political priorities

Mark DeSaulnier with the Concord City Council.

His political philosophy is shaped by the Jesuits, emphasizing the social contract and service to others – but doing it as efficiently as possible. He is thoughtful, with a dry, often academic sense of humor.

Gun violence is a high priority, along with mental health. He co-authored the Health Matters Act (H.R. 7780), a comprehensive bill to dramatically increase access to mental health services for children, students, workers and families. The bill passed the House 220-205 in September 2022.

“We’ve gotten a 300% increase in mental health money since the Affordable Care Act passed in 2010,” he said. “Since the ACA required parity in treating mental health, the younger generation doesn’t think about the stigma of mental health like we did.”

Once early in his career, a reporter asked about his father’s suicide. “It was awful,” he said. “I was so ashamed; I didn’t sleep for days.”

Much of his work now is focused on a just transition to clean energy. President Joe Biden has called for a complete shift to electric vehicles by 2035. DeSaulnier’s Clean Corridors Act of 2021 provides funds to put charging stations and fuel stations in the right places “so you get the highest and best usage, and more people buy the product cars.”

He is also “passionate” about telework.

“You have two-income families working 60-70 hours a week, and no one is around for their kids,” he said. “We’re not talking about (working at home) all the time. Let’s try just two or three days a week. It’s about people spending more time at home with the family.”

Closer to home, DeSaulnier has been a tireless advocate for exoneration for the Port Chicago 50, the 50 Black sailors charged with mutiny during World War II when they refused to return to loading munitions after two ships loaded with bombs blew up in the harbor – killing 320 men.

He has submitted a resolution to the 114th, 115th, 116th and now the 117th Congresses. “There’s been some progress,” DeSaulnier said. “The Navy has admitted to some wrongdoing but still stops short of full exoneration.”

Despite his frustrations, DeSaulnier notes that members from both sides are in Congress because they want to get something done. “Two people that couldn’t get elected in each other’s districts are supposed to work together,” he said. “We’re principled.”

Retired county supervisor Karen Mitchoff worked for DeSaulnier when he was a supervisor from 1994 to 1998. “Mark has great capacity,” she said. “He is well-loved, smart, collegial and has a good heart.

“He doesn’t look at party; he looks at possibilities.”